Friday, December 30, 2011

Those End of the Year (Reading) Lists

Those bloody end-of-the-year lists. Top Ten lists of the "best" of everything. The annual ratings and beratings and appropriations and dismissals. Lists of good things, bad things, nothing special, personal lists masquerading as definitive critical statements. It's just the annual ritual to make lists. It's the thing people expect of you, expect of each other. It's what expected. It's one of those end-of-the-year rituals that people do without thinking about it overmuch. They just do it.

I'm not very big on just doing something because you've always done it. I'm not big on living life by rote, by habit, without thinking about it very much. I'm not big on not-thinking, on received wisdom that is accepted without being examined first. Ironically, of course, those people who most cling to their opinions as being their own are often those same people who don't really have any ideas of their own, but thrive instead on parroting received wisdom. "Everybody knows. . ." is the phrase that most often precedes a flurry of thoughtless, unexamined opinions.

Most lists are pointless. It's not even that they're predictable, dull, and always the same sort of thing as they were last year. It's that they change nothing. The world doesn't ripple with their passing. So lists, especially Top Ten lists, don't seem very useful. Nothing changes: mostly the status quo is affirmed. (I'm not alone in this opinion.)

Far more interesting are lists of things people have accomplished during the past year, including such lists as Stephen Mills' list of what books he read. That's an appealing idea. It's actually the only idea for an annual list that appeals to me right now.

Yet when I thought of compiling a list of what I've read in 2011, to be honest I was daunted, as it's a huge list. People who know me know that I'm a voracious reader, usually reading more than three books at any given time; I read quickly, and retain most of it. I actually couldn't give you a complete list of what books I read in 2011, because I didn't count or keep track; and to be honest, a couple of months are blurry in my mind, following the surgery at the end of June, when the anaesthesia was still fogging my memory and cognition pretty badly. At the same time, when I was first recovering from the surgery, I wasn't very mobile, and sat around reading a lot for a few weeks. In fact, I had laid in lots of unread books on my sun-porch table, to read as I was moved while recovering. I got through some of those, but not all of them. Well, there's another surgery to get through in the coming year, so it's good to stack on hand for then, as well.

And then there's the long list of books I've re-read, read again, read for the umpteenth time—because as unfashionable as it is in many critical circles I do read for pleasure as well as for edification; so I come back to re-read some books every so often. Every couple of years or so, I re-read two or three of Raymond Chandler's novels. This past year also includes a lot of Virginia Woolf, especially To the Lighthouse, which I've been thinking about a lot this year, as a work of fiction that tells much truth about what it is to be an artist and a person.

I also re-read, as I usually do, some favorite novels in the science fiction and fantasy genres—as problematic as I find the whole literary-critical situation around "genre," especially in the way mainstream "fine art literary fiction" tradition tends to look down its nose at SF, claiming literary quality for itself and denying it to "genre" fiction, which is bloody nonsense—including a couple of SF series by C.J. Cherryh and Chris Claremont. I also read a series new to me, by Jack McDevitt. And some other SF classics that I hadn't actually had the chance to read before, like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

Notable reading this year in poetry has been getting further into Kenneth Rexroth, re-reading Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin and In Search of Small Gods, and a few other things. I've found a number of small books by poets I hadn't heard before which I quite enjoyed, for example, Elizabeth Dodd's Archetypal Light and Brendan Galvin's Whirl Is King. There's been more, both critical reading and pleasure reading of actual poetry, as heretical as that seems to be in some quarters nowadays, a list too long to detail without having to spend an hour compiling it. I did re-read a poetry classic, Love Alone by Paul Monette.

I read a lot of non-fiction. I get a lot out of good creative nonfiction writing, on the level of John McPhee and Barry Lopez. This year I read a couple of Michael Pollan's books on botany and our human interaction with it. I re-read some Henry Petroski, who is one of my favorite creative nonfiction writers, taking delight in the things that people make and unmake. One of my favorite reads this year was Annie Proulx' Bird Cloud, her memoir about her home in rural Wyoming, which she built on land full of wildlife and beauty. I enjoy reading writer's books on writing, both memoirs of life and of writing; it's not that writers make better or more self-aware critics of writing, but when they speak as artists talking about art, it often leads to insights about creativity itself.

There's more, of course, but I'll stop there. Needless to say, reading is a continuous activity in these parts. I don't apologize, though, for being well-read. It adds a lot of layers to living. And makes life more interesting.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011


Soon after I completed Heartlands, the large choral commission I've been working on of throughout most of 2011, I was commissioned to make a CD of music for meditation, yoga practice, Reiki sessions, and other healing work. A friend's mother had been using my CD Trance for some time, and had given it some praise, so I was commissioned to make a new CD as a gift. I worked on this project in my recording studio for about a month, and completed the CD just before Xmas 2011. It's entirely instrumental music, prominently featuring shakuhachi, and Tibetan and Japanese meditation bells.

