Arti Valorem

Arti valorem. It’s a directive, a suggestion, an ideal, something we should all encourage. It’s Latin (according to Google translate) for value art.

Two recent bits of pop culture that struck this chord in me this year were the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and the….uh….SAG Awards acceptance speech delivered by the cast of Stranger Things. (I know, right?) Let’s start with Hail, Caesar!, a film that I thought was subtly brilliant in its cultural commentary and hilarious in its subtleties.

In the scene featured below, George Clooney’s character — a bona fide movie star named Baird Whitlock (think Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments) — has become disillusioned with the motion picture business. Here he scoffs at the suggestion that the movies he’s been making for years actually have any “artistic value.” He’s promptly put in his place [and repeatedly, hilariously slapped in the face] by Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix, who tells him, adamantly:

“Just like the director does what he does – and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate – you’re gonna do it because the picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture. And you’re never gonna forget that again.”

The film revolves around Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) trying to clean up other people’s ridiculous messes, all while being courted for a job that would have him making bombs and airplanes instead of movies, a job that would make him a lot more money. But in the end, Eddie chooses to go on serving, in his own way, the inherent value he sees in the art of motion pictures, despite the disheveled and chaotic lives of all the folks involved in making them.

The picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture. It was a message I didn’t quite see coming. And it came, as I said above, in a subtly brilliant way. Also, this scene is so. freaking. funny.

While much of what comes out of Hollywood these days seems to fit snuggly in the category of escapism, even something that feels purely escapist at first glance can have a lot of substance simmering beneath the surface. This was the case, I found, with Netflix’s surprise hit Stranger Things.

The show was a fantastic throwback to everything 1980s. When it won the award for Outstanding Performance in an Ensemble in a Drama Series at the 23rd Annual SAG Awards back in January, one of the show’s lead actors delivered an acceptance speech that gave me chills and moved me to view the show in a whole new light, to think more deeply about the ideas at the heart of the entertainment. The speech is a rousing, impassioned battle cry insisting that art has value and that artists have a purpose: to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society.

Read this excerpt and then watch + listen to it below:

“This award from you, who take your craft seriously and earnestly believe, like me, that great acting can change the world, is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper and, through our art, to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture and, through our craft, to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired, they are not alone. We are united in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive. Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 mid-westerners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no homes. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the meek and the disenfranchised and the marginalized. And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy. We thank you for this responsibility. Thank you.”

Art has value. Value it.

The Blessing of a Broken Dishwasher: Mike Mangione’s “Time & the Mystery”

Our dishwasher broke right before Christmas. It wasn’t anything disastrous, but we did have to wait about two weeks for new parts to arrive. This meant two weeks of having to clean the dishes by hand, something I came to see, unexpectedly, as a blessing.

When we lived in an apartment, we didn’t have a dishwasher. The dishes were always done by hand, often while blasting music, streaming podcasts, or listening to NPR or lectures on YouTube. Once we moved into a house with a dishwasher, that experience — the experience of actively participating in an essential task — was no longer required. It honestly didn’t even feel like an option anymore. We had a dishwasher, after all, so it seemed ridiculous to not use it.

But in those two weeks of reverting to doing the dishes by hand, I re-discovered something: the joy of slowing down.

There’s freedom in resolving to put everything else on hold and do something that [may seem trivial or inefficient but ultimately] needs to be done. (Please, don’t tell my wife I wrote that.) I found myself thoroughly enjoying the break from all the other “stuff” I had to do. I pulled up a playlist of lectures on YouTube to listen to while I scrubbed and rinsed. A few days in, I seized the opportunity to finally start listening to Mike Mangione‘s new podcast Time & the Mystery.

Mike is a fellow musician, an internationally touring singer-songwriter, performer, and recording artist based in Milwaukee. While I really don’t know him all that well, personally, our paths have crossed many times over the last seven years. We’ve shared a few concert bills and I’ve had the privilege of hearing him perform (both solo + with a full band) several times outside of my own tour schedule. He’s a talented songwriter who expresses interesting ideas in his music. And he’s got a great stage presence. For those reasons alone, I’ve been a fan. But what I really appreciate about his new podcast is how personal it is.

In each episode, Mike sits down with someone and has a conversation. It’s as simple as that. He’s had conversations with comedians (Jim & Jeannie Gaffigan and Tom Shillhue), authors, professional athletes, bishops, and a plethora of musicians and producers (Matisyahu, Duane Lundy, Ben Sollee, and more). There’s no political agenda. Each episode simply provides an opportunity for the listener to sit in and listen as two people discuss life, love, family, inspirations, purpose, art, the creative process, community, and more. As Mike describes it:

“It’s not about sound bytes. It’s about sitting with people and taking time, slowing down.”

