Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hallowe'en Night 2009

Late night.

I had about two hours of kids coming to Trick or Treat. Probably around 60 or 70 kids total. Some big groups, some individuals, mostly with parents watching from the curb.

I decorated the house extra-spooky this year, with as many candles as other kinds of lights. One group of girls thought it was really spooky. Watching from the windows, I saw some kids turn away from coming up the driveway, turn back, turn away, then go on. So I guess I managed to actually scare away some kids this year!

Scaring the kids is all good fun on Hallowe'en, and I enjoyed myself. Some really little kids were very shy and scared, and their older siblings helped them take candy. I have a bowl with a dead man's hand in it, that will at random grab the kids' hands as they reach into the bowl for the candy. Some kids knew already knew about the trick, others it was their first time with The Hand.

I spent some time over the past few days, decorating, putting things up, hanging the skeletons in the trees, making the candleholders ready, and so on. I concealed a computer speaker system in the bushes by the door, with a remote link to the studio computer. I had made a scary music and sounds mix, and played it back over the speakers in the bushes all the while. About a full CD's worth of spooky sounds and samples, the usual clichéd classical Hallowe'en music, plus more contemporary music no doubt unfamiliar to most listeners. George Crumb, Jon Gibson, and more; experimental noise music, and Night on Bald Mountain. I was hoping it would contribute to the overall spooky vibe, and I guess it did.

This year, unlike last year, I did not run out of candy, and have to go get more. In fact, I have leftovers. None of it really appeals to me, at least, not in bulk. If I don't give away most of it, I'll be nibbling on it for weeks. I no longer fill like bingeing on candy, and to be honest, my stomach can't take it, anyway.

They came and went for about two hours. Later in the night, I went out and took these photos. Then I took down some of the decorations, mostly the things hidden in the bushes and other places that I didn't want to forget about. I'll take down the rest sometime later. But I've left some candles to burn on into the night, for the spirits of the dead, who are with us always, who visit on this night when the veil between the worlds is thin. And I will leave out some food and cider for them, too, for their sustenance. And thus we go on.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

A Poem for Samhain

A Book of Leaves

Atlas of the Dead

come see: how quietly they move through the stones.
parchment fingers rustling their leaf tambourines.
the dew is on the grass. their feet, in all their wanderings, do not touch.
they float above the earth, or dissolve near to it, into it.
their compass rose is of the greater earth: these leaves fall through them.

Disperse Into Twilight

still silence before the storm: premonition
of the desolation of salt marshes.
forest of crucifixes. the writhing.
lamp that recalls the last ecstasies of moths:
light, guttering, lifting, remember his hands.

Bonfires To Leap

burning, cascading, futons chimneyed with fire.
bitter brush, uprooted. trapped wooden serpent roots.
graduate degrees in the design of balefires.
trapped sunlight released: stand-in for the green flash.
re-cycle of mineral, root, and vapor. water returns.

Previous Samhain entries: here, here, and here.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Some Icons for All Hallow's Eve

Courtesy of feuilleton and A Journey Round My Skull, here are some All Hallow's-esque images from the short-lived Austrian magazine Die Orchideengarten, which published from 1919–1921.

This was perhaps the world's first fantasy magazine, predating the F/SF pulps in the US and Britain by a few years. A lot of the illustrations from the magazine are grotesque, macabre, occasionally bordering on German Expressionism. Some would do Poe and his followers proud; in fact, these illustrations are rather superior to the usual post-Poe thriller/chiller horror art.

In some ways, I feel like rediscovering this old graphic illustration, because of its freshness and power today, underlines the idea that, in the creative world, what is new and good is often a reprise of what's old and good. It's no secret that waves of fashion in graphic design, typography, and illustration occur like eaves of fashion in any other creative or commercial-creative work. Trends and styles come around again. Sometimes it's a matter of rediscovering old ideas in order to revitalize the current ones.

Yet imagery like this from Die Orchideengarten is so psychologically charged, it retains its power, its keynote of horror, when seen afresh today. There are icons and images in this material that are literally of The Day of the Dead, but beyond even that, there is something chthonic and archetypal here. There is psychological depth to the best of fantasy art, be it macabre or transcendent, that carries it past mere illustration into representing something powerful and innate in our secret selves. They bring out our sense of wonder; and they also can inspire a frisson of terror which evokes our deepest, reptile-brain selves.

The WIld Hunt

A great deal of the writing and artwork from Die Orchideengarten is decadent, in the sense of the word used to describe the arts at the fin de siecle and between the World Wars in Europe. An almost Dionysian chaos erupted in those periods, challenging the Apollonian cultural institutions, bringing fresh air in the stale rooms of the Academy; but also a whiff of rot and decay. There was intent to shock, of course; but the slap in the face was at that time, not the hollow mannerism it has become in contemporary art, but a vital attempt to wake up the dead. The subconscious mind had been discovered, and it was erupting everywhere, in Expressionist painting, in Futurism and Surrealism, in every attempt by artists, who are usually the prophets of change in culture, to shake things up and make them come back to life.

Die Angst

A century or so later, we need to remember that what we now perceive as familiar mannerisms did indeed have the power to shock and change, in its time. It was a genuine eruption of the liminal and numinous into everyday life which had become stagnant and overly-concerned with social acceptability. But humans are chaotic beings, as much as we're beings of order: to be fully alive, we must give ourselves the freedom to not know what we're doing, at least some of the time.

So the artwork from Die Orchideengarten has a contemporary charge of Otherness and numinous power to it, even now, that serves well to remind us that our own times have become too stifled with authoritarian rules and regulations: the ordinary person is hemmed in with totalitarian laws eroding basic civil rights, while the elements in authority have set themselves to normalize their self-centered rapaciousness and greed as just the way things are meant to be. If Die Orchideengarten reminds us of anything, it's perhaps that our own shadows contain a great power, which can be harnessed creatively to shake things up, and set ourselves free, again. The numinous charge to this artwork can be interpreted as self-empowering: what better night to light a fuse and blow up Parliament than All Hallow's Eve, which according to the old pagan calendars was in truth New Year's Eve?

I'm not really into the grotesque, the goth, or the macabre. My own life psychological health at the present time requires me to balance light and dark, and not plunge forever into either one. I've spent a great deal of time in the shadows, as well as the light; I've explored both. My path at present is more Taoism's awareness of their dynamic balance and eternal circulation. So, much of what I see in Die Orchideengarten does not really appeal to me purely as art—except that some of these charged images evoking the dead and the realms of dark fantasy are appropriate for Hallow's Eve. What appeals to me here is the power rising up from that black river of life, that well within the cave at the back of the mind, that deep layer of source and life, that moving shadow our of which the light of new life may emerge. If only we embrace the shadows, and let the light come out through us into the world. Which of course is what a renewed life, in the New Year, is all about.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Most Excellent Human Quality

a Spiral Dance essay

During my usual morning meditation and contemplation time—I start my day with a bit of time for reflection, meditation, etc., as it always makes the day go better—I've been reading a marvelous book on Jewish mysticism. I've read three or four other books on the subject over the years, but this is the best I've ever read. It lays things out beautifully, clearly, and from a deep perspective. Reading this, you realize once again how the core mysticism of so many religious traditions say so many of the same things, that you come to understand that mysticism itself is the core of the religious experience, and the rest of it is just accrued traditions and sidebar ideas. I'm not Jewish, and never have been; but I have been invited more than once into temple to experience that tradition, and I've found a lot of wisdom in the mystical tradition within Judaism; just as I have within Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Taoism, and other traditions. I don't label myself as a member of any of those traditions, although I accept the label of student and follower of the mystical wisdom traditions wherever I find them.

The book I'm reading is by Rabbi David Cooper, titled: God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical Judaism. This is what I read when I opened the book at random today, to continue reading, but not feeling like reading sequentially:

It is taught that during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur there are accusing angels and defending angels. If the defending angels do not do their job well, the world cannot continue. So God prepares all defending angels by sending them out to do a task that deepens their understanding. In one situation, God said to an angel, "Go find the most excellent quality of human experience, and return to tell me what it is."

The angel searched around the world. It saw many things. But what most impressed it was an event in which a confused man was standing in the middle of a busy road. To one side another man saw that a large truck was coming down the road too fast and would not be able to stop before hitting the dazed man. So the man on the side rushed out from the curb and reached the other just in time to push him out of the way. Unfortunately, he could not save himself and he was killed by the truck. The angel gathered up a drop of his blood and took it to God, saying, "This, I believe, may be the most excellent thing in human experience, the willingness to sacrifice one's life for another."

God replied to the angel, "You have found an excellent experience, but it is not the most excellent. Go back and find it."

The angel returned to earth and searched once again. It scanned the world, and this time the angel was attracted by the experience of a woman giving birth. The woman moaned and writhed for a long time until as last the infant was born. When she saw its little body, her pain dropped away and a warm ecstasy filled her with love. The angel reached over, took a drop of sweat from the woman's body, and returned to God, saying, "This, I believe, my be the most excellent thing in human experience, bringing life into the world."

