Saturday, September 28, 2019

An interview asking questions about genre, creativity, music and growth with Musician Aaron Kerr

By Alex Ness


I am a simple man really, I like things most people like.  I love the arts, music moves me, poetry fills me with life, literature helps inform me and spiritually set me afire.  And, I've interviewed hundreds of people in the creative world.  I love doing so, but I learn by doing so.  I met Aaron Kerr at a local retailer and we spoke about reviews and arts and I was of the mind that I had to interview him. I am a simple uneducated man regarding music.  But the concept of discussing the power of an art form, was very intriguing to me, and Aaron Kerr, a fine talent rewarded my time and effort.  This turned out beyond my wildest expectations and I am grateful for his time.

Hi, Aaron.  Welcome to my website Poplitiko.  Tell me if you would where you are from, are you married, kids, cats?  If you aren't a Minnesotan by birth, how did you get to living in Minnesota?

I was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska and went to college in New Orleans, Louisiana. My high school girlfriend (now wife) and I stayed together all through college (she went to school in Iowa). She had some family in Minnesota so we took a few trips up to the Twin Cities to check it out. She works in the medical profession (lab specialist) and there were lots of jobs for her. I found some music work here as well, mostly teaching. We really like living in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul. We have four kids, two now off to college. We also have five cats (since you asked).

And since I bring up Minnesota, is it a place where musicians and other talents can thrive?  Or is it a hard place to work in the field you create in? Why do you think that?

I think it is hard everywhere right now. I was the last generation to see musicians able to make a real living playing music where they lived. Although not musicians themselves, my parents had amazing taste in music and took me out to see some great performances in Omaha. They knew many of the jazz players and even hired them for house parties. I was also trained by members of the Omaha Symphony and went to the classical shows. So I got to see professional players making a living playing music.

Things have really deteriorated in terms of making a living playing music. It was difficult, but still possible to make a living 20 years ago when I had just moved to Minnesota. Now, even the best players are struggling. I personally know professional in-demand players who are at or below the poverty level here in the Twin Cities. They are staying just below the poverty level to get state health care, or else they couldn't pay rent. This is pretty awful, especially when you look at their performance history, which is even richer and more varied than mine.

Do I think it is better elsewhere? Possibly. The cost of living has to be pretty low to make it work. New Orleans seems to still be a place you can perform in and live comfortably. There also needs to be an audience for what you do, and this may be the crux of the problem. Technology is really pervasive, and it has kept people from leaving the house. Venues can't depend on people coming out anymore, so they are cutting back on paying musicians.

On a positive note, I do think Minnesotans "get" art. I am, at least, not trying to justify anything I do. Mostly, I think people just accept what you do and are open-minded. We have some great institutions and organizations that support the arts financially and this has created a good environment. But we have a long way to go. We need both public and private institutions to support artist-run events at good venues that feature local artists.

We live in an era of education where music and the arts in general are less available than, say, 20 years ago and certainly 30 years ago to students wishing to pursue as beginners the arts. Is it really a good idea to create magnet schools that focus on the arts instead of offering beginning classes to everyone?  I had early piano lessons, I also could have been in band from an early time and I am not a musician.  But, had I been interested I think I could have flowered in classes.  My son wasn't able to take band until a much later age than I was, and I wonder, who could first start in music when they go to High School?

A while ago I got hired to be a resident composer at a middle school in Saint Paul through the SPCO's Connect program. The first day I told the students they would all be composing a piece of music for their spring concert. There was an immediate "No way! We can't do that! We could never write a piece of music!". I coached them over a three month period. Their pieces ended up being incredibly complex and beautiful, which was amazing considering they hadn't written a note in their life. It made me sad to think how much richer their musical experience could have been if they had composition training earlier on.

If you taught students to only read the written word from first to eighth grade and never taught them to write, then asked them to write a sentence, would you be surprised if they freaked out? This is basically what we are doing with the arts - giving elementary school students minimal exposure to the arts and then seeing them not pursue it at all. More and more orchestra and band programs are shrinking in high schools because the students aren't getting any exposure until middle school, which is often too late.

Another problem is that people think that the arts just magically happen without training, so this justifies cutting programs. Really? I can tell you that without intense study of music theory, orchestration, and counterpoint, I would not be able to do what I do as a composer. I have easily spent the 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to master an instrument. Despite this, I still get people acting like what I do is some kind of magic trick. It's not a trick, it's called practice and study. Would you say the same thing about Michael Phelps winning 23 gold medals? Did he just show up at the Olympics and start swimming without any practice?

Magnet schools provide a focus to students to help educate them better and should not be a substitute for a lack of resources at other schools. I think there may be some value to having magnet schools at the high school level, but only because there are students who have already found their calling. The real cause of lack of musical education in schools is the undervaluing if the arts. You are a complete fool if you think we don't need the arts, but somehow everyone is ok with cutting arts funding and education.

After I came in contact with you I became very interested in your creative path.  You are obviously talented in music, how did you discover your talent?  Upon discovering you had a talent, did you pursue an education in music, or was your greater education playing various instruments?

I'd like to say there was some magical experience that I had where I was listening to music and immediately knew that was what I wanted to pursue, but the reality is kind of mundane. I was in fourth grade at the music teacher came into our classroom. He announced that the school was starting a string program and wanted a show of hands for who was interested. He went down the aisle and right there assigned everyone an instrument. He had me stand up so he could tell how tall I was and then said I was going to play cello. I didn't even know what a cello was.

