The Struggle for Meaning
The Sundered Electronicist by Tyler Etters, watercolor, 2020
The great struggles of my life have always been near the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. To quote Wikipedia:
“What a man can be, he must be.” This quotation forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. This level of need refers to the realization of one’s full potential. Maslow describes this as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.
Recommended listening for this post:
I first felt the pricklings of the self-actualization tension when I began making art. I’ve experienced this as an “upward calling” - a sensation that there is a vacuum of a higher self somehow, somewhere, above me. Today, this higher self is a void or an empty soul-mold. A possibility. In the present I never quite fit the void properly, but with enough diligence and chiseling, my soul will be made compatible. I will satisfy the yearning of the void to be filled. I will satisfy the yearning of the self to become. In becoming this higher incarnation of myself, I continue the cycle.
This sounds abstract and metaphysical because my ego is all snarled up with the art, but let us take a simple example: running a six minute mile. This is goal set by runners the world over. It seems impossibly out of reach for many when they start the journey. But they train, set a plan, and one day they make it. Not only do they make it, but others can recognize and celebrate the accomplishment with them. It is a universally understandable achievement.
I’ve had many six minute miles in my life. Beyond finishing college to earn my BFA, most of mine have typically manifested as art. Some of the times I felt fully actualized in my life:
- Screening A Glass Reality at the Wauconda Public Library.
- Performing with Inocula at JFF and Clearwater.
- Opening the the box of Descent into Dreams CDs with Pasha.
- Writing Serial Index of Unclaimed Memories and Gates with Pasha.
- Photographing a cicada emerging from its shell.
- Jamming electronic music with Adam and Pasha.
- Coding the early versions of endlessfieldstudios.com.
- Meeting & marrying Sage.
- Writing Terraforms.
- Playing at Swing State.
- Finishing the Trilogy of Trilogies.
- Writing Fear Imm(a/i)nence.
- The early days of UTC.
That is an impressive list. Look at the verbs: writing, jamming, meeting, finishing, photographing, screening, performing. Each enables a state of flow. Time dissolves, the ego forgets about itself and something new is created.
Another interesting commonality is that everything on this list was, to some degree, accidental. I did not set out to create any type of transcendent or actualizing experience. The experiences just happened. I’m now realizing that trying to force the experience has caused some of the darkest days of my life. I set the expectations impossibly high (an impossible soul-mold) and caused immense suffering.
Cicada Emerging by Tyler Etters, photograph, 2009
The cicada became a powerful symbol to me after I photographed it that summer day in 2009. I was at my grandmother’s house in Crystal Lake, Illinois. The whole family was over for a party. I went off to a stand of pines with my camera.
Watching the cicada crawl out of its shell was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever experienced. I remember there was a lot of goo. I felt a kinship to the cicada. It was transforming; I was transforming. The cicada makes beautiful noise; I make beautiful noise.
I pride myself in not being superstitious… but years later, during the Endless Field Saga Tour, I found a dead cicada in a parking lot when I got home. I now associate that discovery with the start of a very unpleasant nervous breakdown, series cognitive distortions, and emotional reasonings that took years to untangle. I let the dead cicada become a proxy for me, my dreams, my self-actualization, and all my future soul-molds.
Almost Over the Hill
I’m 32 now. What’s “the hill” these days? 40?
For my favorite artists and musicians, I compulsively crunch the numbers. How old were they when they broke out? Godspeed You! Black Emperor formed when they were all in their 20s. Richard D. James was just 21 when SAW 85-92 came out. Brian Eno was 23 when he got started with Roxy Music. Reznor was 24 when…
The thing is, I am actually mostly indifferent to fame and celebrity. If anything, I lean towards seeing fame as a burden. I don’t particularly want people critiquing my work. Getting a 4.3 on Pitchfork. Being recognized at the airport. The whole thing sounds awful.
But what I do yearn for is something more akin to the recognition from peers that goes with the six minute mile. Endless Field Studios and the community that sprung around it allowed for that recognition to happen naturally and consistently. I want to be seen and heard, not for fame or money, but for joy and acceptance.
Is it sourcing approval from others?
No, not quite.
It is community, camaraderie, support…
It is one thing to create art. It is another thing entirely to share art.
It takes a degree of ego to share art. It is a spectrum. On one end is selling on the other is offering. I like to think of my art and music as offerings. When I play a show or you listen to my music, I am offering you an experience for you to have. I am holding the space for you to go somewhere you maybe haven’t been before. Indeed, we go there together. Sometimes at my shows I invite people to this space, verbally, explicitly. At my last show we turned off the lights and I played in near total darkness for 20 people or so. Many complimented me afterwards - they went somewhere in their minds. They experienced something. And we did it together.
I like to believe I don’t derive pleasure from this solely for my ego, though I certainly acknowledge that happens. I like to believe it really doesn’t matter that it was me, specifically, that created that pocket universe for 30 minutes one night in Chicago. I like to believe that what matters is a group of people let go for 30 minutes and they did it together.
I value this because I know how powerful it has been for me. Hearing music with friends. Seeing concerts with strangers. Getting lost in it together.
Music communities are to me what churches are for others.
Facing the Music & the Pandemic
I’m never going to be famous. I’m never going to have a record deal. I’m never going to tour the world and play music for people in different countries. It isn’t a lifestyle I want to live. And I don’t deserve it. Others have devoted their entire lives to music. I haven’t. I’m not special. I’m just a person who likes making art and who has had the privilege of sharing it with others. I’ve been further privileged to receive positive feedback.
(I’ve certainly received negative feedback, too. During one fateful performance in Wisconsin, the house crossfaded me out with Johnny Cash. I packed my shit up, blew off paying my tab, and cried on the entire drive home.)
We’ve watched the music industry collapse over the past month. So many people I know are out of work. If and when we get out of this, the landscape of music will be radically different. I can’t wait to go to a show again. To play a show again. To be in a room with 30 strangers and listen to some weird punk-noise band play through a blown out PA in someone’s basement.
My struggle for meaning has always been this belief that, somehow, my struggle is not enough and my advent soul-mold is not adequate. My six minute mile is not understood. Maybe if I stop striving I will stop suffering. I’ve always been free to create whatever meaning I want. The struggle is the path. By choosing a different path, I choose a different struggle.
Maybe I need to keep doing what I’ve always done. Write my best music. Package it up. Share it with a few people. Play some shows. Repeat. It isn’t that complicated.