Brahms Chorale Prelude No. 3 – O Welt, ich muß dich lassen

The next chorale prelude is, ‘O Welt, ich muß dich lassen’, ‘O world, I must leave thee’, the first of two settings in the collection. Barbara Owen’s excellent study, The Organ Music of Johannes Brahms, goes into some more detail on the publication of the chorales, and problematises the idea that they are Brahms’ ‘last will and testament’, as I implied in my last post. Although they were prepared for publication in 1896, it seems that they may have been written across a much wider span of time, with a gestation dating back to his early interest in chorale melodies and organ music in the 1850s. She also points out the wide thematic variety in the chorale texts, which are not simply associated with death or grief, but call on a broader context of Lutheran worship and catechism.

Nevertheless, this particular setting and its partner are perhaps the most funereal, something that comes across in a few musical elements. I had already made a mental link between the two-note quaver sighing motif, and the rising/falling motif in the final movement of the Deutsches Requiem, ‘Selig sind die Toten’, ‘Blessed are the dead’, also in F major. There is a similar feeling of serenity to the chorale prelude, with the flowing quavers belying the frequent time signature changes, a result of the irregularly phrased chorale tune. Barbara Owen also links it to Bach’s Orgelbüchlein setting of ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’, BWV 618, similarly in F, with an almost identical descending motif to this prelude, as well as the final chorus of Part One of the St Matthew Passion, ‘O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß’. Brahms deftly integrates this motif with the ornamented chorale melody, part of a technique of vorimitation, or ‘prior imitation’, also seen in the manuals only passage preceding the third line of the chorale.

My recording is at the end of this post, and I can also recommend this this recording by Robert Bates, with the chorale melody sung beforehand. I’ve experimented with some organ sounds on my keyboard this time, although I couldn’t find a bass sound I liked for the pedal. The next one will most likely be on the piano again. I’ve started a Spotify playlist to go along with this project, featuring all of the chorales and and other music I mention in these posts.


In normal times, organists find themselves playing at quite a number of funerals, the only church service you can almost guarantee someone will attend after their baptism. Unless the deceased was particularly into classical music, one is often given free rein to choose something appropriate to play, which for me might include this chorale setting at some point. Last year I was called upon to play at the funeral of someone very close, who left not suddenly, or over a long time, but steadily and heartbreakingly. I couldn’t think of an exit piece more appropriate than ‘O Welt’, with those quavers clinging on to life even as they say goodbye. And I’m sure it would have amused the man, a domesticated sailor and rambler, to know that the original words to the tune were the slightly more lighthearted ‘Innsbruck, I must leave thee’, a lover’s lament to the town and beloved that he has to leave behind.

Last week I lost another friend and colleague, who had worked at my bookshop in Cecil Court for over fifty years. I only knew her for a small portion of her life, but she was a true character, who cared for her friends and colleagues in an old-fashioned way, writing endless letters despite her failing eyesight, and making newspaper cuttings if she knew someone had a ‘special topic’ (anything to do with Japan went to me). In the current circumstances of lockdown our remembrance is constrained to phone calls and virtual commiserations, while the shop she loved is shuttered for now.

This is a curiously disembodied time, and anecdotally it seems that many of us are swinging between intense emotion and detachment. As David MacIver puts it in this perceptive piece, ‘When we are cut from our environment, we lose the parts of ourself that the environment allowed us to be’. Still, I’m grateful for the people I live with, my family and friends, and the music I can listen to and practice at home. Grieving with Brahms will have to do for now.

Brahms Chorale Prelude No. 2 – Herzliebster Jesu

I’ve had Brahms on the brain lately. In a recent New Yorker column, Grieving with Brahms, Alex Ross writes movingly about the death of his mother, and the solace of the composer’s “sadness that glows with understanding”. This glow is something that I’ve also found in Brahms, especially in the Deutsches Requiem, his late piano music, and the very late eleven Chorale Preludes for organ (written in 1896 but published posthumously). One might say that, whether consciously or not, he was writing his own epitaph with these pieces, whose chorale sources are predominately concerned with endings, including two settings of ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’, ‘O world, I must leave thee’.

Regardless of the biographical reading, always risky in musicology, Brahms’ nostalgia is certainly on show. Simply by writing for the organ, an instrument he had abandoned as a composer nearly forty years prior, he was staking a claim to the tradition of J. S. Bach, while the chorale prelude as a form recalls the Orgelbüchlein, alongside the more ancient works of Pachelbel, Böhm and Buxtehude. But as Ross notes, quoting Nicole Grimes, this is a ‘reflective nostalgia’, which “delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately”. The writing unfolds its own idiom, albeit one occasionally more suited to the piano than the organ, with a few musical nods to the past.

