1. How It Began
This chronicles the (hi)story of Cielo’s music, its sources and inspiration, its creation and life in the world, its hopes, defeats and future, plus all the unknowns and unknowables. Also, a lot of random stories and musings about music.
Cielo Hemon is Aleksandar Hemon’s music act. I am Aleksandar Hemon, but also, fundamentally, Cielo. Cielo, pronounced as an Italian word, means Baldy in Bosnian (Ćelo), which was my nickname when I was young, common among the criminals whose heads were shaved when they were in prison. It also means ‘sky’ in Italian and Spanish.
The first thing I want to say is that I don’t do hobbies. The Cielo Hemon project is as serious as the books I’ve written, am writing, or will write. As with all the other things I do, I want to do everything, pursue all the possibilities, take things to the logical extreme, while being perfectly aware—indeed expecting—that the music might never raise its head above the soothing surface of obscurity.
Be that as it may, this is how it went down: in March 2020, within a week of the pandemic being officially declared and Princeton University (where I teach) sending the students home, I found myself, like everyone else, in isolation and despair. Therefore, I immediately bought an electric guitar, amp and distortion, delay, and loop pedals—the basics I’d longed for since my youth. It was still very early on in the pandemic when I figured that it would last for a long time and that I might go crazy if I didn’t do something with the newly available time, the frightening endlessness of which would now allow me to return to music.
Back in Sarajevo, I used to play guitar through my twenties, and was once a front man in a band. I sold the guitar and the amp in 1992, because I needed money for my trip to the United States, and after that banged at the guitar only occasionally, most often various Beatles songs for my daughters. Until March 2020, I had never thought that I would make music again. But, as Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and a great American asshole, once said, typically appropriating Churchill’s quote: "Never let a good crisis go to waste."
The crisis was not primarily personal. It wasn’t that I was particularly afraid that I would die soon and that I should return to making music before it was too late — I don’t have, and have never had, a bucket list. I don’t even remember my exact reasoning in making the decision to undertake making music. It just became clear to me that the shape of my and my family’s life had changed, that now there would be an abundance of empty time and violent history, and that I should do music because it was obvious what needed to be done as it was clear that the sun was up in daytime.
I have long believed that there is such a thing as the audacity of despair, emerging when there is little left to lose. Everything but the racism and trumpist violence, on top of the pandemic, stopped in March 2020. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, and the future was (and still is) fantastically uncertain. A perfect set of conditions to return to making music, which is why everyone in the world and their mother turned to recording at home, in their studios or bedrooms. It is likely that there has never been more music in the world than there is now. If the aliens are eavesdropping on us the abundance of music/noise is probably blowing their superminds.
From the beginning of the Cielo project, I’ve been perfectly aware that no one in the world needed more music, let alone more of my music, now or ever. If everyone stopped making new music, we’re good for at least 100 years. Nevertheless, back in the spring of 2020, I’d sit in my bedroom, headphones on, playing simple solos or variations over the looping riffs, all the pedals connected in a nostalgic circle, my eardrums throbbing.
Abusing the guitar provided some relief, but I wanted to make actual music, not just play with it. Garry Winogrand, the great American photographer, once said: “My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph.” I write books to see what happens in those books. Now I wanted to make music so that it could be heard and danced to.
2. How It Began, Part 2
As I mentioned, back in Sarajevo, I used to play guitar through my twenties, and was once a front man in a band. The band was called Strajder (as in Strider), and I started it with Goran Marković—now my collaborator from the earliest stages of the Cielo operation—in 1987. We lasted for a year, then fell apart. While Goran continued to play and develop musically, I was in love, then heartbroken, then in love, then promiscuous. I started to write and publish, mainly as a journalist. In early 1992, I traveled to America on the invitation of a US government agency that facilitated cultural exchanges and I was a young journalist whose beat was culture (mainly film). I sold the guitar and the amp, because I needed money for my trip. I was supposed to return a few months later, but I didn’t because the war started. I have now lived in the US for more than thirty years.
It took me a while to get the documents, settle in Chicago, and find a low wage job. I had no money to play the guitar, let alone buy one. Neither did I have mental and emotional wherewithal to contemplate any musical project, or anyone to make music with. Music is always shared and made with and for other people, and I felt so lonely and isolated in America that for a long time it didn’t even cross my mind to play again—my previous life was irreversibly over, and the new one was not established yet.
But whatever little money I had for music, I would spend on going to Chicago music clubs and concert venues—Lounge Ax, Metro, even the jazz joints like Green Mill. I usually went alone and spent the time standing in the corner and simultaneously recollecting the good times at music shows in Sarajevo and imagining a future when I would play or dance with my friends. I was so far from my musical community of friends—not the least Goran—with whom I would’ve shared the experience that at some point. I was listening exclusively to classical music. It all started after one spring evening when I caught St Matthew’s Passion on the radio and subsequently spent three straight hours listening to it, becoming obsessed with Bach again—I had worn out my cassette tapes with The Brandenburg Concertos. Classical music has sacral roots, and now I realize that my obsession with classical music, and with Bach in particular, was related to an urge to pray, to a need to talk to someone who could see the tumult inside me. I have always been a staunch atheist, but music was, and still is, my religion.
But in America I was focused on finding ways to make a living and enable myself to write, in English. I managed to achieve both, but it took a long while. It was only after my daughters were born that I acquired an acoustic guitar again so that I could play old Beatles songs for them: “Yellow Submarine”, “Hey, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and such.
I have never been a good guitar player nor musician, but I always listened to a lot of music. For one thing, I can’t write without it—every one of my stories and books had a soundtrack to which it was written. “The Sorge Spy Ring,” the first story I ever wrote entirely in English (in 1995), required incessantly alternating between Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 in D major and Parliament’s Mothership Connection. “Death and Funk” was how I would describe my impromptu writing soundtrack. Another story was written while I incessantly listened to the mixes of a Chicago DJ who called herself Psycho Bitch.
After I realized that an aspiring immigrant/writer life in Chicago was what I was going to have to live in the foreseeable future, I made peace with my failing as a music maker, even if I was riven with a sense of loss. A displaced person lives in a world of regrets about all the things that could’ve and should’ve been done in the lost past, because the place where that would be possible—home—is no longer available.
So I wrote and published books, had teaching jobs, wrote screenplays—my creative life amassed, getting progressively more complicated.
And the perfect shitstorm of Trump and the pandemic arrived.
3. How It Began, Part 3
America is the land of oblivion, so it will soon be forgotten how horrid it was in 2020, what with the murderous pandemic and a psychopath president who fully reactivated all kinds of social pathologies. American racism was going through a veritable epidemic renaissance, and full-fledged fascism was (and still is) a possible, maybe even likely, political outcome.
But I thrive under duress. Once a catastrophe is afoot—and it often is—I turn hypomanic, and a great need to make stuff overtakes my despairing mind. All of my work comes from survival anxiety, even though I’ve always understood that it never guaranteed survival.
I suspect that it all has to do something with a need to have a sense of agency, which is not uncommon among humans. If the world is coming apart and there is no way to stop it, it is natural to feel helpless. But, then again, it is just as unnatural. Making—and making art—allows for a limited sense of controlling outcomes, of stitching the tears in the fabric of the world and reality. It restores, at least temporarily, a feeling of having meaningful choices in the world.
