Monday, February 08, 2016

Creativity: Observing Improvisation

Observations on making art in the moment of making it:

When I'm improvising music, or playing music in general, I'm often making lots of decisions about what to do in the moment. The fallacy that many intellectuals have about the improvisation process, though, is that this requires verbal cognition. It doesn't. It's a profoundly non-verbal sort of process. Making art for me is not an intellectual puzzle-solving game-theory process; you can only analyze it that way afterwards, not during. Words are the very last tool in use to guide or distribute the process of improvising in the moment. Even when I improvise a poem in the moment, the words are the product, not the tool; which perhaps accounts for why so many of my poems are sequences-of-images.

Many writers I know cripple themselves by revising as they write, rather than dumping it all onto the page and editing it later. If you bring in the inner critic or the inner editor too soon, all too often the creative spark is what gets lost, and the result is often very dry, very cerebral. It may be very interesting to the intellect alone, but it won't endure in the somatic or sensual memory.

That's the problem with almost all verbally-directed cerebrally-dominated art-making: its products don't endure in the emotional, somatic, or psychological memories, just in the intellectual. (Not neglecting that many intellectuals conflate the intellect as being all of psychology, when it is in fact only a small element.) Writing a poem in a fixed form is a fascinating intellectual game, but I can only think of two or three sestinas or villanelles I've ever read that stayed with me; the rest are all forgotten, more form than substance. Machaut wrote memorable villanelles a few hundred years ago; Neil Gaiman write the most memorable sestina I can recall about ten years ago. And that's about it.

The only poetic form I regularly write in is haiku, which is a hugely open-ended form emphasizing how images lead to emotional responses; it's actually a very emotive form. When you see an ironic or humorous poem in the 5-7-5 syllable form, that's actually NOT a haiku (unless it's in the mode of Issa); it's a senryu, or something else, not actually a haiku. Again, the prevalence of the haijin (haiku writer) state of mind in my poetry might account for why so many of my poems are sequences-of-images. It's a natural form and style to me, made even more so by time and experience.

When I was improvising music yesterday to play along with a silent film I wasn't stopping and thinking about what I was going to do. There was no outline. There was response in-the-moment. The big thing that many people forget, who are not experienced improvisors, is that every decision that happens is not thought out beforehand. There's no time for verbal analysis. You just go. Improvising music is in fact a very non-verbal process. Analysis, by critics and music theorists, of what happens later, is by contrast a very verbal process. But it's not that way in the moment of making. Critics and theorists (and artists who are cerebrally dominant) would do well to remember that distinction. It's a very important one.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Who Are We, and Where Are We Going

a Spiral Dance essay

It's pathetic, I suppose, that I'm now more comfortable in anonymous hotel rooms than anywhere I'm supposed to be living, I have a place to live in Madison, now, with a very positive and even supportive roommate, but sometimes I still prefer being alone. That's really why I stopped at a hotel last night. Too tired to deal with people. No spoons left for social graces. Too much effort to even talk to people I like and want to be with. I just wanted to be alone and silent. I don't know how to survive without silence and solitude, anymore. Happiest out there driving alone on the road, in the desert, or forest, or wherever there aren't many people, or any.

I've been kicked out of every group I've ever belonged to. It keeps happening. I should accept it by now, but I keep fighting it. Every group I've ever given my loyalty to, I've been forced to leave behind. I keep getting kicked out of the nest, before I'm ready to leave on my own. Either I've outgrown them, or the gods want me to move on, or it's time and I don't want to go, or fate moves the pieces on my board and I have to leave.

It keeps happening. It's happening again.

Madison, WI, isn't supposed to be where I live. During the crushing end of times in Beloit, when I was having to see everything I own, including my home, the only home I've ever owned, I dreamed that I could give Madison a chance. After all, I used to live there, and had and have many friends, and musician partners, and so on. I've given it a good try, but everything, literally everything, has told me not to make a hime there. No signs of inevitable placement. I've been prevented at every turn. That's the usual sign.

I went through the hell of trying to rent an apartment in Madison, only to be confronted by the unsolvable Catch-22 of: 1. You can't rent an apartment unless you have a job, or credit, or income source. 2. You can't get a job unless you have a street address of a place to live, like an apartment. That paradox is what me onto the road in early November, where I spent almost two months out West; two months, I must say, that were almost the only happy times I had in all of 2015. Everyone noticed. Everyone commented on it. I was happier out West than I had been all year. Less stressed. More positive.

Then I came back to Wisconsin. And the stress immediately got worse again. And then I got bullied, and had to flee a situation where I had been staying. And that pushed me back out on the road again. If only for more healing via travel.

Then I came back.

I'm exhausted, right now, because after two weeks on the road, to Ann Arbor then down to Tennessee and Kentucky to check out another possible living situation, which did not pan out, I had to immediately go back to Ann Arbor for a job interview. I sucked at the interview, and I don't think I'll get the job, but the more I thought about it the more clear it was: I am being invited to live anywhere except Madison. It's time to go.

I got really clear, driving back towards Madison, although stopping short at a hotel before getting there, that Wisconsin is hell for me now and I just need to leave it behind. I got really, really clear; it's so obvious that I should have seen it before, that all my remaining time spent in Madison will be about preparing to leave. It's true, there are details to finish up of this life. I won't rush, if the gods permit, and I know I won't be staying much longer. A few months, probably.

Wisconsin has been very hard on me for the past decade, and it's never going to emotionally neutral there. All that suffering will always leave an aura of sour apples behind. Maybe not in the greenwood per se, but everywhere there are people. So it's time to go. I have more Stuff to get rid of, from the storage locker, and I have time to say goodbye properly to some long term friends, but then I will be gone. These past few months were offered to me, in the words of a friend, as a Farewell Tour. And that's how I am treating them. I won't say de ice what kind of Farewell, just yet. It doesn't have to be that final one, although for awhile that too was in the cards. But it's definitely a Farewell to the life that used to be, that I have now outgrown, and need to put behind me, so I can actually live and thrive, elsewhere. That's the truth of this. That's also why hotels feel better than what used to be"home."

I've never been able to "go home again" in my life. (Cue Thomas Wolfe.) I've never really been able to go back, and stay, anywhere I used to live. I've always been required to live in a new place. I know that on some level that the gods park me in a new place, to be of service there, so that my frequency of light can be used to brighten up a dark place. I'm really tired of always being alone, of never finding a loving partner, although I accept this as part of my path. You're getting a lot more honesty from me, tonight, in this hotel, than anyone is probably prepare to deal with. Well, deal with it. This life path I am on is nomadic, is lonely, is demanding, and has its powerful rewards that sometimes make it all feel like it's been worth it, although not that often.

And I have to keep going.

Caroline Myss, one of my spiritual directors this lifetime, says: Loyalty is a beautiful tribal quietly, especially when it is conscious loyalty, a commitment that serves the individual as well as the group. Extremes of loyalty that harm one's ability to protect oneself, however, qualify as a belief pattern from which one needs to free oneself.

That nails it on the head. When I first give my loyalty to a group, I am very conscious of it, and very aware that service is the key: serving others, we serve ourselves. Yet I tend to give my loyalty a bit too fiercely, and it does come back to bite me. Because I make the mistake of thinking that others also give their loyalty as I do. That's one reason I've been kicked out of the nest so many times. People change, and I find myself alone in where I gave my loyalty, with no reciprocation anymore.

I don't really want to die, anymore. I'm not really suicidal. But I do still have days when I just don't care, when I'm too tired to care, and don't want to go on. Lots of honesty, here. Days I can't face anything normal or socially typical. When I'd rather be out there talking to the Green Man God of the Woods than any human. When Dionysus has my love, and you don't. Days I just can't deal with the superficiality, the inanity, the shallow self-regard. Days when I could cheerfully be a hermit in the desert, and talk to the coyotes more than people. I'm half wild as it is, I guess I always was. Maybe that's why I keep getting kicked out of every nest I've ever tried to build. It's happening again, right now. Let me just pull the knife out of my back, before I continue. There. That's better.

