Thursday, July 31, 2008
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
butterflies, dark blue,
flung into cyan skies—
portals of heaven
Photos from The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy, on the bottom end of Duval St., near Southernmost Point. One of the highlights of my brief but enjoyable day at Key West. Haven't gone through all the photos yet, but so far I've looked at some of the best butterfly photos I've ever taken.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
The Perfect Album
I have a few criteria for what constitutes a perfect album; some of my points are about content, and others are about presentation. I note before getting into the details that my criteria are not entirely subjective—perhaps more objective than most—because I talk about production values as well as aesthetic ones. I want to be clear that this is not a list of favorite albums. A perfect album can be one I respect as perfect, but it might not be my favorite, and I might not listen to it as often as some others.
Most critics fail utterly in making distinctions between their personal taste and what they present as great art; I am very clear that those two categories do not necessarily overlap, as any honest and reasonably impartial critic will admit. The things we love the most are often flawed. The things we respect the most might not be our personal favorites. It is wise to be aware of the distinction.
Here's my criteria:
A perfect album carries a piece of music that is perfect in itself; you cannot imagine adding to or taking away from it, it is complete and self-contained. It might be a set of songs that are complete in themselves, as songs, but also add up together to form a larger experience, a unified whole. A perfect album is a unified experience just as much as it is a compilation of pieces.
In a perfect album, there is not one misstep in the writing, no slack pieces, no filler. Every piece was meant to be there, and you cannot imagine the album without them. (Note: Most listeners tend to pay attention to music on the song-level, rather than the album-level. That's a problem, because there are plenty of great albums that were composed to be complete albums, to make a journey, to carry you all the way through a story.) The songs may be eclectic in style, but the segues between them are all good and appropriate.
A perfect album is just the right length to leave you feeling satiated and complete, but also wanting more. You are enticed to go back and listen to it all over again. A perfect album invites repeated listening, and each time you listen to it, you hear something new in it. A perfect album is endless, and mysteriously bottomless in terms of your attention, even as it is a self-contained entity with known limits to its duration.
A perfect album has perfect production and mixing: all the voices are clear and present and appropriately placed and mixed. The sounds are good, the microphones were well-chosen and placed, the panning and placement in the aural field of each voice is good and true. The mixing must be perfectly appropriate for the character of the music: glossy where it should be, grungy where it must be.
In a perfect album, sometimes the singer's voice is not placed front and center. Are you surprised by that? Then you've been hoodwinked by popular music's habitual assumptions about mixing and voice placement. Sometimes a really good song pulls you in because the mix makes you work to hear what's going on; that is one kind of perfect and appropriate mix.
A perfect album has all the right and true instrumental choices in the arrangement and the mix. When it's supposed to be a guitar solo, it has one. When it's supposed to be solo piano, that's what it has. When symphonic strings are appropriate, there they are. It's as if the arranger read your mind. (Good arrangers and composers have a knack for appropriate instrumentation, a truth rarely known or discussed outside music-theoretical circles.) A perfect album can range over a lot of styles and moods, and have great variety in its arrangements. The important thing to remember is that the production values and performance choices all serve the music, and in service to the music, do whatever is necessary acoustically and musically.
Sometimes serving the music means that a perfect album's author and/or producer hired the right session musicians, the right performers, the perfect musicians, the right orchestra. Picking the best people for the job is what the great record producers and recording artists have always known how to do, and the results can be a quantum leap greater than if those particular musicians had not been involved. This is one area in which synergy matters a great deal, and can be most obvious to the listener's ear.
A perfect album can be hard for some people to listen to, because it doesn't meet their preconceived notions of what (good) music should be; usually these are unquestioned cultural notions, things that people think are right and true only because they've heard them done that way a zillion times before. But the masses are not always right. Sometimes the surprising choice can push a piece of music to the next level, to a place where it transcends everything around it. A perfect album can also be hard for some people to listen to because it is an intense emotional experience; it stretches them and makes them think and feel, when they would rather be passively entertained. But a perfect album is not passive entertainment: it invites actively listening, active participation, active response.