One of my earliest choices in the Cielo phase of my music making was to recruit (again) Goran, a fantastic guitarist and one of my oldest friends. I’ve known him since first grade, we spent our high-school years hanging out at concerts and/or listening to music and discussing it passionately. In the late eighties, in Sarajevo, we made music and performed with Strajder. Then the war scattered us, and our friends and families, all over the world. We stayed in intermittent touch, and I would always call him when I was in California (where he lives) on book tour.
This time around, the recruitment operation consisted of a single email, which I sent after I had demos for him to hear. We have now been working for three years on the Cielo project, which has now—spoiler alert!— pretty much fully reactivated our friendship, previously dormant due to displacement. You can say that we have now a place to spend time together, and that place is music. These days we talk weekly, making ambitious and not entirely realistic plans, just as we used to in Sarajevo when we were shamelessly young.
Aided with Goran’s musical genius, and the brilliant mixing and thinking by Alan Omerović at 5D studio in Sarajevo, Cielo has produced hours of music, spread over thirty tracks or so, which he has started releasing in November 2021. Moreover, Cielo has engaged a number of (mainly Bosnian) video artists and has, as of now, produced ten videos to accompany the tracks. A network of friends and collaborators—musicians, producers, video artists, DJs—is presently stretching across the globe: California, Sarajevo, Berlin, Japan. Cielo’s own DJing operation is in rapid development, as are plans for live performances, streamed or in front of an audience..
I am still in disbelief that Cielo managed to do all that, as are many friends and family and total strangers who expect from me stolid writerly disposition, or at least not to venture innocently into a new domain where I could be embarrassed by my rampant dilettantism. But it is too late for all that—the music exists, as does Cielo. They will never not exist again.
This is the story of their making.
4. The Early Years: Elementary School
The fact of the matter is that the history of my engagement with music, including the Cielo Hemon Project—particularly the Cielo Hemon Project—is impossible to tell without Goran Marković. For many years, I thought I had met Goran in second grade, because I believed that he had not been there during first grade. My recollection of first grade (which I entered more than fifty years ago) is anchored in the memory of my very first day in school, since it was, as it is for all kids, a big deal. But Goran told me recently that he joined the class only a week or two later—in a child’s construction of time, that week was as long as a year. I can now remember Goran’s first-grade face and shape, mainly because of the school pictures in which he is one of the taller boys. In Sarajevo kids’ lives there was always a stratification of friendship—you had your best friend, which was sometimes a rotating title, and then there was ‘raja’—your group, crowd, people. Goran was always one of my best friends, and al so part of my raja, not least because we always bonded in music. Since that second week of first grade, there hasn’t been a time when we were not friends, though there were some decades when we were geographically so far apart that our friendship was effectively dormant.
At the beginning of elementary school, my main musical influence was my cousin Ljilja, who was from Bijeljina but lived with us through her college years. She always listened to music on the radio, singing along liltingly. She and I also recorded music on a Grundig Magnetophon (whose smell of warm lamps and dust I can still easily recall). We’d sit by the radio, waiting for a song that merited pressing the PLAY and RECORD buttons simultaneously and then played it back over and over. Unless you already knew the song, you had to make a decision whether to record within the opening couple of chords, so the beginning was always missing and had to be imagined, like the beginning of the universe.
In elementary school, music was already a big part of my life (along with books, film, and soccer, all of which require different stories). In the fifth grade, Goran and I were volunteered by our language teacher and parents to join the League of Young Linguists (Liga mladih lingvista) along with our classmates Branko and Mirza. Branko and Mirza were also into music—Branko was taking music classes and playing flute, accordion, and guitar, while Mirza took guitar lessons and had generalist interests, like me, until he became obsessed with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. I am compulsively recollective so I am tempted to revisit the intricate web of musical bonds that connected the four of us. Suffice it to say, that Branko formed a Beatles cover band (because he somehow acquired a Beatles songbook, with all their songs, not an easy thing to find in socialist Yugoslavia) where I played rhythm guitar and Mirza played bass. Goran still depended on borrowing guitars from friends and haggling with his parents, promising better history and geography grades in exchange for one, so he was not part of it. Both Goran and I have a clear recollection of sitting in the back of the classroom (during a class) and comparing our lists of the best guitar players in the world. I had heard Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing and put Mark Knopfler on the list, and was hence very proud of my (false) expertise. Other than that, our lists were pretty much the same, featuring the rock guitar legends of the time: Page, Hendrix, Gilmour, Fripp, but also that Steve Howe of Yes.
Alas, in the sixth grade or so, we got into the serious, pretentious pre-punk music which we knew as sympho rock, but now generally referred to as prog rock. Along with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes was the most serious and pretentions of them all, projecting the kind of vapid intellectual ambition universally appealing to tween boys. Goran and I entered high school in September 1978, so that the end of our elementary school phase coincided with the emergence of punk and new wave. I was already into The Stranglers, The Clash, XTC, and Magazine, but on my first day of high school I still wore a T-shirt with a Yes logo. Recently, I tried to listen to Yes. It is mind-blowingly insufferable.
5. The Early Years: High School
After graduating from elementary school, Goran and I went to different high schools—I went to the math-oriented one (Druga gimnazija) and he went to the language-oriented one (Peta gimnazija). While the schools were within ten minutes of walking distance from each other, there were all kind of differences important to teenagers, not least the need to be fully socialized in the new environment, with your new ‘raja.’ At first, we spent far less time together than we had been used to, although, now that I think of it, it could’ve been that we didn’t really see each other only for a week or two at the end of the summer break. In any case, we learned new things in that interim—I, for one, started smoking and drinking, and was already perfectly comfortable walking into a bar (kafana) and ordering a double shot of bad brandy to accompany my cigarette smoking. I do remember stopping on a whim by Goran’s one day, and talking him into going out for a drink and cigarette, whereupon our friendship was fully rekindled.
I can’t remember, of course, what we talked about then, but it is a safe bet that it was music. Both of us were, and still are, strongly opinionated in all matters, not least the music. By the time we started hanging out again, I had totally abandoned sympho rock and was deeply committed to punk and new wave, including the electronica that was adjacent to it. Goran had taught himself guitar and music theory, with the help from his uncle, who was a professional musician in Norway. Goran was particularly adept in music theory, which aligned with his calm temperament and reasonable intellectual disposition, so that he cared far less about the image, attitude and meaning of music in social space (including our teenage version of it) than the musical structure of it all. In retrospect, we agreed far more than we disagreed on anything and everything, but if anyone is prone to the narcissism of small differences, it’s teenage boys. I remember many of passionate debate on the relative value of some song or band that would quickly (d)evolve into an argument on emotion vs. reason in art and music. The debates were always exciting and usually accompanied with the music that prompted it. No one who has grown up and lived in the digital era can fully understand the mesmerizing beauty and possibilities of a record player, the physical sensation of taking a record out of its sleeve and placing it on the turntable and then listening to it with your friends.
