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The lyric attempts the impossible – to stop time

One of the sources that has forever shaped my view on songwriting — on lyric writing in particular — is the introduction to the lyric poem in this lecture from University of Toronto English professor, Nick Mount, on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, published by TVO:

While studying English at the University of Toronto, I unfortunately never took a course with Nick Mount. Mount opens the lecture with a description of the lyric poem that resonates with me and is forever etched in my memory:

When you’re reading a novel, your attention is on the progression of time, the forward movement of the plot through its complication and its resolution. A lyric poem… is less about the progression of time than it is about the attempt to stop time. The lyric tries the impossible. It tries to temporarily stop time, to slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception — sometimes a moment of confusion, of understanding, sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual, often a bit of both. For me, that is the main virtue of poetry — and in particular of the lyric poem — its ability to get me to stop and pay attention to life, to everything that I’m rushing by because of time, because of the inevitable tick of the clock. And that is what a lyric poem excels atcapturing the things, the experiences, that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time.

Then, channeling the famous University of Toronto English professor, Northrop Frye, Mount continues:

Frye says that the lyric poem gets written because some normal activity has been blocked, the normal progression of time, and the poet has to write about that block before returning to the world of time.

This is my experience as a songwriter explained by the University of Toronto Department of English. Furthermore, while I have yet to fully wrap my mind around this yet, I think a pair of U of T theology professors have something profound to say about this too.

Fr. Bernard Lonergan from Regis College wrote in Insight about four fundamental forms of bias that can impact our consciousness, the first of which is dramatic bias, which operates at the level of elementary feelings and passions. From Insight (emphasis added):

Just as insight can be desired, so too it can be unwanted. Besides the love of light, there can also be a love of darkness. If prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters. Nor has such a bias merely some single or isolated effect. To exclude an insight is also to exclude the further questions that would arise from it, and the complementary insights that would carry it towards a rounded and balanced viewpoint. To lack that fuller view results in behaviour that generates misunderstanding both in ourselves and in others. To suffer such incomprehension favours a withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy. This introversion, which overcomes the extroversion native to the biological pattern of experience, generates a differentiation of the persona that appears before others and the more intimate ego that in the daydream is at once the main actor and the sole spectator. Finally, the incomprehension, isolation, and duality rob the development of one’s common sense of some part, greater or less, of the corrections and assurances that result from learning accurately the tested insights of others and from submitting one’s own insights to the criticism based on others’ experience and development.

Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, p. 191.

Biases are the kinds of things that emerge and prevent authentic insight, and dramatic bias in particular has to do with that level of passion and feeling in one’s own psyche. These are barriers, but the sort of thing that when not ignored but worked out, can lead to insight. Furthermore, dramatic bias is dialectical, as there’s some tension between two competing things that needs to be worked out is dialogue.

As one of my Regis College professors, John Dadosky, once put it in a lecture: “Once a bias is removed, then you can get on with the business of authentic living with that area of life in which you were stuck.” This comment is what sparked the connection for me and reminded me of Nick Mount’s comments on the lyric poem, calling to mind Northrop Frye’s notion that the normal progression of time has been blocked and you are stuck and cannot return to the normal world of time until — or unless — you work out the block with the lyric poem. What is a lyric poem but that dialectical attempt to resolve the bias, to resolve to block – to get unstuck?

Lonergan, in his transcendental precepts, describes the method through which any individual transcends himself or herself to live in reality:

  1. be attentive to experience;
  2. be intelligent in understanding;
  3. be reasonable in judgment;
  4. be responsible in decision-making;
  5. be in love with God, self and neighbour.

A good artist – a good lyricist – is attentive to human experience, as a prerequisite for being intelligent in our understanding of the human experience (and, thus, a prerequisite of being reasonable, responsible and in love). Insofar as art is good, insofar as it is attentive to our lived experience and it authentically expresses that, it is the raw material for reflection that can lead to intelligent understanding of the human experience.

Is the lyric poem not a dialectical attempt at being attentive to the experience of dramatic bias? To be attentive to that experience that stops the normal progression of time and removes us from the world, so that we can work through that experience and return to the world — unstuck — with the bias removed through a dialectical engagement with the blockage?

