Blog I wrote for IDP Buddhist Blog about being on the road in Europe!
THE PATH TO SWITZERLAND
Submitted by SamH 2 on Sat, 8/28/2010, 7:07pm
I recently returned from a European tour (I am a musician). I returned on Monday 8/23. I had been gone for a month, the second half of the trip was a family vacation with my wife and daughter in Sicily. I was just getting back into the swing of things when, on Thursday, I received a g - chat asking if I wanted to go to Switzerland that night to perform at a festival. There was very legitimate financial incentive, and it sounded like a blast, so I agreed. As it turned out, the festival was not able to procure tickets until the following day, Friday 8/27, but we went on Friday, and arrived early Saturday morning.
Tour is a regressive space. Dreams of tour are spawned at the age of 13 or so, and, as I have gotten older, and managed to have some amount of success traveling to play music, I compartmentalize behaviors more and more: I don’t, fill in the blank, unless I’m on tour. Before leaving for tour, earlier this summer, I was avoiding any drugs or alcohol, eating wheat was the vice I wrestled with most profoundly (victoriously!)… But it does not feel as though tour is possible without smoking and intoxication. Not extreme, but some.
In fact, upon receiving sudden news of being invited back to Europe, one of the first things that crosses my mind is “Ooh, I’ll get to smoke some more!”…
Arriving in Switzerland, I am always struck by the lush beauty, and radical tidiness, of the landscape. There does not seem to be an inch of this country that is not manicured and bright green! The hotel is an hour from the airport. We arrive to find a miniature castle-like structure set on a hill overlooking a lake, on the other side of which one can see Lucerne. Immediately I consider the possibilities for practice: free time, beautiful setting, no phone or internet, quiet… But it is 9 AM in Switzerland, and I have not slept so we check in and I crash.
I wake at 5:30 PM with racing thoughts. I order a pot of coffee from room service and get moving. I unpack, and set up a small shrine: a Buddha, a Vajra, a small Manjushri, and a bell, all set on a small bed side table that I put between the bed and the window that looks out over the lake. I fold the comforter into a Zafu and set the skull mala down in front of it. I pull out the spiritual books i brought, Training the Mind and Indestructible Truth, and set them next to my comforter-zafu. I plug in my lap top and begin to play a Gina Sharpe pod-cast on Generosity that I downloaded, and I finish off my shrine by setting out some of that Tibetan incense that looks like wicks, you know the kind? Everything seems to be promoting practice.
I hop in the shower, get dressed and head down stairs to pick up an adapter to put on my adapter that I use to convert my plugs from American to European. The adapter I pick up at the front desk will convert my adapted plug from European to Swiss! While I’m downstairs, I pick up a pack of Cigarettes, Lucky Strikes, for later, but since I’m there, I figure I ought to smoke one, as the sign in the room doesn’t just say no smoking, but that smoking will trigger the alarm, which will call the fire company, which will in turn cause the smoker to be billed for the expense of the trip. Clearly I don’t want that, so I smoke downstairs. The memory of smoking is more enjoyable than smoking so it is always somewhat disappointing, but it does the trick, and I head upstairs where Gina Sharpe is talking about Martin Luther King.
My colleague calls the room, the shuttle is here to pick us up and go to the festival. Well, I need to eat, and I might as well check out the festival grounds. I go down stairs and get in the van. At the festival, there is lots of smoking. Everything is free, our European booking agent has come to see us, and there are some very proficient Swiss free jazz musicians holding forth to an audience of a thousand middle aged Europeans.
There is a 10AM sound check so we turn in, but I am not ready to sleep. I arrive at my room and decide to have another cigarette but remember the admonition on the no smoking sign. If that alarm goes off, I will be implicated, and it will cost a huge amount of Swiss Franks, which, if I were to pay, would nullify the purpose of me coming here. I was going to turn my daughter’s crib into a bed, and get her new sand for the sandbox in our garden. I am here to make money, so I can’t smoke in the room! Rejecting the idea of going back down stairs to have a smoke in front of the hotel, I decide to climb out of the window onto a ledge atop a steep wooden shingled roof which looks down through the glass roof of the restaurant seating area where no one sits now as the restaurant is closed. I push a chair over by the window, pull myself up, stick my leg out the window, and put one bare foot on the wooden roof. Pushing down on my defenestrated foot I pull the other up and, with great difficulty, manage to pull it outside, allowing me to sit on the window ledge with my feet resting on the roof. I light the cigarette.