When you listen to a perfect album, there's nothing you could change or improve. Nothing to be added, nothing that can be safely taken away. All wheat, no chaff. It is all as it must be, as it should have been.
Some artists achieve individual perfect songs or pieces of music, but never make a perfect album. Sometimes a perfect album depends on the artist's collaborators and peers who helped it all come together and synergize into something greater than the sum of its parts. The list of perfect songs, performances, and pieces of music, is another list for another day.
Here's a short, partial list of what I know are perfect albums. I've no doubt left a few off the list. There is overlap here with my "desert island" list of music—those albums you'd want to have with you if you marooned on a desert island, and had nothing else to listen to for a long time—but that list is slightly different. What I might take with me are things that are comfort-food albums as much as they are perfect albums; so some of those for one reason or another might not make this list, although they are otherwise beloved albums.
Joni Mitchell: Hejira
Steely Dan: Aja
Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Dawn Upshaw, soprano; the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman.
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians.
Nicky Skopelitis: Ekstasis. (Produced by Bill Laswell, who has more than his fair share as a producer and bassist of perfect albums to his credit.)
Pete Namlook and Bill Laswell: Psychonavigation
Mike Oldfield: Ommadawn
Astor Piazzolla: Tango: Zero Hour. (Produced by Kip Hanrahan, who own albums released under his own name often approach perfection, and are otherwise simply amazing musical documents in their own right.)
Wendy Carlos: Switched-on Bach
Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach (the 6 Cello Suites)
King Crimson: Discipline
John Cage, with David Tudor: Indeterminacy
John Coltrane: Ascension
Louis Sclavis/Dominique Pifarély: Acoustic Quarter
Jan Garbarek, with Ralph Towner: Dis
Henry Wolff & Nancy Hennings: Tibetan Bells. (The first in a series; only this first record has not made the transition to CD, which is a loss to humanity.)
David Sylvian & Robert Fripp: The First Day
The Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Album
Enigma: M C M X C a.D.
Jonathon Elias: Requiem for the Americas: Songs from the Lost World
Peter Gabriel: Us
Low Pop Suicide: The Disengagement EP
Addendum: A few more albums to be added to the list.
Willie Nelson: Stardust
Tom Waits: Rain Dogs
Friday, July 25, 2008
Anne's Beach, near Matacumbe Key
Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda Key
Everglades National Park
Ernest Hemingway House, Key West, FL
I spent several hours here earlier this week. It reminded me of my childhood in India: similar type of architecture, same heat and humidity, and a verandah that wraps all the way around the house, on both floors. Every house should have a porch this luxurious.
Hermingway's portable typewriter, the travel case on the floor beside the table, gave me a thrill. I have a small collection of antique and vintage typewriters, several of them portables. My old Smith-Corona looks very similar to this typewriter; although I'd have to do some research to know if it's a true match.
Nowadays, I travel wherever I go with my laptop, the updated version of a portable typewriter. It fulfills many of the same functions: a portable writing device for creative work, correspondence, and everything else. The paradigm is fascinatingly similar, even if the technology itself has many differences.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Right Time, Right Place
This is an un-retouched photo. It has not been edited in any way (save for sizing reduction to display here; the original's a 10mgp image). I was simply at the right time and right place for the image to be captured by my camera.
Fortune favors the prepared. A truism.
It means: always be prepared. Always be ready for serendipity. The luck comes to everybody—but you have to be ready to receive it. You have to be open to it; you have to be willing to let it happen. That means you have to pay attention. It also means you have to be prepared. The artist's discipline is to be always ready for the moment to strike. Your tools must always be prepared, cleaned and at their best, and close at hand. Don't leave home without them. That's a truism, too.
Being at the right time, the right place, means always being ready for the moment to strike, and having your tools at hand, ready to be used.
I always have a camera with me. No matter what else is going on, I always have a camera with me. Many of my best images were accidents such as this one, that were the result of being in the right time and place, and being alert.