As a consequence of lockdown my musical practice in the outside world as an organist and conductor has ceased for the time being. I made a few attempts to record things on my Korg keyboard at home, but only this week did I light on a project – recording the eleven Brahms chorale preludes as piano pieces, multi-tracking the manuals and pedal parts. These short pieces remind me that despite the stereotype of organists as somewhat detached and unsociable souls, deafening church congregations from our lofts, there is a great deal of humanity and tenderness in the repertoire.

I’ve expediently decided to leave the lengthy opening fugue for now, with the plan to work through numbers two to eleven and then circle back. Number two is a setting of ‘Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen’, ‘Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended’, and recalls two works by J. S. Bach. The harmonic basis is supplied by the chorale setting of the same text in the St Matthew Passion, while the descending diminished sevenths in the Orgelbüchlein setting of ‘Durch Adams Fall’ (BWV 637), are reflected in the diminished fifths which appear throughout the texture of this piece. I think this is perhaps one of the most ‘organistic’ of the set. A fine recording on the organ by Peter Planyavsky can be heard here, and my own rendering is below.


Source: Bond, Ann: ‘Brahms Chorale Preludes, op.122’, The Musical Times, Vol. 112, No. 1543 (Sep., 1971), pp. 898-900.

in medias res #4: in medias res

The problem with doing new things is that in order to learn how to do them, you must already know how to do them.¹

This strange loopiness has come up for me in several fields recently, namely meditation, language learning, and coding. I’ll break the problem down a little by thinking through the first two of these.

Many people initially approach meditation from quite an instrumental perspective, hoping to get some specific thing out of it like calm, focus, energy, clarity, just to name a few. They may give up after a first session if it doesn’t match their expectations: ‘My mind was full of thoughts, this is going nowhere!’. 

The assumption is either that meditation is useless, or that it’s just not for them, or they are bad at it. At this point you need something more than just your own understanding to help you find a nourishing practice that avoids various pitfalls.

Let’s look at the Aro g’Ter as an example of a more comprehensive meditation and spiritual practice (disclaimer: I am very much still a novice in this area). From the perspective of Dzogchen (the ‘Great Perfection’ tradition of Buddhism), as expressed in Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Déchen’s Roaring Silence, the world is already perfect; there is nothing wrong with anything. This is demonstrably untrue when judged by our conventional understanding of wrongness, so it requires some investigation.

Fortunately, tradition has given us a method of investigation – in the form of silent sitting. The problem is that we are both in and of the world, using our small conceptual mind to investigate something much larger. The practice of silent sitting enables glimpses of the mind without thought, leaving “nothing to prove that one is solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined”. 

One can only hope that these glimpses will be a ‘seeing that frees’, as Rob Burbea puts it, and lead to a less grasping relationship with form. They may also eventually lead to an understanding of the intrinsically nondual nature of experience. But to begin with, one must take this perspective on faith, trusting in the model of the teacher and broader community of practitioners, and the path that they can only show you, not walk on your behalf.

Or again, consider learning a language. A textbook with staged exposition of grammar and vocabulary isn’t a bad place to start. But to really get anywhere, you need to find intrinsic enjoyment in the pursuit of fluency. When I learned Latin at school, I didn’t fall in love with tables of declensions and the principle parts of verbs, although it was important to study them. It was the poetry of Catullus, Ovid and Virgil that I cared about, and that stayed with me outside of the classroom. Or now, learning Italian, the more prosaic thrills of finding that I can understand a complete phrase in a TV programme, or a song by Fabrizio de André. And I know that to truly engage in the language, I’ll probably need to do a bit more fraternising with my Italian friends, and be prepared to ‘fake it til I make it’ – trying things out, messing up, and trying again.

This process is reflected in learning anything. Despite the best wishes of those who design curriculums and standardised tests, expertise is not usually gained in a perfectly linear, staged fashion. David Chapman has explored what it takes to do innovative intellectual work in his essay ‘Upgrade your cargo cult for the win’. Although he focuses on doing better science, the lessons apply to any field of human endeavour that involves learning some kind of competence within a community.

The first stage of learning usually involves some kind of cargo culting, as Chapman puts it, drawing on a 1974 commencement lecture by Richard Feynman. Cargo cults are a phenomenon documented since the 19th century, in which a relatively less technologically advanced society performs rituals designed to bring them the goods of a more advanced society. The name comes from the construction of mock airstrips and airports by Melanesian islanders, in the wake of Japanese and American military activity during the second world war. The soldiers were accompanied by a great deal of ammunition, clothing, and food, which seemed to drop miraculously from aircraft. The theory is that islanders hoped to achieve the same ends for themselves, getting hold of valuable goods by appropriating the outer trappings of a cargo drop.²

When you first join a community of practice, you do indeed often need to imitate things which you don’t understand at first, in order to gain new abilities. Eventually, the hope is that you will understand how these rituals work, and transcend them, hopefully in innovative ways. The method for getting from A to B is to inculcate what Chapman describes as ‘epistemic virtues’, which are ‘cognitive traits that tend to lead to accurate knowledge and understanding’.

