Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A WeTransfer link had never threatened to be so cathartic.
But there it was: a 300 MB .wav file sent by a person I have never met, promising the music of a dead friend.
D., disappeared from Facebook three years ago. He was the first friend I made when I studied in Japan — a Minnesotan who loved making beats and talking about philosophy. “You know, the thing about Aristotle and Plato is that they’re so f***ing smart,” he said to me once. We laughed rudely on the train. We both had limited allowances, so we ate together, played basketball in the park, and shared cartons of cheap umeshu in the dorm’s tatami room. There was one morning he got really excited about documenting a hangover, so he knocked on my door and woke me up to borrow a digital camera, and then asked me to upload the photographs on Facebook. It’s still the first album you’ll see on my page: D.’s hangover. We would share stories about home. I would say: You could bribe anyone in my country. And he would say: I gardened for Kevin Garnett.
Almost a decade later, long after we’d gone back to our homes, I realized I wasn’t hearing from him anymore. I used to send him my poems and he would send back some beats. He was working in UPS, last we talked. Once, he sent me a photo of himself with a smashed up face. It was a crazy party, he said, without elaborating. I worried. I missed him and didn’t know how to get in touch. I googled “D. Christensen Minnesota” and the first link that came up was an obituary page with his photo on it. He became an angel, it said, on February 10, 2018.
I searched for posts on Facebook from his friends and family and found nothing. I searched through court records in Minnesota and found almost nothing, apart from a few instances of disorderly conduct and speeding. I felt like I could Google him back — that if I learned of his loss over the Internet, then I could get him back the same way.
I thought about paying for those sites that claim to have personal information. I considered calling his family, before realizing I might have to suddenly ask his mother — who I’d never met — about a son she lost years ago.
Our chat logs were gone. MSN Messenger. Facebook. It was odd. The only thing I had left of him was in my actual memory — like a childhood friend’s landline number. “Gumshoebottoms,” I thought. His Soundcloud.
D. was a pretty eccentric beatmaker. He loved turning sounds into digital mementos. He recorded video games, birds outside the window, odd noises made by objects around the dorm’s dining hall. A track was a collage of noises from his life. We would walk around Shinjuku or Nakano or Kichijoji and he would always be listening for a sound he could appropriate into art — something he could record, make permanent, and suspend in an infinite loop in one of his songs. He kept listening to the world with relentless conviction that all of it was somehow meaningful. He had faith, as a poetry professor of mine might call it, in the organic unity of his own life. He named his tracks “Liquid Hills” and “Robots in Love” and “Starlight Genesis” Yes, the titles make sense, even if I cannot explain to you why. And neither could he.
His Soundcloud has only 38 followers, many of whom are inactive. But I figured, it’s not that much effort to message each and every one of them, just in case. I never heard back. I thought of families in ancient villages waiting for the army to return from war to find out if their loved ones survived. I thought of military wives receiving telegrams to the next of kin. But this digital age grief was unique. My friend was dead, but my sadness was in suspension.
The Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel collected some of these new quarantine feelings in a blog entry. Anticipatory grief for “the realization that we could lose our loved ones.” Ambiguous loss for losing “so many intangible elements of our normal lives that we can hardly identify what’s missing.” I felt both, to varying degrees. But also: not exactly. Language can only ever approximate. Emotions are only bus stops in the city of all feeling. Have you ever thought about how many centuries we’ve spent trying to define love? Very rarely do we feel pure joy or sadness or despair. Often we inhabit emotional districts that have no names yet: Liquid Hills. Robots in Love. Starlight Genesis.
But I suppose there is one clear cut pandemic emotion: stuckness. I’ve had the good fortune of having lost no one during the quarantine, and am thus enjoying the astounding luck of being stuck in a loop. In the morning, I am greeted by bad news that doesn’t immediately affect me. I am one of a dwindling number of Filipinos who have a job, and thus I am less afraid to check my pantry. Some days, I mask up and restock. But mostly, I work; I pay bills; I input one-time passwords; I screenshot proofs of payment. Occasionally, a delivery arrives. On good days, I work out; and sometimes I talk back to the trainer on YouTube to pretend that I’m not lonely. Soon, the Department of Health announces the number of confirmed cases and deaths. Few things change.
This dreariness is my privilege. Others don’t have it as good. Over the course of the quarantine I’ve interviewed those in the frontlines: a doctor who has collapsed from exhaustion, who has missed the first words his child ever wrote; a nurse who has had to inform too many people that their loved ones had to be intubated, or had passed on; a medical technologist who crashed into a car while cycling to work. Doesn’t each life feel so far from the next?
One quarantine afternoon I received a message on Instagram from a_asher_yates, whose grid was filled with layered videos of water and greenery with backing tracks that sampled the natural world.
“Yes, me and Dane were close friends too,” his message said. “I assume you are one of his friends from Japan.”
