Saturday, April 28, 2012

Morning cup of tea

morning cup of tea—
fox runs by outside
orange on green lawn

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Heartlands: Rehearsal & Performance

Well into the rehearsal period of Heartlands, the large choral work I was commissioned to write last year, and which will be premiered in June, it's fascinating to watch how the rehearsal process is developing. Even if I have any special insight into the score, having written it, I have been surprised a few times with the ways things have developed.

One fascinating aspect of the completed score in rehearsal is that there are a few pieces which look daunting at first but in fact are easy to learn and perform. And there a few pieces that seemed easy at first but are hard to learn. The latter especially among the pieces for solo voice and piano. People seem to be afraid of one or two of these songs, in so far as no one is rushing forward to audition for them. There is still time to cajole people into taking a leap and trying these pieces; nonetheless it provokes some momentary anxiety in a composer who wants to get the best performance possible of his work.

I'm well aware that I "held back" at times from writing music more complex than might have been, that I restrained myself from over-writing and showing off as an artist. I've written before how it's essential in writing songs not to over-write—a tendency many poets fall into when the first begin to write song lyrics. Stephen Sondheim warns against this tendency in his two recently published books of Collected Lyrics, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. One of the chief values of those books is Sondheim's commentaries, wherein he shows you where he succeeded in following his own dictums of clarity and simplicity, and where he failed. That's a lesson I took to my heart at the very beginning of the commission writing process.

The same is also true for writing music. It's always tempting to pull out all the stops and write to the edge of your ability as composer or performer. That's a good thing to do when you're challenging yourself as an artist to grow a little bit more. But when you are commissioned to write music for a specific ensemble, no matter what that ensemble is, you do better to take into account the skills and abilities and needs of the musicians who are going to be performing the work. When I wrote Heartlands, because I knew the Chorus well, I had a pretty clear sense where I could stretch and push them and challenge them, and where it would be counterproductive to do so.

You have to find that dynamic balance where the music is fresh and lively and challenging, and fun to learn and perform, balanced against music that is so difficult no one wants to try it. You want to work along that fine line between their familiar comfort zone, and sometimes get them to stretch a bit. (Years ago, when I was writing three art-songs for a singer and pianist who I knew could perform anything well, I "pulled out all the stops" and really pushed the edges of technique and expression. Yet, since I don't believe in technique for its own sake, but that craft is in service to expression, I wrote musical gestures intended to support the mood of the lyrics. These "Three Songs" were well-received, and I learned an early lesson in finding that balance already discussed.)

I've become aware of this balance again in the rehearsal process, as some people find themselves unwilling to audition for some of the solo songs. I expected that, I just hope people will take the risk and go for it anyway. That's how you grow as a musician, whether you're a singer or pianist or whatever: you take some risks.

That's also how you grow as a person. When I was commissioned to write Heartlands, and I received the commission because I can write music in varying styles and tones and emotions, I knew that this music would be a journey. Not just for me, but for the singers in the Chorus who gave me their stories to make into music. I knew that they would experience hearing their life-stories refracted back to them as art. I hoped that some of them would feel enlivened by seeing their life-stories from a new perspective, and that would open doors. (I am well aware of the possibilities in music performance for healing, therapy, and growth. I have experienced this myself, many times, and I have been told by some listeners that they get that from some of my other music.)

So I've been encouraging singers to go for it, whenever they've come up to me with questions or concerns. I've told some individual singers privately that I'm glad to see them stretching themselves. And I've been open about my hopes for the overall performance, premiere, and continued life of this large new choral work that I've written. Hopes, not expectations—I've been very clear to make that distinction. I have very high hopes for the long haul for this music; this entire composition and rehearsal period has been one of the most positive things in my life.

While I "held back" at times in the large choral movements, knowing that what I wanted to write should be easy to learn, and memorize, and integrate into one's performance, I also "let myself go" in some of the solo voice and piano movements. I didn't write anything so "modern" that it would be too hard to learn, given the length of the rehearsal period, but I did know where and how I wanted to stretch the performers, to challenge them to a higher level of performance, that I knew they could achieve even if they do not. I reserved some of the more difficult piano writing for these moments in the overall score. Where you find some pianistic writing that is outside the box, where the piano part becomes more than accompaniment and takes on a role as equal, that's where you'll find some of these moments intended to encourage everyone to push themselves a little bit further, a little bit outside their comfort zones. I hope to hear eventually from some performers that those moments where they were being asked to step outside their comfort zones were, in the end, moments of revelation. And I have already received a few comments along those lines.

Remember, music is written not only for the audience, but for the performers. I want the singers to have fun, and to immerse themselves fully in the experience of performing a large-scale, sometimes challenging choral work. Nothing has pleased me more than when a singer has come up to me after rehearsal and told me how much they liked a moment, or a whole piece.

For Heartlands I have intentionally written pieces that are purely lush and beautiful harmonies, because that style suits the mood of the text. (In the end, its all about matching the mood of the words and music as closely as possible.) I have intentionally written pieces that are more edgy, at times openly angry, with more aggressive harmonic styles. I have written pieces that are more traditional forms, dance forms, folk song forms, inspirational ballads. And I have written pieces that are more contemporary, more "modern" in style and execution. (Also, where I've written the more contemporary styles, I've given lots of musical cues to the singers from the piano and from the other voice parts, so that the alert singer will never get lost.)

People think writing music for me ought to be easy—and on one level it is. It can be very easy to come up with an idea, or to find inspiration where I need it; and I have some facility as an improvising musician. I remember what jazz legend Lester Bowie said once about music: he said he has a permanent 24-hour soundtrack always playing in the back of his mind, a ribbon of music that is playing the entire time he is awake; he said that when he played, composed or improvised, all he had to do was dip into his permanent back-of-the-mind soundtrack, and bring that music forward into audibility, so that others could hear it, too. I experience improvising and composing music this way, myself. I think it's one reason that, unlike many other classically-trained musicians, I have no fear of improvisation; I have faith the music will always be there. I can always write music, whether notated or spontaneous, because what I do is a lot like Lester Bowie described for his own process.

Yet it takes time to write music down, to notate a score, to fill in all the edges, then to go back over the score and adjust it where necessary. I'm discovering that writing a song takes less time than to write, for example, a multi-movement solo piano work, but it still takes time. It took me ten months to write Heartlands, actually only nine months if you recall that I lost a month in the middle of the commission period to surgery and recovery.

What this means is that writing music is both easy and hard, it is as natural as breathing yet it also requires a lot of effort. And the same is true for performing music: It's as natural as breathing, and can require a lot of effort.

When I was sitting at my writing desk, notating the final pencil scores of Heartlands, I thought about this a lot. It was not separate from my awareness at all times of the level of difficulty of performance I was demanding from the singers. I was aware throughout the writing process of my desire to push the singers a little bit past their comfort zones—but not too far. I was aware all the time of how to both write an interesting line, and how to make it singable without being harder than was really necessary.

As a performer, who will be singing with the Chorus for the premiere of Heartlands, I find myself this week at that stage in my own memorization process where some of the music is playing in my head all the time, as the dominant element of my permanent 24-hour internal soundtrack. Hearing the music that I'm learning play in my mind is a familiar and welcome stage of the process of learning music for me, one I've relied on for decades. When I hear the music playing in my head all the time, like now, that means it's sinking in and I'm partially into the process of memorization. I'm a very visual person, so one way that I memorize music scores is to memorize them as visual pages; there are times when I actually read the printed page in my mind's eye during performance. Having the music play in my head, and singing along with it in my mind, is by contrast an aural memorization process. For best results I synergize the visual and aural memory/learning processes.

I know I have a piece thoroughly memorized when the visual and aural channels begin to merge with the kinesthetic channel, and I begin to feel a piece of music in my guts, in my bones, in my very blood chemistry. It goes into my muscle memory, which is a far deeper memory than the merely intellectual. When I have learned a piece of music that thoroughly, I never forget it. I might not come back and play a piece learned this way for many years, but it's still in there, and I don't need more than a glance at the score to get it back in my functional memory. I've learned over the years to rely on muscle memory for this, as well: the body remembers the sensations on all levels of detail that making this music require one to feel inside one's own flesh. Even when the mind goes blank, the body remembers.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Handedness in Photography

Sometimes I find it irritating that all my cameras are designed to be operated by the right hand. The assumption of course is that most people are right-handed. But for someone who is completely ambidextrous like myself, and who is using his right hand for something else at the moment, like driving, grabbing the camera to take a photo with the left hand can be very difficult. I usually have to switch hands with what I'm doing, knowing the camera is designed to be used right-handed. This can make for awkward, fussy moments. I've missed photographs as a result.

What I would like to see on future digital cameras is an optional secondary trigger button on the left side of the camera body. There is no rational engineering reason not to do this. Righthandedness in camera design is supported only by habitual thoughtless design inertia and cultural bias. It would be easy to implement in terms of engineering. And it's really a very small thing to ask for.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Music for Meditation: Flute Recordings

Beginning work on a new recording project. Having had several flutes restored to me recently, I have been planning to do some new recordings towards a new album project. This past winter, recording Darshan, a new album of music for meditation, yoga, healing, and Reiki, has also renewed interest in recording more new music in that mode. I am also continuing to write new lyrics for new songs. I'm not writing many poems right now, but that's normal when I'm working on music.