I learned guitar and piano as well, but it was bass guitar that got me into playing other styles of music. My first experience playing bass was with a rock band in middle school, but it was my experience playing jazz that really solidified my lifelong interest in music. My brother, a sax player, spent a year in Germany on an exchange program and found some great jazz players there who trained him in on all the standards. He came back and wanted to put a jazz group together. We played Miles Davis' "All Blues", which had a written bass part that I played. Then my brother explained to me that I could play the notes in the chord in any order and didn't have to follow the written notes. This was my first experience improvising and it blew my mind. I felt this tremendous sense of power that I had never experienced before and it was very liberating. This one experience led to everything I do today; composing, performing, improvising,and arranging.

I knew I wanted to pursue music above anything else and basically took advantage of any opportunity that came along. I was in multiple groups from then on out and composed music daily. I knew I wanted to study music in college and focused on composition and theory while I was there. After college I spent a lot of time trying to master what I could do as a composer and performer and finally got there when I released an album in 2008 called Dissonant Creatures. The music on that album, and subsequent releases in the making, is the culmination of my best work as a musician and the greatest contribution I can make to the world.

I would say to any composer out there that I did one thing right: taking advantage of any opportunity that presented itself. I would also say I would not have gotten where I am at as a composer if I did not study music formally. So, for me anyway, I think it is both education and personal experience that got me where I needed to be as a musician.

How easy or difficult is it to actually see a album through to appearing on shelves of a retailer?  Is it a craft that you think is fairly rewarded for the labor you contribute?  Or, as an art, is the reward more intrinsic and impossible to measure regarding financial reward?

It depends on the album. I've done albums that were pretty easy to put together and ended up paying themselves off. I've also done albums that took a very long time that are never getting paid off. These days it is pretty rare for an album to actually pay you back for the time you put into it. It used to be that you went on tour to promote your album. Now, you make an album to support your tour.

This is largely thanks to the internet, which has made it really hard for artists to see any financial gain from recordings. There was a time when you could only get an artist's recorded work at stores and at shows, and that was by actually paying for the music. Now it is available on any device for free. What this has meant for artists is that you have to do A LOT of work because you can't fall back on anything selling itself. It is beyond maddening for us artists to have to do this along with everything else we have to do.

There is definitely an intrinsic reward to making albums, because we wouldn't do it if there wasn't. An album is basically a large artistic statement, not unlike writing a novel. I think most songwriters or composers I know are always working towards making an album, because it is the ultimate expression of their art. Saying to songwriters "Why don't you just write songs and not albums?" is like saying to Beethoven, "Why don't you just write music for solo piano and not symphonies?" It takes both for us to be happy.

What is your preferred genre of music, if you have one?  Do you find yourself becoming more focused upon one as you grow in your music, or, do you find every genre interesting and find more to do than one general area?

I love instrumental composition in all its forms. Lately I've been thinking about working with hip-hop artists because I think that would be an interesting combination with what I do. I have some classical pieces I am finishing up as well. So I guess I'm all over the place. I spent the past ten years really perfecting what I do compositionally, so now I feel like I can branch out, which is a good feeling. I would say not every musician is like that, but for me it was important to get that figured out.

I don't think you will find very many musicians who will say they only listen to one type of music, and if you did I bet their own music wouldn't be very good. Music is a maleable structure, not a genre. Musicians are always listening to what other musicians are doing and finding ways to absorb it. In the early 20th century, jazz musicians borrowed from modernist composers, and vice versa. Duke Ellington has polytonality in his music that sounds like Stravinsky. When Stravinsky heard jazz, he put that in his pieces as well.

If you can, describe how your creative process works.  Do you get an idea, or hear a sound, or have dreams that you translate into music? How do any of these inspire you to make music?  Or, do you have a partner with words to songs and you create the music to accompany them?

I like parameters. I like it when people say: "I want the piece to be this long for this many instruments using this text". I'm very much an architect in that way. Once I know that, I get my manuscript paper ready and sit down at the piano. I mess around for fifteen minutes. If nothing is working, then I go clean the house. Usually it takes about a half hour and something "lands on my head" and I go write it down. Then I work on that one small idea for as long as it takes. Usually it takes me about two weeks to write eight measures, then about two days to finish the piece. My music is minimalist so I pull most of the material I need from those first measures.

Songwriting is its own thing. I refuse to call myself a songwriter, even though I have written a few songs that have been published. It requires a subtle mix of poetry, structure, and vibe that is incredibly hard to do well. If anyone out there wants to be a songwriter, I would say this: spend a long time writing the perfect song. Make it work on all levels. Make sure it has the perfect structure. Make sure the words all move seamlessly together without being boring. Make it personal and unique and unlike anything else that has been written before. Make sure it is memorable. Then, when you have done that, write 20 more songs better than the one you just wrote. Then, and only then, can you call yourself a songwriter.

Who do you listen to in music?  Do you find your CD Spotify or vinyl collection reflect in whole what you like?  Or, do you have so many favorites or enjoyed music genres it is impossible to collect?

I don't listen to streamed music because, truth be told, I'm really bad at technology. I borrowed my kid's I-pod for a vacation my wife and I went on - I was looking forward to relaxing to some albums at the resort we were at. I couldn't figure out how to use the damn thing and just gave up. I also don't have a smart phone, which I think is pretty necessary for streaming music.

What I like to do is check out cds at the library. I use both the St. Paul Public Library and Ramsey County. They have a great reference system so I can look up artists I want to hear. I think cds are a really good medium and I don't understand why people think they aren't valid anymore. To me, they are the perfect cross between vinyl and downloading: all the album art and liner notes in a digital package. I also borrow LPs where I work, which is really convenient. I have a space in my basement to listen to records and it is a nice part of my day.

