Sunday, February 27, 2011

New Music Commission 2012

I'm overdue to announce that I have been commissioned to write a new piece of music: for Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, of Madison, WI. Perfect Harmony is celebrating its 15th year next season, and the commission is both a celebration of that anniversary, and to be presented at the next GALA Festival in 2012.

I've been involved with PHMC now since 2007, when I joined after my Dad died, to find some social contact with other gay men, and to get back into choral music. I needed both musical and social reconnections, at that time. I am an alumnus of two other GALA choruses, the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Perfect Harmony is a much smaller chorus than either of those, but it is full of men deeply committed to making music together, and to supporting each other. I knew from my previous experience with other choruses that I would find what I needed, in singing together with other gay men.

TTBB male chorus repertoire (tenor, tenor, baritone, bass) is my preferred choral configuration purely for matters of personal taste. I just like the sound of massed male voices. I sang in the Michigan Men's Glee Club when I was in college, a male chorus of some distinction at that time, and found many rewards there. I fell in love with male choral music, both the social and musical aspects, and for me, that changed my life. I'm a lifelong musician, singer, composer, etc. I've sung in every kind of chorus configuration that there is, and male chorus is still my favorite.

San Francisco is the flagship gay men's chorus. it was formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the first phase of the gay rights movement. They did a concert tour of the USA in 1981, spending a long time on the road, giving concerts in city after city, town after town, after which LGBT choruses sprang up all over the place in their wake. Now the GALA movement has become international, with several hundred choruses around the USA and the world. Every four years there is a GALA conference held in a large city, where several thousand singers gather with their choruses to perform for each other, to share their stories, to enjoy life, to party, to gather together in music that binds us all together. I attended the last GALA conference, in Miami in 2008, with PHMC, and it was for me, as it is for many other people, a life-changing and life-affirming experience.

GALA is one of the most positive faces of the national and international LGBT communities in our time, in our culture—which remain oppressed communities: politically, socially, financially, in terms of civil rights, and in many other ways. Singing together, we function as ambassadors of culture to the world, spreading positive messages of acceptance, diversity and inclusion.

Before some cynic points out how my last statement here sounds like the "politically correct party line," let me state for the record that I genuinely know all of the above to be true. It is based on my experience, and on years of observation.

I have been singing in choruses, first in church, then in high school and college, since I was 7 or 8 years old. I've been playing piano since I was 6. I've played every instrument in the symphony orchestra except the brass instruments, which I have no ability for. I'm a composer, a lifelong musician, a performer, a creative. Music is central to my life.

I have seen the same story time and time again: Making music together, in LGBT choruses, singing together, has changed peoples' lives for the better. It's given people a reason to go on living when life has become hard and difficult for them. Lesbian and gay people often have to fight for their lives, for their very right to exist; the GALA choral movement has given many a sense of community, of life, of affirmation and validation, beyond anything they'd ever had before. I've seen people choose to live, rather than give into the pressure to remove themselves from daily life, go off into a corner, and die.

And that is source and purpose of the new music commission I am undertaking.

The nature of this 15th anniversary commission for PHMC is to tell the stories of the members of the Chorus. Through interviews, writings, and other means, I have been gathering their stories, to turn into a suite of songs that will be premiered in Madison in spring of 2012, then performed at GALA 2012 in Denver, CO. The nature of the commission is to tell the stories of the men of Perfect Harmony: what it is like to live gay in the Midwest; what it was like to group up gay in the Midwest; and how we, as Midwesterners, with our own unique culture, are different from the usual gay stereotypes, which are based on the urban gay ghettoes of New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the other big cities of the two coasts. Our culture here in the heartlands, what some of the urbanities of the coast call the "flyover zone," is indeed from that of the coasts. Calling the Midwest the heartlands is accurate on so many levels. The music will in the end reflect its sources, and reflect, I hope, some aspects of what living gay in the heartlands is like.

As for my personal feelings about this new music commission:

I am gratified, grateful, and pleased beyond what words can say to have won this commission. I was not the only candidate for doing this commission, and it was not a sure thing that I'd be offered the work. My gratitude extends to the point where I want to do the very best job that I can do. I will go far beyond the usual requirements to make this new work be the best that it can be.

