In I Had Nowhere to Go, director Jonas Mekas’ diary-like collection of writings covering his life from the abandonment of his homeland to his exile and finally his establishment in America, a very short story appears among the scattered notes:
A SHORT STORY
There was a man who kept searching for a melody he thought he had heard somewhere long long ago.
Then—he found it.
It was only one note, one tone.
One tone, one note he had heard once:
it was his own brief cry in a dream.
I sent the story to Alex Zhang Hungtai. A few months earlier, we spoke and agreed to carry out an interview where he told me about being haunted by a recurring dream: in the dream, a dark matter — accompanied by a buzzing sound that vibrates very loudly — swallows him up completely. I became familiar with Alex’s music through Water Park Ost (2013), — released under the pseudonym Dirty Beaches — the soundtrack to Evan Prosofsky’s Water Park, a short film about a Canadian water park. A perfect non-place of sinister, apparent calmness or comforting chaos, depending on how you perceive it. Alex’s music restores, or rather helps to penetrate, yet another aspect: the strange feeling of familiarity towards a space you feel like you’ve explored before, a place suspended in time that resurfaces from the fragments of collective memory, as a shared memory.
Like Jonas Mekas, Alex describes himself as a “displaced person.” Born in Taipei, lived in Montreal, Lisbon, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Honolulu. He arrived, ultimately, in New York City, exactly where the Lithuanian director would settle to start a revolution in experimental cinema. Alex’s artistic persona is shifting too: from Dirty Beaches to Last Lizard, to constant changes in sound to improvised music. Alex’s path is certainly affected by physical displacements, but more than anything else it resides in a certain liminality that makes the stages of his life (and career) appear as the building blocks of a larger picture. Something involving his feeling of being a part of a larger encompassing realm, a realm that can bind him to the world’s memories through small portals — those who go unnoticed and require special concentration to access.
In his diaries, Jonas Mekas continues:
Humanity went through periods of being nomads and settlers. They have retained these characteristics even today. Myself, for instance, in many areas such as religion, ideas and my life style, I’m a nomad. While most of the people around me are settlers, in all three areas. […] Sometimes by chance you touch a tone, a note—and everything reverberates through all the spaces with incredible nuances. As Dostoyevsky said, we are alive in the glimpses, seconds, when souls really speak, really meet, really see.
The idea of a note that one can only glimpse by chance, expanding in a completely surprising way into the surrounding space, generating other families of notes connected by a red thread — and probably never to be replicated again. There is a fundamental tone from which everything starts, a root, a moment that Jonas Mekas calls “fragment of paradise.” I feel that, in Alex’s music, it too functions as an architecture; a structure that begins from a primary source, an ancestral moment that contains within itself the characters of infinity and mutability. An image-trauma: a very well-known concept in film theory, as perfectly illustrated by French director Chris Marker, who better than anyone has investigated the relationship between cinema and the collective unconscious.
So I wrote to Alex’s email address, which includes a mispronunciation of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s name. I sent him my questions hoping I’d managed to establish a connection with such a vast and complex inner world. Without being able to fully predict it, it was Alex who first spoke to me about collective memory, and who revealed to me that he has been haunted — since practically forever — by a traumatic image that he has been re-encountering almost every night since he was a child.
Hi Alex. How are you? Do you feel at home where you’re at now? And what’s your relationship with the concept of “home”?
A: That’s the million-dollar question, eh? I think everyone from Edward Said to Jacques Derrida all tried to answer that question. For those that immigrated, exiled or displaced, or have simply inherited that displacement from their familial trauma all know this feeling. My relationship with that word changes with time, but my current understanding is that beyond family history there is a larger social function at play. Displacement is often the byproduct of geo-political war games between powerful countries, my family is just another nameless family in the history of mass migration and exile. It clarified certain abstract anguish I had as a teenager. It doesn’t resolve all of the trauma, but reading up on history helps. I currently live in NYC, probably the best city in the world to live in for a foreigner because there’s so many different people here from all walks of life. This is home right now.
You said before that playing instruments feels like touching different chords and sides of yourself, and that it’s like deciding which voices you want to ignore or let in. Right now, what’s helping you find this balance? What’s allowing you to indulge the voices you want?
