Thursday, December 31, 2009


At some point, virtually every visual artist creates a self-portrait. Rembrandt famously created a series of them, throughout his life, very honest portraits of the artist aging, and looking at the viewer very honestly. Van Gogh's self-portraits are equally famous.

Perhaps it's self-serving, even unbelievable, and as an artist I've rarely thought that making self-portraits was narcissistic. It seems to me a way of knowing the self. A visual artist's way of seeing the self: since visual artists are so used to learning about the world through seeing, through drawing, it seems only natural they would examine themselves that way. Few painters have avoided the self-portrait as a subject.

In some ways, of course, every painting, every photograph, is a self-portrait: we do reveal ourselves through what we choose to show, through our choices, our decisions, our technique. This idea, full of truth, has been taken to absurd lengths by some art theorists, though, who view every work as autobiographical and only autobiographical. As though every character in a novel was a self-portrait, as though every character in a painting was only the artist. It seems to me that this fallacy of autobiography, a popular one among less thoughtful art critics, presumes narcissism. I submit that it's the critic's narcissism, projected onto the artist, rather than the artist's, in many cases.

On the other hand, I don't think the extreme opposite idea, that the artist can completely remove him or herself from the artwork, is possible. Even attempts by artists and composers to remove their ego-choices from their art, by using chance means and indeterminacy, continue to reveal the artist's self: while personality-level choices may have been subverted, nonetheless a performance of a John Cage composition still sounds like a John Cage composition. It's a paradox: the impossibility of being completely removed from what one makes.

Looking at artist's self-portraits—which I do believe are more honest than memoir; memoir being a story one tells about oneself, which often is less revealing than one might imagine—is an interesting exercise in self-revelation. I note that more painters do self-portraits than photographers; the painted self-portrait has a long tradition to support it. But there are portraits of many photographers at work, taken by their friends and companions. So we often see them with their cameras in hand, preparing for the moment of releasing the shutter, or having just done so.

The camera is not as flattering as paint, let's be honest. There's less opportunity to conceal flaws in a photograph, as with memoir or painting. It's possible to do, of course, and it's possible to use the self-portrait photograph as a performative presentation of the self: acting, performance, display, self-aggrandizement, or self-mockery. All these have been done.

As a photographer making a self-portrait, one chooses the moment to release the shutter. Waiting for the perfect light, having set up the best possible composition. Photography is always about light and shadow; no matter what else an image is about, it's really about light.

The composition chanced upon with the three mirrors is what interested me about making this self-portrait. So it's a "'found" self-portrait. I was the only subject I had available at the moment. The mirrors are on the side of the cabin in northernmost Minnesota, up in the Superior National Forest, where I go for a week's camping almost every August. We're miles from electricity, running water, and other modern amenities; camping is usually primitive, in tents. But we do have this old hunter's cabin, falling down slowly, and needing to be replaced. (We also have some other buildings we've made, rather than inherited, such as the cookhouse and pantry.)

The same arrangement, on a different day.

What I learn from making the occasional self-portrait is that my mental self-image is rarely in congruence with my actual person. Of course, that's something nearly everyone experiences: we're all better-looking in our minds. I find the practice of actual observation of the actual self to be a sort of Zen practice: see what's actually there, rather than what we think is there. It's a good visual meditation to keep you focused and grounded.

I don't do dress-up self-portraits, the way some photographers do. (Or the way virtually everyone on every online social networking website does these days: we live in a very narcissistic culture at present.) I don't do costumed self-portraits the way some of my artists friends do, to express aspects of their self, to play at different personae. I've always been more interested in discovering who I authentically was, rather than role-playing. (Many people are surprised that I have no interest in role-playing fantasy games: but it's the same lifelong desire to be authentic and honest that makes me feel such RPGs are a supreme waste of time.)

Perhaps it's to learn about ourselves that we make self-portraits, regardless of whether they're performed, or trying to be authentic. (Another kind of performance, let's be honest.) I think it's an important exercise for every artist to do, from time to time: find out who you are, right now, right here. Look into your own eyes, and see what you can discover about yourself that you didn't already know. Go deeper into your own art and craft, by going deeper into your self.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Reconciling Beginner's and Expert's Mind

How do you reconcile the awareness that you don't want to spend any more time repeating kindergarten-level lessons with the truth that beginner's mind is necessary to be open, both in art-making and in life? How do you solve the paradox of wanting to work on the graduate level, rather than the freshmen level, in future spiritual and personal growth studies, with the truth that "you must become as little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"?

It's interesting when you find you no longer want to repeat the basic lessons over and over again. Not because there isn't anything more to learn from them, but because the repetition keeps you from moving forward. Recycling the known will never lead you to the unknown.

Sometimes you have to stand away from the fray and realize that most people don't want to go beyond repeating the known lessons. The unknown is truly more terrifying to them.

How much of the refusal to take the leap is based in fear? Fear of the unknown; fear of possible dangers or consequences; fear of failure; occasionally, fear of success.

I know that I prefer beginner's mind to expert's mind; although in truth making a negative value judgment about expert's mind is a symptom of expert's mind. Judgmentalism comes pretty much always from expert's mind. Beginner's mind is more likely to, literally, keep an open mind, and wait and see what happens. What happens if we do this? Cool!

Perhaps it's possible to enfold expert's mind within beginner's mind by acknowledging, without puffing oneself up, where one's strengths do in fact lie. That there are some lessons you really don't need to repeat anymore, because you really have learned what you needed to from them. And that there are still other lessons that you're still learning from, and needing to repeat. And that there are some skills you really do have under your belt, now; you will continue to practice them, although you don't need to keep rebuilding them from the foundation up, because you've now done that.

Perhaps, then, it's possible to say, over here, lesson learned and can move on to graduate level rather than freshman level; and over there, it might be good to take intermediate level one more time. It's not as if there's a test required to matriculate.

A couple of years ago, I remember sitting on my porch having a conversation with an old friend. Both of us have studied many kinds of spiritual and healing and artistic pursuits; between us we've been certified in numerous bodywork and energywork modalities; we've taken a long road together, done many of the same seminars and study groups, walked many of the same paths, met many of the same teachers. Even so, we're not always in congruence: individual needs make for individual emphases, here and there, and relatively greater or lesser individual strengths.

We sat on the porch that evening, after dinner, discussing a lot of the self-development work we'd experienced. All of the above. We came to say, each separately but at about the same time, that we were tired of repeating beginning-level workshops anymore, and wanted to pursue something more advanced. Not there was nothing to learn anymore from the beginning-level workshops—although in some instances this was rather more true than for others—but that we both sense time is growing shorter.

When you reach the point in your life when you realize that, barring accidental death or sudden fatal illness, you have passed the probably midway point of your alloted span, it becomes a matter of wanting to be efficient with one's time. There's less to be idle, less time to waste. Sometimes late-life illnesses enforce unplanned idleness. Then what do you do with your enforced free time? If there isn't some kind of hit on your ability to think clearly, caused by either your illness or your meds, it gives you time to think, time to create. Every wasted day seems lost, when you find yourself unable to do much. But even these can be used, for something.

