Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Re-Enchantment of Art 5: Instruments of Revelation

(Some random notes and quotes from recent travels and readings.)

At Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, there are a couple of small art galleries in the visitor center devoted to art inspired by the caverns. One of these rooms contains nothing but photographs by Ansel Adams. Adams didn't think his cave images, made for a large project of photos of all the national parks, were very successful: Adams always worked with natural light, and of course the caves had to be lit artificially for his photos.

On the wall of the Adams gallery at Carlsbad is the following quote:

Our time is short, and the future terrifyingly long. Believing as we must that things of the heart and mind are most enduring, this is the opportunity to apply art as a potent instrument of revelation, expression, and perpetuation of wilderness activities and moods. Through art of brush, pen, and lens, each one no less than the other, we possess a swift and sure means of touching the conscience and clearing the vision.
—Ansel Adams

Art as an instrument of revelation. Art as a means of touching the conscience and clearing the vision.

Art is kenotic. Art is prophetic. Art is revelation. Or at least, art can be all these things. It doesn't have to be, or need to be, yet it often is. Art as an instrument of revelation.

My own photographs often feel to me like splashes of cave paintings on the walls of rocks much older than time. I often feel as though all I am doing is waiting to see what is there, and what will happen next.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen . . .
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin.

—Bob Dylan

Stories in fiction and poetry are lies that can tell deeper truths. What passes for human interest on a daily basis is self-involved and deadening by comparison. Most self-involved fiction isn't revelatory, but deadening. What use is criticism if it doesn't likewise enliven the art that it discusses? What use is criticism at all, for that matter? Far better to go on making art than to talk about it. Of course, the old clichéd saying does hold truth to it: Those who can, do; those who can't, instruct.

Carlsbad Caverns; infrared photo

It has happened that we have been afflicted with a basic deprivation, to such an extent that we seem to be missing some vital organs, even as we try to survive somehow. Theology, science, philosophy, though they attempt to provide cures, are not very effective "In that dark world where the gods have lost their way." (Roethke) They are able at best to confirm that our affliction is not invented. . . . Abstract considerations will be of little help, even if they are intended to bring relief. Poetry is quite different. By its very nature it says: All those theories are untrue. Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot—if it is good poetry—look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness.
—Czeslaw Milosz

Poetry deals with the singular. It can also deal with the universal, with the cosmic, with the fully human, but it gets there via the specific and singular. Poetry doesn't have to be didactic or hectoring to be true, or tell the truth. Sometimes the most prophetic poems are those that show us what is going on, that just present the truth as it is lived by real people.

Nothing that isn't beautiful can be true, only the true is lovable.
—Paul Cezanne

Cezanne was an extremist in many of his views, an uncompromising artist who made enemies by refusing to change his ways. But he was often right. There is a lot to his comment here, that whatever truth is, it is always beautiful. Or can be perceived as beautiful.

The simple truth is, those we try to explain away all mysteries fail utterly, simply because there are always larger mysteries that cannot be explained.

Art as an instrument of revelation: What we see that is beautiful contains truth that sometimes we don't want to confront. But we must.

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Colder Moons

Outside the blood moon of popping trees.
Snow at last. Blur of surprised antlers,
past the morning window where I sit to write:
An eight-point stag leaps away from the glass,
snow pawed beside the house, across white drapery past
pines towards the river. At dusk, yearling deer
gavotte circles around the naked maple. Last week
a round moon caught itself in a net of oak branches,
white pearl in a weave of strands ambered in sunset.
Three days later the sun, white-balled by heavy clouds
is caught in a similar net of tree stalks, burned
before dusk. Now all my crackling trees are afire.

Somewhere there's a desert where I want to go,
unfettered by frost's weave or winter's sulk, where
a known quality of silence, more encompassing
than the muffled quilting made by heavy snowfall,
rings off rocks, tastes like brass on the tongue.
Gypsum dust, actinic glare, alkali kiss and sneeze.
Ache for distances so private you can gambol unclothed,
naked to the sky blaze, soaking up boulder-borne heat
as tongue-flicking lizards digest a feast of cacti bees.
Till your ribs runnel with sweat, streaming tan dust away.
Some smug stillness in such indolent glow. Not only a vibrant
basking in shimmer heat of isometric lust.

Colder moons under a blank desert eye. Not a lot to do
when your hands get this cold. Not a lot to say. Ankles crack
like icicles. I hear there's a shortcut across the arroyo,
where wiser angels do not tread. Words spill over the canyon,
all fireweed and fragrance.

Random ideograms of dislocation. Last time outbound,
sunsets to take your breath away, orange translucent purple
green-edged blue teal peach, landscape with a dollop of
desert light. Disconnect, dislocate, decenter. A thread
runs through memory, links every ground you ever camped on.
A surfeit of tent, an excess of fresh air. Brewing sweet tea
over wood coals some cold blue pre-dawn, embrace
a kind of solace. Some things don't need
to be forgiven.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The History of Wind Power in America

What could be a more iconic representation of life on the Great Prairie, life in the open-skied Midwest, life in the American Heartlands, than images of red barns, farm combines out in the fields, and the silhouette of a windmill? Nothing.

