Gig Economy: Charlie Looker

A treatise on the humanity (or, lack thereof) of teaching guitar lessons.

Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Charlie Looker (Psalm Zero, Seaven Teares) talks about the relationship between his art and his work as a guitar teacher.
—Annie Fell, associate editor, Talkhouse

Ever since gaining an initial grasp on my own musical voice about twelve years ago, my entire creative process and attitude have been extremely inward directed. Aesthetically, I have always considered what I want to hear first and foremost; considerations of what anyone else in the world might want to hear have always come later, or not at all. Lyrically, my songs have always been personal, emotional, and often thick with multi-layered self-analysis. I’m into art that is “dark,” not simply as in morbid or unsettling, but in the sense of emanating from a deeply buried inside, occulted, coiled, unarticulated, untouched by the light of reason, morals, the social, and language. Of course, communicating and spreading joy to others has always been a major goal in my creative practice, and inspiring fans is always a profound experience for me. But blowing my own mind has always come first, not only as a priority, but as an assumed pre-requisite for being able to properly and honestly blow the minds of others.

This idea that, if an artist gracefully synthesizes and manifests all that is buried within their unique interior, the result will have some transcendent universal value for the outside world, is an attitude I’ve probably learned from nineteenth and twentieth century romanticism, jazz, psychoanalysis, and the alchemical/hermetic tradition (“As above, so below”). In a sense, it’s the idea that narcissism can be sublimated, through art, into something useful to others. While I’ve just described this attitude in a very particular, emphatic, intellectualized way, it seems to be pretty in line with most people’s conception of how artistic “expression” works: subjective contents from the artist’s psyche (interior) are pressed outward, and made objective, for others to experience.

The day jobs I’ve held, at least since college, have almost all been in music education. Some of these have been classroom or after-school positions as a general music teacher or choir director, but mostly I’ve worked as a guitar instructor, giving private lessons. I have 28 students at the moment, ranging in age from seven to late 50s. As much as I would obviously love to make a living solely from my own music (and it would seem I’m still on my way there), it would be absurd for me to feel bitterness or confusion at having to work regular jobs, given the decidedly non- or even anti-commercial nature of the musical path I’ve chosen. “Deserve” isn’t a word I throw around a lot.

Beyond this pragmatic acceptance, however, I also take a certain real satisfaction in my work as a guitar instructor. This satisfaction might not be as intense as a European festival crowd erupting in cheers and rushing the merch table, but it is its own kind of gratification, very different from what I get from performing, writing, or recording. In fact, a lot of what I find gratifying about teaching is based in how utterly different it is from my experience of making my own work, and how differently I experience myself when I’m teaching. My day job serves as a complement, or at least a foil, for my life as an artist.

Compared to my creative practice, in all its gnostic inwardness, teaching is a primarily selfless, social endeavor. The students’ needs are the only real concern, with my aesthetics, personality, and inner life being almost entirely irrelevant. My creative approach of narcissism-as-prima-materia has to be checked at the door, and along with it, anything else I have going on inside that doesn’t serve the students’ needs. Whether it be my issues with mental health, physical health, substance abuse, lack of sleep, racing thought-loops about human extinction, some new phone number I have to block, or just generally weak, unstable aspects of my fundamental character, I have to tamp all that down and hide it in order to do my job properly. Of course, the same could be said for nearly any job on earth, except for being a weirdo underground artist. In that line of work, the artist’s fucked up interior is often romanticized, exaggerated, and mined for its dark, misshapen gems.

The selfless aspect of teaching, which lets me feel (or at least obligates me to act) like a stable, adult, functionally integrated member of the human race, by setting aside my ego and its attendant “dark interior” and putting others first, is clearly an aspect of teaching I find refreshing and nourishing. However, I’ve been realizing lately that it’s more complex than that. In a guitar lesson, it’s not just that I’m turning away from own my interior in order to focus on the student’s interior. I’m focusing on their needs, but I believe that those needs, at least as far as our lessons are concerned, are not deeply tied to their own personal ego/interior/subjectivity either.