So perhaps one way to encompass expert's mind within beginner's mind is to admit that maybe you do not need to keep repeating the same lessons, purely on the grounds of wanting to maximize your time and effort. Can one be efficient with one's spiritual and creative practice? I think so. You do it by removing clutter, minimizing distractions, maximizing focus, "working smarter rather than harder," and similar attitudes. You stop wasting time on things that you don't need to waste time on; things that are not essential and required for whatever form your practice takes. You shift that freed up time over towards activities that enhance your process rather than take away from it.

These can be really simple, small, pragmatic things, like finding a time-saving way to work. Or they can be turning otherwise unfocused time into focused time. So, an artist might find a time-saving way to wash her brushes; or she might turn washing her brushes into a meditative practice. Both are valid shifts of attention and consciousness towards something more fulfilling and useful.

Another way to reconcile beginner's and expert's mind is to think from up a level, from the symbolic rather than the literal level. When you start to look at your life from the symbolic level, it becomes possible to spot patterns and habits, and then consciously choose which to keep, and which to winnow out. Thinking from the symbolic level requires the ability to step back and be relatively objective about your own life and practice, and to take things less personally. Thinking symbolically means being honest enough with ourselves to both acknowledge limiting faults and acknowledge effective strengths. Mostly we only focus on our past failures; that's a habit worth winnowing. Thinking symbolically means looking at the transpersonal story, not just the personal drama; it means letting go of what's right in front of your nose so that you can see what's down at the end of the street. it's a shift of attention. And it can be a path towards finding the universal within the particular.

I've said more or less the same thing from several difficult angles, now. I've tried to rephrase it several times. I've repeated this lesson a few times, now, with slightly different words each time. It's way of spiraling around the topic till we can find a place to land.

The point is, once you get a skillset down, you need to keep practicing it, to keep it well-honed, but you don't need to be keep repeating the introductory class about it. It doesn't mean you have become an expert; it does mean you're no longer a neophyte. You're somewhere between.

So one final way to reconcile beginner's mind with expert's mind is to realize that expert's mind is a forever-retreating goal that you will never achieve. It's something we keep practicing, to keep those skills honed, all the while knowing there is always more to learn, more to discover, and more to practice.

Beginner's mind is an attitude towards learning: the open and absorbing mind, that sees what's really there, rather than what we assume or think is there. The idea that we think we don't need to learn anymore is expert's mind. So, we can find a middle point, between total ignorance and total expertise, and know that's where we spend most of our time, anyway. So just do it.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Quiet Night Thoughts, Late on Christmas Eve

Today I baked an apple pie, a key lime pie, roasted a 19-pound turkey, then made drippings gravy. It’s been a mostly quiet day. I’m enjoying the late night quiet now, near midnight. I think I’ll open one present tonight, before going to bed, and the rest in the morning. I’m listening to quiet Christmas music, the house is dark now except for the tree lights, and a few candles. It’s been a long day. I feel pretty good.

Earlier this week, more snow, then yesterday there was freezing rain, which coated everything with an eighth of an inch of refractive ice. Today it was above freezing, melting, partly raining, often very windy, and a little snow mixed in.

I went to a doctor’s appointment this morning, then on the way home decided to just go home. People were driving crazy, with those last hours of holiday stress making them not pay enough attention to the road. So I spent the rest of the day at home. I baked the pies in the morning, and roasted the turkey in the afternoon, carving it up with J. in the evening, preparatory to tomorrow’s afternoon Christmas meal get-together. If I feel like it, I still might bake some cookies, but probably not before the party. It depends when I get up in the morning, and what I feel like doing.

After dark, I lit the fire in the fireplace for awhile, for atmosphere, and for firelight and warmth. It’s very gusty out tonight, and still above freezing, so the draft was pulling up the flue and chilling the house, as I napped after making the turkey, and my own quiet dinner. I’ve put the fire out for the night, now, and sealed the flue, to cut down on the draft, but I can still hear the wind howling outside, and the occasional pellets of icy rain on the chimney’s tin covering.

I watched a little TV while eating my dinner. Not much worth watching, to be honest. I eventually settled and finished that great movie based on the James Joyce story, “The Dead.” John Huston’s last film, and a capstone and masterpiece to his long career.

One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

—James joyce, from "The Dead," from Dubliners

I cannot say it better than this, as an artistic credo, a modus operandi, and a way being in the world: “Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Better to be bold, and passionate.

I think about my own dead, this time of year’s closing, the winter solstice, the festivals of light within the darkness. I think of the many ways that the dead stay with us: in memory, in song, in hauntings on nights like this. I think of my parents, now gone, and the many family memories from around this time of year, and its annual celebrations. We all have our dead: we are all becoming shades. We are all going quietly into the dark, with snow falling over, and softly falling on all the living, and the dead.

I spoke with the doctor this morning about what I’ve been dealing with lately. Our visit was more about my feelings than anything else. I know that I can be my own worst enemy, like many do to themselves, when I overthink and overanalyze some problem or fear. I know that makes it worse. The doctor pointed out to me how notably animated I become when I talk about music, or art, or writing. I write sometimes just to clear my head, of course. But when I told him about the recording studio party down in Chicago last weekend, where we jammed musically for much of the night—including a most memorable half-hour jam on the old song “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor”—even I could tell how much more alive, more animated I was being. We talked about you’re not supposed to lose your passion and just go flat; you’re supposed to be able to still feel your feelings, even though the pressure’s reduced and you can cope better with them, and with stress. All this in relation to antidepressants. And it’s true. I don’t want to lose my passion, my intensity, my caring about life. Nothing is worth losing that. I will protect it with all my might.

Tonight, it’s quiet, and dark, and peace. The tree lights make that reminder of light in the darkest times, light still there, light returning, eternal light return.

It hasn’t been an ambitious Christmas. I mostly haven’t been in the mood. It’s been a hard year, full of difficult times and hardship. I’ve been feeling just as I am. It has been frustrating at times how much effort it takes not to give into the constant pressure to be traditionally joyous and happy, when you don’t feel like it. There’s a lot of expectation and conformity at this time of year, and a lot of guilt if you don’t feel like joining in. No wonder so many people find the holiday season difficult; no wonder the suicide rate goes up, and the general stress level. It’s understandable.

I haven’t been much in the mood. This year I finally got the larger Christmas tree set up in the living, on a table, the way they do in Holland. I have some presents under the tree, and I’ve limited the ornaments this year to be all celestial, like moons and stars, and snowflakes, and icons of the Tree of Life. It’s simple, and not overdone, and I’m actually rather pleased with the end result. I just haven’t had the strength to do much more than that; and I don’t expect that I need to.