Once again, God said to the angel, "Indeed, this is an excellent human, but it is not the most excellent. Try one more time."

So the angel returned again to find the most excellent human experience. It searched very carefully, and being an angel, it could view thousands of events at the same time. Suddenly something caught its attention. A man was running through a wooded area, and he was clearly in a violent mood. The angel quickly reviewed this man's life and found that he had just been released from jail, having served many years for another man's crime. Now, furious, he was out for revenge.

The angel followed him through the woods and saw him approach a cabin. The guilty one lived inside. He was the one who should have served the prison term. When the running man came close to the cabin, he saw a light through the window.

Standing at the window, still bent on revenge, he looked inside and saw his intended victim. The man and his bride of one year had just returned from the hospital with their new daughter. They were as happy as people can be. The angry man looking through the window watched carefully, and slowly his heart broke into pieces. He began to weep and then turned away into the woods, never to return.

The angel gathered up one of his tears and returned to God, saying, "This, I believe, is the most excellent thing in human experience—forgiveness: the ability to transcend anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge."

God congratulated the angel, saying, "Indeed, the ability to forgive is the most excellent gift in human experience. Many other things are important, but this is one of the few traits that distinguishes human potential. As a defending angel, it is imperative that you understand forgiveness; it is the only reason my creation continues. Without forgiveness, all would disappear in an instantaneous flash."

The Jewish mystical point of view is that creation is based upon compassion and lovingkindness. For the Kabbalist, forgiveness does not mean we need to embrace someone who has done a despicable act against humanity. Rather, it is focused on the degree to which we hold on to our anger or our negative feelings.

If the creation were based upon a pure system of reward and punishment, in which punishment would be the instant result of one's actions, we could not survive for long. We do things, say things, and think things that would surely overwhelm us if we had to make instant payment for unskillful behavior. The very idea that there is a time period between one's actions and the resulting "punishment" suggests that the universe is willing to wait, so to speak, for something to mediate the potential punishment.

—Rabbi David A. Cooper, from God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical Judaism, pp. 243-244

I know many people who can't let go of their anger. They nurture it, they feed it, if it starts to cool they stoke it up again. They treat their angers and hurts as though they were their beloved children, nursing a grudge beyond all reason. Of course, reason isn't involved.

I've heard many argument about revenge being justice. Some legal traditions openly define justice as revenge tempered with mercy. That's a pretty good working definition, for practical use. But none of these definitions recognize that human law and divine law aren't same; and divine law tends to be far more forgiving than we do.

There are many people I've wronged in my life, and many who have wronged me. Who am I to judge them? Who am I to judge myself? Perhaps there is more going on than I can know, for now. Perhaps each person who comes into your life who hurts you is not a trial and a punishment, but someone with whom you have some sacred contract designed to make you grow up. Perhaps each trial and tribulation is, while not a test, not a punishment, a chance to choose to take the higher road. Each opportunity gives you a choice about how you respond to the experience. We always have the choice to take revenge–an eye for an eye—and we always have the choice to forgive—go, and sin no more. Perhaps that person who hurt us for no reason offered us a lesson to be learned, not about taking revenge, but about seeing our options. And there are often third options.

There are a few points that Rabbi Cooper says in his last two paragraphs that verge of what I've heard the Dalai Lama say: that creation is built on lovingkindness; that the universe is willing to wait to something to mediate the potential punishment. When I encounter such wisdom, it comes from many traditions, from within many religions. It supports my belief that mysticism is at the heart of the world's great religions, and that at core most mystics are saying the same things. Mystical experience isn't for the select few: it's at the heart and core or every tradition, and it a universal human birthright. The rest is local knowledge, local tradition, time-bound and place-oriented, and not as universal. So I find wisdom in all the world's great spiritual traditions, and am more than happy to look into each tradition for what wisdom is there. Sectarian differences are all about who's right and who's wrong, not about what's universal wisdom. I don't think God (or Whatever) actually cares who's right and who's wrong; that's all human law and philosophy, not divine law and the action of grace.

I perceive reward and punishment, the desire to punish for a slight, the anger we carry, the hatred, the desire to be in-the-right (and show everyone else to be in the wrong), the thirst for revenge against those who have hurt us for no reason—I perceive these to be functions of what depth psychologists call the personality-ego. It's the ego that gets offended when slighted; it's the ego that holds onto anger against all reason; it's the ego that feels attacked and must both defend against attacked and also lash out in anger at the attacker. This is all egoism. It's never the higher self that wants revenge, when justice is nothing more than revenge; it's always the lower, basic, egoistic self. Which of course is a really hard part of the self to give up; because when the ego gives up control, even though its control is never more than illusory, it feels like it's dying, and fights mightily to stay alive, in control, in the seat of apparent power. Fortunately, angels are far more kind and loving than most people's egos.

I find it compelling when, in the story, the angry man's heart breaks into pieces, he weeps, and gives up his vengeance. It doesn't even matter that the guilty man never knew how he was forgiven—his own karma, his own lessons in life, are for him to learn, on his own. The wronged man need not intervene. His desire for revenge was for himself, to make him feel better about himself, and like most desires for revenge have nothing really to do with the other person; and when the wronged man lets that all go, he is freed to go live the rest of his life in peace. He frees himself. No higher power frees him, he does it himself. Not even an angel can do more than show you your choices; it's still you make them, and live with their consequences.

I think a lot of people are afraid or unable to forgive because they don't realize, or want to realize, how nobody has responsibility for their lives and choices but themselves. I can think of a few professional victims of my acquaintance who are angry and bitter at everyone and everything, and continue to insist that both their suffering and their revenge must come from others. They have completely given over their power to others: both as victims, and as victors. These are gay men who I have met, who insist that they never did anything wrong, that some outside force is punishing them for no reason, and if they could just get that outside force to back off, they could live their lives in peace. Sound familiar? I've felt that way myself.

What I've learned, though is that forgiveness—and we could also call it mercy, or the action of grace—trumps all my little-ego feelings of being slighted, or of guilt for having wronged others. The action of grace removes karma far more rapidly than we can imagine or believe; forgiveness is also about the future, the good works a person might yet do, the redemption they might yet find. The defending angel has a trump card, once it understands forgiveness: if there is a chance this person under question could do something good, could bring more light into the universe, for someone, someday, then mercy is more appropriate than condemnation.

Forgiveness must be uniformly applied: we cannot forgive others if we cannot forgive ourselves. We must be able to forgive ourselves for all the ways we have judged ourselves harshly. And we have to start with letting go of hating ourselves for being imperfect, impotent, wrong, unable to help enough, unable to be enough, unable to fit others' ideas of what we're supposed to be, unable to take back our power 100 percent, unable to succeed at our ambitions (and don't forget how ambitious we can be spiritually!), unable to just be enough, be adequate to the day, unable to love enough, unable to care enough, unable to forgive enough. Forgiving myself starts with the realization that I'm neither a superhero nor god: I have limits. Today I can find it in myself to forgive more than I could yesterday—and that's enough. If that's all I can do today, it was a good day within creation. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe I'll do better. Maybe I'll do worse. I have to forgive myself for not always being able to do better, or do more. I live with a chronic illness of which one of the major side-effects is fatigue; I can feel the waves of fatigue literally wash over me, some days, like ocean waves. It's all I can do some days to do one important thing; items fall off the bottom of my To Do list every single day, because of my continuous fatigue. I have to forgive myself for my frustration, for my anger at feeling sick more often than I feel well, for not getting enough done each day. Believe me, some days that is a real challenge. But forgiving myself for my failings and inadequacies is necessary.

And that's why taking revenge is so unnecessary: no-one in the end will judge us but ourselves. We're the ones who weigh our own souls in the scales, and choose what happens next. The gods stand by and guide us, but they do not judge us. This is a LOT of personal responsibility to be aware of—most folks run away from the idea that they have that much power over their own lives. Most folks would rather hold onto their anger and their desire for revenge (which does reinforce the ego's sense of self-importance, after all) than believe how much more power they draw back to themselves by letting that all go. We lock up our personal power in our past, we invest all of today's energy in holding onto what who has hurt us in the past, and so less of today's energy is available for today. It's a powerful thing to live in the present moment; I think many people are afraid of how powerful they would actually be if they just lived for today, with no desire to "fix" the past.

