Name: Zach Phillips
Occupation: Musician / Civil rights legal investigator
Current release: Perfect Angels "Exit from the Ultra-World" on la Loi
Explore all of Zach’s projects on his website www.zachphillips.co.uk
My first show was a funeral: my mother's brother, never to become an uncle, was murdered twenty years before his memorial, where thirteen-year-old me played classical repertoire at breakneck speed. I didn't think about what the crowd wanted from me and disappeared into a now-familiar pianistic solipsism that in retrospect seems adequate to the solemnity of the occasion but which always feels alien to inhabit. When a close friend died twelve years later, I was told I'd promised to play a certain song at his funeral: then, too, the relationship between the music and its context struck me as inaccessible, unrecoverable. While also certainly performing for him and for the congregants, heartbroken by this social gesture of finality and the prescience and grace of the song he’d chosen, on a deeper level I knew my playing isn't just private but privative, a place to go missing and where, if communion with my friend should be invoked, it's one ‘we’ share in as mutual participants in a discontinuous nonentity not done justice by the framework of alive mourner vis-à-vis victim of time. Friendship may name, for me, a covenant of this unmournability, a ban on erasure or decathexis. Like my songs, my friendships will survive me and the others they involve.
The guidelines I was given for this text imply a conception of songwriting as a product of conscious determination, available to linear interpretation as a stable product of wills assumed thoughtful. That certainly corresponds to writing’s objective facet, which stands as a necessary precondition for us even having something to speak about. One does need to bury the corpus somewhere in language. But this orientation may represent less a part of the jigsaw of music's experience than the hand that would presume to place its puzzle pieces into cohesion. Leaving aside the larger question of why such cohesions are so often assumed or, more often, forcibly constructed, what then are their constituent pieces made of, what are they ‘about’? Well, what are cemeteries ‘about’? Here the analogous hermeneutic would answer "their inhabitants," but we all know it's the funerary habitus of the grave-dwellers' mourners that binds and sustains memorials: the true ‘underground’ permits no Orphic returns, no managerial experience of the posthumous, only a final abandon. Our songs, then, may be more ‘about’ the parts of us that survive and bear witness to the experiences alchemized in them — never completely, never not-multiply, and never verifiably — into discrete, singular, verifiable forms. And like siblings after the passing of a forebear, we are apt to argue with ourselves about the ‘will’ left by these subjects-turned-objects, according to which some parts of us will receive too little, others too much. How could any of those in the chimerae we call ourselves be satisfied with whatever place in that cursed economy? I’m reminded of Groddeck writing pseudonymously, “The dead are always right, according to the proverb, but fundamentally they are always wrong.”
Does all this sound obtuse? Good. When I levy that charge against myself and chase after its adjudication, I encounter the same tangled asterism imprinted on my eyelids when I shut them to the light. This mark of obscurity-handled-pejoratively is, apparently, the sigil (and maybe also the escutcheon, i.e. an insignia on a defense) of my writing. And let’s not forget the geometrical valence of this word, ‘obtuse’: greater than the ‘right angles’ of positivism but not yet bending back on itself completely by substituting a ‘you’ (U)-turn for the I. So yes, obtuse it is, and I would like to inflict exactly such a turn on all our ways of thinking and speaking that shepherd music’s possibility through well-manicured, near-anaesthetic fields, substituting for their hypostasized focii and ambiguity-neutralizing conceptual cleaning agents a poetry of impossibility that “erupts inside prose, without fixing its rendezvous in advance” in the fundamental interest of claiming “for one and all not a refuge in the uninterpretable, but a territory, with fluid boundaries, of the uninterpreted” where we can recognize “that language is only truly language, an active operation, if it carries within it what it isn’t” (all that’s J.B. Pontalis).
Only thinking as obtuse and subtle as Pontalis’s could gesture toward representing the density of the actual experience of an activity like songwriting. He is, by the way, dead. Which reminds me that we all are already: at the end of Porest’s “the Field Recording,” his chimerical assembly of AI-voiced intelligence agents murders the author himself, represented as a field recordist who turns out to be one of their own ("the guy that turned activists and revolutionaries into foodies and techies a few years ago"). Justifying their mistake, the agents begin to hypnotically intone in a swarm, “It’s okay, he was already dead. Everybody’s already dead anyway: it’s okay. It’s only 4,000 people…” until the dread-drone of their robotic laughter becomes intolerable, punctured finally by a single, definitive “hey.” The circuitousness of “the Field Recording” far exceeds ‘self-reflexivity’ or ‘juxtaposition’ logics that would govern and tame Porest’s ambivalent ways of seeing. And so it represents representation’s density well, the point not being to foreground in the ‘song’ the “hey” or the hypno-swarm, the unconsummated promise-bait of sarcasmo-didactic polemics or the this-message-will-self-destruct hysterical hilarity, not ‘play’ or ‘message’ or ‘effect’ or whatever interpretable element but the chimerical totality of the experience, its resonances preserved as uninterpreted. Of course we are all already dead, of course we aren’t, and of course it matters who (of us, or of others) wants to keep us in either state and what powers they have at their disposal to accomplish either and both.