What the students really need from me, and the level at which I’m connecting with them, is primarily purely musical, in the sense of learning how to wield notes, chords, rhythms, pure sound itself. Sound is a material reality, independent of both my subjectivity and the student’s. Regardless of what song it’s in, or how the student or I feel about it, a G major chord is a sound, a particular series of compressions and rarefactions in the air molecules in the room, traveling to our eardrums. There is nothing inherently personal, interior, expressive, or even properly “human” about it. And when it comes to wielding rhythm, you’re making a series of sounds in time; I’m not equipped to even attempt a definition of time, but whatever it is, I imagine it’s nothing “personal.” I have come to look at guitar instruction not as my teaching people to “express themselves,” but as both the student and me setting aside our human individualism, so I can teach the student how to ritually commune with the inhuman elements of sound and time.

My thinking this way was sparked by a student who was impressed by my overall patience as a teacher, and asked, “Don’t you ever get frustrated with students not practicing, or asking to learn music that you hate, or just kinda being annoying personalities?” I answered sincerely, that none of those things bothered me much. Those are strictly human issues, about which I suspend any judgment about during lessons. However, thinking about what does truly frustrate me in lessons was revealing to me about what I’m calling the “inhuman” aspects of teaching music. The one thing that really gets my blood pressure up, something which is very hard to hide my annoyance over, is this: when a student simply cannot understand the idea that you can’t pause or slow down the beat to get your fingers ready for the next chord, that the beat continues steadily, regardless of whether or not you’re making mistakes.

Of course, this is an easy idea to understand, but I find myself continually appalled by how many students seem incapable of, or at least deeply unaccustomed to, following this in practice. It has nothing to do with putting in the time to learn to recreate a bunch of complex finger movements. It has nothing inherently to do with music theory, or systems of counting rhythms. It’s about being able to steadily continue forward, no slower and no faster than the unwavering beat of the song, regardless of what else is happening. It’s not so much a specific skill, as a general psychology, or a mind-body mode of dealing with time. There’s something that strikes me as deeply unhealthy, on an existential level, about the psychology of absolutely needing to stop or slow the song’s onward march in order to figure out where your fingers are supposed to be. There’s a lack of humility, a sort of death-dodging overvaluation of human agency, in refusing to honor the relentlessness of time. The song is bigger than us, time is bigger than us, bigger than the human. If there’s one thing I feel is utterly essential for me to teach my students (if, in fact, this can even really be taught) is this basic existential mode of keeping up with the beat, and letting the actions of your fingers, however correct or incorrect, fall away, ground up in the gears of time. I have yet to actually read any Heidegger, but to me, teaching music is teaching “being in time.”

My students and I are all-too-human. But sound and time are very much inhuman, and communing with those inhuman forces is essential to the ancient human practice of music-making. Time is pitiless and crushing. The sun will come up on my next birthday, whether or not my life and health are in order. The downbeat of the chorus is coming up in five measures, whether or not you can get your fingers to that G chord in time. So if you can’t get your fingers there, get them somewhere close at least, somewhere at all, and move on, in time. Just don’t stop your hand, disrespecting the beat, and time itself. Just be there for the downbeat. Viewing my teaching life as based in the inhumanity of sound and time has actually led me to understand my life as a creative musical artist as ultimately being no more than the same thing.

Despite my songs’ personal, inward-looking lyrical concerns, and my humanist attitude of individualistic self-expression through art, my songwriting in the end is just sound and time. As “dark” as our individual psychic interiors can be, those interiors are human. Perhaps what’s darker than any human inside, what’s scarier to us all on some level, is the realm outside our sense of the human in general: time, sound, material, the body, death. For the 45 minutes I spend with a student, or for the 45 minutes I spend on stage in front of a crowd, time is grinding us into dust. My job is to help people be present for every inhuman beat, and die with style.

(Photo Credit: Sam Marble)

Native New York composer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist, Charlie Looker was a founding member of the experimental collective ZS, establishing his roots in the early 90s Brooklyn DIY scene. In 2007 he formed his own band Extra Life, which built a devout international following before disbanding in 2012. Since then, his main performing vehicle has been metal/electronic project Psalm Zero (Profound Lore Records), as well as his chamber works.

Looker’s diverse credits as a side man and/or producer include Dirty Projectors, Tyondai Braxton, Amanda Palmer, Zeal & Ardor, Mick Barr, and Jherek Bischoff. Voted one of the top 100 American composers under 40 by WNYC (2011), his music has been performed at festivals including Primavera Sound (Spain), Ecstatic Music (New York), Bad Bonn (Switzerland), Villette Sonique (France), and Sound Forest (Latvia).