The wronged man whose heart broke into pieces watching at the window, who wept, and went away to live his own life: he understood how much power he had to affect not only the lives of others, but his own future life as well. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."—Gandhi. The man at the window understood that he would only keep himself in bondage, or put himself back in jail, in hell, by destroying the life of the guilty man whose sentence he had served. He realized that he had not the right to seek punishment against the guilty man, because it would harm not only the guilty man but innocents who loved him. He gave up his revenge, not with bitterness, although heartbreak can be as bitter as it is healing, because he knew he had no right to visit judgment on another as he himself had been judged. He could not by taking revenge undo what had been done to him; he could, however, choose to live out the rest of his life starting over as from the beginning, and make it a new life. The guilty man with his new wife and daughter might in fact meet his proper punishment someday; but it would not be up to the wronged man to do it. How could he, who had been wronged, trust himself to stop his revenge before it went too far? So he let it all go, all his revenge, not just some of it, because he knew that whatever accusing and defending angels he had arguing for his life, so did the guilty man have his own. His reckoning, and its timing, its unfolding in time, and whatever mercy given him, was not up to the wronged man, but up to himself, and his own accusing and defending angels.

How can we judge others? How can we know the most fitting punishment for another? Certainly we almost always choose a harsher judgment for ourselves than is necessary. Are we merely trying to drag the rest of the world down into our own suffering? Are we unable to forgive those we hate because they're not suffering as we are? Are we professional victims who demand everyone else be a victim too? We certainly don't judge ourselves well, because we don't have all the facts, or ignore some of the facts, in our judgments of ourselves. Would we do any better towards others? Do we have the right to try? Our justice is always imperfect; perhaps especially the revenge we take on ourselves for those things about ourselves we hate and fear. The wise wronged man knows when to stop, when to acknowledge that it isn't up to him anymore (it never was, really), when to let it go—for his own sake, even more than for the sake of others.

The most excellent human quality is, indeed, forgiveness. And it starts with that person in the mirror.

(Previous Spiral Dance essays can be found here.)

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music 5

A rehearsal read-through of the last section of the new piece, Weavers of Light. There are still a few corrections to be made in the final notation, but this gives a sense of the last main section of the piece. This is a recording of a read-through in which the piano is playing the vocal parts. That's how you learn parts in choral rehearsals: with the piano playing along. Eventually, the piano plays its own part. This is all part of the choral learning procedure.

Partial rehearsal recording: Weavers of Light    

Here's a sample section of the (uncorrected) score for the last section. Three contiguous pages, at the climax of the music. THis is where the long build-up crests, before fading away again to nothing. You can hear it in the rehearsal recording about a minute from the end.

(Click on any of the above thumbnails for a larger image of the page.)

Note how the weaving-together of the various musical strands and texts reaches a sort of climax here, as well. This is also where the accompaniment instruments go more poly-modal, and more poly-chordal.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music 4

Rehearsals. Finished notation, finished scores. Announcements. Publicity. Rehearsals. The circles of preparation.

Once a new piece is made, the writing finished, that's not the end of the process. There are still rehearsals and performances to do. Notated music composed for others to perform, or indeed for oneself to perform, still requires rehearsal and performance.

This is different from improvised music, or transcriptions made of improvisations, which are notations of what somebody played without reading notation when they played. There are musicians who transcribe and study great improvisations by great jazz musicians, to study them, to analyze them, to learn from them. But then some jazz students take it further, and rehearse and re-perform the transcribed improvisation as though it were a composed piece rather than a spontaneous performance. I have very mixed feelings about that practice: the question is, why would you want to do that.

Of course, as a composer myself, a number of pieces of mine are effectively notated improvisations. It's one effective way of getting the sounds down on paper. Notation's root purpose is to be able to communicate your musical ideas to others, so that they can perform them, too. I record a lot of original music that I never bother notating; but on more than one occasion I have transcribed, or partially transcribed, a recorded piece of my own so that others could play it, too. In some cases, I wrote out a chart for a player to overdub over what had already been recorded, none of which had been notated. I have been in several bands that were based on improv, or structured improv; like a jazz band, in some cases I wrote out a chart, or a whole piece.

For example, here's the chart for "Rivers," a piece I wrote for The Barbaric Yawps. (You can here a complete studio-recorded performance of "Rivers" here.)

(Click on the thumbnails for a larger image of each page.)

The chart for "Rivers," like a jazz chart, is instructions for performance, with melodies and chords indicated. But interpretation is up to the musicians; they are free to depart from the chart, especially during the free, improvisatory sections. This was a fairly typical chart for this band, and many of the pieces were written out this way; the head, or theme, is precisely notated, and the free sections are left open for the musicians to improvise within. All of this is common practice in some styles or genres of making music.

Depending on the style of the piece I'm writing, I may not need to be at the piano to compose at all; such was the case for "Weavers of Light," as I knew what modes I'd be working in, and the logic of mode is such that one has a rule-set to both follow and deliberately not-follow, to create musical effects. (Some very subtle, it's true.) On other occasions, I sat and improvised at the piano, and wrote down the sounds that I liked, eventually forming them into a piece, or part of a piece. The back-and-forth between listening and writing is very obvious in this way of composing. For myself, I find this way of working to be most useful when I'm writing more complex music—more dissonant, more austere, more architectonic—which requires me to hear the resources I'm summoning, to hear the effects being produced. There may still be sections where I don't play the line before writing it down, as I can hear it in my head; in those cases, I play it back to confirm that it works. When I'm writing a piece that is more tonal, or more modal, I don't at all need to sit at the piano to write it; because those musical structures are internalized enough that I can "hear" them in my head as I write.

There is some truth to the notion that what musical instrument I have at hand will affect what I compose: different styles of music may emerge if I have a piano at hand, or my Chapman Stick, or no instrument at all but my voice and my mind. "Rivers," mentioned above as a piece written for The Barbaric Yawps, was composed on Stick. "Weavers of Light" was written completely with no musical instruments at hand. For the most part I sat in a chair in silence, and composed it based on what I was hearing rising up from within. As a long-time composer, that means that I can "hear" in my mind, with no difficulty, most of what I wrote on the page. The sounds and timbres and amplitudes of voices and musical instruments are things I have absorbed over many years, and they are now internalized. I don't always need external reference.

Looking back over the process of writing several of my older notated compositions, I believe that my usual practice is a combination of sitting at the piano, and sitting away from the piano. I can usually remember which phrases or pieces, or sections of pieces, were written each way.

But as a composer, no matter how well-intentioned the practice of re-performing a transcription of someone else's music is, I find it to be problematic. It's a bit like forging a painting to present it as your own. There are questions not only of originality, in this case, but of ethics.

I mean, if you're playing jazz, why not make up your own solo when you're playing a piece, rather than recreate Louis Armstrong's? It's one thing to transcribe and play a another jazz player's solo to learn from it—as an étude, if you will—but it's another thing to re-create that other player's solo in performance. At that point, you're playing an existing score, as though it were a written score, not an improvised solo. The processes in each case are rather different, and the intentions of the player seem rather different as well. I would go so far to say that, in my experience, the very intentions, the very thought processes in play, the things the musician is thinking about in the moment of playing, are also very different.

When you finish a new piece of music, and give it to the performers who are going to premiere the work, you give up some control over your music. You must. You have to let the performers find their own way into the music; you must let them interpret it. Unless you are a composer/performer who only writes music for yourself to play, you are always going to have to give up some or all control over the outcome. Even an authoritarian composer working with an ensemble used to performing his or her music must give up some control over the outcome, if for no other reason than that each musician brings their individual training, experience, and breath to each piece of music they perform.

I'm a performer in the group that is going to premiere the new work. I'm a singer in the chorus that is going to premiere "Weavers of Light," and for whom the piece was written. (Although, I do hope other choruses eventually take up and perform this piece, as well.) So I'm present at virtually all the rehearsals, and sometimes the artistic director will turn to me to answer a question about interpretation, or details of notation or performance.

When I answer questions in rehearsal, I appear to be fully confident to others, sure of myself and the music and what I want. Nonetheless, I'm still feeling my way. I may appear to know what I'm saying, but it remains a process of discovery for me, as well.

As a composer/performer, I am comfortable with others bringing their own interpretations to my music. I've been aware of this with every piece I've ever notated and given to someone to be played. It's unavoidable—so I choose to embrace, and work with it, rather than against it.

Therefore, usually in my scores, I leave a few things open-ended, inviting the performers to interpret them. I will give general rather than precise tempo markings. I have written entire pieces, as well as sections of pieces, in which the performers are given the freedom, within proscribed limits, to make whatever sounds they choose. This is the element of indeterminacy I bring to most of my art-making, reflected in the music. "Weavers of Light" has no indeterminate sections, no real indeterminacy in the music, beyond the factors of interpretation that every conductor and every chorus will bring to the music: their individual touch and style, their flair and favor. I encourage that. There are factors to every creative situation that are unpredictable, and beyond the maker's control. I never forget that; and for the most part, I find creative work that is over-determined by the maker to be usually flat and dull, lacking surprise, and quite often lacking any interest whatsoever except the intellectual.

A current fashion in poetry tends towards over-determining the reader's response to the poem—even when the poet states that the poem was made using the tools of indeterminacy. I have heard poets actually state publicly that if the reader did not receive the poem exactly as the poet intended, as though it were a telepathic transmission rather than a work of art, then that poet considered the poem to have "failed." As if poetry were communication and only communication. There's a lot of that going around right now. It is one reason several current fashions in poetry are so very, very dull—and likely doomed to be never read again, a hundred years from now.