Tonight I was finally able to set up the microphones and do some recording. (I'm writing this while taking a short rest break.) I've had some computer issues lately, but now things in the studio are working again. I've got the stereo mic pair set up in the living room, and when I'm done tonight I'll leave everything set up so that all I have to do to record some more is throw a few switches and start playing.

I recorded a first piece with the Zen flute, and another with one of the shakuhachi I hadn't played in awhile. Mostly I'm exploring. I'm recording everything, expecting to trim most of it away later, leaving just the best music. I will probably make one piece from this session with a lot of space in it, to make an ambient piece with flute events widely spaced apart.

For tonight's session, I'm just improvising. Getting to know my flutes again. You record everything just in case you come up with something really good. I've made several piano pieces that way, and even more Stick pieces. Tonight's session is a reintroduction to some old friends. Finding our voices together again. I'm not worried about perfection at all for this session.

When I play back a solo flute piece, sometimes I hear Stick or keyboard parts to go with it: they emerge from within the gestures and spaces of the music. What I'm doing for this session is also listening to play back with reverb added, to hear how things sound in a large acoustic space. (I have some of the best software reverb emulators ever now: the software algorithms just keep getting better.)

I feel like working on into the night. If I run out of air, I will keep going with other instruments.

I am making raw tracks here. They will assembled later. This is all raw material. Some of it might turn into finished pieces, some of it may be mixed in elsewhere. It's like a painter taking sketches to later repurpose them into finished paintings. That's a good analogy, actually. Tonight I'm recording sketchbook pieces. Something good may emerge from them later. Meanwhile, it just feels incredibly good to playing my old flutes again. A year ago, I'm not sure I would have even had the breath and stamina for this; so I guess it's true that I'm getting stronger, now, even if still very gradually.

I've put in about two hours now tonight. Time to stop and let the ears rest. I find that I can't really go much more than four hours at a stretch without my ears getting tired. Two hours of continuous recording is pretty good, overall.

I recorded some ambient soundscapes, when I was tired of playing flute. Some of these larger bamboo flutes require a lot of air to play, so they're actually tiring to play for a long time. I recorded another take on the Zen flute, and some more shakuhachi.

Then I fooled around for awhile trying out ambient synth patches. One or two ideas that won't escape the sketchbook, probably, but one or two that might be good music beds, once I massage them a little. One in particular might end up being good to blend with one of the flutes, later on. I'll see how that goes.

Zen: Stop when you're tired. Eat when you're hungry. Chop wood, carry water. Sleep wherever you fall. Live in the moment. Play.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Standing By Words

April is annually dedicated as National Poetry Month. There is even an annual proclamation that comes out of the White House. (Another annual White House tradition of course is to have the President use his executive powers to pardon a turkey every Thanksgiving, which then lives out its life to its normal lifespan, and is not eaten.) What does National Poetry Month mean? Not much, really. It means that many stereotypical events happen, mostly.

Many poetry workshops and organizations sponsor "A Poem A Day" rallies, wherein participating poets are invited to write a poem a day and share them. Poetry readings multiply in number for a month. Poetry is given a higher public awareness profile for a month, after which most non-poets go back to completely ignoring it. Schools often teach a month-long unit on poetry study and writing.

I rarely take any of this seriously. I have in the past, when I was involved with online poetry workshops, occasionally participated in poem-a-day gatherings. But as I have often pointed out, I write when I write, and when I write on demand it usually sucks. I can recall perhaps two, maybe three, poems written by myself during poem-a-day rallies that were worth salvaging, rewriting, and finishing.

Always excepting haiku, of course, which I can pretty much write on demand—which are also pretty much the only kinds of poems that I can write on demand. I'm not really sure I can explain why haiku come easily to me. Perhaps it's the result of lifelong immersion in their aesthetic. It's true that when I'm sorting through photographs, as for example I am still doing after the recent roadtrip out West, I often am spontaneously moved to write poems to go with the photos. More often than not, those poems written to photo prompts are haiku. This is also of course a variety of ekphrastic poetry: written in response to visual art.


I've managed to ignore National Poetry Month this year for most of the month. Now, however, I find myself reading as I often do books of poetry criticism by poets. This is actually some of my favorite reading: books by writers about writing. I have quite a stack of such books, which I add to from time to time. So, this year, what I will do to memorialize National Poetry Month is give some excerpts and quotes regarding books on poetry by poets.

Wendell Berry is one of our greatest living writers. A national treasure, his books are on a special shelf in my library next to others I feel are essential reading. He is a poet, a novelist, and an important essayist. His viewpoint is rural, conservative in the sense of conserving what is good and real and true, and rooted in his day job, which is farming. Many of his poems are accessible windows onto the philosophy of rural life, and the way of the earth. At times Berry seems to reflect a very deep land-based, earthen, belief system, something that all people who have lived close to the land have shared, regardless of whatever religion they nominally follow. The flow of seasons and the life of the land is a deeper system than received beliefs.

I have been reading Wendell Berry's book of six long essays about poetry, Standing By Words. I find reading Berry's essays on poetry to be essential, even when I disagree with them—which I do moderately often, finding them to be even reactionary at times. Rural myself, I am not as traditional as he. Yet Berry's voice is one of those you must encounter and deal with, regardless of whether you end up agreeing with him or not. He must be confronted and reconciled. Reading Berry helps you figure out your own stance, your own values and opinions. He is incredibly well-read, has a good grasp of the history of literature, and thoughtfully explains his positions. His writing is among the clearest of essayists', his thinking always presented without affectation or unnecessary device. There is an elegant simplicity in his writing that one can learn from, simply by reading.

Although Berry's opinions do feel to me sometimes to be reactionary and anti-modern, overall his views on poetry are congenial to my own approach and attitude. When he writes about what has gone wrong with contemporary poetry, I often find myself in agreement; although I may not always agree on the historical choices that led to the current situation, nor with his proposed remedies. We share a concern with where poetry may have gone off the rails, even if we don't always agree on how to restore it to life.

The basic premise of Standing By Words is encapsulated by a quote from the book itself:

My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps one hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.

Berry makes the connection between the debasement of artistic language and the debasement of general language usage, from broadcasting to the political sphere, where the loss is particularly toxic. Politicians who one day say one thing, the next day say something opposite and deny that they ever said what they said before—in other words, blatant unabashed lying—are prominent and obvious more so than ever. The obfuscation of clarity that is the essence of bureaucratic writing has led to deliberate misuse of language. If you don't feel you can trust people in positions of authority to tell you the truth anymore, you are not alone. Berry is not making causative connections here; rather he believes that both artistic and general language have become debased from the same root causes, which are inherent to and reflected by the Modernist enterprise: social fragmentation, the loss of moral center in culture, the sense of uncertainty about what really matters in life that began with the Industrial Revolution and reached a peak of global insecurity in the 20th C.

None of this is strictly necessary. We have taken fragmentation and disconnection and disjunction and existential angst to be the norm. In fact, Berry argues, they're relatively new phenomena, and are connected with the changes in culture that began during the beginning of the radical changes in technical craft, when the agrarian norm morphed into the new urban industrial norm. With the rise of the Romantic period in the arts, there also arose the romantic myth of the solitary, suffering Artist. (Starving Artist, Lone Misunderstood Sensitive Artist, and all the other variations on the theme of Artist-as-Other.)

In the essay "The Specialization of Poetry," Berry writes:

History certainly offers examples of unhappy or obsessed or mad poets, but it offers more examples of poets who sang or wrote in the exuberance of sanity, health, wholeness of spirit. One instantly credits Ann Sexton's statement that "Pain engraves a deeper memory," not because one believes it invariably does, but because one senses, in the modesty and brevity of the sentence, the probability that it sometimes does. . . . One is simply aware of too much joyous poetry that has been the gift of the Muse, who apparently leaves the ratio of pain and joy to be determined by the poet. To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come too close to desiring and cultivating pain. There is, I believe, some currency to the assumption that a fragmented, diseased people can make a whole and healthy art out of their fragmentation and disease. It has not yet been done.

This is a refusal to accept that all artists make art primarily from their wounds, which is one of the most toxic myths about creativity ever. It can be laid squarely at the feet of the Romantic period, wherein the suffering genius artists was first given us as a stereotype. Yet art that endures isn't the art of pain and suffering, it's the art that exalts. Pain is not ignored, nor denied, but it isn't the end-point. There is transcendence.

The danger may not be so much in the overcultivation of sensibility as in its exclusive cultivation. Sensibility becomes the inescapable stock in trade of the isolated poet, who is increasingly cut off from song and story because the nature of these is communal. And isolation, or the sense of isolation, is moving much of our poetry toward the tone, rhythm, and structure of what Mark Strand calls "not overly excited discourse." This is what Denise Levertov calls "an unexampled production of notations: poems which tell of things seen or done, but . . . do not impart a sense of the experience of seeing or doing, or of the value of such experience. . . ." The union of overcultivated sensibility and undercultivated verse cannot produce song. It produces—not prose—but the prosaic, unessential prose. The art does not press hard enough against experience.