Some time after we came back from serving as conscripts in the Yugoslav People’s Army in 1984, I started compulsively writing poetry. I would face an empty page in a typewriter and then furiously type whatever sprung to my mind, struggling to give it some semblance of rhythm and prosody. I had no idea what my poems were about—they came from a need to speak and not from a need to say something. The compulsion to use language was no doubt a symptom of some post-military trauma, and the poems were rather dark, if incomprehensible. I guess I was depressed, as there were days, weeks even, when I would have a hard time getting out of bed, and when I did it was mainly to play soccer. But sometimes I did it only to type poetry, not unlike doing sit-ups, and add what I banged on the typewriter to the rising pile housed in a yellow manila folder. Eventually, over three years or so, I amassed about 1,000 poems. My mother, worried about my post-military mental health, would secretly read my poetry, so I once found her tear smudges on a couple of pages. I could not assess if my poetry was any good so I would obsessively reread it. In the evening, or before sleep, it often seemed to me that it was work of a misunderstood, ground-breaking genius. In the morning I would be awash in its incomprehensibility, verging on stupidity, which would feed into the depressive doubt that would then infect much of the day/week.
Because I could not understand my own poetry, and was therefore never sure whether it was any good, I sought outside affirmation—the whole project, now I understand, was about finding a way to be loved in the state of vast mental and emotional confusion. Nonetheless, I occasionally assembled a collection to submit to publishers (who never responded). At the same time, I frequently persecuted my friends, insisting that they read my poetry and tell me what they thought about it. They couldn’t tell me what they thought, because they didn’t understand what they were reading, so they dodged the poetry and avoided answering my questions about it.
The whole poetry project reached a point when the Yellow Folder was packed with unactualized poems to the point of breaking. I had no choice but to take up my guitar and start writing songs for which those words would be the lyrics. Actually, “writing songs” would be a generous description of the process that featured humming the lyrics (I lived with my parents) over two or three simple chords I could come up with.
It quickly got serious enough for me, however, to request a sit-down with my parents (and my sister who had no decision power but liked to poke her nose into everything) and present a case for their financing an electric guitar and an amp I believed I needed to further my creativity. I can’t remember what I said and how I presented my case for the electric guitar; I was probably passionate, determined, and relentless. The decisive thing must’ve been that they could see that I was invested in something that could get me out of my melancholic rut, so the request was approved. As everything in my life back then (and now as well) could generate a music reference, I recalled the lines from the Talking Heads song ‘Electric Guitar’: “An electric guitar is brought into a court of law/ The judge and the jury/…All listening to records.” With my family financing, I bought a Strat knock-off I would never be able to tune properly, and a 30 W amp with three inputs.
6. The Early Years: Strajder Rising
I could now start a band with Goran, who had acquired an East German/Japanese Gibson Les Paul knock-off, and was already very good at playing it. He had loyally suffered through my poetry, but was either more forgiving and/or less worried about hurting my vain feelings and was eager and willing to make music with me. We named the band Strajder (or Strider, in English), which is what Aragorn is called in The Lord of the Rings before he is revealed as prince. We then recruited Veba, one of my best friends to this day, who had a bass guitar (made in East Germany), and we started making songs together. Rehearsal space was an issue, of course, but Goran had a connection in his neighborhood municipal office, and we somehow gained access to a conference room, complete with a large table and the inevitable and ubiquitous portrait of Tito on the wall. This is where we would meet and play and construct our early songs. The next issue that needed addressing was the drummer, as we had none.
Then Goran ran into our mutual friend Zoka and mentioned our band and search for a drummer, whereupon Zoka pointed at the guy he was with and said: “Well, he’s one.” Thus, Dule joined Strajder. The only thing was that he had no drums, nor money to buy any. The audition consisted of Dule’s expressing his willingness to join. For a few months, the four of us would write songs and practice in the municipal conference room. Goran, Veba and I plugged into the 30W amp, while Dule hit with his drumsticks my guitar case as though it was the drums.
We were young, and therefore naturally unreasonable. We loved our songs, and wanted other people to hear them, so we decided—in a moment of glorious madness—to organize a show where we could play them before an audience. Music is actualized in other people, in their minds and bodies. We wanted to play them and experience that emotional transaction.
A friend of mine was president of the club of electrotechnical students, known as STELEKS, where the students often danced and partied. His official nickname was Seljak (Peasant) and I talked him into being our manager. There was absolutely nothing to manage, but he booked us our first show there. We had no experience, no drums, no recordings, no fans, no idea what our music sounded like beyond a 30W amp with three inputs on a conference table. But that is the thing with being young—you hurl yourself into the future just to see what it might look like and whether it is survivable. Thus was the Strajder fuck-the-torpedoes moment reached, and we scheduled our first show.
Just as we accepted that our first ever live performance might be an act of musical suicide, Dule scrounged up money to buy a drum set. The dates/days are murky as this all happened about thirty-five years ago, but I don’t think that the drums arrived more than two weeks before the show. We could not use drums at the municipal office, so we packed my little Fiat 500 and Veba’s Stojadin with equipment and went up to my family mountain cabin to practice. It was glorious, that week or so we spent together in the mountains. We could crank up our 30W amp, and I could let my voice go and holler to avoid missing the right note. We focused on details and ate my mother’s highly caloric food. Dule ate thirteen cabbage rolls (sarma) which were the size of his fist (he had small hands), then spent some time with his head in the toilet due to what amounted to a sarma and vodka overdose.
A couple of days before the show, we thought we were as ready as can be, except I had lost my already feeble voice. There was so much to worry about before the performance, so I dedicated myself to worrying. What I cannot remember and therefore cannot explain was why I, or any of us, never thought to wait a little longer and reschedule the show. No one was waiting for us or our music; we were absolutely obscure. As soon as we decided to jump, we were already high up in the air, ready to fall.
7. The Early Years: Strajder Peaking
On the day of the show, we were there. We set up our scarce equipment, did a superfluous sound check, as there was no way to control the sound, other than cranking up the borrowed amps in a small room. There was no stage, cables crawled through beer puddles, and there was only one microphone (borrowed). There were no monitors, so we in fact had no idea what we sounded like. We managed our terrible stage fright in different ways. I pretended we had no reasons for concern while sweating and smoking like a chimney, Veba was smoking and quiet as usual, Goran Zenned out by checking, tuning, re-checking and re-tuning all our guitars and the bass, successfully faking being confident in his musical abilities. Dule got terribly drunk, foreboding the rest of his life, and his death. We were all into XTC, particularly their album Black Sea, so the cue for our starting the show was their track ‘Travels in Nihilon,’ what with its thunderous drums and distorted guitars. When the time came, we gave a signal to the DJ, who played the XTC track as we were picking up our instruments.
I made no eye contact with anyone in the audience, which was but a couple of feet away and at my eye level. We exploded into the first song, and I kept my eyes closed while singing. I felt like a rock musician, distant but offering sincerity in my performance, basking in the evident difference between me/us and the audience—we were making something out of nothing and it was vanishing as we were doing it. The whole show was a blur I was going to remember for the rest of my life, but people told us they liked it afterward.