This year I plan to finally figure out how to market more of my music online, including this new CD as well as some older CDs. Here's the title track as a taste of things to come:


—AD, shakuhachi, computer music instruments

The musical soundscape was created in part by using some music apps on my new iPad. I got the iPad after completing Heartlands. I can see that for me the iPad is going to be a fantastic creative tool, both for music and photography, and likely in ways I haven't even thought of yet. The other cool thing about the iPad is that finally computer design and technology is approaching what I've wanted for years, after becoming a Star Trek fan. Design follows art in the best way possible.

"Darshan" is a Sanskrit word that means "see" or "seeing." In Hindu usage it refers to beholding the gods, or God, directly, and can also refer to those annual festivals when images of the gods are taken out of the temples and paraded through the streets for all to see. There is an implication that what we see also sees us: a mystical truth not limited to Hinduism, but found in most mystical traditions. As the great Medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, "The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me."

"Darshan" in Indian philosophy also is used to describe worldviews and mindsets, the distinctive in which a systematized philosophy looks at things, including its exegesis of sacred texts. Yoga itself is considered a darshan. Yoga is a form of kinesthetic meditation, after all, like walking meditation or the highest levels of some martial arts.

So, Darshan is about the seeing the divine, the encounter with the divine. One realizes in the encounter that one is not separate from the divine, but all are part of the One. And one realizes that one's actions are not other than the will of the divine, which after all is made of all beings and what they will.

The blessing of doing this smaller commissioned piece of music is that it filled the gap between the completion of the writing of Heartlands, and the beginning of the rehearsal process. I have learned, as never before, that I need to always have something to work on. And the past few weeks have been very stressful, even dire and desperate at times. Multiple stressors all came home to roost at the same time. (Including having to change my dietary regimen (again!) just before the winter holiday season. The good news is that the new, even more restrictive dietary regimen is in fact effective, and I have made real progress losing weight this past week or so, for the first time ever since the surgery last summer.)

The wisdom of artistic perseverance is to make sure you are always working on multiple projects, and that as soon as you finish one, you start another. Don't wait. Dive right in. Never leave a gap in between projects, because a gap between projects is the door by which depression and despair can enter. It's not about doing make-work to keep yourself preoccupied or distracted: this is real work, not make-work. It's about knowing that I stay more grounded and focused when I have a big creative project of some kind to occupy my attention. It's a way of channelling one's energy in the best way, and preventing those inner voices of panic and depression form gaining a toe-hold. It helps with being able to cope with the day-to-day.

Therefore, as I completed the Darshan CD, I began writing a new song, maybe to become a new set of songs, for myself to sing and play. One of these will probably get premiered at a fundraiser in March. The style is more loose and jazz-pop-rock than formal. I'm still working on the lyrics, but after several false starts, the pattern fell into place, and progress has been made. All I anticipate needing to notate finally is melody-and-words, with chord symbols for the chord changes. I'll write lead sheets, in other words, instead of fully realized charts.

Then I'll do my best to learn to sing the song and play Stick at the same time.

I feel like my Stick playing is revitalized, as I wrote about after seeing Tony Levin in concert a couple of months ago, which I felt gave me permission to go my own way as a player; even to play simply and cleanly, and not need to become another solo Stick artist who can play anything. I have my limits, and I'm okay with them. Practice is what it takes to stretch them, that's all.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Swept the Garden

From a life long past a wave came:
a silent monk sweeping the dirt
in the garden path beyond the zendo,
ragged broom, black robes, shaven head,
sweep, sweep, as leaves fall all around,
a breeze stirs the dust and black maples,
swish, swish, the only sound
is the leaves and the broom on the path.

From a trail of tears a sigh came:
the breath of a child letting go,
in the end, and falling, a long corridor
in a dark building full of whispers,
while before his henchmen a warlord
stands calm and still, yellow demon mask
reposing where he does not smile,
prepared for anything, a looming
nightmare that terrified me as a boy.

From a day gone still a voice came:
whisper of wound and cave, myself
as a child, a youth, a man, all three
at once, the eldest holding the youngest
against fear, all painted with ochre and dirt
before a wet shelter ditch where youngest
self once hid to spare the storm,
now held in love as we watch the lightning
this time with joy and trepidation.

From future lands a boy came:
fragile, sturdy, running to the summer sea,
backlit by waves of particled scintillant light,
roar of surf the roar of white light dying,
roar of road and wreck and jail,
and under the roar a silence a block of crystal
a leap into light, last echo of cathedral voice
ring chanting sacred prayer for who are lost,
prayer of ancient monk who once

swept the garden.


