Stone Age HAA The Holy MAA

Stone Age HAA The Holy MAA

Writing - Noise - Magic

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Raised in Berea by Euro-hillbilly children of the Great Depression, Tom Orange left Greater Cleveland at age 18 never planning to return but never ruling it out either. Several literature degrees and half a dozen other cities later, he returned to his Rustbelt roots in classic boomerang fashion, at the height of the housing market crash, and found welcome in a variety of Cleveland's vibrant creative arts scenes.
Recordings of music:
Weekly freeform radio broadcast:
Live music educational-promotional venture:
A mini-anthology of old poems:

ARH: Hey Tom, why don't you tell me about the title of the new album, Zen Pissed?

TO: Yeah, the "zen pissed" concept came to me and developed in the months of recuperation following the felonious assault committed against my person one night last summer less than a block away from my home. Just after 10pm on Friday June 6, to be exact. (And as I later realized, the 70th anniversary of D-Day!) After I was discharged from two nights in Metro Hospital ICU with a subdural hematoma in my left temporal lobe, a concussion, and small fractures to my skull and cheekbone, we stopped at the library on the way to my mom's place, where I convalesced for the next week or so. And one book sorta leapt out at me, something about Zen and healing, I forget the title... wait, here it is. Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life's Challenges by Pat Enkyo O'Hara. The title certainly spoke to me, and O'Hara had some very helpful insights. I mean, I'm hardly a practicing Buddhist, though its approach to life has strongly appealed to me for going on thirty years now. And I really believe in thinking through/past these rigid binary oppositions that plague Western rationalism (and as Derridean deconstruction has taught us, with one term in the binary pair always privileged): good/evil, black/white, love/hate, etc. And after reading O'Hara I had to think of sickness/health that way too: they are both part of the greater whole called life. I think we, as individuals and societies, are always both a little healthy and a little sick. Or, we're born, we spend our whole lives getting older, sicker, until we're dead: the sickness with no cure.

Now every sickness or trauma (except that last one) heals in its own way and time and differently from one person to another. My body heals fast (three weeks after the assault, the doctors at Metro I had follow-up visits with were like, "You're doing great!"), but my soul/spirit heals more slowly... and while calm acceptance won me over in the initial weeks and months of my recovery, increasingly after that time I felt pissed off. And I had to figure out what to do with that. I wanted to keep the zen but also let the anger be there too... so, "zen pissed."

ARH: Interesting. My father is a Zen Buddhist, and he told me about an interview he read with Richard Gere where Gere describes talking with a Tibetan monk who was present during the brutal Chinese invasion. When Gere asked about the worst part of his ordeal, the monk said he suffered most when he was close to losing his temper. Becoming angry was the worst thing he could do. I remember when my dad first committed to Buddhism twenty years ago, he said he wanted to give up anger. He is a gentle person, but he has a temper, too, and I was a very angry teenager at the time and I remember being disappointed and confused because I felt that righteous anger, the passion that rises in the face of injustice, was almost a core value of our family! Also, I didn't believe him. But, it happened, and I get it. He doesn't get angry anymore. And I understand more about the practice of equanimity. But there is a paradox in dealing with anger, and I feel Zen Pissed is also full of paradox. When the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches how to deal with anger and other disrupting feelings, he instructs a person to say hello, to realize it is part of you, to sooth the emotion like a baby and try to understand its origin and process (Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, 1992). Likewise, Ram Das teaches people to cultivate the inner witness, to become a witness to one’s emotions and thoughts. Again, there is the you that is consumed in rage, and there is the you that witnesses in peace. Some Tantra teachers believe that all of it is good: passion, peace, rage, fear, love, lust, attachment, non-attachment, all of it of the same essence. I believe fear is at the heart of rage, and that rage can lead to violence, or through art, it can be a way to burn through fear, transmuting it to love.

I'm glad you saw that book at just the right time! I appreciate what you said about healing, and how your body heals more quickly than your spirit. Do you want to discuss how working through the ritual/narrative of Zen Pissed has been part of the work of healing?

TO: Definitely, but wow, hearing about your upbringing gives me a lot to think about! Amazing that you (through the narrative of your Dad's coming to Buddhism) bring up the trauma of war atrocities, because I've been reading The Evil Hours by David J. Morris, just published in January and already acclaimed as the definitive account of PTSD, not just what it is (and the science is far from unanimous on that) but how we as a people are now dealing with trauma differently than we have for centuries, when customarily, as Morris says, “interpreting trauma has been the preserves of artists, poets and shamans.” You know, today we've handed that job over to psychologists and big pharma. Morris was a war correspondent in Iraq, so he knows the subject first-hand and is really scrutinizing the big cultural picture here. And he has these incredible passages, like “We live now in an aftermath culture, a culture where being traumatized is presumed to be an appropriate response to just about any overwhelming event,” followed by questions like: “If war is a kind of symbolic violence, is PTSD a kind of symbolic penance”? I mean, that's the kind of serious question we have to start asking ourselves. Would love to hear your thoughts on that at some point.