I am doubly, triply pleased to be working as a composer, actually being paid to write music. It's what I've always wanted to do, ever since music school. And I hope this is only the first commission of many, in the future. This is how I want to spend the rest of my career: earning my living from my creativity. Writing music. Writing choral music, for that matter. If this commission leads to other GALA choral commissions, well, nothing would make me happier.

More on this project at it develops. I'll keep you posted. I've already started writing, but it's still early in the process.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Pacific Ocean

images of the Pacific Ocean, from northern California, February 2011

returning home
to the mother
ocean of dreams solace comfort
surf pound drowns out all other sounds
drowns out all inner sounds
brings silence within peace within
ocean pacific even when stormy
ocean pacific bringer of inner silence
solace content

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

returning, past sojourn

no more red-yellow-gold-banded canyons
all flat grasslands now, till snow takes over again
no more long days wearing shorts in the southwestern sun
all colder, bleaker, shivering, till home is a blanket
no more dry vistas seen across 50 miles of clear air
all big sky filled in with houses, or trees between
no more long views across peak to peak rocks exposed
all filled in by haze, some of it man-made, some of it cloudfog
no more colors in the land itself, red soil, white sand
all barren dull late winter bleaknesses, ugliest time of year
no more spring early in the calendar
all true temperate spring, late as half the year
no more jagged mountains adrift above frozen tundra
all rolling hills worn down by long time, mountain runoff
no more cactus forests, cottonwood budding in the bosque
all dead bare blank deciduous, crowned clumps like giant tumbleweeds
no more tumbleweeds blowing across even suburban streets
all immaculate yards in which the foreign invader must be punished

I wish I was home already
I wish I never had to return

Thoughts: Very few poems this roadtrip. Most of them rather bleak. Bleak lands reflected in the poem, but also laments for lands emptied by decimating poverty and strife. And I have to say: if I could live full-time in Death Valley, or Zion, or the Tetons, or other favorite National Parks, I would. To wake up every day to dramatic vistas filled with ever-changing light, the air and sky vibrant with giant splendor. Some state parks just as inviting, just as dramatic. It puts your own life in perspective. You keep down the drama because it's nothing in comparison to what you wake up to every day, opening the curtains to let the view in.

Don't feel much need to write things out, just to write them out; the journal hasn't been more than a page a day, most mornings, and then just a record of happenings and locales. Unsure myself that any of these few poems I did manage to write were worth the bother; maybe one or two; maybe half. Genuine Writers will no doubt sneer. More and more, in the current phase of work, words are particles to be set to music, not stand alone entities. Only a few of those; call them poems, or jottings, or randomized memorizations of the day's mood and morals.

Other thoughts: This roadtrip, probably because I've already been weakened by chronic illness and its fallout effects, altitude sickness was the worst I can remember ever feeling. It kicked my ass, again and again, more than one location. Sinking back down the long alluvial fallout from western plains to eastern, from foot of mountains to the Great Lakes, sinking down gradually thousands of feet over hundreds of miles, I feel myself return to a masque of strength and endurance. Things have improved, but not when the stresses are piled up by location, experience, exertion. Still have a couple of more days full of nothing but driving, no particularly eventful or spectacular scenery, before I get home. Beauty is where you find it, certainly. Yet after weeks in the mountains, in the deserts, by the ocean, gathering days and vistas like fuel for an invisible inner bonfire, it's just an endurance test to get through these prairies; it takes all my energy to go on, to see any beauty at all, by contrast, in these winter flatlands full of winter-flat people and their tiny little lives.

People everywhere are incredibly provincial. They're all bound up with their local little lives. Few people travel, physically or mentally, very far outside their birthplaces. Few are born travelers, born uprooters and explorers. I align myself with the travelers, obviously. You overhear conversations in restaurants, truck stops, park stores, public places, everywhere you stop briefly from your solitary driving and beauty-seeking purposes. Most of what you overhear is so tied up with family dysfunction, little dramas writ large (yet so small in comparison to the land's vast scale, even smaller under the night sky), stories of how cousins or sisters have to go back into rehab, how the thug punks standing in the corner of the chain bookstore are talking about their truancy jail time as though it were a badge of honor, stories of how breaking up with a lover is the most tragic thing in the world. Flocks of teenagers.

