Monday, January 01, 2007

Inspiration (The Western Lands)

Inspiration, experienced as an instantaneous flash, can be delightful and invigorating and can generate a lifetime of work. Giving birth to a line of poetry brings with it an incredible rush of energy, coherence and clarity, exaltation and exultation. In that moment, beauty is palpable, living. The body feels strong and light. The mind seems to flow easily through the world. Emily Dickinson said in this regard that the poem is exterior to time. Improvisation is also called extemporization, meaning both “outside of time” and “from the time.” —Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts

When you need to, you can focus utterly on sound. Musicians learn to do it as part of their training. It becomes habit. But anyone who wants to can practice it.

It’s easy.

Just pretend that your life depends on the next sound you hear.
—W.A. Mathieu

As I walk, the wave’s thunder slowly shifts—no longer the mantra of a drum, now a soft knock on an inner door: “Let me in. Let me in.”

What happens next is difficult to explain and difficult to write. I guess I simply open the door. In an instant everything is changed and yet nothing is changed. I’m still walking but here, on the edge, for a moment there are no walls. I’m part of the confluence. Old boundaries and definitions blur. I feel fear, then great beauty, then peace. I don’t know how long I walk in this state.
—DeWitt Jones, photographer and columnist, Outdoor Photographer, August 1993 issue

One of the most magical experiences I’ve had in my adult life happened on All Hallow’s Eve, 1993. It was at the southern beach campground at Redwoods National Forest in northern California; there used to be cement campfire rings along the beach, under the shelter of the road, where you could set up a tent and spend the night. My travelling companion and I had built a bonfire in front of our tent. The stars were shining through the fog rolling onshore from the Pacific Ocean. The surf was at low tide and rising, pounding the grey pebble beach less than a hundred yards away, an ever-present roar in the near distance. The full moon rose then, like a brilliant silver beacon slicing through the night. It was so purely bright a shade of silver that at first we thought it was yard floodlights from a farm inland. Before the fog covered the stars completely, we had the three original nightlights all at once: starlight, moonlight, firelight.

My traveling companion posed nude for me in front of the tent, his body lit by warm firelight, the flames blown by the steady wind off the ocean. It was a moment that summoned ancient blood-memories of cave-paintings, pre-historic nights and fires, and the archetypes of the hunter and shaman. Eventually, I developed one of these photos into a card in the Spiral Dance series, Fire God:

Later, when I awoke in the night, the full moon made it seem as bright as day inside the tent. The wind was whipping the tent, and when I briefly stepped outside, the night was wild and full of stars.

In the morning I walked along the edge of the high-tide surf, photographing driftwood and seabirds, and collecting a set of small, flat, polished black stones: volcanic flakes that had been weathered by tidal surf into smooth organic forms. (I carried one of these beautiful stones in my pants pocket for years afterwards.) In amongst the black and grey stones were a few scattered white granite stones, which had weathered into smooth lumpy shapes like half-melted ice blocks on a lake after melte. There was now a stronger wind from the sea, and the sun rose golden and hot on the Day of the Dead.

All this occured because I had been invited to present a paper at the American Folklore Society annual conference, held that fall in Eugene, Oregon. I used the opportunity to take my first vacation in several years, and chose to drive out west rather than fly. Together with my traveling companion, I spent two weeks on the road in a compact car. We camped out as much as we could, before the winter weather settled in. We visited a lot of beautiful national parks during the drive, and viewed a lot of amazing scenery. The trip had many memorable moments, including camping on the beach, and visits to the Badlands, Bear Butte, and Yellowstone, where we camped one crystal-clear and frigid night, and woke in the cold pre-dawn to run naked and blanket-wrapped into the car to warm ourselves with the car heater before getting dressed and breaking camp.

I took many good photographs on this trip, some of which ended up being used as the album artwork for my first solo Stick album, The Western Lands. (The album's title track can be auditioned here.)

It was an inspirational trip. Inspiration means in-spiring, or breathing in: the life-breath, the praña, or ki, in-spiring oxygen-laden air for the life of the body and spirit.

