Sunday, September 29, 2013


Good music is instrumental in making one happy, and there is much of such music in the world. Truly excellent music, however, is much rarer, and has a much more profound effect. Indeed, the only possible way to describe it is rebirth. To hear such excellent music is to hear music for the very first time.

I try to avoid unnecessary hyperbole, but seeing Gothen perform at their cd release show was one of the most special experiences I have ever had with music. The passion, talent, and love reverberating throughout the room was enough to make this cynical grad student melt with feeling. Now give me a chance to qualify this melodrama with some details.

I first discovered Gothen when a link to their Kickstarter page appeared on my Facebook feed. The plea on the Kickstarter was simple, if not a little pretentious: "Support Gothen in creating a wildly beautiful debut album." Putting my reservations aside, I watched the promotional video.

I don't know how, but a one-minute preview of a song from a band I had never heard of caught my attention in a way that few songs ever do. There was something special happening here that I didn't understand. I pledged immediately.

In the coming weeks I followed the campaign like an anxious teenager follows a crush. As the deadline grew closer, I was sick to think that they might not reach their goal. What would happen then? It was crazy, but I felt wholly committed to the success of these strangers. In my own small way, I helped by posting links to their Kickstarter page on my own wall. I know at least one of my friends pledged after seeing the link. Gothen reached their goal mere hours before the deadline. Though I had no idea what the end result would be, I felt like I had helped something important.

Fast forward about seven months. On Friday Gothen had their album release show at the New Echo Theater in Provo. The building, previously the location of the Provo Library, was the perfect venue. In a large room on the south side of the building, rows of chairs sat facing a large stage. It felt like going in and sitting down to hear a recital. As it turned out, the recital ambiance was exactly right.

The show was perfect in every way. I don't say that lightly. It began with the audience. The audience was not made up of a bunch of cynical twenty-somethings looking to be entertained. Rather, these were friends, family, and strangers like me who all had some degree of sincere support for these musicians. Smiles abounded from start to finish. I've never felt such a positive environment at a concert.

The joy of the audience was matched by the confidence and talent of the musicians themselves. They put on an amazing performance, every one. The opening act consisted of a man and woman singing heartfelt songs to the rhythm of a soft guitar. The vulnerable sincerity of it set the mood. When Gothen took the stage, we were already enthralled. They only heightened our collective awe.

From the first notes on the piano to the last strum of the guitar, Gothen's performance was a once-in-a-lifetime display of talent and beauty. Their kickstarter plea was no hyperbole. The album is wildly beautiful. Every few minutes I looked over to my wife, gaping in disbelief. "I can't believe this!" I'd whisper to her. She'd nod in reply.

Gothen is not made up of mere musicians, but storytellers. And they aren't ordinary storytellers, either. These are kind of storytellers that take you to places more beautiful than you thought could exist. When the band (or should I say orchestra?) played its final notes, we, the audience, jumped up in eager exultation. I never felt so grateful for artists. I never felt so lucky to witness an artist's accomplishment.

My wife and I talked quietly as we left the theater, though we mostly just savored the feeling. We both agreed that we hadn't heard anything so beautiful in a very long time. We were only grateful for these musicians for showing us, again, how wildly beautiful music, and life, can be.

Thank you, Gothen, for sharing your gifts with all of us. Thank you everyone for making it possible.

You can check out Gothen on their bandcamp page here. Please do.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Escalante, UT (photos)

In all areas of academia there is a tendency to pursue one's own narrow questions without regard to other perspectives. Linguists ignore engineers, engineers ignore sociologists, and sociologists ignore physical science altogether.

Occasionally, however, a researcher faces a problem so vexing that she cannot solve it on her own. She inevitably comes to realize that the world, in its beautiful complexity, has a way of bringing to light the limitations of specializations. 

I know of a team of engineers, for example, that gave specialized cooking tools to people in isolated villages in South America. The tools were carefully designed to meet the specific demands of the villagers and could handle the realities of the harsh environment. Rationally speaking, the tools were perfect. Truthfully, however, there was a major flaw: the villagers did not use them. In spite of their brilliance and ingenuity, the engineers had no resources for understanding the social dimensions of adopting new technology. They called the sociologists for help. 

I don't think there is anything embarrassing in this. Though we live in a nation that enshrines self-sufficiency and extols the virtue of independent living, I believe there is strength in the ability to recognize our own interdependence. 

I thought I knew Escalante fairly well. After all, I had spent hundreds of hours studying interview transcripts and relevant literature. I read everything from local histories to government financial reports. I knew about their festivals and their origins, their heroes and their villains, their conflicts and their tragedies. And yet, when I finally went there, I realized that I knew very little. There was a life in the town that could never be captured through any kind of methodological reduction. I put my books away and walked around.

As I walked around the town and the surrounding areas, it finally struck me why there is conflict here between new lives and old lives. Intellectually I always understood the conflict and its reasons, but seeing the beauty of the place and its history, in person, opened my mind in a new way. 

It's like your favorite song. You love that song, and because you love it, you protect it from harm. When other people listen to the song you fear that they are unworthy, or that they might not appreciate its beauty, or that they might even defile it. It's more than a song to you. It's something sacred. 

These rural towns are no less than temples. They are holy lands, no less than old Jerusalem. And like Jerusalem, they attract pilgrims and spark controversy. For whenever there is a holy place, there is always the question of power: at the end of the day, who will have control of it?

Sacred space is not easily shared. Indeed, in many cases, sharing is expressly forbidden. How then are we to live, when so much of life is sacred?

We could secularize the world and bring everything under the reign of rational thought and equanimity. But who would want to live in such a world?

At the end of the day, perhaps we need fewer solutions and more understanding. I'm not so naive as to believe that if we just talk about our feelings then everything will be okay, but I do believe that it is much more difficult to murder your neighbor when you know him as a co-existing human being. Maybe then, when we start building relations instead of rhetoric, we will start to have the insight necessary to meet the challenges that seem utterly impossible on our own.

here's to that hope.

(all pictures taken with a canon rebel t3 on 6/1/13 - 6/2/13)