The ladies of the canyon: I sit at a table at a general store in a beautiful desert canyon state park, surrounded by the chatter a group of wealthy women who have all driven their horse-trailers pulled by big SUVs into the park that day to spend a day bridle-trail-riding. I'm the only man on the scene, with nothing to do while waiting for my food but overhear their discussions of their childrens' college dilemmas, and other such domestic scenery. Then I mount up and leave, driving out past all their horses still in their trailers. Well, at least these ladies of the canyon get outside, in the good air, to do their gossip.

Most people really do need to get out more. Get away. Travel. Discover what a bigger world exists outside the inward circle of their own insular self-circling. Some of the best conversations I've had with strangers on this roadtrip have been about travel, moving house, finding new places to be, finding new selves to become. Changes in life that seem to give permission to do what you already wanted to do; freedoms found when old lives fall away and die; chances taken that lead to awakening and joy. So there's an up side to what you overhear on the road, as well the provincialism: some of us, out there, apparently lost, are not looking for joy, but have found it. An occasional bumper sticker on a baggage-overloaded van says it well: "Not all who wander are lost."

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Monday, February 21, 2011

the staked plains

fog on the staked plains
flatlands red-soiled farmlands
north Texas panhandle
full of days of dry air wind and dust

fog wakes you in gray enclosures
walls wombs and paradise
a millstone tied to the heel of a grackle
and cotton scraps clinging to stalks
months after gin season

who could breathe in this cotton snow
this red-brown dust blown from dry farm fields
feral cats everywhere trying to shelter inside

fog burns off by noon
but it's still hazy in the far distance
where the caprock falls off sudden
as plowed plains give way to desert canyons

up on the table not a single landmark
so stake the soil with scavenged wood markers
a little dip in the flat marks a part-time stream
in the long yellow-grassed draw

perfect geometry of paradox
dry cracked skin bone like river
mudcracks and lawn ornaments
aligned magnetic fields of cliffrock

meadow with cactus grass and pine
trees integrating dry spells with other data
no place for vineyards yet here are
winter dry wines crisp and local

so fog be a blessing a humid touch
clouds be thanked for shade and succor
rain be praised as healing
although you arrive rarely
you arrive in splendor


Friday, February 18, 2011

Crater Lake, OR

sky caldera nestled in ice
high island in cloud land
snowbound roadblind still

humpbacked lake spirit rising
briefly into air, into light
long surge of low bells against the mountain
ringing on the inner ear

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Where the Buffalo Roam

at Bear Butte, South Dakota, February 2011



define travel as stopping between wastelands
places most hurry through not wanting to stop
significant emptiness under huge blue skies

miles of land no one wants
hellride tires eating road underneath
plummet down hills not scenic but staid

flat range between cities
long width of sprawling valley
that can't see the mountains on either side

stopping place where gallons well up
making small marks on indecipherable maps
someplace between wastes

what labels desert as wasteland is no-one wants it
or wants to live there, except hermit-crab rare birds
who dwell to get away from people

where waters spring out the clichéd palm
flocks of trucks at their troughs
sudden noises of gathering

but where no-one stops is where I like to
listen to desert silence, alkaline emptiness on the wind
airing out the mind, letting stillness fill up
inner rooms of mercy only just abandoned
coming to rest to scent the perfume of the desert

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Monday, February 14, 2011


Zion National Park, UT, February 2011

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, February 2011

moon in a hard blue sky
traces of wood clawed by wind
rockface hard varnished
ravens in the pinon pine
on canyon's rim, on trail

I dream of an evil that must be healed

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fair Warning

I find myself constantly in the felgercarb these days for speaking my mind.

People want the old complacent, quiet me back, I suppose. They'd welcome a return to the old moderate, not-too-showily-liberal, not-too-openly-gay me. What is it about you that makes people uncomfortable? I can tell you in exquisite detail what it is about myself that seems to make some folks uncomfortable.

