Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Grandfather's Rocking Chair

One good thing that came out of last week's mad trip to Connecticut and back was that I returned home with my grandfather's rocking chair. I had in the past expressed interest in inheriting this rocking chair, and in a moment of generosity my aunt decided that it would travel home with me now. I had already inherited an ottoman from my grandparents, which now I'll keep together with the chair.

I have many memories of my grandfather sitting in this rocking chair. I remember siiting in it as a boy, too, when we would go to visit. The chair itself is probably around 150 years old, and it's still in good shape. The wood's a little dry, as the chair's been in de facto storage in Connecticut for some years.

What I know of the chair's history is this: When they had not been married very long, my mother's mother and father were given this chair, either by my grandmother's sister or her mother. It was already a family heirloom. At that time, my grandfather recaned the back of the chair, and my grandmother made the needlepoint seat cushion cover that it still on the chair. (I believe she also recovered the ottoman I mentioned above.) It's a spring-steel seat on the chair rather than a foam support seat. I know my grandfather recaned the chair at least two more times over the years; what's on there now is not caning he actually wove, as he had done before, but some of that newfangled premade caning that you cut and fit into place, which he did.

The chair itself is probably well over a hundred years old, I'm guessing at least 150, but I can't be absolutely sure. The steel springs in the cushion were the type I've seen used in Victorian furniture at the height of the Industrial Revolution. They may be a more modern replacement, put in when Grandma redid the cushion; so the entire cushion assembly may be new, meaning it's still circa the 1920s. The wood frame is definitely 150 or more years old, however; it's made out of hard fruitwood, dense and heavy with a very fine grain as is typical of fruitwoods, so the chair is sturdier than it looks. I don't know which variety of fruitwood was used, and there is a finishing stain on the wood that I don't want to mar or restore, partly because it's beautiful as is, and partly because one doesn't do such things to antiques. I am not an antique collector, I only have a few pieces inherited from my parents and grandparents which I keep because they're beautiful and because they contain many memories; but even I know not to "restore" antiques. Some of their beauty comes from having been lovingly used these many years.

Grandpa was a master carpenter, a builder, a contractor, and a foreman, in Muskegon, MI. (He was born north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, and came to the US while still young.) He was the foreman and his brother was the general contractor for building Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Muskegon, where my aunt and uncle were married.

Grandpa also built the two-story house on Dale St. in Muskegon where my mom and aunt grew up, and where my aunt was actually born. The house is still there, and looking good. (The upstairs floor was built as a separate apartment to be rented out; so even during the Great Depression they had some steady income from it.) I have lots of memories from my childhood of visiting my grandparents in this house; and its living room is where I remember the rocking chair always being placed. On an afternoon in summer, Grandpa would sit in the rocker, and even nap there, while we children played, or lay on the floor and drew pictures, or likewise napped. Often the radio would be tuned to classical music.

After he retired, my grandfather kept a workshop in the basement for the many crafts he took up as hobbies. He taught himself how to make candles, and later he taught me, when I was still a boy. He also taught me the basics of carpentry, and I now have his old handmade wooden toolbox, which he built for his construction work, and many of his tools. I have mounted his antique pull saw and scythe on my garage wall, as a display. Most of the tools in the toolbox are also old, but most are still in good working order.

I'm very happy to have Granpda's rocking chair in my own home, now. For the moment I'm keeping it in the living room, just to look at and enjoy. It's sitting next to my own modern rocking chair, which I sometimes sit in by the fireplace on cold winter nights.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Recycling: Wood

I make a lot of physical art, when I make it, out of recycled or found materials. When I do a landscape art piece, for example, I use what I find lying at hand, as such pieces are site-specific and usually not pre-planned, but form themselves intuitively. I might use stones, or twigs, or sand, or leaves, or whatever else I find lying to hand.

During yesterday's high winds and rain, two branches from the fruit tree out back of my porch were torn down. THey brushed against the windows, and landed in the bushes. None of the roses were seriously damaged by being fallen on. This afternoon, when I was cleaning up the fallen, I sawed off a couple of segments of wood, to dry out and cure, and probably use later for other art projects. I also took some photos of the fallen branches, and of the wounds in the tree. Then I sealed up the wounds with pruning sealant; it's a beautiful tree with a spreading canopy, it provides me a lot of shade and privacy in summer on my porch, and it's otherwise healthy, so sealing the scars will hopefully prevent the tree from catching any diseases or suffering any further trauma, as winter sets in later this year.

I was inspired recently to think about incorporating woodworked pieces into my visual art. Perhaps by making an unfinished natural wood frame for a particular artwork. Perhaps also by incorporating sculpture into the wall-hung visual art, and maybe also weaving, making it into multimedia work. I know an artist in town who goes on hikes out in the fields, picks up fallen wood and sculpts it into beautiful polished bowls. In a recent gallery show, I saw a wall-hung piece that had a large round wooden shield hung next to a sepia-tined photo, all incorporated into a driftwood framework; the overall effect was emotionally resonant for me, almost shamanic. It's been making me think about doing something similar with my own art and materials.

I've always liked working with wood. I haven't done a lot of it, but there's something very emotionally satisfying about woodworking. My grandfather was a master carpenter and builder, and he taught me the basics of carpentry and woodworking when I was a boy. Given a few more tools, now that I have a big workbench area set up in the garage, it might be possible for me to do some actual carpentry and woodworking again. If time and weather permits, perhaps this autumn.

   Tree Tao

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

James Baldwin on the Mirror of the Self

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.

Everybody's journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.

Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.

No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.

Pessimists are the people who have no hope for themselves or for others. Pessimists are also people who think the human race is beneath their notice, that they're better than other human beings.

The face of a lover is an unknown, precisely because it is invested with so much of oneself. It is a mystery, containing, like all mysteries, the possibility of torment.

The question of sexual dominance can exist only in the nightmare of that soul which has armed itself, totally, against the possibility of the changing motion of conquest and surrender, which is love.

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.

You know, it's not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.

There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.

James Baldwin made a point of being positive, rather than negative, even when he was angry. His voice, as part of the civil rights movement, was an essential voice. He preferred peace to war, he preferred love to hate. But he was not afraid to speak out against social injustice, institutionalized racism, and many other forms of oppression.

What strikes me now, in reading through Baldwin's published works, as well as in his public speeches, interviews, and occasional op-ed pieces, is that he continually emphasized that the worst forms of oppression are internalized oppression: what people do to themselves, often unconsciously. He was famous for being an outspoken Black civil rights activist and speaker; but even within the civil rights movement, he was not affirmed for being gay. He never apologized, and he never took shelter in the closet; nonetheless, in his lifetime he was never a "famous Black gay writer," but rather a "famous Black writer." The Black community still has difficulty with loving its gay sons.

I think of Baldwin whenever I hear rhetoric from the leaders of a civil rights group say, First we have to fix this problem, before we can address that other problem. Don't they realize that they are intertwined? that they cannot be separated? I think of Baldwin whenever I encounter rhetoric that denies that civil rights, and the human freedom to simply be openly and freely oneself, are at the core of every human experience: that to become truly human we must all free each other as well as ourselves. I think of Baldwin whenever I see a group-within-a-group being quietly moved off the center of the stage because their identity complicates the singular quest for a singular civil goal.