Golden Waves

For those moments when you wish you were Elsewhere. . . .

. . . find a Doorway in the sunset, and go

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Gratitudes 2011

I'm struggling with feeling gratitude, here at the end of a very harsh and bloody year, at the end of a long decade of things always getting worse rather than better. I'm at the point where I have doubts things ever will get better. Some things are getting better for some of my friends—and for one or two, abysmally worse. I just want 2011, the Year Of Hell, to be over at this point.

Christmas was good in that I spent it with a couple of close friends, but otherwise I just wasn't in the spirit of things. Life has looked bleak for a long time, and things keep happening that seem designed to break you. Call my Christmas mood, if you need a marker, somewhere in the middle of A Christmas Carol, neither the sentiment or joy of the ending, nor the bitter comedy of the beginning. A dark time in the middle of the story, that's all.

I just want the world to stop getting more vicious and fascist and bitter, cease its plummet down the steep incline of the black hole of self-destruction, pick itself up, and turn things around. Of course, it's people who make up the world—kanjo,the warriors are the castle—so it's up to us to turn things around for the better, and make a finer world. You. Me. Everyone you know. Everyone you care about. The responsibility and the task and the blessings are all of ours.

I'm having a hard time, after the Year Of Hell, finding much to be grateful for. Of course, I could start with the big and obvious one: I'm grateful to still be alive. In the past two years, as the chronic illness I had (mostly unknowlngly) suffered from for two decades deepened and worsened, I almost died a couple of times, I had some near-death experiences, and in the surgery that culminated as well as arrested the long slide, I genuinely felt like I had died and been reborn. Only now my body doesn't know what the rules are anymore, the old blueprints don't seem to work, and I keep stumbling over unexpected and unplanned changes. Things I used to like my body no longer likes, or tolerates. My diet has become so restricted that most days eating is not the pleasure it used to be. I end up breaking dietary rules simply because I can't stand going on. It's not about discipline or willpower—if health was subject to power of will alone, there wouldn't exist a billion-dollar industry supporting cures that don't work. It's sometimes about endurance, about doing everything right and still nothing works. Then what do you do? You can keep practicing the ascetic self-denial of self-flagellation, or you can live in denial, or you can fall into despair. Are there other choices? Nothing off-the-shelf does any good. Some nights you wonder why you've bothered.

For the first time in years, I find myself questioning my own practice of writing gratitudes. I find myself often unwilling to show up at the gratitudes dojo for practice, because it just feels like slogging through meaningless sludge. Wisdom both conventional and unconventional suggest that's just when you need to keep going, that maybe the very next repetition will be the one that turns things around—if you stop at 99 when it takes 100 repetitions, of course you won't see the end result. But many days it feels like you passed 100 a long way back, and still nothing has changed.

It's also true that lots of more shallow pundits in the self-development movement use the guilt-tactic of blaming the victim to motivate. Have you ever noticed that the entire weight-loss industry is based on the language of scarcity, and uses language that is uniformly negative and self-punishing? It's no wonder people suffer from abysmal self-esteem. Who wouldn't, when told again that they're "failures" unless they "lose." Look at the words: that's a double negative that leads not to a positive.

I guess I'm grateful I'm still alive. Most days, anyway. Some days, it's hard to get up enough strength to care.

I am grateful, genuinely, for the support of friends and family through all this, even when it's been tough love rather than emotional support. I struggle mightily with being grateful for the bad advice that comes from good friends, sometimes: well-intentioned, but not really helpful because not really taking into account the entire constellation of choices and challenges facing me. One big piece of clichéd conventional wisdom I've been confronted with since my surgery is that if people haven't been through it, they often really do not get it. They can empathize, and support you, and mean well, and love you—and, still, sometimes they don't really get it. That's a truth I've never liked to face, since I am someone who has experienced the power of imagination and empathy to connect. But I guess it really is true, at least sometimes.

I'm finding it hard to be grateful to some friends, therefore, who mean well but really don't get it. I don't want to be a cur, and tell them to their faces that they don't get it. I don't want to seem surly or ungrateful. I do know that it's possible to be grateful for someone's well-meant intentions to help you, on the level that they obviously care for and worry about you, and still not want to hear their advice. I'm sorry, sometimes it's just not helpful.

The event and process I feel the greatest gratitude for, this past year, is being commissioned to write music. Getting paid to exercise my creativity. That has meant more to me than almost anything else. It has turned my attitude around for months, by giving me something to do other than brood on my misfortune, or engage in a self-pity party. I am also grateful for one lesson learned from having successfully completed the new music commission: Always have another project to engage in right away. Don't allow yourself any down time.