American Wind Power Center and Museum, Lubbock, TX

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On the Road at Dusk

sudden small towns rear up
explode across the windshield
as dusk softens to vigilance

rural towns, grey days, blue dusk
long quiet highway lined with dead hulks
abandoned farms, lost dreams of survival and refuge

empty buildings full of blue light and ghosts
roofs open to chill bullet rains
on wind dry prairies with no names

silent but for hiss and hum of tires
on tarmac passing, then back to silence
a single croak of phantom grackle

settling in for long winter's night

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Route 66 Collage

Snapshots from the road, driving the first couple of days of roadtrip/vacation. These scenes mostly from Illinois and Missouri.

I've driven all of old Route 66 now at least twice, sections of it considerably more than that. It's still a fascinating bit of Americana, both kitsch and brilliant. "Get your kicks on Route 66" still rings true, if not always for the original reasons given in the song. It's still "America's Highway," and will be for a long time, in popular myth and folklore, if not in actual fact.

The ride's only begun. No doubt more collages will follow. After all, I have new tools for making art, on this new roadtrip. So I'm trying new things as I go.

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Monday, January 23, 2012


in my backyard, fresh snow

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Saguaro Moon

A classic image from the Southwest of my imagination. A place I will be in reality, just a few days from now.

This is a drawing, rather, a digital painting, I made on my iPad this afternoon, using a sophisticated painting app called ArtRage. I made this painting in about ten or twelve minutes, as I was waiting while the shop installed new tires on my truck, prior to my upcoming roadtrip.

I really like the ArtRage app, which is the most intuitive and flexible painting software I've encountered in years. It provides a wide range of adjustable drawing and painting tools, all customizable and adaptable, along with a range of paper textures, effects, and other illustrative processes. There is even the ability to use a reference photo as tracing paper, or a guide. One can work on several layers, too, so that transparencies can be built up non-destructively. i find myself able to paint and draw things easily and quickly, using a stylus, in this digital domain, that frankly I would not be able to do in the real world. (That's partly because I'm chemically sensitive, or rather allergic, to many traditional artistic materials, including aromatics like turpentine and other agents.)

For this digital painting, I mostly used a flat watercolor brush, paint tube and roller, and a sable brush, changing the color and settings for saturation, etc., several times during the painting. I found the tools easy to figure out, and using the stylus came naturally. I guess teaching myself to draw over the past years has had some benefits, after all.

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Songwriting: Making a Demo

Recently I finished composing/writing a new song, for myself to sing at a fundraising event in March, called "The Power of Love." I auditioned the song for two of three artistic staff for the event, but the third person couldn't be at that audition, so I was asked to make a demo version of the song. That's mostly so they know how to program my song within the larger context of the fundraiser concert: where to put it, what it's mood and tone are like, etc.

Well, naturally I said, sure, I'll make a demo. Not having made a studio demo for some few years, nonetheless I was willing. For two reasons: first, to complete the audition process and assure my performance slot for the concert, and also to give myself the pleasure of a new creative challenge in my recording studio.

Now that I seem to be a songwriter as well as a composer, I suppose making demos will become more common for me. And I believe I will keep writing more new songs, now, both to keep up the compositional momentum, and to continue to grow as a writer. Words and music: that's going to be phrase on my new business cards.

I'm about to leave for a month-long roadtrip. It's time for my annual trip to the Southwest and to California, cameras in hand, writing journal nearby. I've been packing for this years' trip, organizing objects in a new system. Since the video camera I will be taking this trip is smaller and lighter than previously, I will be able to walk farther, and take longer hikes, with just a shoulder bag or smaller backpack. My strength during my post-surgery recovery has reached levels unseen for a decade, and I feel up to hiking a mile or two to get a good image. There are trails I know about that I haven't been able to attempt, which I feel able to do now, this year.

One of the bags I packed is my creative arts bag. It has pens and colored pencils, a couple of back-up notebooks for writing in, some drawing and watercolor paper, a few ideas sketched out to work on more later, and a few other things.

I have every intention of writing more song lyrics, or maybe a new art-song for voice and piano, while I'm on the road. As I've written before, it's become obvious to me that I do best when I am always making art, always writing. So the creative arts bag also contains some song lyrics that I wrote last year that I have yet to set to music, and a spiral music composition notebook, for writing music of whatever kind comes forward to be written.

I will probably take along a couple of my more portable musical instruments. Maybe my Stick.

Most definitely my newest musical instrument: my iPad, which is turning out to be a source of great creative possibilities for me. I have lots of photography and video apps on there, but the most useful apps so far have been musical tools. I have already used the iPad as an important computer-music source for an album I recently composed of music for meditation and healing.

All hail Rockmate! All hail GarageBand!

With these two iPad apps, I spent a few hours over the last couple of nights laying down basic tracks for a demo version of "The Power of Love." I have yet to record the vocals; which I'll do tomorrow, as it's late at night as I write now, and I'm too tired to do a good job singing. I will also probably lay down piano and/or classic Hammond B3 organ tracks, just a few bits here and there to give the demo some life and depth. Those also will likely by done with the soft-synths (software-based synthesizers) that I have in my recording studio.