As a musician, like every other musician, I get stuck sometimes. My fingers feel clumsy, and my note choices stale. Soloing is an effort, and I hear myself playing mostly cliches. At times like these, I feel like a beached whale, unable to return to my element, gasping for air, dying under the weight of my own body collapsing. I get stranded on a plateau, unable to chart how to climb the next stretch of mountain.

When I get stuck musically, I turn to other activities for inspiration. I take a bike ride through the autumn woods. I take my camera and spend an afternoon or evening capturing light on film. Or I write. (Lately most poems seem to come out as haiku, or haibun.) Very rarely, I paint. I've recently take up caaligraphy again. (A fine pen or brush is a wonderful thing.)

In other words, I renew my musical self by exploring other mediums of creativity, of doing/being. Rather than beating my head against the same wall of being stuck, I step back, re-frame the problem, and turn to other activities for revitalization. The fundamental definition of meditation is “doing one thing with full attention, with your whole being.” When I get stuck musically, I most often turn to photographs or to poetry. An afternoon walking and seeing with the camera is a form of meditation for me.

Creativity thrives on inspiration, and can’t exist in a vacuum. All of my experiences feed into it. Everything you see and feel becomes raw material for making music. Sometimes I write a piece of music as a commemoration or crystallization of a particular image and its associated mood(s). It’s a response to some aspect or facet of my inner and/or outer life. (19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins coined a word to describe this feeling of the intrinsic patterns of essential characteristics in both objects and the multi-sensed re-creation of the object within the perceiver: inscape.)

When we write pieces that are memorials—that is, memory evocations—we recreate the feelings, the images, sometimes even the smells associated with the memory. What you seek to remember is evoked by the creative act. Musical pieces (or photos, or whatever) that succeed as artworks successfully evoke in the audience something that, at least in part, came from the artist’s outer and/or inner life.

Another way to kick yourself loose, if you’re feeling stuck, is to travel. My trip to the ocean and back was very refreshing, and generated experiences to inspire me for months to come. Taking in new vistas is like breathing the freshest air imaginable: it charges the body and mind together. Travelling out west was ultimately a journey seeking inspiration and renewal. (It was also a reminder of some truths that it’s easy to lose track of in the whirling hamster-wheel, narrow-focus lives we so often fall into in our urban workplace or academic existences.)

On the drive back from the western states, it had snowed over the Great Plains and in the eastern Rocky Mountains. Snow lightly covered the weathered hills in Wyoming. Watching the low clouds and oncoming snow flurries, I wrote this tanka:

a transformed landscape
dusted this morning with snow—
trees huddle for warmth

branches hunched together shivering
winter strikes us in the bone

Later, I picked dried stems from purple sagebrush near the roadside. The snow here was about two inches deep, and the brilliant sunlight was blinding. I picked the sage to carry back with me to remind me of the Big Sky if I got caught up in the hamster-wheel of Midwest suburban life again: I would burn it and be reminded and revitalized. (Nothing can evoke memory like the sense of smell.)

From experiences like these, we’re always able to renew ourselves, to find inspiration: from the pebbles on the beach, grey and wet and shining from the surf-spray at low tide; from breathing in woodsmoke from a hickory fire; from the searchlight moon overlooking the playa. Magic night inspires Li Po’s Quiet Night Thoughts. Breathe in the praña, the life-breath.

I drive out west, and I can suddenly breathe more freely: the sky becomes the Big Sky, and vistas of “mountains and rivers without end” stretch away forever. I go out west, and the rhythm of the wheels on the road propels me across time and space. I go out west, and want to stay there (and know I can’t, for now). I go out west, and I return inspired.

Recommended Reading:

W. A. Mathieu. The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music, Shambhala, 1991.

Sam Hamill, trans. Longtime Companion: Japanese Poems of Love and Longing, Shambhala Centaur Editions, 1992.

Matsuo Basho (trans. by Sam Hamill). Narrow Road to the Interior, Shambhala Centaur Editions, 1991. (This is haiku master Basho’s masterpiece, a travel journal composed in haiku and haibun, which is also a journey to the interior of the soul.)

John Welwood, ed. Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path, Shambhala, 1992.

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