I just turned the heat off under the gravy, which now needs to cool from its long simmer. It tastes terrific, just like turkey gravy is supposed to. This year I did my usual way of making the turkey, stuffing it with sliced oranges and lemons and onions. I also did the usual rubdown of the skin with butter. But this year I sprinkled Pacific Ocean sea salt on the skin, too, which came out crispy, brown, and delicious. Pieces of crisp turkey skin are a favorite part of cooking a turkey, for me. And the gravy tastes of the sea salt and butter, as well as the drippings, giving it extra-rich flavor.

The wind howls outside, now, and it’s raining hard. It will eventually turn to snow by tomorrow, certainly by afternoon is not sooner. It looks to be a bad day for travel. Which is just as well. Far better to huddle up inside, warm by the fire, sitting in grandpa’s rocking chair, reading, sipping hot cocoa with a dash of brandy in it. Some folks may not be able to drive to the get-together tomorrow, but that’s all right. It will be okay, no matter what happens.

I’m in the mood for a quieter, contemplative holiday this year. I’m in the mood to be reflective rather than hyperactive. I can ignore most of the usual cultural overstimulation, and have done so, this year. I will spend a few days, now, in silence, or with quiet winter solstice music. I hope to be able to work some on the new piano piece, in these quiet times. I’m not going to go looking for big party atmospheres with lots of people and loud conversations and music. I’m content to be inward, in the dark, windy night. The sound of the rain and wind on the roof is soothing.

I’m beginning to fall asleep now. I’ll finish whatever chores I still have to do in the kitchen before going to bed, then spend a few minutes sitting and looking at the tree. Then I’ll go to bed, and rest till the morning. And a blessed night to each and all may it be.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snow Pilgrim

Snow drives in around the porch edges. Puffs of whitegrained breath, fallen on uninsulated floors, to drift. The local definition of a blizzard asks how horizontal the snow falls. Green and white the red cardinal's shelter. Gray squirrel, puff-cheeked, clutches the topmost spruce bough, bouncing in the wind, to reach the tree's last cones. Rabbit tracks dash lines between trees.

a quiet rest
in between mountain hikes,
the trailman's lodge

Seeking a festival more quiet, more contemplative, the old poet ties up his knapsack, goes out into the snow, boots laced high over wool, hat and mittens braced upwind. Any direction as good, in this whiteout. Where the road shelfs over the cutbank of river's loop, he stops to watch heavy flakes streak through whipping blackoak branches across the oxbow slope. Memorizing calligraphy of lines of trees clouded behind snow, because too cold for inkstone and brush. Flakes tick on already frozen drifts, winds hiss the boughs, somewhere off upstream a bluejay shrieks. All other silences converge. Walking stick and knapsack, uproad, vanishing. Fade to white.

line of footfalls lost
under fresh fallen snow,
no one left to see

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Goal vs. Process

The myth of progress is that once you reach your end-point, you just stop.

One of the most problematic (even pernicious) phrases among the documents that founded the United States is the phrase, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Problematic only because it has been so often interpreted to mean so many different things. (Pernicious only in that many conflicting interpretations have led to ideological warring.)

The problem with the Pursuit of Happiness is that almost everyone things that once you find happiness, you'll have it forever. That you can keep it, like a stone in the garden. That contentment is a permanent state of being.

I long ago realized that happiness is a state of being that one enters into, usually without preparation or planning, that it is not a goal. That it cannot be a goal.

As a culture, we tend to intellectualize, even fetishize, happiness, as well as make it a goal to be pursued. We think we can think our way to happiness; in doing so, we confuse it with contentment, and with stasis. Many people tend to think happiness is merely a lack of unhappiness, a lack of chaos and disruption. That's a very weak definition of happiness; it tends to evaporate at the least touch, and we must begin all over again.

The process viewpoint accepts what the goal viewpoint cannot: that nothing is permanent. Things always are changing. Nothing stays locked in place forever—unless it is dead. Stasis is death. But even in death there is change, decomposition, decay, return to constituent elements. The worms recycle our dead flesh through their guts, making fertile soil for new things to grow in.

There are no permanent states of being. Everything changes. Even the earth, even the stars. In a million years, the land will have changed greatly, and the stars overhead will have aligned themselves into new constellations, because we are one star-system swinging through a cluster of stars revolving at varying speeds and with varying orbits around a common center, the core of our galaxy. Even the stars and the land, the two things that in my own life seem the most permanent, the most unchanging, the least likely to betray: these too are constantly changing.

The perception of permanence is merely a matter of scale, of things changing too slowly for us, in our mayfly existences, to perceive.

The myth of progress is that there is a goal towards which we progress, and which, once achieved, will be permanent and unchanging. This is the dream of eternal security within a world that has none. This is the myth of safety in a world where there is none.

Happiness is something that happens—like the weather. Like awe, it is a state of being that comes over us, stays awhile, then moves on. If it's a deep experience, it can change us. There may be a cause, but it may also arrive from nowhere, with no anticipation. We often confuse our wishes with a cause: if only we have this Thing, or this condition, we'll be happy. Sometimes effect precedes cause: you're happy long before you know why. It is not a rational, linear process—but it is a process, which is what matters: a process, not a goal. It is not something the mind can control or dictate; because, like awe, you cannot imagine happiness, you can only experience it.

We move in and out of states of being, sometimes caused by events and our feelings about events. Those who live more or less unconscious, non-directed lives perceive causes as exterior to themselves. Jung once wrote, When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate. That means, what we often view as fate is something actually going on inside, projected out onto the world.

What causes our suffering is when we cling to those states of being: when we demand that they be permanent. If you know your happiness will not last forever, you will not be made to feel ever more unhappy, when your momentary happiness inevitably fades. If you believe that happiness is a permanent goal, you're bound to make yourself unhappy: because clinging to the idea of permanent happiness is doomed to disappointment.

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends,
then let's keep dancing.
We'll break out the booze
and have a ball
if that's all
there is.

—Lieber and Stoller, Is That All There Is?

This great existential song is neither cynical nor despairing, but in the end has a positive message: even if life has no meaning, life is still worth living. We want more, no matter what.

If we strive for permanence, we're just setting ourselves up for unhappiness. If we don't cling to happiness, if we don't try to force it to be permanent, it has a way of coming back, when we least expect it, a surprise visitor at our doors. If we let it go, it comes back. If we try to hold it forever, it drips through our fingers.

If we strive to make art, we must always remember that it's forever in process. We might litter the road with the products of our art-making, but the art-making itself is a process, always changing, never ending. Even if, as sometimes happens, it changes so much over time that we can't recognize what we were making or thinking, years ago.