I think there's some real overlap in our experiences growing up. In my family, we didn't have a lot of anger to work through. I mean, my whole life I remember only one time I ever heard my Dad even raise his voice. And it was pretty surprising when he did: I didn't know he had it in him! People who know me well might say the very same thing on the rare occasion when I get angry. You know, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. As a kid, I was taught: when you're angry and need to vent, go punch a pillow until you're exhausted, then talk it out. I was also taught something like, this (person or situation) didn't make you angry, you're letting this (person or situation) make you angry. Now as an adult I can see how this might guilt-trip a kid a bit, and I may have understood this at the time to mean something like, “anger is a bad.” I don't fully know. But I still think it's a good approach to teach because it gives the angry person agency. Right? You're not powerless and at the mercy of others. 

The other thing is, I'm Gemini moon, so my inner/emotional life is twinned. Or, I'm often two-minded in my emotional responses. Not like diametrically opposed or anything. (Twins are close from before birth and usually more similar than different, with I suppose the rare exception of the “evil twin.”) I'm not an emotional schizo or anything, but I rarely feel one single way about something definitively or absolutely. Some astrology book, probably Astrology for Dummies or something, put it very well: Gemini moon thinks its feelings, or feels with its mind. Something like that. Add to that the hyper-analytic tendencies of Virgo rising, and it makes for quite a combination. So I need time to think something through and understand how I really feel about it. At least that's what I typically tell myself when faced with an emotionally charged situation. But as a dear friend very recently taught me, sometimes more time is precisely not what you need; instead, you need to live and feel (not think) the emotional experience. You need to “sit in the shit,” the shit you're feeling. I'm not immediately comfortable with that, but sometimes we need to push ourselves, or be pushed, outside of our comfort zones. We can learn a lot about ourselves that way.

Whew, ok then. Your response led me into some really important places that I hope we can revisit. There's much more in what you said that resonates with me: saying hello to anger (“Hi, Anger! Nice to see you again, how've you been?”), soothing it (like a child that's just acted out?), righteous anger at injustice and using art as a tool for giving witness and for burning through anger to transform it into love (on some of this, Morris points readers to that most Zen of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus: dike eris, "justice is strife")... but let's stay with this idea of giving witness for a minute, because your last question was really about narrative. And giving witness is just that, telling a story, a first-hand account: this happened to me, to us, I witnessed it, I was there, I lived to tell, to testify, you need to hear this, we need to hear this. You're right in seeing (as the writer you are) narrative at work in Zen Pissed, doubly actually: there's my life narrative that's the backdrop or occasion behind the recordings, but you also told me earlier that the recording itself gave you the sense of a complete narrative. I can see what you mean, though I also see the recording's inconsistencies. So could you explain a little further for me that sense you have of it being a complete narrative, but also "full of paradox," maybe even with reference to some specific examples?

ARH: I feel a completion in narrative because the release allows each progression in the story to be reflected on multiple levels. Knowing you, I understand some of the references as you were working through challenges in your life, and also the tracks as a group have an arc, and the dynamic is reflected in the titles, the time of year and instrumentation that are all included in the text. So, the album begins in March and ends in October, and the music follows the arc of the year with initiatory "On/Off", the tension and rhythm in the waking of full spring in "The Ides of May", the anxious calm before the storm in "Nights Before the Assault", and a transformation around the solstice with "2am Birds". That is a great track, a short burst expressing a turning point. Then "Neurokinesis" pounds out something both healing and disturbing. "For Murderous Vision" follows with the agonizing draining pulse of the dog days of summer. "For Tiger Hatchery" and "For Rare Books" seem celebratory, as if the hero has made it through the long dry summer days and beat-up existential nights into the harvest party with friends all around. I like the rhythm of the album ending with three gifts: "For...", "For..." etc.

Nailing down paradox is a little like paraphrasing a poem, but of course, the title is paradoxical: Zen Pissed. A calm unified mind/disturbed unresolved mind. You wrote above about overcoming the false dichotomy of binary thinking, and I see paradox as helpful in that regard. Coming to peace with anger, living with death. 

I like what your friend said about 'sit in the shit'. That can be the best advice for someone two-minded as you. It can be helpful to ground through feeling your experience fully. To see all sides at once is a gift, but, and I guess this can feel like a paradox, but there is power in seeing all sides but not getting dragged around by them. To have your center viewing-place. 

So, I'm curious about "Neurokinesis". Can you tell me about that song? How does it bridge the first and second halves of the album? Which came first, the name or the music?

And what are your thoughts on PTSD after reading the Morris book? I know that's broad, but I guess I'm wondering about your quote about penance. What do you think about that quote?

TO: Well, right now I'm only two chapters into the Morris book, but it's powerful stuff and I find I can only dip into it now and again when I'm in the right mind frame. But I know for certain that whatever PTSD symptoms I may have experienced in the wake of the assault last June, they're nothing compared to what Morris and others have experienced in wartime. For example, I've never had any recurring flashbacks to images of the traumatic experience because I don't have any to recall. I guess my injured brain did me that favor. I remember leaving the corner store and heading back toward my house a block away, and then the next thing I recall is walking around inside my house and wondering why I couldn't remember anything I did that day. Then at some point I went into my bathroom and looked in the mirror and noticed I was bleeding from my head, and I thought, oh, I don't remember how that happened either, I'd better call someone.