It's when you stop and have nothing to do that the bad voices start to manifest again in the back of your mind.

So begins my churlish and wounded little heart, and scarred belly still worried about its future, to discover gratitude. I do have big things to be grateful for this year—and there are no doubt smaller, simpler things as well, if I can but examine myself to tweezer them out of stasis—yet I find myself not wanting to do this. I have been too wounded, in some cases literally, to feel confident of my own spiritual ambitions anymore. I am too uncertain of outcomes. Another big lesson, this year, wisdom that cements another common spiritual law that you already knew, but now you really Know For Sure (and for which I am grateful): There are no guarantees. Life is uncertain, and not always user-friendly. Any of this could all come to a brutal end, at any moment. Do not take lie too seriously, but don't take it for granted, either. Enjoy what you have while it endures. There may be more, but you can't count on that, so don't take this moment for granted. And don't be cheap about it, either.

Maybe I'll have more to say soon, more gratitudes to write out. I'm really struggling with this. I just want this awful, awful year of bad things to be done with. Gods bless us all that the coming year is a better one, a finer one, a kinder one.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Tannenbaum 2011

(Click on images for larger versions.)

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Heartlands Concert Poster

(Click on image for larger version.)

This is the official concert poster for the premiere, next summer, of Heartlands, the new music I was commissioned to write, and have been writing all year. The commission has amounted to a full concert's worth of music (a whole CD), around 70 or 80 minutes of new music, and will be premiered in June 2012. The music was commissioned for the Fifteenth Anniversary Concert of Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus, the gay and gay-affirming men's chorus of Madison, WI. The piece will be premiered in Madison, then performed again in Milwaukee.

Then we will take part of the concert's worth of music and perform it in Denver, CO, in July 2012, as part of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Choruses (GALA) convention that happens every four years. The GALA convention is a chance for choruses to get together, perform for each other, feature new music, and network both musically and socially. It's a huge celebration of music, of life, and of joy. A lot of people will hear my new music at GALA, and I hope that Heartlands will be performed again, and that I'll get more commissioned work from this exposure.

I hope all of my friends who are able to attend one of the concerts will do so.

I made this poster early, using one of my own photos of rural south central Wisconsin, so that it would be available for marketing and fundraising. The poster is tabloid size (11x17) with versions to be used as postcards for mailing, and also smaller concert flyers.

The music score is currently being engraved and typeset in music software, and I am almost done proofreading. I plan to publish the score in book form later this spring or summer, and will use the poster illustration and typography to make it have a consistent look and feel. That's about branding, in graphic design: consistent visual imagery and style, and consistent typography, that create an identify, a recognizable logo and image for an event or person or business. Making this poster early means we can brand the concert early, and begin marketing campaigns and future fundraising mailings immediately. I have also made a letterhead and identity system for Heartlands and for the Fifteenth Anniversary Concert season.

I'm very satisfied with this poster. The idea was to emphasize the horizontal lines, the big sky, the open spaces of the land. I chose to do it in B&W for the evocative tone, and converted the photograph to a mezzotint to give it a classic antiqued look. The poster will probably be printed on colored paper; off-white or pale sepia, to give it a sense of being rooted, solid, and tied to the land. A vintage look, if you prefer, like some poster you might discover in a barn or farmhouse, both old and new.

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Not quite winter, but nearly, nearly

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Non-Primacy of Words

I was browsing a used book store earlier, and came across a thick volume of experimental language-based poetry. I scanned it, contemplated buying it to take home to look over more closely, then put it back. I realized I didn't need to take it home. I had scanned several pages, and they were full of the sort of "experimental" (let's get real, it isn't really new any more) language-based poetry. The author was clearly in love with the pure sounds of words, often writing sequential phrases that were like musical variations around a single set of sounds. The poems led nowhere in terms of meaning anything, they were just pure sensual pleasure in the sounds alone, and their arrangement on the page.

It had also clearly been influenced by ideas from notated music: as John Cage had done in several of his lecture texts to be read out loud, the spacing on the page indicated time. Assuming the eye moves across the page at a steady rate, the gaps in between words are equivalent to rests in music: notated silences between words, phrases, sounds.

It was pretty good stuff as far as it goes, a fairly musical example of its ilk. Yet the fact that only a few hours later I can remember neither the name of the book or the name of its author is telling.

Scanning this book of language-based poems led to another realization, then. A realization about how some writers approach their art. A realization that went a long way towards helping me integrate some conflicts and ideas within contemporary poetry.The realization was clear and simple. I'm sure some writer somewhere will respond with a "Well, duh!"