Human life is a full range of sensibilities, a full range of experience, of emotion, of the creation of memory. To stay in one mode—fragmentation, disconnection, disjunction, expressing as it all too often does urban angst and Modernist disassociation—is to neglect all the others. To write poems in only one mode means incompleteness. What Levertov is talking about is the same thing that Adrienne Rich talked about: rather than being something written about an experience, a poem should be an experience. When art doesn't press hard enough against experience it becomes virtual, itself disconnected, and doesn't recreate an experience in the reader, it just tells us about one.

Song is natural; we have it common with animals. For humans, it is also artificial and traditional; it has to be made by someone who knows how to make it and sung to someone who will recognize it as song. Rhythm, fundamental to it, is its profoundest reference. The rhythm of a song or a poem rises, no doubt, in reference to the pulse and breath of the poet, as is often repeated, but that is still too specialized an accountingl it rises also in reference to daily and seasonal—and surely even longer—rhythms in the life of the poet and in the life that surrounds him. The rhythm of a poem resonates with these larger rhythms that surround it; it fills its environment with sympathetic vibrations. Rhyme, which is a function of rhythm, may suggest this sort of resonance; it marks the coincidences of smaller structures with larger ones, as when the day, the month, and the year all end at the same moment. Song, then, is a force opposed to specialty and to isolation. It is the testimony of the singer's inescapable relation to the world, to the human community, and also to tradition.

Obviously I would appreciate any musical definition of poetry. (Even though I have at times questioned the many, many times that poets look to music for their definitions and terminology of discourse—not because I think that's wrong in any way, but because it soundly refutes the arguments that some poets make that claim poetry to be a "higher," more abstract artform than music. If poetry is actually more abstract than music, why do you need music's language to discuss poetry? Which becomes the more fundamental artform, then?) Obviously I am likely to agree that poetry needs to have both song and meaning. Well, I do mostly agree.

At a basic level, the entire cosmos is singing: every atom in the universe is vibrating, and according to M-theory even the subatomic particles that make up atoms are vibrating strings of matter/energy. The tiniest level of resolution of scale in the Universe, the smallest particles on the smallest level, are not a void but rather a dancing foam.

Everything in the Universe is vibration: this has been said not only by theoretical physicists but by seers in every religious tradition. The universe is frozen music: what we perceive as solid matter is in fact just slower-moving energy, but everything is still vibrating. Song is the basic organizing principle of the Universe: "in the beginning was the Word. . . ."

Where i do not agree with Berry is his implication that rhyme is therefore fundamental to poetry, because it shares its nature with rhythm. Rhythm, in poetry, is usually called meter. (Again, we're stuck in terms borrowed from music theory.) It can indeed be argued that rhyme, in some conceptual or literal form, is essential to poetry. It can be just as easily argued that poetry is not limited to requiring rhyme, especially where that usage is superficial and literal, blatant and clichéd: you do not create new music only by imitating old music, despite a reverence for tradition. It can be argued that music is organized sounds in time—and that definition can also apply to poetry—without requiring any other aspect of sound that we commonly associate with music. Tradition is defined by cultural expectations of normative forms. But cultural expectations are local, and both musical and poetic traditions vary widely across the breadth of the planet, and over time. The breaking of normative forms to discover or invent new ones is inherent to the creation of new art. Traditions are not static; they never were. Every tradition was once an invention; it is only time that makes it seem to have been always, eternally existent.

Actually, I agree with Berry that poetry that functions purely on the sounds of language, ignoring what that language refers to, to be mostly meaningless. I like pure sounds, I even like language as pure sound, and I've composed music that uses words as its constituent sonic components. But poetry on the page that is purely language-oriented poetry is sensibility rather than sense, to use Berry's own terms. It is exactly the kind of poetry that he finds lacks song and story. On this we agree.

But even more suggestive of the specialization of contemporary poets is their estrangement from storytelling. Typically, one can find this debility cited as a virtue and a goal.

I agree with that, but Berry goes on to a long discussion of narrative, particularly the loss of narrative used in poetry over the past century. This is where Berry sometimes gets a bit reactionary for my taste. In lauding tradition, he sometimes tramples on innovation. He is right to point out that the new does not have to replace the old, but can coexist alongside:

Why is it necessary for poets to believe, like salesmen, that the new inevitably must replace or destroy the old? Why cannot poetry renew itself and advance into new circumstance by adding the new to the old? Why cannot the critical faculty, in poets and critics alike, undertake to see that the best of the new is grafted to the best of the old? Free verse, for instance, is a diminishment of the competence of poetry if it is seen as replacing traditional prosody; it is an enlargement only if it is conceived as an addition. Freedom from narrative is a diminishment—it is not even a freedom—unless it is included with the capability of narrative among the live possibilities of poetry.

This is a plea to not throw the old out in favor of the new. I agree with that, yet at the same time I don't privilege tradition over innovation. I don't reject the new in favor of the old. I think there is room for both, and innovation does indeed add to the tradition. It doesn't have to replace it.

But this is where Berry gets interesting, for me. I have written before about the re-enchantment of poetry, of art, about bringing the soul back into work that often seems too dry, too intellectual, too disconnected from anything but the idea of the body, rather than body itself.

. . . our malaise, both in our art and in our lives, is that we have lost sight of the possibility of right or responsible action. Publicly, we have delegated our capacity to act to men who are capable of action only because they cannot think. Privately, as in much of our poetry, we communicate by ironic or cynical allusions to that debased tale of futility, victimization, and defeat, which we seem to have elected to be our story. The prevailing tendency, in poetry and out, is to see people not as actors, but as sufferers. . . . To how great an extent is modern poetry the record of highly refined sensibilities that could think or feel but not do? And must not this passiveness of the poetic sensibility force its withdrawal into the world of words where, for want of sustenance of action, it becomes despondent and self-destructive? . . .

In the last ten years there has been a reaction against this passivity. But for the most part this has produced only protest, which is either a gesture and not an action at all, or a negative action that either repudiates or opposes. The shallowness of protest is in this negativity; it is also in the short-winded righteousness by which it condemns evils for which it accepts no responsibility. In itself, protest implies no discipline and no correction. . . . That we have no poets who are, in that sense, public persons suggests even more forcibly the weakness of our poetry of protest. In his protest, the contemporary poet is speaking publicly, but not as a spokesman; he is only one outraged citizen speaking at other citizens who do not know him, whom he does not know, and with whom he does not sympathize. The tone of self-righteousness is one result of this circumstance.

The vast majority of contemporary poets never seem to even think about any of this, except perhaps to avoid discussing it. Sincerity is far less fashionable than irony and cynicism. Actually having something to say seems far less interesting to many than the fact that they want to express themselves about something, anything. One sign of the times is the retreat into narcissism, which leads us towards the self-absorbed self-confessional lyric. Another sign is the focus on technique over subject, which leads us to the word-games and puzzle-box crowd. Yet another sign is the (frankly neo-conservative) reactionary attitude of the neo-formalists, which is largely an attempt to simply roll back the clock of artistic progress, no matter what rhetoric they use to veil their purpose.

Berry's response is not to ally himself with the neo-formalists, despite his reverence for tradition, because he does not restrict himself as a poet so obviously. Rather, his response is flexible in form, fluid in approach, if essentially non-Modernist. Berry's poetry and attitude occasionally reminds me of Robinson Jeffers, in that both seek (or sought) a poetry for modern times that is not self-consciously Modernist, and do not believe that fragmentation and disjunction are necessary or sufficient. There is also an affinity in Berry's work for the pastoral tradition—which seems obvious, given Berry's agrarian roots, yet I don't hear it stated that way very often—leading back to the English pastoral poets, but also encompassing contemporary poets like Gary Snyder, William Everson, and Linda Hasselstrom. Poets who extend the oldest human values of all.

Elsewhere in Standing By Words, Berry speaks positively of Gary Snyder, who is one of the few poets who do succeed in making a new poetry rooted in the very old; Snyder has openly stated that his values are not Modernist, but Paleolithic, encompassing ecology, myth, bioregionalism, and human partnership with the land. (Which is one reason Snyder is one of my own touchstones as a poet.)

What Berry is describing in the passage above are the conditions of artistic mannerism, which I have also discussed before: the retreat from engagement with the world, and the simultaneous focus on the small and inward.

I think there's a hunger for the poetry that Berry describes. I see this partly in the revival of interest around poets engaged with the world, with social issues as well as ecological ones. Snyder has already been mentioned. But the revival of the reputation of Robinson Jeffers reflects this trend, as does the growing revival of interest in Jeffers' disciple William Everson. Hayden Carruth is another. On the same page as Snyder, with his interest in and promotion of deep ecological values and the relevance of Paleolithic myths and values to modern life, is Clayton Eshleman. There are others.

Despite the cynicism of many of the louder voices in contemporary poetry—one notices that this cynicism is often simultaneous with urbanism and the view that humanity is more interesting than anything else in the world—there is a growing re-enchantment with the older values found in the land. Wendell Berry speaks most elegantly of this. His ideas are well worth our discussion, even if at times his ideas seem reactionary rather than revolutionary. I have tremendous respect for him as a person, and a writer. I find myself enjoying his writing style so much that he can almost talk me into agreeing with him even in those areas where I don't. The world is more alive when he describes it. That too is a kind of re-enchantment, a valuable one.