For the lyricist, the world of time has stopped — the dramatic bias “blocks… the normal progression of time” — and the lyricist experiences a “withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy.” That dramatic bias is worked out in a dialogue between fantasy and reality through the lyric, so that the lyricist can “return to the world of time” and “get on with the business of authentic living.”

For the listener or reader, lyrics that are truly attentive to experience cause us to “stop and pay attention to life,” to “slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception” — a mix of confusion and understanding, of emotion and intellect — in order to draw our attention to the dramatic biases in our own lives, the “experiences that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time,” so that the listener themselves can, through engaging with the lyric, work out a similar block or dramatic bias in their own life and return to the normal progression of time (whether or not the lyricist is similarly successful).

I feel like I have a lot more work to do to wrap my mind properly around what Lonergan is saying and how this relates to lyric poetry, but… is that not what a lyric poem does? Is that not the experience and the role of a songwriter? Is that not what lyrics are for you?

That’s what lyrics are for me.

Canvases is a song about the normal progression of time being blocked and the need to “paint all of these unknown voices” before returning to the world of time — written four years before I heard Nick Mount’s lecture, while I was attentive to my own experience but before I understood it in the way I do now.

Thank you, Nick Mount, Northrop Frye, John Dadosky and Bernard Lonergan, for furthering my understanding of my own lyric poetry and experience as a music lover.

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The cosmic significance of recess

I’m constantly frustrated by the way we approach education and youth, as though we’ve forgotten our grade school experience. Our culture looks at the immaturity of adolescent romantic drama, or social groups, and sees either an interesting social science experiment, or kids just being kids, etc. We dismiss it. We consider it to be something less important, less significant in the grand scheme of life, something you eventually get beyond when you grow up. But what could be more significant?

What we experience at recess is central to the human drama.

We long to be accepted and to be loved for who we are. We ask: Do I belong here? Am I accepted for who I am? Can I reveal what I truly feel without regretting it? Without being mocked? Without feeling stupid? Will anybody ever love me for who I am? This social pretense, is it permanent? Is it everywhere? Is there a place where I can belong as myself? Is there a person with whom I can belong as myself?

And her. I want to be near her. I want to think about her always. If only she would accept me, it wouldn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. But if only she cannot see me, what does it matter what anyone else sees? Will I always feel like this? Will I ever feel this way about anyone else again? How can I love someone else like this again? How could I live with this feeling again? Will I always have to feel this ache? Does anyone else feel this? Does anyone else understand me? Will anyone else ever feel this way about me?

What does this mean?

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Amhrán Mhuínse

I fell in love with this song 10 years ago in Ireland (a different but similar recording): Amhrán Mhuínse (The Song of Muínis)

I fell in love with the music — I never understood the lyrics. By chance, I scrolled past it in a playlist today, and it spoke to my heart, so I put it on repeat and decided to spend some time searching for an English translation.

*hand to heart*

If I were three leagues out at sea or on mountains far from home,
Without any living thing near me but the green fern and the heather,
The snow being blown down on me, and the wind snatching it off again,
And I were to be talking to my fair Taimín and I would not find the night long.

Dear Virgin Mary, what will I do, this winter is coming on cold.
And, dear Virgin Mary, what will this house do and all that are in it?
Wasn’t it young, my darling, that you went, during a grand time,
At a time when the cuckoo was playing a tune and every green leaf was growing?

If I have my children home with me the night that I will die,
They will wake me in mighty style three nights and three days;
There will be fine clay pipes and kegs that are full,
And there will be three mountainy women to keen me when I’m laid out.

And cut my coffin out for me, from the choicest brightest boards;
And if Seán Hynes is in Muínis, let it be made by his hand.
Let my cap and my ribbon be inside in it, and be placed stylishly on my head,
And Big Paudeen will take me to Muínis for rough will be the day.

And as I go west by Inse Ghainimh, let the flag be on the mast.
Oh, do not bury me in Leitir Calaidh, for it’s not where my people are,
But bring me west to Muínis, to the place where I will be mourned aloud;
The lights will be on the dunes, and I will not be lonely there.

