Music & Witchcraft

Last night I started re-reading Truth or Dare, a book of politics, spirituality, and magic written by San Francisco witch Starhawk. The book is kind of a mishmash, but she has some awarenesses that are worth mulling over. It’s been sitting on my shelf for 20 years, and I find that the me of 20 years ago underlined lots of stuff in pencil — some of which has since trickled down into my basic world view.

I picked the book up on a whim, because I need a fresh perspective on how to manage my alleged career. My usual view of things just isn’t working. My usual view is that everything sucks, and nothing can possibly make it right. Rather than simply succumb to rampant negativity, I’m willing to consider even off-the-wall or off-the-chart inputs.

It quickly struck me that the way musicians (and especially talented local musicians) are treated in this culture has everything to do with the patriarchal, hierarchical power structure within which we live.

What happens is, in a patriarchal, hierarchical system the communal expression of music becomes cheapened. It becomes perverted or trivialized. This happens in several ways.

First, listeners are trained (by TV, among other things) to scurry from one sensory experience to another without taking the time to be where they are. So when they show up (at an outdoor concert in a public park, for instance) they’re not actually centering themselves on the music. They’re channel-surfing it while they wander around and look at the stuff in the arts-and-crafts booths.

The musicians, meanwhile, are trained and habituated not to take what they’re doing very seriously, because (a) there’s almost no way to get really fine training in anything but classical music — who’s going to teach you to write or sing your own songs? you’re not going to learn it at Cal State, that’s for sure — (b) the pay is crappy or nonexistent, (c) they know nobody is really listening attentively, and (d) they have no basis on which to take themselves seriously as whole human beings!

Third, the standard pop song repertoire itself lacks a certain social incisiveness. Leaving aside “Maggie’s Farm” and a few songs by Randy Newman and Frank Zappa, there’s not much that actually speaks to our cultural experience. If you’re singing “Nights in White Satin” (or is it “Knights”? the fact that I don’t know tells you something about how meaningful the lyrics are), you’re giving voice to an anemic, safe form of experience, something that has been pretty much vetted by corporate capitalism and found not too heterodox. Perhaps charmingly rebellious (like the Beatles and the Stones), but not truly dangerous. And that’s the stuff that gets played both in clubs and at free outdoor gigs.

The problem I’ve been wrestling with so unsuccessfully is that I’ve accepted the terms of engagement without thinking them through. And the terms of engagement are rigged. They’re rigged in such a way as to automatically punish most artists, first by pushing them into menial jobs that leave them no time or energy for art, second by offering them demeaning gigs that are slightly better than nothing, and third by crushing their spark of passion (in various ways — through the temptations or enforced rigors of commercial success, for instance) so that they become alienated both from themselves and from their own work.

If I were to have an actual musical vision, it would look somewhat different from what I’m doing or attempting right now. First, it would be a full-time deal! Sure, I might have five or six advanced students with whom I would explore composition and performance skills, but there would be no time and no reason for me to be teaching little fingers to play.

Second, the reasons to choose this or that piece of music to add to the set list would be somewhat different. I would be seeking the most meaningful repertoire, not the most familiar repertoire or the stuff that would fit most naturally into a commercial venue.

Third, I would quite naturally expect that others within my community would share and support my musical vision, either as fellow performers or as active supporters. It would always be the case that people would be happy to help us carry our gear!

A year or so back, while I was playing in a local band, I tried to convince the guys to put together a concert. We were certainly good enough to do it, but they resisted the idea. In my vision of what can and should be happening, that would never occur, because other musicians would understand the possibilities as clearly as I do; they wouldn’t be pistol-whipped into submission to the point where they think playing for drunks is the best they can hope for, or what they deserve.

At present, this isn’t yet a business plan. But it’s a far more invigorating view of the possibilities than I had yesterday. Thanks, Starhawk!

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