Live Dose 1. Gilead Media Music Festival. 4/28-4/29. Oshkosh, WI. Part 2.
Erase certain connotations you have of the word. They are hard to divorce from. Hiding as weakness, hiding as nihilistic, hiding as solipsism, hiding as juvenile misanthropy. Imagine a kind of hiding that is also an exposure—to the unknown, to the rare. Imagine the hiding spaces that are foreign to the hider, weird, uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, lacking light, but always at last temporary. These aren’t spaces you are meant to spend long periods of time within; they are not intended to be lived in. But then imagine hide and seek. Imagine hiding as an entrenched social trait, hiding as the desire to be found out. We are drawn toward a turning inward. We are drawn to confronting solitude, experiencing it, espousing it:
“We must take the soul back and withdraw it into itself; that is the real solitude, which may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is best enjoyed alone.”
“Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.”
“The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility. So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude.”
Not to mention Mathew 6:6, the hesychasts, the eremitics and ascetics of the early Christian church, communities without overt, incessant communion. Communities with a withdrawal built in.
Can one experience solitude in the crowd? Montaigne suggests this is possible. Hide and seek is a silly but maybe deeply illuminating example. A game in which even the ‘seeker’ is alone, isolated. A group-endeavored isolation. Perhaps this comes back too close to Schiller, to the dancers of the eightsome reel—or later the waltz, or the samba, touching but not ‘colliding,’ with but never over. Hide and seek seems itself to be ordered, beautiful qua genteel. But also totalizing, cyclical: The found aid the seeker until eventually the game exhausts itself and begins again. There is something to be said about the bands at Gilead (I’m thinking specifically of the sets by Hell, Sleepwalker, Ash Borer, Aseethe, Mania, Fell Voices, Loss) that engendered a sense of a much more crowded, less overt game of hide-and-seek. It is no coincidence that a good deal of metal or ‘dark’ or ‘esoteric’ bands refer to their live performances as ‘rites’ or ‘invocations’ or ‘sacrifices.’
Because there is a game in this. The crowd begins as eager, social. Then there is some theatricality: the lights dim, in many cases at Gilead the bands requested solid-colored, low light—enough to see but not enough to be overly foregrounded. Then the band leads the group in hiding. They begin playing. The down-tempo, slow-paced crawl of what is sometimes called doom metal, or the atonal, repetitive, droning high-treble of what is sometimes called black metal. Roger Scruton mentioned that “Plato deployed the concept of mimesis, or imitation, to explain why bad character in music encourages bad character in its devotees.” Does the dance of the eightsome reel reflect precisely the character of the music it is hinged into? Perhaps not, its ‘gentility’ is in part a result of it being invented, contrived, built up so as to function as mimesis (this does not discount its beauty). It has to get there. At an old Eagles Lodge in Oshkosh, WI, the mimesis is simpler, more direct. Everyone moves their head back and forth, rhythmically, standing still. Their eyes are closed. You might close your eyes long enough that when you re-open them you find yourself surprised that you are in a crowded room of people. And then surprised at being surprised. And so the power of this music is its ability to isolate you. Isolate the crowd, divide a mass into its constituent parts. Many people seemed to literally wake up after Loss’s set, to raise their heads and widen their eyes, stretch, smile, engage in human social activity again, to group. There seemed to be a restorative force brought about by an hour spent disappearing into, with this music. A knowledge gained from it. And somehow that restoration appeared more powerful when it occurred in the presence of others, when it was chosen. The mimesis is not of something negatively charged, it is either a positive or neutral stillness—listening, accepting, joining with the performers.
There are times when it did not work for me. Times when I felt doubt or boredom or problematically fearful, unhealthily isolated, times I was paranoid of being perceived as a pariah. But this was outside the tide of live music. I went to Oshkosh alone, staying with my parents in Green Bay and driving the 45 minutes there and back each early afternoon and late evening. I was excited to go. I had been salivating about the chance to see Sleepwalker and Thou since the festival was announced and I bought my tickets. And the venue was perfect, and accommodating. The bands were warm and friendly. Things moved fluidly, there were no sound problems. The downstairs bar had great local beer. I ate criminally good soul food for lunch, a few blocks away from the venue, each day. And I didn’t talk to anyone for longer than four minutes. Or felt I couldn’t, or blocked myself from doing so. Or didn’t know how to. Or got overtly, internally caught up in spurious distinctions between the recognizable visual traits of those who ‘live’ a scene and those who nomadically accumulate many of them, and I felt very much like the latter. This music is always something I have, primarily, consumed alone. Something I share with others but often out of their own fascination more than anything. Social situations have always made my throat catch but this was my social ultima Thule. And I was only there for two days, and a lusty part of me would have liked to have disappeared into someone’s van and received stick-n-poke tattoos in a gauzy daze. This is all indicative of my relationship with live music I care about, how I am always immensely surprised that there are others, too, others that seem to have fallen much more deeply for this music visually and behaviorally, how I feel trapped between a longing for and a fear of that.