But people are complicated, not single-issue automatons. You can't exclude parts of yourself from your quest to be free, and still be a whole person. You can't ignore others who make you uncomfortable without creating division where there ought to be unity. The rhetoric of civil rights must include genuine diversity, or it will fail because of its own hypocrisy. In truth, hiding aspects of oneself ties up a lot of energy that could fruitfully be used if harnessed.

Liberty is not liberty if it is only partial liberty.

In this, I freely admit to being a Jeffersonian at heart. (As, I think, Baldwin was.) There is an element of pragmatism involved, of course: one has to pick one's battles. So I saw Baldwin at times focusing on one aspect of a rights campaign, and not talking about the rest. But almost as often his discussion were inclusive, and made connections between the necessity of personal liberty and the necessity of respecting the liberty of others. We are all very much the same: unique.

Over and over again, Baldwin reminds us that to be free we must be honest about who and what we are. We must know ourselves well enough to know where we have taken on the role of the oppressor, and taken it upon ourselves to censor ourselves before others can. We do the work of our oppressors for them, by stopping ourselves from speaking out in the face of censure. We hide in plain sight. We pretend to be powerless. We become invisible, ignored, safe.

But in doing so, in giving away ourselves, we lose everything.

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Redding, Connecticut

Congregational church, Redding Center, CT, established 1729

stones of the garden
covered with fallen leaves

lines of ancient fence
formed of lichened granite cobblers

cold winter splits the rock
and water flows deep in

light dappling
a shelf for a tree to dwell
shelter for mice and fox alike

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Genre vs. Mainstream Fiction: a critique of criticism

As genres, science fiction and mystery/suspense have suffered a great deal of adversity in this century. They have been dismissed, variously, as “trash,” as “second-class literature,” as “entertainment for juveniles and juvenile minds”; they are the victims of such base canards as “Science fiction is a lot of nonsense about rocket ships and bug-eyed monsters” and “The mystery is a mindless celebration of death and despair.” The struggle of one is the struggle of the other: to abolish these ridiculous labels, to command acceptance as serious art forms, to prove to the world-at-large that work of quality and significance can be and is being done by writers who have chosen these fields—not been forced into them because of limited talent and limited vision.

It is the writers of mystery/suspense and science fiction, of course, who best understand this common cause. While some of them in each genre may be indifferent to the work of their counterparts, there is an almost universal respect for the professional of their respective endeavors. (Good writing is good writing, after all, no matter what the subject matter, style, theme, intent, or vision. And bad writing is no more prevalent in one field than in the other; in fact, it is my opinion that, on the whole, there is less of it in science fiction and mystery/suspense than in other categories and even in the so-called “mainstream” of fiction.)

This respect and kinship between the writers of the two genres is evident in the remarkable number who work, frequently or occasionally, in BOTH fields with considerable success. Every year, prominent figures in one category publish first-rate stories and novels in the other. Some of these are wholly mystery/suspense or wholly science fiction; and some of them are an amalgam of the two—the crime story as seen through the eye of the SF writer, the SF extrapolation as envisioned by the mystery writer.

—Bill Pronzini, from the “Introduction” to Dark Sins, Dark Dreams: Crime in Science Fiction, edited by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini.

The mystery and science fiction . . . two genres born as discrete categories in America almost a hundred years apart but from the advent of the pulp magazines following rather parallel courses. Two genres which have yet to win full academic acceptance (although they are getting closer for reasons which give no credit to the academy). but whose best practitioners—Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, Bester, Knight, Silverberg—have always done work to equal or surpass the best work done anywhere. There are quite a few stories which are fusions of the genres, among which we hope we have found some distinguished examples.

Genre fiction by definition operates with parameters, plays by certain rules. In the mystery it is crime, in science fiction it is an extrapolated technology or social system, in both (if the work is to successfully meet the criteria of the genre) the plot must turn on these central elements. Certain writers, Raymond Chandler being the most notable example, chafed at the restrictions; others like Alfred Bester gloried in them exactly as J. S. Bach found the greatest freedom within the tightest limitations of those ancient forms, the canon and the fugue. In specificity, in rigor, is the greatest freedom perhaps: one can thus at least attempt an argument that the most important fiction of our time is being done within these two genres.

—Barry N. Malzberg, from the “Afterword” to the same anthology

This is perhaps one of the better descriptions of the tension between “genre” writing and “mainstream” writing that I’ve ever encountered. These essays were written in 1978, but remain entirely relevant today—perhaps more so, because if anything has changed, it’s that the literary mainstream has become even more defensive and prickly as it feels itself more and more embattled. The dismissive nature of literary-critical rhetoric against the genres is if anything more vitriolic than ever, nowadays. It’s very easy, however, to try to raise oneself up by knocking others down; except that it never works.

Whenever you read a literary critic, or Critic—think of Harold Bloom, James Woods, or any number of high-profile litbloggers with academic ties—marking a rear-guard defensive position against the barbarians assaulting the gates of taste, quality, and virtue, just remember the concluding line of Constantine Cavafy’s great poem Waiting for the Barbarians, which reads: “Those people were a kind of solution.” It’s true that few things unite antagonistic opinions than finding something to disparage in common. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. But these temporary alliances of mutual hatred, especially in a game with so little at stake as literary criticism, are fragile and cannibalistic. It takes nothing to turn on each other, once the common enemy has fled or been trounced. “Those people” are a solution only if they agree to be antagonists when you need them to be. A great deal of literary-critical gesticulating is centered on the "Us vs. Them" paradigm so common to manifesto scribes and defenders of one literary -ism or another. (Most of the rhetoric of the "post-avant" theorists in poetry is Us vs. Them, with Them being anyone they dismiss as not worthy of being Us—which is almost everybody.)

The default position of literary criticism, most of the time, is defensive, rather than appreciative. It tends to be the more defensive-minded critics, too, who tend to play the game of canon-making. That is, when conservation becomes preservative conservatism, and description yields to prescription in any artistic matter, not how often the tactics are identical. They are the mark of an ideology in play, rather than an open and observant mind with no particular agenda. Ideologues tend to build canons is support of their ideas. Most readers just read eclectically for pleasure, and don’t care about making lists, except perhaps personal lists of favorite books.

Why is a list of favorite books to be rejected in favor of a generated canon? Perhaps it’s the academic cloak of authority, the voice of doom speaking its pronouncements with so much heat and so little light, that it’s enough to fool the rubes.

In all this, appreciation and responsive reviewing all too often is lost, or often just rejected.. What happened to reading for pure pleasure? A well-written, idea-generating, imaginative scenario opens the door to reading pleasure no matter what style or topics are involved. This is as true of the literary avant-garde as it is of more mainstream writing. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it appears.