Far better to have exchanged the dream of progress for something that is always a work-in-progress.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Blessed Yule


Friday, December 18, 2009

Ice on the River, Geese in the Sky


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rose Ritual: Completion

My parents' grave marker, Muskegon, MI. Their ashes are buried approximately 20 yards away from where my mother's parents' are also buried.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009


I was being separated
from my fellow travelers
singled out for extra paperwork
or my visa wasn't like theirs

blocked from
entering or
     entering too soon
to the rooms behind the fence

taken to the door
in the mountain
a weapon in my hand
    something unlike the known steel

I was being gathered with
warriors against the sting
swarm of world-destroyer hives
scattering out to the stars

taken the fight along hivehome
dying alien queen whose stingers
infected us all in turn
      till we found out
how to defeat her

I was being taken out
when the nova bombs went off
particles blasted, an entire nebula

awoken the next
morning, awoken all night, awoken
between chapters

till sunlight woke me finally
late, and for good

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Edward Weston: Philosophy of Photography

In reading Edward Weston's writings, I am often struck by his concision. He's articulate, but he doesn't write more than he needs to. His Daybooks were his journal, his daily morning writing, during the decades of his formation and key discoveries as a photographer. They record his thoughts and feelings during the process of becoming who we now think of as one of the great photographer of its founding years, greatly influential, and a founding member of the pro-realistic and anti-"painterly" collective of West Coast photographer known as Group ƒ64. (I wrote about the Group ƒ64 manifesto earlier, here). Weston was always an individualist, even a maverick, and this is a theme that recurs throughout the Daybooks, intertwined with all his comments on his love affairs, his family relationships, and friendships. The Daybooks were a diary, after all. Weston himself redacted the books himself, later in life, wanting to protect the privacy of many lovers and friends he had written about; unsuccessfully, in the long run, as it's not hard to fill in the blanks in many instances, as his writing is so vivid and detailed, and so expertly captures the person both with physical description and observations of their character.

the Weston family

Weston's writings about photography are usually terse. They are in fact compressed and gathered, usually, from previous fragments and jottings. He manages to write clearly, in just a few paragraphs, a complete statement of his philosophy about photography. In reading through Volume II of the Daybooks, which covers his California years after his return from Mexico, I find the years 1931 and 1932 to be particularly fertile for Weston gathering together his thoughts on photography. He copies into his diary several statements he wrote, as letters or other replies to critics, and statements written for exhibitions. This was when things began to turn for his career, as well: fewer daily worries about money, more freedom to do what he wanted rather than what paid the bills.

Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930

It intrigues me that Weston writes about sculpture, with regard to photography. In February if 1932, he copies into his Daybooks part of a letter he wrote to Ansel Adams, who had written an article about Weston's San Francisco show. What I find intriguing here is that I have recently been experimenting with making sculptures in wood, and had been thinking about Brancusci, Moore, and Noguchi. In part, Weston is defending his oft-misunderstood photos of peppers, and other vegetables, which were sculptural, abstract, and incredibly sensual—many viewers interpreted them overly sexually, since Freudian thinking was the vogue at the time. Weston writes:

No sculptor can be wholly abstract. We cannot imagine forms not already existing in nature,—we know nothing else. Take the extreme abstractions of Brancusi: they are all absed on natural forms, I have been accused of imitating his work,—and I do admire, and may have been "inspired" by it,—which means I have the same kind of (innner) eye, otherwise Rodin might have influenced me. Actually, I have proved through photography, that nature has all the abstract (simplified) forms, that Brancusi or any other artist could imagine. With my camera I go direct to Brancusi's source. I find ready to use,—select and isolate, what he has to "create." One might as well say that Brancusi imitates nature, as to accuse me of imitating Brancusi;—just because I found these forms firsthand in nature.

I have on occasion used the expression, "to make a pepper more than a pepper." I now realize it is a misleading phrase. I did not mean "different" from a pepper, but a pepper plus,—an intensification of its own important form and texture,—a revelation. . . .

An idea, just as abstract as could be conceived by a sculptor or painter, can be expressed through "objective" recording with the camera, because nature has everything that can possibly be imagined by the artist: and the camera, controlled by wisdom, goes beyond statistics.

—Edward Weston, Daybooks, II: California, pp. 239-240

I'm going to pause here to take a sideways turn into Brancusi's own photography. I have a book in my library from 1977, called Brancusi, photographer. It is a hundred or so photographs by Brancusi of his own sculptures, both in the studio, and in situ. Some of the more interesting photos show the sculptures installed in place, with the sky in the background, or sunlight falling directly on the work through a gallery window. Brancusi, I think, would have agreed with Weston. His photographs are very thought-out, very aware of what is being seen, and designed to reveal, to make things more intensely real. They are more than snapshots, they are more than documentation: his openly-stated intent was to see the sculptures anew, in the best possible light. He took up photography, helped initially by Man Ray, precisely because he was dissatisfied with the ways other photographers had been making images of his sculptures. What we get, with this book of his photos, is a very Weston-like fresh look at the familiar: things known and familiar, seen as though they had never been seen before.

To return to Weston's letter to Adams, a few paragraphs later:

Let the photographers who are taking new or different paths beware of the very theories through which they advance, lest they accept them as final. Let the eyes work from the inside out,—do not imitate "photographic painting" by limiting yourself to statistics in a worthy desire to be "photographic!" ("photographic painting" is being used by Rexroth in an article about me, showing the expression to be a misnomer).
—Weston, ibid., p. 240

Weston's contribution was to see what was there, the thing in itself, no matter what his subject matter was. Weston was often criticized for not sticking to one idea, or theory, or subject matter, but constantly evolving and changing. Weston's work, like Picasso's, has "periods," in which the subject matter and style of photographic dramatically change from period to period. The Daybooks were written in the period when Weston was discovering utter sharpness of focus within infinite depth of field: a reaction, with other West Coast photographers, against the "pictorialist" style of photography that had first become famous on the East Coast. Weston wanted to see what he was looking at, not create duplications of the themes and arrangements of classical salon painting. He associated himself with Modernist painters, especially in his years in Mexico, and although he was not political, he actually influenced the painters more than they influenced him; for example, the realist social-commentary style of Mexican painting, from Diego Rivera on, was influenced by Weston's presence.

Weston at work, photographed by Tina Modotti

Weston makes this explicit in a statement written for his show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, also copied into the Daybooks at the time:

Photography is not for the escapist, the "mooning poet," the revivalist crying for dead cultures, nor the cynic,—a sophisticated weakling; it is for the man of action, who as a cognizant part of contemporary life, uses the means most suitable for a clear statement of his recognition. This recognition is not limited to the physical means or manifestations of our day,—such as machinery, skyscrapers, street scenes, but anything—flower, cloud or engine—is subject matter, if seen with the understanding of the rationale of a new medium, which has its own technique and approach, and has no concern with outworn forms of expression,—means nor ends.

Fortunately it is difficult to be dishonest, to become too personal with the very impersonal lens-eye. So the photographer is forced to approach nature in a spirit of inquiry, of communion, with desire to learn. Any expression is weakened in degree, by the injection of personality:—the warping of knowledge by petty inhibitions, life's exigencies.

I do not wish to impose my personality upon nature, (any of life's manifestations) but without prejudice or falsification to become identified with nature, to know things in their very essence, so that what I record is not an interpretation—my idea of what nature should be—but a revelation,—a piercing of the smoke screen artificially cast over life by irrelevant, humanly limited exigencies, into an absolute, impersonal recognition.