I see the lights of Lucerne across the lake, the shadows of the alps, and immaculate swiss homes in every direction. The night is silent, cold, and foggy, and everything is grand. Smoking has a way of putting a frame around a moment, and when I’m smoking I often feel that it is just a confused way of looking for what one finds in meditation. Inside my shrine is untouched, my comforter-zafu un-sat-on, and my books waiting to be opened.
When I get back in the room, a feat that required physical pliancy that I lack and therefore nearly took my life, I fidgeted mentally thinking of possible ways to entertain myself. I surfed Swiss TV, consider possible downloading opportunities on Itunes, and set on writing this entry.
Lately, in study and in practice, I have been concentrating on the meaning of the Hinayana level of practice. According to Reggie Ray, in order to fully embrace the Hinayana level of the path:
"One needs to see in a direct, non conceptual way, that the ordinary pursuit of happiness within samsara is a fruitless enterprise. It means, in addition, that one looks to the path of dharma as his or her only reliable refuge, and, through taking refuge, has made a commitment to that path. It means further that one has recognized the necessity of practice, both in terms of shila, some kind of virtuous discipline in one’s actions, and samadhi, meditation. And it means finally, that one has been able to establish some kind of regular meditation practice in one’s life and has established some kind of stability in one’s mind."
Thirst and grasping happen and old age and death are not far behind, it is suffering. I see that. It was hard to get out that window, harder then it would have been ten years ago, and it will be even harder in another ten. And no matter how many times i go out there between now and then, I will not be any happier for it. At the same time, the path seems more complex then coming up with a list of things not to do.
My zafu sits next to me undisturbed, and my shrine is as orderly and pristine as the swiss country side.
Interview I just gave for ZS to a Japanese periodical...
1. First, could you tell us your backgrounds? When was the band formed? How was the scene back then? What was the concept/vision that the band was aiming for? What did you come up with the name Zs? (We think the name Zs has subliminal meanings)
The band was formed in the year 2000. The scene in New York was very different then. Indie rock was not nearly as much of a presence. There was a very big free jazz scene, and there was also the stuff connected to bands like Lightening Bolt, and the Locust (even though they weren’t from New York, they had a big effect on the whole scene at that time). There was also the electro clash thing going on with bands like A.R.E. Weapons, we were friends with those guys, but otherwise had nothing to do with that. That was also right when bands like Gang Gang Dance and Animal Collective were getting there start, and we all played shows together at that time. But really, the scene was small, and there was a lot of different stuff going on, but everyone was connected and it felt very local and familial. This was before Myspace and Facebook had totally dominated everyones lives.
So we were coming at the scene, basically trying to squeeze into the stuff that was happening in connection to the Lightening Bolt and Locust type thing, even though it was a stretch, and we were able to make it work. Probably just because we were charismatic and persistent. We embodied some of the math rock stuff that was happening, and brought certain references to free jazz, but we also came with this compositional breadth and commitment that no one else on the scene was dealing with. It was pretty alarming, and even though it wasn’t what people were used to, or even what people wanted, we some how made that sense of difference work to our advantage. I’m still not sure how we did it, because the people on the scene at that time, like any people on any scene, were pretty dogmatic.
The name ZS came from a T-shirt we al used to wear. It was a t-shirt that our former saxophonist Alex’s dad had made for his 40th birthday. His name was Zdrovko, and people caled him Z, and the t-shirt read “Z’s 40”… So at first, when the project was a pick up improv project, from like 98 to 2000, we would all wear those shirts and call the group Z’s 40. Then, when we wrote serious music for the band, and started rehearsing a lot we started refering to our rehearsals as ZS practice. Somewhere we decided to drop the 40 and the apostrophe and just call the band ZS. But that is the whole story, the name doesn’t really mean anything besides that, and I am curious to know what meaning you have ascribed to it???