I'm really not too picky when I listen to music. I just want it to be good, and I don't care what genre it is. I'm not a collector either - I get rid of anything I haven't listened to in a year. To me, listening to music is an adventure, from the time you find the album until you get rid of it. I have a small notebook that I keep names of artists and albums in. When I'm at the record store or the library, I take note of what I need and look for it.

Here's a little secret for anyone reading this: The St. Paul Public Library has new vinyl you can check out. Let me repeat: New Vinyl. You can check out. For free.  Ok, now you know.

Are there artists, mentioned above or not, who have inspired you to create better music?  Or, what, exactly, inspires you to create better music?  Are you moved easily?

I would separate composition from performing here. Performing, yes absolutely. Watching Venus de Mars is always a humbling experience. There is a level of intensity that few artists are able to achive like Venus. I've also been really blown away by Dave King, who has completely internalized his technique and made it so deliberately part of his style. One national group that I've opened for that is undeniably excellent is Slim Cessna's Auto Club. Go see these guys while you can - it is an incredible experience.

Composition for me is such a structural thing that I'm not really looking for inspiration. That's not to say I don't have my favorite composers, which I do. Mingus once said that his bass playing came from practice and his composing came from God. That's kind of how I feel - whatever inspiration I get almost always comes from inside me. I'm never saying to myself "this part should sound like so-and-so". I guess I think that's like cheating. If you want to hear so-and-so, go listen to them because they probably do it a lot better than I would! I want to give the world the purest form of music that I can compose.

Does society appreciate the arts in general sufficiently, or are they, in general, missing out?  How so?

Society is often missing out, unfortunately. Some of my best shows are for children because they have no distractions. Most kids don't have cell phones (until recently, anyway), so they just sit and watch you play. Adults can't watch something for more than two minutes without getting bored. You could be doing back-flips for them, and they would still find their Facebook feed more important. I actually like hecklers in the audience because it shows that someone is paying attention to what you are doing.

Engagement is so important for the arts. Everything now needs to be some kind of spectacle for people to be interested. We have to constantly keep educating the audience to keep them engaged so they know there is beauty even in the simplest of things. Maybe everyone needs to watch more Fred Rogers, who taught us patience and how to be aware of what is immediately around us and to ask questions about the world.

Do you have any kickstarter projects ongoing and if you've been involved in them in the past what has your experience with that venue been? Is it easy for creators and investors to cooperate to make projects happen?

I've never done a kickstarter and, based on what I've seen, I don't want to do one. The level of stress I witnessed my musician friends get to from a kickstarter project was enough to keep me away. Everyday life is stressful enough - I don't need a massive deadline hanging over my head.

"Is it easy for creators and investors to cooperate . . .?" Yes, it's called BUY THE ARTIST'S ALBUM. Gee, what a simple concept: someone makes something and people who are interested buy it. Instead of having an artist spend a ton of time setting up a huge multi-tier selling platform and marketing the hell out of it, why don't people just pony up the money they were going to spend anyway?

I'm not saying that kickstarter hasn't helped anyone - it has. I'm just upset that the burden of art awareness has once again been put upon artists via having to spoon-feed their audience. The word I would use to describe how art should be is "sustainable", and we should be asking ourselves how sustainable kickstarter actually is. Is worrying about financial deadlines sustainable? Is having our lives consumed with social media marketing sustainable? Is waiting for the next big grant sustainable? I guess if I had nothing else to do, or was very interested in crowd sourcing itself, then kickstarter might be sustainable. Most artists don't have that luxury.

How would any reader of this or some attending a show you've worked acquire work you've done?

Glad you asked! Two sites I'll send you to: Aaron Kerr and 
Emperor Penguin Records

They are linked via EPR's bandcamp page, so you can click on any one of my albums and it will send you there. EPR is my exclusive label, but I am on around 40 other albums world-wide (someday I'll post that list, but not this year).  Also, I post all my public shows on my website, so go there if you want to check out a live show. I always have cds and vinyl for sale at shows - plus you can get them signed.

What work amongst your library of projects completed is your favorite and why?

There are several, but I'll focus in on one. It happens to be my latest project and, I think, will be of interest to you as it has a literary focus.  About ten years ago my friend, bandmate, and label owner Tyson Allison contacted me about a project he wanted to start. He was living in Milwaukee and wanted to send me stories that I would score music to. He didn't want me to know the source of the stories, so he paraphrased and hand-wrote everything out. These stories were amazing and weird and intriguing. I got the stories in the mail, read them, and immediately sketched out a several-cello-part composition which I made a quick demo of and sent back. This went on for several years. Finally, with the last submission, he let me in on who the author was: the one and only David Foster Wallace.

I was familiar with Wallace's writing but had only read a couple books. Subsequently, I've read a ton more and have been amply rewarded. This guy is simply off the charts in both depth and meaning. Following the last submission, we then had to go into the studio more formally and record everything again, this time with Tyson adding more parts. The end result is what I would call my most creative project from start to finish. It is also a dive into more avant-garde composing, which I had experimented with but never really did anything with until now. I think this came out of it being a more esoteric project where I was both composing for myself and trying to create a sonic description of literary works.

The title of the album is: To Combat Loneliness: Compositions Based on the Works of David Foster Wallace, by Tyson Allison and Aaron Kerr. We also made the huge leap to put it out on 180 gram clear vinyl. We are hoping to head down to the Wallace archives in Austin, Texas next year to officially hand a copy off to them. A portion of the sales of each album will go to the archives as well.

Moving on to more esoteric and specific questions about art and creativity...