"Self expression," so called, is usually biased opinion, willful distortion, understatement. Discounting statistical recording, any divergence from nature must be toward a clearer understanding, an intentional emphasis of the essential qualities in things.

Though photography I would present the significance of facts, so they are transformed from things seen to things known. Wisdom controlling the means—the camera—makes manifest this knowledge, this revelation, in form communicable to the spectator.

—Edward Weston, The Daybooks, II: California, p. 241

There's an insistence on the hard fact of the thing itself, in a Weston photograph, that reminds me of Zen training. Zen is all about removing the filters and assumptions, and seeing what is actually there—instead of what we think is there. Meditation training is designed to do nothing less than remove the scales from our eyes. (During the process, as time ripens, we also discover that we are our own worst enemies—which I can say for myself, quite forcefully.) Part of Weston's appeal is this hardness, this resolute circling back to the thing itself, and away from interpretation or mythologizing. A Weston photograph becomes the archetype of a pepper precisely because it explores the individual pepper being photographed so thoroughly, that it evokes the universal from the particular. This is what great art always does: make us able to perceive the eternal within the ephemeral, the universal within the particular. That's you recognize an archetype: something eternal and numinous shines through.

Of course in many ways Weston was also a heroic individualist, a "man of action," someone always going against the grain of what was popular and acceptable at the time. This led to many misunderstandings of his work, which he often felt bad about, as recorded in the Daybooks. But it takes a strong, developed personality to be able to remove itself from "self-expression," to not wish to impose itself on the photo. The Zen aspect of seeing what's there, rather than trying to "express oneself" via the subject matter, is Weston to the core.

I completely agree with Weston's desire to not impose his taste and feeling onto what he is photographing. As an artist who draws to see the world more clearly, I use photography in part as a meditation practice: a way of bringing myself into the present moment, of letting everything drop away, to Be Here Now, and perceive what is happening. At the best of times, I move into what I can only describe as an exalted state, where everything is more vivid, more real, more alive—and sometimes I must put the camera down, because I know I can't capture what I'm seeing so clearly, as if never before. It is at those times that I often make my best photographs: when I know that the camera is only capturing a small part of what I'm experiencing. One can rail at the limitations of one's tools, which I sometimes do: but one must also be aware of how helpful they can be in getting us as close to that impersonal recording of revelation that it is possible to get. I see this in many of Weston's photos of the most ordinary objects, seen so clearly, as a revelation, that hey become more than what they were: as Weston says, peppers-plus.

At the same time I am aware that composition, the moment of releasing the shutter, that timing and being in the right place at the right time, are elements of making the photograph that derive from the self. The photographer is not an omnipresent eye seeing everything: there are still decisions the person makes, before the shutter is released, and after. So my individual personality is engaged in the creative process.

But it is when my personality is subordinate to the revelation, to the recognition, to the seeing/being that Weston speaks of, that all my technical skill and decision-making aspects of the creative process align to make my best photographs. At those times, I really feel like I am witnessing something very much greater than myself, that I am lucky to be able to capture even a small part of, if I release the shutter just right, just so. At those times, I feel myself to be part of a larger process, and can even lose my sense of self in the creative process. Who is making the photograph? —becomes an essential question, a question of beyond-self being part of the moment. It's hard to feel ownership, at those times, although paradoxically this is also when I feel most a part of the work, and it results in my most personal work.

Weston is, in the real sense, one of the few great creative artists of today. He has recreated the mother forms and forces of nature; he has made these forms eloquent of the fundamental unity of the world. His work illuminates man's journey towards perfection of the spirit.
—Ansel Adams

Weston's life and his work are . . . simple, effective, without ceremony. . . . He was one of those who taught photograph to be itself.
—Robinson Jeffers

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Heavy Snow

Heavy snow, followed by bitter cold. Two days ago, a heavy blizzard, leaving us with over a foot of heavy snow. The land is white and beautiful, although I worry about the trees. Broken branches falling off trees took out the electricity for several homes in my county. People seem stunned that the winters are getting more snow-filled, more cold, more powerful these past three years; but they need to remember that for the preceding decade-plus there has been a winter drought here in the Upper Midwest.

This heavy snow is actually a return to what was more typical, years ago. Between the heavy rains and heavy snows these past three years, despite the damage from floods in summer and the power lines coming down during this latest blizzard, it's good for the land. It's good for the crops, come spring, with more water in the soil; and the vast aquifers of the Midwest, heavily depleted by a century of overfarming, are gradually being refilled.

Just after the storm, I went out to knock some snow off the trees out back. I’m worried they’ll break from the weight of this heavy snow, they’re bent almost all the way to the ground. They did rebound a little, after my attentions, but there is still a lot of ice coating their upper branches, and they remain bowed. There are trees down, and branches fallen everywhere in the woods by the river.

The city snowplow has managed to create an ice-hard two-foot high berm at the foot of my driveway, thank you very much, which I don’t have the physical strength to remove, so I’m going exactly nowhere today.

During the last part of the storm, before the Arctic bitter cold set in, I went out for an hour with the camera, down to the river and back, and a small distance into the woods and back. I’m too tired from being ill to do much more than that. I got some excellent photos—perfect for this year’s Xmas card to design and send out soon. It was mostly me out there, with a little light traffic.

Only one other walker came through. And an insane jogger passed me on the icy road, there’s no accounting for those folks. I remember the time years ago Dad told me, when he was still working as a doctor at the UM health service in Ann Arbor, about treating a guy who had been jogging in the cold of winter wearing only light running shorts and not enough layers: Dad had to treat him for frostbite of the penis.

Down in the woods by the river, of course, pastoral Robert Frost poems were going through my head. I’ve come to realize that Frost celebrated the domesticated wild, not the actual wild: his winter woods were near the village, his forked trails were in the New England woods, not far from town. His wilds were tame, New England wilds, rough for all that, but near lands where folk have lived for centuries. This realization about Frost makes me think of Robert Bly’s formulation of American poetry being about wildness and domesticity as its two poles of attraction: Frost circled those poles, although most of his poems about nature and the wilderness were really set in pastures and farmed lands, and rivers near habitation.

Frost was not referring to Nevada or Wyoming, or New Mexico; he was referring to New England. For all his excesses and overwritten passages, D.H. Lawrence’s poetry is wilder; and he lived for a time above Taos, NM, on the side of an inaccessible mountain above an arid mesa, miles from town. Walt Whitman’s poems remain much wilder than Frost’s, even now. I love many Frost poems, yet I cannot forget that his blizzards were contained within snow-globes, not experienced as white-outs in the Bighorn Range straddling Montana and Wyoming. My own terrain of the northern Midwest contains more open space and raw wilderness than Frost ever wrote about, except metaphorically, or theoretically. So, as much as I love many Frost poems, I seek wilder poetry.

On the other hand, I do believe that Frost’s real wildness was in his dark poems of domestic tragedy, such as Home Burial: the wildness of life within a dark room of death, of hauntings, of marriages gone wrong and the deaths of children. Frost at his darkest does contain genuine duende, and the dark night: but Frost remains focused on human relationships, not on the land and sea and sky, the true wilderness.