Making a demo is about making a rough recording of a song to give a sense of what the song is about. It's not meant to be a final recorded version, it's not perfected or produced to the same level as an album track. Demos are meant to get people to listen to the song, and see what it's about. When you play a demo for a record label or a producer, it's always at least partly about auditioning your work for them, to entice them to work with you, and release your music as a produced album. Lots of demos never get any further than that, and that's fine. Lots of songwriters produce demos that get their toe in the door, which are then re-recorded.

I am making this demo to present the piece for concert performance later. But it can also serve as an introduction to my new activity as a songwriter. Being a songwriter these days usually means being a singer-songwriter. I don't have a lot of self-confidence as a solo singer. Maybe that will develop over time.

For this demo, I laid down some rhythm guitar tracks first, following the song's chord structure. Then a few fills of guitar lines in places where a short solo might fit. I don't play guitar, and have no real experience on or feel for the instrument. Rockmate was extremely useful for laying down the guitar tracks.

Next I laid down some bass lines, using an upright bass softsynth. I basically played a jazz bass line by hand. I'm a bass player, my first instrument after piano was upright bass, which I began playing in orchestra at age 13. (I was small for my age when I began playing bass, and the instrument dwarfed me for a couple of years.) I chose a jazz bass line, albeit a groove-based rather than freeform line, in part because in my mind "The Power of Love" is not a pop song, but a jazz-inflected folk-rock song. That's how I hear it in my head.

The drum tracks were actually the easiest to do. I basically used the SmartDrums feature in GarageBand, synchronized to the metronome click track I was using for the demo. I used a classic studio drum kit, useful for both jazz and pop music. Again, I programmed the drums to be more of a jazz than rock style, but with a strong backbeat. Once I synced up with the metronome click track, tracking the drums was the easiest of all, for this demo. All I had to do was make little variations in the rhythms, and fills, to keep it sounding organic and live. the software already does this well, but you can also tweak it on the fly, while it's playing, to make the sorts of stylistic and volume changes typical when shifting from the verse to the refrain.

This demo song, which I expect to be able to complete tomorrow, isn't going to be a perfect performance, just a heartfelt one. Demos aren't about perfection, they're about presentation. Of course you do the best that you can, given the time constraints, and in this case given all the other things I need to do before I leave on my upcoming roadtrip. I have no doubt that when I perform the song live in concert, a month or so from now, I will not only perform it better than on this demo, I will know the song better. Self-confidence in performance involves knowing your material really well, everything memorized and internalized. So I plan to take my Stick along in part so I can keep practicing and learning this new song that I've written. First you write it, then you have to learn it well enough to perform it.

And after that, who knows? Maybe more songs. Maybe a whole new writing project. Something to keep me creatively busy for awhile longer.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012


the first sun
was the white eye of a grey day

the second sun
was blood on the road

thirds don't come
when you call your cadence

just leave the last sun
under the road's long sigh

boom of angel
eye presence in the lowered sky

continuous exaltation
where nothing is but what burns

long fall towards
ends neither remorse nor winnow

the final sun
was the red eye of departure

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012


luminous pearl
caught in a net of branches:
waxing moon

amber moon eye
of carnivorous lampfish
raised with fisher's catch

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Books of the Cliffs

incised inscription of dull pen on white black
mind clover mask and trumpet vine ripe with bees
steady crimson face of blood in etching copper knife
long sassafras fade from green to gold ember glisten
this fall, long autumn, when every tree glows as if the first day

unformed soul's preceptor, brilliant stick of lightning
sage of canvas written as flesh, honey and ice
long witness and evocation of fossil bones of owls
sea cliff remnant in breaking stone cliff waves over highway
this road not traveled since the world ended and began

logjam of unshelter, feelings never released into flesh
light of the touch, improbable destiny in orbit in escalade
tones of fire tonguing the waste long cliff fall shades
dancers around confocal firepit shadow cast dancing on stone
in the end ash sage ember gold flakes in a fitful wind

This is a newer poem in a form I haven't written in for awhile. It began as a form I invented or developed or discovered, take your pick, over a decade ago, which I used intensively for awhile. They are poems in the series I call the Books. Eventually I was planning to collect the best of these poems into an art book called The Books of Silence. I have some designs and illustrations and Photoshop art already for that project done, but I've never finished it. That might move closer towards being completed soon, as I am getting interested in book design and work again. Some of the first poems in the series can be read here.

Palimpsest 1, in the art style I'm thinking of using for the Books

The thing about writing a series of poems is: How do you know when it's complete? How do you know you won't be writing in that form anymore, or building on that series, or assembling poems in the same form? Where do you stop? Do you stop at all?