So, what of the conscious will we claim to have at least occasionally exercised, for whose supposed evidence we exhume memories tendentious and partial to defend our authorship of our lives and of these uncertain, shifty objects we call art? At the very least, it may be able to look on while the work is done, or enter the work via a kind of ‘spirtu pront’ extemporized battle of the wits with those forces situated further beyond our apparent control. If duels may sometimes be amicable, something is still always at stake. Michel de M’Uzan: “A price will have to be paid (and soon also that of civilized means) for provoking (when it is necessary and using all available means, even the most dangerous) a fundamental disturbance affecting both the human being and the instinctual drives so that everything vacillates ‘usefully.’” This mirrors a meaning of my label ‘la Loi’: in classic American retributivist language, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” (or vice versa), a crime which won’t necessarily come off, since it absorbs “all available means” inclusive of its own impetus and possibilizing energies. As de M’Uzan’s heroic analysand Marie Cardinal put it, “It isn’t enough merely to want to penetrate the unconscious so that consciousness can enter. The mind procrastinates. It goes back and forth. It delays. It hesitates. It keeps watch. And when the time has come, it stands motionless in front of the gate like a setter, paralysed. Then the dog’s master has to come and flush the game.“ That master may be the ‘indispensable hypothesis’ of our conscious will, the David Gilmour without whom there would be no ‘solo’ Syd Barrett albums (and re: arguing over the ‘will,’ Gilmour’s instructive: “Perhaps we were trying to show what Syd was really like. But perhaps we were trying to punish him”). Because, per Cardinal’s analyst again, “In itself, an upheaval is only potentially creative… it only acquires this power when it possesses, which is not always the case, a nameable evolutive capacity. The word is significant because, present within it, this potentiality is endowed with a natural appetite for words and verbs. An entity, in the full sense of the term, is thus built in which upheaval and uncanniness find themselves organically united. I call this experience the crucial moment… when the subject, emerging from the inexpressible, engenders this feeling of uncanniness in which creativity is ultimately rooted. Sublimation, which only concerns sexual drive functioning, is for later, or for elsewhere. Consequently, how can one fail to recognize the responsibility of a destiny?”
Destiny: what a teacher. The ether (well, mine) bestows on friends who really did die, those who I’ve merely mourned, and gone paragons alike countless diplomas sponsoring the outsized lessons they here foster, there inflict. I can verify these figures’ absences, which are real if not total, and this I readily do. But who of me can verify my own absences, those privations I fashion into my music, which the fiction of ‘catharsis’ could never name and which seem to dance too far even to be encompassed by ‘depersonalization’? Am I ever sure to be offering words not my own? I entrust this aporetic duty of impossible verification to the peculiar faculties of the phonetic horizon best designated by ‘rhyme’ and exemplified in the song-poem “Cuss the Wind” by Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams Jr. as memorably sung by Freddie North. I feel myself Ouija-steered toward and by these nominally dead deposits of language that both spring from and readily absorb all our lives. The French are right to call what can be done with words ‘esprit’: via hidden gravities, my melody tilts toward phonetic bodies constellated in a network I cannot sense but which is already ‘com-posed’ (etymologically, ‘placed together’ or even ‘ceased with’: ‘pose’ and ‘pause’ share a root in pausare, to stop or rest). “One can count words or syllables,” said Lacan in 1961 about one of my processual observatories, “only because of the fact that words and syllables are already counted.” Indistinction, uninterpreted, reigns, finally, between this counting, that countability, and all already-countedness, between what is I and what is object, between separation and the Oneness there is some of. And it’s an exciting indistinction one suffers enjoying: as James Merrill had it about his own Ouija work, “If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become.” Today’s song, I say now with the dumb wisdom of a Delphic adherent, is always a litmus test for the readiness of my it — where my dead friends live among the livest forms of me — to traverse the boundaries of my false self, to overcome every verifiability. If it reaches the open, my I won’t know it. At most I’ll access a good-enough penumbra, polyvalent of my possible orientations thereto: observer within or without, or just its fantast. So whoever I am to be yesterday or tomorrow, I’m assured at least of its (it’s) maddening grip. “Cuss the stuff that ploughs the clover and then is gone again: that’s where you threw your caution, cuss the wind. And you can’t own my kind of love, but like the wind I’ll lend: cuss your own imagination, for that’s all my love has been…”