The influence of Modernism and its more avant-garde authors on science fiction stimulated the New Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which brought to prominence in SF several authors whose work was as ambitious in terms of literary style as it was in terms of content. Robert Silverberg was only one of these. (This was also the first wave of SF stories that didn’t tone down overt sexuality, as was the rule in the pulp magazines, but in fact viewed sex as one more aspect of life to extrapolate upon.) One of the greatest SF anthologies of this period, Dangerous Visions, edited by literary enfant terrible Harlan Ellison, helped set the tone for the New Wave, and is a record of many successful literary SF experiments. In terms of influence, this was a generation of writers to whom Finnegan’s Wake was what had shocked their parents, not themselves; they read Joyce (and Stein and Beckett and that generation of writers who invented literary Modernism) as accepted literature, not as avant-garde. Some writers within the New Wave, notably Samuel R. Delany, went on to overtly incorporate advanced literary and philosophical critical theory into his SF and fantasy stories—which remain intensely readable, often stunningly beautiful, moving, and mind-blowing. Perhaps one ought to say, demi-monde-blowing. Other writers, such as Roger Zelazny, were lifelong fonts of imaginative exploration in which the style of the writing matched what was being written about, making reading into a visceral sensory immersive experience, rather than a cerebral parlor one.

It’s the self-appointed conservator of literary taste, in literary criticism, who is most toxic of all. This sort of critic—excuse me, Critic, especially a Critic with a Grand Theory—is often quickest to reject personal pleasure as any measure of a good read. This is de facto Puritanism, a basically anti-sensual attitude about reading: it’s supposed to be good for you, perhaps especially if you don’t actually enjoy it. It’s the castor oil school of Criticism: you don’t have to like it, but you need to read it, because it’s good for you, because you need to know about it. It is moralizing disguised as literary theory. (Zelazny for one pointedly and often hilariously parodied this critical attitude in numerous tales.) I’m sorry to say, Mr. Critic, but even though it was supposed to be hard going and hard to understand, I actually enjoyed reading Finnegan’s Wake; in fact, it made me laugh out loud a few times. (I am constantly amazed at how many opinions float about on books that the critic hasn't actually read, especially "difficult;" in my own case, if you hear me discuss a book, even a difficult one, you can be sure I've read it, unless I stipulate otherwise.)

Which is why canon-making is so fraught with disasters. The endlessly compiled lists of “great” or “best” or even “good” books will be always controversial because taste and pleasure are not as separable as some academic theorists would surmise. (The word “taste” is itself as sensory word.) In fact, the chief weakness of canon-building is that it is fraught with concealed and denied subjectivity, choices made on extra-literary matters of just plain liking the book, or what the book was about.

Don't get me wrong: what I object to is not that a canon-builder liked a work; what I object to is that simple pleasure is concealed as grand theory. Perhaps it is too easy when wielding Grand Theories to give in to the temptation to justify and rationalize matters of taste as matters of Quality; tempting, but also dishonest. When a book reviewer presents a list of books he or she enjoyed reading, there's no pressure to defend the choices made on the grounds that they are Great Art. This is by far the more honest approach to literary recommendation. It is almost always possible to discover a hidden agenda, usually a moral stance, behind the choices made in a Canon of Great Books; and the moral agenda is all too often the castor oil school of Criticism.

The simple pleasure principle of enjoying reading is underrated, it seems to me, by most serious literary critics. The Harry Potter books have brought so many children back to the pleasures of reading precisely because they’re fun, they’re fizzy, and they contain deeper, darker truths under the fizzy surface. What literary merit they might have, if any, is secondary to the fact that they inspired an entire generation of kids raised on TV and computers to discover anew the simple pleasures of reading a book. Yet can you imagine Harold Bloom admitting that he actually enjoyed reading a Harry Potter novel? (Assuming he ever would.) When one wears the mantle of literary-critical authority, self-appointed or otherwise, one must never reveal that the man behind the curtain is no wizard, but a snake oil salesman. So it's not pleasure in reading that I object to, it's the hardcore-adult notion that one mustn't admit to it.

Hardcore adults, who have forgotten that once too were children (at least theoretically they were), and have forgotten how to play, often reject the uses of pleasure. if you encounter a Serious Critic with a list of pronouncements in hand, you can be sure most of them will be Serious, rather than playful. How dreadfully dull.

Reading is supposed to be fun.

Malzberg concludes his “Introduction” with:

But not to be pompous. This is a genre book, a category book if your will; it will go into bookstores and libraries, it will go out of print, but ten or twenty years from now someone will have been reached by this book just as I was reached by genre or category hardcover books which were mine to behold a quarter of a century ago. . . .

And that’s the only true test of literature—keeping in mind that “mainstream fiction” can be categorized as just another genre, with its own inherent rules and limits—which is the test of time, of endurance, of resonance down the years to keep re-exciting another new generation into the pleasures and perils of reading.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Peak Experiences & Abraham Maslow

Some quotes for instigating thought, from a branch of psychology still under-recognized and under-utilized: namely, the psychology of healthy and effective people. Most psychology today remains focused on pathology, on what has gone wrong, on dis-ease, on unhealthy problems. I find myself immersed by life in example after example of dementia and neurosis, mostly not my own, so I turn to the possibilities for a positive psychology with a sigh of relief and release. I turn away from pathology towards ecstasy, with my own health at stake.

Peak experiences are those highlights of our lives that give us awareness and insight into a deeper level of existence.

The peak experience is the event that changes our way of viewing reality. Peak experiences are similar to the transcendent awareness described by mystics and others who have undergone religious experiences. What makes the peak experience unique and different from the mystic and/or religious experience is its secular naturalistic nature.

Peak experiences do not require the presence of the supernatural. They are characterized by the spontaneous awareness of some or all of the following points:

nonjudgmental perception
detachment and objectivity
ends rather than means
time/space disorientation
transcendence of dichotomies
strong self-identity
strong sense of "free will"
humility and surrender

I would add a few things to this list, and rephrase a few other things. Following in the footsteps of contemporary spiritual writers such as Frederick Franck, Matthew Fox, and others, I would include:

non-dual consciousness
awareness that everything is choice
awareness that everything is change
trust of the higher self, or what we perceive as something greater than ourselves

Peak experiences often occur during such diverse activities as making love, climbing mountains, experiencing or creating works of art, sailing, giving birth, reading, looking at a landscape, and listening.

For some people peak experiences can remain in the memory as a reference point, making further peak experiences more accessible.

This is an important point I want to underline:

Once you have had a visionary or peak experience, you are susceptible to having more, or to having repeats or flashbacks. Once those doors and windows have been opened, they tend to stay open. The more crap you shovel out of the communications room, the more genuinely honest and sincere you tend to become. It's not that you become incapable of dissembling; it's that you see no good reason to.

And you will encounter many more who still cling to their cynicism and denial of even the possibility of having a peak experience that they will do everything they can to discredit you, tear you down, make you doubt yourself, and try to get you to see your peak experience as a hallucination. Not least among this tribe are the materialist-oriented brain-chemistry logical-positivist neurophysiology crowd, among whom it has become fashionable to try to explain, or explain away, every human experience as a mere function of brain chemistry or neurological pathology. In other words, those who would deny ecstasy for pathology, whenever you try to exchange pathology for ecstasy.