This is how this photo happened:
I was standing on a beach in the Florida Keys yesterday, somewhere on a roadside beach in the middle Keys, tracking a seagull as it flew over me, hoping to catch a silhouette against the cloud-clear-bright glare of the sky overhead. In a moment of serendipity, I snapped the shutter at exactly the moment the bird passed between me and the sun. The sun's flare whited-out the bird's wing, and made the image into a vision. It was an instance of luck and perfect timing converging to make an accidentally perfect image. (There is no need to retouch an image like this, or to invent it in Photoshop. I doubt I could have done a better version by inventing it, anyway.)
This is a subject for a photo I've tried to capture before, over the years, with limited success. For me, it is deeply symbolic. This image is archetypal, and mythic, expressing a truth about the nature of the soul: a bird rising into the sky has been used in many cultures as a symbol of the freed soul, leaving the body, rising into the One; and also just as a symbol of freedom and grace. Or release, and ascension. There are many labels, and stories, and representations, in world art, or similar subjects.
For the sake of comparison, here is the shot immediately beforehand, when I was tracking the flying gull as it approached:
Not nearly as a good of a photo, but not a bad one. It pales by comparison precisely because the other image is sublime beyond ken and intent: a quantum leap more powerful an image by its own nature. It's a step beyond the usual. It contains a power that I can only hope my art achieves, on occasion. I couldn't have planned it. It just happened.
There are no accidents. Yet another truism. But there's an important message in it:
Leave room for the serendipitous in your art.
If you dare.
Most artists don't dare. They plot and they plan, and they don't leave enough room for chance to provide them with happy accidents. They try to control the outcome. In the worst examples, they try to control the meaning of their artwork, and to dictate what that meaning should be to the audience: as though they were transmitting to a receiver. Such artists tend to over-control their creative process. They leave nothing to chance. They leave no room for the happy accident.
I can't tell you how sterile most such art ends up being: how lifeless and cold and uninteresting. And that is the vast majority of art being made nowadays. (Probably it's always been that way.)
This image that came into my camera yesterday demonstrates, by its very existence, how little control we have, as artists, over our own art, its outcomes, its intent, and its meaning(s). That this was an accident gives it more layers of meaning, for me. It changes the image from something that I made into something that I was given. That it is an image that conveys, in an instant, an aspect of the essence of the spiritual aspect of much of my artwork, is something that I can only point towards, to hint at, with these words, but never actually encompass. There is a lot going on in this image; probably more than I know. It gives me a sense of calm, of transcendence, of something Other than myself, that I briefly touched for a moment, or that touched me. I really can't explain it; I'm just flailing away at trying to describe the experience of being present when the image was made.
One way you as an artist can get past this neurotic need to control your art's outcome is to consciously and deliberately give up control of some aspect of your creative process, of your art-making process. For a lot of artists, that's purely terrifying. So start small, and go slow: Start with giving up just one kind of control. Don't overdo it. Pick just one thing to set free. For example, I often take photos without looking through the viewfinder. I have a pretty good sense of aim with my camera, without looking through the viewfinder. Still, there have been several occasions in which not framing the image through the viewfinder resulted in a much better composition, crop, and subject matter.
For example, another personal favorite photo of mine was taken as I walked by an interesting scene, pointing the camera backwards as I walked past. Just as with the seagull image above, I had no idea how good the shot was till I saw it later, or even if I'd gotten anything at all.
(The composition and cropping are in the original, which was a color photo. I have used a custom Photoshop filter process to give the image a pen-and-ink texture. No other editing was used.)
This letting-go of over-controlling your art requires trust. Trust in the process. Trust in your tools. More importantly, trust in your connection to your tools: that they are your friends, extensions of your hands and heart and mind. An artist's tools are not things we manipulate: they are things we become, or that become us, in the best sense: a merging, a connecting, an overlapping of purpose. (What does a tool want more out of life than to be well-used in the purpose for which it was made?)