The last year has been about getting rid of or being forced to let go of everything I owened, everything left to me by my parents, all my money, my condo, my belongings, my whole life here. Another nest just taken away. Apparently I'm just a drama queen for ever mentioning it, or for it affecting my mood, or for being so exhausted that I'm not perky or cheerful enough, for it giving me a "bad attitude." I guess that's true. Never mind that it's been the most horrific decade of my entire life, beginning with the deaths of my parents more or less in my arms, passing through almost dying from chronic illness, and finally culminating in the Year I Lost Everything.

Well, so what.

Time to move on. Time to start over somewhere else. Time to go back out to the desert, or the woods, and start over elsewhere, with a lot less baggage, including the physical. Since that seems to be the pattern of my life, I might as well embrace it. I don't know if I will ever live with people anymore, I'll just drop in for a visit. A good visit. With some people, a very good visit. But love and sex? Probably never going to be a permanent thing, for me. Always moving on. I can accept that, too. It doesn't hurt too much, tonight, to embrace that. After all, being pansexual or an omnisexual mystic means I've had sex with the sky and the mountains as often or more than sex with people, men or women or both.

I like people. I really do. I just can't build permanent love relationships with them. I mean, other than as family of choice, which I do love and am grateful for. I just seem to be the wanderer, the warrior, doomed to be homeless, rootless, and so on. That's not self pity talking, that's just acknowledging the archetypes that rule a life.

So, here I go, again. Writing this out in a hotel in the middle of the night after collapsing into sleep upon arrival. That's why you get so much honesty, at the moment, no point in lying to myself. No need to pretend anything other than what it is. And we go on.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Floating in Space

I suppose my mood is being affected
by a lot of dying right now. I'm reading death poems
by the saints and angels, the Zen masters
who on their deathbeds would dictate one last poem,
haiku, tanka, Chinese syllabic quatrain, whatever.
The enlightened masters gave one last lesson
when departing. One of the greatest of masters
left us with the haiku: "Now that I'm enlightened,
I'm just as miserable as ever." I suppose that must
be true, or at least hopeful. Meanwhile I read poems
from Jim Harrison, of late life, the darkest things
I've read from him since "Letters to Yesinin," where
he wrote to Sergei as a way of not joining Sergei,
not killing himself and becoming another dead poet.
That whole book, and one other, inspired me to do the same,
not kill myself, when I was dying, or so close to it
that I didn't want to live. I didn't care. Nothing
was less fun than living, just then.
And today the news is full of the last words
from another saint, David Bowie. Someone once asked
John Coltrane what he wanted to do, now that he had changed
the entire face of jazz. He said, "I want to become a saint."
And he did. THere's a church in San Francisco
dedicated to Trane's sainthood, where they wroship
with an all-day free jazz jam. I can't think what's more fitting.
Now Bowie. I'm not sentimental. I never cry when expected.
I reserve my tears for when I cannot prevent them,
which is rarely the usual suspects or times.
Some movies will make me weep consistently, who remains
dry-eyed at most funerals. The truth is, when you're too full
of feeling it stops you up rather than brims over.
When it's too much, you go numb, at least for awhile,
and nothing can come out without explosives.
The tributes that get to me are the ones as weird as
who inspired them: like Chris Hadfield singing
on the International Space Station, a free-fall rendition
of "Ground Control to Major Tom." Hollywood, never the best
at being tasteful or sublime, couldn't pay for a backdrop
or special effects like that. Actual guitars floating in space.
Now this long distracting mournful stretch of a day
is ending. All day I've tried to focus on what must be done,
and never got as far as chores or duties. I was stuck
on the cusp of contemplation, a tired man sitting on a stump
in a desert thunderstorm, weeping.
What else is there to do? I'll tell you:
If you want to make a tribute to the artists who have changed
your life, do something at least as amazing as what they did
that changed yours, or at least inspired you.
DOn't settle for weeping with the herd. Make a fire.
Here's a random guitar. Place it on the funeral bin,
or set it slowly spinning down the length of the tin can
out there in space, with the Earth rotating out the window.
Don't imitate, steal. Be just as good as your gods.
After all, that's the minimum tribute they deserve.

Chris Hadfield performing Bowie's song "Space Oddity" on the Space Station

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Wizardry 2016: Notes


What I need more of in my life, what I need to remember, is wild magic, not rule bound and law bound magic. Everything you need to learn, you can, from the trees, the wind, the old stones, the lake. No explanations or justifications are necessary. I am far more wild than that. I need to remember and embrace the wild.

It feels sometimes like all I know anymore is despair, doubt, suffering. But a wizard's way begins in words. Naming is a powerful thing. Change the words, and you change the story, and maybe the story's ending. Words are a wizard's tool, although there are many things behind words. Use the tools, change yourself, change the world.

Another thing about wizardry and wizards: They notice everything. Everything. And they never lose their sense of wonder. Even at ordinary things. Everything is a source of wonder.

Half of wizardry, like empathy, is deep listening. Listen to what the world tells you. Most people can't shut up long enough to actually listen to anything. Are you that afraid of silence, that nervous about gaps in social interaction? Try just listening for awhile, without spending all your energies thinking of your next reply.

If you want to leave a tribute who an artist who made a difference to you, who changed your life somehow, do what that artist did: don't copy what everyone else is doing, make something transcendent, memorable, and durable. Make it count.

Basho said: “Do not imitate the masters. Seek what they sought.”

Be just as good as your gods. That's the minimum tribute they deserve.

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Gratitudes 2015

It is very difficult for me to write Gratitudes for 2015. I won't pretend otherwise. I may have to start very small.

(I'm feeling a bit scattered and distracted as I write this tonight, because earlier I was verbally assaulted, which has re-triggered some PTSD about bullying, meanwhile I managed somehow in the past day to upset my touchy stomach due to somehow getting a wheat gluten hit against my gluten allergy. Never mind. Onward.)

I might start with the background of why I have a hard time with Gratitudes this year. I could start with the fact that 2015 was the year in which I lost everything. My home. Most of my belongings. My inheritance. My financial cushion. My application for disability. Several friends. I could mention that I was homeless for seven months in 2015, and unemployed, and stuck in the catch-22 of You can't rent an apartment without having a credit history or a current job to list, but you can't apply for a job unless you have an address where you live. I could mention that I have been verbally abused and bullied twice in the past week, something beyond Holiday Stress and into ridiculous mirrors in which people yelled at me for having a bad attitude but in fact were exemplifying in their own actions what they yelled at me about. (It's called projection, and it's one of the most pernicious strategies of the bully, and the person living with no awareness of the consequences of their own actions in the world.) I could mention the times I've approqched taking my own life this year, because life was too painful, too exhausting, too horrible, and I didn't care in those moments whether I lived or died, and would have preferred dying, just to get some relief. I could mention how I had to sell my again pickup truck, which had served me well on many road trips and daily commutes for eleven years, and to replace it bought a van that had a lot of trouble of first. I could talk about how my van was my only home for several months, during which times I drove it around the country looking to fix my life,can't slept in it many times, and so on. my van actually was my only home for half of 2015. I could mention the many friendships I've lost this past year, as people who I thought I could count on seemed to fear being contaminated by my misfortunes, or were overwhelmed and helpless to the point of backing away in helpless surrender to not knowing what to do, or who left me feeling betrayed because they seemed to forget old agreements of mutual commitment and instead kicked me to the kerb. I could talk about how bitter I have felt most of 2015, bitter and abandoned and lonely and mired in self-doubt about how to move forward. I could talk about how my self-comfidence was so wroded that I ended up with panic attacks preventing me from making any decisions at all, more than once.

All of this is true. It's also just the tip of the iceberg, and I am leaving many things out. All I've listed so far are many but not all of the big pieces, and few of the daily, small, cumulative bits of suffering, bumiliation, frustration, loneliness, and sadness.