I've done several different poem series over the years. In truth, I don't always know when a series is done. I don't actively think about it very often. I just let it happen. When a series is done, or seems to be done, it takes awhile to notice that I haven't written anything in that form or series for awhile. Noticing can take months or years, in some cases. When you first notice, you ask yourself if the series is actually done, or if it's resting. At which point you can wait longer, to see what happens. or you can go ahead and collect everything in the series together, make a chapbook, and declare it done. If more poems in the series appear later, you can always add them in, or do a second series. Sometimes things dangle off the edges of intention. You can try to make your art absolutely symmetrical and managed, but life is messy, and that messiness will show up in your art. Control can be more illusion than reality.

Don't ask me to explain these poems. I can talk about the form, but the images and words themselves are somewhat mysterious, even to me. Some of these poems are very strange, even for me. This poem form is fractal in that it has similar language and imagery on multiple scales. It's been compared to haiku, in that each line can be read as like a haiku. Then you add lines into stanzas, and the scale changes but not the style or content. The poems are also cinematic, in the sense that they are often sequences of images that can create parataxis in the reader's mind, or imply a narrative made from pictures. A poetic cinema, to be sure, ironically non-verbal in effect, although made up from word-paintings.

I like what this form does to language. It gets compressed, and often pared down to just the most luminous images. It makes language lean and spare, and to my mind more poetic, precisely because of the compression. Like haiku.

There are numerous poems in this form I've not shared anywhere outside of a small circle. Maybe I'll start the gathering process, make that book, and go forward with the development. I'm not sure if I'm done with this series, or form. Maybe another poem will turn up someday. Time will tell.

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Performance Empathy

There is a reason I like to play in ensembles, in musical groups, more often than I like to play as a solo artist. It's not that I don't play as a solo musician, but I do prefer working with at least one other musician. It's hard to articulate, but I ran across a good way of thinking about it in the liner notes to a recent CD:

Music is fondly called a universal "language." When we make music and listen to music together, the musical code necessary to this end usually seems self-evident. But how does such a code arise and proliferate? How does dialect or slang emerge from a language? What gives rise to characteristic phrasings, embellishments and rhythmic alloys shared by an entire group of musicians? And how do rules of style take hold? . . .

When five musicians play together, ten different paths of communication open up between them—a challenge to deft, accurate interaction and mutual attention. The only way to find and share these paths is with a large degree of empathy, which enables us intuitively to reflect our partners in ourselves, immediately and reflexively. In addition to criticism (the other form of constructive reflection), empathy is a key prerequisite for creative collaborations. It is a co-operative survival strategy, as old as time itself, and thus deeply rooted not only in our thought but in our bodies. That is what makes this gift so valuable and productive for our interaction. Joint phrasing, after all, cannot be captured in notation. It can only be gained through training and patience, through mutual respect and interest, through the ability to resonate with each other.

Then familiar phrases, curious and vivid turns of phrase, verbs of ghost notes and rhythmic punch lines will arise as if by themselves.

—Nik Brätsch, liner notes to album with group RONIN, Llyria

The reason I like to play in ensembles of like-minded, empathic musicians is that I'm addicted to making music the way that Nik Brätsch describes here. It's my favorite way of playing music, in groups of musicians who genuinely listen to and feel and respond with each other. It's almost magical at times, and one of the very best natural highs available. By comparison, many solo gigs, while they are rewarding in other ways, don't challenge me, don't push me as hard. In groups, I play better, I go further, I am challenged to be at the very edge of my game, and to spend as much time as possible "in the zone."

How did I get this way? Well, I can relate to the music that Nik Brätsch's group RONIN makes, and how they do it, and why, because I was for a long time in a very similar group.

I played for twelve years or so in an improvising band called Dangerous Odds with a core group of four musicians accompanying two core performance poets. We played more than one open mic poetry slam gig, and for several years had a monthly radiobroadcast on local community radio.

Dangerous Odds was based around the idea of spontaneously improvised music accompanying poetry performance. We built a specialty of being able to play in all styles of music, being able to change on the instant in response to the poets' words and directions. We never rehearsed, we just got together for gigs and recording sessions. We talked about what we were going to do before a gig, but at a recording session, sometimes we would just point at each other and say "Start something," the music would start, and the chief poet would pick a text that worked with what we were doing and join in. Often no key center was agreed on beforehand, we just dove in, and started playing in the Key Of X. A mood or concept might be agreed on beforehand, in response to a poem, and sometimes a key was chosen in advance. But not always. There were also times when the musicians would just play, without words or texts or poets. We tried to mix it all together for most live gigs.

When I say "all styles of music," I mean it. That includes classical and folk, as well as more typically improvisatory genres such as jazz, fusion, rock, and blues. For example, one evening we were joined by some Irish traditional musicians, and came up with Foggy Foggy Dub. On other occasions we came up with more experimental, soundscape-oriented music, occasionally quite unusual and minimal; for example, Clocks in Chaos. A lot of choices depended on the poem.

In this band I usually took the bass role in the ensemble, letting the flute and viola play melodic functions. I usually played either six-string bass guitar or Chapman Stick. Occasionally one of the poets would perform one of my own poems, too, while I played my musical role. For example, Begging Bowl. In later bands I took more of a melodic role, being a second "guitarist" even though I was playing Stick. For example, as with fUSE.