Feynman’s solution to cargo cult science, in which practitioners merely do ‘what scientists do’, without hope of genuinely delivering something new, is to call for utter honesty’, which is about not kidding yourself as much as not kidding anyone else. Chapman suggests that curiosity, desire, and courage might be even more important than honesty. If you really want to know the answer, you won’t just go through the motions of practice, you’ll keep going until you find it, or at least a better question. You need a desire to figure out what’s going on, and the courage to admit your mistakes and publicise them to help others.

Chapman’s specific model of going beyond cargo culting is to engage in ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in a community of practice. In the case of meditation, that means finding a teacher, going to in-person events, meeting fellow practitioners, and relaxing into a given role as part of the group. This process is interactive and iterative, and takes you beyond the realm of imitation into something richer. And once you’ve mastered the norms and forms of a community, you may find that you want to innovate, and be part of a community’s reflection on  its own epistemic virtues and vices.

Fundamentally, you can’t know where you’re going until you get there. To begin with, you’d better find whatever you’re trying to do intrinsically interesting, or at least be able to align it with where you are now. You need a plausible path and goals, whilst acknowledging that both may shift dramatically over time. You need a compelling vision of expertise, in the form of leaders and peers who are further along the path, or perhaps have some useful insights from other nearby paths. And you need faith, in the unknowably competent version of yourself that you gradually, imperceptibly, hope to merge with.

  1. “The problem with teaching you programming is that to understand many of my descriptions, you need to know how to do programming already.”

    Zed Shaw, Learn Python the Hard Way

  2. Of course, ritual is usually more complex than this, and one should tread carefully with  ideas of  societal ‘advancement’. This essay by Sarah Perry is a good starting point for a more complete understanding of ritual: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2015/02/11/what-is-ritual/


Me elsewhere: a dubstep mix in celebration of some 15+ year old tracks finally being released.


Things I saved to Evernote this month:

unreading

Recently I’d started to feel slightly ashamed of my large and growing pile of ‘to-read’ books. Like Austen’s Emma, I make ambitious reading lists and plans, but consistently fail to finish as many books as I want to. I’m partly able to alleviate this shame with a sort of ‘shoot for the moon, land among the stars’ attitude (an expression I’ve discovered has a murky history), but it still lingers. Luckily, a salutary book found its way into my hands a few weeks ago, Pierre Bayard’s provocatively titled ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’ (thanks to the prompting of this note by @DRMacIver). With tongue somewhat in cheek, Bayard pokes fun at the culture of literature, and the minor hypocrisies and elisions of ignorance that sustain it.

There are more books in the relatively modestly-sized bookshop at which I work than I will likely read in my lifetime. And yet, at least within certain milieux, some of us feel called upon to demonstrate our knowledge of particular books, and feel ashamed if in truth we haven’t. This is perhaps more of a pressing concern to those directly engaged in writing or critiquing books, as Bayard admits, and it does seem that in general our culture prizes literature less by the year. Nevertheless, assuming that you as an individual care about books, and you talk to other people who care about them, I think this holds true.

Bayard’s take on the situation is that it can mean many different things to have read a book, and that it is perfectly reasonable to both judge and discuss at length books which you have only skimmed, or have in fact never looked at. Indeed, he suggests that most of our conversations about books are in fact about screen books (following Freud’s category of ‘screen memories’), which are ‘substitute objects we create for the occasion’. He suggests that the screen book is based in large part on a person’s inner book, an unconscious set of mythic representations that filters their perception of the books they encounter. To complete the trio, he proposes a phantom book as the object that emerges at the interaction of exchanges between personal screen books, themselves refracted through our inner books.

The second and third parts of Bayard’s book concern the encounters one might have in out there in the world discussing books, but I was particularly struck by the chapter on ‘Books You Have Forgotten’, (his other three ways of not reading are ‘Books You Don’t Know’, ‘Books You Have Heard About’ and ‘Books You Have Skimmed’). Here Bayard’s argument takes a philosophical turn, pointing out that as soon as you start reading a book, you have already begun to forget it. Drawing on Montaigne’s writing about his own forgetfulness, even to the point of forgetting things he has himself written, Bayard notes mordantly, “What we preserve of the books we read – whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully – is in truth no more than few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion”. The argument is almost eating itself with the suggestion that Montaigne’s extreme forgetfulness “seems to erase any distinction between reading and non-reading”, and that we might “conceive of reading as a loss”.