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The Fire Sermon: a commentary

The Fire Sermon is an older poem, dating from the mid-80s. I wrote this poem partially during my Fulbright year in Indonesia, and finished it when back home in the Midwest. It’s an early example of a poem written at white heat. I hesitated to share it here, but when I was making the artwork that accompanies the poem, I realized that the art was meant to go with the poem, and it seemed essential to show them together. I have revised the poem slightly for this post, mostly trimming along the lines of my worst habit as a poet, too many “the”s and “and”s.

Why did I post/publish this poem now? It's more than 25 years old in its original form, written in that period in the mid-80s when I was very convinced of the necessity to write out my philosophy and mystical experiences as poetry. More accurately, I was convinced that there was no better way to record those experiences for myself. I’ve practiced this mode of visionary poetry writing at several periods in my life, when it seemed most natural and appropriate, in part because I could find no better method. The flatness of even the most poetic of prose seemed to take the life out of the experience, to somehow denature it, to take away its power. It seems to me that poetry can capture or enhance the telling of these kinds of experiences of otherness and transcendence, because poetry is enhanced and powerful language itself: heightened speech, words taken to their edges.

When I lived in Indonesia for a year on a Fulbright, studying music, a whole chapbook or two came out of that year, as well as a lot of music. I was living in Java officially to study music, true, but really I was studying everything, thinking about everything. Nothing was insignificant. Everything mattered. I was involved in all the arts, not just music. I went looking for experience, and I found lots of it. Call it a wanderjahr, the classic time of walkabout. I look back on the poems I wrote back then, including the Fire Sermon, and I recognize the person who wrote them as someone who was trying to figure himself out, although I'm not that person anymore. I have a lot more experience now, although overall I believe I'm younger at heart.

This poem, although inspired by the Buddha’s famous “Fire Sermon,” a central doctrine of Buddhism, isn't canonically Buddhist. It actually rather turns the original message of the Fire Sermon upside down. The original sermon by the Buddha, as recorded by his disciples, was about how all of the senses are on fire, all of life is on fire, and how those flames need to be cooled and put out, by following the eight-fold path of dharma towards nirvana. I found, when I was writing the poem, that what I believed was that immolation, the refiner’s fire, the burning of the self in the fire of life, was the other path to enlightenment. The flames rather than the cooling. The immersion in existence in order to transcend it. Nowadays I recognize that as the Tantric path, although I did not formulate it as such back then. Still, I've had many visionary experiences involving light and fire and uplift, experiences I still encounter even now. So as a proper mystic, I suppose I would end up taking the path of fire anyway.

Why did I post this older poem now? Partly it was because I made the accompanying artwork. Not knowing where the artwork was going, I was just playing with the images and processing. Fooling around. Improvising. As usual. People think that finished art is made with intention, but in my case as with some other artists it rarely is. I don't write an outline, I don't do sketches, I don’t plan everything out in advance. I just dive in.

The truth is, I've been having a real hard time lately. Call it depression, PTSD, feeling stuck, or worse, I lost most of today to feeling like crap and doing nothing. I’ve been feeling that way even on days when I can look back and tell you what I did accomplish. It didn't help that the day I made these images was cold and dreary and wet outside, which after weeks of unseasonably hot weather was doubly hard to take. Lots of people keep telling me that they think I'm doing well, on this current phase of my journey, and I'm starting to wonder if we're living in parallel universes. I do try to "think positive!" but sometimes you just want to punch the next overly cheerful New Ager when they chirp up about the power of positive thinking. I guess I've been good about hiding what I'm really feeling; I guess I have everyone snowed. The truth is, I feel like crap more often than not. More precisely, if not bad, then not good either. Quality of life has been lost under quantity of life, and quantity has been oppressive.

Was I looking for a reason to cheer myself up? Mostly art-making does that for me, or at least can often do that. Not lately, though. It's hard to feel like doing anything when you don't even want to get up in the morning. Depression. Whatever. Actually, depression can feel like The Big Whatever, an existential condition of anaesthesia and acedia. It's a fact that it can be hard to care. Sometimes I have to convince myself to care.

Fact is, I'm still under a lot of stress these days, Lots of people tell me I’m handling it well. I usually don’t feel like I am, so the external validation has been welcome. I don’t feel like I'm handling life very well at all. I feel overwhelmed and out of sorts most of the time. I can't always cope. I lose days to depression. I'm doing my best, and most days it’s an effort, feeling like an uphill battle, feeling like I have to force myself sometimes, feeling like even I don’t believe myself. I did make art today, out of this mood, as I've done before, but if it’s any good I can’t always tell. Nonetheless, a document of the moment, of the day, of the times. Life is difficult and complex enough right now, for many. There are several artistic projects and marketing and future career planning tasks on my To Do list, and having that list is good, because it gives me a reason to even bother trying to get moving up that hill yet again. I crossed a couple more items off the list today, yet as the witching hour approaches I don’t feel accomplished, I just feel tired.

This poem, my Fire Sermon, spoken out of a very Kazantzakis-like or Elytis-like mode of theology and mystical experience, inundated by sunlight and drenched with heat, a theology of Light and fire spoken in this poem through the mouthpiece of the Great Awakened One, falls into a category of poems that is perhaps limited artistically but fundamentally important personally: poems I have written for myself, to express truths I needed to write down, not caring if the poems themselves were good or not, along the axes of art-for-art’s-sake, purely because I must write about what is in the poems. They may not be good Art, or good Poems; in fact I'm certain that some poets would say they're not.

I’m well aware that this kind of poem is hugely unfashionable, no matter what the current fashion might be. They’re not hip or ironic, they’re not intentionally obscure or deliberately vague, they don’t require a decoder ring or secret insider information to get inside of. They’re not technically amorphous or brilliantly original. They’re neither metrically traditional nor neo-formalist. Each poem has a unique poetic form that emerged from the poem itself, and from its contents. (Form follows function.) They use mostly plain speech, albeit compressed and heightened and focused towards white heat. (I do get comments, about some of these poems, that they do ignite some readers, that they do catch Light, that they do break down the walls around heart and soma. That’s all I could ask for, and more.)

They are poems many poets would reject purely because of the subject matter, my personal experience of the sacred and sacramental, while other poets would reject them because they’re personal but not emotionally or psychologically confessional. There’s no psychological pathology in these poems beyond what a reader might project onto them. (Shamanic experience has frequently been misperceived as pathology.) There’s nothing pathological about having sex with God unless you believe that God is dead and passion is a necrophiliac aberration that must be suppressed. Freud would condemn Rumi as schizophrenic, entirely missing the point. (Freud was remarkably wrongheaded about so much that is natural to transcendence and contemplative spirituality. Maslow by contrast gets it right, in his studies of peak experience, of oceanic experience. The poets of ekstasis get it right more often than anybody else.)

These poems would not satisfy the criteria of many creative writing workshops, because they’re not personal small-scale lyric poems in the approved workshop mode, nor are they abstract and philosophical or opaque, in the approved language-mannerist modes. These poems are too sincere on the one hand, and not awkwardly self-conscious enough on the other. There is almost nothing in them about human love relationships, except as such relationships are avenues of grace and fire and what we can call Tantra.

The poems in this category have almost universally been rejected, or over-praised, often for the same reasons. It's rare to hear a response to this kind of poem that is just so, just right on target. I don’t know if they’re Great Art. I’ve ceased caring either way. I do know that they are letters written from myself to myself, and to Whoever or Whatever else is listening. They are what is transcendentally universal that I can find in what is personally mine. Some of them are stories, and others are deep descriptions of instantaneous non-narrative moments. The Fire Sermon is perhaps the only poem I’ve ever written consciously as a sermon, as a speech written to be delivered to the gathered congregation. It's not even a didactic poem; it's a poem of praise.

So that’s what it is. The other reason I present it now is because intuition says it’s necessary. The timing must somehow be right. I must be brave enough, right now, to be naked and vulnerable. Opening the heart is also a Tantric practice. Who is the Beloved to whom I send my song? He alone who knows my heart.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lost Roads

(Click on image for larger version.)

This is an initial sketch for a larger piece that I will be working on over the next few months. It is intended to be a large collage of individual images presented in high-contrast B&W. Each frame is a 4x6 image in its own right, which could stand on its own.

I began making the individual photos for this series when on my last roadtrip out West. I have always taken photos of the surrounding lands while driving the highways, but this trip I began to consciously take images out the windshield of the road ahead. That is becoming its own series, but it also gave me the idea, crystallized on the long drive home, of this new multi-image single piece, to be titled Lost Roads. This initial sketch is just some of the images that I've chosen to use for the final, large piece.

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The Road to the Western Lands 2

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Songwriting: Storytelling

Having bit the bullet and admitted that I might as well accept the label of songwriter for myself, even at my advanced career age, I have been exploring the terrain, finding out what's out there and what people expect. I've looked into the available networking resources. I've subscribed to American Songwriter magazine, which, unlike many other music mags, is really still more about the music than about celebrity artists and musical gear. In the January/February 2012 issue, which is a Bob Dylan 50th anniversary tribute issue, there are great interviews with Joan Baez and T Bone Burnett. It was a segment of the latter interview that got me thinking this morning, as I sat in my usual morning reading chair, still huddled in night's blankets, starting my day. Here's the exchange that caught my eye:

Do you have an overarching philosophy when it comes to producing?