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Haise Baby Zero 3D Ultrasound

Some big news: I’m a dad! We won’t be meeting our son face to face until November, but in the meantime we got a glimpse of him last week with a 3D Ultrasound. I’ve uploaded some photos and the video.

3D Ultrasound

3D Ultrasound

3D Ultrasound

3D Ultrasound: No more photos!

Here goes nothing…

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Facebook Suggests Celebrating My First Wedding Anniversary With a Facebook Message… Or Divorce

A week before my first wedding anniversary, Facebook started to remind me and suggested I celebrate by… sending my wife a Facebook message.

Thanks for the reminder, I guess, but I wasn’t exactly planning to spend my anniversary on Facebook. This brought up some similar stories from friends:

When I removed my “In a relationship” status […] all the targeted ads changed from ‘Buy Engagement Rings Here’ to ‘ARE YOU SINGLE AND ALONE?’

The barrage of wedding ads my wife and I received once we were engaged only subsided when we got married — then, she immediately started receiving ads for baby stuff. As my friend put it, “Facebook is like a really pushy, suggestive relative.”

My wife got the anniversary reminder too, but the next day Facebook stepped up its game and served her a divorce ad.

An hour later, the divorce ad and anniversary suggestion appeared on the same page.

… was it because I didn’t send her a message? Well, there’s yet another reason to move away from services like Facebook

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Haise Wedding: Photos and Video

I’ve now been married for a year. I’ve been meaning to share more from the wedding. I’ve already posted my wedding speech, but there are also the wonderful wedding photos taken by my aunt, a few photos I took myself during the day, and a video clip of Robyn Dell’Unto playing her song, Dreams of Me, for our first dance (the song I fell in love with when I first met Robyn).

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Haise Wedding Speech: We Rejoice That You Exist!

It’s been over seven months, but I’ve been meaning to post a few things from my wedding last summer. I’ll start by sharing my more formal remarks from the reception. This part of the speech begins just after the toast to the bridesmaids and ends just before Heather joined me for the thank yous.

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the main character, Marlow, spends the majority of the novel sharing a story with his fellow passengers on the deck of a ship on the river Thames. He relates this story in such a vivid and compelling way… but at one point, he trails off, overwhelmed at the impossibility of truly sharing the inner depths of his experience with another person outside of himself.

“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream — making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that… absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that motion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams. . . .”

He was silent for a while.

“. . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence, — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone. . . .”

“We live as we dream — alone.” Since I first encountered that line, it has never left me. Marlow said what I would have said, had it been possible for me to set my scattered thoughts in order. In those five words — we live as we dream — Marlow encapsulates that which is most profoundly agonizing about this life: our inability to share it totally with another.

Don’t we all long for unity in the depths of our hearts? Marlow was left to despair, because he thought it was impossible. And it may not be fully possible in this life… but there are some things in which we can find glimmers of that original unity which we all long to reclaim.

“The principal difference between someone dreaming and someone awake,” Pope Benedict said this past Christmas Eve, “is that the dreamer is in a world of his own. His ‘self’ is locked into this dreamworld that is his alone and does not connect him with others. To wake up means to leave that private world of one’s own and to enter the common reality.” It is “the truth that alone can unite all people.”

What is truth?

I strongly believe it is this: that “man… cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” (Gaudium Et Spes 24) It is in giving ourselves that we can find ourselves, that we can tear down those walls and bridge the gap between us. It is through gift that we find unity, find common union, find communion.

And what is love, but the ultimate gift of self?

“Love is not merely a feeling,” says JPII. “It is an act of the will that consists of preferring [constantly] the good of others to the good of oneself.”

And while I’m quoting popes, Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote:

If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: ‘It is good that you exist’ – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.

* * *

You are all here tonight because Heather and I love you, and because you have loved us. You have celebrated with us, you have comforted us. You have shared in our burdens and our joy, in our great triumphs and in our epic fails. You’ve put up with us, and you’ve stood up for us. You’ve given us life. You’ve showed us patience and kindness, and forgiven us when we may have been impatient or unkind in return. You’ve been there to laugh with us. Some of you have grown up with us, some of you have been grown-ups to us, and you’ve all grown on us a great deal. You’ve helped to shape Heather and I into the people we are today. You are our friends, our family — our community. You have given us so much: You have taught us how to love.