What I realized was that there is a whole gaggle of writers for whom words are sensual things in themselves. For whom the image of type on the page, and the sound that notates, are the only important thing, the only real thing.

I've encountered numerous writers, especially poets, who proclaim their love for words, as if words were actual, sensual things. Writers who say that their pleasure lies in "fooling with words," the pleasure of the language, the sensual aspect of using language to make art.

Love of language, which after all is the tool of poetry, is common to many poets, many of whom work in diverse styles and with diverse intent. I've heard writers say fairly often that they are compelled to writer. One useful definition of a writer is someone whose first artistic response to life and events is to write about them. (By this criteria I cannot always be called a writer.) Another definition of a writer is someone who is enamored of language to the extent that they constantly work with it: a writer writes. (I can be called a writer by this criterion, on some days.)

Yet there's a limitation here, if only a conceptual one. Some of these same writers, especially those who describe their first response to life as that of writing, have artistic tunnel vision. It's the same presumption many artisans and craftsmen fall into: the assumption that the way they perceive the world, and respond, is the way everyone else does, too. Of course, this isn't limited to writers: many people in many fields are unable to think outside their own boxes.

Some writers describe words as the primary components of existence: the world is made of words. Beyond the sheer anthropocentricity of such a notion—does a stooping hawk think in words about its prey?—there's the question of which words, which language, in what way exactly do words make up the world. It's even been argued, vainly and narrowly, that writing is the highest form of art, because of the primacy of language as the essential human way of responding to life.

Essential? Primacy? Not if you ask painters or dancers; usually only if you ask writers, or poets.

And then there was the musical aspect of this book of language-based poetry. Often poetry criticism relies on ideas and words from music—which seems odd: if words are indeed primary, why do you have to use analogies from (wordless) music to make your point? While I did find the sonic and musical aspects of this book pleasant on the ear, it didn't really seem to go anywhere. Individual phrases and word-plays for the sake of sound are pleasant, but so is the sound of water striking weathered stones as it falls into a pool. Pure sound can be musical, certainly. Pure words can be perceived as pure sounds—I'm not unsympathetic to that, or to the aesthetic experience that can result from it. Yet at what point does using words as pure sounds cross over the threshold from being signal, into being noise? (Noise defined as lack of signal; signal being defined as something you can connect to, in any given aesthetic experience.)

The poet Muriel Rukeyser is sometimes cited by the language-oriented poets as justification for what they attempt, in her comment: The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. This is used as justification for all sorts of "experiments" with language in poems. Ignore for the moment that Rukeyser said "stories," not "words"—that she might not agree with their usage of her comment. In fact, Rukeyser says elsewhere, in her book of essays, The Life of Poetry:

A poem is not its images any more than a symphony is its themes.

A poem is not its words any more than a symphony is its notes.

The image, the word, the note—those are methods by which the imaginative experience is presented and received.

Words, image, musical note: the tools of the trade, the atoms that carry the experience. But the tools are how the imaginative or aesthetic experience is conveyed, and how it is received. A definition of poetry that works for most camps and styles of poetry is, Poetry uses words to recreate an experience in the audience. Music uses notes as the means to do the same. Dance uses movement. Architecture uses form, color, shape, and open space. And so on.

Poet Naomi Goldenberg writes: In the beginning was definitely not the Word. . . . It is flesh that makes the words. (The stooping hawk is flesh that needs no words.) During my recovery from surgery this past summer, I wrote and made art about the experience. One theme from these surgery diaries was about body knowing. That entire experience has taught me to listen deeper to my body's needs, and to listen to communications that do not come via words. I am already discovering a narrative of death-and-rebirth, and the renewal of life, arising from this experience, and I am making art about it.

The book of language-oriented poetry, as I browsed several pages, revealed no narrative, no story, no sense of imagery. Like much language-based poetry it was words for their own sake and no other. The words were clearly carefully presented, obviously carefully crafted. Time and energy had been spent on this; it was a thick book, so perhaps it had been the compilation of years of effort. What was the imaginative experience I was supposed to receive? If it was just to bathe in the sensuality of words, it seemed a tepid and shallow bath.

For me as a reader, none of it stuck. Unless there were puzzle-box meanings I was supposed to ferret out, as a reader, and find lurking behind the surface of the language, I found nothing to relate to, nothing to hang onto, nothing but surface effects. Unless, of course, the whole purpose was to skate pinwheels on the surface of the lake of language.