As a writer and poet I have realized that not every has the same result when they try to write.  In some cases people can't recognize grammar or how to spell easy terms, and they can't place words in a working sentence.  But, we all have the same alphabet and language to use.  Mozart created perfection in the system he worked with.  William Carlos Williams made poetry sing utilizing less not more.  Antoine de Saint Exupéry said  "Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher." "It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove." Mentioning this all to preface the question, we all have access to the full mastery of language, whatever language we use, so why are some better able to create?  Are we required to have a form of  genius to create genius, or do we create from a idiot savant sort of mindset?

No, I don't think there is some kind of mental recess to access creativity that everyone has. I think it is simply part of your being, and you are either inclined towards that or not. We all have the basic skills to do a lot of things, but that doesn't mean we can all do those things equally well. I can't make heads or tails of cars or computers (or most technology, for that matter), but some people really excel and that. I think creativity is similar - the will to create is just part of who you are and your abilities are guided by that.

That is not to say that creativity doesn't manifest itself in different ways with different people. Everyone is, in some way, creative. You might not be William Carlos Williams, but you might be really good at haiku. I just spent a year working with my cello students on new compositions and, as a final project, we went into the recording studio to lay down their music. One student wrote an amazing anthemic piece that could have been an opening score for a Ken Burns film. One wrote a dark, brooding, dissonant elegy. One wrote a short, weird, vaudevillian shuffle. They were all different, but equally creative.

I think, too often, we are very divided on the subject of creativity. Only people who are "artistic" get to learn about the arts. This is not only limiting, it is also not healthy for the artistic vitality of our communities. Exposure to and knowledge of the arts is as important to the arts as are the arts themselves. Right now, we are kind of stuck in a technology focus that excludes the idea that arts are part of everyday life. I have to wonder if scientists were having the same problem as artists 100 years ago when science wasn't as important as it is now.

Why do you think that intellectual people reject genres of books (fantasy and horror are often brutally considered as throw away material, when I think Stephen King would be held in far higher regard if he wrote novels in purely literary genres) or music (country and metal get little critical love but have enormous audiences) out of hand, without fair consideration?  Are there genres or formats that encourage mediocrity or is that an intellectual concept that refuses modification?

People enjoy comfort and will gravitate toward things that are familiar to them because it makes them comfortable. Because genres already have an established style, people are attracted to that because they know what they are getting. A metal band draws a crowd because they are playing a style of music that people are familiar with. Superhero movies do well because people know the superhero universe. Fantasy fiction is popular because of an already established world of fantasy.

So what's wrong with that? My concern is that we are losing sight of what creativity actually is. Creativity is the mix of diverse materials to make something new. Genres themselves are the result of this combination of elements. Heavy metal, for example, is the combination of heavier, darker blues-rock with flashier pop song sensibilities. Fantasy is the combination of mythology with medieval history and the paranormal. We have to allow this combination of elements to freely evolve in order to keep creativity alive.

But while genres themselves are the product of creativity, to some extent they also limit creativity from happening. People need to be mentally challenged in order for creativity to thrive, but that is tough to do when our culture pushes out only the dominant, most relevant genres to the exclusion of everything else. The popularity of fan fiction is a good example of this. Why create something new when you can use an already existing world and characters?

Having said all of that, I am reluctant to dismiss genres entirely. For one, I think you need to accept that genres have always been around and will continue to always be around, so some level of acceptance is necessary. Secondly, I do feel that genres have to the ability to be a foundation / platform for creativity to happen. Many an artist has used a genre as a launching pad for amazing things. Third, I think we need to both acknowledge and appreciate the artistic genius that went into the creation of specific genres. Our world has been immensely enriched by great artists who started the genres of writing, music, and media that we now take for granted: Tolkien, Roddenberry, Lee, Lovecraft, Osborn, Cash, Rowling . . .

I have an extremely diverse love for music and literature, for numerous genres, and mostly diverse lists of creative talents.  But of my top 50 talents in literature there are precious few women.  Do music or literature or any other art field of creation have a greater ability to reach people depending on the world view or set of life experiences or gender of the creator?  (I've done blind challenges where I have someone find paragraphs or snippets of music and they assess which is my favorite of the offerings and the male creative is almost always the winner.

Are we genetically predisposed to like certain types of art? Possibly. I did a quick survey of my CD collection. Sure enough - 90 percent male.

So a couple of theories might be at work here. One, art is influenced by the world in which it exists, so that art is also going to be reflective of that world. Because we are inherently attracted to what we are familiar with, then it stands to reason that we will be attracted to the art coming from a particular worldview. So art made by men will generally be appreciated by men, and vice versa for women.

A second theory is that we have lived for some time in a very male dominated society, at least in most areas of the world. So our larger world view, regardless of the gender of the audience, is going to be reflective of that. In the study of classical music there is a huge disparity of male to female composers, favoring the male probably 20 to 1. Interestingly, the 20th century offered an increasing number of female composers of note. It is interesting also in that it coincided with the suffrage movement in both Europe and America. Based on this observation, one has to wonder if gender equality is a bigger factor in art appreciation than we think it is.

What trend in modern culture do you see as positive for the ability of creative people to create?  And which is the most detrimental to the work of creatives, and what does the future portent for the creators who endeavor in creative fields outside of the comforts of popular reward?

I see incredible art everywhere, so this is a positive. People now just kind of know that art has no limitations, so they aren't holding back. What is frustrating is seeing all of these artists really struggling with how to support what they do. I feel their pain - you are depressed not being able to do the thing you were put on this earth to do but you would be equally depressed giving it up.