Well, fair warning: Life's too short to do anything but live it to the hilt. I've had too many recent brushes with mortality to feel like editing my statements just to make others happy, or to conform to their ideas of keeping the peace.

This attitude is indeed a change on my behalf; I acknowledge that.

What's new and different about me is that I no longer care to edit myself just to make you happy.

Several long-time interlocutors and correspondents seem to be having a problem with that. Well, they just need to get over it. Life is way too short.

There's an element to this, too, of a renewed activism on my part: an anti-bullying activism. It's amazing how subtle it can be. The great philosopher Max Headroom once opined: Asking is only polite demanding. While that was said for humor's sake, there's an element of truth in it. Many people choose to frame their demands in the politest of terms—thus is born diplomacy. While no professional diplomat would rise to the bait in a burst of outrage, in fact the art of diplomacy is designed to phrase such ardor in mainly non-confrontational terms. But the ardor is not absent; it's just subsumed. Diplomacy is polite, verbal sparring that is meant to deflect actual, physical sparring.

My renewed activism against bullying is based not only in tragic, ongoing, exemplary recent events—such tragedies are always ongoing, but the media don't report on them until horrid situations reach a certain critical mass—but on long-contemplated thoughts about my own history of having been bullied. I've written extensive, controversial essays about that, and posted them here. (Just click on the label "bullying" after this post.) Some—"commentators" is too tame a word for their vitriol—have gone so far as to claim that the truth of my experience was fiction, that I was lying. How sad for them to discover, eventually, that they are wrong.

One tactic bullies use, of course, is to deny that they are bullying anyone. So they must vehemently deny the truth of anyone's experience who in fact was bullied.

You see this form of negative attack in the media reports about bullying, too: the deniers who insist it all meant nothing; that there was no connection between political hate speech and political violence; that bullying a kid for being gay, or merely being assumed to be gay, had no connection to their poor self-esteem and/or suicide attempts. Some of which eventually succeed. These deniers demonstrate their prejudice by their disconnected illogic: their alternate narratives rarely stand up to the philosophical test of simplest explanation generally being the true one (Occam's Razor).

I've taken on a lot of philosophical and literary bullies lately, mostly with the result that I've gotten banned from supping at their tables. Which I find fascinating: Anyone who would ban you for disagreeing with them, and being able to back it up, is basically banning you because on some level they know their own arguments can't hold water, and they don't really want an open discussion about their topic. An actual, open discussion about their topic could shockingly prove them wrong.

How did I take on those bullies? Simply by speaking my truth, i.e. the truth of my experience and knowledge acquired by experience and research—which happened to be different than theirs. My sin was quite unintentional. I just spoke what I knew to be the truth of my own experience—which was different from theirs. Substantially, demonstrably different. That's enough to get you demonized, in some circles.

One of the most pernicious arguments that intellectual bullies will try to perpetrate on you is that there is no difference between X and Y when in fact the difference between X and Y is precisely what drives dissent. It's like the old folktale about the Devil trying to convince you that he doesn't exist—and bullies don't actually bully anybody. Uh huh.

How did I learn what things I say that make people uncomfortable? You acquire that data by walking quite unintentionally into the minefields that you didn't know were there. If you pay attention, it's not hard to notice when peoples' buttons are getting pushed, whether you intended to or not. Most people don't live their lives consciously—they don't even know their own minds very well, nor their own prejudices. Count yourself blessed, and far ahead of the pack, if you do.

How can you spot such prejudices? It's very simple: They don't hold up to even basic logic or reason.

Not that reason is the end of all arguments—the mind can't do a thing to help the soul, in the end, when the soul is in trouble. And you can't think your way out of a problem you got into by using the same thinking that got you into the problem in the first place.

But the illogic used in covert prejudice, especially by those who would deny they harbor any such prejudices, is usually glaring. It's not even self-consistent. The mark of emotion overruling logic is that logic, simply, fails.

This is, again, not to valorize logic over emotion; it is merely to point out that we are innately emotional creatures, and that logic is a learned discipline that requires immense self-awareness to maintain.