So, how does this shed light on my reading woes? I was lucky enough to have a tutor at university who set us to read Borges’ short story ‘The Library of Babel’, about an infinite library. Through permutation of the letters of the alphabet, it contains every possible book, and the librarians who slowly journey through its hexagonal galleries have spent millennia devising various competing metaphysics and mythologies of how the library is supposed to work. If I learned anything from this (I can’t remember exactly what I was supposed to be learning), it was that the infinite granularity of the world is both dizzying and, on occasion, strangely comforting. Any individual book you read represents a choice not read all of the other books available to you, i.e. every other book that exists. There are at least two directions that this thought can lead you: either to a kind of paralysis, of never feeling sure if you’re reading the right things, or to an obsession with identifying key texts to read and digesting them as fast as possible. But there is another path: owning your personal route through the information overload, and treating it as a kind of exploration, with both gain and loss an inevitable part of the journey. Taking Bayard to heart, as well as a recent Malcolm Ocean blogpost, and a lovely newsletter by Adventsnore, I’m going to focus on reading whatever seems the most compelling at the time. Rather than ploughing through things I’ve lost interest in for the sake of completing them (and adding them to my goodreads count!), I’ll try to follow the threads that are bringing me joy and insight, and feel a little less shame about the 75% unread Proust on my bookshelf.


Stuff I saved to Evernote this month:

mix: unevenly distributed

One of my DJ heros is Pearsall, who has been putting out very carefully crafted mixes online for years at sonicrampage.org, always with at least a few accompanying paragraphs. He played a large part in setting me on my ongoing journey through rave music after I first heard this rocket-fuelled 40 minutes of 93/94 happy hardcore.

I’ve been trying with my nuumismatics series to join the dots between different bits of the ‘hardcore continuum’ (see Simon Reynolds), and this mix continues in that vein, with tracks from between 1990 and 2019. I’ve tried not to be eclectic for the sake of it, but I usually find that you don’t have to work too hard to go from dubstep to breakbeat hardcore (for instance) if you’re willing to suspend belief in the walls between genres.

A few of the tracks I came across through Mickey Beam, another top-notch purveyor of mixes across the old skool spectrum. A particular favourite in the mix is Rhythm Section’s Future, which manages to combine a Neuromancer quote, rolling breakbeats, organ and a slightly plaintive vocal sample to perfection. I was lucky enough to find a (rather pre-loved) 12″ of Surgery at the West Norwood Book and Record Shop, and the novelty of hearing that 808 State sample hasn’t yet worn off.

This is the first time I’ve dedicated a mix to anyone. I only met Alex T once, at Tribe Records in Leeds last summer, but was deeply saddened by his premature death earlier this year. When we met I experienced his knowledge and passion first hand, which he wore lightly, and I came away feeling that I’d simply met a wonderful human being.


Some trivia: 23 tracks for RAW, and the future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

A review of my first ‘Twelve Week Year’

Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the sea, yet everything that happens, happens to me…

From The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges

As mentioned in this post, I embarked on a ‘twelve week year’ in October, so I thought a quick write-up might be instructive for anyone else considering it. There are several good arguments for the system, but foremost is that a year is simply too long a time horizon; yearly goals are usually too abstract, and easily fall to the wayside in the face of unexpected (or even expected!) disruption. The twelve week span allows you to keep your goals in mind much more reliably, and setting measurable tactics and lead/lag indicators means you can iteratively update your goals within the timeframe. Despite this, I found that even in a couple of months my priorities shifted, and other events took over towards the end. I would still say that it was worth doing, and plan to start another ‘year’ in February, after a winter fallow.

I had three goals for my first twelve week year:

Each goal had associated tactics on a week by week basis, and I dedicated specific two hour blocks each week to the first two. I put the website together on wordpress, and most of the work (and expense) came in getting professional headshots done, after which came the relatively simple tasks of choosing a layout, writing a fresh bio, and setting up a mailing list and integration with an events calendar. I had planned to include some recordings as well, but that proved a little difficult to sort out, for reasons I’ll go into below. The website is basically an online business card at the moment, but it’s a good start, and also has benefits at the level of simply taking myself more seriously as a jobbing musician.

My second goal came in at 50% execution, with three each of blog posts and mixes [1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3]. As with the website, this goal was essentially curtailed in mid-November, when I was simultaneously hit by a heavy cold, and the semi-predictable busyness of extra music work in the run up to Christmas, including a very enjoyable and successful concert with my choir. I was particularly pleased with the first blog post, on mental polyculture, and the second mix, which was based on a party playlist and therefore included a few things I might not have played otherwise.

The third goal was not so easy to measure, but I probably hit about 50% execution there too. As an example of how priorities can drastically shift even within a twelve week span, my gym buddy moved up north, leaving me without our shared gym subscription, and I switched over to guided home workouts, using FitnessBlender (which I have used on and off for years and love!). Illness aside, I have at least settled into an exercise pattern which mostly fits in with my life, of doing workouts in the morning two or three times a week, and fitting in a meditation session before bed.