Our dishwasher has been fully functional for over three weeks now, yet I’ve still washed the dishes by hand over half the time. It gives my hands a chance to work and my ears a chance to listen. It gives my mind a chance to open, absorb, digest, and reflect.

Perhaps this goes without saying at this point, but if you’re unfamiliar with Mike Mangione’s music or his new podcast, I recommend them both.

A Violent Christmas

For many the world over, December 25, 2016 was a violent Christmas.

If you’re at all familiar with my music, you know that many of my songs (The New World, Enola’s Wake, The Dark Side, Brothers) deal with violence as it’s manifested in our modern world. As we move into the 17th year of the 21st century since the first Christmas, now seems as good a moment as any to reflect on the problem of violence.

To start, it’s nothing new. Men have been committing acts of violence for as long as men have existed. Even in the Bible — a collection of 73 books broken down into roughly 1,200 chapters — the first homicide occurs in the 4th chapter of the very first book (Genesis). As a chronology, as the story of a people, the Bible is an incredibly, intensely violent library.

But despite all of the genocides throughout history, the deadly wars waged, the various and grotesque forms of torture, abortion, and capital punishment that man’s creative capacities conceived, something changed, legitimately and significantly, in the 20th century. Violence and war became mechanized. The ability to kill in greater quantities and from longer distances slowly but surely made the concept of killing easier to swallow, perhaps, easier to rationalize and justify. The statistic below may well illuminate this point.

This statistic appears on the back cover of a book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman entitled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. The back cover of the book goes on to state:

“The good news is that most soldiers are loath to kill. But armies have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming that instinctive aversion. The psychological cost for soldiers, as evidenced by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. The psychological cost for the rest of us is even greater: contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army’s conditioning techniques and directly contributes to our rising rate of violent crime, especially among the young.”

That last sentence brings to mind the city of Chicago, where more than 40 people were shot over Christmas weekend alone and where well over 700 homicides occurred in 2016. On the international scene, Grossman’s quote brings to my mind recent images of the harrowing events in Aleppo, events that have been ongoing and worsening for the last several years:

What does all this have to do with Christmas? Everything.

The message of Christmas is peace: “and on earth peace, good will toward men,” as Linus the Evangelist relayed it.

The prophet Isaiah foretold: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” (Is. 11:6) The metaphor speaks of peace — peace between adversaries, fear of death and the desire to take life relinquished. Isaiah was referring to the long-expected Messiah named “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:5) and whose “dominion is vast and forever peaceful” (Is. 9:6). You don’t have to be religious to see the appeal, to see the beauty and the poetry in the story and the message of Christmas.

As we continue on in this new year, my hope is that all who celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace every December will make a conscious effort to remember the peace of Christmas on a daily basis and reflect — sincerely and intensely — on the problem of violence in our world, on the evolution of man’s willingness to mechanize himself as an instrument of death, and on the recurring failure of human ingenuity to find non-violent solutions to problems.

For far too many the world over, December 25, 2016 was a violent Christmas. Was “Peace on earth!” only ever meant to be sung by angels? Or is man able to have a voice in the great song, if only he’d choose to sing?

From the Vietnam War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis. A photo posted by Kevin Heider (@kevinheidermusic) on

The Artist’s Intent

NOTE | This simple post is dedicated to Aaron & KeriI’ve met many artists [of various persuasions] in my travels, but you two — your lives, artistry, work, talent, endeavors, and ideas — are truly and uniqely inspiring.

Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman once mused:

“I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music…film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.”

My first introduction to Bergman came in the Fall of 2009, when I attended a sort of retreat for artists in New Hampshire. It was hosted by an independent filmmaker and his growing community of artistic friends. The weekend featured diverse and thought-provoking presentations from poets, musicians, filmmakers, authors, iconographers, and philosophers who were Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic, and so on.

Ingmar Bergman (directing)Regardless of a participant’s preferred mode of artistic expression, sensibility, philosophical worldview, or faith background, we all had one thing in common: we were interested in exploring the mysterious intersection of art + faith, that is, the end of art. Such exploration often leads to wondering about the artist’s intent.

The filmmaker hosting the retreat opened the weekend by reading a passage from Bergman’s 1960 book Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman. The ideas about art and the artist’s intent presented have stuck with me for the last seven years, and the simple purpose of this post is to [finally] share them. Bergman writes:

People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.

We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal. Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts.

Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.