Dangerous Odds regularly invited guest musicians to sit in, and occasionally guest poets. We were very picky about who we invited, however. It had to be someone we liked, and got along well with. We had all been in bands in the past with overbearing front-row musicians (rock & roll guitarists being the most notorious Big Egos), and we made a point about equality amongst the musicians and poets. This was no one person's band. Our rule was, if you got us the gig, you got to say what you wanted to do; and we all set up various gigs at various times. So each of us was occasionally bandleader-for-one-gig, but not much more than that. As for guest artists, we usually asked them to give some direction as to what they wanted to do. Otherwise it was very equal, very give-and-take.

(Some more samples of pieces by Dangerous Odds can be heard on my Music page on my main website; just scroll down.)

We all learned to listen, to really listen to everything going on all the time, and to respond on the instant. The group became almost telepathic after awhile. Even if we hadn't played together for a month, there was rarely ever any hesitation. It all evolved quite naturally and intuitively. The enforced equality among all the musicians also led to mutual respect, which in turn improved our ability to listen to each other. Sometimes it took one song at the beginning of a recording session before we were all "tuned in" with each other again; but usually only one tune was needed, and for the rest of the night we were telepathic as usual.

As I mentioned earlier, we had all been burned by egotistical guitarists in previous bands; so we only rarely invited guitarists to sit in with us, and they had to be both great players and good friends. We were most often an entirely "guitar free zone." At one memorable gig, for one poem we used drums, keyboards, flute, poet, and three bass guitars. To have three bassists all going at the same time requires a lot of careful listening and respectful playing, and we made it work.

Getting back to the topic of musical empathy, playing for so long in Dangerous Odds spoiled me for playing in other kinds of bands. I got used to playing improvised music near-telepathically with other musicians. It's still my favorite way to make music: improvise together, without any road map, and without a safety net. Totally open and free. Most people, even most jazz musicians, think free jazz means cacophonous noise; but it doesn't have to mean that, it can mean subtle beauty, too. And I also like to improvise on a known pattern, or over a groove, or a set of chord changes. A little bit of structure can take you very far, as for example with 12-bar blues, possibly the most familiar and clichéd chord pattern around but still capable of infinite nuance and revitalizing freshness. It's all in how you approach it.

Spontaneous improvisation is still my favorite way to make music with other musicians. In Dangerous Odds I got addicted to playing with musicians with a high degree of empathy and intuition, and most importantly the ability to listen to each other.

I write composed, notated music, and I still play jazz, rock, the occasional blues, and folk gigs. I write songs to be sung, and I write them both for other people and myself to perform. I write concert music. I create soundscapes for art gallery openings. Even my notated music begins in ideas that all start out as natural improvisations. The music only becomes fixed as I begin to write it down. Even then, I like to leave some breathing room in a notated piece for the performers to be able to make some choices. I like indeterminacy.

Yet there remains something almost magically alive in spontaneously improvised music, where you don't know what's going to happen next, and you have to be alert and aware and Pay Attention at all times. Dangerous Odds spoiled me for more traditional jazz ensembles. I don't really like playing standards from the American Songbook, and so with a few rare exceptions I don't really know or regularly play any standards.

I'm attracted to the more avant-garde edges of improvised music. My favorite record label for over 30 years has been ECM. That is a label filled to the brim with this kind of music, host to many musicians who have influenced both my playing and my thinking. Some of my all-time favorite musicians are ECM recording artists. I still discover new artists through the label, because I trust their choices to be interesting to my ears.

Collaborative music is more thrilling to me than is solo music. As Nik Brätsch says, empathy is a key prerequisite for creative collaborations. I could not agree more. It is in fact, I would say, the central and most important key.

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Monday, January 09, 2012

Visitor from the Wild

Yesterday morning, in the blanched winter sunlight of nearly midday, a long-legged, brush-tailed form loped across the open lawn behind my house, eventually crossing to settle under a stand of trees opposite.

At first I thought it was a fox, for I have seen red fox before in my domain. I have seen fox by the roadside near, in the farm fields, and by the river, and I know that a den of fox was wintered on the island of the river behind my parents' house when I lived there. So seeing a fox is unexceptional, although a rare delight.

But this was big for a fox, and dingy, not the dark red of a fox. More tan, with a hint of red. The large bushy tail was like that of a fox, with a white tip at end, as were the black-furred front legs, but the whole animal was larger, leaner, and longer. And not at all shy. Wary, and alert to its surroundings, but not as shy as most fox I've met before.

Astonished, I jumped for joy and ran for my camera in another room. When the animal had settled down under the trees‚ which took a long time, for it turned many circles, scratched itself, got up to turn again in the way canids do before settling in grass. It's fur was more tan than the red mulch of the bed under the pine trees, but when it was still it blended in well. Cars went by in the distance, and the stand of trees is surrounded by lawn and houses, but I wonder if anyone but I knew it was there.

I believe that it was a youthful, gangly coyote. Not the largest coyote I've ever seen, but larger than most fox. Some of the markings make me think it's a fox, but that face and ears make me think coyote. (If you know better, show me.)