But once you've had a peak experience, you can see how all these attempts to explain it away fall short of even describing the experience. Every mystic knows, just as every athlete who finds herself in the "zone" knows, that there is something more going on than just brain chemistry. There remains an unexplainable Mystery.

Abraham Maslow

The psychology of the peak experience is the major contribution to contemporary psychology of Abraham Maslow,

. . . who was basically a theoretical psychologist in that he did not develop a specific course of treatment for neurosis or psychosis. In fact, his most important contribution to the psychological sciences was his recognition that psychology was lacking a most important perspective, a perspective that had made most previous psychological contributions one-sided.

Maslow noted that all psychology was based on psycho-pathology, or the behavior and processes of sick people.

To this one might add the insights of Gail & Snell Putney in their book Normal Neuroses. This book is a remarkable deconstruction of what we as a culture view as normative, demonstrating how more often than not, what we think of as normative is suppressed, restrictive, neurotic.

As the existentialist aphorism goes: "In an insane world, the sane person is viewed as insane."

Maslow decided that a new psychology was necessary, a psychology based on healthy people. He called these people self-actualizers (a term first used by the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Goldstein, with whom Maslow studied and worked).

A major aspect of the lives of these healthy people was the propensity to have what Maslow called peak experiences. Peak experiences are experiences of wonder, awe, ecstasy, altered consciousness, universal oneness, revelation, or transcendental states of being. With his studies of self-actualizers and their peak experiences, Maslow was able to help direct the attention of the psychological world toward developing methods of becoming healthy. This led to the development of Third Force or Humanistic Psychology (as opposed to the behavioristic or psychoanalytic modes).

At the time of his death in 1970, Maslow was helping bring to birth the creation of a new psychology, ". . . a still higher Fourth Psychology, transpersonal, transhuman, centered in the cosmos rather than in human needs and interests. . . ."

—quotes are from Edward Rosenfeld, The Book of Highs: 250 methods for altering your consciousness without drugs, published by Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company, 1973.

As a note on Maslow's books that are the sources of these ideas, I just want to mention that Maslow's work in this field begins with Motivation and Personality (1954; second edition 1971), finds its full flowering in Toward a Psychology of Being, and develops further in Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. I read the last book mentioned simultaneously with Rollo May's The Courage to Create, and the synergy between the ideas of these two humanistic and existentialist psychologists left a lasting impression on me, strongly shifting my worldview of psychology towards healthy functioning, as opposed to the usual post-Freudian psycho-pathology. Some other notable philosophers and psychologists whose writings also are connected to Maslow's work include existential psychologist Viktor Frankl, whose book Man's Search for Meaning is fundamental reading; Stanislav Grof, who went from working with LSD as a tool for psychological transformation to non-drug based transpersonal therapies such as Holotropic Breathwork, which Grof co-founded; the subpersonality work of Roberto Assagioli and his mentor Piero Ferrucci; and of course Freud's original breakaway pupil of the transpersonal, Carl G. Jung.

Maslow's books are clear and straightforward in their prose style, not at all mired in jargon or technical minutiae. His mission was to present his research and data as clearly as possible. The result is some of the more readable books of modern psychology you will encounter.

I leave us with a few selected quotes from Abraham Maslow, some more aphoristic than others, all full of his typically insightful use of metaphor:

A first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting.

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you'll be unhappy for the rest of your life.

One's only rival is one's own potentialities. One's only failure is failing to live up to one's own possibilities. In this sense, every man can be a king, and must therefore be treated like a king.

The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.

We fear to know the fearsome and unsavory aspects of ourselves, but we fear even more to know the godlike in ourselves.

We may define therapy as a search for value.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Icons of Changing Times

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Silent Typewriter

Monday, September 14, 2009

Minnesota State Fair 2: on the Midway


His Wild Changing Ways: Reflections On the Creative Process

I'm currently writing a new piece for male chorus, flute, orchestral bells, and piano accompaniment. It's a piece that I first conceived in 2004, when I was living in the Twin Cities; but then life took me off in various directions, and the past few years have been simultaneously a great giving and a major interruption to my creative process. At the moment, crop-rotated as I am away from poetry and towards music, I find it hard to look at any poems from the past four years with objectivity; I know there's good stuff in there, but even looking at it makes me itch right now. I've known in the past that my innate tendency has been to write more poems mainly when I am musically inactive, for whatever reason. It's always been true that I write more poems when I'm off camping, or traveling, occasions when music isn't so easy to either write or record. My handwritten journal from various roadtrips, and when camping far from electricity, results in both poems and drawings, as well as journal entries. At the moment, I feel that if I look at that stuff too much, right now, more out of habit than out of necessity, it saps energy away from where it needs to be in other fields, as part of the process. If I'm repeating myself about letting the poetry fields lie fallow for now, it's because I feel pushed by habit and expectations to keep picking at that scab, rather than leaving it alone. I've been visible as a writer now for some time, more visible than in any other mode, probably. And that is both welcome and the source of a problem: very few other artists that I know actually shift creative modes the way I seem to do, even though many agree with the idea in principle. Writing is, frankly, a bad habit, for me, when it becomes a default mode; because when it's a default mode, it saps energy away from the other modes. Bear with me here, I'm thinking out loud. I can say I'm not a writer and know it to be a statement of crop rotation rather than a rejection of what I may have accomplished before; similarly, I can say I'm not a writer because, regardless of prior accomplishment, writing isn't my default mode—and I don't want it to be. Because writing is relatively easy for me—compared to what some writers report, and compared to what composing music is for me—it's all too easy to slip into it as a default mode precisely because it's easy and I'm lazy. When I'm lazy, writing music can seem impossibly difficult; at those times I also have the option to record rather than notate, which is easier, but not much so. I worry that the source of music, a continuous dark river of melody that rises up from some darker place within, will get drowned out by the surface-level noise of the world. I've never worried about this before; to be honest, what I'm worried about is my ability to stay focused and undistracted on composing music, when it's so easy to get distracted by both writing and reading. At the moment I watch almost no television, list to almost no music, either on CD or on the radio. I'm listening hard to whatever music wants to rise up and be notated, for this new composition I'm working on. Last night, driving home after a rehearsal, I listened to the radio for awhile, but then I turned it off and drove home silently the rest of the way. Driving home from Madison takes just under an hour, typically, barring major traffic or construction work that slows everyone down. Driving in the dark, last night, the ending of the new piece appeared in my mind, as a single line of climactic melody. By the time I got home, I had worked out what the ending will be almost in its entirety, and when I got home I immediately set down some sketches and notes to myself that will remind me of the gestures and shapes that I had woven while driving. Everyone who knows me well knows that I get a lot of my best ideas while driving, and that I do some of my best thinking on the road. My rosebushes are about to explode with new blooms, after being rather quiet for the past month. I'm watching bees circle this morning, as I write. In the back of my head is an urgent pressure to spend as much of the day composing music today that I can. I worry that even writing here about it is going to dissipate that energy—which accounts for the urgency. I realize what's really going on here, though: The past four or five years have been a major life-changing experience for me; I've said that often enough that no doubt everyone is as bored of hearing it as I am. Yet it remains true: after my parents died, amidst the trauma of grief and urgent Things To Do, and amidst the slow regrowth of my own independent life, I realized, and journalled about, an important realization: You cannot go through a life-changing experience without your art also changing. Not only its contents, but the actual ways and means you use to make art. Part of my doubt about writing is that perhaps it's too easy to do—and it can become a way, because of its easy familiarity, of avoiding engagement with the changing nature of one's own art. In terms of poetry, the changes in my poetic "voice" or style are off the charts; I haven't even tried to keep analyzing or tracking them; but those changes also led to my complete disillusionment with, and disengagement from, all venues of poetry critique and criticism that had previously engaged my interest. And both rejected and rejecting, I struck out on my own. Now, writing, actually notating, writing down, this new piece of music, I am having the same realization about my music, as I did about the poetry: You cannot go through a life-changing experience without your music also changing. The music that is emerging, in this piece for chorus and instruments, is chant-like, rather "simple" in means compared to the more complex music of my previous composed pieces. I realize that the same tools are at hand, and I also realize that the same ability to use the tools in a complex way is available to me. Yet, just as I discovered from recording improvised pieces on my mother's piano, last year, before it was shipped off to Europe, I am drawn towards simpler, yet perhaps more resonant, statements in music. I am finding a wealth of emotion in the simplest of sounds. It's like I'm starting over from scratch. Starting simple, with simple means. Just a mode, not even tonality. Just a few chant-like phrases to build layered structures upon, rather than complex polyphony. The new piece is about weaving words and chants into magic; it's a piece for Yule, the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, and it's built upon traditional chants, as well as a new poem-lyric that I wrote a couple of days ago. This new poem-lyric I wrote, by the way, fits perfectly at the end of the piece, into the melodic and structural ideas that came to me while driving last night: it's a perfect match; and so now I know how I'm going to use those new words in the music, and where. This new music that is emerging, in a changed way, is both more chant-like and simple in its means than the last piece I fully notated (jazz/rock melody/chord charts don't count), and also it's a new beginning. A new way of working. I also note that the last piece I fully notated was written while living in Wisconsin; I note that almost all the fully-notated scores I've finished have been done in Michigan or Wisconsin. Maybe there's something inspirational about being here; or maybe it's just coincidence. I do feel like I am finally beginning to regrow my own independent life again, here; and being reconnected with the music scene in Madison is part of that. I've been renewing friendships among the jazz community, recently, in addition to singing with the men's chorus. Perhaps all of this is just me—after everything that happened, after all the distractions and derailings—coming back to creative life. Changed, certainly. But alive. And alive is what matters.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Piano Music: Sketches