In truth I genuinely would prefer to "accentuate the positive." I am not unaware that losing everything this year leaves room to fill my life up with better people, places, experiences, and feelings. I would rather talk about how happy I was in November and December of 2015 to be on a road trip out to the Western Lands, to be making photographs ask went, to be camping in the National Parks when the weather permitted, to be making tracks in snow in the Rocky Mountains, while back in the Midwest there was an unseasonably warm winter and green lawns well into December. Indeed, being on the road for those several weeks at the end of the year were almost the only time in all of 2015 that I felt joy, or happy at all. Then there were the weeks when I housesat while I was homeless and took care of the cats and other pets for a week here, a week there, another week over there, enjoying being with the cats, and very much enjoying the restful silence and solitude while I had a roof over my head. I tried in every instance to do an excellent, responsible job at housesitting, and I feel that I did my best; it's something I would cheerfully do again when asked. One of the happiest times of my homeless wanderings were when I camped along on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, in August and again in September. Similarly, the times this summer and fall I was northern Michigan were very good for the soul and body.

So, with all that as preface: truly 2015 was the worst year ever: I want to move forward into what I am grateful for, from the just-ended Uear from Hell.

I am grateful to everyone who has supported me over the past year, helped me move, helped me financially, helped me organizationally, helped me out with a place to stay for a night, or for several nights, helped me keep my head together when everything was falling apart, helped me with strategy, with planning, with a thousand other small things that add up to my personal survival.

I am grateful to be alive. Some days, that's enough.

I am beginning to comprehend what the Powers That Be seem to want me to do. I'm grateful for getting some clarity on that. I'm aware that Losing Everything also means that a door opens to freedom, for a new life to come in and replace the old, and maybe be better than the old. In moments of clarity and vision, I accept this. Sometimes I can even be happy about it. I'm grateful for insight, for intuition, and for being clever.

I mean that. I am grateful for being clever. For having been born with smarts, intelligence, and gifts. And for having had the opportunities to do something with them. My parents provided a good education. If I didn't live to everyone's expectations for my life, well, there are reasons for that. One of them is, without my knowledge, I was starting to get sick. I didn't lack ambition, I lacked the health to fulfill it. I know so much more now than I did back then. I try not to have regrets. I'm grateful for such knowledge.

I'm grateful to have survived all the bullies and assholes who have tried to knock me down, destroy my life, knock me out or over, from the day I arrived in the USA after a childhood spent in India, to last week. I am grateful not only to have survived bullying, I'm grateful to be able to make art about it. Making art is the best revenge, some wise person said, and I believe it.

I am grateful for losing everything so that void can be refilled with something new. I had a dream a few days ago in which I had been hired to go out on tour as a sound man for a famous band, one of my favorites, one I aspire to. I was the new guy, and I was about to go out on tour, so I had a lot to learn. The gist of the dream was: I need to be out on the road, doing art, making art. I need to be nomadic, more than ever, and make art. I am grateful for the dream. I am also grateful that most of the tools I need to live that lifestyle have fallen into place in the past few months.

I can't honestly say that in fact I am grateful for Losing Everything, but I'm working on it. As I said above, there are some indications that it was necessary. You don't always have to like or enjoy the way your life works out. our plans are not necessarily the real plan. I am grateful for those moments of clarity and enlightenment, regardless.

I am grateful for passion. Sometimes stubbornness is all that's kept me alive. I'm grateful for the anger that is fuel. Fuel to get things done, to move forward, to keep going. Anger is an energy. Use it. Be grateful you have the fuel, you will need it, and you will use it.

I thought about listing every name of everyone who has helped me over the past year. I still want to do that, and I also don't want to leave anyone out. So I'll postpone that in favor of general gratitude and eternal respect. More than I can say. Thank you.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Blessed Solstice 2015

I wrote out this blessing on the eve of Winter Solstice 2015. It arose from my own thoughts and dreams, and experiences, over the past Yearwheel. It also a form of Gratitudes, which is what I write every year instead of New Year's Resolutions.

Blessed Be!

Sweet winter solstice blessings to all.

May your forests be dark and fragrant with unsolved mysteries.

May your fields be blessed with gentle rains.

May the road rise to your journey with the grace of fish rising to taste the water's surface.

May the lights of all the physical fires, the fire in the atom spinning, be the lights in your eyes that find the path you follow open and inviting.

May your home be filled with feasts for all your senses.

May your nights be dark with dreams and crystalline sleep.

By sunlight, candlelight, starlight, and fire light,
Reflections of the Light Eternal.

It is finished in Beauty,
It is finished in Beauty,
It is finished in Beauty,
It is finished in Beauty.

Who created us all in the beginning,
Receive us all in the end.

So Mote It Be.

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Peace On Earth

If you say the words "peace on earth," and really mean them, and intend to manifest and evoke them, then consider that you are contradicting yourself if you immediately turn around and post snarky, insulting. rude, or partisan posts all over social media. It's incongruous, and quite undercuts the message.

The message that comes through when I encounter snark and ironic posturing, is that the person posting feels superior to all around them. That usually resolves to ego inflating itself because on some level it feels uncertain or insecure. Consider that your own self-worth doesn't need to be reinforced by tearing others down.

"Peace on earth" requires one to be open and vulnerable, rather than lofty and superior. We must meet as equally damaged, equally vulnerable, to find what we have in common, and build on it.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2015

words from silence

sickle moon through pines setting
river of stars coursing
from fireplace hearth across skybowl
to moon river on lake

long silences
except from firecrackle and wind treerustle

build a fire
cast its glow across the meadow
stars flicker in grass
moon silvers treetops
fire grows and fades
dim eyes in the hedge
no voices but from hill echoes
there's no home here no home
but sojourner's wayside rest

no words rise
out of darkness starlit blessed
abandon all words
in favor of brush, quill, pen
abandon all desire of words
till words come of their own will
creeping at last to doorsill
to hesitantly knock
bright glints of moon
in their wild wild eyes

Poem written while camping in northern Minnesota, September 2015

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Tuesday, December 01, 2015

while the light lasts

fire before me, lighting my way
fire behind me, warming me
waxing moon over my shoulder
misty silver mark on sky
through blackbranch trees
moon river on lake surface
small waves striking shore rocks
behind fierily trees
lightning strobe far to the west
past forest swamps and rivers
candles flicker in chill western breeze
we live to write while the light lasts

Written while camping on the shore of Lake Michigan, September 2015

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Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Olive Trees

Vincent van Gogh, The Olive Trees, 1889

olive grove
at the end of life
down the end of the lane

bright gold sun
at the top of the sky
draping blue shades under trees

dark green leaves
silver underneath
wind shimmer even in this glow

and the aftermath of night
is the reason we go on
under the olives in the hopeless garden

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night of power

first steps under heaven
river of stars eddies, swirls
constellations moving to new forms

first taste of water
deep black underground river of stars
sparkle tin cup brimful clear

first light the lake
blue through standing pine altars
of green, loon calling, calling

first morning of the world
sunlight on birchbark a whorl of time
the oldest land spirits step quietly

through pine stand altars green and grey

bring ancient woods
under a fierce minted moon

scattering silver spots
on a leaf-blown path

old old wind

this night of power:

wind high in trees
fire bright
stars wheeling
northern lights
shooting stars

By firelight, candlelight,
starlight, and sunlight,
Who created us all in the beginning,
receive us all in the end.