I’ve been told that this is our “special day.” I suppose it is… but this isn’t a celebration of couplehood; it’s a celebration of family. Whether through blood or other bonds, thank you for being our family. Thank you for showing us love, for showing us how to love, for giving of yourselves and for sharing your lives with us.

It is good that you exist.

* * *

So… we live as we dream, longing for unity… but the truth, that is love, can set us free. What does any of this have to do with marriage?

To get back to quoting popes… John Paul II wrote that “in this entire world, there is not a more perfect, more complete image of God, unity and community, than marriage. There is no other human reality which corresponds more, humanly speaking, to that divine mystery…” to that ultimate unity of three persons in one.

Marriage, I firmly believe, is a tiiiiny foreshadowing of that ultimate unity, a tiny glimpse of what it could mean to not live as we dream, but to be united; a tiny taste of Heaven… I know Heather and I will have hard times ahead. I hear the four stages of marriage are honeymoon, disillusionment, misery, and then — if you’re lucky — joy. (Heather’s asked if we could skip the middle two.) A mentor of mine always says of marriage that we shouldn’t hang our hat on a hook that can’t bear the weight. Heather, I know that I will disappoint you at times, that I will fail to love you perfectly, as you deserve, but I pray that you will remain united with me in this thought: it is your love, Heather, that shows me ultimately what it is to be loved; it is your love that leads me to the love that satisfies, as we journey together towards ultimate communion.

In the words suggested by St. John Chrysostom for such a moment: Heather, I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you, Heather, to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us. . . . I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.

* * *

This day has been a long time coming, but it’s always felt like another big event. I don’t have any understanding yet how big it actually is. Preparing the apartment, it was a bit unreal to think that it would be home in a matter of weeks. It felt more like going to Australia in 2008 — new and exciting, but ultimately a short-term adventure. Or, preparing for this day felt kind of like preparing for a big concert at Hart House, even for the proposal — in the aftermath of these big events, things return mostly to normal… but this, this is a new normal. Weddings itself are pretty new to us. Lisa summed it up as she was planning Heather’s bachelorette, and said, “I’m fully planning this party based on Google searches.”

So, we wouldn’t be here today without your love and support to bring us here. We rejoice that you exist!

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Engagement Video

This is a really rough edit, but a really special moment: some video of the proposal 16 months ago.

T-minus 17.5 hours until marriage

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Engagement Photos

I’m getting married in three days, thought I’d share the engagement photos that my aunt took for us.

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Avoidance, Creative Work, and Balancing Multiple Interests

Writing, Reading, Hacking and Making Music: My Room
My Room

This is a bit of a personal ramble.

Gerald Klickstein had a great post on the Music Think Tank blog about avoiding avoidance:

Do you ever dodge your creative work? Say, your practice time arrives, and you race off to do some chore. It might be a chore that you detest, but now it calls to you. Then, instead of refining your music, you start cleaning the house or doing whatever. […]

When we practice, write, or otherwise innovate, we stretch our limits. We strive.

But striving takes us into the unknown, and that brings uncertainty. […] If the uncertainty of creating unsettles us, then, to escape the discomfort, we might seek refuge in a mindless task: “This really needs doing,” we’ll congratulate ourselves as we reach for the mop.

So true. I set aside afternoons to work on my music, but often end up catching up on email, cleaning, doing laundry, or running errands. It’s so easy to avoid that difficult creative work.

Klickstein has a solution:

First we have to notice an avoidant thought before we fall under its spell. Next we must act to do what we intend. […] As I see it, we’re all going to have avoidant thoughts, so we need to keep countermoves handy. Here’s my anti-avoidance formula:

Counter Avoidance

  1. Notice an avoidant thought.
  2. Dispute it. (Laugh at yourself or just say “no.”)
  3. Replace it with an affirmation: “Music feeds my soul.”
  4. Act with full intention.

It’s great advice, but I still find myself struggling. I have so many distractions that aren’t just chores or busywork. I spent a lot of my “music” time in the fall revamping my website, which is important for my music, but it isn’t my music. Also, there’s always the temptation to put more hours in to my other jobs, especially when I have clients waiting on me; it’s hard to spend an afternoon focused on songwriting when I have a separate deadline with a client bearing down on me. And, lately, I’m spending a lot of time on music, but not my music; I’m writing arrangements for the Hart House Chamber Strings pops concert, which is an amazing opportunity for me to write arrangements and work with some of my favourite local artists, but only a small percentage of the concert involves my songs. Even when I work on music, it’s not always my own.

