Social Psychology, Travel, & the Arts

On Living in the Age of the Catchy Title

Dr. Jennifer Love wrote a very nice, simple, astute commentary about how necessary it is to be counterintuitive in the public marketplace of ideas. She’s complaining about an emphasis on titillation over substance. Her final paragraph:

“The counterintuitive has its place. But our love affair comes at a cost. It leaves little room in the public consciousness for social scientific work that is incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions—those fragile social and mental habitats upon which decisions turn. In other words, it leaves little room for most of social science.”

If she’s right, it’s a terrifically sad thing to say. I’m certain she is to some degree, but there are some offsets, some bright spots in the argument. More


A Life in East Poultney

Life in East Poultney

I’ve listened to Tin Hat’s “A Life in East Poultney” about a hundred times today. I’m still listening to it now. One of two clumps of myself- the quiet, dark one- orders this sort of looping without hesitation, usually when I’m a little distracted with something else. Days like this have happened with this song for 15 years or so. It’s a lesser wife to me now. One would think I’d have the work’s ins and outs figured out, like a cartographer who knows the landscape he walks in the morning. But a song isn’t built from musical notes. Or if it is, the notes aren’t sufficient to pin the song’s appendages to cork, to be examined and deconstructed fruitfully. The notes, or even the major parts of the song, are not accorded latin names, or phyla: they aren’t a logical input. They’re a spell, cast to set us astir, to release things we only suspected were present within, that needed out. We let songs stroll into our lives unannounced, and sometimes they stay, like a good friend who stops by unexpectedly, talking through the wee hours with us.

A rational brain wouldn’t put up with this much repeated listening, but mine isn’t rational. People like me are used to having what motivates us inexplicable: we don’t ask those drives to speak in a language we can understand. The conscious parts of us, where rationality supposedly roams the halls freely, are sealed off from understanding most of why we live. Those well-lit parts are in a kind of cocoon, limited to foraging in the newer parts of my brain near the front- the parts that were missing, or that were a scrap of what they are now, back when we were a mélange of Australopithecus and other early man species. That older part of my brain presumably knows damn well why I listen to this song over and over, since it requests it on incessant repeat about once a month. I suppose it knows nothing of technology’s manipulations of time and space, or it doesn’t care: it likes having the band come by, set up, and play just the song it wants, on demand, as if it were the Sun God. I get slight evidence of that sometimes, perhaps imagined– that my nonconscious mind is surprised and pleased every time the first notes of the song sound again, as if I was seeing friends again after a long time apart. Like how a dog gets excited about your arrival when you’ve only gone to the store to get milk.

But that could be all wrong. It might damn well understand modern music machines. It might be aware that musicians will be outlived from now on by the sounds they created during their lives, to be heard when asked for by their children, by their children’s children. This quiet self may be wise or stupid, or somehow both- I don’t know. I can’t talk to that part of me, and it doesn’t answer questions. Evidence is shaky that it’s listening, even when it seems important it should. Trying to communicate with it is like talking to a feral cat: sometimes it seems that a word here or there gets across, but only in its most pointed moments of self-interest, when it shows an extraordinary, fleeting ability to comprehend, lost almost as soon as it’s seen. We are separated from ourselves by a great gulf, and cannot cross; will never cross.

From within a darkness, the song is set to repeat on the modern artifice. There’s a combination of feeling and thought as instruction; I can’t put my finger on it. I think the the interface between the two parts of me is profoundly proprietary to this older brain who’s still in charge, hopelessly outranking the new growth; it bids the younger part of me to be still and stay out of the affair- to make breakfast, or pick at my to-do list. Normally I do so, but today I decided to be disobedient and act as a diarist, to peer speculatively within. It’s an introspection my nonconscious mind either resents or is supremely indifferent to, I’m not sure which, because I’m not in the planning meetings—I just receive urges that are almost directives, as charged and magical as “go get that girl, no matter what”. Or as straightforward as “time to wake.”

Nothing of that clarity, nothing so determinate breaks the surface as “A Life in East Poultney” plays. I think music is a mystery to both parts of me.

There were certain aspects of the tune that consciously attracted me to hearing it as I woke up; a few minutes later, I found myself listening to it. Most things we do are like this– a bit of collusion between the two parts of us, without a clear record as to how things got started. Whether these conscious enjoyments burgeon first in the back rooms is an open question; I think so. For me, the first notes are often a small version of the first few seconds after a dose of heroin; familiarity, pleasure, anticipation. A settling in. Mark Orton wrote a simple melody, focusing on a few simple timbre additions as the only real change through the piece.The style lends the piece a feeling of consistency that befits a simple town. The build to the end is modest; small town doings are robust and deep, but only in a very particular way, and they don’t lead to the crescendos of our cities. Key parts of a broader life are missing in East Poultney; the locals have forgotten to look for them. The children who couldn’t do without them have moved away. Lower your eyes to just over the horizon, squinch the view at the sides, and one has all the depth and breadth that melody, harmony, and rhythm can provide of a life there- the gift and dearth of small town life, arrayed elegantly. A kind of Quaker modesty, the colors hidden from view.