We need a balance. Everyone who creates art needs a vehicle for that art, at least in a small way. The musician needs a venue, the writer needs a publication, the painter needs a gallery. These artists need a small amount of support for what they do, and, in exchange, our communities become culturally richer.

There is only one way forward - and that is to build up institutions that support the arts and make that a priority for all communities. "Popular reward" is another way of saying only a small number of people can reap the benefits of culture. We need a culture that supports art without limitation.

If you had no sales and lost your audience in the locale you perform in, would you still choose to create?  Are sales a fair way to assess the quality of your work?  Would it not be true to suggest that popularity of a work reflects the quality therein?  Is there a truth in creating art for the sake of art?

The only person who liked Vincent Van Gogh was his brother. Bach was unheard of outside of Germany. The list goes on and on. What people don't understand is that there is a very particular set of circumstances that need to be in place for something to be considered popular on a wider scale. Lack of these circumstances does not negate vision, talent, or skill.

That being said, I do think an audience is needed for what we do - art doesn't exist in a vacuum. So if I did truly feel my art was completely inaccessible, then I would consider stopping. Of course, there are alternatives. I could always lend my skills as a cellist or arranger to someone who has found a way to have an audience.

The problem is having to assess if what is happening is truly because your art lacks merit, or because you simply don't have the ability to reach the right audience. At one time, we had a system of arts management at places like record labels, TV networks, movie companies and publishers. As much as that was a blockade, it was also a way for artists to have their work vetted by people who understood what it took to reach an audience. We, as artists, aren't thinking about what it takes to reach an audience. We are looking at the world and reflecting on it, regardless of who we think is watching. This deficit of a management system is yet another lack of support, which creates more difficulty for artists.

In the end, you just need to find a way to be happy. I've had some acknowledgement that what I do is worthwhile and I have a small amount of loyal support. So, what the hell, I'll keep doing it.

A great creative talent who is now dead answered some questions I had asked and I found that his wisdom was to make the path free from certain fears for me.  He said 'Some creators have low self esteem but they still have talent to impress and to grow continuously. If they allow fear to dominate themselves whatever they create might fail due to that fear.  Some creative artists have less talent but have such high esteem in themselves and their own work that when they release their work it has obvious limitations but people feed off the positive belief in themselves.  Never stop writing or creating, because whatever your talent level, you only improve with time, and you will someday create well enough to far outstrip your self esteem.

Continuous growth by doing will help overcome limitations of talent and your driving force of self esteem and ego.'  That is, Just do it isn't just a shoe company slogan, we must improve from simple practice of the art.  Do you agree or disagree with the assessment?

Yep - it's called potential. I try to find the potential in people and push them in that direction. If I come across a writer who's work I like, then I let them know exactly what I like about their writing and tell them to write more. If I have a student who excels at performing, then I get them out there performing as much as possible. The key, I think, is to find the thing you are really good at and letting that open the door to bigger and better things. All it takes is that one great review or acknowledgement and you are on your way.

For me, "doing things" is exactly what it is about. I am truly of the Midwestern work ethic; I can't sit still. I have to not only be doing things, but I have to be doing things that are somehow productive and meaningful. That includes the jobs I work, the time I spend creating music, the time I spend with my family, and the time I spend volunteering for various causes. There really isn't any room for low self esteem with all of that.

I know that all sounds cavalier, but really it's just a kind of therapy for me. We all have our ways of dealing with life, and this is my way. I am an eternal optimist - it is simply part of who I am, and I can feel depression and hopelessness sink in when I am not actively working towards something. I guess I also feel that if I can turn my hopelessness around by helping other people, or by making the world a better place with art, then that makes me happy as well.

There is the theory in physics and metaphysics of many monkeys typing at typewriters randomly someday composing Shakespeare or the like. But  despite huge numbers of monkeys and constant effort, those typing will not stumble upon the higher quality of work. This is a false sort of argument for the creative yes?  We don't have random attempts at work, we have a germ of an idea and whatever our level of talent even the worst of us will create something markedly better than a billion typing chimps, every time, no matter how many times the scenario repeats?

I always thought that was such a weird theory. Who cares? My wife is reading a book right now about how time is actually fluid and we can just as easily know what things will be like in the future as the past. Like, what the hell? I just want to know if I'm going to get the bathroom remodeled before winter hits.

But, to answer your question, no, art isn't random. Where the initial idea comes from is hard to define, but there is actual real work that goes into how that idea is fleshed out. Also, the fleshing out, and probably the idea itself, are reflective of the world around us and we work to make the complete project exist in the world. So there are a lot of variables going on, which makes it hard for me to subscribe to the idea that this is all random.

Furthermore, there is a real back-and-forth with the audience when a project is released. The way your audience responds to your work will determine what you do with it. Also, creative works influence other creative works, and audience response to other authors will influence you. Just more variables to consider.

How do you get kids interested in the creative walk?  And in this day of selfies and temporary culture, is it even possible to do so?

Here's the best parenting advice I ever got: encourage, encourage, encourage . . . never force. Make those kids go to book readings, art galleries, and live performances. Give them every opportunity to engage in creative activities: band and orchestra at school, private instruction, writing class. Give them art materials and have them try out any instrument they want. Fill your home with shelves and shelves of every type of literature.

Here's what is going to happen: most of it they won't do. In fact, plan on them not doing any of it, but keep trying. You need to be extremely patient and be totally ok if they reject it, but keep trying.

Even if they turn 18 and never get into writing, play an instrument, or get into dance, painting, or photography, you can know you gave them an excellent arts education. They will, at least, know that the arts are important enough to be exposed to, and they will (eventually) look back and appreciate your effort.