If all you care about with words is their presentation, their sounds, their thingness, you may be able to pull it off musically, but at what point does this become music rather than poetry? Coming from the composer's direction, using musics purely as sounds within a performance art or text-sound-poetry piece is quite legitimate. I've written (and recorded) a number of such pieces myself. But in the end it's music, not poetry: it's made up of words, as language and poetry are made up of words, but the words are textural: they can have meaning individual meaning, but they are tapestries of density and shape: sculpted sounds on the ear. As a composer first and a poet third, I tend to perceive this work as musical rather than poetic.

A lot of poetry criticism tries to evoke musicality in poetry, often finding ground on purely technical matters. Criticism often borrows words from music theory, occasionally to surreal effect. And this is where the argument that poetry is the highest artform of all, because it is so abstract, falls flat on its face: because, even though words are abstracted symbols that represent experience, other artforms—specifically nonverbal artforms—there are more abstract artforms, including dance, instrumental music, and so forth.

Those who love words are their primary medium tend to always want to talk about or describe music, dance, and painting—all of which are valid occupations in themselves—as though no art is real until it's verbalized. Those who believe in the primacy of words are always talking. In truth, some never know when to shut up.

It's perfectly valid to filter all of your life experience through words (talking mostly to yourself), which is what many writers do. But they need to remember two things: not everyone perceives or responds to life the same way they do; and in fact, sometimes, those places where words fail utterly (for example, at the side of the bed where a loved one has just died), are deeper and more profound experiences than words can contain. Words fail at the sight of the ineffable and the mysterious.

On the other hand, there is another breed of poet for whom poetry really isn't anything different than prose. They may break their poems into lines, they may use slant-rhymes or off-rhymes or meter, but rarely obviously. They always write full grammatical prose sentences, then break those sentences up on the page. Often in this kind of poetry the line-breaks seem quite arbitrary. It can be a bit of a puzzle as to why they chose to break the line where they did. Often they seem like lined prose-poems. As what few readers I have know well, I have no problem with prose-poems, and write them often myself. What I do have a problem with is arbitrary line-breaks for no apparent reason. Any reason will do, as long as there is one.

Of course, now that poetry apps are starting to proliferate, maybe this is all moot. However you define yourself as a poet, and how you define "writing," one of the solid truths of the vaporous present moment in the arts is that everything is up for grabs, nothing is as certain as it was, and all the old maps have blank gaps in them, often making them useless. It may well be that the assistance of technology is going to permanently change the way we all interact, and make, art. Which actually I'm already doing, as a writer, composer, and artist. Just don't make the usual mistake of proclaiming the death of old media when the new media emerges: actual physical solid books will not disappear just because e-readers are now available. If anything, it makes the solid book more precious, both as a collectable object, and as an artform in itself. Yes, you heard it here first: making books is actually an artform.

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Tokens of Good Cheer

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Monday, December 12, 2011


Wednesday, December 07, 2011


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Monday, December 05, 2011

watch the skies 2: the making of a photograph series

The photographs of a Wisconsin sunset and evening and of a full moon were made sequentially, on the same day. These photos were all made within a span of two or three hours, on a very productive day for my photography.

I was out driving through the farmland countryside, mostly empty of people, and after the harvest. Most of the fields had been cleared for winter, and the leaves had finished falling from the trees. I had been noticing the dramatic clouds after a rain storm had swept through the region, so I grabbed my camera, got in the truck, and started driving.

The clouds were low and bold, steel-blue-gray in color, when the sun emerged briefly in a gap between cloud layers, just before sunset. I was on a county road between open farm fields, with the occasional home and barn dotting the landscape. There is a quality or tranquility in the juxtaposition between the human-made buildings and the eternal landscape and changing sky.

The same clouds then were painted from behind with bright sunset colors as the evening continued. I placed the line of the horizon low in the frame, with bare trees and some distant buildings, as a way of giving scale to the magnificent show of color in the sky.

As the sun sank further, and the sky darkened, I noticed an abandoned barn that made an interesting silhouette against the sky and the band of clouds. I like the contrast of the bold edges of the building against the softer forms of the clouds.

The full moon rose, sometimes in a clear patch of sky, sometimes covered by fast-moving veils of cloud.

I chose to switch from making color to B&W photographs when the light had faded enough that little color remained in the dusk light. Also, the barn and late dusk clouds were more interesting as a strong composition in B&W, and any color in the photo would have been distracting rather than interesting. I continued with B&W for the moon photos, because what was interesting was the moon being played against the pine tree's silhouette—an inspiration from japanese art, in terms of the composition I chose—and against the clouds. The clouds partially covered the moon at times, but their edges also transmitted and reflected the moonlight in dramatic, moody shapes. I made the moon images as square compositions partly to emphasize the composition of forms.

The poems accompanying these photographs were written spontaneously, as I sorted through the images, preparing them for printing (and posting). I have made a practice over the past few years of combining poems and photographs, and have in mind at some time to publish them as an illustrated book of poems. The poems were directly inspired by the photographs, and they ought to be presented together.