I’m at a homestead in the country as I write this. I think my nonconscious mind is especially delighted with this particular steeping within the song, removed as I am from the trappings of modern life. I think it appreciates anything that invigorates that illusion of Tin Hat playing the song in person for me over and over, without complaint or instruction, until asked to stop. It usually takes about an hour until the signal appears to stop the song, though it is a longer assignment for the Tin Hat crew this morning as I walk this long, winter sunrise into being. I envision Carla, the violin player, stretching a bit upwards and slightly twisting her diminutive frame she scrapes through the first raspy notes. I see Mark plink his way through the first verse, nearly alone, the rest of the players rumbling in with their parts, the last just 20 seconds or so before the end. It’s as if each of the musicians only exist to add musical accents at the right time in just this song, the way a tube of a particular green waits and waits nearby while the artist paints her canvases. The precise placement of notes, and the dreariness conveyed in the melody, help to bring the wan light that filters through the murky wood into focus. The oaks yield their mysteries to another sunrise, marching one-by-one out from the darkness to segregate into individual trees for the day. I climb the little rise in front of the house, and descend into the valley that divides the house from the cabin where I’ll stay today. Mark has accepted the unlikely assignment to be here just outside Cazadero, to play a song that’s ostensibly about somewhere else. He dutifully, gently insists that there is a musical parallel here with small town life. I half believe him, but the rest of me is convinced there is a way to lever this melded walking and listening experience into any form of life, like this one. Among people or alone. It’s a trick of the music, I think. A hallucination, almost. Gone quickly.

Caught so, I hit upon the realization that the notes are this black, cold sunrise’s theme. East Poultney in particular does that for me- it’s just small and precise enough to become about wholly other things, or specific events. Even scenes of a different emotional bent. A happy scene of children at a merry-go-round was once encapsulated by the slight tensions of the piece, as if this joy I saw in the children secretly prefaced surprisingly hard lives. Lives where others- wives, best friends- will disappoint them. Maybe unexpected children of their own will heave their lives in a direction they resent in a not-so-distant future. Yet these giggling children are asked to enjoy that future life, just as they are able to enjoy life now. They’ll be asked to appreciate what they were gifted at this white elephant exchange, the chances to trade what they didn’t want long past.

Maybe my nonconscious mind pulls something sinister from the piece, like a supposition that my horizons are being scrunched down, or that the small storms that carve our lives will come and I won’t be prepared. Or maybe something innocent and slight engenders this pleasant feeling I get from it- a memory from childhood of someone’s similar, simple banjo playing. Or joy in a parent’s actions one fine day, unfathomably brought back to me through ¾ time and the piece’s marching, elegaic consistency. Maybe all these things and more pass through our mind to hold its attention, a kind of parade to order the tumble of emotions and images. A full round of reasons that provide the kind of attraction a hundred listenings or more might seem to require.

What is East Poultney, anyway? Is it a country town? A close suburb of Hartford? Not to me, usually. Sometimes. I know I made that connection at the beginning for you of the song as an interpretation of life in a town, but I’ve never looked up East Poultney to see what it is. Not because of a sacred need to carve out my own definition, but because I’m not curious what Mark was trying for precisely when he wrote the piece. An artist is a conveyance, bearing something they can’t possibly understand. They bring it part of the way from their own nonconscious mind to us. We string these creations across to each other via our rational minds, for reasons we don’t understand. The art is brought forth for ends we trust, though we have no reason to.

That’s why East Poultney is not a town at all sometimes. It can seems like an otherworldly place to me, the place my nonconscious mind runs to and looks out from, fearful and frustrated, yet comforted nonetheless. A home scratched out of driftwood on a beach of the west Irish coast, beset by winds; a brilliant sun forever threatening to burst through the great pillars of grey directly above, always shooting through somewhere to the north. Miraculously dry, for once. Not a town or anything such; It’s not a grey mid-morning in front of the neighborhood barber shop, after all. The notes being played don’t form the outlines of a sanitation man, cigarette in hand, distractedly painting over faded graffiti. No; the sounds describe a cow, a round-bellied, milk-eyed Jersey, unaccountably munching on my pile of seaweed from a recent storm, at the edge of high tide, just outside my hut. I look away from her, and scan the inside of this hut I’ve grown to love. Why did I first come here? Why did I stay? I’m not sure.

It may be time to move soon. To muster the wherewithal to hike from the beach toward inland, perhaps to scrape out a better life there, within the green and the stone. Amidst people, maybe. I’m not sure. Not sure about whether to go soon, I mean. At some point, yes. I wasn’t meant to stay here.

