Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

Notes on the writing of “Streets (One Way)” Dreams and Visions

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Notes on the writing of “Streets (One Way)” Dreams and Visions, song 1

One of the aims of this site is to produce songs that are linked to theory that can provide insights into the glut of junk the contemporary consumer world has made for us, and of us.  In that sense, the work of Walter Benjamin provides lucid ideas about the production and distribution of cultural work in the post-modern world.  This work is inspired by Benjamin’s work.

The first two songs of the virtual album, Dreams and Visions (The Karma Refugees, 2013) are explorations of Benjamin’s life and work.  The first is loosely based on my experience of reading One Way Street—an experience that is hard to summarize.  I have favorite sections like “To the Planetarium,” or “Caution: Steps,” which says, “Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven” (Benjamin, One Way Street in Reflections 77).  These words serve as a good description of making the songs posted here.  I write a simple folk song for one voice and one guitar.  Tom, Kathee, Caitlin, and many other wonderful, creative people who have collaborated with us over the years, transform the song and build it into a multiple track recording—each track created by the person who records it.  After the tracks are recorded, the long hours of producing a mix of the song by weaving all the multiple tracks and myriad sounds together make a posted song—a bit of cultural material.

The experience of reading One Way Street is like being lost in a city.  Once you find your way—once you start to get it—you feel a certain kind of elation.  Benjamin gives you some sign-posts along the way and you start to navigate.  The song is a metaphoric query about how we navigate through these ruins.  These links provide further details about Benjamin’s life and work–details which provide the sign-posts to the making of these first two songs.

Streets

The first two songs of the virtual album, Dreams and Visions (The Karma Refugees, 2013) are explorations of Benjamin’s life and work. The first is loosely based on my experience of reading One Way Street—an experience that is hard to summarize. I have favorite sections like “To the Planetarium,” or “Caution: Steps,” which says, “Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven” (Benjamin, One Way Street in Reflections 77). These words serve as a good description of making the songs posted here. I write a simple folk song for one voice and one guitar. Tom, Kathee, Caitlin, and many other wonderful, creative people who have collaborated with us over the years, transform the song and build it into a multiple track recording—each track created by the person who records it. After the tracks are recorded, the long hours of producing a mix of the song by weaving all the multiple tracks and myriad sounds together make a posted song—a bit of cultural material.

The experience of reading One Way Street is like being lost in a city. Once you find your way—once you start to get it—you feel a certain kind of elation. Benjamin gives you some sign-posts along the way and you start to navigate. The song is a metaphoric query about how we navigate through these ruins. These links provide further details about Benjamin’s life and work–details which provide the sign-posts to the making of these first two songs.

Film One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin

One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin from dhurjati bhattacharyya on Vimeo.

Brief glossary of Benjamin terms
Walter Benjamin Glossari

Article by JM Coetzee,–critical overview and summary of Benjamin’s work
History of W. Benjamin’s Work

Notes on the writing of “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin),” Dreams and Visions

1.In his classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin notes that the base changes far more rapidly than the superstructure. Following this thought, he notes that history breaks down into images and fragments, not stories. In “The Storyteller” he argues that storytelling is passing from the post-modern world. He writes:

One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness. Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible. With the [First] World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body. (83-84)

The conditions of life under post-modern forces of production have made storytelling fade into the background. Benjamin continues:

The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a “symptom of decay,” let alone a “modern” symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing. (86-87)

As the story—a remnant of an aging superstructure– fades in relevance, its counterpart in the age of technological reproduction—information– rises in prominence. Our senses are bombarded with information. Yet information does not contain counsel or wisdom. It comes to us in fragments and fragmentary images.

2.In late July of 2011, a group of musicians who call themselves “The Karma Refugees” gathered at my house for our annual recording session.  The 8-10 day session also involves a lot of jamming as we evolve new songs to record.  This year, the first song we addressed was originally entitled “Suitcases.”  Then it changed its name to “Benjamin,” and finally became known as “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin).”  While this song emerges out of a deep structure of reading a large amount of Benjamin’s work, it centers on an image.  The image is that of a suitcase.  This image gives rise to other images—guarded borders, travellers, an ominous gathering storm, and “the tiny fragile human body.”