The light is failing now, and I’ve turned on the treelights. I went out again and tried to knock more ice and snow off the trees out back; I hope it’s enough to save them, in the coming cold and wind. I hope that they don’t break and crack like those other trees I saw when I was out walking with the camera. I want my trees to live, to be well. The heavy snow froze on the ends into iceballs, that’s why the trees are bending over.

The neighborhood groundskeeping people came by and removed the berms from our driveways that the city plows had left, so I’m no longer trapped, which is good. I hate feeling trapped. But now as the light fails, it’s beginning to snow again. There is already a powerdered coating on the driveway that was cleaned an hour ago.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009


I just heard back via email that a small sheaf of poems I'd submitted to a journal, wherein I've been published before, were rejected. Politely if categorically. It's interesting to have had these poems rejected, by a general I'd been published in before. But I realize, going over what I submitted, that the current editor of that journal is openly biased towards formalist poetry, which is not remotely what I do. So it was probably a mismatch from the start. Nonetheless, it's interesting to be rejected in part because I hadn't been bothering to submit any poems anywhere for well over a year, and what's come back has either been rejection or the silences of limbo, of never hearing back either way.

I just heard that I need a different kind of medication to deal with aspects of my chronic illness that I haven't been able to get under control via sheer force of will. First feelings were that I had somehow failed, that I am somehow a failure for not being superhuman, for not being able to get out from under this crushing burden by sheer force of will. It's a rejection of my ability to take care of myself. Well, feelings aren't rational things: even though I know none of that is really true, or even relevant, that was the first rush of feelings.

I just heard that once again my thoughts and ideas were rejected, loudly, by someone so self-absorbed that he's convinced the communication difficulties between us are because I haven't taken the time to properly understand him, rather than the closer truth that he's bad at communicating and has so many chips on his shoulder about being an academic brat with a high IQ that my mere writing style pushes all his buttons. It's ironically amusing to be rejected by someone who foams at the mouth if you dare to fairly cite your sources, as an attempt to be courteous to other authors, not as an attempt to be more academic-than-though. It's doubly ironic when smart intellectuals adopt a pose of being anti-intellectual, usually for reasons of personal biography and a lack of self-esteem. Who are they kidding? Themselves, mostly. It's amazing the dumb things that smart people can do; it just goes to prove that no-one is free of emotional blockages, and no-one is immune to self-deception.

I just heard that sound of a door opening and closing, in the back of the mind, as I refuse as many times as necessary to give in to my own personal demons. I reject them. They keep coming back, of course. You slay the inner predator as many times as you must, over and over and over again, as long as it takes. I reject the need to tell my story to everyone individually; telling it once is enough, and if telling it collectively offends someone, too bad, because telling it once is what I can handle, whereas telling it over and over and over again would kill me.

I just heard a wiser man than I say how humility lies at the core of his public success: You are who you are, at all times and in all places. This humble rejection of pride and ego-inflation is quiet force for good. It serves to remind me that being rejected by editors, the ignorant, the superficial, and those who would diminish others to build themselves up, is no shame. There is no shame in being rejected by those unable to see what's really there, rather than what they think is there. The willfully ignorant are not to be excused for their willful ignorance, although it's hard not to feel pity.

I just heard myself say that self-pity is not something I want. Tempting and habit-forming as it is. You can be your own worst enemy. I reject myself for whining about it, then I reject the rejection because about some things you've earned the right to complain. What you learn from those who reject your whining is that not every one of your friends is capable of supporting ,or even accepting, you when you're down. Sometimes even the best advice is useless, or poorly timed. Right words, wrong moment. There can be wisdom in rejecting badly-timed advice, which is a kind of self-knowledge or what you are able to absorb at any given moment. Sometimes you have to reject what seems rational and logical because you know that even logic can be used as a cudgel as well as a scalpel.

I just heard the bitter ice cracking in the street outside, the glare and slickness of the coldest night so far. It's easy to feel rejected when alone on a winter night like this. All too easy—and so untrustworthy. I trust that which I already know to be trustworthy, and let go of the rest. It's all right to feel rejected, when rejections happen—as long as you don't let it dictate what you do next, as long as you keep going forward, and let go of the rest.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

American Gamelan Music

An important aspect of my musical past is playing Javanese gamelan. This musical culture has had a major impact on my musical life, both as performer and composer.

bonang barung, a gong-chime instrument from the Javanese gamelan

I began playing Javanese gamelan in 1979, with the University of Michigan gamelan group Kyai Telaga Madu (Venerable Lake of Honey), directed by Judith Becker. I played with the gamelan ensemble in Ann Arbor through 1985, when I received a Fulbright grant, as a composer, to go to Indonesia to study gamelan. During the year I lived in Java, I studied much more than the traditional music; I also made many concert recordings, which I am gradually digitizing from cassette, studied batik, gathered materials including numerous books on the arts and poetry; and I got involved with the new music for gamelan scene at the school for the traditional arts in Surakarta, where I lived. I got to know several students and professors, and attended many concerts of new music and dance. When I got back to the US, I stayed involved with gamelan for several years, eventually playing with the gamelan ensemble at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, directed by R. Anderson Sutton. I eventually entered graduate school at UW-Madison, in ethnomusicology an folklore/anthropology; I was the gamelan Teaching Assistant for awhile, too. Nothing improves your own ability at something like having to teach it to others. Eventually, I moved to another city, and became less involved in performing gamelan. But all those years of being closely involved with this music left a permanent mark on me as a composer/performer, and I can trace elements in my own music compositions, as well as my style of jazz improvisation, directly to gamelan's influence.

street scene, Central Java, 1986

On one level what was really going on, at that time, was that when I had finished my Bachelor's of Music in Composition at the University of Michigan, I was wrung out and burned out and exhausted with Western music. The one thing they cannot teach you in music school is inspiration: so mostly they teach you music theory, history, and performance practice. As composers, several of graduated feeling musically constipated (the only way to describe the feeling), having had so much theory shoved down our throats that we didn't know where to begin writing music anymore. Gamelan saved me by taking me away from all that; by being completely different; by being an entirely different musical culture with nothing but positive interest for me; by being a place to turn while my composer's mind rested. I eventually learned to play jazz, and to improvise in general, and that is what eventually brought to composing for Western instruments again. I began by writing for jazz groups, and then in grad school I began composing notated music again.

Balungan is a magazine publication of the American Gamelan Institute, an organization devoted to the promotion and support of gamelan music internationally. There is, for example, a directory of gamelan ensembles, and a Gongcast podcast (available via iTunes).

Balungan used to be published more regularly, but only occasionally at present. Each issue contains articles about aspects of the traditional music, it's theory and performance practice; reviews and interpretative articles; and also scores. New music for gamelan, both within the traditional styles, and more experimental new pieces alike.

bedhaya dance, Central Java, 1986

Back issues of Balungan can be downloaded as PDFs. In the December 1986 issue of Balungan you can find a field note I wrote about my experience of studying traditional gamelan music in Surakarta, Central Java, in 1985-86. You can also find the score for my gamelan piece NightWaters, which I wrote while living in Java. I wrote a couple of other pieces for gamelan that year, and a book of poems, Solo Journey (some of which can be sampled here).

