“Label not, lest thee be labelled.” – The Book of Egor 19:73
My favourite thing about us humans is our inexhaustible wealth of idiosyncrasies. So pervasive are these idiosyncrasies that I sometimes wonder: if idiosyncrasy is an intrinsically human trait, can we still call our idiosyncrasies idiosyncratic? However we label this characteristic, one thing remains certain: it’s an inspiring source of abstract fodder for the ULTRAsomething factory — endowments from a most benevolent benefactor.
Speaking of labels, today’s essay deals with exactly that. Or rather, it deals with the paradox of labels, and how we Homo sapiens have a compulsive need to categorize and label everything: every thought; every idea; every belief; every creation, condition or culture. And yet, in spite of this, we very same humans are steadfastly resistant to accepting any label applied to ourselves.
Labels make it easy to avoid precision. If I tell you, “I’ve been listening to a lot of minimalism this past year,” it’s nothing more than a literary wave of the hand. You still don’t know who I’ve been listening to. It could be La Monte Young, Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Pauline Oliveros, Max Richter, Jo Kondo, or any of several hundred other composers — all of whom create music with little more in common than its ‘minimalist’ label. On a whim, I googled what one of the founding fathers of classical minimalism, Terry Riley, had to say about this label. The first thing to pop up was a 2014 interview conducted by Philip Oltermann, in which Riley stated, “Minimalism was never a word we used for what we did. It was a tag from the art world someone stuck to us later. My heart sinks when I get emails from music students saying they are writing a ‘minimalist piece.’ Once you become an ism, what you’re doing is dead.”
Ask any artist how they feel about the heedless pigeonholing of their creative toils. Ask a writer how they like having their thoughts and ideas lazily summarized by a two-word generalization. Ask that ULTRAsomething guy what he thinks about being labelled a “street photographer.”
Because there are 7.6 billion people who will happily affix a label to you, and only one person who wishes it removed, I maintain that it’s impossible for humans to be label-free. The only thing nature abhors more than a vacuum is an unlabelled human. So if we can’t shed our labels, why not create them ourselves? Society doesn’t really care what labels we wear, just that we’re cloaked in them. This is precisely why I’m always self-labelling — papering over whatever designation society stapled to my forehead with a fresh, more appropriate label of my own choosing.
Self-labelling is more difficult than you might expect. Sure, inventing new labels is easy (because that’s what we humans do), but it remains our natural inclination to staunchly reject whatever label we think up. Our inner self comes face-to-face with the labelling paradox.
I’ve struggled for years to label my photography, because if I don’t someone will inevitably drive by and stamp the word “street” on it. I’ve donned the guise of an “observational photographer,” a “figurative photographer,” and even just a “photographer.” Eventually, I felt inclined to abandon them all.
I’ve faced similar problems musically. “Synth pop” was a label the music press attached to me early in my career — a label that sunk me like an anchor, given that “grunge rock” was the popular label of the day. Throughout my career, I’ve made numerous attempts to label my music, but none proved compelling enough to counteract whatever label the industry wanted to apply. Prior to my sabbatical, one record company rejected my submission, labelling it “instrumental crap.” At least it was a label more thoughtfully applied than “synth pop.”
Perhaps the flaw in all my previous self-labelling attempts is that they’ve been too medium-specific. Calling my photography “observational” or “figurative” might indeed be more accurate than “street,” but it’s a photo-focused label. It doesn’t really apply to my music, or to me as a person. Wouldn’t the most appropriate label be the one that gets to the very heart of what I do and who I am, regardless of medium?
So with that in mind, I plowed through a list of new label possibilities — dismissing each for some reason or another, until I eventually established an uneasy truce with one. I am, I decided, an ephemeralist.
It pokes at the core of how I create, and what motivates me to do so. I am forever improvising. I have no interest in re-creating that which has already been created. When my record label asked me to go on tour to support an album in the early 1990’s, I rejected with the youthfully arrogant statement, “no one expects an artist to go on stage every night to re-create his latest painting. Why should I have to re-create an album?”
