Add Violence: My Journey With Nine Inch Nails

Challenged by friends, I set out to answer the question: “Why do I love Nine Inch Nails?”

It is a puzzling question, for sure. Anyone who knows me would never guess my favorite band. I am a classical musician by training, and a quiet person by nature. Even more puzzling is why I like Nine Inch Nails, but have never found a single other band in the same genre that I can tolerate. For me NIN is, apparently, unique.

[A note: This is NOT an overview of Nine Inch Nails, or a Greatest Hits compilation. Let me just note that although I am a decent musicologist in my own field, I am 100% not qualified to judge rock music. So I am only offering my own subjective reactions, not opinions.]

First I’ll tell you how I discovered Nine Inch Nails. That will probably reveal some things about why I like this music.

Picture it: Second Life, early 2007. I was a few months old and had fallen in with a community led by an artist and builder named Baron Grayson. Baron’s creativity fascinated me. The things he could pull out of his imagination were amazing. He was sort of Goth, which was a new thing for me. The worlds he created were dark, beautiful and rich with narrative.

Baron Worlds Collage

 

Baron and Trent smallBaron streamed NIN as the background music on his sims. The music was a perfect match. As you can see, he even modeled his avatar after him.

So NIN was the soundtrack of my life in 2007. This also tells you at what point in Trent Reznor’s evolution I joined the stream. It was firmly post-sobriety. I love all music by NIN but for this discussion I’m going to focus on music from 2002 on.

When I first heard NIN, I admit I recoiled from the more violent, screaming stuff. But Baron also played the moody ambient NIN and the acoustic and stripped down songs from the album Still. All the music on Still is pretty quiet, so it was easy for me to listen to.

[Adrift & At Peace – Still, 2002 – 2:52]

I remember thinking how much it reminded me of Arvo Pärt: meditative, hypnotic, and gently repetitive, like a mantra. The gentle repetition gives the music a feeling of stasis, of being suspended in time. At the same time, one can sense a subtle sadness underneath the serene sounds. I think I connected with that sadness, even more than the serenity.

Then Year Zero came out. At the time,  my life was in a place where the album’s message that “the world is fucked” totally resonated with me. All that despair in the lyrics, and the more violent sounds, started connecting with the darker places in my head.

Drawn by the darkness, gradually I found myself more willing to listen to the louder songs. And I was surprised by what happened. It was almost as if the music created a container, and instead of trying to push away my black thoughts and emotions, I discovered I could pour them into this container… and they wouldn’t destroy me.

For example, the last half of this next song just explodes in a violent tidal wave of noise – and somehow I found that instead of shrinking from it, I could fucking swim in it. I felt this exhilarating mix of primitive rage and elation.

[The Great DestroyerYear Zero, 2007 – 3:17]

I can barely tell you how liberating it was, after 50 years of trying to deny my dark side, to finally embrace it.

When The Slip was released the following year, I was embroiled in a really twisted relationship in Second Life. I was massively depressed, and one song on The Slip seemed to have been written especially for me. I played it over and over. Like many of Trent Reznor’s tortured torch songs, it’s very bleak and yet very tender.

[Lights in the SkyThe Slip, 2008 – 3:29]

So that’s the emotional underpinnings of my love of Nine Inch Nails.

But there are also some more objective things I like.

I like that the music sounds transparent, even when it’s loud; the various electronic sounds are separated so that it feels like there’s space between them, and you can hear them, instead of having it all blend into one big soup of noise.

I like how he layers all the sounds, building layers and then stripping them away. If the sound was full out all the time, I would become numb. But he controls the level of intensity, letting it rise and fall so it’s never too much for too long. That actually serves to make the intensity even more intense. It is really true that nothing is so loud as when it is surrounded by silence.

[Copy of aHesitation Marks, 2013 – 5:22]

I like his use of dissonance and distortion, not gratuitously, but sparingly, to make a point, like the pain represented in the opening notes of Hurt, or the distorted bending as the world begins to come apart in the second verse of The Great Destroyer.

I like that he uses motifs that appear in several songs. They are like clues that connect ideas. Sometimes he will invert the motif, or harmonize it differently, sort of teasing the listener into following him into the maze. He refers to it as a “trail of breadcrumbs.”

I like that the music is intelligent. It’s emotionally raw, for sure, but it’s not mindless. It rewards thoughtful exploration.

As a singer, I have a deep appreciation for poetry, and I find his lyrics very affecting.