In the mid 1980s I developed a style of notating for piano score using three staves, rather than the usual two staves. This allows me to use the extended range of the piano without having to use lots of ledger-lines, which can become hard to read after awhile, or extensive use of the 8va or octavo marking with brackets.

I find the extreme ranges of the piano to be fascinating, especially in more abstract styles of music. There is a great deal of contemporary music that never gets out of the middle range, or much beyond the human vocal range. But music is about sounds, all kinds of sounds. It's also about gestures, and shapes. Musical score is performance notation, which is a visual representation of the sounds to be made, the notes to be played. There are many kinds of score notation now, especially since the innovations and explorations of the past century. My own three-stave piano score is nothing particularly radical, but I do find it convenient. I have worked with this style of extended-range piano extensively, in both finished and unfinished scores. I have a five-movement suite for high voice, either tenor or soprano, and extended piano titled Five Winter Dream Haiku. The texts are indeed five haiku on that theme. In a reversal of the usual art-song format, the voice is more like an obbligato part, while the piano writing dominates, setting the mood before and after the voice performs its poems.

Here is a cleaned-up page from one of my notebooks from that period. It's page one of a sketch for a longer solo piano piece; the title is inspired by Alan Watts' book Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown. Each of those three words were to become a movement of a meditative, abstract piano piece, parts of a three-movement suite.

(Click on image for larger version.)

This is a piece that I plan to finish, now that it's sat idle for a long time, and now that I'm back in the mood to notate this kind of music. I have a couple of pianist performer friends again, now that I'm back in the Madison area, and involved with the music scene there again.

The philosophical note that I wrote to myself on the bottom of this score page is something I still believe, an idea that I believe remains largely unexplored. My note reads as follows:

The extreme ranges of the piano have their own voices, their own unique tone qualities. These have hardly been exploited to the fullest degree of their evocation of mood. Melodies take on different characters in these registers. [Dane] Rudhyar's "music of tones, of the rhythm of speech." No theme and developments here. Nothing classical. Only a voice singing in the wilderness.

Non-composers often make the mistake of thinking that music must sound like what we know from popular music genres. In fact, there are no rules. That familiar sound is a time-bound and culturally-bound consensus set of habitual performance practice that defines the familiar and known recursively. In fact, the most open-ended definition I've ever encountered is: Music is organized sounds in time. That's very broad definition that emerged from the experimental music of the 1950s through the 1970s. It leaves a lot of doors open. It doesn't talk about harmony, counterpoint, melody, rhythm, or anything else we take for granted as an essential element of music. Music is intentional sound: the composer's (or performer's) intention is what organizes the sounds that are made. Even in aleatoric music, the performer makes choices of what to play, given the composer's directions or guidance. The time element of musical performance is the one thing that separates music from visual art, which, except for video art and cinema, tends to time-static and unmoving. Some kinetic sculptures do move, it's true; but they are still constrained by their mechanical limits.

So I want to point out that the piano piece above is gestural music. The notes, even though they are chosen by me, as the composer, are not as important as the gestures the music makes: the shapes in time, the flow of the notes up and down, the rising and falling of volume, pitch, and contrasting notes. Different notes from roughly the same region of the keyboard would evoke the same kind of music, as long as the overall shape of the musical gesture was retained.

Are notes in gestural music therefore arbitrary? Well, yes and no. The exact notes played might not matter as much as the overall gesture, but they do matter in terms of their relationships to each other. If you look at the piece above, you'll note that the musical shapes use notes that are not in any kind of tonal or modal relationship to each other: they are designed to be "dissonant" (in terms of the stereotypical classical rules of music in Western culture) rather than "consonant." So I picked very specific notes here, but my criterion was to be aharmonic, not atonal but non-tonal, evocative of mode to the ear but not so familiar as to be comfortable. If I had picked notes all from within one scale, the listener would develop expectations of tension and release that are stereotypical of popular and classical music alike. By avoiding that comfortable terrain, I hope to bring out the gesture of the musical line more clearly, rather than less: precisely because the ear doesn't know where it's going, so it actually listens rather than filters what it's hearing into a familiar category. I don't want the ear to collapse into familiar habits that look for a key center, tonal relationships, or counterpoint. I want to open the ear, not close the mind.

Some of the piano music that interests me the most is structured as gestures in time with no meters. I frequently, therefore, use barlines not to indicate meter, but to mark phrases, to indicate sections. You'll see this in many of my scores. I rarely write in time signatures, because what matters in this style of music is the pulse, not the meter. In this piece, there are long and short phrases, marked by barlines, which are in fact the gestures that make up the structure of the music.