I've been through so many different stages in my own life. The thing that's been consistent all the way through it is that at the base it's storytelling. All record making, all songwriting, all singing is storytelling. I've always tried to keep that in mind. First you look for the voice.

So you focus mainly on the vocals rather than the music of the sound of an album?

The sound of the music is completely dependent on the sound of the voice. That's reality. The instruments are more or less the same. The human being is completely different. Of course, I don't mean all instruments are exactly the same. There are great and bad sounding instruments, but even bad ones can make a beautiful tone. The person and the voice are so distinct that it changes the way you make sound out of either good or bad instruments. It's about blending the instruments with the tone of the voice.

—T Bone Burnett, interviewed by Hal Bienstock, "T Bone Burnett: The Taste Maker," American Songwriter, January/February 2012, p. 41

The voice is the original instrument. It's integral to the human body. The voice rises out of the center of the body, rises up through the torso, and out through the throat and mouth. The sound is shaped by all these factors, as well as general health. I've noticed that my own singing voice, which was never a robust instrument as an adult, has changed in the past few years when I was at my sickest, and as I've recovered. I have more strength now, more tone, although I'm still not a loud singer. Voices are very individual: you cannot actually standardize the human voice the way you can standardize the manufacture of a guitar or piano, because we're all different. There are some various types that one can identify, certain styles and approaches, but within those parameters there is still a lot of individuality.

One of the things that I've noticed lately in the current wave of over-produced pop stars is that has seemed to be an effort to standardize an interchangeable pop star voice; you may have noticed how pop voices sound more alike now than they ever have, with almost no variation in singer's tone or range. Some of that is because the production is being standardized, and there is a currently a fashion for highly-processed vocals, and a ridiculous fashion on top of that for semi-vocoded voices, so that tone and pitch all sound slightly robotic rather than human. I hope that's a fashion that dies soon, but I'm not holding my breath.

Elsewhere in the interview, Burnett is asked about the current American roots music revival—roots music being the old folk songs and styles, which not only are being researched and performed as they were, but are being used as the basis for new songs by young bands.

It seems like the public has become a lot more interested in roots music over the past decade than it was in the '80s and '90s. What do you attribute that to?

There are a couple of big trends going on in the world. One is towards globalization, the other is localization or tribalism. This is the music of our tribe. The Scots-Irish, Black people, Italians, the people that came here and started cooking up this music. I think things have gotten very depersonalized in the modern world. It started in the 20th century, the century of the self. This is a way to touch base. There songs are hundreds of years old, but they've been rewritten and grown into all kinds of things.

Does roots music speak to a longing for something more authentic?

I think there's always that. My view is that we live in a very de-authenticated world, especially in music. All music has been deauthenticated because it has been compromised so heavily by current technology.

—T Bone Burnett, ibid.

I find the current Top 40 pop music using perfected artificial voices and vocoders to be mannerist, decadent, the result of the end of an artistic era's process. It's representative of the cyberization of late-Modernist culture, in which people aren't sure where they end and their machines begin. Cyberneticists thought about all this in the 60s, and what we're seeing now with people (like me) using their smartphones and tablet computing devices for almost everything has been written about for decades in futurist circles as well as in science fiction. Amazingly thoughtful artistic projects such as the SF anime TV series Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (based on the manga by Shirow Masamune) ask the question: what happens to culture, and to ourselves, when we stop being able to tell what parts of us are human and what parts are cyberized? Some of the mannerist music being made nowadays reflects an enormous if unconscious anxiety about these questions, reflected especially in the cyberized voices of the singers and the metric perfection of rhythm tracks created using digital beatboxes and instrumental parts that are never out-of-tune because they're produced and filtered using software synthesizers.

The end result is rather lifeless. It often seems like in pop music the machine has already won. After all, humans are an adaptable species; we often take on the shape of our surroundings, affected by geography, climate, nutrition, noosphere. We can certainly adapt to the cyberized future—as both represented in and thought about in pop cultural literature such as cyberpunk, and pop cultural music such as vocoded Top 40 radio. So we adapt, and change, and are changed. And we respond to digital perfection by looking for the unpredictable artistic glitch, the places the machines fail, the noise that often hides the signal—and so we get musical genres such as aleatoric music, noise music, and dubstep. We also get the soundtrack to the cyber movie Tron: Legacy, or the soundtracks to the Matrix movies, all of which brilliantly combine techno/punk hard beats and the more expected blockbuster orchestral movie soundtracks.

And that takes me back to the original comment that Burnett said that got me thinking: All record making, all songwriting, all singing is storytelling.

All of this is storytelling. Even the decadence of mannerist, deauthenticated, depersonalized "artistic product"—reflecting the contemporary attitude that all things are to be commodified and categorized or they are not real—is a particular story that is being told.

All songwriting is storytelling. All myths around art-making are storytelling. I am reminded of what poet Muriel Rukeyser once opined: The universe is not made up of hydrogen, but of stories. Joseph Campbell once defined myths, both religious and cultural, as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We are a storytelling species. Story is how we communicate with each other. Stories are how we express our communal and individual values, and also how we talk about what went wrong. Movies are storytelling taken to a synergistic level of words-music-image all combined; even journalistic documentary movies are storytelling. Reporting is storytelling. Even cable TV news is storytelling, although you often have to read between the pixels to uncover the narratives being sold us via assumption and innuendo, which lurk beneath the apparent surface of straight-ahead reporting.

So as someone who has been an artist in multiple media for decades, who now finds himself practicing the synergistic art of songwriting, of words-and-music, I find myself becoming a more conscious storyteller than ever before. That is, more consciously aware of the stories I am telling, and more willing to examine those stories as such. I find myself going back to listen to the folk music I explored deeply in an earlier period of life: the roots music, centuries old, that is being remade and reborn now. For Heartlands I wrote a few new folk songs, inspired by the old roots, but brand new. That sensibility, central as it is to living life in the Midwestern Heartlands, is a thread that winds throughout the music, sometimes more overtly, sometimes more deeply buried. And the work overall is storytelling: telling the stories of what it's like to grow up and live as a gay man in the Midwestern Heartlands, which was the origin and purpose of the music being commissioned.

I am now writing new songs. I find myself connecting to the roots Americana musical revival, not because I play an instrument like mandolin (I don't), or because I'm listening to a lot of Americana albums right now (ranging from Alison Krauss to Edgar Meyers' "Appalachia" series to the many artists influenced by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and so on), but rather because I find myself writing story-songs. Probably half of the songs lyrics I've written in the early months of 2012 have been impressionistic, based on things and seen while traveling out West, but the other half have been human stories, based on stories I've witnessed, or read about, or which emerged from my own life. What you observe and what you experience, and what you think about all that, that's all fodder for your art.

This is how we re-authenticate our lives, and re-personalize the world. Storytelling is still myth-making, which is how we make a home in the world, and how we make sense of the world and what it offers us, both soft and hard. Myth is the quest for meaning. Storytelling is the very fabric of the weaving of myth.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rural Roads: an afternoon's crop of photos and haiku

hard prairie winds
pull at the barn windows,
hawk overhead

gopher tracks in spring,
crossing from mud to creek,
leave dirt clods behind

white tree flowers
fast clouds, high winds:
snow on the road

the sky's more empty
without a falcon soaring
despite these clouds

trees as tall as barns
host swallow strings—
nesting time has come

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

First Flutes

Since I began playing flutes, some 30 years ago, I have focused on ethnic flutes, especially bamboo flutes. I own a concert flute, a glass flute, a jade flute, flutes made of various hardwoods, and several dozen bamboo flutes. I specialize in suling, from Indonesia, and shakuhachi, from Japan. I don't claim to be a virtuoso flute player, as I am primarily self-taught, with the occasional guidance from more professional players. I play well enough for my own purposes: music for meditation, for ambient music, for my own compositions for flute and other instruments.

Playing flute for myself, I find it to be an instrument that calms and centers me, based as it is on the breath, the prana, qi, ki.

This is my first flute:

Not the first flute I ever owned, which was a flute of lesser quality that was a gift from a relative. This is the first flute I ever bought for myself, and which I taught myself to play. It has shown up on more than one recording over the years.

It's a large instrument, sounding in the alto flute range, with limited pitch range, a unique tuning, and very sensitive to breath pressure. It's called a Zen Flute, and was made by John Niemi in Hawai'i, in the early 1980s. I have three or four bamboo flutes made by John Niemi, all of superb quality, and all possessing a soul, an earth spirit. That's not just my opinion; other players and listeners have made similar comments to me, unsolicited.

In December 2011, when I was commissioned to record a new CD to be used for meditation, yoga, Reiki, and/or massage, which I titled Darshan, this flute was one I wanted to use on the recording. But I couldn't find it anywhere. I tore the house apart looking for it. I looked all through the studio, all over the basement, I looked in travel bags from my last camping trip last year. I thought with horror that it had somehow been lost, that I would never see it again. I had given up hope. I went ahead with the recording project, and was well satisfied with the music I was making, but there was a hole where this old friend had been.

Just this past week, it was returned to me. I had last used it on a recording project at the studio in Chicago, when I was living out in California, and in the turbulence of recent years I had lost track of it. Without remembering, I had left it in Chicago intending to record more with it later. My friend found it when he was cleaning out his place in Chicago, a few months ago, and had been waiting for the right time to return it to me, along with a half dozen other flutes all bundled together.

