Moving house, the not-so-minimalist way

Moving house is a time for deciding what to keep and what to throw away. A chance to be minimalist, if only I had the cojones.

We’ve decamped from Cornwall and marched on Devon. Now we are faced with many Things To Do, not least of which is deciding which of my faded treasures and never-did-come-in-handy gizmos can be safely discarded, and which are still awaiting their day of glory. Having become distantly acquainted with the idea of minimalism, I feel an urge to throw things away that is every bit as compulsive as my previous urges to acquire and hoard. The only problem is, I’m not a very good minimalist. In fact, I am minimally minimalist.

Minimalism when you hoard books

I am too sentimental. About old computer games I’ll never finish. About band t-shirts bought at gigs in my rockin’ twenties. About utterly crap films I should be ashamed to admit I’ve watched, nay enjoyed, nay owned. So while I’ve lived happily for ten months from a suitcase of clothes, I couldn’t imagine what skulking horror awaited me in a storage depot in darkest Hampshire. “Just what did I put in there?” I naïvely pondered many times. Ignorant fool! You know what the removal men awoke in the darkness. Flame and shadow. And 19 boxes of books. The b*stards were breeding in there. And three more guitars in various states of bad repair to add to the caravan of damaged string instruments I already had about me. These are the things I find especially hard to part with. Argh.

There is a process of domestic archaeology I have become too familiar with. I approach the box with strong resolve, thus:

  1. Whatever’s in there, I’ll throw out.
  2. I can’t need whatever’s in there because I already have everything I need.
  3. Oh, that’s what’s in there. I haven’t seen that in ages.
  4. It’s useful, but not to me. I’ll take it to the charity shop.
  5. I’ll take a photo of it. Then get rid.
  6. I can never be parted from it again. I’ll hide it in this box.

And now, on recovering my external hard drive, a similar mindset holds for my digital life. Can you be a digital minimalist? Not if you hang onto every text file snippet of poetry, every blurred photo, and hastily recorded song idea you’ve accumulated over the last ten years.

I managed to thin out the duplicate files using some handy software. Then, once the house was unboxed, my digital crusade began in earnest. I found some interesting things, such as this song I kind of improvised and recorded and then totally forgot about for nearly ten years. So, here is ‘The Blackest Ship’. You are one of the first people to hear it. I bought the violin off eBay and abused the bow with Jimmy Page-style antics at Distant Signal gigs. I haven’t used it much (at all) since those days but still cart it around with me.

For a brief time I was able to reconnect with whoever it is I used to be ten months ago, and ten years ago. Looking through a 500gb hard drive of old projects is a surefire way to witness the folly and doomed hope of man (me). Or, if you have the balls, go down to your local electronic waste recycling centre and shot-put it into a skip. But then again, maybe it’s worth keeping a few keepsakes around, so we don’t get too completely caught up in the current dramas and dreams of our lives, all of which will be archived sooner or later. Life goes on in its usual unexpected way.

The zenith of stuff

There’s a statistic doing the rounds that claims more than 50% of Earth’s species will be extinct within 85 years. E.O. Wilson, the Harvard professor behind this proclamation, has written about interdependence within ecosystems and the increasing pressure human activity is placing on life on Earth.

The idea that more than half of our biodiversity – both species we see everyday and those that are yet to be discovered by science – may disappear from the planet over the course of our children’s lifetimes strikes me as a startling wake up call, if one were needed. Perhaps the time has come to put aside some of our personal ambitions and learn to live simply again. We know that the period we are living in is most likely a historical blip in terms of the resources we have access to; and, as psychology tells us, we can’t pretend that we can make ourselves happier by acquiring more stuff. Our minds just don’t work that way.

We’re slowly recognising the limitations of materialism and increasingly looking to life experiences to provide meaning and status, as a glimpse at any social media feed will prove. Consumer brands are catching on, using advertising to position their products and services in a way that not only resonates emotionally but frames them as experience. Cars are for roadtrips with fashionable friends; bring a tablet on your camping trip so you can connect with nature by watching movies in your tent; these tunes are the soundtrack of your demographic’s summer. There’s also a danger that experience-seeking becomes the new materialism. Both can be extrinsic ways of looking for happiness and, as such, not as effective sources of satisfaction as we may lead ourselves to believe.