A: In improvisation and life in general I’m constantly negotiating with what is beyond my control. Whether it’s emotions, abstract feelings, or external influences that alter the way I perceive my surroundings, I listen, improvise, and then adapt to the situation. Sometimes my personal perspective is not enough when playing with different people or groups and that takes me back to the dojo to train more and develop more “voices” in order to communicate better with others in new formations. Pauline Oliveros published this great book on her practice called “Deep Listening” which I highly recommend, it has helped me listen more to my surroundings and try to understand that I am a small part of a bigger ecosystem, as opposed to separating yourself from your environment.
I’m curious to know, are you a loner or someone who works better in teams?
A: I’ve always been a loner my whole life, but after moving to NY I’m meeting a lot of friends to play with and I enjoy it greatly. I hope my 40s and 50s will focus more in this direction. To contribute and belong to a community.
One thing I like about your music is that it feels like it can transport you to spaces you’ve never been to, but it makes them feel your own. It allows itself to be surprised, to have an epiphany. What’s something you realized lately that made you stop and change your perspective?
A: A year ago I realized that I often mine for new sounds, searching through sound libraries manically skipping to the next sound without really putting any conscious effort into listening. This realization made me change my approach to listen more intently and let things go and run its course naturally, instead of trying to dictate a certain direction or cut something off prematurely due to insecurities or being disillusioned. We often miscommunicate with people around us, but to miscommunicate with yourself what you are trying to accomplish is detrimental.
I’m interested in knowing if there’s anything inspiring you right now apart from music. Films, Visual art, or maybe a book.
A: Books: Carlo Rovelli – The Order of Time, Ursula Le Guin – The Dispossessed, Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities. Haven’t seen any films that were life-changing for a while, just discovered this surrealist artist called Leonora Carrington that makes crazy sculptures and paintings yesterday.
I remember listening to Water Park OST and wondering how you managed to encapsulate the essence of such a multifaceted place with notes. Do you often start writing from the idea of a physical place?
A: “Psychoacoustics is the branch of psychophysics involving the scientific study of sound perception and audiology—how humans perceive various sounds. More specifically, it is the branch of science studying the psychological responses associated with sound (including noise, speech, and music). Psychoacoustics is an interdisciplinary field of many areas, including psychology, acoustics, electronic engineering, physics, biology, physiology, and computer science.” — Wikipedia
I’m by no means a scientist but a lot of my work involves how memories shape my listening experience. In short, I try to identify a certain combination of frequencies that I find is apt for said places, and listen to my body’s reaction to these frequencies. Once you designate certain frequencies as “home base” the compositions kind of orbit around these frequencies until the architecture becomes established. It all starts from a single root note.
Do you think music works for you as a tool to reach a spiritual/ancestral realm? Or is it the other way around?
A: There is a reason why music is always part of rituals and ceremonial festivities because they invoke and engage with our collective unconscious, another form of engaging shared memories, perhaps. It is a powerful practice that can aid us in venturing into these uncharted psycho-geographical terrains. But there are various paths that all reach the source. Everyone has their own path.
I’m curious to know, is there any particular moment from your early youth or childhood that continues to inspire you? Kinda like a recurring image, a trauma. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad one.
A: I had a lot of recurring dreams as a child, like being chased by an unknown assailant, jumping off high places and waking up before I hit the ground, etc. But there is one recurring dream that I still have every few years. The dream starts with me sleeping within the dream, there is a low-end frequency that is humming, I can feel my body being covered in this black tar, molasses-like substance, and it spreads to my surroundings, swallowing up everything in its path. Eventually, as if ascended I can see myself down below, being swallowed by this enormous dark matter of an entity. The further I zoom out the more I realize how big this entity is, essentially the entire globe, until I reach outer space. I wake up and I’m sweating like crazy. To my current understanding, I interpret this dream as the encounter with the collective unconscious. So much of what I do creatively is directly involved with this image. I venture into this realm of unconscious state and I try to stay conscious and face the content in there for as long as I can before my conscious self is swallowed whole. Every gig I’ve ever played, every album I’ve ever recorded, involves surviving this process.
The original version of this interview was published in the Italian magazine DROGA.
Arianna Caserta (Rome, 2001) is a writer and film critic focusing on the links between cinema, internet culture and philosophy.