Once the adrenaline was down, and the pleasure of basking was fully absorbed, and Dule vomited in the bathroom, Goran told us that at the beginning of the show everyone played different songs. It was only after the first three songs that we all finally caught up with one another and played as a band, which also meant that we did one of the songs twice. The thing that kills me is that no one in the room—other than Goran—noticed that we fucked it up at the beginning. Without any monitors we could not hear ourselves, and the audience had no frame of reference. They must have assumed that the noise was intentional.
Back then, I was mildly embarrassed with the fiasco (though we didn’t go around advertising it). But now I love and appreciate the fact that when we were in our twenties there was no way to tell a difference between being avantgarde and being young and confused—it sounded exactly the same. There was little audible difference between heroism and lunacy, between despair and braggadocio. We were so blinded by our self-consciousness that we became un-self-conscious. If I am grateful for anything from the Strajder experience—outside of sharing it with my friends—it is that mad, mindless abandon. Now I think that art should always be made with such abandon, when you are young, and also when you are not. I am not.
We had more shows. Every fall, many a faculty (the University of Sarajevo consisted of administratively autonomous and physically disconnected faculties—mine was the Faculty of Philosophy) had what was known as freshmen nights (brucoške večeri) where some kind of slapdash ‘cultural’ program, mainly bands and DJs playing obsolete hits, was supposed to welcome innocent freshmen to their academic life. We played at the Electrotechnical Faculty, where the stage was made of classroom desks, which started coming apart under the drums as Dule hit them hard. We played at the Visual Arts Academy, where Djuro (of Bombaj štampa) was reported to have said: “Fucking Laibach” (“Jebo vas Laibach”). We played at Dom mladih, the prime concert venue in the city. There were other shows of less than middling success. There were never monitors on the stage, which is to say that I never really heard us play.
Then Seljak organized an open-air concert outside STELEKS. There was a gravel parking lot between the decrepit STELEKS building and the Miljacka river and a stage was set up there. We were the headliners, and the other bands included Cigla (The Brick), a punk outfit fronted by the 13-old (Kreševljaković) twins, and Letu Štuke, for whom that might have been their first show. We were the oldest, most experienced (4-5 shows under our belt). I totally took to the role of a charismatic frontman and was charming the panties off a few young women in the audience. The whole time I was dying inside from stage fright.
The stage had no monitors (of course) and there were a few dozen people in the audience, mainly the bands and their friends. The concert started in the early evening, and the large moon was already out. We were supposed to play last, after the night fully fell. The bend right before us was Letu štuke, which we had never heard before (nor any of the other bands). Letu štuke would become a great band, and are still active today. You could hear their enormous talent even then. The songs had shape and were loaded with thought and feeling—I remember their playing “Kao na zapad” and it was beautiful. We liked them so much that when they finished playing the four songs they were supposed to play, we told them to keep going. The other songs were just as good.
Then it was our turn. The moon was full and facing the stage. We opened with a thunderous song called Peter Pan and the Lesbians, the first lines of which were: “And what if I am still here/The mistakes are repeated (A šta ako sam još tu/Greške se ponavljaju)”. From all the other shows what I can really remember is the stories I told myself and others about the experience. But I can recall that night in front of STELEKS in intense physical detail, and one thing in particular—we were playing our fourth number, I was on my knees, close to that abandon I had imagined was possible while performing live, turned to the moon that was like a silver coin, when I saw policemen coming toward the stage. Because we were next to the Miljacka river, the sound carried along the river to the cluster of high rises populated mainly by the military officers and their families, in one of which Goran in fact lived. It was past ten o’clock, the officers couldn’t sleep from the expressive noise we were producing under the full moon.
They called the police, and the show was over.
8. The Early Years: Strajder Falling. Also, Sex.
I don’t remember the exact chronology of Strajder’s shows and happenings, let alone their causal connections. But several things happened. We decided to record demos. We had no money and no recording equipment, so we found a guy who had a 4-channel mixing board, lived with his mother in a high rise, and used his bedroom as a studio. It is not clear to me how we managed to record three tracks in his room, which was not sound-proof at all. This much I do remember: at some point, I was recording vocal for a track in which the opening lines were We built cities/ and the cities are razed (Pravili smo gradove/I gradovi su srušeni). I was putting some heavy emotion in my delivery, pouring my soul out, when the guy’s mom opened the door without knocking and said: “Lunch is ready.” Subsequently, he had to have his lunch with his parents, leaving us in his room to wait for the resumption of recording, all of the emotion deflated, our stomachs growling, everything smelling of stuffed peppers. The demos turned out to be barely audible.
Eventually, a point was reached when Dule was so annoyed with the impenetrability of my lyrics he announced he couldn’t play what he didn’t understand and we had to have a sit-down so that I could explain my words. There was a song entitled The Future Is an Insult (Budućnost je uvreda) that in no way suggested in what way the future would be insulting. The words that are hard to interpret are easy to misinterpret, and Dule worked for a military company, and the state was still alive (though it was dying without knowing it—the war was but 4-5 years away) and committed to the doctrine that the future of socialist Yugoslavia was bright and secure. In any case, I performed for Dule a dazzling analysis of my own lyrics, largely bullshit, for I didn't really know what I wanted to say, let alone what I was saying. The future was thus defused as a potentially conflictual insult. More importantly, I managed to convince him that meaning could be found in those lyrics, that they were about something politically innocuous, and would not insult his Air Force employers. He agreed to continue playing. The downside of my exegetic success was that Dule was now also compelled to write lyrics—I made it seem easy, though it wasn't. He brought in some lyrics featuring eagles and their bloody talons, rather goth metal stuff. It was even more terrible than my stuff, so I had to produce more dazzling bullshit to keep the monopoly on word production while eschewing further lyrics discussion.
Then Dule quit the band. I can’t remember exactly why, but at least part of the reason, in addition to impenetrable poetry, was that he didn’t think that Veba and I were good enough musicians. There were other things too, as he was a troubled young man—but then, who wasn’t? Ever unrealistic, we decided that he should be replaced by a rhythm machine. In the summer of 1987, Veba and I were working for my father who was building our second family mountain cabin. What he was going to pay us for work done, we were going to dump into a Roland 606. Once we got the machine, Goran figured out how to program it, but we never really used it as we didn’t know how to connect it to our three-input amp. Also, Dule came back. Now I think of all the possibilities we didn’t exploit with the Roland, which Goran subsequently used collaborating with other Sarajevan bands (SCH, La Banda), and of all the other directions our music could've taken, but didn’t. You can see your life as the paths taken, and then you can see it as the paths not taken.
As we were becoming more ambitious, Goran and Dule pressed me to practice singing more. I would lock myself in my room and would sing along with Elvis Costello (particularly on Punch the Clock!) and Paul Weller (of the Style Council phase), because I loved their singing. Goran and Dule also suggested that I practice guitar more. I knew the chords for my/our songs, but outside that there was a vast, intimidating field of music theory and craft. More complicatedly, I was getting deep into Einsturzende Neubaten, Swans, and Sonic Youth (Daydream Nation—the last great guitar rock album, was released around that time). Which is why my guitar practicing usually meant my kneeling in front of the amp and generating feedback, my guitar howling and wailing in ways I found hypnotic.