And what I do know for a fact is that around 40-45 minutes transpired between when I left the corner store and when I made that phone call, and that time is gone. I didn't lose my life thankfully, but I lost that chunk of time, probably forever. I mean, how long was I out cold lying in the empty parking lot? How the hell did I get back into my house? How long was I wandering around in my house before I got the sense to call someone? I'll probably never know the answers to such questions, and I've had to accept that.

Morris talks about that too, PTSD as being “a disease of time”: the traumatic event disrupts and alters time's normal flow. That's why “OnOff” turned out to be the perfect opening track for Zen Pissed! I mean, if there are any Western binary oppositions that seem inescapable, on/off seems like it should be one of them. Because there's no alternative or middle ground, right? It's one or the other. Or what about alive/dead? Putting aside zombies, which Morris also talks about as being symptomatic of PTSD culture. Ok, so I wasn't “dead” for those 40-45 minutes, but I wasn't very “on” either. I was in a liminal state that Morris talks about, right at that threshold between ordinarily discrete categories.

And “OnOff” was actually one of the last tracks to be included in the narrative. I had other tracks from the summer I wanted to work in but couldn't, because the recordings were too clipped out or I couldn't otherwise figure out how to make them work, so I went back through my hard drive for one last look. Back to where my first solo CD left off (Descent Into Winter, which also has a narrative of sorts), and I had this recording I'd been wanting to use somewhere of me switching an effects pedal (itself run through some looping and effects) on and off, which alone sounds more than a little ghostly. (Heavily processed non-human sounds I find sometimes have voice-like qualities, and I swear listening back to that track it sounds like the effects pedal itself is barking the words “On! Off!”).

But it needed something else, and from around the same time in early/mid March I found an otherwise completely forgettable solo clarinet recording I'd made, with the last few minutes of mostly just my breathing in and out of the clarinet. And they were very complimentary together: there's the relentless, staccato on-off switching of the pedal (very mechanical), combined with the long, legato exhaling and inhaling into the clarinet (very human). And breathing is very meditative and calming, but it can also be labored or indicative of stress, mental or physical. Like I think of Michael Gira growling “Breathe in / Breathe out” in the Swans tune “Blackout”... and the Virgo-rising English professor may be over-analyzing here. But I really enjoy that side of creating: when you've got enough distance from something you write or record, you can really study it like someone else (not-you) made it.

Anyway, a lot of my sequencing and titling of tracks tries to make a virtue of necessity/inability: I'm terrible coming up with titles (they always come after the fact, by the way) and then putting discrete things into some kind of order. This was true when I wrote poetry as well. I rarely wrote individual poems that I would give titles and then arrange into an ordered manuscript. Instead, I usually wrote poem-projects that would have a series of untitled poems sequenced in the order I wrote them. There's also a documentary impulse, i.e. “Here's what I used to make this track on a given day,” almost like a diary. And also the idea of this being “experimental” music, such that the results on some level ought to be verifiable in the laboratory by other researchers in the field.

So I'm glad that my default weakness can result in something like a coherent narrative for listeners, especially thoughtful ones like you! One element in the narrative I need to clarify though: you referred to track 3 as “the anxious calm before the storm,” which is very true, but only partly. That was the calm between storms. Here's me over-analyzing again, but I love that my friend's cat made it into that track! I was cat-sitting for a friend while she moved out of one place and into another. And as I was making that recording, the cat came in and kept meowing and I kept shushing... and I had to leave it in because it was too funny. But now it almost seems like a warning, you know, the animals always know when a storm is coming? Morris again: “Survivors look back and see messages written into the world. Warnings, omens, sermons in the form of premonitions.” It's silly, I know...

But I went through a long, building winter storm that fully and finally hit my spirit late winter / early spring, and I had to dig my way out of that. Then there was a spring thaw, with new life and new projects that were long overdue, you know, renovations on my house and planting a vegetable garden in my backyard. And then there was, like, this tropical storm developing over my dwelling place in late spring / early summer, unbeknownst to me (though I could have seen that coming too). Then the lightning strike of the assault on my body was in early summer. And then that tropical storm over my house strengthened into a hurricane that hit late summer / early fall, and I had to live with that wreckage basically all fall and winter, only finishing the reconstruction from that damage last month.

So yeah, those specific temporal/seasonal elements in the narrative really resonate with me now that you point them out, because I wasn't thinking of them at the time. Like “2am Birds” being right around the solstice. That was my first recording after the assault, recorded on my bedroom porch during a bit of sleeplessness, it was such a haunting and beautiful song. (I spent a good deal of time subsequently listening through online collections of bird calls hoping to identify the kind of bird I'd recorded, but no luck. If anyone knows or can tell, get in touch!) I used it in a live set for the “Aviary” Noise Lunch curated by Jake Johnson in July. Back maybe 10 years ago, I downloaded an album of slowed down bird calls made by Peter Szoke, The Unknown Music of Birds. It's amazing what you can't hear/process at normal speed. (Same is true of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music: it's total amphetamine music, but when slowed down it sounds like Brian Eno!) So I did six precise speed drops on the bird calls: -96%, -80%, -64%, -48%, -32%, -16% plus the original, and they're mixed more or less in that order (lowest to highest pitch). I think it shares that traumatic alteration of time, but towards a different purpose: life, simple and frail, speaking out of dark night towards waking day. 

