Recently, my friend and I were talking about the internet — that the website, as a canvas, is like a new Chauvet or Lascaux, only less tangible and with a predilection for whims. Prehistoric horses and deer and rhinoceroses and, perhaps, humans seemingly have no need for pretense. (Perhaps my opinions regarding prehistoric representation are too conservative.) They may or may not function as symbols (we don’t know). But, self-reflecting, we don’t suppose they’re empty, that is, vacuous images. People like Georges Bataille, John Berger, Gustaf Sobin, and even Werner Herzog have attempted to read the images’ meanings beyond simple representations. And so, today, utilizing our new cave wall, ‘painting’ our new world, on its terms and at its speed, we’re prehistoric, again. Right? It starts hear(e). “Hello, hello, hello…” Emerging like a cave dweller, hooded and warm, Peter Broderick introduces us.
“The album that’s a website. The website that’s an album.” (I Google [v.] both phrases, and Peter’s album, or website, or http://www.itstartshear.com is, sometimes through various redirections, the sole result.) It’s true: we’ve seen, individually, the MP3, the streaming album, the comment section, the forum, and the social network. The novelty is thin and really only shows itself, if at all, in the blending. But I’m not terribly interested in the novelty and don’t intend to dwell on it. It is sufficient to say that all of this, anything addressed www, is new — very new. Only narcissism really and the illusion of speed suggest otherwise. No, what I am interested in is what Peter says after: “it’s kind of like liner notes that are… alive.” This isn’t the first time Peter has interacted with his listeners. In the past, for example, he has asked listeners to send in questions, and he responded to them in words and in song. His own story, in part, is similar; he befriended Efterklang on Myspace, exchanged occasional emails, and was one day invited to move across the world to play with them. This isn’t about novelty at all, but communication. Communication, etymologically, is rooted in sharing and participation, in dignifying the common by giving it, them, space to live. It is a voice, a song, a kiss, a molotov cocktail, a prehistoric rhinoceros, and Au seuil de la libertè, all at once. “…hello, hello, hello…”, he continues.
The first thing I noticed was that Peter responded again to his listeners. The listeners’ comments include technical questions, kind words, little stories, and even creative responses: photos, drawings, songs. (It does less good to give precise details of them here than to merely recommend you read them for yourselves.) There, too, is a published note from a concerned listener, that the MP3s are downloadable if you right-click them and “save as.” There still lives in us the vestige of music’s market value. And although Peter has not yet responded to the note, the publication itself and the existence of the website (as a free source of listening and exchange) verify his faith in the listener rather than the market. The album is a website, the website is an album, and there is no paywall. (I can only imagine what graffiti on those walls would look like.)
http://www.itstartshear.com is Peter’s most recent full-length, following How They Are and Home in method and style: homemade folk blending warm and drifting ambiance blending certain neoclassical sensibilities. It is familiar, but it is Peter’s familiarity. His work is too kind to be condescending, educated in a general (rather than specialized) sense, and shamelessly romantic. It settles, always, into a lush, personable simplicity. I can understand why some would write it off, but I find it totally welcoming. To borrow his own word, it is the sound of home, of a gentle hospitality.
His is the echoed voice: the voice layered on itself, and the voices of his friends and family. Here, Nils Frahm, his sister Heather Woods Broderick, and Friedrich Störmer have the largest presence, and rooting the project are others still: T., an unnamed ex-lover; Steven Broderick, his father; Colin Kenniff; and Peter’s deceased friend Matthew Andre Brown. It goes without saying that this album is about sharing with us the lives of people as Peter knew them, in a remarkably public way. Honestly, we know how hostile the internet can be. I wonder: Was it brave to show knowledge of the details of the prehistoric bear or mammoth? (Were inaccurate, exaggerated details on cave walls ridiculed? I don’t know.) Some knowledge only comes through survival. Peter writes on “Trespassing”: “This is the sad story of a life I stole…” He sings: “For a moment I still drive/ No chance you’re alive/ But I had to go back, face what I’d done/ That’s when I saw that you were whole/ Except your heart was on the side.” The kill is painted on the wall. Below it, around the dark of the e-campfire, people tell their own stories, sharing life, and life after death.
Elsewhere he sings, “No need to clean up/ When you can live with the mess.”
His is the scribbled, handwritten note. Peter writes about letters:
Perhaps part of it was the thrill of doing something so old fashioned in a time where slow communication is virtually unacceptable. Or maybe it was just the same old reminder that having something tangible, something you can hold in your hands which you must take care of if you don’t want it to become damaged or destroyed, will always be more precious than anything in the cyber world. Yet here I am, publishing this story on the internet. Welcome to the golden age of contradictions!
Are websites finite? Do they start and end? Does data die? Not in any conventional sense. They flower and pass like the grass of the e-field only as tech-bubbles grow and pop. Angelfire, GeoCities, Tripod: the graveyards of a thousand dancing babies, fan sites, and unstoppable MIDI tracks. But, as our final, most reliable living god, the Wayback Machine resurrects even the most forgettable among them, lifting up the lowly, and with it the decade-worn voice, into undue and unfortunate prominence. And I ask Google, “how long does an MP3 last?” I’m only one of two now stupid enough to do so publicly it turns out. Forever, we guess. (Only as long as the device or listener, the market knows, or hopes.) We don’t have proper foresight, just memories, buried like a million flashing GIFs on a hundred million websites. I can only guess that Peter knows of the impermanence of the thing he’s made, but I guess we’re still discovering 32,000-year-old cave paintings. Five-thousand-year-old Greek fragments are on display at the Met. I still have 200-year-old journals and a box full of letters my fiancée wrote me.
His is the long, sweet sentence. There are clunky ones, too:
“And when you’ve been behind so long
Catching up just seems impossible
Because the way you go
It is the only way you know
And so rather than find a new path
You just stick you the one you’re on
Even though you know
Even though you know
Even though you know
I listened to this song often, on repeat, about three years ago, after the first MP3 of it surfaced on the internet. I didn’t know its name or meaning, but I knew those lines and the chorus: “Only thing I know/ Everything I know is small.” I sung it to myself over and over. It was after I moved to Portland, during the worst year of my life, after S. died, while too much was going wrong. Today, I’m given a title and story: penned on a wall in a bathroom stall were the words “you’re probably stupid,” to which Peter responded, “but you’re still beautiful.” That, I think I learned too is the sentence: that we are condemned to stupidity and to beauty, and at best we live in the tension. I know Peter knows that he is tame. On “Bad Words,” he writes: “This time [she, a friend] was describing with a smile on her face how my music was too sweet. How it was always so pleasing and pretty, perhaps lacking something courageous and edgy.” And his responses in this case, however vulgar, are amusing, pretty, and by their nature, sweet. They are bad words, sure, but they’re still words, demystified though their notes and transformed into a gift. What is more courageous, anyway: aesthetics or ethics? What now is more edgy than sincerity? And what is more dangerous and terrifying than communication? Tyrannies and snobs alike hate it. And all of us are left still asking these questions after too many years of trying to talk to each other, painting (or reblogging) on our own prehistoric walls.