An important part of the system is the weekly review, which I had been doing anyway after reading GTD last year – I usually did mine on a Saturday, but have now moved it to Monday morning in the interests of saving Saturdays for unscheduled fun. The percentage scoring can seem a little silly at times, but in a way it demonstrates that you are at least getting something done. Although I didn’t complete each goal in the way I initially envisaged, all of them have resulted in interesting output and some new connections. Several people I met at the Sensemaker workshop last week said that they were enjoying my blog, to which I say – please let me know if you’re reading and enjoying! It makes me many times more likely to write more posts (and hopefully better ones).

Overall, despite my misgivings about rigid productivity systems, I found my first twelve week year to be fruitful and enjoyable. As with all such things, the mindset you use to approach it is key. You have to be able to let go of uncompleted or unrealistic goals, and be continually open to unexpected outcomes and opportunities. I’ve decided to bring the twelve week year into my broader toolkit of personal productivity, and I’m looking forward to trying it again in February.

‘Why We Sleep’ and Memory

I’ve recently been reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and will probably be recommending it to everyone for a while. Walker summarises the current scientific literature on sleep, both in terms of of what it does, its health benefits, and the risks of sleep deprivation. He suggests that modern industrial and post-industrial society consistently devalues and disrupts sleep, and advocates for action on every scale to remedy this.

I was prompted to read the book after hearing it mentioned in Andrew Holocek’s exploration of dream yoga with Michael Taft on DY. Holocek draws on both Buddhist and Western thought on dreams, and discusses the potential of lucid and intentional dreaming to enrich a meditation practice. I heard a brief introductory talk on dream yoga by Khandro Déchen at my first Aro retreat back in June, and was intrigued by the idea that you could treat lucid dreams (which often occur naturally for long-term meditators) as an opportunity to practice. I had some knowledge of the topic from checking out the r/LucidDreaming community at one point, but the focus there is mostly on fantasy and wish fulfilment. I like Holocek’s angle that just as a meditation practice is about becoming more lucid and aware in your waking life, it would make sense to extend that lucidity to sleep as well.

The very idea of lucid dreaming may prompt a natural skepticism for some, but Walker actually devotes a few pages to it in Why We Sleep, and discusses an intriguing study that strongly suggests its veracity. The researchers used MRI scanners to observe the waking brains of participants while clenching their right and left hands. During REM (rapid eye movement) dream sleep the body remains motionless, but the eyes move; hence the name. Using pre-arranged eye movements, participants were able to indicate they had achieved dream control. They then signalled an intent to dream about clenching their left and right hands, and the MRI scans showed up with a corresponding image to that seen while awake. I can’t say that I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with this myself yet, but it’s good to be reassured that I wouldn’t be attempting the impossible!

Another aspect of the book that interested me was the relationship between sleep and memory. The contrast between the four progressively deeper stages of NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement) and REM seems to hold the key to how the brain processes memories. The brain cycles between these two kinds of sleep during the night in roughly 90 minute blocks, with a broader pattern of more NREM sleep at the beginning of the night and more REM later on. The slow waves of NREM sleep pulse from the front to the back of the brain, with bursts of higher activity at the end of each wave, known as ‘sleep spindles’, which seem to shield the sleeper from external noises. It seems that one result of this kind of sleep is transferring memories from a sort of short-term storage in the hippocampus to more long-term storage in the cortex. REM (dream) sleep on the other hand is a bit more complicated, although much better theorised and understood in recent years. It currently looks like its main role is of integrating the memories which have been received while awake and stored in NREM sleep, bouncing them off each other in novel and creative ways.

It would be very interesting to know what kind of effects meditation practice might have on memory, with the caveat that it would probably depend on the type of practice, the type of memory, and the intentions of the subject. The main Aro meditation practice is Shi-nè, in which, if I’ve understood it correctly, the aim is not to grasp at feelings and discursive thoughts, but to allow them to play out in spacious awareness. I’ve found several times that in the minutes immediately after practice, my mind seems to make spontaneous connections between the thoughts and ideas that have been rolling round my head. I’ve heard it said anecdotally that people who meditate a lot don’t need as much sleep, so I do wonder if meditation and sleep have some potential overlap in their effect on the mind-body complex.

Following on the heels of Why We Sleep, I listened to Andy Matuschak on the Venture Stories podcast, discussing with Erik Torenberg the fact that people often remember very little of what they read, even when they believe it’s important and worth remembering. Matuschak is an advocate of spaced-repetition systems like Anki for learning and retaining knowledge, and suggests that the non-fiction book needs a new technological paradigm which deliberately combines ‘reading’ with ‘understanding’. The principle of Anki is that if you truly want to remember something, you need to repeatedly recall it at particular intervals, and it seems that this system does actually dramatically increase your ability to remember. For a brief while there was a tongue-in-cheek war of words on Twitter between advocates of this sort of memory work, characterised as ‘first brainers’, in opposition to ‘second brainers’, a term derived from Tiago Forte’s ‘Building a Second Brain’, which focuses on building up a resource base of knowledge in the form of notes. Cf. Walker, it seems pretty obvious that your original meat-brain does its best to both retain and synthesise memories while you sleep, so it would only make sense to work on enhancing both capabilities in your daylight hours. The only difficulty is deciding what’s truly important in our information saturated world, and the best way to work with it.img_1213.jpeg


Other recent reading: Iain Sinclair’s Lights out for the Territory, a brilliant collection of discursive, digressive and polemical essays on London, and Ali Smith’s wonderful Winter, her seasons quartet being the best thing to come out of Brexit so far.