Then, there’s the issue of multiple creative endeavours. I’m a songwriter, but I also try to set aside time for writing (like this) and for programming. It’s easy for one of these activities to overshadow the others.

I defer to Adam Singer, someone whose several steps ahead down a road I’d like to travel:

By day I work for one of the top search/social marketing firms globally. At night I keep this marketing/media/PR blog and participate in industry conversations around the web. I also write music. In between all of that I read 1-2 two non-fiction/sociology books and some 300 blogs monthly (I’m a knowledge-junkie). I also don’t do any of these things halfway, they are not fleeting interests – I’m fully committed.

[…] It took me years to develop the self-discipline necessary to split time across interests and get fulfilling results in all of them.

Today I thought I would share the process I took to get to the point of balancing multiple pursuits. If you also have multiple interests and are frustrated you’re not able to devote enough time to them, this might help.

He lists 10 pieces of advice (I’m just listing the titles, but you can read the post for more detailed descriptions.)

1. Internalize what outcomes you want from each interest first
2. Define what specific activities support your desired outcome from that interest
3. Remove everything else

It’s an ongoing process, but I’m inspired by the steps I’ve made in the past few years in narrowing down the sorts of things I want to accomplish in different areas. The picture is constant evolving, and becoming clearer. One of my goals going forward is to speak more publicly about the things I’m working on.

It is a challenge to remove everything else though. I have a hard time saying no to many things (e.g. I need to do less Windows tech support…).

4. Automate or outsource all collateral activities

I lot of the time I’ve spent working my website, or figuring out 64 Studio factors into this… At times it feels like I’m spending so much time not making music, but I’ve been streamlining my process of recording and sharing recordings, which is essential going forward.

5. Your career should be an interest

Check.

6. Learn to ignore others who tell you to focus on one thing

This is incredibly encouraging. One of the common sayings that haunts me is “jack of all trades, master of none.” (I prefer “master of some.”) Sometimes, I feel like I’m spreading myself too thin, trying to be too many things. There is a way.

7. Focus time where your mind is naturally drawn during free time

This is also encouraging, given the variety of my pursuits… but, I think it’s also essential to make sure there is time set aside for each activity in the long run. While it makes sense, on a micro-level, to focus where the inspiration and motivation is present, on the macro-level I’m still trying to find the best way to make sure that none of my interests are neglected for too long. That’s the real challenge.

8. Learn patience and dedication
9. Be grounded in reality, realize life is short

Sound, but basic advice.

10. Remember that focusing on one and only thing is mentally limiting

I don’t need to be reminded of this. Some people have one thing that they can do well and focus on, but I’ve always had multiple passions.

About 10 years ago, I remember my mom sitting me down for one of those overly-concerned parental talks. “It’s great that you’re so passionate about music and computers,” she said, “but… you need other interests too, you need to be balanced.” After listing off a variety of other hobbies at the time (basketball, skiing, cross country—just in the athletics department), I reassured her that I was interested in a healthy balance of things—and that I just really enjoyed music and working with computers.

That was Grade 7. Five years later, applying to universities, I was looking at music and computer science/engineering programs. I ended up choosing computer science at U of T, not just for the program (which is fantastic), but because it allowed me maximum freedom to study other things as well; music and engineering programs offered very few electives. I began thinking I’d do a music minor, but ended up choosing English instead. Last June, I graduated with a major in computer science, and minors in English and philosophy (as I like to say: Plato, Python and Shakespeare).

And now, I’m continue to work part-time at Alleyne Inc., while the rest of my time is spent on music and writing. (I’m also doing a couple graduate-level credits in theology this Spring, but not quite sure where that will lead…)

For me, it would be extremely mentally limiting to focus on just one thing.

The challenge, moving forward, is to find balance between multiple creative interests, avoiding avoidance and narrowing in on my creative goals.

Rambling out loud like this will likely be part of the process…

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