At the same time that I like to work with the extended range of the piano, I also like to confine myself to its central register. Sometimes one can create the most powerful music within the simplest means, and also within the framework of an arbitrary restriction. William Albright, my composition mentor in music school, once said to me, "Sometimes working within an arbitrary set of rules can open up more doors to inspiration." He was right. As every painter knows, sometimes the most daunting thing to look at is a blank canvas: there are too many options, too many ways to start. After laying down the first brush stroke, you've already broken the Empty Field, and now are free to work within the rules you just set up, with that first stroke.

So it is sometimes useful to set strong constraints on a piece, and work strictly within them, as a set of rules, as a way of evading stereotypes of listening and playing. One can do this by breaking out of traditional rhythmic meters; almost all Western music is written in duple (units of 2 and 4) or triple (units of 3 or 6) time, so it can be liberating to operate in odd meters such as 5 or 7, other prime numbers. Meters in prime numbers are very interesting, actually.

Returning to the idea of non-metric pulse and gesture, last year I composed a solo piano piece using several constraints that served, for me, to heighten the emotion of the piece. Here are those constraints, as I formulate them to myself, now, some time after the writing: Both hands play the same thing, homophonically, an octave apart; the left hand plays a bass chord pattern that occasionally counterpoints the main thread of music; the music is gestural, rising and falling; it occurs in minor mode, but in fact it's an equivocal minor mode because the 6th note of the minor scale is never sounded, therefore we never feel exactly what minor mode we're working in. Actually, I do that a lot lately, I've noticed: avoiding the 6th note of the minor scale, leaving it equivocal, and therefore more modal than tonal in character.

Here's the piece I composed. It is a memorial piece for my late parents.

the essential has remained. it remains

This is a piece I intend to notate from this performance soon. It's not really an improvisation, it really is a composed piece I worked out before recording it, but hadn't yet bothered to notate.

Here's an entry from my journal that talks about the piece, and its inception:

4 May 2008. It’s late at night. I just finished recording on piano the piece that I had begun to compose and record a few nights ago, that was tentative then, but is done now. Tonight I played it the best I am able. I am tempted to call it Requiem, but what I did instead was look for a line from one of my favorite poets, one who has given me many lines as titles for music: Odysseas Elytis. There is a line in his 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech: . . . the essential has remained. It remains. That is the title. It is a piece that is in memoriam for my parents. I just finished rendering it, and am posting it to the podcast. This is the first, best music I can make, for now, for the memory of my parents. It is as close as I can come to those unnamable feelings that have been lurking around the edges. It is the best I can do, for now. I may re-record it at another time.

The piece will be notated probably with no barlines, except to indicate sections; or as pauses for breath, if you will, between segments. I have also been hearing, in my inner ear, this piece as the piano part for an eventual elegy or threnody to be composed for male chorus and piano.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Turning Away from Words 2

It feels exactly like when you have sprained or broken your ankle, and even though you're off the crutches, out of the bandages, it still hurts to put your weight on it. That testing of the injury that you cannot resist, till you have to back off, and give it more time to heal. Later, after there's no more pain, you have to still give it time: it's not really healed. I have many athletically-inclined friends who need to be reminded, even though they know better, that when an injury feels fully healed, it's not, and they'd better not push it for another week or two, else they will re-injure themselves and have to go through all that again. It's a measure of how impatient jocks can be, that they recurrently forget to give themselves time to heal properly.

So it feels, lately, when I have an experience that marks me day, that is significant or resonant or powerful—and I realize that journaling about it had become habit developed to please others, and that in fact, I really didn't want to write about it. Or even talk about it, or tell about it, with my friends. So I don't write about it. Today, I had a day that had a lesson about sensuality embedded in it, a profound and affirming lesson with implications for my future life; and I don't want to write about it.

I realize that I'm not a Writer, as some would put it, because my immediate response to experience is not necessarily to write about it. I'm not a Writer, because I don't need to hear myself thinking out loud to know what I feel and think and believe. Faith is a non-verbal process; words come only as justification for, or explanation of, faith, because they cannot define it. I'm still learning about faith, and what to have faith in; nothing already described will suffice; I need to figure this one out for myself. I'm not a Writer because I don't respond to all meaningful experiences by wanting to write about them; lately, I feel like I've been straining to try to write about things, because somehow that had become expected of me. Either I had imposed that expectation on myself, in a way that had become habitual, or I was imagining that someone might actually want to read what I might have to write. I'm not a Writer, because just now I refuse to write about anything if I feel anything like the twinge of a healing ankle sprain when I think about writing about something. I refuse to push it. I refuse to force it. I know only too well how forcing it, pushing it, makes bad art rather than good art. So I won't do it. Today, I had an experience that taught me a life-lesson, but when I thought about writing about it, I felt that healing-ankle strain feeling in my head, and chose not to push against it.

I think a lot of bad art is made to fulfill expectations—either the artist's or the expectations he feels pressuring him from others—rather than made for its own sake. People think of themselves, I'm a Writer, so I have to write about it, and they push themselves to write even when they have nothing to say. A great deal of bad poetry published these days is perfectly-crafted little gems from people who really have nothing to say. There's no content there; it's all surface showmanship and sleight of hand. Most such writers haven't lived enough of life yet to really have anything to talk about. So we get lots of poems about the angst of relationships, and why the world isn't as perfect a place to live as we imagined it to be when we were young. Most such pseudo-literature feeds the immature. It is itself a product of emotional and intellectual adolescence, and has little mature experience to build wisdom upon.

And it embodies a great deal of impatience about the creative process itself: it tries to harness creativity under the rules of craft, and drive it faster than it wants to go. We live in an impatient, accelerated culture now, when instant gratification is sought in all realms of life, even in art-making. This is a mistake only exacerbated by the way the arts are taught now: at university factories whose purpose is not contemplation but the generation of finished products. People with degrees are produced annually who have been taught to value the production of art-products more than the process of discovering their own art-processes. Product is after all quantifiable and therefore measurable and categorizable, while process is not. There is no patience in a product-oriented approach to art-making, in which one finished work becomes stale the moment it is released into public view. The cult of the original artifact furthermore diminishes the possibilities of what can be learned by dialoging with the artistic past. Artistic post-modernism isn't about recycling the past so much as it is about ironic mockery of its lessons.

if I'm turning away from words, now, it's because those fields need to lie fallow. They've been over-worked, and need to rest. Will they be tilled again? Almost certainly. Yet I don't care to think about when, or how, or even if they will be tilled again: I'm content to believe they won't be, ever, or for now. It doesn't matter. My creative farm has numerous other fields. It's wise to let some weeds grow, sometimes, and just forget about them. They'll still be there, to be re-worked, even if you let them go wild for a long time. Whose woods are these? We think we know—but in truth we don't own these lands anymore than we own the sunlight that falls on them.