People sometimes ask me how I make photos like these. What they really want to know, sometimes, is how to do it themselves.

There's no special secret to it. It's really very simple:

1. Always have a camera with you.

2. Always pay attention to your surroundings. Always be seeing what's around you, the sky and the land, the light changing continuously throughout the day.

3. Be willing to drop everything, when the conditions are just right, be willing to stop whatever else you're doing, get out the camera on the instant, and make the photograph.

4. It's all about the light.

You can take this to a deeper level, too:

1. Always have a good camera with you, one that you're familiar with, that you have practiced using. If you know your camera well, you don't have to fiddle with it, getting it set up and ready to go. You don't have to fight your tools before using them, you just use them. Sometimes the light changes so fast that if you're spending too much time getting ready to make the photograph, you lose the moment. Modern digital cameras do make set-up times faster, which is an advantage. The disadvantage is that sometimes they're so easy to use that you shoot a million pictures without having actually stopped to see what you're shooting first.

2. The difference between "taking pictures" and "making a photograph" is all about the time you take to see before releasing the trigger. The difference between "taking" and "making" is subtle, but it's important.

"Taking" is about the borderlands of greed, and can be a violent act: for example, paparazzi taking photographs of celebrities they have pursued is about greed, about intruding your desire to acquire an image onto someone else's private time. You get a great shot (and isn't "shooting" a word about violence, too?), you get paid by some tabloid. It's not about friendship, it's not really about love. It can be about mania, or obsession.

People on vacation take lots of pictures, most of them not very interesting, continuously snapping their cameras, shooting (shooting again) everything in sight. People make videos of themselves and post them on online social networks. The difference between the authoritarian culture of surveillance and the personal culture of narcissism has become deeply blurred.

"Making" is about taking time to first see what you want to photograph. It can involve walking around the subject, contemplating it for awhile. It means preparation: prepared at all times to make an image—sometimes very quickly, as the butterfly alights on the coneflower—by having set up the camera a long time ago to wait for the perfect moment to arrive.

At all times pay attention to your surroundings. See what is there. This can be taken beyond the level of ordinary awareness, into a kind of Zen awareness, a Warrior's awareness, where you always know what's going on around you. With practice, you can make a camera walk into a kind of meditation. My Ki Aikido sensei used to tell me that he doesn't do sitting Zen meditation as much as he used to, because after thirty of daily of practice of meditation, he's pretty much meditating all the time. That's more than most photographers aspire to, or are even aware could be possible, but it can make a big difference in the kind of photographs you make. It even applies to fast-paced photography like sports photography. be paying attention—and all meditation really is, is Pay Attention, Pay Attention, Pay Attention—you can often feel something is about to happen, and be ready for it when it does. There's nothing magical about this: it's merely about paying close attention to your subject, and merging with what you're doing. Photographers can be "in the zone" in the same way athletes are.

3. Be willing to stop everything to make the photograph. Don't hesitate to stop whatever you're doing, in order to make a photograph, when the moment's right.

If you're driving, pull over and stop and get out of the vehicle when you see that perfect photographic moment about to happen. If you're out jogging, stop and make your photograph, then resume jogging. If you're out taking a walk with your camera, you can stop and stare for as long as you want, make your image, then walk on.

Don't hesitate to look foolish. Don't worry about what people think, if you break off for a moment to make a photo. If you're too self-conscious about how and where you make your art, you're probably not going to continue making your art. At the very least, you'll have to find to cope with your self-consciousness, if you want to progress with your art.

4. It's all about the light.

Photography is about light. Light is what makes the photograph. Light, whether it's visible light, or infrared, or x-rays, consists of photons traveling at the speed of light, at whatever frequency and amplitude. You can't make an image when no photons are reaching your lens.

I noticed some years ago, after it had been pointed out to me by some perceptive viewers of my photographs, that a lot of my landscape photographs are really about the sky. The sky dominates the photograph, no matter what the photo's subject is ostensibly about. I generalized that awareness to a realization that when I am making photographs, I'm really looking at the light.

That means that some kinds of light, certain times of day, certain places, are more attractive to my photographer's eye. I am drawn to dramatic landscape, to saturated colors, or to contrast and brightness in B&W compositions. Some of my favorite photographs are all about the light, the sky, and the landscape.