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Saturday, November 28, 2015


hardly possible to ignore
each eye-opened dawn awaking
world born first time anew each day
the first day new creation
rebirth yes too but also
each day new day each moment a new

first hours each morning chill
maker arises from dream—
spinning wollen thread hiking mountain vale
cooling purple-red stories out of day's=blood
hiss of summer's wind-tossed trees spun into melody—
to make new day something out of nothing
birth creation reconciled gap between
mulberry and morning-glory
all green-gold before first tea

what will it be today
scarf or hummingbird cloak
irony of a night soul forced awake
at dawn or at least when sun hits tent
creative friction anew
in span taken for tea to steep
what will you maker have made
by then
so rarely spinning words from hoard
when melody alone fulfills
tease meaning from the film flicker
cinematic sequis spun into light
rope burns and orgasmic joy
rhythm creaking swings of childhood
symphony of vertigo spin till fall on grass
druids shrouded in acid hazmat cloaks
long silence of birdsong sibilant pines
each new day younger or older than the last
unpredictable change of hair red gold white

how did we walk this far again anyway
by each awaken make a new day
so far beyond where cardinals stay
aflicker red from green to grey
such habits pull my hands and break
a form down

to nothing is my dawn allegiance
creation's light fall on what he makes
each morning formless until most made
first artisan celebrates each day anew
first day of creation every day
birds flicker in the fever of living
each second vibrate pulse into being a billion motes
time of slow god and slower hanging tree

pull back now
these darker screens on which to paint
careful what you make manifest each early dawn
last moods that linger shadow all your day
what maker creates both dark and light
a round of wheels cycles spinning tops
magnetic field and solar wind
elegant particle dance
no wonder old ones imagined sun gods in such light
when every day's a new creation
new imagining new world new life
what will he make fresh awoken
this first hour of new universe made
dawn of new life lived

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Friday, November 27, 2015

Gratitudes Thanksgiving 2015

I made it a practice to write Gratitudes instead of New Year's resolutions beginning several years ago. I find this practice very challenging this year, after a year in which I pretty much lost everything. Literally. I won't bore you with a list; the highlights include losing my home and most of what I used to own; leave it at that for now. Suffice to say, I feel challenged this year to be grateful. Writing Gratitudes cannot be easy: while it's easy to be grateful when you're at a feast, it's far more difficult to find gratitude when you have nothing. But that's when it really counts.


The list of my circle of close friends who have helped me immensely in this past year—in multiple ways on multiple fronts, some big, some small, every little piece adding up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts—is a long list full of wonderful people. I'm challenged to make a full list, because I don't want to leave any names off accidentally. So please, all of you, accept my profound and eternal thanks. Thank you. THANK YOU.

I'm grateful to have what I have left, for what I have now, every little piece of it. I have a vardo, a nomad's wagon to live in, and destinations to go and visit, and a road to travel. If the folk in one town start to be a problem, there's always another town own the road.

I had a really good Thanksgiving here in CA with best friend and best friend's family and circle of friends. Not merely a great food feast, but good conviviality and lots of excellent moments of laughter and music. Thank you.

There are people I think of as family. My family-of-choice. Most of them know who they are. I'm grateful you're in my life. Thank you.

I'm grateful simply to be alive. There have been several occasions in recent years when that was no sure thing. There have been a few times in this past, difficult year, when I've come close to that edge. My mental and physical health have been fragile, or, to be blunt, on some occasions this past summer, outright broken. I've spent time these past few weeks on the road rebuilding the equilibrium and stamina lost to several months of trauma that, to be blunt, not everyone I know could have survived. Nor could I have, without immense support from my closest friends. Thank you.

I'm still here. I want to be here. The future is no more certain now that it has been. I have no answers. Life is lived very much day to day. Don't ask for more than that. And thank you.

Nothing is resolved. The road is not closed. I will have no truck with false or toxic hope. I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, and I've become a hardcore realist. I wait and see what develops. I will not pretend to embrace optimistic resolutions I do not feel, or believe, or have any faith in. Neither will I close myself to grace. I am always open to grace, and I have received many, many gifts. I am still here.

Thank you.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Offends Me Most in the Public Arena is Sloppy Thinking

What follows below began as a reply to a comment elsewhere. I expand it here, because there's a point to be made. During the next year, when political and social discourse is only going to get more and more heated, and stupid, and partisan, and uncivil, do think hard about what you're going to say, before you open your mouth and prove yourself to be an idiot. NONE of my friends are idiots; and occasionally some of them do look that way. Why? Read on. (I won't be offended if you don't; however, next time we disagree on something, I might not take you very seriously.)

Lots of folks get offended very easily these days. The interwebs are full of outrage, and manufactured outrage, and partisan political discourse, and angry rhetoric, and name-calling ad hominem attacks, and friends yelling at each other because of some political opinion. Its ridiculous. As if people cannot bear to be disagreed with, ever, for any reason. But the echo-chamber of complete agreement does not serve us in the public intellectual arena: you cannot go deeper into your own beliefs and understanding if they are never questioned.

I don't say I never get offended; I do. However, what I find offensive is rarely about the content of your argument, but rather about the consistency and logic of your argument. I get along perfectly well with people I disagree with on many issues; I get along poorly with people who throw half-baked aphorisms at me and expect to nod my head in instant agreement. Even if I otherwise agree with them on many points, I don't give their half-baked opinions a free pass just because I mostly agree. This does offend people, yes. Such friends do get upset with me when I point out the gigantic holes in their arguments; they need to get used to that, because that's not going to change. I think for myself, do my own research, and rarely take things at face value.

Because what offends me most is not the contents of peoples' opinions, no matter how bizarre, but the logical inconsistencies and contradictions that they present.

The main thing that ever strongly offends me is blatant hypocrisy. Inconsistent logic comes a close second, though. (Hypocrisy itself is logically inconsistent, of course, which is one reason it's so heinous.) Most of the comments I make in socio-political discussions are to point out where rhetoric and logic aren't being used correctly, or at all. Which does offend some folk who prefer that their prejudices not be questioned or exposed to the light of logic. Typically, ad hominem personal attacks come from those who fear that their argument doesn't have a logical leg to stand on.

Sadly, this is true for atheists just as much as it is for religious believers. It is as true for progressives as it is for conservatives—although experience teaches that progressives generally tend to do their research more thoroughly than do conservatives. Again, the point is logical consistency, not the contents of your argument. For example, if people claim to be driven by reason rather than prejudice or superstition, they must consistently apply reason to their own arguments, and expose their underlying assumptions to the light of reason. No pre-judgment and no underlying assumption gets a free pass.

No one should be tolerant of prejudice or unreason, not even their own. No one gets a free pass.

I am not required to tolerate intolerance, prejudice, stupidity, or poorly-informed opinion. In fact, as followers and fans of Mark Twain, it is a public service to skewer faulty reason and prejudicial thinking wherever one encounters it. Even, yes, amongst one's erstwhile allies.

For example, while it is perfectly possible to hate that abortions happen and still be pro-choice—i.e. in favor of women having the right to manage their own bodies and their own health, while also wishing that every child was a wanted child—you cannot pretend to be logically consistent if you want to defund Planned Parenthood and still claim to be pro-women's rights: those two positions are oxymoronic when placed side by side, and yes you do look misogynistic when you attempt to do so.

For example, you cannot use the inflamed rhetoric of your antagonist without looking like a mirror image of your antagonist. You cannot call your interlocutor an idiot without opening yourself to the same charge. You cannot insist that your opponent's argument be subjected to rigorous logic and scientific experiment without exposing your own arguments to the same requirement. No double standards are allowable, ever. Period.

What also offends me is when people repeat a meme without fact-checking it; especially if that meme came from certain sources. Always Consider The Source (CTS). For example, Planned Parenthood receives Federal funding, yes, but none of that Federal funding goes to support abortion services; furthermore, Planned Parenthood provides many services such as birth control—which prevents unwanted pregnancies, and therefore reduces the incidence of abortions as well—and the abortion services they provide are only a fraction of their services. If you believe otherwise, you have bought into the disinformation smear campaign of the political right wing, and you need to check your facts. For example, if you believe that right wing charities and ethically and morally superior to charities that are either political neutral or sponsored by generally progressive religious groups such as the Methodists, you again need to check you facts, and not assume that every piece of disinformation you read is accurate or authentic.

Data overrules half-baked opinion, every time. Fact overrules political prejudice, every time. Period. Know your facts before you open your mouth, or you can expect to be challenged.

People, you look really stupid and uninformed if you repeat a meme because it agrees with your prejudices, or your well-considered opinions, but is provable disinformation or lies. (CTS)

People seem to get offended whenever I present a nuanced opinion rather than total agreement with whatever their current bumper-sticker opinion is. People also get offended when I point out the holes in their arguments. Oh well.

Finally, we all can be wrong. I can be wrong, you can be wrong, people you admire and respect can be wrong. The history of politics as well as the history of science is littered with strongly held beliefs proven to be wrong at a later date.