To the contrary, I enjoy discovering things in my own creative work that others have found, that I didn't know where in there, or that I had not consciously placed in there. I enjoy the process of hearing my own music as though it were brand new, as though it were someone else's, as though I did not already intimately know its every corner. This is one way in which I keep myself interested in what I'm making.

To get the notation right, for this new piece of music, this week I've been proofreading the last sets of pages being typeset, going over them as carefully as possible. Catching some mistakes, including a few mistakes in my own original notation; nothing big, just details like having one too many beats per bar, or writing an octave indication that's wrong. Nothing that isn't corrected in a moment.

I don't own the Finale musical typesetting software myself, so the Chorus' assistant music director and accompanist has been engraving the music. "Engraving" is the word used for musical typesetting. It refers back to the days when master pages for printed scores were engraved on copper plates by specialists. The process is the same as artistic copper-plate engraving, involving the use of acid etching on the plate's surface to make the shallow grooves where the ink will lie. Now, like so much else in publishing, this can be done with computers.

Finale has some severe limitations, in my opinion: it is designed to accommodate normative musical notation for Western popular and classical musics, for the most part. It hits a wall, and hits it hard, whenever a composer asks it to do something outside its normative assumptions. Which most contemporary avant-garde music will do. Modern composers are used to having to invent new notations for specific purposes or precise effects. There are always ideas that don't fit within the norms of ordinary notation. One finds oneself having to invent new symbols. One finds oneself being required to change the software's default settings. (An example: the software always wants you to indicate a time signature. If you are writing something in free, non-metered time, you constantly have to keep turning that default feature off.) And there are things that are harder to do, for a trained music copyist and composer like me, in Finale, than on the page. I can make a clean pencil score that anybody can read, from my background in professional music copying, in a fraction of the time it would take me to do it FInale. "Weavers of Light" is not an avant-garde piece of music, per se, nonetheless, there have been issues with Finale being unable to properly engrave some of my indications in the score, certain things done for musical effect that are integral to the piece. We've had some difficulty with octave up and down markings, for example, in the piano part.

The software makes it look clean and precise and professional, so the performers really appreciate having a clean, engraved score. At the end of this rehearsal and performance cycle, I expect to have a clean engraved version of my score available to be copied as needed for future performances. The technology also allows me to send out the score to future performers, if any, in digital form, for them to print on-site and on-demand. (In a manner parallel to some innovations in contemporary book publishing.)

Yet any software that slows down the creative process, rather than enhancing it or speeding it up, is of no use to the working composer. So, I'm not going to be composing using Finale anytime soon; especially not for my music that doesn't easily fit into the stylistic expectations of popular or light classical music. And as a composer, you don't always have time to go through the software learning curve, when you're in the midst of a project. So, I have no problem with someone else engraving "Weavers of Light" in Finale. But I wouldn't attempt it myself, just now. Far better for me to do my composing with pencil, generating a clean final score, then hiring someone else to engrave the score. There isn't a skill in any trade that you can't learn, given time and practice and inclination; but the tradeoff is about how much time and effort it would take you to learn that skill, versus hiring someone to do it for you. Usually, you come out ahead if you hire an expert rather than try to re-invent the skillset for yourself.

I have other skillsets that I am far more facile at: Photoshop, typing words on my laptop, photography, cooking. If I ever choose to, I'm sure I can master Finale, too. Right now, I don't want to spend my time on that. I'd rather spend my limited time and energy on the making, rather than the engraving.

Although the end product really does look very nice. Although the engraved score doesn't feel as personally belonging to me, anymore: it feels a bit removed, a bit distanced, a bit generic, rather than my own music. That's another trade-off in giving music to others to be performed: you must let go of certain kinds of ownership, just as you let go of certain kinds of control. Performance is a collaboration with other musicians: it requires a meeting of individuals in which unity—in the form of synergy and everyone coming together with one mind, one purpose—can be achieved, but is not guaranteed.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

and then the fox

Driving home past the yellowed corn stalks at dusk, clear sky in the purple east, some things orange clouds in the west. There's a dog in the road ahead, wandering, sniffing things in the road, so I slow down and wait for it. Probably it lives at that farmhouse across the way, just ahead down the road.

But it's a fox. A large male red fox with a bushy white fantail and black paws. Unafraid, as I roll to a stop, it looks me in the eye, then noses the ground again, then walks up the ditch under the cornrows, right past the truck, again looking me right in the eye. Then it goes on up the ditch, still sniffing, as I fumble for my camera, stunned, and miss the photo. Still I sit and watch in the mirrors as the fox moves back up the road, stopping to nose things on the ground, skirling around in circles a few times, chasing up the road, then disappearing around the corner of the cornfield.

One reason I love living out here in the small rural towns is that you get to see foxes.

A mile later, where Turtle Creek oxbowes next to the road, there's a flock of wild turkeys. I think out loud, "Careful, turkeys, there's a hunter just up the road."

Another mile later, a flock of Canadian geese, silhouetted against the fading skylight, pass over the road, honking in flight.

I've spent most of my day quietly, sometimes just sitting on the porch in silence, sometimes reading. I played some music earlier, and listened while making brunch. Then I went out to shop for groceries. I drove home on the back roads, through the fields, most of them now being prepared for winter. Most of the dried corn has been shaved down. Many of the fields are black and fragrant, freshly turned.

I stopped for awhile to stand in silence and watch the sunset. I stopped in a favorite spot where the view is long and wide. A rural road parallel to the interstate, within sight and sound of the trucks and cars zooming by. But there's a silence at the edge of this field. I've stopped here many times for the sunset. I waited, making the occasional photograph, till the sun fell behind thin hazy clouds on the western horizon, filtering the light, like a furnace seen through orange and tan smoke. I drove on home when the light was mostly gone.

And then the fox. It's rare to get that close to a fox, even here. It's even more rare for it to approach so close, alert but unafraid of human trespass. If you hold yourself still, the fox will come to you. I held myself still, behind the wheel of the unmoving vehicle, and the fox came almost to my window, looked at me, and loped on down the road.

Messenger of the wind, unseen, teacher of invisibility and stealth, reminder that to pay attention to what others do rather than say, protector of dens, wily disappearer into the foliage, be at peace, be blessed, and be thanked.

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Returning from Elsewhere: Recoveries

Blur of a thousand phone calls from the hospital. Your uncle needs to go to ICU. But nothing works. It's futile to prolong his suffering any further. He wants to let go. Letting go of life is harder than any other striving. All they can do for him is make him comfortable. Ravaged cancerous flesh. He asks for morphine in a lucid moment. He breathes soon his last. His hand is held as he goes by your aunt, in one of her few moments of personal calm in these days of her own hell-wrapped isolation and dementia.

Blur of a thousand windblown leaves streaming across the mouth of the river. The only peace achieved on this forlorn roadtrip is those few hours beyond cellphone range, at the mouth of the river, lost in the deepwoods, by the lake far into the national forest, hearing loons, seeing a loon flap over a cove across the lake, a white dot of wings against the deep indigo of distant jack pine. Old growth, new growth. These woods are second growth, slowing replacing themselves again with climactic hardwoods.

Set out to recover yourself, your Self, from the wrack and wreckage of the dying and mad. We will see each other again; but not yet, not yet. Set out to find a way back to self, to home, to rekindling. Everywhere all around burning leaves cover the earth, some still unfallen. But you can't run away from anything you carry with you. Along the trails, what is discarded remains. A walking staff, thick cedar thigh, left by the trail's long stairs, taken up in hand, brought home through woodland paths splendid with tricolor maples.

Sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Strong desire to feel desire, weak will against feeling ill. It all comes back. Bleeding out over the leaves of winter's mouth. Here's a hole in cedar driftwood. Here are patterns of foam on water, stretched out, marbled paper bookends. Here are cairns of stones laid flat on flat, rising up till wave or wind knocks them over. Here is the knife, the sawblade, the photograph. Here the wind in aspen on a windless day. Here the polished stone of farewell. Water cascading brown and cold across steps of light.

Nothing can be run away from. Nothing is returned that meant to leave. The long falling into light. The long falling, the long light. Begins.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music 3


That's the only word for it.

Weavers of Light is now finished. I finished it late at night, after three or four continuous days of writing, or thinking about writing, or letting the ideas come so that I could write them down. I had to stop and take breaks, then come back to it. It went on for several more pages than originally planned, but that was necessary to give the piece its full flowering, its genuinely developing form.