But that was not the direction Strajder would take. Instead, Dule and Goran found a very good bass player, Neven, and we replaced Veba, after an unsuccessful attempt to cast him as the lead singer. I felt that we betrayed Veba, for which I still feel guilty. Perhaps in the long run it would’ve been worth it, as Neven was brilliant, and we had one or two shows that were pretty good. But two things happened: 1) I was now the worst musician in the band, by some distance; b) far more importantly, I fell in love.
Art is sustained by artist vanity—we think that we are important, smart, and unique enough to be speaking/singing at the world. Thinking/feeling such a thing is always at least partly delusional, and could, therefore, be a symptom of perpetual insecurity, which can be assuaged only by other people’s attention—that is certainly the case in rock music. And what greater attention is there than love? And the ultimate reward for that attention, for a young person like me, was sex. We fucked a lot, my girlfriend and I, which is to say I wanted to spend a lot of time with her, and all the angst and deep, dark thoughts were somehow banished by the perpetual joy and drama of love and sex. I can’t quite remember how exactly Strajder ended, but the fact of the matter is that love ended it.
Bosnians might say: Who knows why that was good?
In any case, Goran went on to play and collaborate with various Sarajevan bands and musicians. We remained friends, of course.
Then the war came and scattered many of us around the world. Versions of my wanderings are in my various books. By way of Germany, Goran ended up in Monterey, California. He’s still there, but also here, or wherever Cielo’s music is.
9. Howdy, Hand of God!
After a few weeks in the bedroom with my guitar, I wanted to record the distortion and loops, the chords and riffs I came up with. Garage Band on my Mac was the obvious choice, though I hadn’t tried to use it ever before. I have a fear of technology, not so much because I feel I am too old to use it, but because of a fear of failing, of the technology defeating me, of appearing stupid. In short, because of my vanity. But sometimes I dare cross the threshold into the digital unknown, or at least into the unfamiliar.
It was only in the summer of 2020 that I dared finally open Garage Band. It’d been there for a while, and now the time had come. At first, I just experimented to figure out how it worked, but I’d eventually surprise myself by producing three tracks using exclusively Garage Band loops. It was like playing dominoes or Tetris, fitting pieces into slots that felt right. The process was exhilarating, the tracks sounded good (if muddy and murky) so I thought I was ready for the next step.
I acquired Logic Pro (Thank you, Princeton University!) learned the basics of using it from YouTube video and, more fruitfully, from a fellow Bosnian (Thank you, Asim Haračić!). I spent hours looking for the loops to lay down in pursuit of the beat that I had felt as possible in my body—the beat that would fulfill the need of the body to dance. This was at the time of the (first) pandemic peak, in the late summer of 2020, when, on top of the ravaging virus, trumpist racism was laying waste to this country just as wildfires out West were destroying thousands of acres of forests and natural habitat. The town of Princeton was effectively deserted, and the building where my office was and where I produced music, was post/apocalyptically empty.
What my body/soul wanted was to be with other people and dance, which at the time seemed as impossible as life on Mars. Music is inherently a utopian project—as all art is. Music always presumes the presence of others at the other end of the creation. It always assumes a possibility of a future in which what you have made will be in existence and there will be people who will have some interest in it, love for it, or even play or dance to it. Now I understand that making music was for me a way to imagine a future in which that music would exist, which did not seem certain at the time.
But there was also healing value in losing oneself in the endless decisions needed to make a piece of music, and then hearing the music that was the consequence of those decisions, all of which evaporated as individual moments to merge into the flow of creation. I would start searching through thousands of guitar loops and four hours later would stop because my bladder was exploding. Then I would pee, have a snack, and dive back in. The music was the safe space, where I had agency—as opposed to the helplessness one is bound to feel as a society seems to be collapsing.
After the three Garage Bands proto-tracks (Cielo would eventually return to all of them and remix them properly), I was dealing with Logic and its possibilities—I was beyond toying with the loops and the grid, beyond merely hoping for happy accidents. I wanted to be aware of possible consequences of my decisions. But I can’t remember the individual steps in the process of making, only the pleasure of it. If I try to recall the details of the process all I can remember is the trance of being inside the music I was making.
It took hours to lay down the beat loops. It took days to sift through all the Logic guitar loops (eventually, there would be eight in the first mix). I spent a day or two going through Peking opera loops then cutting and editing them, and then it took more time to zone in on vocal loops that had a certain celestial quality. A little later, Goran would add a few more guitars, which in their brilliance and simplicity took the track to a place I hadn’t been able to imagine. Even so, I couldn't find everything I wanted, which is to say that I had to record. I had already purchased a guitar and Asim gifted me a MIDI keyboard, but I hadn't been confident enough to record them. But the commitment to my track and the joy that was already aggregating in it required that I discard my apprehension and get to it. I used the MIDI keyboard to record a single note in vintage organ mode It deepened and opened the sonic landscape, strengthening the structure that was emerging and that can be described as 'from excitement to ecstasy.' I wanted to end with the voices, both the electronic, celestial ones and the edgy Peking opera loops, united in choral joy that would match the ecstasy I had experienced making the track.
I always loved the story about Beethoven, completely deaf, conducting his 9th Symphony for the first time before an audience. After the finale—Ode to Joy, mind you—the audience exploded in standing ovation. But Ludwig was facing the orchestra and could not hear the ecstatic audience. One of the singers touched him to suggest he turn around and face that triumph. I like to imagine that touch—the love and awe in it, the electricity, the dazed Ludwig's snapping out of the soundless trance. I cannot imagine a more profound moment for an artist, an instant both ecstatic and tragic. Ecstatic because everything before that moment flowed into it; tragic because it was all over. I don't believe in God, but that is how it must feel to be touched by the divine. I am no Beethoven, or even a composer; I can't even read music, nor will I ever conduct a 100-piece orchestra and a choir. But when I was making this track, something touched me. I named the track Howdy, Hand of God!
10. Words of Wisdom
After the miracle of Howdy, Hand of God! took place I wanted to replicate it—not just the music, nor the individual loops or sounds, but the actual experience of constructing a track. This time, I knew better what I wanted and how to get it. First, I wanted a strong clubby beat, so I laid down a drum template and added loops until there was enough bang to build upon. Then bass synths and some more scattered glitching sounds. But then, fortuitously and somewhat inexplicably, I sought gentler, less electronic sounds (by way of a MIDI keyboard, of course) and played a simple xylophone theme.
The funny thing about creation—writing, painting, making music or movies, or whatever—is that each set of problem-solving decisions results in another generation of problems that need solutions so that more decisions are required, which then generate more problems, and so on. As in chess, each move creates a new constellation of possibilities. In the course of my writing life, I have long learned that feeling baffled and asking yourself “Now what?” at various points of your process means that you are doing it right, as long as you figure out what to do next. Every work of art is an aggregation of innumerable decisions and it is finished only when all the decisions have been made and when the remaining problems cannot be solved any longer and have now become a feature of the work. As far as I am concerned, that means that you do not know what you are making until it is made, at which point it can’t be unmade (though it can be discarded). This does not mean that the maker has no control over the process—stories do not write themselves any more than movies and music make themselves—but that the decisions can be made only within an unfolding process. My favorite analogy for working in the flow is that writing, or making music, is like skiing downhill at great speed: each moment consists of causally related decisions that can’t be reversed. And you can fall and break your neck, but it’s intense and exhilarating.