Having this flute given back to me is the best thing that's happened to me all month. It's like being reborn. Now that I have my Zen Flute again, I can hardly wait to make new music with it. I have plans to record more music for meditation, yoga, etc., and this flute will be featured prominently, you may be sure.

Here are the first two flutes I ever bought for myself:

Alongside the Zen Flute is my first shakuhachi. (Japanese end-blown flute, with a long and important musical tradition to its name.) It's a rough-hewn example of the breed, also made by John Niemi. This shakuhachi is featured prominently on Darshan, appearing on several tracks. It's my first shakuhachi, and even though I have acquired other shakuhachi of officially better quality, this instrument has a special place in my heart.

Here are several of my best-quality bamboo flutes, including three shakuhachi:

Three of these flutes were just returned me on the aforementioned occasion. The evening after I was reunited with these flutes, I spent a fair amount of time playing, caressing, just getting reacquainted. To have them all back again is inspirational. I am finding new music in them, each voice being as fresh as if never heard before. It's been long enough that I am rediscovering each old friend with great pleasure.

I spent some time tonight just getting to know all these flutes again, looking for new melodies. Each of them will appear on the next recording project, and I'll be sure that they are not parted from me again.

The three shakuhachi above grouped for a family portrait:

Making these photographic portraits of some of my favorite flutes from among my collection of musical instruments was an exercise in more than one photographic technique. All of these were made using a tripod and long exposures, with directional lighting from more than one source. It was a late-night photo session made in celebration of their return. These are all relatively long exposures. I used narrow depth of field to create the close-ups, desiring to emphasize the parts of the flutes where the mouth is placed, where the breath gives life to the music. One or two of the resulting images are iconic enough to be enlarged to poster size, and printed as decoration for the recording studio walls.

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Saturday, April 07, 2012

Songwriting: Where It Begins

What starts a song lyric, or a poem, going? What triggers any moment of inspiration that becomes a work of art? Do you need a specific muse to inspire you?

Almost anything. Anything can trigger that inspiration, it tends to come over like a wave or a sudden feeling. I've never needed a specific muse, anything will do. Art-making is the artist's response to life.

An aside: Any time the words "muse" and "inspire" are mentioned, a certain clan of poets and songwriters feels like they must insist that writing doesn't require a muse. They're right, but their assertion goes too far. They neglect to admit that some of the time, inspiration does happen, and there is a muse. These assertions often come from the craft-oriented wing of writing, those who write with intention and purpose, and use all their craft to work hard at making the best art that they can. I applaud that. However, I'm also very well aware that inspiration does happen, and it cannot always be explained—or explained away. And sometimes, there is a person who triggered it. A painter paints her lover. A composer's wife hums while working in the garden, inciting a symphony of song. Art-making is the artist's response to life, and inspiration can come from anywhere.

A second aside: Lots of people think that your muse, if it's your beloved soul-mate, inspires you to your heights of artistry. That is the romantic myth. it's true sometimes, but all too often poets perpetrate one of those numerous insipid love poems that plague the world with their clichéd repetitions. In fact, most people have romantic notions about love and its connection to inspiration that go too far. Not all muses are beneficent. And not all that a muse inspires is loving, praising, or beatific. Loving is not always a pastoral romp through fields of glory. I'll tell you who your real sou-mate is: the person who most pushes you towards growth, towards becoming a better person. Your soul-mate isn't in fact usually the person who you adore, but the person who pushes you, who pisses you off, who you can't get out of your head even if you try. Sometimes the muse inspires an angry poem.

That's how I wrote this poem, as a response to a moment when the person I most love in this world was really pissing me off. It happens. The most important cusp in a love relationship comes when you choose what you will do next. That moment didn't last, but I am left with a poem I still like. In this instance, as occasionally happens, I was inspired and wrote this poem at white heat in one sitting, in one of my journals. As is also common when writing at white heat, the final version is not far off the first draft, as can be seen from the journal page in question:

Many of my poems, and now song lyrics, have begun from specific inspirations I can recall, and detail, such as the previous example. Art-making is my response to life experience. Sometimes you spin off from another idea that occurred to you, and it just starts to flow. It can be mysterious in its arrival, but you can learn to notice and recognize with experience. There have been poems that were triggered by a person, an encounter, a phrase in a conversation; so sometimes a person does serve as muse, if you will.

A recent instance of multiple threads coming together to inspire a song lyric can be seen in a song I wrote in New Mexico, on my recent roadtrip. I wrote a poem while in Albuquerque, and posted it here: Colder Moons. An online friend made a comment to the poem affirming the poem's last lines:

. . . 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.

I was grateful for the comment, and it got me to thinking. Not many days later I took the last line of the poem, "Some things don't need to be forgiven," and used it as the first line for a new song. The line had stayed with me, but having it affirmed in my friend's comment gave it extra weight in my art-making mind.

Here's the first two verses of this new song, written soon after the poem and comment:

Some things don't need to be forgiven,
like stars that fall from desert skies,
like tears that urge the heart to widen,
like a newborn daughter's cries.

Some places in the heart are broken,
it's friendship's edge we use to bind
ourselves together to each other,
your limping half-healed heart to mine.

. . .

This completed song lyric is one of the new songs I am working on now, setting the words to music. It's part of a group of songs I wrote during the roadtrip, and after.

Writing the words for a song usually comes first, for me, although I do sometimes hear the melody at the same time, coming forward together with the words. For this song, the melody did come to me right along with the words, and finishing the total of four verses and refrain to the song was partly a matter of fitting the words to the song in its established melodic pattern, and partly about writing what I wanted to say.

It can become a process of getting it down while you're in the flow, then cleaning it up later, although in this instance once I got going it pretty much flowed. I find myself writing a song like this mostly in one sitting, getting it all down as much as I can; when the words start to come, it can take a few minutes, or an hour, to get them down. Then I set it aside for awhile, to come back after a few days, to polish, clean up, sometimes rearrange lyrics or phrases, and generally rewrite as needed. Taking some time between the initial inspiration and the rewrite often allows you to be more objective, or at least somewhat detached, so that you can look at the song as a song, and start to hear it being sung in your head.

That's how the writing process can go, at least some of the time, from inspiration to finish. Other songs take a lot longer to beat into shape, which can be a process of gathering fragments onto a page in my journal and then figuring out how to fit them together. Your craft as a songwriter comes into play in particular when you rewrite and polish and clean up.

Don't rewrite too soon in the process, is my advice, because at least for me that can completely kill the inspiration. Stay in one mindset while writing, use the other for editing and rewriting. Use the inspiration for as long as you can, for as long as it hangs around. Get down as much as you can. Be greedy with whatever inspires you. You have a lot more time for rewrites than you do for inspiration. When the white heat cools to more calculating craft, that's the time for editing. That's another reason I set a song aside for awhile, before coming back to look at it more objectively. You can spot things when it's further off in the distance that you'd miss entirely when you're still in the midst of being inspired.

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Friday, April 06, 2012

Opening Languages

In January 2012, I played live improvised music for two consecutive evenings for the opening of an art gallery retrospective show by my artist friend John Steines. The retrospective show in Madison was called Languages, Acquired and Intuitive, featuring mostly oils painted over a period of some years. In his artist statement, John writes, in part:

Art, the language of images, is both necessary and crippling. Images can and do speak, but experiencing art means that we must participate: We need to create anchors into understanding. The individual experience of life as art and created into art evolves out of intense personal process.

The work in this show communicates that which is unwritten and un-writable for me. The pieces amplify my experience and the way I have lived. I want to give life to the universal within the vernacular, all of it situated in a large common public space—to open public conversation of my own understanding of meaning and experience.

This speaks to me of the sometimes pre-verbal, inarticulate nature of art, even of poetry which often fails to contain life's experiences in mere words. Art can communicate, and does, but indeed we must participate: we complete the meaning of art by finding within it hooks into our own lives, our own experience. One core aspect of the haiku aesthetic is the idea that the reader completes the poem, out of his own life's experience. The spareness of the haiku form, and its reliance on imagery rather than didactic telling, leaves the door open for readers to bring their own experience to the poem, to find within it echoes from their own lives and emotions. Some of the mystery and beauty of haiku is that we do in fact share with the poet the experience of the poem.

That kind of connecting is what good art does, sometimes seemingly effortlessly. I have often felt that connection, when deeply involved with playing music for an audience, or when writing a poem at white heat. I don't seek out these moments as the purpose of my art-making, but I thoroughly immerse myself in them when they do occur.

I sat in a corner of the gallery for two cold nights in early winter, playing whatever music I was moved to create on the spot. This isn't my first improvised solo gig, nor my first gallery gig. I enjoy playing gallery gigs, actually, as I like to be able to create ambient soundscapes that can take a long time to develop and change. It's inspiring to being sitting in a room surrounded by beauty, by art, by the feelings that the art evokes, and that can be fed into the music-making as a direct response. When I was taking a break from live playing, I played pre-existing tracks of my own recorded music. I had been asked to do this gallery opening a few months prior; the very next day, I left on my roadtrip to the Southwest and California.