But here's the problem with being wrong: If you never admit you're wrong, or apologize for making a mistake, you have no credibility. By admitting when you're wrong, and moving on, you both grow as a person, and your group grows in wisdom. If you are completely unable to admit you are wrong, as people of fixed prejudices are unable to admit the light of reason into their opinions, you are a hypocrite, and logically inconsistent, and everything wrong that I've been talking about here. When you discover you're wrong, admit it, and move on. There is honor is honesty. There is no honor is face-saving lies.

If someone disagrees with you, you TALK to them about it. You find out if in fact you substantially disagree, or if it's mostly semantic. Coexistence requires communication. And that requires getting outside the comfort zone of your dearly-held opinions. It requires you to let them be challenged, so that you can hone them, or change them if required.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Random Notes on a Writer's Life

Productivity: as usual, I am sporadic. As always those critics who think all composers, writers, and songwriters are (or should be!) daily-disciplined craftsmen who write every day, and who dismiss inspiration and the Muses as beyond the pale, are wrong. I've had that argument too many times for it to be interesting anymore: the "you're not a disciplined writer!" accusation against me, because I'm not a daily-disciplined writer, but one who waits and listens for those inner voices to bring something forward—and yet the critics and writers who would chastise me for being "undisciplined" by their standards still can find nothing wrong with what I write, it's not inferior to their own work, I produce enough work to satisfy demand, and despite grumbling they often accept it for publication. My discipline is to always be ready to write it down, whenever it comes forward to be written down. I find nothing kills freshness like stale rote "discipline." It's true that daily writing practice can help you polish your art, and improve your craft—but if you have nothing to say, so what? It's just hollow words.

So, as usual, I'm sporadic. Yet, in the past week or so, I've gotten down three poems, two of which are probably more in the song lyric column, all of which will be worked on more, later. I've also had some musical ideas floating around. In the next few months, I need to write another larger choral commissioned work, and I'm putting out tendrils to gather in ideas, inspirations, and texts.

Last night I rolled into the computer a cassette of a Barbaric Yawps live show, recorded in July 1996 at the Madison Art Fair on the Square. I was listening in particular to my own solos on Chapman Stick for those world-music-inspired progressive/free jazz band pieces that we worlked hard to perfect; the Yawps always played on the fractal edge where form and chaos touch, always intentional but near the edge of flying off in any direction. There was a power and life-force aspect to playing with the Yawps that was one of my favorite things about the band. We opened this Art Fair set with one of my own pieces written for the Yawps, "Nomads," which is written in a post-Ellington complex (world music inspired) scale, with polychords; I can readily admit that "Nomads" was my response to "Caravan," just pushed further and a bit more off-kilter and polytonal. (I wrote a few tunes for the Yawps, but most of the music was created by reeds player Tom Lachmund.)

Last weekend I was at Interlochen, in Michigan, for the biannual Interlochen Stick Workshop, my second time attending. I want to do more Stick workshops. I need to reconnect with the music and musicians, and begin doing regular gigs again. This is way of both improving my own playing skills, and networking; both are beneficial. The social aspect of the Stick seminar was actually as powerful for me as the actual classroom work.

Hearing the Yawps recording from 1996, I hear myself playing chordally-complex jazz solos that I can still hear in my head, but haven't played lately. I can hear my conceptual zone in play there, and I had finger dexterity I lack, now. I know I lost ground when I was really sick, a few years ago, and didn't have the strength to do much playing. Now, I want to turn that around. I'm getting my strength back, slowly, and want to get my playing skills back. I like what I heard during this 19 year old performance: recorded before I was really sick, and before I moved out West, and things got chaotic and my (as yet undiagnosed) illness worsened, and robbed me of life-force. I no longer had the strength to practice regularly, and even though I was gigging when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, it wasn't regular, and it was more on the avant-garde and free-jazz range of music-making, which doesn't require me to deepen my performance technique, in some ways. Being at a seminar that forced me at times to back up and re-learn some basic techniques and ideas was refreshing, stimulating, inspiring, and enlivening. Give me more!

Downside of being a lifelong science fiction, mystery, and fiction reader: I often spot the plot twists well in advance. It's partly because linear narrative has s logic to it, and it's partly because, as a storyteller oneself you know how stories are constructed. Even more than that, as a student of myth and folklore, and of the archetypes, you look for and find patterns in how stories are constructed. It's no secret that Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and anthropologist, was a student of Carl Jung, the depth psychologist who proposed the idea of archetypes of the collective unconscious; and it's no secret that I am a student of both these teachers.

Still, when I encounter a storyteller who can really surprise me, or whose work is a fresh take on the oldest myths, I treasure being surprised. That itself is one big reason I still read SF.

(And for the record, nobody uses "sci fi" to describe the genre except outsiders and popular media junkies.)

Meanwhile, I had a real, genuine, short story published this year, in JONATHAN magazine. An actual short story! An actual, for that matter, science fiction short story! It was titled "Shimmer," and is in the May 2015 issue. So I guess I can legitimately call myself a fiction writer now, a storyteller.

And I have had a scattering of short-short stories accepted for next year, as well.

I have also had a number of poems accepted for publication later this year.

I don't submit a lot, and I admit I'm sporadic about writing. Sometimes I do my best work under deadline pressure, and when I am asked to write something. It gives me a kick in the pants to get it done.

And my art installation at Silverwood County Park, The Temple of Deep Time, has been extended for a year. And I am being asked to submit proposals for new installations, for other settings and occasions. So I am being asked, and I am working to meet those deadlines.

This also reflects my increasing ability to actually Do The Work. The return of life-force and strength makes me able to meet these requests and goals. For now, it's very helpful for me to have an external push; at some point, the external push will be less necessary, but always welcome. I am still getting used to the idea that, for most of my adult life, I was not actually lazy and unmotivated, I was sick. I was sick! Sick with an illness that robbed me of strength, of life-force, of motivation, of mental health, and much more. I am too old now to probably ever fully recover; and yet here I am, able to do more now than I could imagine a few short years ago, and with the desire to do it all. I will never have "normal health" for someone my age—but I can do more than I have been able to in a decade. I am aware, today, that when I am not feeling PTSD or crushed down by life, I feel so energized I can barely keep myself in my body. And I am aware of how much I want to get done in whatever remaining years I have left.

It needs to be said, again, though: I don't make art for purposes of "self-expression," that hoary Romantic myth. Sometimes I do, but mostly when I make art I feel egoless rather than ego-empowered. There are things I have to say, and want to say, but a significant percentage of what I Make just has to be made, and I don't feel like I'm in charge, or "controlling" that, or the master of it. It just happens. Often I don't know what's going on anymore than you do—until afterwards. Craft is great for analysis, and theory is great for figuring out what you just did. It's not a very good prescriptive master, though, but more of a tyrant when applied beforehand rather than afterwards.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

homeless lake

long lake
long long trail
trial of wilderness and capture
run out tide
swallows in the shallows
shadow of maple cloak
shade out to rope scar and windbreak
long slash of talons
pines riven and slid
long long talon
trace trail of not tears but light