When I added the xylophone sounds on top all the clubby beats and glitching, a new shape began to emerge, and, with it, new problems—now what? When in doubt, I revert to the guitar, except this time I did not want guitar loops, nor was I comfortable recording myself playing. My travails with Words of Wisdom would eventually make me invite Goran to come along, but at the time of composition, I was on my own, armed only with a MIDI keyboard on which I could play guitar passages and riffs, so I played a guitar riff on the MIDI keyboard.
I implore you, my listener/reader, to imagine the joy of discovery experienced by a musically undereducated 56-year man as he records, mixes and edits riffs and solos on a computer in his office, his hearing being damaged by the many takes, anticipating and fearing the new space this move has opened. When in doubt, I go to voices.
Scrolling through and hearing hundreds of vocal loops in the Logic library I found a few whose relative warmth could counter, even if symbolically, the machine cluster in the track. The most mesmerizing loop was the one where a deep male voice (Eastern Storm Voice, as per Logic nomenclature) was whispering gibberish that sounded like words. It was not human language—I know a friend when I hear one. I added other vocal loops, including warm backing vocals that could fit into a R&B tune, and one flatly repeating a phrase which, as far as I can tell, means nothing. The presence of (synthetic) voices, some of which were actively saying nothing, made it clear to me that the track should be called Words of Wisdom.
What the voices made obvious was the glaring absence of words and language in Cielo’s music; its increasingly abstract quality would remain in all the tracks produced so far. Rock and pop music often create, by way of words, an effect of sincerity and emotional vulnerability, which is therefore performative. We all know that love songs are not representing a state of love—they are about love, performed by people who imagine or remember being in love. As I grow older, and am more and more immersed in my own operations of inventing fictional emotional and intellectual lives, I have less and less tolerance for the noise of words in music, let alone words sung “sincerely.” This is not to say that I don’t like to hear people sing, or that Cielo won’t go in the direction of song-making (as opposed to composition making) very soon. It is rather that I realized while producing Words of Wisdom that the absence of meaningful words—that is, voices saying nothing in particular—was a crucial feature of the track. I acknowledge the irony of a writer who has founded his life upon using words to generate meaning and has written about a dozen books and hundreds of articles in a couple of languages now producing a track that aims to explode the value of words.
It was after I made the initial mix of Words of Wisdom that I contacted Goran and asked him to join Cielo on this insane adventure. It never occurred to me for a moment that he would decline, and indeed he instantly agreed, even before I fully figured out how it could be done. And I thought of him not only because I was confident that he was still a guitar master—even if I heard him play exactly once since 1987 or so, when he sent me a YouTube video of his band jamming—but because our experiencing and making music together in our youth indelibly marked my relationship to that art. For decades now, my experience of music has been marked by his presence in it—I could not think of making music without thinking of Goran.
When Goran's guitars for Words of Wisdom came, they were, of course, unexpected, not fitting into the track as I had thought it should be heard. His sound—jazzy, clear, unelectronic—changed everything. Contrary to shredding MIDI-keyboard guitar loop, Goran’s guitars shifted the mood from aggressiveness rooted in anxiety to something gentler, to a more minor feeling. On hearing his guitar for the first time, I experienced a moment of terror, of course, as any alteration of the anticipated course always potentially augurs a catastrophe. But Goran’s guitar grew into the track, or rather, the track grew around it.
And, in a Proustian flashback, I remembered how, one day when we were young, Goran and I looked at a tree near the old Military Hospital in Sarajevo whose trunk had grown around an iron fence bar. And I recalled how excitedly he talked about the way the tree was not defeated by the iron but absorbed into it instead.
To the friends to whom I had revealed I was now making music, I described Howdy, Hand of God and Words of Wisdom as hysterical disco symphonies. (I had also initially told them that my music name was DJ Moisturazor—“He cuts and he moisturizes!”—but let’s not get into that.) I was only half-joking about the genre as the music was a rooted in the pandemic and political anxiety that marked 2020. My hypomania, the constant state of being wound-up, to the point of compulsively tightening and stretching my jaw (which also happens to happen when I am high on ecstasy), the self-evident bleakness of the oncoming future, was what fueled the music and what I hope could be converted into danceability.
One of those friends was Lana Wachowski, with whom I share not only a few screenplay credits, but also love for dance and electronic music. I have clubbed with Lana more than once, in Chicago, Berlin, San Francisco, Dublin, and plan to club some more as soon as I can.
Lana, David Mitchell and I have been writing screenplays together since 2017, when we worked on the second season of Sense8. Just about the same time, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/the-transformative-experience-of-writing-for-sense8) we started calling our screenwriting team The Pit.
Since then The Pit has become a lot more than just a collaborative screenwriting operation. It is a mental and emotional space in which all involved feel enriched by the presence of others, a zone of productive love and friendship.
Most recently, in 2019, The Pit wrote the script for the Matrix 4, and, in late February of 2020, after shooting location scenes in San Francisco, Lana and her crew relocated to Babelsberg Studios near Berlin. But within a week after the resumption of the shoot, pandemic was declared and the production was suspended, and stayed so until late summer. Throughout all that, we were in frequent communication. Indeed, in the early summer, with the production still suspended, Lana, David, and I—along with our friend the director Tom Tykwer—had regular Zoom meetings for a few weeks in order to develop a script idea. We were on it until the Matrix shoot was restarted; we even wrote quite a few pages. The story in the script takes place at an electronic music festival; if the movie is ever to be made it would feature some real and fictive DJs. The script was doing what my music was also trying to do—imagining a future wherein we would dance with our old and new friends.
Lana is generally encouraging and supportive of everything I do, so I sent her my tracks. I thought of Lana as my first audience, and as someone with whom I danced and experienced music. Moreover, she is an extremely smart and articulate artist, never shy to offer productive criticism. Hence I was taken aback a bit when she didn’t take to Words of Wisdom. It was a little too hysterical for her taste, she said, which was not helped by her listening to the track after a noisy day spent on shooting a gun fight scene. While I wasn’t going to change anything about WoW—it was what it was and I liked it—Lana got me thinking, as she often does.
Both Howdy, Hand of God! and Words of Wisdom (and a few other tracks I was developing) were fast and explosive and loaded with the sounds moving without pause in the direction of a finale marked by ecstasy—structurally, they are always on an upward trajectory. Only a few tracks into creating my belated musical ouvre, I began worrying about repeating myself. It was perhaps time to make a gentler track, warmer and less invested in charging toward ecstasy. In another words, something less hysterical.
I also wanted to replicate, or at least point toward, the experience of writing with the Pit, which is marked by a shared joy of creating—making up a story—together. My collaboration in the Pit changed my creative life as it taught me how to think through and with other people, how to be patient with the ideas of others and my own, give them time to leaven. A bond of love and solidarity among the Pitians was forged in the act of making something in the trenches of imagination. Being in the Pit means experiencing Pitness: a warm, exhilarating, and beautiful feeling, providing conditions for suspending one’s ego and for generating thoughts and emotions by way of other people’s heads and hearts. Exactly like dancing. On top of all that, there is the state of my soul when I work in The Pit that I can’t quite put in words—a feeling of pitness. I wanted to pursue that feeling in music.