Actually I have no problem with honest prejudice. if somebody honestly, openly tells me what they like and don't like, I'm fine with that. We might disagree, but I respect their integrity for being honest with me. It's fine, for example, if you don't like my poetry and music, and never will. But don't make the illogical leap to say something like, my poetry is bad, simply because you don't like it. Your taste is no more infallible than mine. (Although mine might be more flexible than yours, although I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. Again, that's just experience talking.)

Those who claim objectivity are, in my experience, often those with the most deeply-buried, unaware prejudices.

Those literary critics who like to make Grand Pronouncements about literary matters (Harold Bloom, Yvor Winters, James Woods, etc.) are often the most unwilling to admit to their own biases—yet those biases are transparent to any close reader who pays attention to both what is being said and what is being dismissed out-of-hand. While it's perfectly possible to say "this is bad writing, clumsy and artificial and poorly executed," it's not possible to say much more than that. Critics who dismiss the entire body of work of certain writers, merely because they were "genre" writers, have their heads up their fundaments. Yet that is precisely what those same Critics who like to make Grand Pronouncements often do.

How sad for them to discover, eventually, that they are wrong.

Of course, like bullies, they can never admit to being wrong. Which is also sad.

Here's the logic of evolution: In order to evolve, you have to admit to past errors. You have to have the backbone to say: Oops, I blew it! I was wrong! You have to be comfortable with being uncertain and imperfect. You have to be willing to disarm your weapons, put them away, and live with the truth that you were wrong.

This is something bullies are usually unable to do. Admitting you're wrong is like admitting you're a bad person: the self-worth is conflated with the error. So it becomes impossible to admit you were wrong because if you do you're also saying you're a bad person. You see how emotion trumps logic? There is no logical reason why people should ever not make mistakes: we're limited, we're imperfect, and we don't know everything. Logically, self-esteem and being factually wrong in word or action have no connection. But they get tangled up, and emotion trumps logic again. Oops!

I'll tell you why I believe book reviewers are usually better than those Great Book Critics at doing their jobs: They give you an honest response, which you're free to disagree with, but which might help you to decide if you want to read the book in question, or not. Most reviewers keep ann open mind, and don't have an ideological axe to grind. The mark of a dishonest critic is that the do have an ideological axe to grind, and try to convince you that they do not. I have never had anything but distaste for such dishonesty; what's new and different about me, now, is that I'm not stopping myself from saying so.

I'm using literary criticism here as an example of a pattern one can identify in many arena of discourse. In fact, literary criticism is no worse or better, in its prejudices, than any other arena of discourse. It does tend to be more verbally vicious than some, however—perhaps because after all it is an arena built of words; or perhaps because there is in the end very little at stake, compared to other arena of discourse. (For example, diplomacy.)

The basic point I'm making here is that I no longer subscribe to the idea that words have no power to harm or hurt. Of course they do. They always did. Life's too short, I've discovered, to pretend otherwise.

On another level of reality, of course, words have no power whatsoever—at least that's the usual opinion in our own culture, where, unlike in some other cultures, we don't throw poets in jail for political dissent. At least those dictatorships that jail poets for dissent demonstrate that they actually do believe in the power of words to change the world. In our culture, we are far more insidious in our distaste for free speech: we treat dissent with indifference. We treat poets as useless. We label the arts as unnecessary to the wellbeing of individuals. We have chosen a far more damaging path: we have decided that words have no power, that they are beside the point. And since, in the world made of words, what you say is what becomes true (belief creates reality), therefore it is so: words have no power.

But that's not true.

The bullies and the deniers will tell you that words have no power to change the world. The political commentators who are invested in the nastiest forms of verbal abuse and hate speech disguised as everyday discourse will tell you that their commentaries don't influence the actions of those who commit hate crimes. The people who ban you from their table for dissenting with their opinions, who know deep inside that their opinions are baseless, will tell you that they are themselves free speech advocates.