I've seen and heard coyote all over the USA, in my travels. But never one in my backyard. It was obviously on a trek, and resting in the heat of midday, soaking up the sun. Not hungry at the moment, although judging on how lean it was ti was probably half-starved most of the winter. After turning circles and scratching at fleas numerous times, it curled into a ball under the trees quite peacefully, and stayed there for at least an hour or so. I crept with camera in hand out on my porch several times, and shot photos through the window, mostly unobserved.

So it is that wild nature enters our lives, briefly and with astonishment. I look out the window today, in hopes of seeing another coyote, or a fox, or deer, those more usual visitors. I mean wild nature, as embodied in wild animals, neither tamed nor domesticated, and not subject to or aware of the laws of man. The laws of nature are not the laws of man. Of course nature itself is never separate from us. It's a fallacy to believe that we ourselves are not part of "nature," or that "nature" doesn't interact with and interfinger with our daily lives. In large urban centers, peregrine falcons make their nests on skyscraper ledges. A pack of coyotes lives downtown near the Chicago River. Granted, I live in a small town in a rural area, and near me are wild woods surrounding a river, areas kept natural and not "managed" by men. There are swimming holes in the river, and trails along its track, but when I go in those woods I am often quite alone. Except for the wild things. It's good to encounter the wildest of the wild, those beasts never tamed, and never destroyed or tamable. It's good to see a wild coyote in my own backyard. I keep looking out the window where I write, hoping to catch another glimpse, maybe a timeshadow of a flick of a tail, a glimpse of bright golden eye above a narrow snout. Something wild has stepped into the daylight, and spent some time under shelter, then trotted on, with its loping ground-eating stride. It leaves behind a memory that stirs the breast, makes me yearn for wilderness, if only to encounter the wildest of the wild again, however briefly. A brief moment of awakening to the larger reality or the greater world. Right in my own backyard.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Songwriting: The Power of Love

This afternoon I went over to a coffee house I go to sometimes to write. It overlooks the Rock River, and has a nice vibe to the space. Sitting there I started to notate the final draft of a new song. I had finished the words (lyrics) over the weekend, after having struggled with them for several weeks. I had a pretty good idea how I wanted the song to sound, and earlier on had sketched out, as usual, a few musical phrases and chord patterns. This afternoon I sat down and got to work in earnest. I finished the song later, at home. I would have finished it at the coffee shop but I ran out of score paper and had to come home to print out one more score page.

Since I completed the large commissioned work for a concert of new music for Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus in Madison, WI, I have learned that to avoid depression I had better always be working on an artistic project. I can afford no gaps in between projects. I need to always be working on something, and always have something new to get busy on, the very minute some project is completed. I've learned since the surgery last summer that not only can I use art-making as a way of coping with daily and moving forward with life, that also works to well to keep me from falling into the realm of Bad Thoughts. Writing this song was all about keeping myself working, artistically, which does help keep away the Bad Thoughts. It's too easy to fall down that gravity well of dark and brooding worries, otherwise.

Right after I finished the large commission in October, I started to feel depressed. Started to feel worries about the future begin to creep back over me again. I had a few weeks of things getting worse. Then I was commissioned to create a new CD of music for meditation and healing, and produced Darshan. That project was finished just before Xmas 2011, and sent off to the client in time for the holidays. Then I had this new song to work on. The point here is to always have something to work on. Don't let gaps between projects get very big; better yet, don't let them develop at all.

And my attitude about life has mostly been better, as a result. The holidays this season were rough, as bad as I can ever remember them being. A lot of factors contributed to that, not least some plans that feel through, and not least because of some of my other friends also having a really bad time lately. But now the holidays are in the past. Even if it's hard to believe, some days, you have to keep on going as if everything was okay, and that life will go on. You have to make plans, even in the face of desperate worry about your future. You have to act as if life will go on, and everything will be alright, and that life is worth continuing. You have to have that kind of attitude. Otherwise the forces of entropy win.

So, today I finished a song. And that feels really good.

This song was written with the intention to perform it as a fundraiser Cabaret next March. Every spring Perfect Harmony puts on a variety show, a Cabaret, as a fundraiser. This annual event brings in an audience of fans and new friends every spring for dinner and a show. There is usually also a silent auction as another fundraiser, to which I have donated artwork in the past.

I wanted to get this song written now, so that I had time to learn how to perform well. I will off on another roadtrip for awhile this winter—dietary issues, ostomy, and other matters notwithstanding—and I will need to have song memorized and up to performance level by the time I get back.

It's an odd moment that I'm sure many more experienced songwriters feel: that moment when the song isn't yours anymore, but another song you need to learn to be able to play it well. It has its own objective existence, now, and even though you wrote it, it's not "yours" anymore. So you step back, obtain a level of objectivity, and commit to rehearsals as if you learning any other song, rehearsing as though it was a song someone else wrote that you're learning to sing, now. That's just part of the process.

The song's topic is one that has synchronistically been on my mind for several weeks now. Because of some of the problems and situations, and questions about life and its meanings, that have been happening to some of my friends, and to other people I care about. The topic of the song is reflected in its refrain:

The love of power
or the power of love—
which way will you move?
Which one will you choose?