ICYMI: I put out a mix of ‘party’ tunes last week.

Photos from last week’s chilly walk around Malham Cove in the Yorkshire Dales.

in medias res #3

An occasional diary piece. Recent places: Lisbon & London.

I’ve always rather liked the fact that the academic year gives you the opportunity to start afresh twice; once in September, and again in January. Although this is my fourth September out of education, I still find that the first cool breezes of autumn send a primal message to take stock of my life and hunker down for the winter. For the last few years I’ve been in Wales for a week or two during this shoulder period, but this time I spent a long weekend (is six days a long weekend?) in Lisbon with my partner Daisy, enjoying the ambience of faded grandeur, and seeking out just about every bookshop in the city.

Despite my misgivings about certain notions of personal productivity in the last piece I wrote here, it’s actually something I’ve spent quite a bit of time working over the last year. I started with Tiago Forte’s Praxis blog, but realised that it depended to a great extent on knowledge of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a bestseller in the field. Most of the material in the book is not very complicated, for instance the now well-known ‘two minute rule’ – if you find something that needs doing and it will take less than two minutes, do it immediately. Another useful idea is to turn everything that you need to do (unless it’s a one-off errand) into a project, with its own space for gathering ideas and materials. I happen to manage my projects on Notion, but it could very easily be designed on paper or one of many digital apps (I started on Evernote). As a subscriber to Tasshin Fogleman’s newsletter I also ended up getting early access to the Digital Productivity Coach, a Notion workspace he put together with James Stuber, which is now generally available (for free if you want!). If you’re looking for a place to get started in personal productivity, I can’t recommend it more. Inspired by Tasshin again, I embarked on my first ‘twelve week year’ at the beginning of October. As laid out in Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington’s book, the concept is simple: rather than making yearly goals and plans, you shorten the time horizon to twelve weeks, meaning you have to choose a few key things to work on, with measurable lead and lag indicators. I’ll likely do a full write-up at the end of the process, but for now I’ve found that it’s (counter-intuitively) been a really valuable way to keep a broader view on what I’m focusing on at any given time, rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day to-dos (which I found can be a side-effect of the GTD ethos).

One of my twelve-week goals is to put out a blog or mix every week, last week producing this mix, which began life as a vague idea to do something for the fifteenth anniversary of Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album, Boy in da Corner. Obviously that date passed me by, but I was determined not to let the idea go to waste, and ended up with something I’m rather proud of, starting out with the more standard ‘grime tempo’ tracks that I like from the album, then moving into a jungle and hardcore inflected rinse out for the second half. The inspiration to get the mix finished came from reading Dan Hancox’s brilliant Inner City Pressure, a brief history of grime with a wonderful sense of storytelling and socio-political heft to it (perhaps not surprising given that his first published book was a history of Marinaleda, a utopian Communist village in Andalusia). Hancox makes a convincing case for grime as the ‘most innovative, thrilling and controversial music of the 21st century’, taking in its origins in New Labour Britain and the pressure placed on it by government and police, and its role as part of an informal London culture which has come under increasing threat in recent years from surveillance and gentrification. Boy in da Corner itself is emblematic of how grime didn’t fit in the first time it made a break for the mainstream, with Dizzee Rascal ‘doing pop-cultural modernism entirely the wrong way’, on his own terms, without attempting to pander to the established cultural gatekeepers. The mid-noughties hysteria about hoodies and happy-slapping seems almost comical now, but Hancox brings that era to life, and points out the continuities in inequality, as starkly evidenced by the ongoing disaster of youth crime in London, and the tragedy of Grenfell in 2017. As Dizzee put it in ‘2 Far’: “Queen Elizabeth don’t know me, so/How can she control me, when/I live street and she lives neat?”.


Recent reading and listening:

Riding the general wave of the Great Weirding, I read the second volume of Robert Anton Wilsons’ Cosmic Trigger, a scattergun collection of short pieces personal, political, and somehow very pertinent to the way the world is at the moment.

My friend Jess on the Both/And Podcast with Jason and Jared, chatting lucidly about meta-rationality and sexuality!

Getting Messy with Mental Polyculture

Over here in my corner of the Twittersphere, it seems you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. In some sense I’ve been thinking with it ever since I came across Venkatesh Rao’s elucidation of ‘legibility’. This isn’t a long summary or a review – I’d recommend the above or Slate Star Codex for that – but a brief look at a simple idea: that of ‘strength in diversity’.