But this isn't limited to time or place. This morning I awoke to another cloudy day of flat and featureless gray skies, gloomy in mood, dark in tone, with no contrast in the shadows, and no interest in the sky. Even on a gloomy, cloudy day with featureless skies and flat light, making a photograph is still all about the light. I can find something to make a photograph of even on a day of featureless gray clouds. I just have to go looking for it. When you go looking, and you start to Pay Attention, you realize that the light is still beautiful, albeit subtle rather than saturated, gentle rather than dramatic. You can change the way you perceive the day, the sky, the light, and still find a photographic subject worthy of your attention.

That's how learning to Pay Attention, and always having your camera with you, can serve you well, even on days you might otherwise find aesthetically challenging. What's changed from the morning when you woke up thinking the light was flat and uninteresting? You've changed. Your viewpoint and attitude have shifted. You've paid attention to what's there, and you've slowed down and stopped what you were doing to see what's actually there.

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watch the skies

watch the skies

corn-shaved fields
open to night
sunfall to west
opposite full moonrise

wind's noise, distant traffic
sinks like black round riverstone
into depthless well
of inner silence

knock on the sky
listen to the sound

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Begin Again, Keep Going

Having completed a large commission of songs for male chorus and piano, which occupied all of my attention for several months, and which produced a concert's worth of music, I have this past week been newly commissioned to do another, very different musical project. A CD I had made on commission almost a decade ago, a CD of trance music to be used as background for yoga classes, meditation, and similar situations, has led to a commission to make a sequel CD. Not a repetition, but the next level. I'm a better composer and musician now, or at least I hope I am, since time is meant to improve your art-making, not stagnate it.

This new CD I am recording now will be used for meditation, yoga, healing, massage, Reiki sessions, and so forth. Thus I'm writing it to sustain those purposes, not interrupt them. That calls for a particular kind of music. A particular tone and tempo very different from the dramatic, narrative songs I've been writing for most of this year. It will be completely non-verbal, instrumental music. It will use original recordings of Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist meditation bells, bells recorded from my own collection. It will use a fair bit of shakuhachi. No doubt there will be some synthesizers and keyboards in the mix, and Chapman Stick. It will have a variety of shapes and tones, but overall will hopefully take the listener deeper into meditative states of consciousness, the opposite of overstimulated, stressed-out, Type A caffeinated states of mind.

There's a lot of bland, boring New Age music out there. The best of that genre has always been music first, New Age music second. I think of musicians such as Paul Winter, Will Ackerman, and a few others, who pretty much invented the genre, but also transcended it. Contrast their vibrant, emotional music with the soulless boring pap of Stephen Halpern's random noodlings on electric piano. Contrast the powerful presence of the music in Stephan Micus recording against the flatlined neutral of most New Age music. Even ambient music, created in modern times by Brian Eno, inspired by Eric Satie's semi-joking idea for "furniture music" a century earlier, has more soul than most music you hear played in New Age bookstores, or most healing centers, massage offices, or new Age spiritual healing seminars. People often make the mistake of equating music meant to be unobtrusive and supportive with toneless, dull, bland, and spineless.

Yes, I do have strong opinions about New Age music.

That's because I was a participating witness to the development of this music from its start, back at its inception in the 1970s. Some roots of that style of music are ambient (Eno), folk, cool jazz, especially West Coast jazz, and the encounters of improvising musicians with the musics and spiritual values brought over from India, Japan, Tibet, and China in the 1960s. A lot of improvising musicians from the jazz and rock world contributed to growth of New Age music by introducing multicultural music into Western pop. The movement was strongly influenced both by world music, and by spiritual and moral ideas from the East.

If you want to blame someone, blame The Beatles: their introduction of Indian classical music into Britpop in the late 60s and early 70s, instigated by George Harrison's encounters with India, opened that door to a million and more people who otherwise would never have heard the music, or learned to meditate. The influence of popular culture icons, especially those as beloved, and as restless, as The Beatles, cannot be underestimated. George Harrison's post-Beatles solo albums have been part of the trend, seminal and central, even when basically pop music.

The music I tend to create, now, when asked to make healing music, or trance music, or meditation/yoga music, tends to be on the ambient side. Not static and unchanging, but not tonal or harmonic, not based on Western ideas of music theory, and essentially timeless. One of my influences is of course my years playing Indonesian gamelan music. Another strong influence is Buddhist music from Japan, the Himalayas, and Southeast Asia, all of which I have listened to and studied for decades.

I am making it up as a I go along. It's an improvisation on a theme, a tone, an idea, a feeling. Most of my music is just so, whether notated or improvised. Art is improvised, life is improvised. It's all of a piece. So I keep going, making art, giving myself something to do that means something, a reason to go on, a purpose and a meaning, for my own life.

Music surrounds hate and forces it to surrender. —Pete Seeger

Hate, fear, all the corrosive forces of entropy, give way before music's power to make us all come together in harmony. So Mote It Be.

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