I started with some guitar chords I had been playing with and then added keyboard padding, which I recorded at lower bpm for smoother harmonic transitions, then a beat track (at 110 bpm by far my slowest) and a couple of 2-step synth bass loops. I also structured the track differently, giving the track a basic Intro-A-B-A1-B1-Outro shape.
This was my first time recording the guitar, and it took a while to achieve enough sunny clarity in the guitar sound, both in the foundational chords, and in the recurring solo theme. Then I decided to limit that that vast space of bright twinklingness in the chorus by running the guitar theme through a backward-tape effect. I also invested a lot of time on the underpinning melodic lines in the chorus, assembling them from loops featuring oboe, Chinese di zi flute, clarinet, and some wind-instrumenty synth loops.
The joy of producing music is in the thousands of little decisions whose outcome is an assemblage of fragments where meaning and value far exceed individual parts. There is a very short flute loop in Pitness that can be barely heard, but, to my ear, makes all the difference in a bridge between the verse and the chorus. What I pursue in producing music, just as I do in writing, is for the track/text reach a state in which every piece of it matters, each of them enhanced by its position within the structure. I am after that intensification of experience, which is exactly what happens in the Pit, where the presence of others intensifies my thinking and feeling.
Goran likes to record more than might be needed for the track so that I can cut and edit as I see fit. As before, the presence of his guitar in Pitness changes all the relations and connections, and the track becomes both something other than what I had originally imagined and more of itself. When I sent the demo to him, he came up with the sound and theme that fit perfectly into what I was trying to do—and not only musically but ideologically. Here was a track where my friends from two halves of my life gathered without having ever met. Pitness was spreading through music.
12. Psycho Love
Psycho Love (or what would turn out to be its demo) was the first thing I could say I ever produced. I did it in Garage Band, using exclusively loops. I don’t think I even thought I was producing anything. I was just playing with the machine, frolicking in the digital fields. I was trying to see if I can do it and, more importantly, if I would enjoy it. Evidently, I did.
Early on in the Psycho Love production experiment, I discovered an edgy, tense telegraphic synth loop, and then a hysterical string loop that reminded me of the shower-scene soundtrack in Psycho. The voice-effect loops added to the anxious atmosphere. There was something about the track I liked quite a bit, not least because, in the summer of 2020, the air in the empty Princeton was sparkling with my anxiety. I thought that if I had heard that track somewhere I would’ve liked it.
The track barely had a shape. For one thing, in its first iteration, I stacked all the Tetris block-like loops neatly onto the Garage Band grid, so that there were no empty spaces. I was building a very small and tight house of music, where each loop snuggled against its housemate and sat there in the dark. I used no plug-ins, nor EQ or compression; all I did at first was arrange the loops to take up as little space as possible. In addition to my not exactly knowing what I was doing, it was my poverty reflex at work—why waste space and channels?
Now that I’ve entered the music world and have to project proper creative authority, it might be foolish to admit how little I knew about producing music when I started doing it. But I must own my shameless dilettantism: When I started, I knew nothing about using Garage Band, or about Logic Pro, let alone about recording and mixing. Nevertheless, I persisted. And here we are now.
In some ways, the shamelessness is a residue of my punk-exposure years, when we/I believed that anyone can play whatever they chose to play simply because they felt like playing it. Just as Strajder decided to play a show after having only practiced with Dule banging on my guitar case, I dared to enter the world of music production because, well, I didn’t know what exactly I was doing. The pandemic was rampant, as was American fascism, all of which was relevant inasmuch as I thought: Fuck it! Let’s make something before the light is out. What we had there was the audacity of despair.
Not enough is said or written about the relationship between despair and creativity. For despair can have a liberating effect. While hope often makes you cautious as you don’t want to fuck up the limited chance of making it work, despair, if it is deep enough, can have a liberating effect. There could be a point when reservations and caution can be easily abandoned, because why not if everything is rapidly turning to shit. Hope is rather bourgeois and pseudoreligious, committed to respecting the logic of things as they are. Despair, however, can expose the armature of structural cowardice in one’s life or work. When you have little to lose, it’s easier not to be afraid of losing.
Therefore I punkily produced Psycho Love, and it was fucking great to be doing it. Each decision made in the course of creation is a micro-high unto itself, even if it’s wrong, because the mind-body gang gets excited facing a what-if situation. Even the earliest, most primitive demo version of Psycho Love had a beat and a hook I liked. I shared the mix with Veba, who liked it too, which was the stamp of approva I needed to keep going. But I didn’t keep going with Psycho Love—I went on to produce a couple of other things in Garage Band, until I was eventually ready to graduate to Logic. So Psycho Love lay dormant, like a memory of a night so fun that you came back home from the club only after breakfast and stayed high till dinner.
Speaking of which, I was in Berlin a few months later for the end of The Matrix shoot. I went to the set only for a couple of times, including the last day of the shoot, when the whole crew celebrated completing the nearly impossible task of a major film production at the time of an unprecedented pandemic. But I stayed in Berlin for five weeks, as all of my classes, and my kids' classes too, were conducted via Zoom. I could be anywhere, and my ass wanted to see some Berlin, even if it was in full lockdown. I purchased a mini Akai MIDI keyboard in Berlin, and I had a lot of lockdown time on my hands.
So I came up with a Berlin remix of Psycho Love. By this point, I was comfortable enough with Logic to undo the tight grid and give some space and air to the loops. I still liked the track, as it had the vibe of the eighties’ synth bands—say, Soft Cell, or Depeche Mode. Veba liked the Berlin mix too. The fact that it was made only of loops bothered me a bit, however. I made me feel more like a curator than a producer.
As I kept working on other tracks, and Goran and his magnificent guitars got more and more crucial to the Cielo project, Psycho Love became a bit of an outlier—no guitars, very synthy, and (relatively) short and simple. By the summer of 2021, I had plenty of tracks already, enough to sustain releasing them one at a time for a year—this would be the first Cielo cycle. As we were now mixing other tracks in the cycle, all of which were marked by the presence of guitars, I imagined that in some future I could release an EP with Psycho Love and two other tracks produced in the same Garage Band manner, as a kind of stand-alone homage to the eighties’ dark synth pop.
But the devil would not leave me in peace, as Bosnians say. Just as we were to send out all the mixed tracks to be mastered (eleven of them, about 75 minutes of music made within the previous year), I picked up at my Ibanez (or Ibby, as I like to call it), plugged it into the interface, set up a wah-wah effect, and played along Psycho Love, just to please the aforementioned devil, my old and dear acquaintance. I added the wah-wah guitar parts, increasing the tension and energy. The devil was pretty pleased, as was I. Still, I sent the track to Goran to record his guitars.
Goran is a phenomenal technician on the guitar—Pat Metheny is his Lord and God—but his understanding of music, and respect for what I want and what I hear, is just as brilliant and rewarding. His guitar in Psycho Love, mainly feedback and wailing, added layers to the track I could not anticipate. For one thing, it no longer sounded like nostalgic synth pop, the guitars adding concrete to the angsty synth structure. I have no idea what is going to happen to Cielo’s music, or to the individual track. But there was a moment when I thought that if any of Cielo’s tracks make it out of obscurity, Psycho Love might be the first one. I was wrong, but it was a nice moment.