One of the greatest poets of silence and inwardness, Rainer Maria Rilke, was clear about how art arises from silence. Rilke writes, many times in his letters, as in the Letters to a Young Poet, how solitude and living the questions is the way to proceed. He cautions against trying too hard, against trying to write too soon, before one is ripe. He says again and again that one must be patient, and wait for the moment to arrive, in which the work will become its own fruition, and take on its own life and urgency. It is all about waiting for the fields to become ripe.

Rilke writes:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don't write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty—describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sounds—wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. —And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn't write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I as of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.

—Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

Rilke urges us to ask, in the darkest hours of our night: must I write? I am not a Writer, because the answer is, No. But I am an artist, a Maker, because the answer that rises up within me, in those darkest hours, is that I must make art. I must Make something, whatever it is. In fact, I've known this for long enough to have developed the rich habit of daily making. Photography is frankly easier for me to do than composing music. Writing is even easier—so easy, perhaps, that it is too easy, too facile, not trustworthy precisely because it is easy. I value composing and recording music so highly precisely because it the hardest thing for me to do. Well, in one way it's very easy, because it's as natural as breathing. But in another way, it is the most naked thing I can ever do, the most self-revealing, the most exposed, and the most difficult to do because it leaves me no avenue of concealment of subterfuge. Music is what comes most directly and clearly from within my own solitude and silence, and I am at my most exposed and vulnerable when I am making it.

Thus I'll give Rilke, in his better wisdom, the last word:

Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art—as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Photography Is About Light

Artlip Lake, MN

I just returned from a weekend at the Minnesota State Fair, in St. Paul, MN, the city I lived in for a few years before moving on to New Mexico, California, and then back to Wisconsin later on. I liked living in St. Paul; although most of the cultural events I wanted to be part of tended to happen in Minneapolis, I found St. Paul to be a less frenetic and self-involved place to live. Except, that is, during the annual State Fair, which is one of the largest in the USA; although people-watching and tracking the various items you can get "on a stick" at the Fair is always fun.

Hare Lake, MN

This past weekend in the Twin Cities I also shopped. The Twin Cities have many very good used book stores, some of the best between, say, Madison or Chicago, and Portland, OR. Every time I go back to the Cities, I usually end up finding one or two books I've been looking for, for some time, and a few other things besides. This time out, I found one of Jerry Uelsmann's long out-of-print early photo books, which I didn't have; some poetry books; some philosophy and gender theory; and Ansel Adams' Portfolio book, which I had been seeking for awhile but hadn't found a good copy of yet.

Adams published seven Portfolios in his lifetime. A Portfolio is an edition of photographic prints, usually presented in a slipcase with text sheets, signed and numbered. Adams, being the prolific master printer that he was, produced seven Portfolios each numbering over one hundred copies. That's a lot of prints. Nonetheless Adams Portfolios are rare and valuable nowadays. Most are in museums or private collections. Some have been taken apart and the prints individually framed, or sold. All of that is acceptable, of course. Yet it's nice for the rest of us to have this combined book edition, which is excellently printed and packaged, with typography closely matching the originals.

Artlip Lake, MN

In continuing my own thinking about making photographs in the American West, which forces me to always think of both Ansel Adams and Edward Westion, I continually return to study both photographers' work. This book of the Portfolios continues that study.

Artlip Lake, MN

What struck me most this morning, as I sat reading on the porch, was the recognition of something that I have known for many years about my own photographic work: All my photographs are about light. They're not really about the ostensible subject matter. They're really about light, and how the light changes. Many of my photographs are really about the sky, not about the land and people under the sky. I've known this about my own work for some time, as I said. What was nice to read, this morning, was an affirmation, or validation, of this same awareness, as part of Ansel Adams' photography, as well. It made me feel an even closer kinship to Adams than I have felt before: because this time, I knew the why of it.

mist, Artlip Lake, MN

Here is the relevant passage from John Szarkowski's "Introduction," which I want to quote at length before discussing:

Adams would object to being described specifically as a landscape photographer. Like all good artists he distrusts categories, and it is true that he has made many splendid photographs of other sorts of subjects. Nevertheless, it is our prerogative to define the reasons for our own gratitude, and I think we are primarily thankful to Adams because the best of his pictures stir our memory of what it was like to be alone in an untouched world.

It does not advance us very far to note that Adams has made elegant, handsomely composed, technically flawless photographs of magnificent natural landscapes, a subject which, like motherhood, is almost beyond reproach. These attributes are surely virtues. For many they are sufficient virtues, and these many need not wonder what the precise difference is between the best of Adams' pictures and uncounted other neat, clean, and dramatic photographs of the glorious American West.

The difference presumably depends from the fact that Adams understands better the character and magnificence of his subject matter, and thus is especially alert to those details, aspects, and moments that are most intensely consonant with the earth's own tonic notes. We must remind ourselves, however, that all we know of Adams' understanding of the earth comes to us not from any direct view into his mind or spirit, but only from photographs, little monochrome substitutes for his ultimately private experience. To the best of our knowledge, he knows no more than he has shown us. As with any artist, his intuitions are finally no better than his prowess.

What Adams' pictures show us is different from what we see in any landscape photographer before him. They are concerned, it seems to me, not with the description of objects—the rocks, tress, and water that are the nominal parts of his pictures—but with the description of the light that they modulate, the light that justifies their relationship to each other. In this context it is instructive to compare Adams' photographs with those of his older friend and neighbor Edward Weston, who photographed much of the same country that Adams has photographed, but who found there are very species of picture. The landscape in Weston's pictures is seen as sculpture: round, weighty, and fleshily sensuous. In comparison, Adams' pictures seem as dematerialized as the reflections on still water, or the shadows cast on morning mist: disembodied images concerned not with the corpus of things but with their transient aspect.

From the standpoint of craft, Adams' problem is more difficult than Weston's, dealing as it does less with eternal verities than with quicksilver. Those who have wondered whether Adams' legendary technique is in fact altogether necessary, or whether it might be a kind of showy overkill, reveling in an unnecessary perfection, have perhaps not understood the content of Adams' pictures, which describe phenomena as ephemeral and evanescent, in an unpeopled world, as those of his contemporary, Cartier-Bresson, describes in a world of human events. To describe in a small monochrome picture the difference between the warm sun of May and the hot sun of June, requires that every tone of the gray scale be tuned to a precise relationship of pitch and volume, so that the picture as a whole sounds a chord that is consonant with our memories of what it was like, or our dreams of what it might be like, to stand in such a spot at such a moment.

Adams would perhaps say that it comes down to a question of good description, which is doubtless true but which has caused a good deal of misunderstanding, since the thing being described is not (for example) a mountain but a concept of one way in which a mountain might be transposed into a photograph.

—John Szarkowski, "Introduction" to The Portfolios of Ansel Adams

Szarkowski gives us great insight in Adams; more than many other writers have. This is useful precisely because it makes it see the photographs themselves in a new way. Adams himself often said that his (legendary) technique was in service of his vision, that his craft was what he needed to do to create the emotional "performance" of the finished photographic print. (Adams, a trained concert pianist before becoming a photographer, often used musical metaphors to describe his creative process.) Szarkowski gives us insight into what an Adams picture really is about: time, change, the ephemeral nature of geology and life, and the ever-changing light, sky, and land. What was it that led Adams' towards championing environmental conservation, decades before it was popular to do so? His awareness of how fragile and ephemeral the land is, and what lives upon it, including ourselves. And also, his awareness that wilderness is necessary to our often overly-civilized spirits: just knowing that there are wild places still—and which we may travel to, to explore, and experience some of the often-buried wildness in ourselves—is a balm to the spirit.

