Between sheet mulching gardens with WILD Wes and playing “shock punk” with one of his many bands, Tennessee Mowrey ’14 keeps himself busy. Perhaps that’s why his music performance thesis attempts to go beyond a linear model of time. To find out how he does it, The Argus sat down with Mowrey to talk about zen and the art of garden maintenance.
The Argus: Why do you think you’re a WesCeleb?
Tennessee Mowrey: I think part of it has to do with the fact that I have a large personality and a weird name; you know, people can remember me. I play in a number of bands on campus, in the Beatles cover band, in the Weezer cover band, in a couple of bands of my own, and various theses and things. I perform in the Rocky Horror Picture Show and I lead WILD Wes, so I’m visible in certain ways around campus.
A: What instruments do you play?
TM: I play a lot of instruments. I started out on piano, and then bass, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, drum set, hand drums, vocals, songwriting—the whole shtick. Most of the things you hear in a rock band.
A: How did you get into music? And did you teach yourself or take classes?
TM: Before I got to college, I had taken some music classes in high school; my school had a good music program. But I was mostly self-taught on all of my instruments. I had taken classical piano for a while, but it was just very musical around my house. My father and my step-mother especially played a lot of instruments, so I would watch them and listen, and that’s really the best way to do it, and I would try it myself, and all of a sudden, here I am. But definitely as long as I’ve been at Wesleyan, I’m a music major and I’ve taken a lot of music classes, so it definitely has informed my playing.
A: What made you want to get involved with all these bands, and how does that tie in to your work as a music major?
TM: A big goal of mine would be to make money through music somehow after I graduate. Performing and having technical skill and being able to perform under pressure, under lights, with a crowd, where you can’t really hear the singer: being able to operate under those conditions is essential to being a gigging musician. So it’s good to have practice, but that’s not really why I do it. Why I do it is more twofold: first, the thrill of performance, which I’m sure a lot of non-musician performers can relate to; and second, the sound. I love it. I have a little bit of synesthesia.
A: Why did you get involved in so many cover bands?
TM: I’d say the cover bands are more secondary. I just learn the stuff kind of fast, and if everyone knows it, you can just come together and play it. But I play with a number of groups that play their own music, including Borneo, which is a group I write for, and Molly Rocket; obviously Molly [Balsam ’14] writes for that. We’re called Kroox now. Also, Sodomized By Angels is a shock-punk band that I write for, which is a lot of fun. There’s going to be an underwear-panty-punk-at-Earth-House show next weekend.
A: What is shock punk?
TM: It means I’m trying to shock you with what I’m saying. It’s definitely punk, but the lyrics are very obscene. I’m not going to say them here now. That’s a time for the concert. You should come listen for yourself.
A: You said that besides music, you’re involved with WILD Wes. How did you get involved with that?
TM: I’ve been involved with it since my days as WestCo president, when they came to WestCo and asked us if they could start this first project. And I liked the idea a lot and I was working on it, did a lot of sheet mulching for them, a lot of other stuff, and subsequently took the student forum when I came back from being abroad. Then I ended up here working this summer for them, when I built the stairs in the Butts. I’ve been around not since the very beginning, but close.
A: What about that interests you? What about sustainable landscaping made you want to get your hands dirty?
TM: I definitely don’t only have a single-minded focus. Even though I’ve studied music, I’m also an East Asian Studies major, and I have a lot of other interests. I’ve always had an environmental bent to me, and the WestCo thing was happening in my backyard. Not only was I helping create food and a sustainable, good-for-the-earth ecosystem here, on the Wesleyan campus, instead of using these lawns that are eating up a bunch of resources and not giving anything back except for this “aesthetic” value— why are we buying into that?—I also just had to roll out of bed in the morning and go out there and sheet mulch. I think the two things together made it very easy for me to get involved.
A: Are you still involved with WILD Wes during the year?
TM: It’s been a little bit harder for me to do as much as I did this summer—obviously, I was working eight hours a day—this year, because I’m working on a thesis and it’s taking up more time than I thought it would. Ha, I bet you’ve never heard anyone say that before. Every weekend or every other weekend, I’ve definitely been putting in some hours, except with the snow here, there’s not a whole lot that we can do. But we’re having a meeting, so I’ll be there.
A: What’s your thesis on?
TM: It’s a joint East Asian Studies and Music thesis about the Zen, specifically the Sōtō Zen: conceptions of time as actualized through musical performance.
A: So what does that mean?
TM: I could literally talk about this for hours. Real concise: We see past-present-future as, like, maybe a caterpillar through time: You could maybe jump around through it if you have the right devices. Dōgen thinks that’s not true. He thinks, and I’m now tending to agree with him, that reality is a changed state, just in its fundamental nature, and that changed state is actualized in a process we call time, but that is just the result of what it has to be, the result of the laws of causality. We used the regular laws of causality–the sun going up, us going around the sun, the moon going around us, the spinning of the Earth–in this way to mark time, but it’s really just different.
I took that idea, and I wanted to try and represent that musically, and I actually, as silly as it sounds, had to invent a new musical notation system to do it. It involves wheels and Mobius strips and it’s pretty cool. If you’re interested, you can come check out the performance of it in April.
A: How does one perform that?
TM: With short, open-ended improvisation within a specific set of frameworks. A circle represents one time through a cycle, and there’s different x’s on the circle that tell you when you should blow a note or pick a string or whatever. So it’s supposed to remove the idea of beginning and end, and maybe of direct time scale; maybe that’s a quarter note, maybe that’s a half note, maybe that’s a whole note. Then, everyone is using the same score and doing different things all the time. The score looks like a mandala.
A: What goes into organizing circular improvisation into a performance?
TM: It’s been a process, certainly. My band has been very accepting of the radical new ideas I’ve been throwing at them. I can’t appreciate them enough. And basically, I don’t know, you just get it started. People are going on the same pulse, and you try things, and some things work and some things don’t; you come back to the things that work, and you don’t come back to the things that don’t.
After we play for a while, I speak for a bit, and I say, ‘That was cool. Let’s try something more like that in the future.’ But also, zen is very much about letting everyone act as themselves in every moment, so I feel very weird prescribing the actions my performers have to take in any given moment.
A: Is there anything else you’ve been trying out in your last semester at Wesleyan?
TM: There are so many things I want to try. If I started over, I bet I could do a hundred things differently and still be very happy. But I just don’t know if I have time. My life is kind of busy now. Come April, I hope to be outside more. I want to go to Wadsworth a couple more times before I graduate, out to the pond. Mostly I just hope to strengthen the friendships I’ve made in the last bit of time I have here. I have opportunities to do other physical things, learn to canoe or whatever, but the people I’m around here really make it special for me, and that’s what I want to cherish.