Stories are a way to let the rational mind and the secret, irrational part of us look upon the same thing and share it silently, like we do our dreams sometimes. We are like two people sharing a small apartment who don’t speak each other’s language, who make do with signals to sort things out. That’s probably why stories are such an essential part of most art- they act as a faery bridge between our two selves. Of course, things can be simpler on a given day with a song- there may be no story, no link attempted. It’s possible my nonconscious mind can revel in the song’s melancholy; what’s been choreographed by the writing, the instruments, and the inevitability the arrangement hints at. But I think that’s projection on my part- that’s too close to what my rational mind likes about the song. It’s likely something else. I know my silent partner has no understanding nor respect for the passage of time, nor how far-flung my sources of emotion and pain were, parsed fitfully across my life, across so many places, people, and reasons. It has no respect for most of what we think of as facts. Events and feelings are layered together in a careful logic, but an unfathomable one. A murmured Dewey Decimal System we can’t recast to something sensible, or array for a reasoned, calm perusal.

Our nonconscious mind’s storms are never contained. The mystery and quiet of mornings like this can bolt to a violence unexpectedly. Levees are breached. We find ourselves wading in our raw, unprotected fears, or in hopes and joys. But when things are calm, like now, and we try to peer within, we see only a purposeful darkness. Maybe the silence is a sign it resents intrusion into its business, like a union lockout, staged because we’ve gotten our inner workings completely wrong. We’ve muddied the floors of our innermost selves before, anxiously prescribing, or purging, or explaining in a way not meant for that inner world. We have misapprehended ourselves, you and I; have misled others about our purposes. I trust you’ll forgive me if that’s happened here with A Life In East Poultney. We’ll never know, I suppose. You’ll sympathize with my plight. Maybe you have missed the mark, too, and dragged others alongside you to places none of you belonged.

There are always rustlings we sense on the other side of the curtain. We swipe at them roughly, unseeing, and can’t gain purchase. It’s tempting to think we have to know what’s behind there to be happy, but I say the fun is in the respectful banter, in the workings between our two crippled parts. We are only whole in a form of union that we can’t quite define, and will never settle wholly to. As I walk and listen to A Life In East Poultney, we two stand a respectful difference apart. We do each other’s bidding just a little, forever unrequited, forever dependent upon one another to see our way through the morning together, to where we’re going.


Song Description/Review- Life in East Poultney, by Tin Hat

Mark Orton, the writer, developed a simple melody, focusing on a few simple timbre additions as the only real change. The theme, which is repeated once, builds and ends in less than 30 seconds. Our melodies in the West are brief like this, though we string 2 or 3 together to form a piece. Perhaps melody entwined in harmony is secretly dense, like bar codes that pass into us and split apart into meaning for an ancient, emotional brain. Time may take on a different meaning, like it does within a photon, when it’s used as a canvas to frame a family of notes, to record the puddle jumps that form a path between tones. What’s unusual about this piece is the slight, unrepeated harmonic complexity, and the way this modest melody is left to fend for itself within it. A rhythmic alteration that occurs just before the end of the second and last time through the melody lends the piece a closing finality. Yet the muted ending also offers a kind of opposite to closure- a feeling of continuity and sameness. An assurance that East Poultney will continue as is after the lingering notes fail. There’s a resignation at the close, a slight sigh of boredom and, in the final seconds, a touch of foreboding.

As I recall, what pushed my conscious mind this morning to action was the desire to hear the steady, driving plunk-plunk of Mark’s banjo. I’ve been pushed toward putting this song on repeat in other ways. Sometimes it’s the mournful, wistful feel of the overall song, or the hammer dulcimer-like timbre on the little buildup to the end; and sometimes it’s the simple, stunning counterpoint (harmony), a signature of much of Orton’s work. There’s a few others reasons that engender me listening less commonly: a few seconds of hush as the theme dissolves the first time through; a scraping of the violin strings that creates random tonalities, lending the piece its first hints of foreboding; the way the piece can encapsulate a bit of life in a town within a minute and 16 seconds, if you try to see that; or that gentle buildup that goes almost nowhere, yet just far enough, as I prepare my breakfast, or lumber through a run.

But most days, it’s Mark’s banjo playing that consciously attracts me. Orton seems to favor the dobro, with turns at the guitar and banjo as suits him. It’s an odd choice for a post-modern group of jazzy classicists like Tin Hat, but an apt one because he’s the main writer, because the whole business is slung around the slinking or plinking so naturally that one simply can’t notice the oddity in the instruments. The distinctly American slides and plucks belong in East Poultney as well as they ever belonged anywhere in Tin Hat’s work. In this song, the banjo drives forward and through, with a consistent, traditional ¾ (three beat) rhythm. It’s a slower piece. The banjo strikes a couple of notes almost simultaneously every beat, from beginning to end, a little gap wedged between every little duo of notes. The style lends the piece a feeling of consistency that befits depiction of a simple town. The build on top of this rhythmic base is modest because small town doings are robust and deep, but only in a very particular way. Key parts of a broader life are missing in East Poultney; the locals have forgotten to look for them, and the children who couldn’t do without them have moved away. Lower your eyes to just over the horizon, squinch the view at the sides, and one has all the depth and breadth that melody, harmony, and rhythm can provide of a life there- the gift and dearth of small town life, arrayed elegantly. A kind of Quaker modesty, the colors hidden from view.


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