We spoke with Henry Jamison about the descriptive properties of light and shadow, being fascinated by the microscopic realm, why consciousness can’t be physically located and why time could expand and contract sans clocks.
I try to go to a lot of museums, but I don’t know that anything musical will come of it, only that seeing art even in a half-focused kind of way will keep me flowing.
I understand that you’ve often set out to write songs as “musical miniatures” of work by great visual artists and authors — Paul Cézanne, Auguste Rodin, Friedrich Nietzche. That strikes me as a very broad-minded way to blur different media and to question the divisions between sculpture, literature and song. Those seem like wildly varying muses, too. Can you explain how you came to discover this process of miniaturization, as well as how you execute it?
I think what I’ve said along these lines isn’t that I’m attempting to miniaturize any other artist’s work, but that I want ultimately to work in a way that’s similar to Cézanne or Rodin or Rilke. So far I don’t think I’ve made this a priority (and the music I’m working on now doesn’t do it much either), but the discipline that those three developed was in concentrating the essence or the Thingness of their subject into a work of art, so that Cézanne can tell us what that fruit on the table is, wordlessly, through light and color and shadow and Rodin can almost collapse time (movement) into the energy of his sculpture’s musculature or expression and Rilke can make his language seem to be in service to the thing he’s describing, as opposed to enslaving it to his ideas about it. That’s the ideal in art, to me, but I’m far from doing it.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever talked about Nietzsche, at all. And I’m not really qualified to do it, but the few thoughts I’ve had about him are that he admirably cleared away a lot of dogma which arguably allowed for the phenomenological approach I just discussed, in that none of those artists were overtly tied to an overbearing system. But probably what they understood that Nietzsche didn’t was that the death of dogma is not the death of an innate sense of morality or proportion, which is why they stayed relatively sane and Nietzsche did not, would be my guess.
Regarding the blurring of media, I’d just say that music, especially with lyrics, is so multi-disciplinary that all of what I’ve talked about is at play, but in a more amorphous sort of way, so that it’s hard to pinpoint whether the words influenced the music or vice versa because both contain images; both conjure images in the mind independently, but especially together. It’s hard to know exactly where any given music stands in the terms I just laid out, though I think that if it’s good that it’s probably doing some of that intuitive seeing of the essential.
I think that writing songs about paintings is the most low-key underrated way to do it. I wish more writers would take more influence from other media than just like “Oh, I’m going to sound like this!” Any thoughts on this? Have you ever looked at something totally non-musical and had it cross your wires a little bit as to how you sing or play your guitar?
I did an interview in Berlin and the woman asked me to play guitar based on certain prompts, which were like “first love” or “boy’s night out.” I could do it easily enough because anything flies as long as you even just barely tap into your willingness to do it. Like, sure, boys’ night out: I’m out drinking some beers with my brother and it sounds like this on guitar. So yes, all of experience can be channeled any which way and certainly musically. I try to go to a lot of museums, but I don’t know that anything musical will come of it, only that seeing art even in a half-focused kind of way will keep me flowing.
Have you ever looked in a microscope? If so, do you remember what you looked at? If not, what would you like to observe under a microscope? What do you think the world is like at that microcosmic level, in the world of cells and bacteria?
I also know that our microbiomes are very important and try to keep my gut flora healthy. I like thinking about that stuff and about the stars too, our relative size, but only in a kind of awe before I get back to my human-sized concerns. I like to say “The universe really makes me feel big.”
I don’t think you can locate consciousness in the brain exclusively. In fact, I don’t know that you can locate consciousness very well at all.
What do you think about the mysteries of the human brain? Personally, I’m totally gob-smacked by how a three-pound lump of pink stuff contains unknowable multitudes, the power of infinite supercomputers. When you think about the nature of the mind, does your mind wander to other, larger subjects? What are they?
Well, I guess I wouldn’t locate too many mysteries in the human brain. It’s mysterious, for sure, but it’s overemphasized by about a million times. Though actually I think the problem lies more in thinking that consciousness isn’t all that mysterious, so I do appreciate your question and I appreciate this conversation very much.
I don’t think you can locate consciousness in the brain exclusively. In fact, I don’t know that you can locate consciousness very well at all and I don’t believe in some ultimate knowability that will come to me from the outside, like “Ah, this study shows that I am my brain after all!” I can tell you that I have experiences of thinking with my heart and that many other people do as well. Call it what you like. But think about how people talk about their brains, like “My brain is just off today,” or “My brain is playing tricks on me,” it’s like they’re talking about their egos, which is, in fact, a better discourse to my mind. We’re no more identical with our brains than we are with our egos just as we’re no more identical with our better natures than we are with our hearts. But we get to choose where we focus our consciousness, which is very good.
Really quickly, I’d like you to briefly meditate on these three objects: velvet, eels and clocks. What immediately comes to mind? Any anecdotes, thoughts or distant memories?
Very aristocratic, very stuffy. Or it’s secondhand, and not in the good way. Because it has to be immaculate to be luxurious, so it’s either showy or falling short.
Some eels are electric. I think that they sometimes symbolize the first layer of mystery in the ocean, like when you’ve gone a little deeper than you meant to, there are some eels.
They are a nice, quaint way of homogenizing time, making it an empty thing when it could be expanding and contracting. We could know it was time for dinner because we were hungry. There could be a clock that was controlled by our sense of time, if we could run it with a gas pedal and get the hands whizzing around or have them stop altogether, but there might be no point in that. I think that the seasons are a good measure of time and certain events like moon phases, but those show themselves through the natural world. Maybe instead of clocks we could just have little clock-sized projections of the moon’s phase.
Maybe the point of earthly existence is to feel joy and happiness, but not despite the inevitable suffering of ourselves and others, but maybe with it, including it, like a half-smile at totality.
Can you describe the last time you raised your voice at someone? What was it about? Do you want to tell me who it was? Was it out of exultation or anger?
I just yelled at my kitten Plum for ripping at my book and then running over to the coat rack and ripping at my coat.
To conclude this conversation back on the subject of the brain, I’d like to ask about your perception of joy and happiness. Do you think the point of earthly existence is to enjoy it as much as possible, or is it naïve to think we should expect that out of our time here?
Joy is very different from pleasure, at least in the way that the words are usually defined. Joy is more selfless than pleasure, I think, and happiness has a slight lean towards the selfless in it as well. I could experience pleasure while being totally ignorant of the effects of my getting it. Or worse, I could get pleasure maliciously. But joy and happiness seem to be born of expanded perspectives that include sorrow and everything else. So maybe the point of earthly existence is to feel joy and happiness, but not despite the inevitable suffering of ourselves and others, but maybe with it, including it, like a half-smile at totality.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: December 15, 2017
Total questions: 7 + 10
Word count: 1507
Reading time: Five minutes
alcohol, anger, aquarium, aristocratic, Auguste Rodin, beaker, beer, clock, collapse, consciousness, eel, existence, flora, Friedrich Nietzsche, goblet, gut, Henry Jamison, homogenization, immaculate, literature, microscope, moon, multitude, museum, musical, ocean, Paul Cezanne, phase, pool, Rainier Maria Rilke, sadness, sculpture, smile, song, stuffy, suffering, supercomputer, tardigrade, time, totality, trough, velvet, water, willingness
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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