If you get that kid who gets into something, it is the most rewarding experience ever. As a parent or mentor, life is full of extreme highs and terrible lows, and I guarantee this will be an extreme high. I've seen it with my own kids, and it is pretty amazing.

With anything negative in this world, there is always a backlash, and I can finally see that now. There is a new generation of kids who are being identified as "Generation Z". This is the generation that has grown up with the internet, and has had the opportunity to see all the good and evil that exists with it. My own children are part of this generation, so I am seeing this generation first hand.

This is the generation that is the rejecting the world of "temporary culture". They are looking around at the world and standing up and saying no, we aren't going to live that way. I see them rejecting selfies and rejecting shallowness. I see them recognizing the beauty of creativity and all that goes into it. I see them having meaningful lives that support the arts. They are doing this because they understand that things cannot continue the way they are going. This generation gives me hope and I am thankful for it.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Conventions, Comics, and Speculative Fiction RPGs

By Alex Ness


A reader sent me a very long detailed email, asking among other things if I would be interested in participating in a fan convention as a journalist.  I don't want to fly to a convention to give it press coverage and make no money, working, and not promote my creative work.  I still wish the organizers well in their potential event.  I've written in the blog world and for sites covering comics, games and more, since 2002.  I have absolutely no desire to spend what little money I have to give labor to someone to help their event.  It isn't fair to ask, but, I get the point that not everyone thinks similarly. A bit longer than 10 years ago I did help two different conventions for comics, primarily, gather talent to appear.  In the case I had numerous contacts, and I had invites that were backed up with creator guest offers. They received travel, lodging, food, and two day creator passes and tables at the convention in question.  I loved being able to help. I was frustrated occasionally, but getting people to show up or getting the convention to follow through, were not my job.  I made the original contact, gave the info and worked to get the talent interested.  This situation where I helped out was not entirely compensated, but I did get some valuable rewards for what I did. Since I was able to benefit in more than one way, it was well worth my time.  When certain people hear that I was able to connect talent to convention, they think I should work for them, but the situation is not the same. I am not complaining about ANYONE, or any organization.  I am simply saying the situation was not the same, and being asked to give 50 or so hours of labor, for free is, in my view, rather cheeky to ask.


Very recently I was invited to help a group of fellows with money of their own to spend, in creating a popular culture fan event.  They wanted to focus on three areas, comics, rpgs and science fiction novels.  They wanted to feature a retail core of sellers of these types of products, thus avoiding the sort of people who wanted to sell off their collection.  They wanted, expressly, to avoid the buy in bulk and sell cheap at conventions casual sellers that some conventions attract.  It was a sort of starting concept that I am not a fan of.  The group wanted only retailers with retail sites to be able to sell product.  I suggest, beginning with stark limits of who might participate is not the way I'd utilize.  It is anti community, in my opinion.

They did want dozens of creative talents invited and thoroughly involved. They had a concept of the type of creative talents they'd invite, particularly, those with long lists of published works.  They wanted to avoid the sort of talents who would attend wanting to sell sketches or to do commissions.  To me this was more reasonable than the limits upon who might rent tables and sell product, but isn't to say I think it would work.  Some conventions focus on talents, some on sales, but whatever that focus, it is important to realize that most conventions that were to become popular and successful, don't start off by saying "no" to talented people. It might well be that talents that are worth supporting or inviting might already be well known and local. An idea I have for a convention would include a great deal of new talent, because, these creative people tend to be the sort of people who work hard to get a fans to turn out and buy their product.  I do definitely think having a concept of who "qualifies" as a talent to be invited, is important.  The group wanted my input for a single reason.  Having interviewed more than 300 comic book talents over the last two decades they thought I might be able to find, recruit and invite the sort of big names they thought they wanted. When I told these people that inviting big names is fine, but you have to have hotel lodging, travel fees, and various costs covered for more than just the basics.  Some big names would absolutely require speaking fees.  That isn't out of the realm of likelihood.  Well the people wanting to create this event were mind blown.  "No way, we are not paying for people to come and sell their shitty little books".  They were thinking that by creating an event people who just gather and throw themselves into the event.   I said you need understand that this isn't my idea, it is what goes on.  They didn't believe me. I said, you need to be aware of the way things are done, and just finding a venue isn't enough.  They kept trying to convince me that I was wrong.  So finally, I said thanks but no.  I am not the reason the convention didn't happen, but watching their reluctance to pay for the talent they felt had to be a part of their event, I had no confidence that they'd succeed, especially at their levels of effort and their perceived financing.

A reader of my column and a reader of a bajillion comics and books asked me, recently, (and he has also asked in the past, similarly) if I'd be interested in creating a retail site selling comics, rpg games, books, and related products from the fandom of various areas of interest.  I don't think the world needs more of that in the present.  I am not saying we don't need comics, games or books, or the sort.  I am saying, a retail site has to have a particular aim, and an ability to offer more than the internet, in an area that is not served by a retailer as of the moment. I am not interested in laboring to somehow fight Amazon's prices, because it is almost impossible to offer better prices.  The physical site has to offer more than a simple store.  But what does that mean?  Offering a lounge to play?  That requires a site that is bigger than the retail area.  If you are wanting offerings greater than online sites offer you are almost certainly unable to do so.  Also, I make so little money in life, asking me for my business consultation is rather like asking a moron to inspire you with his brilliance.