But this is also chosen. You have bought the vinyl and played it alone at home, you have put headphones on and listened to streaming audio. You have enjoyed what you felt and where you went, internally, when that happened. It felt ‘good,’ not in the way of eudaimonia but in the way of catharsis. Or it felt like theoria, your own hesychastic ritual. And now you have come here to be wedged in with others and you lack the full-sleeve tattoos and your jean jacket isn’t sewn into with patches. You lack crust. But you’ve come. And it feels good when you close your eyes, when you almost fall on the stage, when you are bracing strangers for structural support. It reminds you of your feet, your arms, the body that is the house of your wayward mind, a mind reeling from change and indecision and wide-ranging, macroscopic doubts. There are metric tons of solace in the noise.
And if it was safe and ordered and pre-ordained? If it lacked risk? If I remained somewhere else, where what was beautiful was only ever gentle? But then what is the worth of the tension, the pulling back-and-forth? And why confront solitude in a throng of almost performatively tough strangers?
I’d submit that hide-and-seek is enjoyable because of its dual risks: of being found and of never being found. ‘Winning’ for the hider is as well a risk because it eventually eliminates what is at first to be avoided in the game but what cannot be avoided forever. Hide-and-seek recognizes the impermanence of solitude in that the game can only end when all are found. The ‘solipsistic’ experience of a live metal show recognizes the impermanence of solitude in that the song, later the set, must end. Yet both recognize solitude as in some way rooted to, principle in, necessary for our relation with others, and more importantly with ourselves. Scruton suggest that morally instructive music gives deference to “the I-Thou relation on which human society is built.” Perhaps what is meant is that it instills in us a sense of respect or recognition of that relation. And perhaps this is correct—after all it seems the bulk of moral work is dedicated to our treatment of others. Not to say that our treatment of the self doesn’t fall within the field, but Scruton’s conception seems to come after the self, with a society in place, with the problems of the self as it relates to music being solved.
This music comes before, and perhaps this is where it might slip out of or sideways to direct moral adjudication. What is instructive about hide-and-seek, why do we play it? A clear possibility would be that in it we learn the necessity and the limits of being alone, of opting out of the I-Thou relationship. Again, it is not a uniquely pleasant place, or a thing we are pre-disposed to do for overly long periods of time. Its moral instruction is unclear, but its lure isn’t. Nor is, perhaps, its positive social valence. But it remains shrouded, it lacks the light and saftey of what we for whatever other reasons associate with the positive or the morally sanct. Which is perhaps why we avoid it, why it is here couched in a childhood game, why music that instills and requires a conscious shift inward and away from others is often labeled ‘dark’ and so plausibly ‘amoral’ and so mimetic of ‘bad behavior,’ and this is perhaps why these bands sometimes self-style this way already; why the former, cheaper assessment of metal presented is made easy by many bands’ rough-shod, aphoristically expressed worldviews. I have Barghest shirt I bought at Gilead which reads “ANTI-HUMAN/ ANTI-LIFE.” I’m of two minds about it, constantly.
But there are instances when I feel a band’s constructed mythos belies their own music, if not—in the case of early historical instances of extreme metal—behavior. Because this music and its consumption do not seem to me to be an instigation, something “at” me to which I must react in kind. It does not seem like a moral (or anti-moral) dictum so much as a vessel of inquiry. Inquiry that prefigures instruction. There is no end in mind for hide-and-seek. When you go into a stranger’s kitchen cupboard you have started an investigation of the contents of that cupboard and your own ability to live, silently, for twenty minutes, with yourself. At Gilead I often felt within a cupboard, adjacent to a ‘culture’ I admire but for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my own often crushing social shyness, have little conventional communion with. Except when I am standing, facing a stage, my head as well bowed. The lesson of two days and 19 bands is the lesson of a good game of hide-and-seek, of a dive into the deep end. The lesson is that we are linked in our solitude, that our isolation can itself, paradoxically, through the shaky grounds of belief, often ascend to a proof of others—their unshakeable, humming, weird import. Their and our sanctity.