“Neurokinesis,” that word tries to describe my sense of how my body connects back to my nervous system to make music. Or drum playing specifically, though it might apply to other instruments I play, I dunno. Like, I have a very hard time keeping a regular beat on the drums, and it's almost like my nervous system won't let me.  It makes my body move how it wants. That and 25+ years of listening to free jazz. Of all the great drummers in that genre, Milford Graves (who played and recorded with Cleveland's Albert Ayler) has the most interesting, truly holistic way of thinking and talking about drumming. As a bridge though, I'm not sure. Maybe it's less the bridge and more the next destination? You also said it “pounds out something both healing and disturbing,” can you say more about that?

You're right, those last three tracks are all gifts, or rather reciprocations for all that those individuals, bands and places have given me. I mean, Stephen Petrus (of Murderous Vision) went through the devastating trauma of losing everything in a house fire, at 5am in the dead of winter no less, which I still can barely imagine. My shitty 2014 really pales by comparison. But his friends here and around the globe reached out and helped him piece his life back together, and when mine was falling apart in its own lesser way, he Pauline were there for me time and time again. As were you and a handful or two of others. Then the last two “For...” tracks have a mini-narrative too, opening one chapter in my musical life and closing another: “For Tiger Hatchery” is a recording of the debut live set of my current hard improv quartet, Lost Head (I didn't come up with the name but it obviously resonates for me on a number of levels), and “For Rare Books” was from the debut show at Ben Osborne's current DIY space and the last live set from my previous quartet of 4-5 years, now defunct.

Those last three tracks are definitely celebratory like you say. Sharing with friends some joy, and some anger too. A little more pissed than zen maybe. I forgot to credit Steve Lull, he had the vocal interjection (“I feel much better now!”) on “For Rare Books,” but all the other ranting and yammering was me. (I also got two other credits wrong: Steve played bass and David played guitar in that set, not the other way around.) I remember after that set Ben said to me, “Damn, y'all really switched up the energy in the room, thanks for that!” My guitar strap broke mid-set and I just threw my guitar flat onto the concrete floor. And months later when I took it to this local guitar guy to see about getting it fixed, he was like “Wow, I've never seen this before: where the neck attaches to the body of the guitar, it's like some controlled explosion happened in there.” Damn right.

ARH: Controlled explosion - I love it! Regarding "Neurokinesis", I guess I heard it that way because I knew you were recovering from your assault at that time, and I do associate drums with healing, and yet there is something off-kilter and haunting about the track. And I think of healing as a bridge, a transformation from one state to another.

I love your mention of zombies. So, here are some thoughts; feel free to respond to whatever: I often think that increased television violence, excessive porn, excessive video games, excessive bacon, etc, are a numb society's way of trying to force some feeling, some pleasure back into people, but ultimately, these assaults on the senses lead to more numbness.

And that is my thinking on the zombie obsession. People step away from their screens and feel their bodies as animated meat. Just when I thought zombies were a dead fad, that tv show, The Walking Dead, came out and is such a huge big-ass deal, I can't even believe it. I'm way too sensitive right now as a new mother to enjoy violence as entertainment, but man, lots of people I know really get into it. Weirdly violent programs have replaced kitchen-table-quiet-family-dramas’ place in cultural conversation, and I don't get it.

And I don't mean to be an alarmist regarding video games, I'm sure they are fun blah blah blah, but I've heard stats about the hours put in that are super freaky, and high school dances where no boys show up because they are all playing video games, and common games where you can rape a prostitute if you want, and yeah, I'm WTF on it all. Is this the dying empire twitching around? Well, ok. In the 90's, (and I think you and I are both in that minority bridge generation, Generation X, right?) apocalyptic culture made sense, because of the impending end of the majestic American century, but now, there is a strange energy of optimism, a sort of post-cynicism kind of vibe, but also this mainstream culture of cable news with all the manic ribbons and sound bites, and Huffington Post and that liberal cable news channel have just served to cheapen the left with fluffy preaching-to-the-choir journalism, and it's all so fast food, and dubstep drops with an unearned climax, and the culture is fractured and so more difficult to generalize about, which can only be a good thing I suppose, though man, there are too many of us. Cars everywhere, big cars, it's difficult to even back out of my driveway. (Do I sound like a grouch? I'm heartbreakingly happy, and grateful.)

My question is, why the ubiquitous violence as entertainment, now, and so stepped up? Is it brute competition, a longing for physicality? A desire to feel something in a numbed population, or the desire to numb a population in pain?

TO: “Off-kilter,” that's so great! Why isn't anything ever “on-kilter”? I love expressions like that, where there's one commonly used and one never used. I had to look it up, and there is a record of “kilter” and “kelter” being used in 17th-century English and Scots dialects, meaning something like “in order” or “functioning correctly,” but not anymore. And they don't really know for sure where it comes from. So I say, bring it back! Someone needs to call an album “On Kilter.”