Now, I DO have valid ideas about the industry of comics, but only somewhat about books, and frankly, I know almost nothing about worthwhile to offer about gaming.  Whatever I have in mind, it is as a fan, a journalist, or someone who has knowledge after years of dealing with the industry.  I absolutely love comics, books, and RPGs. Loving it, having knowledge of it, does not translate into being a good businessman, being an innovator in business, or being a visionary for selling product outside of sharing a passion for the product.  I mention all of this because it is interesting, not because I haven't explained all of my response to the person who started the conversation.  I hope the potential store happens.  But honestly, I know better minds for business and better visionaries for sales of this sort of product than I could ever approach.  I did write a column for four different retail sites who wanted a new work to appear when new comics came out.  That much I could easily and affordably do for any retail site with a website.  But this was a request for me to create a business plan, to become the manager, and to do almost all aspects of planning.  I love comics, and, if I had a perfect situation I might in fact do it.  But the desired location was 3 hours from my home, the potential financial reward was tiny tiny tiny, and the likely success of such a project was so finite and small, I could not uproot my existence, live apart from my family, to get less money than it would take to even rent a studio apartment, and eat... I am sorry, the days of the entrepreneur having money and idea succeeding, especially in an industry like comics and games in a retail setting are long over.  Perhaps I am full of crap.  I hope I am, but I don't think so.


I received an email asking me to describe the many RPG's I've played.  When I explained that would take a long ass time, they then responded by asking me to write about RPGs I haven't spoken much about, as they were only familiar with D&D, and while they liked it, they wanted to know about everything.  Well I haven't played everything.  And I haven't even played a number of them that others have played.  This edition will briefly mention 12 Science fiction and Science fantasy games that I was exposed to or played or recommended to consider.  (Presented in no specific order)

Star Frontiers: TSR released Star Frontiers to expand their role playing games beyond fantasy as found in Dungeons and Dragons.  It featured alien races and a sort of gaming that featured less science than adventure.  My experience with it was that it was fun, but light on details.  Since I am not a scientist I could deal with that.  But it was limited, compared to other games attempting to explore similar concepts.

Gamma World:  Gamma World was also from TSR and it was mostly earth bound, dealing with a horrible disaster that destroyed our present human world and technology, and mutated much of it.  It was far less scientific than fantasy in a future apocalyptic world.  It had a great deal to recommend it.  But, my major issue with it was that it lost momentum with every needless new edition.  It was fun.  And fooking hard to find gaming groups to play with.

Heavy Gear: Mech battles, robotics, and heavy tanks and armored vehicles fight.  This was a game that looked good, worked ok, and had qualities that made it very interesting.  But, it suffered a great deal from the sort of players who love minutia versus overall game play.  And the game catered to those sorts of players.  Fun? Yes.  But, the better experiences were limited by the sort of people who loved it.

Blue Planet:  The game Blue Planet had a solid concept about it, water worlds, and the sort of human lives that would intertwine with places like it would support. Frankly, I love the book Cachalot by Alan Dean Foster, and this game takes place in a similar setting, and the lives lived there are alien, despite our familiarity with the oceans.  I love this one.  Again though, I had almost no one to play it with me.

Starship Troopers:  The idea of earth and her colonies fighting a bug invasion is worth the time to fight as members of the defense.  The RPG has some limits and the game has flaws, but, it can be fun for what it is.  Before the haters add their views, the franchise is better than snide assholes who hate the first movie and following works might think.  The lack of adherence to the source material leads some to hate the franchise, but, the framework for the world is still good, and it offers a great deal of fun to explore.

Shadowrun:  I am not able to report about the game play, as I've not played.  I did however own the system, and did read dozens of the game novels.  I started from a place of great interest in the world and the system, but, I can say, most of the people I know who played it couldn't really explain why they liked it, or why, even, that they played it to begin with.  A combination of cyberpunk, fantasy races, and computer hacking, the world is interesting, but, didn't make sense compared to any of the systems so far discussed.

Star Trek: From the original series, through the many later series, you could find an enormous roster of types of members of service in the fleet, with races and ethnic groups from a vast array of DNA options, and a history and universe that is known from the start.  It has advantages over many new systems and unknown universes found in science fiction.  But, despite being a fan of DS9 and various cast members, the idea of playing in that world didn't appeal to me.  It seems to me, living or dying in that world just seems less interesting than if watching the epic events that we can watch in the franchise.

Metamorphosis Alpha: I didn't get a chance to play Metamorphosis Alpha as I had never met people who played it, nor did I ever own it.  But, the idea of being stranded on a starship that held various environs and life from each alien world within it, has a brilliance about it.  I cannot tell you if it is accurate, as I don't even know if those who played loved it.

Space 1889:  This was a concept that I think could explode in the present.  With steampunk still growing, and fascination with Victorian era ideas, the worlds explored are new, even if they come from history. Steampunk Victorian UK characters and culture meets star system technology and worlds, using some modicum of magic to make it all work, I loved what I explored, and experienced.

Traveller:  Unlike Star Frontiers, the simple idea of space travel and exploration in Traveller worked.  It had a thorough and detailed system of flight in space, a great concept, and depth of experience that made it worth exploring.  However, my experience was always less than most others, as the gaming group I played with who played Traveller tried to make it war in space, which was not the better aspects of Traveller, and they didn't care to experience new worlds. They wanted to kill the new species, and could only seem to desire to want to destroy whatever they experienced.  The game itself was great.  My experience is not the fault of that game.

Rifts:  I was told by gamer friend James that I should include Rifts in any spec fiction RPGs.  His experience was doctored by house rules, but he said that the point of playing this system was less about the rules of it, but the opportunities to explore different worlds and different settings, with a sense of interest, more than pure battle, discovery, or intrigue.