I think that Benjamin is one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.  His multi-faceted work provides a complex and nuanced mapping of life under the conditions of late commodity capitalism.  In September of 1940, he travelled with a group of refugees to the border town of Portbou on the border between France and Spain.  As a German Jew, he knew the fate that awaited him had he been captured by pursuing Nazi agents.  The passage was difficult and Benjamin’s heart condition made the journey especially hard.  According to his guide, Lisa Fittko, he refused to abandon a heavy suitcase.  She reported that he told her it contained a manuscript that he very much wanted to protect.  When the border was closed, and the party was informed that they would be arrested the following day, Benjamin took morphine and committed suicide.

No one knows what happened to the suitcase.  Many have speculated that a final draft of The Arcades, Benjamin’s life-long project, made up the contents of the mysterious suitcase.  This sad story collapses into a central image—that of a refugee carrying a suitcase which potentially contains one’s life’s work.  The image gives rise to a speculation grown ripe throughout history; how does the control of boundaries and borders stop masterpieces from circulating and becoming known?  What if a masterpiece is incomplete?  What happens to unfinished lives or works?

Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)

3.The flash of image that initiates the song “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)” is this suitcase—possibly containing the work of a lifetime.  Beginning with the image of a mysterious lost suitcase, the fragmentary narrative of the song expands into other images—patrolled and closed borders, boundaries that cannot be crossed, refugees fleeing horrible death camps and the ultimate impossibility of escape.  Thrown into this conflagration of events, “all the knowledge in the universe”—the work of a lifetime—isn’t enough.  Refugees are caught “in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions,” and their possessions are lost.

The melody of the song and the chord progression was intended for a different song.  Tom Daddesio noted on the first morning of our recording session, that we had a good melody and chord progression.  His idea was to return to an old chord progression and try new words.  We played the song several times and recorded a first take with vocals, guitar and bass.  While I worked on refining the words, Tom searched the Mixcraft loop library for a good drum loop.

We had a recorded version—a first vocal track called a “guide track”—meaning that it will ultimately be erased but in early recordings serves to guide the other parts of the song.  We had a drum track, and bass.  When Kathee arrived later in the evening, we had a good start on the song-writing process.

The next step was to hang out and play live music.  Around midnight, we turned on the microphone and recorded a live version with K on vocals.  This step was important as she tried out vocal ideas and made creative choices.

The next day, Kathee spent several hours recording her lead vocals and harmony tracks.  That afternoon, Norb Jost—former saxophone player on The 1 Drop album, added harmonica tracks to the song.  Later in the evening, Caitlin Brutger added keyboard tracks, and I added some guitar tracks.  We had a song with four keyboard tracks (chords and melody), five guitar tracks, four vocal tracks, bass, drum loops and two harmonica tracks.  The following Saturday, Anna Wigtil—one of the video artists who shot the podcast—added three violin tracks to the song.  At the end of the week, we had a song of 18 tracks.  After he returned to Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, Tom discovered a Celtic drum beat that sounds like a heart-beat in the song.  We added that beat well after the other tracks were recorded.

All of these tracks are part of the composition process.  They illustrate the point that each contributor “authored” various verbal or sonic aspects of the song.  In this way, the “writing” of a song expands to fill the medium of technologically reproduced works of art.  The concept of a solitary writer making a finished work is the product of an older superstructure built upon a base that has already changed.  Foucault’s question, “What is an Author?” reveals it’s meaning in this process.  In this case, the author function happens through collaboration on multiple levels.

The final step in making “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)” happened over many nights of listening and mixing the 20 or so recorded tracks.  The sounds can be blended and altered in countless ways to give a final recorded song.  I did this mixing for about a week—working several hours each night—sometimes making very small alterations in the recorded sound—sometimes cutting a track completely or using it for a part of the song.  This process produced the mix that is posted on this website.  However, the point here is that I (or anyone else with access to the tracks) could add, change or subtract material from the song at any time.  This makes my final point.  In the age of technological reproducibility, the concept of a “finished” work is called into question.  A recorded song may be mixed into a stereo song—but as long as the tracks still exist, that production is never final.

Here again, Benjamin’s suitcase comes to mind.  Literary theorist, Susan Buck-Morss argues that Benjamin never would have finished his Arcades Project.  The post-modern world of commodity fetishisms assaults our senses with a constant parade of fragmentary products and shards of information.  One of Benjamin’s subtitles for The Arcades was “a dialectical fairyland.”  The idea of a finished work of “genius”—a “masterpiece” seems lost in this world.  Our best hope under this regime of truth is not the finished work, but the constantly evolving project.

This webpage is such a project.

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