Or, “Animated Meat: The Dying Empire Twitching Around,” can we make that our band name and debut album title please? “Excessive Bacon,” hahahaha, I indulge in that from time to time! But seriously, folks... what's really telling in all this you describe, which I think is really spot on, is the powerful level and degree of misrecognition that's going on here: it's clearly the zombies and the sexy vampires you're supposed to identify with now, not the heroes struggling to fight them off and survive. You know, the zombies and vampires are hip and sexy, while the struggling heroes are suckers and saps. And it's all a distraction from the real life-sucking zombies and vampires around us everywhere on a daily basis. But that's the whole idea: zombies as hip entertainment and distraction, a pseudo-reality to numb us from the real undead roaming the streets and internets largely unfettered.

There's quality television out there too though, like Breaking Bad. Very well written and filmed, very dark, pretty disturbing, total trauma narrative. I mean, the high school chemistry teacher (Walter White) getting the traumatic lung cancer diagnosis is merely the opening gambit that sets him on his path to greatness as a methamphetamine cooker. One trauma sets off another, and another and another. The scene where Walt's DEA brother-in-law takes fire from cartel operatives in Mexico is filmed in a style meant to emulate battle conditions and time slowing down to set up the traumatic images to be relived later in flashback. Now in reality, Mexican cartels will dump 40 decapitated heads into the middle of the street. So even disturbing television narrative is far less coarse than the reality people can't or don't want to face. We numb to that reality, and the entertainment (including televised news) encourages that numbing through vicarious pseudo-feeling.

And again, it's the misrecognition that's so powerful. Walt convinces everyone, himself included, that he's cooking meth to provide a nest-egg for his family after the cancer takes him. That's only partly true; he's also a raging, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing manipulator. “I can't be the bad guy,” he says in one episode, but of course he is. There are far worse guys to be sure, but that doesn't make him not bad, just less bad than the worst. Likewise Jesse, his former student flunky turned meth business partner, says a few episodes later, “I'm the bad guy,” when in fact he's the one character in the show who continually demonstrates genuine and real compassion for others. Profound self-misrecognition. And no one's immune.

Video games, you know, I used to pump my paper route quarters into all those arcade classics: Asteroids, Tempest, Berzerk, Tron, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong. People forget, or don't know because they weren't there (Viva Gen-X!) how fucking hard those games were! Three lives and game over in minutes. You had to be really determined and really willing to blow a lot of quarters. I had neither, so it was more often frustrating than entertaining for me. And eventually I realized that 20 or 30 plays on a video game offered little by way of satisfying or lasting returns, but for that same amount of money I could buy a brand new record album that I'd get years of enjoyment from. No contest. I quit playing video games when I started buying records, around age 14. Nowadays though, you're right, it's another world. First off, the costs have dropped and the quality has increased exponentially, so the gateway in is much more accessible and appealing. You can start killing and raping right away, get killed, spring back to life and get right back to the killing and raping. And of course the violence is going to escalate too, it has to in order to remain appealing or compelling. But the major difference is total immersion: game creators talk about reaching success when the players are completely immersed in the game world. That's the programmer's goal, the gamer's total submersion in a substitute reality. Ok, we all need that sometimes and in some form or other, but I dunno, you gotta unplug once in a while and recognize where you're at and where your attention and energy are going.

Attention, distractions... I mean I resisted the smart phone for years because I just didn't want that level of connectedness and the ensuing time-suck available 24-7. And finally when my brother-in-law upgraded to the iPhone 6 and had a free iPhone 5 for me, I was like okay, at least I'll have access to the basics anytime and still avoid connecting my home with an internet service provider. I still don't consider the smart phone a life-changer, but it's pretty helpful: it gets me some useful news and information I want through Twitter feeds, and it's gotten me off Facebook for the most part, which is something I've wanted to do for at least a year or two. I mean, talk about unplugging from distractions to get some perspective and attention reassessment! Like, I now get FB updates about some friends sent to my email, and they're like “So-and-so updated their status” or “So-and-so added a new photo,” and that's it: to see or read anything further, I have to log into FB on my phone, and my reaction nowadays is like, “I don't care enough to bother.” And it surprising how uninteresting it is when there's no accompanying images, “likes” and comments. Of course I still care about my friends, but not so much in that medium anymore. Let's hang out in person or at least talk on the phone fer chrissakes! And increasingly FB feels like little more than an echo chamber of pure image-management: present and take in exactly and only what you want. More numbness. But FB is gonna die off just like Myspace, 5-10 years from now tops I think. My college students already think FB is dead in the water and use other sites/apps. And if you can't get new people interested in using it, where are you gonna go/grow? A necessary evil? Maybe, but how necessary, really?

So yeah, the culture is traumatized and numb I think. A dying empire with a terrible legacy that few are prepared to admit let alone face and address. Grasping at a variety of conflicting pseudo-realities for cold comfort. You know, climate change deniers at one end, and on the other end are folks conceding that it's too late to do anything to stop it. Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in a post-racial America? C'mon! The contradictions are incredible. If you're sensing “a strange energy of optimism, a sort of post-cynicism kind of vibe,” I dunno, but maybe it's that “brute competition,” the gleeful panic of looters last-grabbing whatever they can. “A longing for physicality?” I dunno, maybe as a last gasp. I think the species is preparing to leave its collective body and weather the apocalypse in some virtual-digital state. And that's another thing: the quick, wrath-of-God apocalypse? Wishful thinking. This could all get a lot worse before it gets better.