I'm not sure what I feel about the piece, yet—the process or the finished product. This new piece was written during a period of complicated, extremely high stress in my life. It was pointed out to me that finishing it despite all the incredible stresses of late is itself a major accomplishment. Maybe that's true; my own feelings are still mixed, even confused. I'm feeling too many things at once, right now, to be able to sort them all out. I accept intellectually that getting this done—the first real piece of notated music I've written in a long time, and the first piece of new music I've completed since my life took some difficult turns a few years ago—is a major accomplishment. I accept it in my mind, and I don't yet know what I feel about it in my heart. My hands are telling me to keep going, to start writing a new piece immediately, to keep up the momentum, to stay on that bucking horse as long as I can. To ride that emotional rollercoaster that my life has become, these past few years, and to spend the energy all this stress and drama and grief has generated by channelling it as much as possible into ongoing creative force—like a laser etching diamonds, like a high-pressure firehose, etching words into stone by sheer force of water-pressure.

I pushed hard, at the end of the writing. I had set myself a deadline, a day on which I wanted to finish. That deadline was so that I wouldn't keep going and going and never finish; that deadline was also so that I could turn over the completed piece for rehearsal, and give my mind and body a few days rest from the intense work of its making. I almost made my deadline; I got all the way to end of the first part of the last section of the piece, but then I realized that I still needed to give the ending its full due. Approaching the end, I realized I needed one more day of intensive writing, to do it right. I needed to take the extra day to make sure I got the ending right. That I didn't rush it, that I didn't shortchange the music by pushing into conclusion prematurely. That I didn't finish the piece just to finish it, but that I finished it following its own proper logic and flow and form. The piece told me it needed more than I could get done, that last afternoon; so I took one more, as needed.

The last section of the piece, which is where the sense of the many strands weaving together comes to fruition, is longer than I'd planned, and actually is made up of two sub-sections. The first half contains the polyphonic choral setting of the poem I wrote that is the heart of the piece. I even achieved my goal, in this section, of writing the music heterophonically, even more than complexly polyphonically. Simultaneous variations on the same phrases, woven together, converging at the end of the phrase, but otherwise independent. There are couple of phrases I feel very keen on, as they are exactly what I was hoping for.

The second half of the last section, the actual climactic ending, is a long slow buildup to a big climax, then a gradual fading away to silence. It's clichéd to end a choral piece on a big homophonic climactic chord; so I wrote up to that chord, then kept going a couple more pages of fading away, and returned to the opening themes for flute and bells, as echoes of the piece's origin, before the last few notes fade out.

I know that I like arch forms in my music. I have observed before that I naturally seem to write spiral structures: in which an idea returns, or comes around again, but slightly altered. There are no exact repetitions, but slight restatements, slight variations. These return the original themes to mind without exactly repeating them. They are always slightly changed. So it's not a rondo or ritornello form, not a truly circular form; it's a spiral form.

During the long buildup towards the last climax, the instrumental parts get more complex, more non-tonal, more multimodal. The complex mode I had planned earlier, alternating between Lydian and Dorian modes, also ventured into Phrygian mode at times. The vocal parts mostly stay in Dorian mode; they venture into Lydian mostly to highlight certain parts of the text. This is straightforward wordpainting, almost programmatic musical settings. The piano part goes poly-tonal underneath that, both supporting the chorus, and venturing off into other, more discordant realms. I wrote the instrumental parts growing towards the climax as if they were an increasingly cacaphonous ringing of changes: as though a giant bell orchestra was gradually getting louder and closer. Then all the various musical threads converges on a big homophonic chordal climax, before falling away again to a consonant ending. I avoided classical tonal patterns, using different means to express tension-and-release. I avoided letting the ending be a choral cliché of a Big Ending. At least I hope I did, I feel I avoided those things, although the proof will be in the performance, and the audience's response.

Needless to say, the ending became more complex overall, and longer, than I'd originally imagined. I don't mind that. Although I hope the piece isn't too long now. Later on I may go back and trim it a little, to make it absolutely tight. For now, till after the premiere, I'm going to leave it as is. I need to take time away from it, clear my head from the writing, maybe work on another, completely unrelated project for awhile, then come back to it with fresh, more objective ears. I want to hear the recording of the performance again, a month or two after the premiere; I know that will be enough time for me to listen to the piece more objectively. It takes time and distance, sometimes, before you can really look at something you've made with a clear mind and no expectations. It can take time to be more objective about your own work; you can't possibly be objective about it at the moment of completion.

When I finished, I was wrung out, elated, too wired to go right to bed, too exhausted to stay up long. I needed to tell somebody about it. I called my sister and brother-in-law in Holland, late at night for me, breakfast time for them. They were very pleased that I'd finished the work. I just need to tell somebody about it. Then I had a glass of celebratory whiskey, and finally went to bed.

So I have mixed feelings about finishing this project. I am very glad to have gotten it done. I have a small mustard-seed revelation of an archetypal feeling that writing and finishing this piece is a symbol of my own returning to life, of getting my own life back on track, of being reborn. I have just the beginning of a feeling that this is going to set the tone for the rest of my life—now that it's my life to live, and I'm not going to live it for anyone else anymore. And yet the context of writing this piece, the stress of life I was going through during the process, which was more than I can really say in words, the context was so hard that I don't know if I did the piece justice, if I made it come out right, or if I failed, strictly in terms of aesthetic and musical quality. I don't know; I reserve judgment. That will become clear over time. I do know that this new piece may not be the most important or most well-written piece that I've ever done. But it is the most ambitious choral piece I've ever written. And it will be performed. My original estimate for its duration in performance was to be about 7 minutes; I think it might be closer to 10 minutes, though. It all feels bigger and deeper than I had expected or imagined. There is a sense of being on the threshold: of the numinous, of the archetypal, in play behind those curtains of partial awareness.

i finished writing late at night, emailed off the last pages as a PDF to be typeset, called my relatives, then went to bed. The next morning I got up, loaded up the truck, and drove to the Northwoods for some R&R. I wanted to go do some photography, clear the cobwebs out of my head, sort some things out, and hopefully get some rest. Well, it didn't work out that way: the source of my recent stress followed me to the woods, and except for a few hours spent in the deep woods, far out of cellphone range, making photographs, making art, the trip became a kind of hell of an endurance test. I came home a few days earlier than planned, because I couldn't take anymore, and I had no more strength. (The stress has also triggered a relapse of my chronic illness, which made it all worse.)

As I noted before, when I first began writing this piece, I wrote the instrumental framework first, then discovered where the choral parts fit in. Towards the end of writing, that reversed, and I had to write out the choral parts, following the lines of the poem, first: this is what set up the structure. I then filled in the instrumental parts to accompany the voices.

But at the very end, I had to revert to writing out the instrumental parts first, to define the form as it built towards climax. More accurately, I had to do all the parts at the same time, one or two measures at a time. I had to think of many things, juggle many balls in the air, all at once. This was where the weaving all came together, you see. This is where the parts all merged. It's reflected in the structure that moves from complex polyphony to arrive at the most homophonic section in the entire work, the actual climax itself: what were once many threads become one, many voices merge into one. So it had to be written out that way, as one.

Looking at the overall form, in retrospect, I see that echoes and weavings-together happen at each structural point in the music. As though I'd intended it, although no part of my conscious mind was aware of this happening during the actual writing. I notice the patterns and forms, their many symmetries and echoes, after it's all been done. I only accentuate a pattern I have noticed, during the actual writing, if I'm aware of it.

Obviously some greater part of whatever portion of my self that is the creative force behind this writing has a better sense of overall form and shape and gesture than I do myself; "I" being the conscious, verbal part of the self, the most intellectual part of the self, the personality-ego interface if you will. That greater self knew what was going on, and shaped things more than I knew as I proceeded. I can look back and marvel at how intentional it all seems in hindsight; all the while knowing that during the actual writing I had no clue. I marvel at the wisdom of the greater self.

Often I can look back over the writing of a piece like this, in hindsight, and spot more patterns and detailed echoes of form than I was ever consciously aware of during the actual writing process. This is nothing new. I'm quite used to this, as part of my creative process. It is how essays, poems, other pieces of music, and many visual artworks have been made. I actually enjoy finding the hidden echoes within a piece, afterwards.

I have learned over time to always do my best to avoid analysis during the actual writing process: if I get too analytical too early on in the process, it can kill the energy of the entire project. It can turn the making into an intellectual puzzle-box, which for me yields creative objects of merely intellectual curiosity. So I always wait till later to analyze. And that's as it should be: theory is what we use to discover and analyze after-the-fact; theory is a very bad dictator, and a much better descriptor.

So, this new piece is done. It will performed in Madison, WI, in less than two months. The piece is harder than I'd originally intended it to be—harder, that is, for the performers. It requires them to listen and think in certain ways about their individual parts as they weave into the whole. It may stretch some performers more than I had planned. But I'm not worried about that. Once the performers get a sense of the music's internal logic—as every artwork has its own internal logic, making of itself a universe of experience—they'll be fine.