When I make music, I record each track in a single take. If I didn’t play exactly what I intended, I don’t consider it a flawed performance. I don’t perform another take — instead, I merely accept the recording for what it is, and let its existence influence what happens when I record the next track. When I program a sound into a synthesizer, I never bother to save the program — I created that sound for a specific performance at a specific moment in time, and when that moment is gone, so too is the sound. It’s part of what I love about modular synthesizers. They are, by their very nature, ephemeral. The patch I create today will never again exist. Even if I plug dozens of cables into the same jacks and set several hundred knobs and sliders to the same positions, the sound will not be the same — the cumulative effect of their subtle positional differences would ultimately result in an entirely different sound. For years, music technology companies viewed this as a bad thing because it prevented RE-creation. But I have no desire to RE-create. Music, to me, is about expressing a feeling that I have right here, right now — not replicating a feeling I had previously.
Photographically, my need is the same. It’s why I go hunting for photos on city streets. It’s why I look for fleeting moments, and why no one ever says “cheese” in my photos. It’s why I’ve spent the past decade writing essays rather than novels — essays enable me to address any and every transient thought without having to force them into some larger narrative. My interests indeed lie in the ephemeral.
I do, however, agree with Terry Riley — any ism has the capacity to limit. So it’s important to remember that your ism is only a label and not a definition. And since you applied it to yourself, you’re free to interpret it as you wish — not as society dictates. You are not bound by your ism.
For example, I’ve definitely applied the concept of ephemeralism a bit too aggressively lately. Ephemeralism, in fact, is the very reason I went over four months without recording any new music. Most nights, I’d belly up to the synthesizers at about 8:00pm and play straight through ’til 3:00am. Seven straight hours of real-time music creation — and not a drop of it recorded. I was fearful that if I recorded a performance, I might subconsciously let it influence, define or limit what I might otherwise play the next night — as if committing to an improvisation would define a genre to which future improvisations must conform. Eventually, I realized that my natural disposition to ephemeralism is exactly why this would not happen. Besides, there’s nothing about ephemeralism that implies the music shouldn’t be heard, just that it shouldn’t be reprised. To not record what I played was like pointing the camera at a subject, but not releasing the shutter. The moments are ephemeral, but if you don’t capture them, then you have no reason to exist. So I’m back to punching the record button every now and then.
Some of you might think this whole obsession with self-labelling is silly. And it is. But as silly as it may be, labels change the way society views us. Our very names label us — implying personality traits, social status, and cultural designations that might not actually apply. This is why, back in my 20’s, I relabelled myself as “Egor.” My name is Gregory. Every time I met someone, I’d say, “Hi, my name is Gregory.” To which they would reply, “Nice to meet you, Greg.” I provided a label (Gregory), and they immediately relabelled me as “Greg.” Eventually, I decided that if people insisted on shortening my name to four letters, I should be the one to decide which four letters they used. I chose the middle four letters, and became “Egor.” I would say, “Hi, my name is Egor,” and people would say “Nice to meet you, Egor.” I regained control of my label. Even better, this new label functioned far better than the one applied by the general public. People remember “Egor.” They don’t remember “Greg.” People seek out the opinions of “Egor.” They don’t give a crap what “Greg” thinks.
So this explains my obsession with labels, and why I believe anyone saddled with an ill-fitting tag should simply create their own. No one wants to hear what you’re not. They want to hear what you are. So be something of your own creation. Invent your own label. An idiosyncrasy? For sure. But then, we’re only human.
©2018 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS & MUSIC:
“Imprint”, the song included with this essay, is the first I’ve published in four months and the last vestige of my “improvising for an audience of none” phase.
“Nov 27, 9:42am” is a photo of a reflective splotch seen on my bedroom door on November 27 at 9:42am. By 9:43am it was gone. I haven’t seen anything similar since.
“Dec 4, 1:48m.” A musician takes his sousaphone for a stroll down Granville Street. Maybe this happens more frequently than I know, but I haven’t witnessed any sousaphonists before or since. So it’s ephemeral to me.
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