For this gig, I played Chapman Stick with some simple effects processors, and two or three softsynths on my iPad, including the AniMoog app, an excellent synth app developed by the people who make the Moog Synthesizer. This is truly a great instrument, a professional-quality electronic music instrument—on your iPad! I ran the Stick through a looping device as well, although it's perfectly possible to play iPad and Stick at the same time, one hand each. I recorded both evening-long performances onto my laptop. I ran both iPad and Stick through my portable Mackie mixer, mixing them live to speakers in the room, and a stereo mix directly to the laptop. This was a great gig in which to try out the iPad as a concert instrument, and it performed wonderfully. For some future gigs, I fantasize showing up with my Stick and a backpack with my iPad and laptop, and maybe a foot-operated controller pedal or two—and that's all. A truly portable musician's performance rig.

After these gallery opening shows, I was on the road for over a month. Now that I'm back home, I finally had time to listen through the raw live recordings, to audition the musicscapes that I had made live. I've spent the last week or so going through the recordings from both nights. I've winnowed down several hours of live recordings to pick out some of the best moments, trimmed and edited them into individual tracks, and assembled them now into a short album. Just over 40 minutes of reasonably good performances. Remember that for a live gig there are almost always a few glitches or minor problems, and nothing is ever as perfectly-recorded as a studio album. That's also the joy of live music, its spontaneity and exploration.

I love playing completely improvised music, not knowing what will happen next, following my feelings, playing suspended in the air like a trapeze artist without a safety net. Things can go wrong, certainly, but when they go right, special moments are created.

I will eventually release this material as a live album, titled Opening Languages, probably when I get myself set up with the new music/composition website I am building at the moment. I intend to make the album available for sale on iTunes, and other venues. Meanwhile here is one track from this live improvised music, which you can audition here via streaming.

Opening Languages: i will not be sad in this world    

Arthur Durkee: Chapman Stick, effects, processing, iPad softsynths

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Adrienne Rich as Bard

This past week and more I have been reading through what I have of Adrienne Rich's poems and essays, reading some things again, reading some things for the first time. At one point I was talked into getting rid of all my Rich books, and convinced that as a political poet she wasn’t any good. That was wrong, and I’ve changed my mind. I now value her poetry highly, and some of her prose essays are fundamental to 20th C. thought about LGBT issues, about poetry, about how to live in a war-torn century and refuse to be complicit with its compromises and losses in public life.

In fact, I like Rich’s anger now more than ever, her rock-hard determination, her use of language to get at the roots of life, partly because they reflect my own, but also because they have come to seem necessary. Too much ground has been given in to the bullies, and that must stop. Her refusal to give in to those who would destroy her, and me, is more essential than ever.

The freedom of the wholly mad
to smear & play with her madness
write with her fingers dipped in it
the length of a room

which is not, of course, the freedom
you have, walking on Broadway
to stop & turn back or go on
10 blocks; 20 blocks

but feels enviable maybe
to the compromised

. . .

Madness.       Suicide.       Murder.
Is there no way out but these?
The enemy, always just out of sight
snowshoeing the next forest, shrouded

In a snowy blur, abominable snowman
—at once the most destructive
and the most elusive being
gunning down the babies at My Lai
vanishing in the face of confrontation

The prince of air and darkness
computing body counts, masturbating
in the factory
of facts.

—Adrienne Rich, from “The Phenomenology of Anger”

What other poet uses such a vocabulary lately? So many are content to speak only of lovers' dramas set in urban living rooms, or play with words till nothing means anything any more. What other poet tells such stories of the world’s tragedies, and our individual ones? They’re the same, of course.

This is bardic, in the old tradition of the poet at the king’s fire, telling the news. This is the voice of the lineage of ancient Jewish prophets, telling the truths no one wants to hear. Contemporary Jewish mystic Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote, A prophet is one who interferes with injustice, and that is what we have in Rich’s writing. Can a poem change the world? Perhaps not. But it does have the power to make a reader think about starting to change the world, even if only in their own backyard. Poetry does have the power to inspire. It's only when we treat poetry as a pretty decoration, like a doily on a sewing table, that it does not. If we resist letting poetry become purely decorative, than there are things we can still say with it.

Even more than the poems themselves, I keep returning to Rich’s ideas about poetry. The poems are thick and muscular, pared down to the limits of language, forceful commentaries on life, what wounds us, on engagement with the world, personally, politically, socially, spiritually. What she wrote about the act of making poetry, the art of the vatic word, is just as muscular.

I keep coming back to what Rich said that poems are meant to be:

Today, I have to say that what I know I know through making poems. Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials acrrording to a prior plan: the poem itself engenders new sensations, new awareness in me as it progresses. Without for one moment turning my back on conscious choice and selection, I have been increasingly willing to let the unconscious offer its materials, to listen to more than the one voice of a single idea. Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it.

Rather than being about an experience, a poem should be an experience. I wholeheartedly agree. I find myself, every time I make a poem, wanting to make it an experience for the reader. I want the poem to recreate for the reader the experience that the poet had that led to the making of the poem. I don’t want to tell about what I experienced, I want to make you share the experience.

Sometimes the closest I can get to that is haiku. I keep making the attempt, even if it often fails. I feel like some of my more experimental poetry, like the Theokritikos series of poems, approaches what we want to do. Having a conversation in a normal tone, but with the heightened language of poetry, that’s what I try to do in the Letters poem series. Other bodies of work have different styles and forms. I’ve talked about cinematic poetry, a poetry that builds a narrative not through conventional grammar and storytelling but through sequencing images in strings that ignite into images in the mind. I think sometimes of Chris Marker’s beautiful and terrifying film, La Jeté, which is a film made up of B&W still photographs, that tell a huge and complex story using very simple means. Poems can be like that, if we allow them the grace to make the attempt, if we let go of our clinging to the words themselves and aim for what lies beyond and behind words.

And how we represent our lives as metaphor. I’ve had the experience of being in the desert just as described by Rich:

Every drought-resistant plant has its own story
each had to learn to live
with less and less water, each would have loved

to laze in long soft rains, in the quiet drip
after the thunderstorm
each could do without deprivation

but where drought is the epic then there must be some
who persist, not by species-betrayal
but by changing themselves

minutely, by a constant study
of the price of continuity
a steady bargain with the way things are

—Adrienne Rich, from the poem “The Desert as Garden of Paradise”

Other recent articles on Rich:

Poems Good Enough to Eat

Adrienne Rich: Moral Compass

And disabled writer Kenny Fries reflects on how important Rich was to the disabled community:

How Adrienne Rich Taught Me to Drive

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long waves pull us across

Another dream of water rising last night, interrupted by waking. Whenever I have one of these dreams in which water rises out of the earth, and moves with a life of its own, usually it means that soon a creative surge will wash over me. They are waters of the spirit, rising from that black underground river that is the source of and power behind everything that I do. This wave rising last night felt like the end of a period of dry tribulation, a closure on the aches of recent days. I wake to wind and cool skies, the flowers in the garden shockingly bright in the morning sun.

water clear transparent foamless
only a little floatsam in its crystal polygons
surges up in tall waves that we ride
across the concrete dock

we came here on a mission
urgent laconic well-informed
gathered in this concrete shelter
as storm floods rose high outside

now waves rise and pull us smooth
across the long floor's scatter of tools
I receive a call from the home office
I am summoned there directly

to solve some unnamed problem
so our group splits up for now
waves of water rising clear not cold
carry me past docks to open sky land

In recent days I find myself wanting to record significant dreams, when there are any, in the form of poems. Poems, rather than prose, because I can use in a poem dream-logic language, compressed and telegraphic, full of archetypal images that you can just present without feeling like you need to explain them. Poems are closer to dream-language anyway. Much closer than most prose, except of course prose-poems. There is a tradition of dream-poems, of course, from ancient times to modern. Maybe I'll end up with a set of dream-poems, a small body of work, before I move on to the next thing. I don't plan poems ahead like that, though. I just wait to see what happens.

That source of creative power, that underground river, when it surges, you do best to ride on its waves in the middle of the current. You cannot force something so much greater than yourself into a narrow channel of your own ambitions; it will explode outwards and break through the banks. Don't try to get too close to shore, just stay on your raft. The surge will eventually level out, although it's likely to return again later on, and meanwhile the water level is higher than before. A bard surfs these waves rather than being so unwise as to try to paddle against them. Going with the flow, indeed.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

States of Disunion

I have started three or four different new essays on various topics this past week, but have been unable to finish any of them. I wrote a single poem a week or so ago, but am sure if it's any good. It felt scattered, unfocused, raw.

I have a lot on my mind, a lot of worries about my future, my health, my finances, my personal state of being. I am continuously angry and resentful, day in, day out, and have no outlet for it. I'm feeling stuck, on multiple levels. Right now, unless I finish a piece of writing in one sitting, it gets set aside unfinished, and not returned to. Maybe I'll be able to come back to those other essays soon—they are on topics important to me—but not today.

I am mentally at odds with life, and don't find art-making soothing enough right now to be either curative or distracting enough. I have rarely felt this stuck in my life, and it bothers me more now than it ever has before. I can feel my shoulder and neck muscles aching more and more as I sit and type this. Will I even finish this, which is likely to be a rant that no one wants to hear? No guesses either way.

Everything that has been going on that's been good and fun has been overshadowed in recent weeks, and it's been hard to "think positive." (Actually, I'm going to slap the next person who gives that advice to me.) There have been good and fun moments, yet the overall baseline has been unhappy, frustrated, discontent, irritable, resentful, angry. Circumstances have prevented me from venting this backlog easily, yet I need to. So consider this a rant, if you wish, if I finish it, if you're reading it. If you don't want to read it, kindly soar off.