Artists who cannot let go of control do not trust the universe to take care of them. They do not trust their tools to teach them. Their egos do not believe they have anything to learn from their tools.
But our tools teach us something new, if we let them, every time we pick them up to be used. You cannot help but learn, if you are open to learning.
Being at the right time, the right place, means always being ready for the moment to strike, and having your tools at hand, ready to be used. This applies not only to visual art, but also to music, poetry, dance, architecture, all artforms. I am talking about allowing serendipity to come into your art, but I am also talking about inspiration—the root word of inspiration means to breathe. This is the natural breath of life: a birthright. You cannot force inspiration. Nothing kills inspiration faster than an attempt to coerce or enslave it. You have to be willing to follow wherever it leads. You have to be willing to let go. And to trust.
That is, if you want your artwork to have that genuine breath of life in it. If not, feel free to continue to over-control your creative process. But then, you must expect the results to be only accidentally interesting, and generally sterile, dry, and cold.
Unless that too can break through into a happy accident.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Found at the edge of ocean's rim, in sands, under cloud-shrouded moon, full at its rising, its soaring and sinking. Found under streamered banks of thunderheads backlit at dusk. Found at the foot of memorial sculptures soaring and disappearing into humid skies. Found at day's end, night's loom, a scatter of gulls swallowed by the sea, by the sky. Found where there is no more time for daybreak waiting. Found here at the end of roads. Found further down the coast, where land tapers and dissolves into ocean, into nothing. Found there where a pile of clothes dogears a trail of footprints that lead into surf and disappear.
corners this room's white walls—
empty at oceanside
Mammoth Caves, Kentucky
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Music from My Mother's Piano 3
I had one last full day of piano recording. Now the piano has been crated up by the shippers, and the old house is now truly and completely empty.
At the last, I recorded some good material, on those last few days of recording. Some good short improvisations, inspired by the warm green days in late June and early July. I recorded in the afternoon heat, with the verdant foliage outside the windows, and the clear blue sky.
I recorded a hymn-like version of the second of these three new pieces I have composed at the piano. I need to get around to transcribing them all, later. I also realize that, later on, since this piano is being shipped away, I will need to get myself another piano. Probably something smaller, even electronic; as long as the action and the sound are what I want, I can compose on it; when writing for piano, or chorus, it is very helpful to have the reference of being able to play it through. Other kinds of music don't need to be written at the piano; or at least I've never needed to do so.
the essential has remained: hymn
I also stumbled upon a new piece, which I played and recorded, and will later have to transcribe. This is a piece I must develop a bit more, but it is finished in its elements, and essence. I have yet to edit it for posting, but I will as soon as I have time.
The piano has fallen out of tune, which was expected. It's been very hot and humid, and when I had it tuned in April, it had been several years since its last tuning. And the flooding here in southern Wisconsin: the flood warnings have been continuous for months now, never removed from the weather service maps. Turtle Creek has returned to normal, but the flood waters on the Rock River are still taking their time to retreat. And last night we had another two inches of heavy rain. I sat outside in the garage for a while and watched the amazing lightning show, before the rains came down.
Still, even though some of these pieces will sound a little out of tune in these recordings, the process has been both useful and liberating. It's a way to start over, to get back to writing music, after some time away from it due to life's circumstances. Some of the pieces I will re-record later, on a tuned piano, in the studio, under better conditions. Let them stand for now as record of the process, if not as the ultimate versions of what can be done.