You know, the Hopi call this era the fourth world: three previous worlds were created and destroyed before, and every time things start out great and then humans fuck it up. There's a slightly different reason each time, but it's variations on the basic recurring problem, namely that people neglect to give thanks and respect to the creator. It's a traumatic legacy we've really created for ourselves but can't admit. We keep fucking up and we don't learn. Which gets us back to that idea of penance: can you really do penance without owning up to the sin?

ARH: Well put, Tom. You describe a society that refuses to see what’s right in front of us. Things are bleak, but the older I get, the more I am surprised to discover that things can turn around. Ten years ago, during the Bush administration, I imagined a pretty rough future, but while the environment and global economy are still massively sick and suffering, there is more of a pushback and struggle, more complexity than I imagined. More hope.

You’re right about the violence people don’t want to face. While people in the U.S. are consuming violent video games and shows, violent crime has dropped dramatically, but meanwhile, there is massive violence throughout the Middle East and Africa, (the horrors of the Congo are never far from my mind) not to mention corporate-sponsored violence against indigenous people, and animals and plants in the Brazilian rainforest, and wherever true nature remains. I remember in the novel, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, one character is talking to another about the grotesque violence of 1980’s Guatemala, and the character innocently and respectfully says something like, I can’t imagine living in that world, and the other character says, but you do live in that world.

At least we can work to heal ourselves, love those near us, and we can make music. Do you feel transformed after Zen Pissed? Do you feel more inspired to do solo or group work right now?

TO: Well, getting the music out there really just feels like what should be “back to normal” or business as usual. I agree with you that healing is a transforming bridge, but to me it's more that those processes are continually ongoing. By chance I just came across something I wrote days after the assault to a friend who was asking, how are you feeling, you know, and the bottom line of my answer was, “what I'm wondering now is, what now?” Healing is formulating an answer to that question. The trauma itself is the bridge to somewhere unknown. It's what comes after the trauma that's crucial. “The loss,” says Morris, “the insight, the fragmentation, the moral vertigo, all of these things only happen post-, after The Event has come and gone and we discover to our shock and surprise that we are not who we used to be.” It was great to have friends tell me in the months after the assault that I seemed like my old self again, and I am, but I'm not. Or I am, and not. Right? To heal, you have to start with the self. “The loss, the insight,” says Morris: I know myself better now. I hate pulling out the Nietzsche quote, “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” because it's such a cliché but somehow still apt here. I'm stronger now because I know my weaknesses better. “Trauma is the savagery of the universe made manifest within us,” Morris writes. We're all flawed humans. Recognizing that, re-knowing that, re-minding ourselves of that, is crucial for healing.

Another dear friend said to me something like, “maybe the Tao is elsewhere for you now.” Exactly, that bridge or path... to where? I've started to figure that out, get back on the Tao. I think she was also partly saying, get the hell out of Cleveland, or at least my neighborhood. A number of people have expressed that to me, but that assumes, among other things, that my neighborhood is less safe than other Cleveland neighborhoods. I mean, Tremont has money and fancy restaurants, but Ariel Castro kept three young women as sex slaves for ten years in his Tremont home too. I don't go down with sinking ships anymore, but I don't turn tail and hide either. There's too much good stuff happening right now for that.

But I was very fortunate and blessed to get away for a bit in mid-February: the real transformation for me was the week I spent solo camping in the California deserts. Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Being out there on your own in the vast expanses of rugged beauty is very cleansing. Lots of room to think, see, and feel. So many times out there, on a desert road to a ghost town or on a mountain trail with a breathtaking view, I had the thought, “it's utterly crazy that I'm physically here right now.” Edward Abbey has a great quote in his book Desert Solitaire that reads, “the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.” Like, I know where I wanna be and take my life now, with a clarity I've maybe never had before.

The music will be there, for sure, and always I think. I'm gonna stay focused on getting my recordings out there for now. There's a band CD that's long overdue and will come out this summer hopefully. I've got a huge backlog of various solo stuff I wanna put out, at least three full-length CDs worth and, you know, they're not doing anyone any good just taking up space on my hard drive. Making new recordings will happen when my bearings get fully reset for that. I've started doings some new reed and drum recordings, you know, record one part, then listen to that while recording the other part. And the Lost Head guys record everything when we get together to jam, and there's at least a couple CDs worth of material we could put out right now if we wanted to. But we're gonna take the time to do that right.

And there is community too, people to collaborate with. New Ghosts is a great example of that. Matt and Andy and I can accomplish far more together than we ever could individually. Strength in numbers. To me that's at the heart community: collaboration lifts us all, competition brings all down. Coming together around shared enthusiasms to make good things happen and solve problems. Like, how can we celebrate and spread the legacy of Cleveland's great free jazz saxophonist, Albert Ayler, right here in his home town, secure the higher guarantees that major international touring artists seek, and maybe even pay our tireless and abundantly talented local supporting artists? That's a problem we want to solve. We don't have all the answers, but we're working on it.