A recording of NightWaters can be heard via the Music page of my own website.

As I wrote in my introduction to the score of NightWaters when it was published:

The mood of NightWaters, as it was felt during the process of composition, is of the deep rain forest soon after the night rain has ceased; water still drips from the trees and all the leaves, pooling on the ground; frogs are chorusing; the air is thick and heavy with humidity; smells of flowers and rich decay fill the night. But also within the possibilities of "night waters" are: the moonlit ocean, light rippling on the far horizon and dancing on the crests of the waves; the silver night reflected from the shallows of a quiet stream, water ringing on the stones of the riverbed. A sense of eternally flowing, quiet waters.

You can listen to NightWaters here: NightWaters    

Or download an MP3 of NightWaters.

(I plan to post more of my gamelan music, both original and traditional, new music and gamelan-influenced music, on my website soon.)

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Pen Drawings from Old Journals

Some random pen drawings, from my old journals. These drawings are basically just doodles, but still fun to look at. I don't consider them finished Art.

I used to do detailed line-drawings using Rapidograph technical pens. Pens that I first learned to use as a freshman student in geology, where we were expected to draw up our projects with precise, technical, draftsman-level skill; I spent hours on my project drawings, and I was the only student in the class who got a 100 percent grade for my project drawings. I used to make these kinds of drawings mostly on bristol board, which was firm enough and smooth enough to take the ink well without running, or watercolor board, for the same reasons. This ghostlike figure is the title page of one of those old spiral notebooks, a decoration for an English class notebook on creative writing.

This technical-pen style grew out of being able to draw extremely fine lines with the pen, combined with an interest in a pencil-and-paper math game called Sprouts, invented by one of those mid-century math-game geniuses I admired at that time, John H. Conway, who also invented the cellular-automata game Life. Believe it or not, I discovered Conway's games through reading science fiction novels such as Piers Anthony's Macroscope, then again in Martin Gardner's monthly columns in Scientific American. I liked the idea of using the Sprouts connectivity rules to control drawing style, and using the technical pens led my to explore this style throughout my college years.

The other drawing as done in my regular journal, half a page, using the Shaeffer fine-nib calligraphy cartridge pens I favored for many years, and still do. I have a backstock of pens and ink cartridges in my art-supplies chest of drawers next to the art desk.

This is just a moody journal drawing of the full moon and a planet close by in the night sky, done entirely in cross-hatch style. I was influenced to work with cross-hatching style by the great SF magazine illustrator Jack Gaughan, who was one of my favorite artists for several years at that time in my life. Looking up at the technical pen drawing, I can see some Gaughan influence in that, as well. It reminds me of one of his more abstract covers for Ace Books.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

New Piano Music: Celestial Road

Over the past two weeks, and reaching fruition a few days ago, sounds and ideas for a new solo piano composition have been rising up from the back of my mind. So far it's just sketches, some brief ideas, little gestures and notes and phraes that are starting to fit together into a new fabric.

The image I keep seeing in my mind is a rutted road in the high desert at midnight, with shapes of rocks and desert plants to either side, lit only by the cold clear light of more stars in the sky over the road than you have ever seen before. The stars, the celestial wanderers, are so close, at this high desert altitude, that they seem to hiss, crackle, and sing at you. You're high enough up in the mountain plateaus that the aurora borealis would be audible as well as visible. The stars are a presence, a weight, beautiful and terrible. The road, barely visible in this darkest starlit night, seems to rise up towards the sky, as if you could walk out into the stars directly.

As you walk into the sky, into the cold spaces between stars, where there is not atmosphere, nonetheless, the song the stars sing becomes clearer, stronger, louder in your ringing ears. You walk along a celestial road, a path of stars, the River of Heaven surrounding you, firm under your feet, as though you were walking along the bed of a dry arroyo in the desert, and every particle of sandstone and grit had caught light around you and become a living, flinting star. You are both on the earth in the sky, walking, all around you points of cold shimmering light.

That's what I have been seeing. This time, recording the vision will go into the music, not into a poem. Many of my poems have been records of these kinds of visions, or waking dreams, or whatever you want to label them. These days, making new music is what most interests me, what most catches my attention, my desire to express what I'm seeing and feeling. Better the music than anything else.

The cold clear stars are one of the only things in life that have remained steady, comforting, unchanged. Cold comfort, some might think, but the clarity and coldness of their gaze, especially in the high desert, has been one of the very few presences in my life that has never changed, never died, never betrayed my trust. It may seem strange to talk of betrayal; yet that is what the starlit night has never done.

The sounds that are coming forward are all in the upper register of the piano keyboard; the four octaves above Middle C. Mostly very abstract, open-ended; phrases and gestures, bell sounds, lines of melody, tones known to resonate a long time in the cold reaches of space. Things I have always heard, echoing through canyons of years, reverberant and resonant in the still midnight air.

Musical sketch excerpt: Celestial Road (sketches)    

I improvised these musical phrases and sounds at the keyboard, and now I must transcribe them. Make them into useful notation for a living piece. There will be a looseness to the notation. I don't really want the player to count beats in his or her head. This is about gestures and shapes of pitch within time, but the feeling needs to be timeless, abstract, not pulsed, not rhythmic. That will make notating this music more of a challenge, but it will be an interesting one.

A note on the process:

I've been playing—performing? improvising? transcribing?—what I've been hearing in my mind using Apple's GarageBand software, which came with my laptop. There are severe limitations to this software—for that matter, to any notation software that I know of, including Finale and Sibelius—in that the software imposes restrictions on what I can envision, and how I can write it. There are assumptions made about the nature of music and transcription in all these softwares that do not address experimental music, avant-garde music, or non-metered, non-standard notation. You end up having to force the software to remove many of its default settings, just to get close to want you want to see. In this more abstract music, for example, I use barlines to indicate phrases and gestures, not meter. A lot of this music won't have any barlines at all.

So, in the excerpt here, a brief portion of one of these early sketches, ignore the barlines and the meter: there won't be any. This was recorded using a default tempo marking of 55bpm, which also won't be used later on. The notation is going to be rubato, very slow, and very spacious; it is to be interpreted by the performer more loosely than a rigid tempo marking could ever provide.

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

GarageBand is useful for recording and transcribing these early sketches. It allows me to transcribe the pitches that I play (on my M-Audio USB keyboard controller, emulating a grand piano), which are the sounds I'm hearing in my head, as filtered through my hands. The software has a nice feature that allows you to save a track at a time as a PDF file, via the Print option; so I can look at as well as hear the notes I've just recorded. It is severely limited in that it wants to stick to a meter, it wants to put in barlines, and it attempts to fit what you play into both of those. It also cannot separate what the right hand and left hand are doing. I can later sit down with this kludged notation and sort out what I really mean to present in the final score. I can separate out the hands, and the gestures, and use grace notes where I played them, and where the notation software interpreted it all as one chord. At least it helps me get the notes down.