13. Why Make Music?
On January 6, 2021 I had a scheduled phone call with Deborah Treisman, my New Yorker editor and a longtime friend. I had been thinking, as the Cielo project evolved, about the strange ways in which creativity operates--or doesn’t--under extreme duress, I had asked her to hear me out.
2020 was horrible everywhere, but in the USA it was election year with a catastrophic double whammy of Trumpian fascism and a rampant lethal pandemic. It did seem (and it still does) that the country was being undone. Yet, for me the 2020 was among the most creative and productive years of my life. Something in my mind kicked in, and I was not only immersed in a novel I had started working on at least ten years before (since published as The World and All That It Holds), but had also started writing poetry, and taught myself (with the help of Asim and YouTube) how to produce music. I became downright hypomanic in 2020, sleeping less than usual, which was never much, and getting up every morning to make art in the country and the world that seemed less and less viable and receptive. I wanted to understand this creative compulsion, to figure out what might be at the root of this burning need, what triggered it, what its meaning was/is, what all its ethical implications.
I had experienced something similar when the war in Bosnia was coming over the horizon. As the fighting in Croatia in the summer of 1991 made the likelihood of Bosnian bursting in flames much greater, I packed my electric guitar and typewriter and moved to a family cabin in the mountains near Sarajevo to write a book and play music before everything ended. I wrote a book of stories, but then I was invited to visit the USA for a month. I packed away my typewriter, sold my guitar and amp, and in January 1992, traveled to America. I spent some weeks traveling around the country, hopped over to Canada to visit a lover, and then headed to Chicago, whence I would’ve flown back to Sarajevo just in time for the siege to begin. I didn’t return, the siege was on, the book vanished in it, and I’ve been living a diasporic life ever since.
In 2020, as the possibility of everything ending became more and more real, I discovered I still had the same impulse to make things as in 1991. But a reasonable question is: why make anything if the apocalypse was to render everything meaningless and/or non-existent? And how would anything that I--or anyone else--was making would help people in distress?
I wanted to think through all that in writing, but I was not sure that anybody would care, and was considering the possibility that it was all so indulgent as to be immoral. It boiled down to the question “Why art?” And even more so: “Why music?” For music is the art that is pursuing joy and ecstasy more and better than any other.
Deborah has been my editor at the New Yorker for more than twenty years. My aim was not to pitch her a piece, but to talk through my ideas and see if any of them could survive outside my hypomanic head. Our phone conversation (both of us were too tired of Zoom) was scheduled for 3:30 pm. But shortly before our call, we became aware that a coup attempt was taking place in Washington DC. Deborah emailed me to say: “I will have a hard time focusing while a violent coup is taking place in the Capitol. Same time tomorrow perhaps will be calmer?” “Of course,” I replied. “Tomorrow is fine.”
But there was no tomorrow. We did not talk about my creative hypomania the next day, or any day after that. I continued writing and recording. What else could I do?
In the winter and spring of 1991, before escaping to the mountains, I worked as a culture editor in the magazine Naši dani. War was in the air, yet many of my friends and I believed that there still was a chance of avoiding it, and that it was up to us to counter the culture of nationalism, with all its false folksiness, its longing for death, and its pathological (and ontological) provincialism. We promoted what we called 'urban culture,' as opposed to the 'peasant culture' of belligerent nationalism. I published a short editorial by my friend Guša, with whom I spent a lot of hours (and years) listening to and discussing music. The opening sentence of his editorial read:
“In the days when the main news deals with murders, harassment of journalists, pronouncements by coppers’ and army, choosing to listen to music constitutes the most important spiritual and political task.”
He went on to make the case for music as a means of resistance, and finished his manifesto by demanding from the masses to dance: “…It would therefore be best to ceaselessly become the SOUND and the pleasant MOVEMENTS, and that is how the spiritual and political task will be completed.” (emphasis in the original)
We were young, and our political/cultural project turned out to be foolish and naive and doomed to failure from the beginning, yet I am still proud of our efforts and beliefs. It took me decades to find a way to evolve that instinctive youthful resistance to the presumed naturalness of power into some kind of sustainable ethics and politics.
What I am most proud of is the absolute commitment to music regardless of the circumstances. There are no good times or bad times for music, any more that there is a good time or a bad time for breathing, or for being alive.
I always hope that my music (or books, or films for which I wrote scripts) is going to be enormously, or at least reasonably, successful. I would like my work to be liked. I imagine that someone somewhere will put their headphones on and hear the little things in the corners of the sonic landscape while dancing and imagining a future to which the music would be the soundtrack.
I used to listen to music and long for something undefined, for a life loaded with the kind of beauty and excitement I was hearing in it. I remember looking out of the window of my room when I was young, listening to Eno’s ambient music, or Cocteau Twins, or The Stooges, or Peter Gabriel, or Haustor, or The Birthday Party, or even Sade, and longing. I would see the lights in the windows of the building across the park, and people inside their fully lit lives, and I would see my own reflection on the pane, and wonder what kind of living can make music like that, and what kind of music, or beauty of any kind, my living could produce.
Everything in me told me that kind of longing could never be assuaged, which meant that it would never stop. It was, and is, irreducible, and there is no better cause or consequence of that longing than music.
Who among us has not played music to someone they loved or cared about? Who among us has not expected those people to hear what we hear? Yet no one hears the same things. The longing is for a communion in music, for hearing the harmonies, melodies, beats with the same intensity, with the same intensity of feeling.
Music induces longing, because it is inherently utopian—it is always looking for a community--and that longing cannot be spent. There is so much music everywhere, all the time--there is practically no space for silence (or of silence) in the world. Yet much of that music is unheard, it is merely consumed or passed through.
The process of making music for me features imagining the community that might hear it. And what I want people to hear are the traces of that making, the residues of the moments in which I was so deeply inside the music that all else receded to the distant horizon of insubstantiality, and I experienced a temporary sensation of being totally present in myself, in my mind and body, in the world. All the longing was suspended, as I was inside the space I had longed for. Now everything is out in the world, for everyone to hear and see.
Of course, once one snaps out of that individualistic state of mind and soul, the experience quickly becomes ontologically questionable. Did it really happen? Are there any witnesses to the transformation? Was it really me who experienced it? Whereupon a new wave of longing ensues, a steady, mildly painful desire to return to that place, to be inside the music. But now the only way to return to the inside of the music is by way of shared external experience.
And the space is under layers of scaffolds and debris and the construction materials. I know it is there, buried under crowded sounds, and clashing beats, and thickly populated frequencies available to everyone else. I know that there is that space at the heart of a track, and I know that other people might not be able to reach it. It only exists in potentiality--because it existed once, it might exist again. But there is no guarantee.
That also means that when the making is done an attempt at assuaging the longing has been completed, and not entirely successfully. The track is both more and less that what I had longed for--it becomes itself, indifferent to my longing. The longing has been reified, it’s become something else, external, shareable, a signifier of that evanescent moment when it seemed that it was possible to displace/replace the longing with the making.