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Thursday, April 02, 2015


There's a level of commitment that no one understands who hasn't sacrificed
to make real change. This morning I was rudely awoken by the doorbell only
when I dragged myself up no one was there, still the event left me paranoid
and haunted, which is not helped by today's overcast gloom and cold damp wind,
especially after a summery yesterday bright with light and warm breezes. I want to go back
into some cave. There's nothing here this morning that doesn't create visions
of the metaphorical rope, only of course for me it's never hanging that tempts, it's that launch
into open air off a cliff or highway bypass, wheels whining at high speed
till you leave the road and float flying in silent air till the inevitable pancake
at the end of any ballistic arc. I'd go ballistic for a good death. That I've always seen
my own end involving Death's black car is what makes me a committed driver.
Everybody loves you when you're dead. This ghastly morn not even tea
can wake me from this nightmare of rude daybreak. At some point you stop asking
for help because you don't feel heard. That's all I ever needed, to just feel listened to,
like I've been heard and seen. But how many have given up their jobs and lives
and daily round to pop in the car and drive a state or two away to help a friend?
I have. Most will not. It's a form of acceptable inadequacy to say I wish I could help
but circumstances prevent me. In my worst moments of self-drowning I scathe excuses.
Heaven is a place where everyone does however they can for each other. Hell is where
you have to do it all on your own, which means tasks never end. Although it's true
that doing things alone when the sky is bright makes solitude a balm. It depends
what you're doing. Fly-fishing is better than sorting through the detritus of mildewed family
snapshot albums where half the people are dead and nothing is labeled clearly.
When's the last time I wrote you a letter out of desperation?
It must have been recently, although the days have soaked together. Every day seems
like every other and none of them are tolerable, so it becomes an endless hell
with no relief in the wrong kind of solitude. Does anybody hear? Is anybody there?
Does anybody care? I'm resorting to quotations now. Depression seems callow
when it's yours while in a song or a Russian novel it's profound and universal.
That's because a million people have listened to Yesenin and Doestoevsky and Cohen
while your own less spectacular plaints generate not even an echo. The knock on the door
of a stranger is more meaningful when it's fiction. Your own life will mean more to others
when you're dead. Comparisons are inevitable. That's just the human thirst for lust and memory
again overruling the impulse towards commitment. Few can be bothered.
It feels unfair, which is probably just hubris. When I gave up my own life to care
day to day for my ailing parents till they died it was never quite sensible to most.
In theory it's praiseworthy but bedpans and ostomy bags don't empty themselves.
Life is kept at a distance to make it more seemly and less severe. But life is messy.
Deep waters don't exist till your diving pushes the river bottom away and down.
Or you smack up against the physical laws. Whoever designed this place made no
account for dreams. Responding to nightmare with absurdity is self-defense.
See how I fly. Look, there's the guardrail. It breaks imperceptibly, tissue paper in the wind,
and for awhile all you can see is sky.

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why I'm Not Writing Poems At the Moment

Well, it's complicated.

Of course, that's what one always says. But there is truth to it. I am at the moment going through an exhausting process of getting rid of most of my belongings, preparing to sell my house and move, probably even be homeless for a month or two, and going on from there. It's a big change, and often quite overwhelming. It is so enveloping a situation that I find myself not making much art right now—which is an aberration in itself—and in particular not doing much writing.

This is one of those things that I will write about when it's all over. When, during the course of the summer, I will probably be living in a tent, traveling for a bit, spending some time absorbing and processing what has been happening, and what has happened, and thinking about What Next. I often do much of my my best thinking and writing while traveling. I often write longhand when on the road, poems, essays, journal rants, even the occasional short story. I expect that to happen, this summer, once the dust settles. I really miss not having been able to travel much in the past year or so. Cabin fever has been a constant problem. I didn't get to do a road trip out West in the past 20 months, and I can feel both the spiritual and psychological pressure, and the physical restlessness, that are a result.

Not making art is not good for me. I've been under too much stress and anxiety. So, sometimes I just have to shout. Sometimes you just have to. I have been making some art, in between, but the stress and physical exhaustion of all that must get done has often left me with no energy after a long day or night, and I just collapse. It's not good for me to not make art. It can be worrisome if I'm not getting that done.

And the truth is, I have been in a music-making and visual art mode for several months, writing only scraps of poetry, and shorter personal essays, rather than longer poems and so on. I have been composing a lot of music in the past few years, and that is so very satisfying that it sometimes makes the rest of the art-making go away. Music is still my centre, my core, my deepest source and root. Poetry has never been the primary art form for me—which has been known to piss off other poets, who think it ought to be, or like my poems well enough that they want more. Well, most of them have other jobs, too: so they have no pressure on their writing beyond what they put into it. I am required to use my creativity for whatever trickle of income it generates. So I wrote a short poem when I am moved to: not when folks want me to. It's a matter of focus.

But also of crop rotation. Right now, I'm just not in poetry mode. I expect that will come around again. Honestly, I write a lot of poems, and good or better poems, when I'm not feeling so musically satisfied. The visual art is on its own parallel track, because these days it just goes on no matter what, since even my cellphone has an excellent camera on it. I can always make photos.

Recently I spent some time in the Art Institute of Chicago, looking at artwork. It's always inspiring to visit a museum full of paintings and other art. You get ideas. You absorb the vibe. You think about how other artists lived and worked. You feel validated in even some of your craziest. It's always a good day when it's spent in an art museum.

And so, why I'm not writing poems at the moment doesn't really matter. It will shift back in that direction when I'm on the road again, I have no doubt of it. I hope to write a few more songs soon, as I am finally ready to gather enough songs to record a solo album of songwriting. There will be other singers than myself, I hope; singers with better voices, albeit under my producer's direction. I hope to get to that once I'm past this big change in life. Stay tuned.

For the moment, this is just a ramble out loud down the thinking lane towards the garden of forking paths. Who knows what's around the nest turn? I never have known what art I'm going to make next. I just do it, and see what happens. And we go on.

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Fantasy LP Covers

Fantasy LP covers made from my own artwork and photography, and used to both appear in gallery shows, and to promote my own music. Some of these have been printed as 12x12 prints and attached to vintage LP record sleeves found in thrift stores. A couple have been displayed in gallery show openings. At least one was used to promote a new song I have written. Which also gives me the idea to finally record and release an album of my own songs. I'll get around to that soon, I hope, life willing.

This next group of LP covers was made for the opening of a showing of my photographs of Silverwood County Park:

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Solstice 2014

the magic is about
light even in darkness
song even in silence
a promise of sun's return
the memory of trees

for all the dark between stars
is filled with light and song
for every atom vibrates and pulses
in endless song
for even dark matter is filled with light
because all matter is just slow light
that can be ignited by the spark of time

as was proven by the shining
of both sun and bomb
of night's ignition into dawn
of angels' glory sung in the tulips of spring
and the light inside these limbs

Light in the darkness
Song in the silence
Every thing that is alive
Reflecting this glory, this shine
So it is and ever shall it be

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Music is Life

There was never any doubt I was going to be a musician.

I started piano at age 6, as soon as we got home from India, at my mother's insistence. She herself had been a concert pianist, played live music on the radio, taught piano, and got her degree in piano and education, before my parents were married and took our family to India, where my father was a medical doctor. I had my first piano recital circa age 7,experiencing horrible stage fright. Thankfully, stage fright went away soon, and I've never really experienced it again. It was a function of profound shyness, which I still experience but have learned to work through, mostly; but with music performance, I am sure of myself when onstage, due to long experience. I studied piano with Frances Danforth in Ann Arbor; years later, after I had graduated from music school, we reversed roles and I tutored her in composition. I have a few of her solo piano music scores around here somewhere, including Karelian Light, which I remember as being a luminous tone poem for piano.

I did try to go into science in college, specifically geology, which I still love to read about, and look at rocks in outcrops. Nonetheless I followed my bliss and I transferred to music school for composition, against everyone's wishes, except for William Albright, the composition professor who became my mentor and academic advisor and friend.

Most of my career missteps in life have come from listening to "sensible" advice from family and friends who told me I'd never make a living in music or the arts, and that I should get sensible work, pay my bills on time, be an upstanding citizen, and so on—on one level they were right, but most of the years I worked as a graphic designer and desktop publisher in corporate culture I felt unfulfilled and unhappy, except on those rare occasions where I was allowed to use my creativity as part of the job. And let's be honest, that kind of job security was only false security in the long run: after many years in publishing I got kicked to the curb with little to show for it.

The only corporate jobs I ever liked were ones that allowed me to be creative, in whatever ways were available. I did like working for book and magazine publishers as a graphic artist, as I occasionally got turned loose creatively; and I taught myself to become a Photoshop expert during idle moments on the job.

In more recent years, sick and unable to work corporate hours anyway, I've written reams of poetry and essays, been commissioned to write large works of music, written several new songs, and a few new medium-scale compositions. I am writing more music now than I had in years, and almost all of it is getting performed. So I've come full circle from when I was in music school, when almost everything I wrote was performed; in part because I like writing for specific performers, many of whom ask me to write for them. It's not a guarantee of getting a performance, or even a good one, but it is incentive to write.