That's a question that keeps coming up. I doubt it's limited to just my circle. It's a question that the whole globe is asking itself right now. It's the question that lies behind many political ambitions and social justice crises happening right now in the world at large. It's the question that drives us towards finding spiritual answers to every problem.

The love of power, or the power of love?

Here's the first page, just to give a taste of this song and its format:

(Click on image to see larger version.)

And here are the first two verses and the refrain, as seen on this score page, to give you a taste of what the song's about:

I can see in the dark
it’s where I used to live
that place in the shadows
where everything burns
as the sun falls down
rats chew at the sieve
dark blood on the moon
means the world is done.

The laws of nature
are not the laws of man
and the laws of spirit
means you help who you can
what you send out
is what comes back again
better make love a promise
better stick to the plan.

The love of power
or the power of love—
which way will you move?
which one will you choose?

I've become a songwriter without ever intending it. This is the first score of this type that I've written in probably a decade. I've written some jazz charts before, and pieces for bands that I've been part of, in the past. It's interesting to me, to reflect upon the past, and realize that the last time I wrote anything like this was when I used to live in Madison, a decade ago. Obviously, there's some connection between writing music and being involved in the music scene of Madison, WI. I've played the occasional jazz gig since moving back to this area, since I was free to resume my own life after my parents died. A couple of weekends from now, I will be playing live improvised music for an art gallery opening in Madison. And then in March, I'll perform "The Power of Love" for Cabaret. Then in June perfect Harmony will premiere Heartlands, the major commission for chorus and piano that I spent most of 2011 writing. That will be a full concert of my new music.

So obviously Wisconsin has been fertile ground for me, for writing music. I intend to keep up with that. I intend to continue on this path. I intend to make a career of writing music. I intend to keep writing songs, as well as contemporary classical music. I intend to just keep writing, no matter what. It feels both good and intriguing that I am writing in new directions and styles, that I continue to develop diverse musical tools and ideas, that even now I can't predict what I'll write next, only that I intend to keep writing, no matter what.

So Mote It Be.

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Monday, January 02, 2012

The Piano Has Been Thinking

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Making It New

Scrambling around for something to do to make the new year feel new, feel worthwhile (ah, the joy of putting on a fresh ostomy appliance in the first morning of the new year! such celebration!), I stumble across in my morning reading, sipping my tea, a long interview between Robert Birnbaum and Sven Birkerts. Birkerts, always-thoughtful author of The Gutenberg Elegies, had more than one thing to say that was epiphanic to me.

This is of course the season, just after the calendar adds a number to the year date, to talk explicitly about epiphany. Epiphanies are not always revelations of the unknown: sometimes they are encounters with a formulation or explanation articulated by someone else that seems so true to your own experience that it goes off like a bomb, even retroactively, so that things in your past are reframed in a way that now makes new and more solid sense. In a sense, this other kind of epiphany is when you encounter something that you realize you already knew, all along, on some level, but you hadn't articulated it to yourself quote so clearly, elegantly, or thoroughly; so when you hear it coming from another source, there's a big "Aha!" moment, and part of the moment is your realization that this was something you already knew.

Birnbaum and Birkerts spent a long time talking about reviewing, its changing climate, its current diminution and failures (reminding me in a way of the long conversations between Michael Ventura and James Hillman transcribed in their mind-blowing book We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World's Getting Worse), and its possibilities.

One moment early in the interview that came across as an epiphany—one of those things I already knew, on some level, but hadn't yet articulated to myself—was in regard to a fundamental aspect of the creative process. They were talking about journalism and book reviews:

RB: How do you do with deadlines?

SB: Eschew them (both laugh).

RB: I guess that disqualifies you from journalism.

SB: I could have gone that way. I have done a major life-flip because I’d say the first 15 years of writing was a huge amount of reviewing and most of it was on deadline. I created a discipline-monster who I have since repudiated, or begun to. And I am not sure which leads which, but the stuff that used to arrive effortlessly in terms of the kind of mental structure of a review—it was like butter, I could just sit down and it would all come together. And that very thing has become almost unthinkably difficult for me. Everything in me resists writing the sentence that says, “In the opening of her latest novel…”

RB: Too facile, too banal?

SB: Well, you wear yourself out with your own repetitions. That’s also the basis of any progress in the arts, turning against what you can’t do anymore.

Pay attention to that: The basis of any progress in the arts is turning against what you can't do anymore. This makes so much sense to me. It strikes me as the root psychological force behind any avant-garde. All avant-gardes are on some level a rejection of the past, of the status quo, of the existing prevailing winds of artistic fashion, of received wisdom.

As an artist, there are things you have done before—whether they were rote exercises done during your apprenticeship, or whether they are received wisdom about what Art is or should be—that you can't stand to do anymore—you have an almost visceral, gut-level reaction against repeating your old habits and patterns. You wear yourself out with your own repetitions. The notion that the new is always better than the old is at root a Romantic ideal—and keep in mind that the artistic Modernism of the early 20th C. was the full and final flowering of the Romantic period that had begun almost a century before, in terms of its ideas about who makes art and why—and so the various avant-gardes of the early 20th C. were really rejecting the old ways of making art, while not really rejecting the archetypes and stereotypes of the Artist that are part and parcel of the Romantic ideal. (The Solitary Artist, the Starving Artist, the Misunderstood Rebel, etc.)

