Nicholas Szczepanik- Not Knowing
In the past few months, I've had a lot of major changes occur in my life. A lot of these changes have been for the better. In fact, almost all of them have been changes that one could easily file away under "improvements" and leave it at that. Life, however, is never so simply categorized. In the midst of growth and good luck, I've often found myself feeling entirely directionless, out of sorts, and sometimes depressed. I left a job I worked for a long time for a job more suited to my talents and career goals that allows me to work from home. This new job's benefits are also its downsides. I've grown increasingly isolated and withdrawn now that my entire day revolves around a computer screen. I also relocated from the swampy sprawl of Tampa, Florida to the damp grey climate of Portland, Oregon. Many might view this as a negative thing, but I feel it's where I finally belong. However, the process of preparing for a move, the act of the move itself, and the adjustment period in my new city have all been exhausting.
At this point, it seems I've said nothing about the album I'm dealing with here, which is Not Knowing, by Nicholas Szczepanik. However, I feel that my recent experiences and overall sensation of bittersweet aimlessness set the perfect backdrop for this fifty-three minute masterpiece of tragic and beautiful droning music. This isn't a review about how many adjectives I can drop down. This album is one lengthy song, and many sections are constant. Instead of fifty-three minutes of peaks and valleys, this is a collection of movements, perhaps even suites. From the bleak, low-frequency minimalism of the opening to the album's cathartic end, it's more of an experience than it is a piece of music to be dissected for your understanding. If you want to know how Not Knowing sounds to me, you're better off streaming it yourself. If you want to know how it feels, please read on.
On a musical level, Szczepanik spends the first ten minutes with a pulsing hum. It's barely there at all, but it's there. Perhaps it's a good starting point. An emptiness to be filled. It's not necessarily depressing or awful, but the general absence of emotion and presence is quite apparent. Over time the low pulse is joined by a higher frequency that hovers alongside it, not altering the mood so much as bringing it slowly into focus. Twelve minutes in, melody begins to develop in the background. Perhaps it's comfort coming in, or maybe it's self-delusion. In times of uncertainty and stress, it's hard to tell one from the other. I remember the morning of Sunday, March 9th. I'd arrived in some wasteland motel in Texas at 3:30am after a long day of driving a box truck containing my entire universe, only to realize that my room was full of other people's filth. I barely slept the entire night and was on the road by 10 that morning. About half an hour into the day's barren drive, my partner was asleep and I found this melody haunting my mind. I was delirious with exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety. I was the sole driver on our trip by my own choice, and I felt more uncertain than I've ever felt. I could picture the two of us dancing in some sort of ethereal ballroom to the music, yet any safe or familiar place was as far away as I could imagine.
This euphoric sensation of striving for something just out of reach is the one thing that I find myself revisiting with every listen. Szczepanik summons an angelic string section that brings to mind a kind of glory and calmness. The tranquil place within this song's midsection is somewhere I'd like to live forever. One might wonder why bother leading up to it with such a bleak, minimalist introduction. To me, the pairing is essential. Without a lower starting point, the effect would be negated and this would simply be one of many haunting, yet one-dimensional recordings in the overall drone and ambient genres. It is, however, important and fitting that this beauty lasts longest of the different segments of the overall piece, as it is a key part of the experience. Even in its most subdued moments, the sensation of hope and balance is the overall theme of this album, and Szczepanik drives it home nicely.
Around the thirty minute mark, the song takes a turn towards slightly colder territory. It's not necessarily uncomfortable, but it's a reminder that bliss does eventually become familiar, making it less exciting and more ordinary. The beauty is still there, but one has to search to really find it. I've been living in Portland for a month and a half now, and I'm settling into something resembling a routine. My days start at a low. For so long, I had a goal: getting out of Florida. Now I have no specific target, and it's really strange. When I wake up each day, it's hard to motivate myself when the only real goal is to exist. However, by mid-afternoon each day, I start to become myself again. I realize how grateful I am to be in a place that inspires me and is so beautiful. It's a small exercise I run through daily, but it helps me. Similarly, finding the warmth in the coldest parts of Not Knowing isn't so much a challenge as it is a reminder that somber moments don't necessitate negative feelings. Sometimes it's just a natural aspect of being alive and conscious.
As the forty minute mark approaches, we return to a droning state. Rather than the familiar pulses, this begins with a circular motion rooted directly in the middle, as if a single note was torn from the song's euphoric peak and stretched as far as it could go. It is meditative and focused, a grounded sensation after everything one has been through. I take a few deep breaths during this part and try to keep my eyes closed as the familiar pulses from the song's beginning slowly work their way back in. It's not an ending, nor a new beginning. It's part of the ongoing cycle to which we often attribute random set points that we label as beginnings and endings. This is where Not Knowing belongs. This is the space around and between every moment since time began. It is a constant around which we build our little worlds. In this place beauty, fear, love, loss, and longing all exist in their own way. I will revisit this album again soon, and I will remember all that I have learned. I hope that I will continue to grow and learn from my experiences and that this song will continue to remind me of my own place in the universe.
If you feel like this will be a journey worth taking on your own, I urge you to visit Nicholas Szczepanik's bandcamp, where you can stream and purchase this album. It's available as a download and as a CD, which can also be purchased from Desire Path Recordings. I seem to be incapable of making the HTML embed code work, so please listen through the link and see how this resonates with you.