Star Wars: Just as with Star Trek, my interest in exploring SW was limited, since, frankly, I could watch the films, I could read the books, or play pod racing on my own, without needing other people to referee the event.  However, I was told by various people that they loved the systems that came out.  

Monday, September 9, 2019

THEY CALLED US ENEMY a memoir of internment by George Takei

By Alex Ness

By George Takei
With Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker
Publisher: TOP SHELF

From the publisher
"A stunning graphic memoir recounting actor/author/activist George Takei's childhood imprisoned within American concentration camps during World War II. Experience the forces that shaped an American icon -- and America itself -- in this gripping tale of courage, country, loyalty, and love.

George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father's -- and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten "relocation centers," hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei's firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother's hard choices, his father's faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What does it mean to be American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime."

I, like most everyone else, became familiar with George Takei through the television show Star Trek.  I followed that with some of his voice work on Japanese movies.  I liked his work.  As a person older by a couple decades I had not become attached to the members of Star Trek the Original Series unlike most of my friends, but that wasn't anything about George Takei, my aims were different, and my interests went beyond Star Trek and the various movies, however much I liked them.  The writing of this graphic novel was excellent, it was tempered but also highly emotive.  As it shares memories of a tragic time in American history you'd expect some sorrow and pain, but, it is measured in what it does, and by doing so with that emotional event told without hyperbole, it plays deeply in the heart of me.  The art is particularly effective, as it shows his life and those around him with neither excessive nor repressed emotional effect.  You cannot see children and growing up in a concentration camps without it relaying a message, and the art makes sure to send the message well. I give this work the highest recommendation, even if you are an arch-patriot, especially if you are, I suggest you read this, and learn the human cost of racist driven policy.   The letter grade for this A.

I found myself as a 20 something person finding my world of academia in History and International Relations to be aimed at Japan, and having other field areas such as US history, and a personal interest in Military history, I had many angles to approach Japan, America and Japan, and the cross seeding of cultures and the exchange of such.  And I learned in my years between starting my college degree and beginning graduate school that during the Second World War, America had created concentration camps to hold both foreign aliens, and Americans of German, Italian and Japanese descent.  I hadn't learned about this going through high school, and not even for most of my undergraduate work. That could be my fault, I wasn't the best student, facts are facts.  I can tell you, the moment I read that fact, I felt a need to vomit.  Now, you might think here is one of those liberal crybabies.  But you'd be wrong.  I wasn't red, white and blue ultra patriotic, but I did have a positive view of my country.  When I learned that most of the German and Italian internments followed case by case considerations, but the Japanese Internment happened for the entire of the Japanese aliens, Japanese Americans, and all of their kin in the US, it made me sick over the racism.

Researching my master's thesis which featured the internment camps I learned how it took Americans of Japanese descent years to find freedom, for crimes they had never committed.  Innocent of all crimes unless the crime was being Japanese of ancestry, they couldn't help but be guilty of that.  And between their commercial property and farm lands sold for pennies on the dollar in fear of losing everything, which they nearly did, and the government using various laws to kick Japanese Americans from their own homes, the Japanese Americans lost almost everything. The eventual legal challenges and destroying of the laws aimed at removal, did not mean those damaged were made whole.  Recompense from various administrations barely touched 10% of losses suffered.

You might say I was the target audience for THEY CALLED US ENEMY.  After all, it tells the story of George Takei and his family.  But through his eyes and story telling we see how America treated the people who had come to her soil, lay down roots, become citizens, despite hateful anti Asian immigrant laws and volunteer to serve in the military's most decorated for valor units who fought, despite their family being held in concentration camps in the country they were fighting for.  I understand that I might be one who is in the target audience.  That would be true.  But the target audience should be spread very wide, because we are speaking not about immigrants coming illegally, they came to work legally and had children, the children of that first generation became citizens.  Those citizens had children, and already by the 3rd generation, use of Japanese as a language was fading.  They spoke English, they were citizens who contributed to the economy of California and everywhere else they lived.

I was moved by Takei's story of a family loyal and even loving of a country that treated them with disgust and abject racism.  His life as a young person in camps was his normal, but it was lived where the barbed wire was meant to keep the occupants inside, and the machine guns, said by the government to be for defense, aimed inward at those it held, not outward.  Since some of the arguments used offered the idea that the Japanese were being held for their own protection, it makes one wonder who were the villains, and for what use the machine guns on the wall and sentry tower for?  Other arguments that suggested that the Japanese and Japanese Americans were being held out of fear of sabotage is not a argument that can be tested.  How many actions did it prevent is impossible to know, but it is equally impossible to suggest anything would have happened otherwise.

There are different moments in the book that did make me cry.  Not because I am Japanese, or Japanese American, but because I am an American, born in the same country as each of the Nisei (children of the first generation of Japanese immigrants, called  the Issei).  The rights I consider innate and universal to citizenship were not given to them.  Because as a foreign race, the Japanese, they were considered disloyal, and treacherous.   I had intended this to be a dispassionate article, where I spoke only about the event and the book about it.  I find now having written more than I planned that I can't do that.  If you are hoping to find a balanced and fair treatment of the Internment, I will say, it isn't possible to do so when considering the cost to those interned.  As a policy it was realized late in the war that the action of relocation and internment was one based upon paranoia and fear, blended with racism. The camps holding the Japanese Americans were desolate.  The people sending the Japanese Americans into camps were even more desolate of soul.  Many Americans benefited from the relocation financially, but there were even famous Americans who benefited.  One famous American was Justice Warren Burger who courted power by these acts punishing the Japanese Americans, and he ended up in the Supreme Court.