I mean, I've been living and working in creative communities for over 20 years now, but that hardly means I have all the solutions. Not by a long shot. Basically, communities are just collections of individuals, which compounds their strengths and weaknesses. And different communities have shared dynamics, but each is its own unique thing too. In my six years with Cleveland music, I've seen parallels to other communities I've lived and worked in, but some real differences too, both exhilarating and debilitating. It's a lot to sort through and figure out. I guess I used to think (naively?) that art has the power to bring people together and transforms lives, and I still think it does. But now I think a shared aesthetic only goes so far. Because beneath that lie some core values and beliefs that aren't immediately or always visible but can come into conflict. Like, after you've put in a certain amount of time and effort trying to know and understand and working within a community, you can hit a patch of bedrock values and be like, whoa, not what I expected, and not sure what can be done with this either!

ARH: There's a big difference between a scene and a community, and sometimes the difference is within the beholder and is shaded by his or her desires. Also, it's like a classroom; as you know, a couple dominant personalities can shift the tone and mood of the whole group of people. I've resolved my ups and downs with the community by shifting my focus to my work and friendships, and letting the rest go. Having a child ties me down immensely time-wise, but it also sets me free because I finally don't give a shit what others think. It's like, if my daughter is ok, the rest is icing on the cake. So, it's easier to just love everyone and let go. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying 'people can only understand xyz if they have kids' etc, because that's bullshit. I'm just saying that my experience with motherhood has helped my see my relationships and my work more clearly.

And that relates to the clarity you've found after your initiatory experience. The word 'initiation' fits your description of last year's events that ultimately lead you to the desert. I was in an initiatory order for about eight years, and I learned so much about the transformative processes, both induced and natural. Though I can't share the details of the initiations, I can say they involve ordeals, and the growth inherent in overcoming and working through ordeals. And much of that work happens after, sometimes long after, the formal ritual itself. 

Our friend, Kristen Drake, described violence to me once as the disruption of natural cycles. From your description of your experience, it seems you've experienced a kind of psychic scarification. 

TO: Oh I think Kristen's right. A disease of time. I'm just now finishing off and restarting projects that were abandoned a year ago. And sure, everyone's got those scars. I'm not special or unique in that way at all. Some go way back to the core of who we are: the kids at school picked on me, mommy didn't breastfeed me, daddy didn't pay attention to me... and I'm not making light, this can all be some really horrible stuff. But do we let the scars own us, or do we own them? I've definitely now got some fresher ones added to my collection, and to my narrative. And as we grow and heal, that narrative, or maybe how we interpret that narrative, has to keep evolving too. That's how we continue to own our scars and grow with them so they can heal and fade.

I admire your choice (necessity?) “to just love everyone and let go.” That can also very challenging because, first off, I don't think it's possible to love someone who doesn't love themselves. Reasonable self-love, not the inflated self-love of the narcissist. And second, to really love someone you can't just love their good qualities. That's easy. You have to love their flaws too. But I don't think that means accepting flaws blindly without question. That can be a recipe for turning yourself into an enabling doormat. I think real love calls us to carefully and sensitively point those flaws out to encourage growth and change. I know that's something I have to work on.

But again, you have to recognize and accept responsibility for your own flaws, as well as the bad shit that happens to you through no fault of your own. It's part of being human. You can wallow in it and hate everyone and everything including yourself because of it, or you can accept it, own it, try to fix it and make things better for yourself and your loved ones. Like you said a while back: transform it into love. I mean, estimates are that 15-25 million people died in the Atlantic slave trade, and their descendants endured two or three more centuries of shit... and gave the world jazz. That's an incredibly powerful transformation that's still ongoing.

And I agree, scenes and/or communities in my experience all cycle through ups and downs, buoyed up new energy and then stagnating into stretches of sameness. Community desires and realities can indeed be very difficult to juggle, so having some other focus is crucial, whether it's kids, or a spouse/partner, or a profession. As much as I'm critical of the American post-secondary education system, I'm really eager to get back to my teaching life this fall, and then eventually see where else those years of experience can take me. I mean, there's not much by way of new opportunities for me in the American system. It's not like I'm gonna make a run for tenure at this point.

ARH: So, tell me about the good work that you plan on doing in your community: I heard something about an Albert Ayler monument? (Maybe that is on the down low?) It sounds like you have a massive big amount of sweet recorded material and upcoming events and collaborations. Bravo!

TO: Not at all: part of the mission of New Ghosts is educational. We want Clevelanders to learn about their native son who, in his brief career, changed the parameters of creative music forever. I mean, nobody played saxophone the way Albert Ayler did. Everyone knows John Coltrane, but his dying wish was for Ayler to play at his own funeral, that's how much Coltrane respected Ayler! And we bring touring bands to town from all over the country and Europe who love Ayler's music, and we can take them to Ayler's gravesite at Highland Park Cemetery, and that's it: there's literally no public or civic recognition that this man even existed let alone grew up and got his start in music here. So yeah, the plot of his former boyhood home is now part of the city land bank, and we'd like to put something there to show for this man's legacy. 

But you raise another interesting question: who or what is “my” community? Who is “us”? I love maps, but I'm really bad at drawing boundaries. I prefer overlaps and connections, Venn diagrams. Which takes us back to scenes, communities, friends, close friends, like Chinese boxes with some common or overlapping walls maybe?