I have also been singing my own songs: for the first time, I have enough confidence in my own ability to play and sing my own songs, to be able to get onstage and do it. At first there was some stage fright. But what you learn from experience is that courage means being scared to death, and getting up there and doing it anyway. I am gradually gathering enough new songs, which I have written mostly for myself, to record an album. That will come to fruition in the near future, I hope.

Therefore I am always going to be someone who encourages young musicians to keep making music. Even if they don't make it their career, they will be better people, and happier for having music in their lives. As several psychological and medical studies have shown, playing music at a young age has many benefits later in life.

Music is life.

Living is dancing.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Ten Albums That Have Influenced Me

Ten albums that have influenced me (I'm cheating a bit as some artists have more than one album listed, and in some cases their entire body of work has influenced me):

1. Wendy (née Walter) Carlos: Switched-On Bach. Either the first or second LP I ever bought. Wore out at least two copies over the years, maybe three. First, here are modern electronic instruments playing some favorite classical music, proving that it works. Second, this was my introduction to the possibilities of the Moog synth. (I own two at this point.)

2. Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil. Laswell has always done really interesting kinds of music, often ten years ahead of everyone else. HNE is a fusion of hard urban grooves with Americana, West African and Indian rhythms, and Beat sensibility. This is one of my main influences when I pay improvised rock, prog, and jazz. Laswell proved that you can put a dub bassline on almost any kind of improvised music and make it solid. There are several other Laswell albums I could have listed here, yet this is one I keep coming back to again.

3. King Crimson: Discipline. Like so many others, Tony Levin was who influenced me to play Stick. This is just a great and enduring album, light and dark by turns, proving to me that "math rock" at its best is gutsy and emotional, not just cerebral. "The Sheltering Sky" contains a flavor of emotional intensity I had only ever heard before in composers like Bartok, Ligeti, Gorecki, or Grieg.

4. Javanese Court Gamelan, Vol. II: Istana Mangkunegaran (Nonesuch Explorer Series). The whole Nonesuch Explorer Series was very influential on my life, opening the door to world music (long before worldbeat was a pop music genre), and eventually to studying ethnomusicology. This album, from the Mangkunegaran influenced me not only musically but personally: eventually I traveled to Indonesia on a Fulbright and studied gamelan at the Mangkunegaran itself, playing some of the music on this album on those same instruments. For me that was a numinous, thrilling, amazing, near-religious experience. I devoted many years of my life to playing and studying Javanese gamelan, and it affected the way I play improvised music, too.

My immersion in gamelan and world music completely changed how I think about music and music-making. Gamelan was part of my immersion in pattern music: music based on ostinatos, on repeating patterns, on additive rhythm, on gradual process. The next three albums are also part of that experimentation with that kind of music, each from a different direction: jazz, rock, classical.

5. John Klemmer: Touch. Before late high school I had had no interest in jazz, rock, pop, or anything but classical and avant-garde music. This LP got me into jazz because the music was ostinato-based themes treated as jazz heads. I still find it really appealing, as well as still being outside the jazz mainstream. From here, all of jazz opened its doors to me, although I remain most strongly drawn to the jazz avant-garde, the more "outside" music like "free jazz" or the composed complexity of Ellington. And I could also list Brubeck's "Time Out" as a key influence here, too.

6. Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells, Hergist Ridge, and Ommadawn. I remember having an argument in the van on a free afternoon when I was studying geology in Wyoming, when a bunch of us college students were stuffed in the van listening to the Jackson radio station. "Theme from The Exorcist" came on, and everybody was into the music, but nobody but me knew it was excerpts from Tubular Bells. Oldfield built layers of melody and harmony over gradually built-up musical patterns. All three of his early album-length recordings were influential on me, but Ommadawn is in my opinion one of the greatest works of the 20th Century. People don't realize how much folk music influenced Oldfield, and as an ethnomusicologist I can hear that influence all through here.

7. Steve Reich: Drumming (DGG 3 LP set) and Music for 18 Musicians. Gradual process music, which is actually the opposite of "minimalism," a term Reich has never liked. Small repeating musical patterns change gradually, and expand and contract, creating layers of interacting sound. This music influenced me as a composer, certainly, as well as a listener. Music for 18 Musicians is one of the greatest works of classical 20th Century music; and this is proved in part because it is now being played by talented high school groups, too.

8. John Cage. I've always listened to lots of classical avant-garde music, or "experimental" music. I can't pick a particular Cage recording that was a major influence, because his entire body of work has been a major influence on me. Maybe I could single out on the LPs of the Variations. I've performed a lot of Cage over the years, as well. Probably the 2 LP set of Indeterminacy (Folkways) is what I would have to single out as an important influence, as it combined music, "noise," and words together. This led me towards text-sound poetry, which of course had a lot to do with, which is the use of the spoken word as a musical element.

9. David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London: Music of the Middle Ages and The Six Wives of Henry the VIIIth. Munrow was one of the leading lights of the Early Music revival scene in the 1970s, which was a both scholarly and popular revival of Medieval and Renaissance music performance on original instruments, that continues to this day. Munrow's 3 LP set of Medieval music was my first introduction to the very modern-sounding music of the 13th and 14th Centuries, which still sound avant-garde. This was my first intro to Perotin, the great composer of organum. And Munrow also did the soundtrack, period music on period instruments, for the hit BBC TV series about Henry the VIIIth, which my family avidly watched together as it was first broadcast on PBS. Medieval studies has had almost as big an impact in my life as has ethnomusicology, and in similar ways. Munrow was who opened that door for me.

10. Joni Mitchell: Hejira. There have been a lot of singer-songwriters of the "folk revival" who have had a big impact on me as a songwriter, but Joni Mitchell towers over all of them. This is not only an album full of great songs, it's also musically adventurous and was ahead of its time. Mitchell took a lot of flak for always evolving her sound, rather than staying the little waif with singing autobiographical songs about love, and jazz was a huge influence on her, culminating at one point with Mingus. It's all there in Hejira, though, combined with the appeal of being a musical road trip full of vivid characters and scenes. Some of the songs on "Hejira" have not only influenced me as a songwriter, they have at times seemed to be the narrative of my own life.

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Letter to Orphée

Thinking of a lyre of wood and wire and earth,
an earth lyre, I think of an elemental music,
a music made of earth, metals and woods
and stones of earth, played by wind howling
outside the house this dim, blustery day. The clouds
last evening, and pale light this morning, look like snow coming,
not rain. Rushes of sound, wind blowing across
the housetop, reverberate down the chimney.
Orpheus picks up a strangely curved branch of fallen
wood off the forest floor, strings it with copper wires, and plays.
His lyre summons spirits of the air, voices hiding behind
wind and mist, his singing voice, his poetry, becomes the telling
of seasons, days turning the planet under stars.
An elemental voice describing a concerto of ever-changing forces
and spirals in the sky. Spiral wood beams struck by lightning
embrace a pale white stone from anywhere but here.
Perhaps an ancient sea. You cannot be unaware, Orpheus,
that time and change take us all, that these stones eroding
to dust and leaves in this interstellar wind were once
a shallow sea, or that the peak of our tallest mountain
is made of shells of sea creatures that died millions of years gone
to fall to deep ooze and be pressed into rock
by the pressures of what came after. My home
is a temple of standing stones. Red and gold sandstones
form a shelter around whose curves the wind howls. We work
these metal flakes, gold bright and soft copper green, into veins
of the lyre of Orpheus, seams in the wood, ore seams in the earth.
Its copper strings gleam with forged memory. Its curve
is a memory of birds nesting in the crook of an ancient bole,
a tree much older than any bird, once fallen forgotten
by the descendants of sparrows and robins who once it sheltered.
Birds nest in the hair, the ear, of Orpheus, and dictate their songs
to his receptive tongue, his voice which forgets nothing,
not even the oldest groan of the planet giving spontaneous birth to life.
It's tempting to believe that those who refuse to hear these spirits
singing have themselves no souls, but we must not judge, we must
leave room for revelation. Everything connects. Webs and orbs
and lyre-spiders who weave them. Atoms of everything, whirling
in apparent silence within these fossiled stones, glint and spark
in light cast by the voice of the son of dreaming. His torn limbs
cast upon waters and forest floor. Orphée retrieves his own bones
and sinew as he picks up another fallen treelimb to weave
a newer lyre. Look, will you not: gold leaves glow
in the last rays of afternoon, below this hillside meadow,
and behind that is the whirling sparkle of molecules dancing,
and behind that the velocity of a shining planet, an orb
hurling itself into silence. We are the cliffs we jump from.
Our naked flesh breaks the laketop shimmer as we fall,
we disappear forever into that water mirror, then placidity returns.
Low hum of oceans singing in the blood, wind in the copper wires
of a sacred city, a lyre strung above dark streets the moon guards.
A forest of shadows grows within oil slicks reflecting streetlights
and trash bins. But in time, deep time, this forest made of bricks
will be overeaten and digested by new forests, returned and ink-vined
along borders of papyrus leaves woven into sheets of sand
by the lyre's unending song. The lowest string on a harp
of air and ice, the lowest tone that, struck,
can shatter crystal mountains. Wind strokes
the highest strings into humming.
Orpheus takes breath, opens his mouth to sing again.
What comes forth
shapes wind-blown broken sandflakes
back into mirrors full of starlight.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Are you an Artist or a Maker?