*for more thoughts/quotes from Bergman, see here

Words That Rhyme [or, Songwriting “Rules”]

I recently received a message from a disgruntled fan with an artistic bone to pick. He was writing to inform me that “last does not rhyme with glass“, adding: “it was a huge mistake to put such a glaring error in the first track”

Duly noted. (He was referring, of course, to the chorus line of “St. Brigid’s Fire”, the opening track on The Spark.)

But believe it or not, this isn’t the first time someone has brought up the issue of rhymes [or lack thereof] in one my songs. One of the earliest comments left under my most viewed video to date reads, in part:  “your lyrics, though fantastic, don’t really have a set scheme for rhyme or anything. I know songs don’t have to have that., I was just noticing.”

Concerning the first message, I’ll defer to the insights of California-based poet [and expert wordsmith] Dan Nicholls, who says:

“Half rhyme is a feature and not a bug! Or at least it’s in constant use. We like it (and notice it) so much we have a slew of names for it—slant, off, partial, etc. Add to this the stretchability of the other building blocks of our lyric sense—syllable and stress—and how hard our rhyme has to be (to be pleasing) is even less certain. Syllables pack in a number of sounds into the same unit and stress lets us swallow or explode sounds almost at will. And then there’s regional accent! Our language is inherently playful and stretchy.”

The other comment about my lyrics not really having “a set scheme for rhyme” was particularly interesting to me when I first saw it five years ago. Comments like it get me, as a songwriter, asking questions about the “rules” of songwriting. Questions like: Are there rules for songwriting?

Some songwriters might answer that question with an emphatic, Of course, there are rules! I’m inclined to answer, simply, No. A set rhyme scheme isn’t necessary. Bridges aren’t necessary. Choruses aren’t even necessary! A song can be amazing without any of those things. Here’s proof.

From the initial composition of the music to a song’s final arrangement, production, lyrical form, structure, and intended meaning (if any meaning was intended), the songwriting process is so utterly subjective and personal that to apply rules to it would be to limit the personal expression. And isn’t that the whole point? An artist creates something personal, shares it, and that “something personal” resonates with some audience somewhere for some reason, thereby becoming something so much more, something interpersonal, something communal.

One of the most interesting albums I’ve purchased in the last few years was Derek Webb‘s 2012 concept album Ctrl. It defies genre and convention. In Webb’s own words, the album is “both personal autopsy and cultural observation about how we use technology to try and control our lives”. It’s one of the most innovative and challenging concept albums since Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz. It’s a sonic trip through life, death, and re-animation, featuring nylon stringed classical guitars, drum machines, electronic effects, and Sacred Harp singing (which I had never heard of before this record). While it’s not an album I listen to all that often, it is an album that I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate listening to. I’ve relished [on numerous occasions] the experience of listening to it with other people and talking about it with them.

Despite the fact that he came to the table with something totally different and original, Ctrl didn’t find as much commercial success as some of Webb’s previous records, prompting this Tweet shortly after the albums release:

Those interested in the mechanics of the craft have no doubt noticed common norms and conventions in songwriting, especially in pop music. But norms and conventions are only “standards” or “rules” for the music business. The business needs a product with a pattern, with a formula, in order to feel safer about marketing and selling its “art”. The problem many independent artists have with this idea is that art loses so much of its personality and authenticity when it’s so heavily processed and so deliberately custom-tailored to fit into a professionally packaged commercial product. This is precisely why Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and more recent movements like Love Good Music have become so attractive to artists and their supporters as an alternative means of funding their artistic projects: it takes the chains off, frees the creativity from the demands of commercial viability.

As an exercise, tune in to your local pop or contemporary Christian radio station for just 10 minutes. Assuming those 10 minutes are commercial-free, odds are you’ll hear at least two songs with the following structure:

VERSE > VERSE > CHORUS > VERSE > CHORUS > BRIDGE > CHORUS (where most of the music drops out) > CHORUS (with music back in) > end song

This is a popular music industry formula. My purpose in acknowledging it is not to denounce the formula outright, for doing so would be to [ironically] impose a rule on songwriting. Besides, I’ve used that very formula in several songs of my own. When it works, it works. And that, I suppose, is my point, is my purpose: to make a song work as best I can, no matter how many norms and conventions I may have to disregard in order to feel like I’ve made something unique, something interesting. That’s the goal. And, as Flannery said:

Flannery O'Connor

So…sorry, disgruntled fan. If rhyming “last” with “glass” is too rough an assault on your senses, just skip to the next track. But watch out: in track #2 I rhyme “hide” with “find”.