I still feel strong ties to the noise scene, and there's some new energies happening there now alongside the good older ones. Can you believe it's been four years since Bela Dubby closed and reopened as Taco Tontos? That was a big blow to the noise scene, lots of negativity around that. But you know, the Cirino's were living out their dream, and the rest of us should be so blessed. And so I thought, this is a problem for us, how do we solve it? Well, Paul at Now That's Class has always supported the noise scene, maybe he'd be down for a monthly afternoon thing on an otherwise off day of the week, like Sunday afternoon. So I pitched it to him, and he was down for it, and you and a handful of others were willing to step up and curate those first Noise Lunches. And after six months or so I stepped back from active involvement in that, and nearly three years later the series is still up and running strong! That says a lot about people in the scene working together.

There's also some local rock bands that I really love, and there's some folks I've played regularly with before who wanna get something more in a rock vein going. Or rather, some noise friends wanna rock out and some rock friends wanna noise it up! You know, I love improv but there are times when I want to make music with structure, like, songs and riffs. So there's always that draw. As for improv, the OutLab series has a different feel since Dan and I moved it to the Bop Stop, with some of the regulars from Mahall's still coming out as well as a bunch of new people--including some who come out just to check it out and listen. And there's a new collective called the Syndicate for the New Arts, one of their directors is a composer and guitar player and Bop Stop bartender (!), and they're doing something for local modern composition that's very similar to what New Ghosts is doing for post-Ayler free improv. So yeah, I'm really excited!

ARH: Wow, that is great about raising awareness on Ayler. I didn't know that about Coltrane. Wow. This is necessary to honor the man and man it will be good for the people of Cleveland.

I like very much what you say about overlaps and connections: community is organic, too wild for artificial design, but living. It's good to be right in the thick of it, and it's also liberating to know that if one steps back for a bit, the shit keeps on. Sounds like good stuff all over. I love places like Class and The Bop Stop and also DIY venues because they are primarily interested in the music and the people who play and love the music.

TO: Oh, and I forgot to mention how thrilled I am to have my house back! Not just a brand new bathroom, but it's like my home has been given back to me in better shape than it was when I got it. That's an ethical standard that ought to be more prevalent than it is. Last night I put up a touring band in my home for the first time in over a year, like I have with a dozen or more bands before, and I'd forgotten what an important and pleasurable part of booking this is. I mean, you get to know the people in a band and connect on a basic human level just hanging out and chilling with them in your home, far more than you can by only hearing them from the stage (which itself can be pretty intense). That's a real blessing.

Yeah, wild living! But wild meaning, uncultivated. It thrives on its own. Takes care of itself, if you leave it alone. Has for a long time and will, with or without us. Thanks, I have to keep remembering that. Really we're all quite small and only here briefly, but still each of us with real worth and significance.

ARH: So, one last question, or really two, or a cluster: Is performance ritual? If yes, then how does that work? If no, then why not? What is ritual? When you perform and/or watch people play, do you ever experience visions?

TO: Ritual... well, commodity culture has taken the long, deep ritual roots of music and turned them into spectacles, things bought and sold as "performance" and "the arts." There are still the residual elements of ritual in current performances of the arts. You know, you get dressed and ready for a show, you go, you pay to get in, you buy an adult beverage, you see and talk with friends, you experience the performance together, and maybe you buy a recording to take home... but the ritual has really been replaced with spectacle. Endlessly exchangeable commodity. Western capitalist culture is a real exception to the long human tradition of other times, places and peoples where "the arts" of music, poetry, dance, etc. are intimately tied to specific mundane functions. You know, pygmies in central Africa have "songs" they sing when hunting elephants, or gathering honey, or threshing grain. The whole idea of a "singer," for example, "performing" on a "stage" for something like "money" has been very foreign to most peoples and cultures on this planet.

And absolutely, DIY cultures and non-profits are far more authentic in this regard than "traditional" clubs or venues because the commodity-spectacle is peripheral rather than central. "Act so that there is no use in a centre," that's probably my favorite quote from Gertrude Stein, a writer who still befuddles a lot of readers though her peers in visual arts (like Picasso) are perfectly accepted by the general culture. That is, behave and work in such a way that renders cultural centers useless. Community, and politics in general, starts and flourishes there. No one or thing is central. The thing lives and breathes, functions and survives as a collection of mutually autonomous peripheries.

Ritual is a collective reiteration, remembering and witnessing of who we are, what we do and why we're here. We, not I. Commodity culture puts "I" on center stage and shoves "we" off to the peripheries, which just makes me another thing to be bought and sold. The best performances I experience--it doesn't matter whether I am the performer or the spectator--are the ones that knock my puny little ego out of me and send it flying elsewhere, into something bigger than me. That's the real meaning of "ecstasy," ex-stasis, standing and existing outside. Occupying the peripheries, of places and self, all of us together, where we are more ourselves.

Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life's Challenges by Pat Enkyo O'Hara

David J. Morris, The Evil Hours (website)

Swans, "Blackout"

Peter Szoke, The Unknown Music of Birds

Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music

Trailer for Ancient to Future - The Wisdom of Milford Graves

Breaking Bad, Season 2, Episode 7 ("Negro y Azul")

Hopi Mythology - Four Worlds

Book Of The Hopi by Frank Waters (ebook, pdf, download)

Albert Ayler (1936 - 1970) - Find A Grave Memorial