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Here’s a thought about “something you can make pictures in your mind with”

I always have a backlog of 8-10 episodes from Erik Davis’ Expanding Minds podcast waiting for me to listen to them. They are wide ranging, cross-disciplinary conversations about art, music, “technoculture”, and contemporary spirituality, and I find them as rewarding to engage with as they are demanding of the listener’s attention. Most recently I sat through the 6 January episode “Insect Surfing”, in which Davis talks with surf rock guitarist Dave Arnson from the band Insect Surfers, and I want to share a bit of their conversation here (time code 00:13:55 – 00:17:30, minus some verbal ticks and a slight tangent):

ED: I’m kinda curious asking you, what do you mean by “psychedelic music”? Now, if you just say “psychedelic music” to people, some people think that it’s a genre, like The Grateful Dead – which aren’t even that psychedelic, sometimes it sounds like just sort of a demented country band – or it’s like it’s some kind of tonality, like a heavy, you know, psychedelic guitar solo with spacey effects, like Hawkwind or something like that. But psychedelic music, of course, once you expand the concept, it shows up all over the place. So what is the essence of it – you mentioned kind of a heady thing or a little brainy, or a little more like a place or – what is it? What did you want to add, to give the surf music you were making a “psychedelic” dimension?

DA: Well, “psychedelic music” is a pretty huge umbrella, and I think that the best of psychedelic music is something that you can make pictures in your mind with, and that’s why vocal music detracts a little bit from that. When The Grateful Dead are quote unquote “psychedelic”, it’s usually when they’re jamming and not so much when they’re, you know, singing. So I think instrumental music is the best psychedelic music if that makes sense. When you’re not being dictated what to imagine or whatever. You can do that various ways by using different tonalities or sounds that you think are trippy – at the very beginning of Insect Surfers we used to use an effect called the Flanger a lot, which kinda sounds like a whooshing –  like a jet engine or something. And my friend aptly described it as, “a really good brain noise.” [laughs] It’s a fine line,  you don’t wanna use something just solely because – I mean, you wanna integrate interesting sounds into something that ideally has some kind of structure or guide. Yeah, it’s a fine line, but for me, I found the best way to express my musical self was through instrumental surf music […] It’s just a better – it’s just a better vehicle.

The reason this resonates enough for me to quote here is that Arnson’s thoughts about sounds evoking internal images, unhindered by a verbal component, seem to echo some of my own thinking and image making, particularly in When the last story is told and Prisoner’s cinema. For the better part of a decade I’ve been drawing on music to inspire and structure my work, and for quite literally the same reasons that Arnson cite; its ability to intuitively elicit emotion and corresponding mental images in a listener, particularly without verbal aid or support — essentially the same synergy that my bandmate Allan Grønvall and I riff on in our improv performances. The notion of communicating non-verbally, and thereby involving the reader in a co-creative process rather than “dictating what to imagine” runs quite deep in my recent years’ work — which is probably why some readers resist seeing them as comics, perceiving the form as mostly linear narrative.

In traditional comics, written text offers that “structure or guide” mentioned by Arnson, whereas in “silent”/non-verbal abstract comics — probably the best category to put my work into these days — there is no reading direction dictated by accompanying text, and the guiding principles are instead wholly visual; a simultaneous plane instead of a folded line. A directory of visual prompts rather than a causal unidirectional sequence. I would not say that I consider my work “psychedelic” in the sense that Davis and Arnson talk about the latter’s music, though they are perhaps hallucinatory and, hopefully, slightly mind-opening in terms of how comics are read; what orders of meaning they can communicate, and to what degree the reader imposes their own set of mental codes and imagery on them.

If the last paragraph took an abrupt theoretical turn, it is probably because I’m trying to finish my MA thesis on abstract and poetry comics this summer, and it tends to seep into anything else I write at the moment… In the thesis, I suggest that non-verbal comics may be considered networked visualizations of our mental and cognitive processes; that they can be read in an exploratory fashion like maps, and navigated, like labyrinths, in states of play. That would then be the co-creative interface in abstract comics, and perhaps in instrumental music, where the reader’s mind (psyche-) manifests (-dêlos) via the medium of really good visual brain noise.

Back to the thesis, and to snack bites of podcasts in between…

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