All this is easy for me to say: I’ve never been without access to material goods. In fact, I’ve acquired tons of gizmos, computers, instruments, books and clothes over the years in a quest to create, better myself in a vaguely conceived way, or just mess around with. I could fashion a three-storey cabin out of the books in my ‘to read’ pile if there were some way of turning them back into wood, or build a lifesize replica of the Pequod. This privilege has at least bought me the perspective that materialism is ultimately a dead end when it comes to adding meaning to your life. Rather, meaning comes from living in accordance to values you decide for yourself in relation to other people, traditions and what we know about the world. Given that we’re now aware of our effect on species, the climate, the planet itself, it’s surprising that we haven’t re-evaluated where we seek satisfaction more thoroughly. I’m not alone in thinking at the time of the 2008 financial crisis that certainly, now, the developed world would take systemic failure as an opportunity to address our worst excesses. That does not seem to have happened and instead we appear to be striving to reinforce the pattern of consumption and increasing output we had before.

I don’t know whether change is possible but I can’t help but feel that a more conscious, questioning attitude towards material consumption and GDP growth would be beneficial – and not just for the environment but for our individual sense of satisfaction and social cohesiveness. It’s hard to know where to begin but many people seem to be finding meaning in minimising, economising and downshifting. In the spirit of small beginnings, I’m going to give my credit card a rest over Lent – yes, even when it comes to buying books. In the longer term, let’s hope that the humanities, the arts, ecology, outdoor sports and contemplative pursuits provide us with wisdom enough to adapt responsibly to a world that is certain to change rapidly, one way or another.

You had to be there

We were talking about travelling and a friend said that if he were to embark on another big trip, he wouldn’t pack a laptop, tablet, smartphone or a camera. Not even a notebook. We’d been in total agreement until that moment. What would be the point of travelling if you didn’t take artsy photos with an SLR? Or bore your friends and family with constant updates on your adventures? I wondered at the time. Not even a notebook…

Recently, I thought twice about taking my phone with me on an errand. Now I’m a father, that doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I remembered that conversation. What if someone needs to get hold of me? I thought. What if I see something cool and need to take a photo? To hell with it! One by one, I peeled my fingers from around the handset and left it on the counter looking like the sinister monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As I was leaving town a spectacular double rainbow lit darkening clouds above the harbour. My first instinct was to take a photo, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that even a professional cameraman would struggle to capture what I could simply take in with my eyes and other senses. I decided to extend my walk to properly absorb the scene and ended up getting fairly well rained on. Really heading home now, two seals were playing in the waves. I watched them for ten minutes and understood what my friend had been talking about a little better.

Rain journey

Easter provided the opportunity to work on some new music; a crazily difficult game called Dwarf Fortress provided the impetus. More on that later perhaps but suffice to say playing and understanding that game made music technology and child rearing both seem simple. The soundtrack had a layered keyboard part that gave my fingers some ideas. Off they went.

There are two new tracks: ‘Rain Inside The People’ and ‘The Crane’. Sketches are in progress for two more to round out a short EP called Rain journey: a concept record about nothing more complicated than watching the rain.

The idea of recording music had become slightly daunting after Everything I Will Remember When We’re Gone. That EP has some really involved some tracks with many elements requiring detailed mixing and effects treatments. ‘Deep Assignments’ and ‘Your Eyes’ were the exception: they were totally spontaneous and the former still mystifies me somewhat. It was time for the approach and workflow to return to something like the start of Uffmoor Woods Music Club, when tracks would be recorded and mixed inside of a day.

One of the changes in approach was to strip away bells and whistles to give the core elements more frequencies, more room to breathe. Hopefully this will make it easier for the listener to focus on what’s important in the composition and it also had the benefit of making the recording and mixing process less labour intensive. It was possible to get a lot out of the technology quickly because I’m much further along the learning curve, having resisted switching to shiny new kit. There is some benefit to sticking with what you’ve got. (Helsinki Bus Station theory).