I've said often that as an artist I don't really ever get bored. And that's true. If something starts to seem stale, I can go do something else. I practice crop rotation between several artforms, as one way of staying fresh. (This past couple of weeks, even though in many ways I've had a personally crappy time, I continued to make art. I'm almost done with a new song, and I did a couple of rounds of papier-maché, and a couple of smaller poems. It's never a vacuum, even when things are bad.) Yet even though I never get bored, I do get tired of repetitions. I've invented at least four new forms for poetry, that I can recall off the top of my head, which I've then used several times for my own poems—until they seem stale, then I go on to invent new ones. (One contention that some formalist poets seem to have with what I do as a poet is not that I occasionally do use forms, but that I don't use existing, inherited, historical forms, like the sonnet: which are, after all, another form of received wisdom. The objection seems to be as much about the act of invention, itself, as it is about any poetic content.)

I am self-aware enough of my worldviews and mindsets to know how they appear in my art—and how they affect the basic assumptions I make about the nature of the Universe, of life, and therefore of art. It is characteristic of me as an artist to not repeat myself. At least, not very often. There are various creative grooves that I return to, for fresh idea-mining, but if you were to closely observe my process, it's often about variations rather than repetitions. This operates on both large and small scales. I am aware of my own preference to not repeat a melody exactly in every verse of a song; there are always a few notes different, in variation. If you listen to live performances of signature songs by familiar recording artists, they usually change the arrangement that was recorded on their album. This is another way of keeping it fresh. I am aware that when I write a poem within one of the forms I've invented, even then it rarely exactly matches its predecessors. My life's experience has led me to be very conscious that nothing ever repeats exactly the same way twice, that change is always active and inevitable, and that most things are ephemeral. One reason I don't like to repeat myself is because life's too short to waste time on repetitions. I periodically turn against what I can't do anymore, what doesn't work for me anymore. I periodically therefore must try new things, or invent them. I suppose it's a form of artistic restlessness, but it's a fertile sort.

Of course, this means that I will usually tend to find myself allied with an avant-garde, philosophically if not in terms of what my art actually looks like. I've always been allied in spirit to the avant-garde, although I have rarely used self-consciously "avant-gardist" styles or means. I'm not a member of any school or -ism. Neither an Expressionist nor an Existentialist be. I usually find myself in disagreement, sooner or later, with all keepers of artistic ideology. (The classic example was the Surrealists, who began as disruptors of the old way of making art, precisely as Birkerts stipulates, very fresh and original in their approaches to making art—yet ended up being rigidly encoded, with ideological purity enforcement about who was good enough to be a member of the group or not.)

I know that the price of this, as well as the price of not repeating myself, is likely to be a lack of popular or commercial success. Pop music audiences, for example, don't really want innovation, they want repetition. Most intelligentsia like to re-affirm existing (received wisdom) values and truths, and not seek out new territory. We still, as Jean Cocteau once said, tend to judge what is beautiful by what we are already familiar with. It takes time to educate the audience. So be it.

On the other hand, later in their conversation Birnbaum and Birkerts discuss the ongoing contemporary balkanization of popular media, the lack of a centralized critical value-system, the anarchic tendencies of the new publishing media. There is no real Top 40 list of songs in popular music any more, instead there are many genres and sub-genres each going their own way. Birnbaum is as critical of Top Ten lists as I am, and for similar reasons. Many balkanized genres openly ignore the Top 40 nowadays. Even such public praise as winning peer-recognition awards like the Pulitzer or the Oscars comes under scrutiny as meaningless to creativity. Many younger artists simply ignore the entire awards process.

So there is also the possibility, as Birkerts points out, that with all the new niches being created, an artist who might never have gotten published by a large publishing venture, or received much mainstream critical attention (such as myself, or you), can find or create their own niche to fill, and an audience that might be small but loyal. So there's hope even for me (and you).

Just as there are artists who tend to not repeat themselves, there are audiences who do like to be surprised, and enjoy the adventure of not knowing what they'll see next from the artists they like. I too am that sort of fan, and mostly follow artists who veer and migrate, rather than following the straight and narrow. Unpredictability is a positive virtue, in these cases. (Which is why I will always prefer the unpredictable Brian Eno, or the genuinely original Bjork, to the Michael Boltons and Lady Gagas of the pop music world.) Again, my experience has taught me that to embrace chance and change; which you must do, even if you don't want to, as that's how the world turns.

Which brings me around to epiphany again. Epiphany, as I said above, is about revelation, and about realization. It's also about making it new. How do we make it new? Sometimes by discovery. And at other times by refusing to re-enactment the old and familiar. It's an epiphany to realize, for myself, that I have always been inclined towards not repeating myself. It's an epiphany to accept that as being a good and proper way to be, with its many possibilities for the positive uses of restlessness.

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