I've had many problems in these past few years years with faith, trust, and surrender. Yet I find myself trusting those things that I already know to be trustworthy: as this Making is trustworthy. I have faith that the music will find its own level, and that the performers will find their way well enough into the music to bring out of it what I hope to hear. In the end, creative work is always an act of faith: as creation itself is an act of trust.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sequence: Ways to find a road

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Friday, October 09, 2009

the coming and going of the light

at Big Sur, California, August 2008

Sunset at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CA. The thin ribbon of waterfall falling to the beach, in its circular cove, the northern slope covered with pink day-lilies the locals call "naked ladies." A pair of deep blue Stellar's jays work through the lilies, while the sun settles into a pool of gold far out over the ocean, on this cold and cloudless evening.

calm ocean mirror
reflects the setting sun—
the sickle moon

this is the festival of the changing of the light

at the window, the child looks out
at inward dusk, quiet, fading;
from the shoulders of the man
standing on the hillcrest, wings unfurl,
and spread to cover the sky;
the moon glows white
above red smoke sunset clouds,
a button on a crimson sash—

somewhere else, not here,
the moon’s full: a surfer finds his wave
under her fulfilling light,
phosphorescent water nipping anklets
till with board he disappears
under the foaming curl—

another moon, else, greening,
tangible shoulders of the stag
under cedars, head raised to sample
the air for food, shelter, mate,
eyes indistinguishable from shadows,
a heart the shape of muscular rope—

and the light keeps altering,
moon by moon each minute,
seen in the world’s changing,
an altar of violet shadows, each

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music 2

I am learning new rhythms of working. Or learning to pay attention to the existing rhythms. It seems important to remember, though, that after life-changing events in your life, your art changes, as does the way you make art. I am noticing as if for the first time how I write music; and it is for the first time, in truth, the first time since my parents died that I have notated a musical score on this scale, with the intention of it being performed by others.

The flood of ideas for the last section of the new choral piece continues, and I find myself "filling in the blanks" easily and with gusto. But I realize that I cannot make more than a page or two an hour, and maybe only a few pages a day—not because of my speed of writing, which is relatively facile, but because I must keep stepping away from the table, and walking off some tension or other. After a minute, all the while working over the measures in question in my mind, the proper solution appears, and I can fill in that blank where before the white void of the paper was almost frightful.

I can work for a few hours per session, then I must stop for awhile. Go off for a walk, go do some errands, go to the post office. The intensity of making this music is more than my body can sit still for. It creates a sidebar restlessness in me, that I must work off, regularly, in order to be able to hear the music arising from within. And when I come back to the writing table, the music keeps flowing. I can often multitask, when I step away. Most of my mind is still on the music, keeping that pressure on, as I prepare a meal during one break, or check the weather. If I am able, I will finish as many pages as I can per session, till I must stop, to eat, to relax, to give myself a rest from this exertion.

The feeling of being at white heat is the same as for writing an essay or poem; but the writing is more complex, and slower to accomplish, because I must handle more variables during each moment of writing. I get less done, it's harder work, and it makes me more tense, than with writing words; but then, the end result is more than words, alone. It's music, it's words-with-music, it's multisensory in ways that words alone cannot achieve.

I think of a poem written almost two years ago, a shaman's critique of pure poetry, and I realize the connections between what the viewpoint character in that poem speaks, and this (recovered, rediscovered) process of notating music. I see many parallels in how writing this music is losing the self, coming back to the self, losing the self—all in a kind of breath rhythm. I see the connections between the necessity for experience and somatic embodiment within a poem as being parallel to the immersive experience of being in music: music is something multisensory, but it is also multidirectional, in that sound comes at you from all directions, and you feel certain frequencies resonating in your physical flesh. Music can never be all in the mind, even at its most abstract, because once it is made manifest by being played, it surrounds you. The difference between poems on the page and music in the air is like a diver standing on the lip of a swimming pool: you can think about it, and keep it cerebral before you dive in, but once you are immersed in the water, your body is as engaged as your intellect, and perhaps more. You're in the water, not just thinking about being in the water.

I am aware that this writing is more like a diary entry than I usually present. It's a one-time process, though.

What I am doing is observing myself, observing my own creative process, as if I was doing this for the first time. Because in many ways, it is for the first time.

it's the first composed piece of music of this scale that I have completely notated in over fifteen years. It's the first piece of new music that I've composed like this since the life-changing events of my parents' passing, my own illness, and the many changes of the past four years. And it's the completion of an idea that was started before those life-changing events occurred, so it is a first return to life as I desire it to be, the return to life after a very long winter.

I'm observing myself, to learn how the process works for me now. I don't know myself this way anymore, so I'm learning about myself and my process all over again, as if for the first time. Everything else in life has been made new, so this is being made new as well.

i am recording my observations of myself and my process, then, to learn about them. I observe and record, and believe that this will lead to a better understanding of my own process, and to a renewal of these aspects of my creative life that have lain dormant and unexercised for a long time.

Another aspect of this project that intrigues me is that, while I feel like I'm starting all over again, I still have all my old knowledge and skills. I feel like I've returned to the very beginning, creatively, but I retain several decades' worth of training and experience in music composition and music theory. I still have my own style, if changed, and my own ways of working. I still have the knowledge of what I've learned to do, what I've taught myself to do, and what I've learned about myself in terms of what kinds of music I tend to write.

So it's paradoxical: brand new on the one hand, comfortably familiar on the other.

I also observe, about stepping away to do something else for awhile, that sometimes I do that so my mind can mull over what the music wants to do next. I think about the words I'm setting, I think about the musical mode I want to work in—for this concluding section an invented mode that alternates between Dorian and Lydian, but in both cases avoiding the sixth tone of the scale, as a way of leaving unresolved which "minor mode" is in use at any given time. Sometimes it's stepping away to let the back of my mind sort it out, and give me a clear answer when it's done. It's like percolating water until it comes to a boil. When the solution to the puzzle of what wants to happen in the next few bars comes into my head, I go back to the table and immediately write it down.

This is a process of distracting the personality-ego part of the mind with other things, while the rest of the mind works on what is supposed to happen next in the music. Then when the rest of the mind is done working on the problem it presents a solution, and the part of the mind that's usually in the driver's seat (or thinks it is) gets back to work.

Lots of artists, poets, and composers imagine that everything they do is done consciously, with the driver's-seat part of the mind. In fact, that is the smallest part of all the overall system of consciousness. (It likes to ignore the rest and inflate its own importance, too.) In fact, the unconscious resources of the mind are far more powerful for creative work. Whatever you choose to label this process, and there are many labels—letting your right brain work on it while your left brain does the dishes; listening to the Muse; taking dictation from the collective unconscious; trusting your intuition; whatever—it's a powerful way to work. It also makes for deeper, more resonant art in my experience. Whenever one encounters art made with only the left brain personality-ego consciousness, it tends to be marked by certain characteristics: puzzle-box complexity; ego-inflated pomposity; cleverness; logical consistency, but not in a good way; a certain cerebral detachment from emotional nuance. None of these are complete in themselves, none of them are particularly warm, none activate the kinesthetic soma and bring it into the experience of art; unless these are balanced with emotional resonance, there is no depth, no echo of infinity.

Of course to many artists this is heresy. But then, post-modern art-making has become so much a cult of personality, so much driven by the extra-artistic aura surrounding the creative process itself, that few artists seem to even realize how dead their own art really is; or how deadening.

I make no populist appeals. I am not making "art for the masses," but art to please myself. There are many layers of meaning, of resonance, in whatever I try to do; art I stand the least is the type of art that, once you've solved the puzzle-gimmick, the art dies and you never want to see it again, and I refuse to make that kind of art. I call it shallow, and worse.

I observe myself stepping away from the table whenever something isn't right, or satisfying to both structure (music theory) and essence (expression). Both must be satisfied, whichever page of music I'm working on, before I can go forward.

So sometimes you just have to step away from the table, and wait. Eventually, what is supposed to happen next is revealed.

When I first began writing this piece, I wrote the piano and instrumental parts first, then fit the chorus lines to them. The beginning had always been clear in my mind: a flute gesture, a response from the bells, and the piano making a context, a ground of being.

Now as I near the end, I find I am writing the vocal parts first, and filling in the piano part last. I know what the vocal lines need to do, and how they will interweave with the poem that inspires the last section of the piece. It all breathes together, and the melodies come first, followed by the accompaniment.

So the procedure, the order of writing things out, has reversed itself, at the opposite end of the process. Reversals that lead to something more true, more real.

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A Deeper Sea

Navarre, FL, 2008 (Click on image for larger view)

There's something rather comforting about knowing that, in the vast immensity of it all, our place is really very small. That nothing I do, ambitious as I might be some days, rather than humble, has little meaning in the grand scheme, or much impact on anything beyond my local relationships. There's something to be said for being low-profile, a small swimmer in a much deeper sea. There is pleasure in cultivating one's own garden.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Writing Music, Written Music

Writing a new piece of music—writing anything new, really—sometimes I get into a mode where things start to flow more rapidly than I can get them down. They spill out so fast that I am rushing to complete what comes forward, getting it down as fast as the pencil will move. Sometimes you have to stop what you're doing, and sketch out what's to come later, to preserve it for the time it will take to germinate and get your full attention.

