“How is it possible to get angry at yourself: who, exactly, is mad at whom?”
I spend at least part of every day angry at myself. I don’t know how universal this is, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. The reason for that anger varies day to day, but it’s usually related to succumbing to some behavioral habit that illuminates the gap between who I am and who I want to be. “Why am I like this?” I wonder in these moments of self-directed anger; but I wonder even more standing outside these moments and reflecting on them. Who is this idiot living in my head who ordered another drink and slept too late and half-assed an important assignment? And who is this asshole living in my head who won’t give the poor dummy a break? Why do both of them seem to want me dead or in prison, and why do they both sound so much like me?
There’s no horror quite like being unable to trust your own mind; and yet, even at its healthiest, the human mind is so inherently untrustworthy, and mental health is so precarious. Are depression, anxiety and addiction spandrels that ended up in our system as byproducts of other survival mechanisms? Are these simply bugs that need to be worked out or overcome? Or is it conceivable that they could be features, providing some un-obvious benefits beyond their obvious detriments?
I can’t remember who told me this — it might have come up in this class last week; one of my software’s glitches is that I have amazing auditory recall but I’m terrible at remembering where I heard things — but someone recently told me about a woman who suffered from chronic, sometimes debilitating anxiety, until her life fell apart. After losing her mother and her job in short succession, she found herself oddly unfazed by the profound loss. She simply went about the work of putting her life back together — funeral arrangements, job applications and so on — methodically and with little emotional turmoil. After a lifetime of her brain telling her that everything around her was on fire, she had conditioned herself to turn it off, and was able to go about her business at a time when a more “mentally healthy” person would wallow in despair.
This isn’t to say that it’s a good idea to walk around constantly afraid for your life, but there are clearly times when the bug is what keeps the software running. The stereotype of the tortured artist, however dangerous or problematic, has its roots in reality, with depression affecting about half of musicians and painters and some whopping supermajority of poets. Glitchy software can be beautiful, but it’s usually not very stable. And when the bug starts to affect hardware performance, it should be addressed.
Anyone can break out of unhealthy habits with the right resources, but putting in the actual work of getting better is another story. We go for what’s familiar, even if we know what’s familiar is hurting us. The effort it would take to retrain the body and mind to be healthier doesn’t seem worth the payoff.
In 2010, when I first moved to New York, I was lying in bed one night when a song came into my head, and I had the dumb idea that I think eventually led me to ITP. I heard the whole song perfectly, four-part harmonies and all, but I knew I’d never be able to play it all quite the way I heard it — at least not before it slipped from my mind, replaced by the mistakes I’d make trying to replicate it along the way. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought, “if I could just play a whole digital audio workstation with my brain?”
The idea, essentially, was to remove the friction of the creative process completely, to simply think great works of art into existence. Some combination of sufficiently complicated machine learning and brainwave detection could probably, hypothetically, make it a reality at some point, possibly even within my lifetime. But for now, artists still need to work. And the more we use technology to streamline the process, the more artists need to learn about those technologies.
My work at ITP has centered around the idea of building tools that make musical expression as effortless and intuitive as possible. The logical conclusion of that work points to a musical interface that responds to involuntary and subconscious inputs — blinking, breathing, pulse, brain activity. One could create music simply as a byproduct of living as an organism. With immediate biometric feedback in the form of sounds, the user becomes immediately and acutely aware of their mind’s and body’s activity; and, moreover, they become virtuosic at this instrument by gaining control of themselves, both physically and mentally.