2. Your music is sometimes categorized as Math Rock like Battles. Do you think this is proper? If you have to describe your music in a few words, how would you call it? Are there any cultural and musical influences?
I don’t hink Math rock is appropriate. Math rock is concerned with self consciously using odd time signatures as a way of creating groove based music that just seems to have a glitch or something. I don’t think that has ever been where ZS was coming from. Furthermore, a lot of our music has really straightforward time stuff going on, and a lot of it has no time at all, like Mimesis from the first album, or Black Crown Ceremony from the most recent album.
If I had to sum it up in a few words, what I like to say is “difficult listening”… ya know, like, “easy listening”??? It’s something we have in the states, it’s like light rock, but I call ZS “difficult listening”… anyhow, it’s kind of a joke… If I were to be more specific I’d say post minimalist no wave or something, but I kind of hate categorizing things in that way…
3. Please tell us about your new album “New Slaves” Compared to your albums in the past, we felt that this albums is consisted of more repetitions of minimal music and improvisation of Jazz. What was the musical concept? Also, is there a political message behind the title? What was the idea you expressed in this album?
Certainly it is more repetitive. There is less musical narrative, the whole record is more immediate. And yes, the improvised portions, there is a lot more of that too. That is connected to a change of attitude within the band where we all started veering away from the commitment to anonymity that we all maintained for so long, and began to desire to allow our playing to become more expressive, representing ourselves as individuals rather than as sub sets of this unified ensemble.
Yes, there is a political message behind the title. ZS is entirely instrumental music now, so things can’t be political in a verbal discursive way, but there are certain properties that the band has that have a political dimension. ZS is consistently about pushing every aspect of musicianship and artistry to a level where it starts to fail on it’s own as a function of the intensity that is being brought to the endeavor. For example, it is not really possible to play New Slaves at the level of intensity we play it at for 21 minutes: your concentration, your physical ability to play, everything starts to go. But that process of deterioration is part of the aesthetic. ZS never tries to play anything right, we set up situations, where our short comings, our humanity that is, become interesting. Musically, this is interesting and playful, but if you look at the same principle in other areas of life, pushing a system to the point of failure, it can be pretty catastrophic.
This may be hard to understand if you aren’t American, but somehow connecting that attitude to slavery, something that we try to bury in our past and never talk about, and to reference the idea that there could be new slaves, and that they might even be us. That that vibe is still with us, that we’re pushing all of the systems toward failure out of some obsessive drive to produce, I don’t know, it’s open for discussion, but it’s definitely political.
4. Tell us about processes of your production. Do you have any rules or motto for improvisation?
5. Tell us about your band’s musical base, Brooklyn, New York. There are many independent artists from New York now. How do you analyze the music scene in New York today? Are there any New York based bands or musicians that you have friendship with?
We are friends with a lot of bands in town. Most notably Dirty Projectors, Gang Gang Dance, Excepter, Extra Life, Skeletons, and there are others. The main thing I would say about the music scene in New York right now is that it is HUGE! There are thousands of bands. At the moment ZS is most interested in bringing our music to places where we haven’t brought it before (like Japan!)… I love New York first, the music scene has been a vehicle, and it has been very good to us, but I try to distance myself from the machinations of it now. I stay close to the people I am close to, and let things play out as they may.
6. You have been performing lives very often. What do you think is the best parts of Zs live performances? Are there any memorable stories about your gigs?
The best part is the intensity we bring to the execution. I mean, we really try to surpass ourselves, and it shows. We played the OFF festival, we played right after Dinosaur Jr. which was memorable in and of it self. But after the gig, someone told us that afan had to be removed on a stretcher because they were so overwhelmed by the sound. Apparently it wasn’t a bad experience, like some sort of ecstatic meltdown… Pretty insane! I actually hope that doesn’t happen in Japan, but it’s a good story.
7. We would like to ask you about your gig in Japan. Tell us your impression and favorite things about Japan since this is your first time. What do you expect from the gig, since this is a New Year Eve event?
I am a Buddhist and it is my understanding that New Years eve is a Buddhist holiday in Japan, so that is very exciting to me. I also understand that there are a lot of Shinto activities going on on New Years day. That is also very interesting to me. As a Buddhist I am trying not to cultivate expectations… LOL!