Music is the most core, the most central, of my creative arts. It's what I'm most passionate about. It can also make me feel very vulnerable, very exposed. So I sometimes protect it by not talking about it, not revealing the process. It's not that the music can be derailed (although my attention can be), it's that it's so personal that at times it feels very naked. Although as an artist I'm used to being naked—you must learn to cope with feeling exposed, if you want to be any kind of artist other than merely cerebral—this goes a bit further. It goes deeper inside my own desires and dreams. It's more central to my own being. And thus I reveal more by it, and am made more vulnerable by it, and sometimes protect it more carefully. Not with a will to be secretive, rather with a need to keep it safe from the casual bullying of everyday life.

The new piece has a name now, over a month into its composition. I have so far produced about four final pages a week, since I began the process of notating from my sketches, giving me about 20 pages done so far. (Don't be too impressed: the pages sail by pretty fast in performance.) This past week, though, I seemed to cross a threshold, or step over the edge of a cliff, and in an afternoon of sitting at my worktable, twice as many pages as usual emerged. I only reluctantly stopped the flow, because I must, because it was necessary for me to go photocopy the finished pages, then drive into town to deliver them to the performers. Rehearsals for the premiere in December are already beginning, even though I haven't handed over all the finished pages yet. (Don't be too impressed: that's not uncommon for the premieres of many new pieces.)

Weavers of Light page 1 (Click on image for larger view)

I am now about two-thirds of the way through the final notated score for this new piece.

After the big surge that produced several more pages than usual, yesterday, I've taken a day's pause from the notating, to catch my breath and build up back-pressure for the last big push; thus I've been thinking about the score all day long. I'm writing about the process of writing music here only because I've been thinking about what's coming next, all day long; and I thought it might be interesting to pause and contemplate the creative process itself, in the midst of it.

In terms of form, there was the instrumental introduction, which led to an opening choral chant. Then the interwoven chants of the middle section of the piece; once the form and process of the chant section were conceived, most of the effort was about filling in the outline. And the last section, which I have just begun to notate in final score, will be longer, through-composed rather than pattern-oriented and cyclic, and use more complex musical modes and melodies. It's going to build up to a bit of a climax, then return to silence.

Most choral music is homophonic music: the voices tend to move in parallel, in vertical alignment, even as they move forward through time and notes together. I far prefer to write choral music that is polyphonic, with independent but interlayered and interdependent voices—and that's what I'm doing here. I've pushed some sections of this piece past polyphony into heterophony: independent voices in simultaneous variation on a core mode or theme, converging at key points but otherwise completely independent. Heterophonic music is the hardest kind of counterpoint to get choruses to sing, because they're used to being a massed mind, unity-of-many, and find it hard to break that unitive momentum and be independent voices. (Orchestras are worse about this, actually. You really have to push them hard, sometimes, to get them to think outside their usual box.)

This new piece, now named, is not the most complex piece I've ever written. I have a set of five art-songs, for piano and solo voice, that I wrote just over a decade ago, that pleases me as being almost the most advanced style, in terms of music theory, that I've written in. The piano writing in those art-songs is among the most complex I've ever attempted; and that piece was publicly performed, but never recorded. The harmonic language used in those songs is far more complex than what I am using in this new piece, which is largely melodic and modal; especially in that middle chant section. I'm indulging myself in this new piece with some blatantly "pretty chords"—still modal rather than tonal, but pleasing to the ear. Modal music doesn't have to resolve the way tonal music does; so I can indulge myself by letting certain rich clusters just hang there in the air, and not have to make them go anywhere. One way to avoid to clichés is to avoid the kind of writing that leads to clichés.

People sometimes have marveled that I can write this kind of music away from the piano. That I can sit at a table, and write it all down, and hear it in my mind, how it's going to sound, without need for sonic reference. But this is nothing new or unusual: composers have done this for centuries. (Think of Beethoven's amazing last piano sonata, Op. 111 in C, written when he was completely deaf.) You get to a point where you know your tools so well, that you don't have to think about how you're going to use them, you just use them. (A poet acquaintance once opined that this is also how I write poems: honestly, I've never studied grammar or syntax at the level some poets demand one should; but somehow the poems come out "clean" anyway. To be honest, I think it's silly to care overmuch about the method of craft; it strikes me as a waste of effort to think so deeply about what one is going to write, when that effort ought to go into the writing itself.)

Writing a piece of music, when I'm in the part of the process where I'm committing final pencil score to paper, can become so intense for me that I must break away, periodically, to come up for air, to rest, to breathe. Sometimes I become so agitated that I have to step away from the table, for five minutes, for an hour, and come back to it when calmer. There is nothing fearsome or painful in this agitation. It is, rather, the shakiness that comes of ecstasy, not from suffering. Of course at certain levels of intensity, agony and ecstasy are bound twins.

It feels very similar to the process of writing poems at white heat, in that one feels on fire, but there are differences. The pressure of the water coming out of the firehose, perhaps because it's a different kind of firehose, has a different sensation than with poems or photography.

Photography and drawing are about seeing/perceiving, rather than about merely looking at things. You see essences within forms, and you might take a long time to look at your subject before snapping the shutter. Or you might be completely spontaneous, and literally shoot from the hip, not even peering through the viewfinder, trusting that whatever light is captured to be the right light, in that moment.

I'm talking about notated music here. Recorded improvisations or composed- or structured-improvs can feel synchronistic, even magical, when all the elements fall into place, and suddenly you're in the zone, and everything is happening just as it must, and you realize it, don't try to stop it or direct, just ride that horse as long as you can. But notated music, I'm not exactly certain why, has a different sensation.

It's perhaps because everything must come out through the needle point of the mechanical pencil, or pen. There is a lake of creative water trying to come out through a very narrow aperture, relative to the other firehoses. The firehose of poetry is actually pretty wide-open and effortless. One reason I value writing music more than writing poems, other than the closeness of music to my heart as mentioned above, is that poems are actually easier to write. They seem less real to me, somehow, because they are not so demanding to produce.

Perhaps it's a vice or perversion on my part: and yet I trust more what is difficult.

Weavers of Light page 8 (Click on image for larger view)

The piece of music that I am writing now, for male chorus and small ensemble of instruments, is the first piece of music I have fully notated in several years. Perhaps it is causing me this feeling of pent-up pressure because I haven't used this creative channel for awhile.

And there is a history of distraction and lost time to this piece's making. I actually began thinking about and planning to write this piece early in 2004, when I was still living in the Twin Cities. I began work on it, began to pull ideas together, began to consult with the group that might potentially perform it.

Then my own life became so distracting and stressful that I set aside all writing of music for almost 5 years. I moved out West; then I moved again; then my parents became ill, and I moved back in with them to be their live-in caregiver; then they died, and I spent six months cleaning out their house so we could sell it; then I had to move; and in there I also was diagnosed with my very own long-term chronic illness; and that's only the highlights, in a nutshell.

So in some ways I feel doubly vulnerable about writing this new piece, just now, because it's a sign of my own return to life. I feel protective of it not because it's the best thing I'll ever write—that piece is always the one you're going to write next—but because it still feels fragile. Truthfully, I still feel fragile. My own health has not been fully restored, after the intense period I've just been through. Truthfully, I feel vulnerable at the moment—and it has affected the writing of this new piece—because events are conspiring to try to suck me back down into the black hole that I felt I was only just beginning to emerge from. And resisting that tidal gravitational pull, resisting that entropic inertia, has some days taken all the strength I had, just to stay afloat. Some days you're grateful to have achieved neutral buoyancy, rather than feeling like you're still drowning.

Tomorrow morning I will turn off all the phones and other distractions. I will make breakfast, then sit down at my writing table, and continue on. I am almost ready. I can feel the pressure building. It feels like notating this last, third section of the piece may be even more intense, more of a flood, than before. It feels ready to make itself manifest, already pushing at the exits. My job in all this is to make sure that nothing can distract me for two or four hours, set out the blank pages, my pencils and rulers and erasers—then get the heck out of the way.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

One Art, Reflected

The second or third time a book falls into my hands, if I didn't want to read it before, I pay attention. So I'm reading my way through a stack of books purchased for almost nothing within the last month at various thrift stores, found here near home or while on the road. I collect very few mystery series by particular authors in hardcover, and I read more mystery and science fiction than I decide to keep. I have all of Raymond Chandler, who I reread every few years. In hardcover I have most of Tony HIllerman and Dana Stabenow. And now I find I have a taste for collecting Ellis Peters' meticulously-researched Medieval mystery series featuring Brother Cadfael, a former man-at-arms who served in the Crusades, now a Benedictine monk. The books are set for the most part during the turbulent civil war period of the middle 12th Century in England, a chaotic period that in some ways is a mirror for our own.

One of the functions of literature, of course, is to mirror back our times and ourselves. Literature provides us ways of thinking about ourselves, and our conditions. So literatures of particular historical eras, written in those times, can be a way into understanding how writers thought about life, and people, at those times.