How sad for them to discover, eventually, that they are wrong.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Black & White Mountains

images from the Grand Tetons, Jackson, WY, February 2011

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Grand Tetons in Winter

images from Grand Tetons National Park, Jackson, WY, February 2011

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Silver & Gold

Hoback River canyon, south of Jackson, WY, February 2011

sunset, Ft. Bragg, Mendocino Cty., CA, February 2011

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Jan Garbarek: An Appreciation

Jan Garbarek, saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and musical shaman, has been one of my favorite musicians for several decades. I listen to his recordings with fresh ears every time, no matter how often I've played them before.

I'm not going to write a biography here, because those are available. Most of Garbarek's recordings on the ECM record label, most of them still in print and available. Indeed, Garbarek's characteristic musical style has had an important role in shaping the sound of the entire record label.

What I want to give here is my personal reactions to a music that has meant a great deal to me.

Garbarek can be lyrical, even softly beautiful. His early work with Keith Jarrett has many such moments. But his distinctive tone and compositional style, his signature if you will, is a soprano saxophone tone that is hard-edged, sustained, clear as winter ice, and gets under your skin in the most remarkable way. It's a northern sound—the sound of Arctic Circle winters, the sound of wintermind, the sound of ice in the soul.

There are albums of Garbarek's, such as Dis, that rip your skin off and leave you naked to world. That leave claw-marks on your soul. There are others, such as Twelve Moons, which are the healing mirrors of Dis, in which your ripped-apart soul is reassembled with lyrical attention, with elegiac grace. Sometimes all at once.


Garbarek's music is a kind of improvised and composed music that, in the latter half of the 20th C., can only be described as shamanic. Spiritually, it follows in the footsteps of the late John Coltrane, of Albert Ayler. Like Coltrane's late work, this is music that transports, that transcends, but that doesn't ignore the suffering that led to transcendence. There is always a shadow of northern tragedy in Garbarek's music—this is almost a cliché to say, but it expresses it well—the same sense of tragic destiny and striving against the gods that one finds throughout the Norse Sagas. There is always, in the Sagas, a sense of the hero waging war on himself, as well as on others; of fate being simultaneously resisted and acknowledged.

A lot of Garbarek compositions are directly influenced by Norwegian folk music, and other Scandinavian folk music, including the shamanic chants of the living singers of Finland. There have been times when the music triggers a deep inner imagination, a kind of waking dream, that is very similar to shamanic journeying—at least for me. Perhaps that's because half of my personal ancestry comes from Norway, from north of the Arctic Circle. This music resonates deep in my bones.

There is also a deep inner silence in this music, which also leads it towards that shamanic, vatic, visionary thread in late 20th C. art—a thread often dismissed or ridiculed by the mandarins of artistic culture, particularly in this narcissistic contemporary moment, but there nonetheless. Garbarek is, I believe, part of this often-unrecognized thread of art that speaks directly of vision, of the inner self, of the life of the soul. The music is part of the soundtrack to this thread. It's obviously a thread in art that matters to me, and which I place myself within, as an artist. This is art that is intentionally transformative.

The shamanic aspect is like shamanic initiation: the dismemberment experience found in so many shamanic traditions, in which the spirits rip you apart, symbolically, actually, rip your soul to shreds, then reassemble your body in a newer, stronger, more powerful form. Some of Garbarek's music feels exactly like that to me. I've been listening to it for literally decades, yet it still has the power to rip me to shreds, then put me back together. The feeling emotional cathartic release is quite profound in much of this music, and it has the power to recreate that catharsis in the listener.

That is my main point here. Others can discuss the music in terms of jazz history, music theory, or other forms of discourse. Sometimes those other discourses seem pallid to me, unable to really capture the heart of the music; descriptive words for this kind of music stumble and fall short. So others can talk about musicology and music history.

What I want to say is very simple: jan Garbarek's music has the power to change your life, again and again, if you let it. At least it has, for me. There have been some occasions, when I was close to the dark night, when listening to this music was the only thing that gave me the strength to go on, to get through the night, to make it till dawn, to survive the void and abyss. I have survived my own dark nights possessed by shadow and darkness, in part, because listening to this music gave me the will to endure. Simply to endure. It's something to hold onto, when all else fails.

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