the plastination of otis t fernbank…

About six years ago I decided to write an album. I hadn’t done any music for a couple of years and felt ready to start creating something. I decided that I wanted to write a concept album; it was something I’d wanted to do for years. The problem was, I didn’t have a concept in mind, other than some very ill-defined ideas about journeys! In my normal style though, I wasn’t going to let this minor inconvenience deter me so I set about trying to create some music, in the hope that this would reveal whatever it was I thought I was trying to do. For about 4 years I then pushed ideas around and produced an almost unending series of audio sketches, half-finished tracks and new sounds. Nothing seemed to connect but I just couldn’t let it lie, so ploughed on, almost obsessively. The time wasn’t completely wasted though. I did start to develop was new (at least for me) production techniques and significantly improve my ability to create fidelity in the sounds I was using, which historically had been pretty weak. Then, about 2 years ago, I read an article on of my favourite websites, io9.com. You can read here it for yourself if you want. The basic concept is that it would be possible to preserve with complete integrity, the essence of a person’s identity, their memories, their emotions, their behaviours and every single subtle detail about them. The approach is to turns a person’s brain into plastic (at the point of death) and then completes a physical scan of the brain. The scan would then be put into a computer. This ‘copy’ would so perfect that the created entity (within the computer) would be unable to tell the difference between its new form, and the original being. Apart and aside from the technology aspect of the article, which although is in itself pretty amazing, what actually really struck me was (what seems to me at least) a fundamental question that was implicitly implied within the article but not explored. The question to me is whether or not the essence of a person (their identity / ‘id’ / soul / whatever) is something that is literally just the sum of the physical construction of the brain, and therefore something that would be ‘scanned’ and recreated, or whether there is something else? Is there something ‘unknowable’ which transcends the physical form and therefore is not something that could just be ‘copied’? Whilst I don’t consider myself to be ‘religious’ or have any committed faith, I do consider myself to be a spiritual person in that I feel a connection to the universe, the people about me and my place in all of that. I felt really uncomfortable with the idea that the inner core of ‘myself’ was nothing more than the manifestation of the make-up of my brain. It really challenged me about what my own belief system actually was if I couldn’t rationalise these concepts. Whilst obviously the actual physical me is a unique and stand-alone entity, the article suggests that the entirety of everything that is ‘me the identity’ could be scanned, copied, recreated and that the emergent copies of ‘me’ would not be able to tell the difference, and that then maybe no-one else could do either. I felt that this internal personal struggle was artistically inspiring and I wanted to find a way of expressing this through music. I started thinking about how this could be done and realised this was the concept album I’d been looking for. I did a particularly challenging visit (with work) to the U.S. and found myself unable to sleep due to worry and jet-leg. Whilst lying awake all night in a partial state of delirium, I came up with the idea of a character ‘Otis’ who was an old-timey musician from the last century. He would unwittingly become the subject of this supposed brain plastination process. I also came up with a title; “the plasination of Otis T Fernbank”. The ‘Otis’ concept really interested me because I liked the idea of someone from another age being the subject (he could have no personal frame of reference to be able to make sense of what is happening to him), the fact that he was a musician meant I could relate to him as a person on some level. It was also an opportunity to anchor the music in ‘bluegrass / old-timey’ music which I really love. I created a story. Otis is a good man, he wants wants to make his music. He finds himself being ‘plasticised’ but the process goes wrong due to his data being contaminated with the identity of another individual. The second person is a criminal and a killer. The emergent computer based identity, is not quite Otis, but remembers and connects with Otis in profoundly deep way. I thought that this ‘corruption’ was a way of really bringing out the underlying question about whether or not a copy of a person, no matter how accurate and detailed would ever be the same as the original person that it came from. There is a ‘sub-plot’ as well; there is a struggle between ‘Otis’ (the good?) and the other person who his identity is scrambled with (the bad?). It is intended on representing the struggle between good and evil in all of us. I also had this idea that Otis had a very good relationship with his father (who taught him to play) but the other part of the new identity (the corruption) had a very bad / abusive relationship with his father and this sets up a paradox within the emergent identity which cannot be rationalised. The story is made up of 7 chapters and each chapter would be represented by a track on the album. As the album developed, I felt deeply connected to it and I genuinely felt as though I was creating something that had real artistic meaning, at least to me. It was also very different musically to anything I had attempted before. When I found out about my brain tumour and begun to understand about how it is affecting me and what the symptoms are (particularly the epilepsy and the damage to by ability to communicate) I was overwhelmed by how significant all of the above was now to me in real life. On some level, I cannot help but feel that the artistic journey was I on was actually in some way a physical manifestation of what was happening to me on the inside. Is it possible that on some subconscious level I was aware of some sort of change within me (at an atomic level?) Is this is the way that my subconscious found to create an outlet for this evolving event through this entire evolving concept and music? I have on some level become ‘Otis’ and I’m watching the corruption of myself through the process of my brain tumour and questioning whether the inner core of my own identity will remain intact through this experience. Will I (or anyone else) will be able to tell the difference once the process is done with me? The Plastination of Mark J Willing has begun. One of my oldest and closest friends, who is an incredibly gifted artist, has been working with me on this album and is an amazing collaborator on this project. He has been really aware of the profound connection between the story and what is now happening to me, he has been worrying about whether it is upsetting me. It is true that it is freakishly close to the bone and reviewing the story, music and the artwork is sometimes a bit difficult for me as I work on it. I very more than I ever have done feel that there is something artistically important to me said through this work. I feel VERY passionate about finishing the music as a personal statement of this entire concept, key underlying question and my journey through this illness. When my illness all kicked off, I was tantalising close to finishing the project, but not yet done. Before the surgery I had to accept that if I died I would not finish it and that was really difficult. Now that I didn’t die, I have an opportunity to finish it before I do. It’s been a great source of inspiration and comfort to me and has provided an artistic outlet for what I’m going through. I’ve made a pledge to complete the project as quickly as possible now and it is very nearly done. I will share via this blog when it is completed. Go here to the start of the journey. Go here for next blog entry. Go here to view previous blog entry.

 
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