His name is Tony and they had known each other since high school. D. would stay at his place, he said, when he was having a particularly difficult time. They would talk about music and share songs with each other. He told me about D.’s bipolar disorder, the trouble he caused when it got worse, and how it eventually led him to take his own life. A travelling sorrow finally arrived to punch me in the gut. I cried. Time moved slowly.
My first instinct was to eulogize. I had other friends from Japan, but no one who loved D. as much as I did. I felt like I deserved to talk about him — to mourn outwardly instead of keeping it to myself. I told Tony, a stranger who didn’t even have a face on his profile, stories about D. How he still took an exam even if he got an automatic zero for being late. How I had to talk us out of a beatdown because a street hustler asked us where we were going and a drunk D. replied: “We’re going to your mom’s house.” How he told me about this party drink in Minnesota where they just throw fruits into a vat of alcohol. “Oh, a wapatoolie,” says Tony, which made me laugh. I imagined telling D. what “patoolie” means in my language.
It was only when Tony messaged that the phantom pain calcified into one that could be felt. Part of me didn’t want to find out how D. died, possibly so I could keep lying to myself. But when I was chatting with Tony, I told him about this expression in Filipino about having a thorn plucked from your heart. “That’s a beautiful saying,” he replied.
Tony listened to my stories, shared some of his own, and eventually told me about his own life. He lives in Colombia, he said. Moved there after falling in love with his wife, Carolina, on a backpacking trip, and now they are expecting a daughter. In another life, I thought, D. might have done something similar. How the friends of our friends sometimes remind us of our friends.
Like D., Tony makes music — as an artist called Bålsam. His art sounds like forests and shores. He calls it visual music, sound healing. He records sounds from camping in Minneapolis and from “the beautiful nature in Colombia.” He tells me a little bit about the ambient field recording scene and how he makes his music: how he has to loop less, and how he manipulates these natural sounds. He asks me about the article I’m writing, and I tell him it’s going fine, but I don’t know how to end it. For a moment I imagine the three of us in a room, talking about art over the rhythmic flow of a river, where I would tell D.: “I would have loved to write poems to this music. Not a f***ing memorial essay.”
Tony tells me he made a mix of D.’s tracks that he would love to send to me. I tell him that would make me so happy, even if I am afraid it might do the opposite. I offer to send him the few photos I have of D. The ones of the hangover. The one with the other Americans in the dorm. The one from the night in the cheapest bar in Shinjuku, where we were lined up for the urinal and D. shouted: “I think this guy’s masturbating.” I laughed again as I was typing. I thought to myself: How many fights did he try to get me into?
On one of those loopy mornings when I usually wake up to bad news, there it was — an email from Tony with a WeTransfer link.
“I have taken songs from his three different projects on Soundcloud, including gumshoebottoms, and added a couple samples from anime shows/movies and such,” said Tony’s email.
That’s how little of his life I was exposed to: one of three Soundcloud projects. It saddened me that I didn’t ask him for more tracks, but it added gravity to this listening. I remember the monumental clicks in my life. An acceptance letter. A breakup letter. Pressing send on a job application. I click and play the whole thing. 29 minutes and 55 seconds of new sounds from D.’s life. The gift of listening closely and getting to know him all over again. “What did Minnesota even sound like?” I thought. In my head there was only a parody of America. What did D. hear, record, and immortalize on those days he delivered packages and avoided angry guard dogs? Was there distant hip-hop in the vegetation outside the Garnett estate? What is the sound of a policeman walking into a Dunkin Donuts?
But what I heard was a D. I could still recognize. The first track features dialogue, presumably from a Ghibli film — the faint sound of two Japanese children talking behind the beat. It reminds me of mornings in the dorm. The ones I haven’t remembered. The days we were too sleepy to say good morning to each other across the breakfast table. I make comforting assumptions. Say: Even after we stopped talking, D. made beats about the same things I wrote poems about: a place we both continued to hold dear, even without prior coordination.
The next songs: an MF DOOM remix interspersed with lines from anime and RPGs, like fruits in a vat of alcohol; a relaxing urban beat with some Japanese flute; a catchy sax-driven track driven forward by a three-note violin chord progression. It dawns on me that D. may have been a progenitor of lo-fi hip-hop. It was a sad realization. How he always had something new and useful to say, and how I stopped listening.
The last song comes on. It’s a loop — a song from “Land Before Time.” “If We Hold On Together” by Diana Ross. Land Before Anything Ever Happened.
“Live your story,” the voice sings again and again. There is a slow, thundering bass drum. It’s jarring. My mind skips to the next line each time: “Faith, hope, and glory.” But it never comes. I ask myself: Was this one more message to which no one bothered to listen? Or am I choosing to hear anguish where anguish doesn’t exist? If I owe D. anything, it would be to let go of this interpretive bullshit and listen to him the way he would have wanted me to — lying on the grass somewhere in the Liquid Hills or under the Starlight Genesis, allowing the music to nurture a feeling that can’t be named.