And I love the energy and the pure physicality of the hard beats. It’s part of what creates the container for my darkness, capturing my body and making me get involved. I can’t sit still while listening to Nine Inch Nails. It compels me to respond.

I’ll stop talking now and simply offer three songs that illustrate these points.

[Less ThanAdd Violence, 2017 – 3:30]

[While I’m Still HereHesitation Marks, 2013 – 4:02]

[Just Like You ImaginedThe Fragile, 1999 – 3:49]

to be continued…

 

The Joy-Sorrow Chord

Although I mainly write about the virtual world in this blog, I just want to take a real-world moment to note, with deep sadness, the death of the great composer John Tavener, who was an enormous inspiration to me, both musically and spiritually. I had the privilege of meeting him twice, once when reviewing his Grammy-winning composition Lamentations and Praises, and again when reviewing his epic 7-hour all-night vigil Veil of the Temple.

Tavener lived much of his life close to death due to a serious heart condition, knowing that the end could come any moment. The effect on his music was perhaps surprising; it has a delicate radiance and sense of timelessness, with one foot in this world, and one foot in the next. Listen as Tavener’s music was sung as Princess Diana’s coffin was borne from Westminster Abbey — it was a transcendent moment, beginning in luminous simplicity, soaring ecstatically into a magnificent ray of sunlight as the procession reached the west door. The very simplicity of it allowed millions to weep, pouring their grief and joy into the sound.

Sorrow and joy. It is fitting that I feel both things as I think back on what John Tavener has meant to me. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I could feel just one thing at a time. But sorrow and joy don’t happen one after the other. They seem to happen all at the same time. It’s like being in the midst of an oppressively dark, gloomy day, and suddenly one brilliant shaft of light comes beaming through the clouds. It’s still gloomy; the sunbeam does not dissipate the overcast skies. But it gleams there in the sky, testifying that there is, indeed, sunshine out there, somewhere, hidden behind the dark clouds.

When speaking of joy and sorrow, it is easy to revert to the old metaphor of darkness and light. Black and white. I have been accused, before, of believing in the darkness more than I believe in the light. Of being a pessimist, living with the expectation that the worst will happen. And therefore, somehow, causing it, as if I created the darkness.

I do not really think that is true, any more than I could, somehow, by force of will, have made yesterday’s rain clouds dissipate and turn it into a sunny day. We do not get to have that much control over the world. But that is beside the point.

John TavenerWhich is the truth, darkness or light? If I believe in the dark, does that mean I do not believe in the light? Is it that black and white?

People often speak about things being “black and white,” by which they actually mean something is either black or white. Clearly one thing, or the other. Well, if I have learned anything in this life, it is that almost nothing is clearly black or white. They are not even gray. Almost everything is both black and white at the same time. People, for example, are rarely purely good or purely bad, and also not a neutral-in-the-middle gray; we are all a messy mixture of both good and bad, simultaneously.

Thus it is with life. Almost every moment contains both darkness and light. Distinct, and separate, and coexisting. The via media, the middle road, is not some flat compromise of gray, but a lively tension resulting from the pull of two opposites.

John Tavener, who understood this, portrayed it in music, in his composition Ikon of Light. (Listen to it.) A string trio is the darkness, the soul lost and yearning. This is suddenly interrupted by a choir’s brief, brilliant cry of “Phos” (“Light”). This flash of light is not triumphant; even in its brilliance it is ambivalent. Tavener referred to the expression of “light” as the “joy-sorrow chord.” One chord that contains both joy and sorrow, filled with heartbreaking ecstasy.

That is more how I see it. Every moment contains joy and sorrow, heartbreak and ecstasy, sorrows and songs, darkness and light. Black and white, and every other color besides.

It makes no sense to me to be asked to believe in only one or the other. What seems more likely is that in certain moments, one aspect may be hidden. Yesterday, outside my window, it was a dark, gloomy day. The sun was nowhere to be seen. But even as I sat there in gloom, it was a sunny day. Not right here, perhaps. But if I were to fly high enough, above the clouds, it would have been sunny. Just because I cannot see the sun, right now, does not mean that it is not shining.

The belief that the sun is shining does not make the clouds go away. The presence of the clouds is not something I can control. They are there whether I want them or not. The challenge is to accept that there is sunlight, even though I cannot see it.

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It is not easy. Sometimes I need reminding that there is always, in every moment, both black and white, both sorrows and songs, both darkness and light. The music of John Tavener fills my heart with gratitude like a brilliant ray of light momentarily breaking through the clouds, attesting that there is sunshine out there, somewhere, unseen beyond the dark clouds.