Cross Creek Falls, MN

In my own work, I continue to make more and more B&W pictures. I receive approval for this from many directions, both artistically and aesthetically. I do not entirely trust the opinions of all who approve my working in B&W, precisely because there has always been a bias for B&W photography being more purely "artistic" than color photography. I've written before about this bias, following upon what Edward Weston wrote about the topic:

Black and white is more artificial than color, in the original sense of the word artifice: rather, B&W allows for more of the photographer’s control and decision. A color photo can be apparently pure reportage; or rather, it is unquestioned in a way that B&W is not. One is reduced to pure tone and form. Some subjects are better suited to color, because there is critical information in the color values. But one reason B&W is still considered—rightly or wrongly—the more artistic medium is because it is more akin to artifice than is the quick color snapshot. The aesthetic prejudice for B&W over color is debatable at this point in time; Weston is correct that neither supplants the other, but at the same time each is valid as an artform. It's no longer accurate to say that B&W is "more artistic" than color. Yet I am drawn to it, as a change from color. I've often worked in monochrome; indeed I have a whole body of work that's monochrome, which I return to from time to time.

So while I appreciate any plaudits I receive about my B&W photography, I have to question what prompts someone to make them. Because of this bias towards viewing B&W work as inherently more artistic, for the reasons I discussed above, I often have wondered if a compliment about my B&W work isn't really about it being in B&W rather it being good, in and of itself. It's important to always check one's motivations, as well as one's biases, at the door, and see what's really there, rather than what one thinks is there.

white stone at the lake shore, Grand Marais, MN

All prejudices—artistic prejudices being rather mild and forgivable compared to others—are a kind of conceptual filter on our perceptions. We all carry around a lot of filters, which are ideas through which we see the world, not as it is, but as we think it is, or as it ought to be. The purpose of meditation practice, be it Zen Buddhist sitting meditation, or Christian contemplative prayer, or Taoist egolessness, is to minimize or eliminate the conceptual filters we carry around, so as to be able to see what's really there. Frankly, making visual art, specifically making photographs, is a way of doing that work that surpasses many others, especially the more verbal forms of art-making, which are more prone to generating than removing filters. I find, when out making photographs, that I can let go of or turn off the monkey-mind far more deeply than when writing a poem or essay. My best poems come from that same place of no-mind that my best photos come from: more often than not, I don't feel like "I" made the photo, or poem, but that it happened, or arose from another place. Photography is also about seeing what's actually there, about finding out how the light brings the world into shape. It's a process of discovery.

in the northern Minnesota woods

Weston himself wrote about this, in his essay on his color photography:

The prejudice many photographers have against color photography comes from not thinking of color as form. You can say things with color that can’t be said in black and white. . . . Those who say that color will eventually replace black and white are talking nonsense. The two do not compete with each other. They are different means to different ends. . . . You find a few subjects that can be expressed in either color or black-and-white. But you find more that can be said only through one of them. Many subjects I photographed would be meaningless in black-and-white; the separation of forms is possible only because of the juxtaposition of colors.
—Edward Weston

Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN

Perhaps I have made for myself a middle ground between Adams and Weston: I am well aware of how the light strikes the body, which sometimes is illuminated from within. I am fascinated by reflections: in still, in moving water, in glass, in mirrors. I love seeing more than one image at the same time, within the frame, when a reflection gives us another layer of depth and illumination.

There is an M.C. Escher print, one of my favorites, entitled Three Worlds. In this woodcut, we see three levels of existence, three layers of being, all detailed by the way light falls on them. We get the reflection of trees on the surface of the pond; the fallen leaves on the pond's surface itself; and we see a fish in the water under the pond's surface.

At the same time that I experience the world as ephemeral, even fragile, as often as I photograph the sky, I also photograph the rocks and waters of the land, that give the land shape, and which etch and shape it. Having studied geology, I am aware of the long-time-scale forces that shape the surface of the earth, that we experience as eternal but which in fact is ever-changing. I find the rocks to be both solid and shadowy. There was an ocean here before, millions of years before, where the living Prairie now is covered with waves of rounded hills, and waves of prairie grasses cresting in the wind. I find Adams' photographic style to be very comfortable to me, precisely because it's all about the light, and the changing face of the light and sky where they touch the land. But I don't reject Weston's more "sculptural" or "eternal" style, either.

Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN

I find Weston's pictures call forth a sense of timelessness that is the eternal ground out of which being arises. If Weston expresses the Atman, which in Vedic cosmology is the unchanging, eternal soul, Adams expresses the Brahman, or power of creation, life and change. In Hindu mythology, they go together, are in dynamic balance, in a cosmic dance of balance. That is not unlike the way some artists reflect upon each others' work, or reflect and balance out each other—much as Adams and Weston can seem to do at times.

Cascade River, MN

The appeal of Adams' photographs is in part, as Szarkowski says, their ability to evoke an experience. This is why Adam's technical expertise was so essential to his work: this is what it served. For myself, I don't find myself trying to replicate Adam's technical expertise, not even when making a photograph in the same places he worked, but rather, I find myself trying to find a way to transpose into the photographic frame what it is that the vision of a landscape, or other subject matter, makes me feel. As with the best art, the best poems, the best music, the successful photograph evokes an experience in its audience—in many ways, it is an experience, rather than being merely a distillation of the artist's experience transmitted. A successful photograph or poem makes the audience re-experience what the artist felt: there is an emotional and experiential transmission, something frankly pre-verbal, an empathetic connection, if you will, that ignites either the memory or the dream of what it must have been like, to be in such a place at such a moment, seeing the light there, feeling the heat and pressure of it, and being aware of how quickly the light will change.

Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN

I make very few photographs in the middle of the day: the light is usually too harsh, too vertical, too strong. Unless, for example, when I'm out in the Utah desert, perhaps, where the overwhelming whiteness of the sky striking the land with its heat and glare is what I'm trying to convey in the photograph. More often, the dramatic light happens at the edges of the day, in the nuanced twilight zones of dusk and dawn, and in the morning and evening periods when the light is strongly horizontal, strongly colored. It was not uncommon for Adams to wait several hours for the light to become just right, before he opened his camera shutter to make the photograph. I have waited hours, myself, for the light to become just right. Sometimes, in my traveling, I find myself lucky to arrive at a place just at the right moment, with the right elements all fallen into place, to make an exceptional photograph. But it's also true that chance favors the prepared: my discipline as an artist is to be always ready, with my tools at hand, with my perceptions engaged, so that when I do find myself in the right place at the right time, I can capture the ephemeral, changing, evanescent light.

It's all about the light.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Minnesota State Fair

images from the MN State Fair 2009, St. Paul, MN