I'm reading through—skimming at present, would be a more accurate phrase, due to its vast size—One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop, selected and edited by her long-time publisher and friend, Robert Giroux. Bishop is experiencing a renaissance at this time, a rediscovery, as poets and readers are beginning to discover she was more complex, and a better poet, than they thought. I approached this volume with wariness, this second time a copy has fallen into my hands, not expecting to like Bishop much; and I haven't read enough to dispel my wariness, although I do find myself liking her, at times, far more than I suspected I might. This is a person that comes through these letters, despite many of them being performances rather than a self revealing itself openly, who at times I find a great deal in common with; and the roots of empathy lie in common, shared human experience.

We have no other official autobiography of Bishop—reticence could have been her middle name—and these letters—500 in number, mined from the thousands she wrote throughout her lifetime—provide the reader with both personal stories that give context to her life-history, and with abundant opinionating about literature, and the business of the arts.

In one sense it's perilous to read a volume of selected letters as a de facto autobiography, as we're encouraged to do here by the editor. We can discover via this reading only a series of individual snapshots, fragments of reflective broken glass (if one might continue the mirror analogy), quanta or packets of experience rather than a smooth narrative. On the other hand, constructing a smooth linear narrative is always a fiction, whether it's storytelling or memoir; life itself is lived much more, for most people, as a series of small story-arcs, or fragments, than as a smooth continuous narrative.

Self-reflective writers have noted this themselves, of course. Virginia Woolf, in an essay criticizing the way fiction is usually constructed, wrote: Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Ever since I first heard that, it's stayed with me; because it contains a profound insight into both how we tend to construct our myths, and why.

Bishop, for her part, was a master letter-writer. It was in fact her major literary output, counted by volume alone. She viewed the letter itself as a valid literary artform, and reading her own letters, it's hard to disagree. (And Bishop taught a seminar in literary letter-writing, late in life.) There are several different styles in play in her letters, from formal, carefully-composed letters, to hurried, breathless epistles in which the details of life are thrown at you like asides to a story of deeper significance. Bishop could be very self-conscious of what she was doing; but also deliberately casual, deliberately revealing. Sometimes it's up to the reader to figure out which mode she is using at any given moment. This is why I must warily view many of these letters as a performance of self, rather than purely revelatory.

Some of the most interesting letters here, to me, are those written to the two poets Bishop regarded as mentor-friends, Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Two very different poets, with very different temperaments and attitudes towards poetry. Perhaps they represent, in some way, two aspects of Bishop's own unresolved inner conflicts as a poet: on the one hand, fiercely independent, cerebral, strongly interested in words themselves; on the other hand, more socially aware, more rooted in family and it complexities of relationship and drama. The paradox being of course that Moore was the more cerebral and reticent of the two, Lowell the more social and apparently emotional, even drama-addicted. A reversal of the usual stereotypes of gender performance.

It is fascinating to read, in One Art, of the story, told in segments and fragments, of Bishop's great love of her life, Lota (Maria Carlota Costellat de Macedo Soares). Bishop, always a bit rootless, made a home with Lota in Brazil for several years. The relationship ended only with Lota's deteriorating mental health, and eventual suicide. Bishop is characteristically reticent about certain aspects of their lives together, revealing of others. That Bishop was same-sex oriented is not news, but in these letters we hear her versions of the story; "versions," because they are multiple. As with every life there is a period of reflection and reassessment after the loved one has died, in which the writer discovers new insights, both positive and negative, upon going over the whole story after it's done.

It's difficult not to draw parallels with other artists of the 20th C. who were also same-sex oriented. The writer that comes first to my own mind is May Sarton. Sarton was a turbulent, willful, passionate person, who was never really tamed by anyone; although some of her New Hampshire friends came close. Bishop was far more domestic, in a way, while simultaneously far more rootless. Both writers had great loves, and more than one female Muse, who inspired their work and fed their passion for life itself.

And in both Sarton's and Bishop's case, one of the chief heartaches of aging was witnessing the person(s) most loved age and die. Both Bishop and Sarton dealt with serious mental illness in their beloved, and the insanity such drama puts the survivors through. There are other parallels as well. Perhaps, as Sarton opined, the artist is just more sensitive to these hardships, and less stoic about them; I am not certain that Bishop would verbally agree, but in her life, her letters lead me to surmise she must have felt that way at least once or twice. Even though Bishop is, overall, I think more stoic in nature than Sarton.

How much more do I feel I know about Bishop, now, having read many of these letters (if not yet all)? Certainly I know more of her biography than before. But this biography remains detached from her poems, in my mind, which are lapidary and self-complete as always. Bishop was capable of spending literally years on a poem, to get it finished, just right, before releasing it. So her collected poems are small in number, especially set beside her collected letters. But poetry is an art of compression, of getting words to say as much as they can within the limits set by the small words of poetic form. Poetry also then is exalted, heightened language, because it does so much with so little.

It's another paradox that Bishop was so close to Lowell, who is so closely associated with the Confessional Lyric poem that has come to dominate a great deal of poetry's mainstream nowadays. Much speculation about this connection between the two poets has been inked already; I won't rehash the popular theories here. Nonetheless I find it interesting how Bishop's native reticence responded at times to Lowell's mining of family life and history to make his at time almost-exhibitionist poetry. There are letters from Bishop here that awkwardly try to find a balance between her reverence for one of her mentors, and her distaste for his project. Here she is, writing to Lowell in March of 1972 about his book The Dolphin:

In general, I deplore the "confessional"—however, when you wrote Life Studies perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students' mothes & fathers and sex lives and so on. All that can be done—but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer—not to distort, tell lies, etc.

What Bishop is deploring is not Lowell's poems, which she is at pains in the same letter to repeat she likes very much, but rather Lowell's influence on poetry. And her criticism was prophetic, in turns out: many students and poets alike continue to write as if "anything goes" in the quest to use personal detail to both pull the reader into the poet's life, and (let's be honest about this) to shock them. Bishop, I have learned from reading these letters, was opposed to titillation for its own sake. So, what Bishop was most disliking about Lowell's poems, in this letter, was his tendency to fictionalize details to create heightened dramatic effects. She objected to his adding details to his source materials that made them seem more prurient, dramatic, and in a word dysfunctional. Bishop did not like the blend of memoir and fiction that Lowell's poetry sometimes was.

Bishop wanted her art to be the art, not a form of autobiography. It's clear to me, from reading the letters, that she compartmentalized her forms of writing—remember, she viewed letter-writing as an artistic literary form in its own right—and kept the personal details found in the letters largely out of her poems. At least in any obvious way, with one on one correspondence between art and life.

So, if I go back to read through Bishop's poems, say, Geography III, I perhaps might discern another layer of resonance within the poems, having read One Art: Letters—but not that much more, as the poems themselves are still their own complete world. It's tempting for literary readers and critics alike to try to connect every poem's generation to biographical moments; with Bishop, this just isn't going to work. One of the best aspects of her poetry is that it is distilled, refined, timeless. Bishop's poetry can be visceral, compelling, stunning, without being so personal that it prevents itself from being universal. She found a way to write from the guts and the head—Lowell and Moore in her simultaneously—while avoiding the topical and timebound. I believe one of the reasons Bishop's poems are experiencing a renaissance right now is that people have finally discovered how universal and enduring they truly are.

And since Bishop's poems are their own complete world, what is the purpose of reading a huge volume of her letters? Beyond interest in the person herself, interest in the artist as a person, I'm not convinced there's any good purpose at all. In her letters she's not going to tell you how she made the poems; there is no guidance for imitators here. They're almost separate universes. So why bother? I remain divided on that question. I do find Bishop's life interesting, because it is a life, as presented in the letters, that was lived fully, passionately (no matter who reticent at times), and deeply. Especially in the letters where Lota is dying, and the aftermath, I feel strongly connected to Bishop as a fellow person; she went through many of the same horrifying isolations and emotional traumas, after the death of Lota, that I find myself going through in the wake of my own parents' deaths, and now my aunt and uncle's; there are many parallels therein that allow me to feel kinships with Bishop. So I like Bishop more, as a person, from this reading, than I had surmised I would. But my opinions about Bishop's poetry have not been dramatically altered by reading the letters; I could read, or not read, Bishop's letters, and feel little change in my high respect for her poems.

So I cannot recommend this volume of letters to those who would seek to know more about the poems than the poet. There's not much about poetry itself in here; although there is a great deal about the business of being an artist. This is not a literary autobiography in any conventional sense—except of course that it is a writer's de facto piecemeal autobiography, and is presented as such by her editor, her friend. The letter-writer remains almost a separate person from the poet: we can tell they're the same person, but the poems continue to stand on their own, on their own merit, making up their own complete world. Read these letters for the right reasons only: because Elizabeth Bishop was a person you might have liked knowing, and you want to learn about her for her own sake.

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