Thursday, July 03, 2008
out from surf to sand flow foam into cavecool arc windlight in inscape
of end stark in to back roof of mouth cave stone stain silt and flood
down coast down hill down trail to silt sand falling cliff span
sit wetdry sand all over seabreeze light over naked skin
sun bury pink burned skin sandfoot hardstrung
gale into end weather earth sea down coast in
ruins canyon slip wade to sea stone arch
wind spin cave in arch breathing sea
seals fathomless eye watch shore
estuary flow to tide out edge
past arc of secret archway
slip down night fall
cool under trees
sun down to
sun to sun earthspirits wind through beach caves
last nude swimmers walking through surf come in
through tunnel cave to starlight shore same ocean same
and in last light turn dance upcliff face feet certain sure
ancient dreamstone in line of seastars gulls kelp bladders
strewn everywhere to be found naked under the sun
the books of tide and sinew
to live inscape
come wind to earth
begin long arc return
to sun star tide sea shield
moon and cave drift whirl
in arch spin naked in seafoam
silhouette and stones of the ancients
visitors to shore retuning inland harps
strung with wind a life spent nailed to shoreland
and every sunburned prayer an emptiness of sign and seal
strange witness to the lemniscate of inward summer freed
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Rather, here's a question that's worth asking yourself every so often: What are the new directions in your creative work? Where do you want to go? I mean: sometimes you must ask the question, and shake things up; get out of a rut; change direction because you've locked into a groove; divert the momentum of your work away from its usual tendencies and habitual patterns. In my opinion, this is artistically healthy, as well as mentally healthy: but it can be scary. It can be threatening, scary and difficult, upsetting to the status quo.
New directions in poetry often gets us quickly to that dreaded condition known as "experimentation." Lots of readers, and more traditionalist poets, get very dismissive of this sort of thing: to them, the word is pejorative. But children experiment till they discover their lives: they creatively explore who they are, and their options, until they discover what truly means something to them. How should creative work be any different? Think about it: we create our lives, we create art, we create children, we create everything around us. Of course, to the hardline control-freaks, playfulness itself can be a suspicious activity. But play is a spiritual activity, too, in some of the world's traditions of divine play.
That isn't necessarily an act of will, although it can be a state of mind. There is a choice involved, but it's not always a conscious choice. Perhaps that's because fear can cloud us, when we face an unknown.
Where are we going, with this? The truth is: I don't know. I am aware that my own art has gone in completely new directions in recent months: unexpected directions, after a series of life-changing events. Would I have chosen this change in my art, that I am now faced with? I find that I choose it in retrospect, although at the time I was not conscious of having made a choice. Sometimes the mind is the last part of the overall system of Self to know what's going on. I have always been willing to follow where the larger self leads; and I am doing so again. So, here is my own self-assessment:
I find myself writing almost no poetry. There is no fear of poetry not returning to me, later. There are several reasons for this lack of productivity, some negative, some positive. Cherry-picking referents, I could say that one negative reason is the collapse, amidst great suffering, of the online poetry forum I once thought of as home; and I could say that one positive reason is that I am much more focused on music than anything else, right now. The life-changing events of the past year have had an impact on what I want to write about, if anything, and how I go about doing it. So, one more positive reason that could be listed is that I am doing things with poems I've never done before; and one more negative reason is that what I have been doing with poems has brought me under a lot of attack from more conservative poets. The truth is, even if I were writing much right now, I wouldn't be posting anywhere for critique, because I've outgrown and left most of the venues that I used to go to for critique; and rightly so. I've been discussing following one's inner compass as an artist, recently; the truth is, I've been talking about my own creativity, and what I feel I need to be doing. Another negative reason that could be listed is that I don't really expect any other writers to care, or understand, where I am lately, as a writer; the flip side of that, which could be another positive reason, is that I'm not writing for anyone but myself. If I share anything I write, it's not because I need validation, it's because I don't need validation. I find that my self-confidence and self-awareness as an artist have rarely been so high; of course, I could be deluding myself. Faith is about trust; and if you don't start trusting where you art leads you, you are truly, deeply lost.
So, that's a short summation of my own new directions. I've left a lot out. I haven't mentioned a few things I'm doing; and I won't just yet. Talking about something before it's ready to be discussed can rob it of power, and dissipate its momentum. I am starting a new life, and new ways in which my arts will fit into my new life: I trust the process to lead me where it will, and I trust my own inner compass enough, just now, to not need either praise or damnation. I'll just keep going on.
What's your own new directions? Where would you go from here, just now?