As for changes to composition, I recently read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity, a fascinating interpretation of Eastern philosophy and religion. In an aside in this book Watts takes a swipe at Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner for building up to massive climaxes and then not having anywhere to go. In Watts’ view they end up hammering the same chord over and over again: not willing to let the moment go; not able to take the music any further than they had. I won’t fault that lot but it seemed interesting to try Watts at his word by not lingering on the endings as I sometimes might be tempted to; not even to have anywhere particularly special to go to, but just to enjoy the moment and the movement.

It was all going so well that music technology almost seemed like a benign, transparent tool bestowed upon man that he may create. This was until the drums started skittering during mixdown of ‘The Crane’. Two or three hours were spent trying to find a fault in the AE-35 unit, to no avail. Eventually, I managed to step outside of the problem: ‘if drums aren’t going to work, then the work won’t have drums’. It didn’t need them and the mood was much better served without them. This way of solving problems always comes in handy.

One last thing, related to mindfulness. I noticed my guitar playing was much more even when I focused on my breath during ‘Rain Inside The People’.

Minimal minimalism

I’m clearing out my house in preparation for the big move. As it happens, I’ve also been reading about minimalism. Surprisingly for someone who hoards books and hankers after new gear, I’ve found minimalism appealing. It’s a good counterbalance to consumerism as it invites us to question what we really value and what we can live without.

I can live without a redundant laptop and an old PC I built to study (and play games) on; a huge second hand bass cabinet; a broken bass guitar; a budget mountain bike with dodgy gears;  a fine collection of cables and phone chargers; a year and a half’s worth of New Scientist magazine; a few too big shirts and pairs of jeans that I never wear; a handful of books; a stack of notes on poems. Hmm, not that much as it turns out. There weren’t many difficult choices here. Maybe I’ll be braver on the second pass.

Where I think the minimalist mindset will come into its own is in forcing me to doubt future purchases. Yes, I couldn’t throw away my years old Nintendo GameCube and the games I played with friends until the wee small hours. I’m a bad minimalist… but while I’m still attached to that old machine, why would I need the latest PlayStation?

I have a box full of guitar pedals and analogue gear. Most of these haven’t been used since I was in a smoky rehearsal room or playing gigs in Birmingham. No doubt I could emulate these sounds digitally and save myself some space. Somehow, fiddling with ASIO drivers isn’t quite as cathartic as a stompbox. My attachment to this gear offers some artistic limitations. I could upgrade to the latest tech but would that still be my own aesthetic?

A lot of this stuff was bought at a time when I thought all income was disposable income. Especially the books. A couple of nights ago I was browsing gratuitous pictures of bookshelves, thinking about ideas for a new home when we find one (books are counted as one category of things and this category is allowed to be unreasonably large). I realised that I was lucky enough to neither want much more than I have, nor want much less. There wasn’t a new ideal to strive for, be it consumerist or minimalist. The junk on the shelves was my junk and that meant it was purely up to me what stayed or went.

Priorities/distractions

Of the two stories mentioned in my last update, I’ve been drawn to writing the folk tale. The quest narrative and father/son theme is especially relevant right now. Next step: summarise all of my notes into a one or two page overview.

However, I’m already getting sidetracked by the temptation of new musical projects. One idea is a kind of ambient & field recording affair. The other would be single instrument compositions and improvisations. I want to travel in more minimalistic, spontaneous directions and this would have the added appeal of cutting down on the labour-intensive processes of programming and mixing. Having said that, I should probably eliminate the labour of mixing entirely by focusing solely on writing.

Andy of Grande Valise asked if Uffmoor Woods Music Club would be on hold while I work on the novel. The answer is yes but there is another Uffmoor EP in the pipeline. Romances of the Djinn will be available as soon as the cover art and some final mixing is done. Then I’ll take a break until the time is right to record a new album.