I don't actually enjoy feeling angry and resentful all the time. I don't take pleasure in it. It's just there, like the weather. It would be a lie to deny it, a lie to try to conceal it or dismiss it as unimportant. A lot of friends have lately been telling me how well they think I'm doing, how good I look—compared to how I used to look when I was dying, I surmise—and I listen, but I feel like I'm lying if I pretend that I feel as good as they think I do, or should.

Sometimes in more cynical moments I am convinced that the main reason people want you to be doing well is so that it doesn't upset them. In my more cynical moments, I am quite sure that the reason we medicate people out of their mental difficulties is not for their own benefit, but for our ours: because we find them disturbing. I suppose that's a step up from institutionalizing them in a mental hospital, in Bedlam, but it's still a kind of prison. I feel like I've been lying to people who feel I'm doing well, albeit it's mostly lies of omission: I just haven't been saying what I'm thinking and feeling to most people. There's a disconnect, a disunity, between what I feel and what people seem to want me to be feeling. It can be impossible to reconcile.

All of this is exacerbated by the current social environment, the ridiculously fouled political climate of rhetoric going on around me as my nation continues to fragment rather than cohere. I guess these are after all the end times: the end-of-something-or-other times. Kali Yuga, or the last days of extreme, violent turbulence, before the Sixth World begins. I do my best to avoid most political horsecrap, but if one is going to be an engaged, active citizen-participant in the civil contract, in the social fabric of one's own country, one cannot avoid everything. Some toxins slip through.

I haven't been in a good place mentally for several weeks. Some days I'd like nothing more than to get in the truck and disappear on another roadtrip for awhile, but you can't really run away from your problems. You can only avoid them for so long. Wherever you go, you take your troubles with you. You might be able to ignore them for awhile, in a new setting, but they'll eventually re-emerge.

I'm experiencing a lot of delayed grief, a lot of PTSD, a lot of strong emotion right now. Much of it is from the very invasive surgery performed on my flesh last summer, a lot of feelings I didn't have time to deal with back then. So some old stuff is coming home to roost. This is all made worse by the fact that a big part of my daily life is spent focusing on preparing for the next, even more violating surgery, which becomes existential angst because I still can't get any clear answers about a timeline, or about what's expected of me. "Lose weight and exercise" is all I'm given. It makes me furious, because it keeps me in emotional limbo for the convenience of others. I'm about to explode at whichever medical professional next tries to condescend to me, or keep me in the dark, or whatever. What they think is supportive isn't. I'm on the verge of firing all of them. Even the one or two who are not totally clueless have pissed me off one too many times.

This isn't even about my own impatience anymore. This is about the frustration I am having to deal with on a continuous basis, because no one will give me the straight story. I know that life has no guarantees, I don't need to be told that. I'm at the point where I need at least partial guarantees, not prevarication. Is it so hard to say what you mean and keep your word to me? I have weight-loss goals to achieve, yet no one seems willing to help me get there. I'm completely on my own, with a proven track record of not being able to do this on my own. I ask for help, and I get evasiveness. I ask for answers, and I get none. I do not feel listened to.

Of course I'm hardly the first patient to feel this way. But it's a new feeling for me, because never before have I needed and asked for this much assistance, with no response. Of course I must do it all on my own: the veiled implication being, if you don't succeed it's your own fault. Yes, let's blame the victim. Let's put all the pressure on the patient and not provide any resources to lighten the burden. Yes, let's do that.

When this all began, I was sold a medical narrative of surgery to cure my chronic illness, of wounding and recovery and healing, that has yet to be delivered. I just want the story I was originally told. I want what I was told would happen to actually happen. I want the story I was told to be the story for real, without these endless avoidances, delays, and misdirections. I feel lied to, when the narrative that was originally promised me for various reasons seems to be infinitely put off. Was I sold a bill of goods? Was I lied to? At the moment, I certainly feel that way. Meanwhile I am left in limbo, with this ostomy bag that makes my life pretty much a living hell.

The truth is, I'm still in the midst of this medical journey. I'm not "all better now." I have a long way to go.

I may in some ways be physically stronger and healthier than I have been in years, but that's only half the story. The other half is that I'm not done yet, it's not going to be over and done with till the next surgery and recovery. The single advantage that I have going into the second surgery is that I'm stronger and healthier overall, now, since the first surgery, than I have been a very long time. So I'm going in with better chances than I had with the first surgery. But that doesn't mean it will be easy, or simple, or a quick recovery. There are no guarantees, not even many promises. I'm nowhere near finished with any of this. Any idea that I'm "all better now" exists in contradiction to and denial of the actual facts. Lots of people nonetheless want to cling to that idea about me; I suppose it's less upsetting to them to believe that I'm all better now rather than that I still have a very long way to go. I understand that; nonetheless it doesn't help me get through, it doesn't help me at all.

So be it.

I'm pissed off enough right now that it might be getting in my way at times, but my rage also fuels my determination. Despite everything, despite everyone who claims to be on my side but isn't, at least not in any helpful way, I intend to survive, to get through, to move on with my life. Somehow. I don't know how.

I am well aware, however, that determination and intention are not enough. There has to be more. There has to be real, genuine, pragmatic support. If I'm supposed to lose weight, fine, help me with that. Don't just brush me off with a command to do better.

So this is what I did today: I went looking for a fight. I found a few. I went looking, mind on fire, for stupidity, judgmentalism, and the like, and I found them in spades. They're actually very easy to find, since even smart people often trip over their own blind spots. As Frank Zappa once said, Stupidity is actually most prevalent element in the universe, since stupidity is more prevalent than hydrogen. I spent a big part of my day commenting on threads on two or three websites wherein I thought people were using incredibly sloppy logic to bolster their arguments (usually ending up undermining them), and I pointed that out.

I got into an argument with a smart yet occasionally reactionary academic about how hate speech is something real and tangible, not merely a semantic trope that needs to stop being used—but maybe you had to be there. I stand by my point that calling people on their hate and on their bullying isn't hating in return, it's shedding a light in dark places. Changing the rhetoric alone isn't enough to cancel out the hate. Calling bullies on their bullying isn't "hating back," it's turning over rocks to air out the slime underneath.

I got into a couple of discussions regarding gays (equal rights) vs. the Bible (as quoted by the religious right), pointing out quite rationally and calmly how most anti-gay sentiments expressed by the religious right use verses from the Bible that are known mistranslations and misreadings. Even Biblical scholars who don't like gays will agree that the King James Version of the Bible is one of the most inaccurate translations ever made, and the source of many misinterpretations.

I got into a long argument about people being judgmental of other people being judgmental of other people, at the end of which I pointed out that, yes, I too was being judgmental of those who being judgmental, etc., to make a point by example: where do you stop? At the end of the day, no one looked particularly good in that discussion. Everybody judged everybody else, and only one person had the guts to step back, look at his own rushes to judgment, think better of them, and apologize.

Yes, I was occasionally as insulting and judgmental in reply to those I saw being judgmental and insulting to me and to others. Yes, I was occasionally quite withering in my contempt.

And at the end of the day, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I'm tired, but I'm more cheerful than I've felt in days.

Now, I can hear a voice at the back of the auditorium already saying things like, "Aren't you supposed to be better than that? Was that the enlightened path to take?" Well, perhaps it was some sort of sin to take out my anger on others. In my defense, on those rare occasions that I indulge in this, I pick my targets very carefully. I harness my anger to do my best to make the world a finer place, by calling bullies what they are, by speaking truth to power, by doing my best to find light in the darkness. Just because I fight on the side of the light doesn't mean I don't contain darkness as well. You do too, don't pretend otherwise. It may not he the most enlightened thing to vent my anger and frustration on others—I agree—but what would you have me do? Suppress it, swallow it, till I make myself sick with it? No, better to get it out my of my body, for my own health and peace of mind. Better to harness anger to be used as fuel for other kinds of enlightenment. To wake up.

You see, that's Tantra in action: harnessing the power of "negative" or "corrosive" emotions, turning them into fuel for enlightenment. I try to at least do it consciously, using skillful means. I am by nature the Dragon, at core the Warrior, and I have more affinity for the Wrathful Deities than the peaceful ones. Perhaps that is a failing. Then again, I never claimed to have achieved enlightenment in this lifetime, or even to be likely to. I am as flawed as anyone else. My biggest vice is impatience, my biggest flaw is anger and judgmentalism. I recognize other people being judgmental because I don't like that tendency in myself. Nonetheless I will use judgment as a tool of discernment, if it serves to make the world a finer place. I struggle along, imperfect, failing often—the same as you, as everyone else.

Today I went looking for a fight, to get myself unstuck, and I found one, and I feel no need to apologize. I don't do this often, because in fact I don't really value it highly. I know very well that is an indulgence in raw negativity. At least i attempt to do it using skillful means, to do it consciously. Today I did it for reasons essentially of mental health, for medical reasons. Today I did it because the steam release valve needed to be uncocked. Tonight I am more energized and and clear-headed than I have felt in several days. I may not sleep any better than before, but I may be more rested nonetheless.

So mote it be.

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