One of the key ideas that the book circles back to is the fragility of monoculture, and the strength of polyculture, despite an outer aesthetic appearance of disorder. Scott’s first example is that of German forest management from the seventeenth century onwards, when it was discovered that a pristine forest of neatly regimented trees may produce an abundance of lumber for a generation or two, but is ultimately likely to collapse under one or more stresses of disease or weather, in a way that a more diverse forest does not. The rule holds in other kinds of agriculture, and can also be extended to cities, as explored in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Whenever an authority seeks to ‘legibilise’ a population or place, they tend to envision a rational order along the lines of a military camp, and whether their intentions are benign, malignant, or somewhere in between, this legibilising will entail cutting out a good deal of actually useful stuff. For instance, the Soviet Union’s enforced collectivisation of farming failed to account for a myriad of factors, and its perverse incentives meant that most of the country’s eggs and garden vegetables ended up being produced in tiny private plots of land in the free time of collectivised workers. There is always a ‘dark side’ to these projects: ‘The most rigidly planned economies tend to be accompanied by large ‘underground, gray, informal’ economies that supply, in a thousand ways, what the formal economy fails to supply’.

For now, it seems that European countries and the U.S.A. have given up on vast, high modernist urban or agricultural projects (not so the Gulf states and China). But the force of legibilisation continues apace, especially in the realm of measurement, or metrics. While we are used to the idea that the government gathers information to conduct taxation and distribute services, the last few decades have seen an explosion in the capabilites of corporations to mine and make use information about us. And not only do corporations do this, but we are encouraged to measure ourselves, using apps to track biological processes like menstruation and sleep, and counting the interactions that our increasingly branded personas make with each other on social media. We also find a generalised expectation that an individual monitor, manage and increase their own productivity (however defined).*

Ironically, for the productivity gurus, it seems that attempting to be productive at all costs is, in fact, unproductive. Trying to optimise your life in line with a one-track route of productivity, whatever the goal, just results in burnout and/or apathy. You can think of it a little like going to the gym. If you decide to make your metric of gym success the amount of weight you can lift in a biceps curl, and simply do that, your initial gains will quickly plateau, leaving you with not much to show beyond curious looking biceps. A well-balanced routine would challenge different aspects of fitness at different times, giving a more holistically healthy outcome. Simple productivity ideas applied with brute force often display a similar poverty of breadth, and even if they result in a higher output on whatever metric you might be measuring, this output may well be brittle and somewhat meaningless (the paperclip maximiser is a philosophical exploration of this idea in the realm of AI).

I’m interested in how this notion of mono vs polyculture might apply to our mental lives, as well as the outer world. On a recent Deconstructing Yourself episode, Rin’dzin Pamo and the host Michael Taft discussed the place of internal conflict in meditation practice. External conflict is a given – our expectations, wishes and desires constantly react with a world that does not take them into account. But internal conflict is often assumed to be an ultimately soluble problem. The idea is that to be a rational, disciplined member of modern society, your desires must be legible to yourself, and they must at least accord with one another, whether they make sense in the real world or not. Despite the century that has passed since Freud and Jung’s exploration of the contradictory world of the subconscious, the assumption of much ‘inner work’, be it psychotherapy or meditation practice, seems to be that one could eventually reach a state of perfect mental harmony. In particular, Theravada Buddhist meditation is often described as purifying the contents of the mind, such that one no longer feels strong emotions like fear, rage desire at all. Whether or not this is the case, I’ve come to think that it’s a remarkably bland and uninteresting vision for being a human. I found Rin’dzin’s Vajrayana Buddhist perspective very useful – as they put it: ’I don’t have a problem with conflict, I kind of welcome it’. As anyone who has worked within a formal system knows, there is always a point at which carefully laid rules and plans break down. In the reality of working with a situation, unexpected results are bound to happen. That’s when you need to work with whatever is actually occurring, and be willing to get a bit messy.**

The paradox is in trying to work with systems, order and discipline without coming to believe in them too strongly. The polycultural metaphor could serve us well here, in the context of an imaginary monastery garden. This garden was laid out by several different hands over a few generations as the monastery expanded and contracted. Some parts are more formal and decorative, others purely practical, with room for flowers, shrubs and trees alongside the fruit and vegetables that the monks need to live. From time to time, an administrator will attempt to corral the whole thing into his own vision of order. The head gardener smiles, nods, makes a few cosmetic changes, and keeps things going roughly as before. He has what Scott refers to as mētis, a kind of local, situated and situational knowledge of the garden; the lay of the land, the history of planting, not to mention knowledge of his workforce and their abilities. He also recognises the limits of his knowledge, and allows the complexity of the various garden systems to work themselves out, and occasionally surprise him. Most of all, he understands that the very strength of the garden is in its diversity, with different parts flourishing at different times in response to geography and human intervention. I believe that it’s possible to take this perspective on the individual body/mind. By allowing the existing patterns to express themselves, you can work with the grain of your experience, leaving room for chance, serendipity, and the occasional surprise.


*Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is on my radar here as a book to read.

**Another podcast conversation that helped to crystalise these thoughts was Zak Stein on Emerge with Daniel Thorson (Metapsychology, Soul, and Collapse, Pt. 2). Stein frames the problem of internal conflict using the terms polytheistic and monotheistic, the former based on a Jungian notion of a cast of archetypal or mythic characters. He also suggests that just as a monocultural farm allows for easy pest control, harvesting, etc., so does mental monoculture, in the sense that it skews towards creating highly legible people with predictable needs and desires.


Recent watching: Stewart Brand’s wonderful ‘How Buildings Learn’, a BBC programme about architecture and design from the late 1990s, which the man himself has kindly uploaded to YouTube.

on not saving the world

On a warm day in early April I headed down Salter’s Hill, as I do every week, to walk the beautiful Frank (pictured). I often listen to a podcast as I go, which on this occasion was Emerge with Daniel Thorson, interviewing the sustainability scientist Dr. Jem Bendell, on “The Meaning and Joy of Inevitable Social Collapse”. The title begs the question: how could one possibly find meaning and joy in (inevitable) social collapse?

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In their conversation, Daniel and Jem discuss the latter’s Deep Adaptation paper, a move to reframe discussions on climate change from corporate sustainability towards ‘resilience, relinquishment and restoration’. I can only recommend the podcast and/or paper for those in a reasonably stable frame of mind. However, I can say that for my part, the discussions in this podcast have not plunged me into depression, but have begun to resonate productively with much else that I’ve encountered in the last few months.

From seeing the Extinction Rebellion protests to reading Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, I’ve been developing a general sense that Global Weirding is coming home to roost, both climactically and culturally. There may be an element of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon to this, but at least in the UK it seems that Greta Thunberg, the school walkouts and the Extinction Rebellion protests have pushed ‘climate crisis’ to the top of everyone’s minds.

There are many threads to pull on here; it’s easy to get caught up in the drama of eschatological thinking, becoming either a zealot for some kind of solution, or instead falling into hopelessness and despair. I think these are reasonable responses. But following Jem Bendell, might there be another way through the mire? Similarly to Haraway, he speaks of mourning the loss of certain things, species and ways of life, but also cultivating new modes of kinship and meaning-making.

Part of the work of living on a damaged planet is to recognise that it’s not about you. As Venkatesh Rao put it in this Twitter thread, there is a common misapprehension that the world’s problems rest on you personally, and furthermore that they can be coalesced into one enormous problem. Instead, ‘The world is not yours to save. You have an obligation to NOT try to save it.’ This is not to dismiss the work of climate activists and others striving to make things better – merely a suggestion that on a personal level, one should find a small piece of problem, and join some like-minded folk in working on that problem.

Counter-intuitively, a calling to ‘not save the world’ could be enfolded into the Bodhisattva ideal, with its vow to liberate all sentient beings. On one level of course, the Bodhisattva vow is about saving the world, but it places an emphasis on positive action in the right place at the right time. To borrow from David Chapman, this is not a calling to be special, or ordinary (since neither are really possible), but instead to cultivate nobility:

Mere goodness is not nobility. Often we use goodness as a way of trying to be ordinary or special. Being “morally correct” in an ordinary, unimaginative, conformist way may be an excuse for avoiding the scary possibility of extraordinary goodness, or greatness. Doing good in a showy way can be a strategy for convincing ourselves, or others, that we are special.


Nobility is the aspiration to manifest glory for the benefit of others. Nobility is using whatever abilities we have in service of others. Nobility is seeking to fulfill our in-born human potential, and to develop all our in-born human qualities.

One organisation that seems to embody this ideal for me is The Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth, which I also heard about through the Emerge podcast. Although I’m only looking from afar, it seems to be both grounded in reality and aspirational, with an intention to help cultivate the conditions for human flourishing. The explicit incorporation of skills from education and business is a particularly interesting component, as detailed in the fascinating blog of Tasshin, a full-time monastic at the Academy.

I’m not sure if I’m qualified to bring this to any sort of conclusion. In the face of everything, I know so little. For now, I’ll just affirm that it is possible to de-escalate the drama of the end times, and cultivate some meaning and joy (and sing baby shark!) along the way.


Recent reading has taken a turn for the weird, including Robert Anton Wilson’s fabulous, baroque, and inexplicable Illuminatus trilogy and the first volume of his Cosmic Trigger. I’m currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which touches on many of the themes discussed here and has a gripping story to boot.


Recent listening: Rin’dzin Pamo (aka Charlie El Awbery on Twitter) on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast, eloquently discussing Vajrayana meditation with Michael Taft.


ICYMI: I wrote a kind of short story to accompany a mix/playlist (or the other way round), Tunes To Terraform To.

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