So don't take this notation as anything more than a vague shadow of what will come along later. But it gives an idea, hopefully, of part of the creative process.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Old Journals 2

When I moved from my parents' house to my own house, about a year and a half ago, I put all my old journals into a plastic bin, to gather them all in one place, preserved. Someday, I plan to go back through some of those old journals to find poem fragments that I can recall leaving unfinished, which I want to work with at some point. There are also ideas for musical compositions, and some sketches in there. Like most journals, a lot of my old journals' pages are devoted to boring personal rants and ravings that no-one should care about, ranging from the incoherent to the near-essay.

I don't really want to get too far into the project of going through all these old journals right now, to mine their content, as that's too big of a Pandora's Box to get into while the weather is still good, and I want to be outdoors making photographs, or in the garage teaching myself woodcarving, or writing more new music. Perhaps over the winter, I'll get into the mining, since there are several months here where being outdoors is a cold prospect at best, an impossible one at worst. It will be an occasional process, most likely, mixed in with other projects. Better to go slow, and not be drowned by the tides of the past.

In recent weeks, though, I've been looking through the old journals for one specific set of writings. When I was in my mid-teens, just beginning to explore my sexual identity, in secret, in private, I naturally turned to writing out some of my thoughts and feelings as poems. I kept those journals very carefully hidden. Had digital cameras existed back then, no doubt I would have explored that creative option, as well. I've been thinking about my first typewriter lately, and having re-discovered a big binder full of old poem juvenilia, I'm thinking about looking into the origins of some of my poetry, which for many years began in my journals. I am going to be looking more closely into this set of writings sooner rather than later, because I'm at a point in looking back through my own family history and memories where this material has risen in importance.

I began keeping a journal—as distinct from a diary, which is usually daily entries about daily personal events and thoughts about them, which I have never done—in my early college years, probably at age 19 or 20. Most of what I wrote was no doubt crappy self-exploration, the things adolescents write through in their journals, to figure out the world and themselves. But I also began the habit, from the beginning, of sketching ideas and poem drafts in my journals, which has become a lifelong practice. The poems that were worth preserving, I eventually typed into my computer(s), adding to the folders full of poem drafts over the years. That practice has continued to the present day. Nonetheless, in the turbulence of recent years, some poems have never been transcribed, or not completely.

At the moment, I find myself too easily spraining a mental ankle, if I try to talk about what I'm going through right now in words, either in journal entries or in poetry. So, I'm still taking a break from writing poems and essays—in some ways, a renewal against expectations of my practice to never go looking for a poem, but to let it find me, when it's ready. So I'm writing a lot less at the moment than I used to. At the moment, mired in some difficult life experiences, I am very aware of how limited words can be to convey what I feel, and how easily words can betray the reality by being all too easy, all too facile, all to cheap.

The first journals were spiral bound notebooks from one of the bookstores that catered to students at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Ulrich's Bookstore was on the corner of East University and South University, just across from the main campus square. I bought a lot of supplies there over the years, from notebooks to drawing pens to musical materials and textbooks. The one or two English courses that I took in my early college years were writing courses, and I used spiral notebooks from Ulrich's as my coursework notebooks. So it was not much a leap to use these same sort of spiral notebooks for my personal journals, as well.

When I was living in Surakarta, Central java, on a Fulbright, I changed to lined bound school notebooks that one could buy extremely cheaply at the school supply stores. I began to use those books there, and bought several to bring home with me, which I used for several. I liked the size of these books, as they neatly fit into a backpack or shoulder bag.

These days I use unlined artist's sketchbooks. They're larger, and better bound, and I like the unlined pages now because I draw and do calligraphy in these books now, not just write in them.

Here are two spreads from my 1993-94 journal, in one of the lined journal books brought home from Java. They show my initial writing of a poem, one of the Sutras. Specifically, Whitman Sutra (linked to in a later, more finished version).

Click on images to see larger versions

Sometimes it's interesting to look at drafts of finished poems, to see what was changed in the writing and revision processes, and what remains from the original, first draft. As I said, many if not most of my poems have begun in this way, as dated entries from one of my journals. When I type them into the computer, I tend to revise them at that point; perhaps later revisions will happen, but all on the computer, with its easy cut-and-paste editing capabilities.

In looking at the first draft of this poem, I can see where changes were made before I ever typed them into the computer. Sections were moved around, and lines and words altered. It's the beginning of a series of poems about Whitman, written over several years, as well as part of the series of Sutras still being worked on.

One reason I have been looking back through these journals, to find these poems written during my sexual awakening, is because I have been thinking Walt Whitman, his poetry and life, for almost a year now; thinking about how his poetry and homoerotic life have influenced my own, among many other gay men who happen to be artists, poets, and/or musicians. So it was interesting to find this first version of Whitman Sutra as part of this looking for the homoerotic poetry I was writing at that time. The search is ongoing, and interesting bits of my own past have been coming back to mind during this process. More on that later, as it develops.

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Mark Twain

Lying is universal—we all do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others' advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling. Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall we be great and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrable weather.
—Mark Twain, On the Decay of the Art of Lying

On a recent trip to Connecticut, I visited the Mark Twain Library, in Redding. Twain moved to Redding in 1908, where he spent the last few years of his life. He established the local public library by donating 3000 books to its collection, and by founding the Mark Twain Library Association shortly after moving to town. Redding is a town in Connecticut that I have a family connection to, since my aunt and uncle moved there circa 40 years ago. I've visited Redding several times, and have always liked that region of Connecticut, for its sheer physical beauty as much as for its cultural history.

Born on November 30, 1835, Samuel Langhorn Clemens was a prolific author of both serious and humorous literature, a famed public speaker and lecturer, and a man interested in the future of technology. He was involved with the early years of the typewriter. He was friends with Nikola Tesla, the electrical inventor and visionary. One of my favorite photos of Twain is this one, taken at Tesla's New York City lab: Twain is holding lightning in his hands, with Tesla in the photo's background.

The image of Twain holding the fires of creativity in his hands, symbolized by lightning, seems very apt for a writer and thinker who ranged across many literary fields with equal skill.

One of Twain's greatest writings, in my opinion, was one never published in his lifetime; he wrote it circa 1904, but his family thought it would be viewed as sacrilegious, and he did not feel he could publish it without being seen as a crank. This short prose-poem was The War Prayer, which I believe shows Twain's remarkable prescience about human affairs. I'll reprint it here, as a memorial for a century of continuous war, which seems to have no end, even now.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came—next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams—visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

    God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest!
    Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory—

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside—which the startled minister did—and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

"I come from the Throne—bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import—that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of—except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two—one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this—keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer—the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it—that part which the pastor—and also you in your hearts—fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory—must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!"

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

—Mark Twain, The War Prayer

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