I tend to think of myself as a "maker," because "artist" carries a lot of baggage around what people assume an "artist" to be. This is as true for artists as for non-artists.

(Point of order: Not everyone makes "art" or "fine art," or even "arts and crafts," but everyone has creativity as their human birthright. We are all creative in little ways, and in other ways, even if we do not "make art.")

Although I can call myself an Artist, because I have made "fine art" that has hung in galleries and walls in homes, and I do practice several artforms and art skillsets that are recognized as being "fine art," including music composition, poetry, painting, photography, multimedia, and so on, I tend to prefer to use "Maker" because it's a more neutral term. I make stuff. Some of it is art, some of it is just stuff that a creator makes, or a gadget engineer, or an artist making a sketch.

A lot of the baggage that "Artist" carries is cultural stereotypes and hoary romanticized clichés: you have to suffer for your art; artists are lonely, tortured souls who alone in starving squalor; artists are inherently disorganized and incapable of managing their lives; artists are depressed or suicidal drunks; and so on. Note how many clichés about artists are negative rather than positive: that's the cultural narrative since the early Romantic poets, and it's a narrative that's never been more than 25 percent true. For one thing, if artists really were that tortured and depressed all the time, they'd never actually have the energy to make their art.

Even the associated cultural narrative of "the artist's heroic struggle against the world dragging you down, to produce your masterpiece" is more myth than fact; because even artists like myself, who work more from intuition rather than intellect, still make art as a daily prctice, as a mode or way of being. Part of making things is just to make them, every day, as an ordinary activity. Like going to do your job.

For me, making art is a very positive thing, not a negative thing. It's not work I have to force myself to do, or fight to achieve. Making art is as necessary, and as easy, as breathing. It's not a heroic struggle, not even when I'm struggling against physical ailment or depression. You can view making art as therapeutically balancing or expressing life's many problems (glass half empty), or you can view it as transcending and overcoming life's many problems (glass half full). The truth is, making art is what you do, whether you're having a bad month or a good one; you just keep making art, no matter what. It can be your everyday salvation, it can give you reason to go on living, it can be the routine, the one constant in your life while everything else is falling apart.

Ironically, even though there are many "positive thinkers" out there who probably think I'm negativity personified (probably because I reject their simplistic aphorisms in favor of more nuanced and realistic overviews), in truth I'm very optimistic and positive about the benefits of expanding creativity in one's life to the utmost. I do think it's good that we all make art of some kind, even if no one but you ever sees it or knows you do it. The purpose of making a painting isn't to become a famous painter, it's just to make a painting; fame is often quite accidental, and capricious. And fickle. I make a lot of sketches and other little things that no one ever sees; they're not good enough to share, period. (The only reason you'll ever see early drafts or sketch versions is because I'm interested in the creative process for its own sake, and I sometimes like to examine a piece from inception to completion to see what happens during the process.)

For my recent art installation, "The Temple of Deep Time" (one of ten corn crib installations at Silverwood County Park), I had an overall conception, an early and immediate vision that I had when I first visited Silverwood, and saw the spiral tree rounds and the corn cribs there, and the end result was in fact very close to the original vision, and written proposal. And in order to get to completion, I had to use almost all of my skills as a creative person (the use of combinations of which is the very definition of "multimedia"), including: graphic design, computer work, photography, drawing, carpentry, math skills, a little bit of programming (in collaboration), getting up on ladders and doing construction, weaving, lighting design, electrical wiring, laser and solar technology, research into weather and solar annual variations, music composition, recording studio production skills, illustration, typography, paper arts, woodworking, calligraphy, and more. Even with this list, I've probably left something out.

So all of that went into making this art installation. And I did it all in about six or seven weeks, from inception to completion. (With a few details added later.) and last night I spent several hours doing long-exposure night photography (which I have taught) and HD video, to document the night-time aspects of my art installation, The Temple of Deep Time. The piece is about time, in multiple ways, on several layers, from past to future. Every element and aspect of the piece is a meditation on time, in some way. That is why I included a laser light show, and a music playback system: music is a timebound art, it has duration, then it ends. Music is an artform you cannot experience without time. It's only appropriate that it both in or porters time-bound arts as part of its design, and also requires being documented over time, using time-shifting as well as time-bound technologies. I will at some point do a time-lapse video of the installation, as well.

To make this art installation I used many skills beyond those (assumed to be) reserved for fine art. In truth, I don't draw a strong distinction between making things and making art.

All of this is why Maker seems to suit what I do better than Artist. If we must have labels or titles or categories. Honestly, labels and categories are for theory, which serves to describe what has been made. But I don't think about any of this when I'm making. I just Make.

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Thoughts on Memorial Day

How about we do this, on one of the first Memorial Day celebrations since the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell? How about we remember another group of honored soldiers I still don't hear anybody talking about in the usual patriotic buzzword-filled emotional Memorial Day speeches? How about we remember those other fallen heroes many would still neither honor nor claim?

Let us pause in memory of those many LGBT men and women in uniform who silently served and silently gave their lives for our country, who remained closeted while they served, because until now they could not be proudly out and proudly serve.

Let us honor those living LGBT veterans who wanted nothing more than to serve their country, but who were denied their right to do so, and were discharged early and dishonorably when their sexual orientation was discovered.

Let us honor those LGBT soldiers who gave everything they had for their country, even while their country would not give them equal rights at home.

Let us honor those other veterans who died when they returned home, some by their own hand after being hounded throughout their service and their lives by prejudice, some by neglect because ignored and invisible, those for whom it is too late to offer living honors, for whom all we can give now is a wreath. For some of these, let us bow our heads in the knowledge that that they took their own lives once discharged for being gay or lesbian, because they could not lead the only life they loved, and could make no other life for themselves. Let us remember these lost ones, so that no future veterans may be driven to such extremes.

Let us honor and remember all of these good veterans, who also served out of love and duty, even when it was hardest. They gave honor even when it was not given to them, these genuine, true, proud warriors who put others before themselves, who chose to put duty before personal honor, and who sometimes sacrificed everything just so they could serve. They served valiantly and courageously, not because it was easy but because it was hard.

Let us remember their service with pride and with some small amount of shame, for they were poorly used. When they were dishonorably discharged for being gay and lesbian, it was not they who had no honor; it was those who discharged them, for no other reason than their being LGBT, who showed dishonor. Let us remember this not to cast blame, but so that we never treat them, or each other, or ourselves, so poorly again.

Let us honor these great men and women. Let us remember their sacrifice. Let us never forget.

never forgotten
those who served so silently
because forbidden

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