Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Heartlands: Notes Before a Premiere

As we approach the premiere(s) of "Heartlands," now less than a month away, I find myself struggling with tension, anxiety and worry. The premiere of a major piece of music which I wrote is bringing out anxiety caused by inherited latent perfectionism (thanks, Mom) and worry about my future. I want this to be the beginning of a new musical, not the end of one. So, pre-concert jitters, nerves, and worries.

Just to be clear, not all this tension and stress is negative. I'm also excited, breathless with anticipation, and hope. It's all mixed together. There is joy and gratitude in the mix as well.

Thus I must remind myself to let go, relax, breathe. This has been a very stressful period of life—not just because the mixed tension/anticipation regarding these concert premieres, but because of everything else going in life, as well. It's worth remembering that I wrote "Heartlands" in and around an episode of a chronic illness reaching its climax, followed by major surgery, then recovery, and gradual, slow return to something like normative health. It's worth remembering that all of this happened at the same time, all intertwined, and that none of these journeys are ended. Gratitude and fear are part of that mix as well.

My anxiety is partly because of the upcoming concert premieres—it's excitement and anticipation as much as it is worry or anxiety, as I said—and partly because I still am making no progress on moving forward with my medical journey. That's been stuck and causing me suffering for many months now, with no end to it in sight. I have been ignoring it recently, to some extent, focusing instead on the music and the arts-related career, doing marketing and website building and other tasks related to building this future. A lot of the time, as a result, emotionally I've been living in the future or the past, not the present moment. I've been coping with all this by making art, making things, making photographs, video, writing music, and more. It's a way to stay in my body most days, and not be lost to worry and anxiety. Sometimes temporary distraction is the correct response to an unsolvable problem.

I've been having many nightmares lately, and remembering them when I wake—anxiety dreams, really, stress dreams which I wake from already feeling tense and anxious. Starting off your day already tense is not wise.

Last night, though, in the last dream before waking, I encountered a Native American elder at a musical instrument store, who blessed me with tobacco smoke from his pipe. This musical instrument store, which I wandered into as it was adjacent to another store where I was friends with the owner, had several vintage Chapman Sticks for sale, and I was enjoying talking to owner as a player with inside knowledge about the history of the instrument. Then I asked to use the bathroom, and when I emerged I met a talkative Native man who seemed aware of that normally-hidden side of my self that is bound up with shamanism and spirituality; he took me over to another part of the store, or a place connected by the same space, where a quiet Native American elder was seated with his wife under a canopy, a square of tanned leather held aloft at the corners by wooden poles, decorated with feathers and beads. This elder took his medicine pipe and blew smoke over my body and aura, blessing me. This morning I woke from that dream, still aware of the anxiety I have been feeling lately, but aware too of feeling "talked to" by the spirits. Shut up and accept the blessings you've been given; shut up and be smoked; have faith that despite all your trials that you are indeed on the right path, the sacred way, the proper road for your life's purpose. When dreams are this lucid, this clear in their message, you'd best pay attention.

Part of me would love to run away, right now, spend time by the ocean, in the Florida Keys, in California, or spend time alone in the deserts and mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona. Time in the desert, time by the water, are good for clearing out the mind, for ridding oneself of mental clutter, for recharging those inner batteries, storing up serenity inside oneself that can last for awhile. I need a nature break. I could use a short camping trip, maybe nearby, since I'm too busy before the concerts to spare much time or energy. I have to remind myself to seek out peaceful places, near to home as well as far away, to find rest and solace of spirit. I have to remind myself to take time away from Everything to just be. Be still. Meditate. Rest. Recharge.

I find partial escape by looking at and preparing for printing those photographs that I have made in the Southwest, and by the Pacific. The images can take me back in memory, at least somewhat, and I can hear a little of that desert silence that I find so healing and refreshing, whenever I travel there. Some of the most healing moments, out in the desert, miles from anywhere, have been when I pull over, turn off the engine, get out of the truck, and just stand and listen to the silence for awhile. More than once, I've found that stillness, that silence, to be so refreshing, so penetrating into my mental clutter, so relieving of the stresses of the day, that ten minutes of desert silence are worth about a month of talk therapy. The outdoors is my refuge.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world," said Thoreau. Also the preservation of my psychological well-being.

Yesterday towards late afternoon I went and spent an hour in the Japanese garden a few miles from home. It was a windy day, full of fitful clouds and changing light. The beach at the manmade lake nearby was full of people, all ages cooling off from the high afternoon heat of the day, screaming kids, a volleyball game or two, and elders sitting peacefully in the shade offered by the thick trees. I went along the water's edge till I reached the Japanese part of the gardens, and spent the rest of my time there. People came through occasionally, but I had it mostly to myself for long stretches of time. Just the sounds of wind in the trees, and the water splashing in the waterfall and creek next to the open-sided meditation hall. Rustic, designed like an tea-room, with a latticed round window to the east, two walls open, two walls with benches for sitting.

I spent a long time at the meditation hall, just letting tension fall away. As I always do when in the japanese garden, I made some photographs—but photography for me is a form of meditation as much as it is art-making. And this time I shot several video elements which I will later assemble into a garden meditation video. I already have an idea for the music track: a shakuhachi solo with meditation bells, that I recorded a few months ago for a meditation CD, Darshan. Or maybe something newly recorded, but in that style. Music that is almost motionless, in contrast to the high winds recorded in my video shots.

I will go to the meditation hall in the garden again soon, if I need a break in the late afternoon. I don't have time to take a long roadtrip right now, not with my musical commitments reaching a peak level. But I can take short nature breaks, meditate out in the woods and gardens. I have to remind myself to do this, to cope, to maintain a level of serenity that enhances everything I do. Just keep breathing. Just keep swimming. Just be.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

In the Garden: Purple Hearts

Purple-hearted flowers, in my garden. Chives and columbine. Large clumps of each.

Columbine flowers are fascinating. They are layered, complex shapes, with different colors. This pale purple and white on some, deeper blue and white on others. I had three or four clumps of columbine this year, that exploded with color and lasted a long time.

This last photo of columbine is my favorite of this group of photos. It shows the design of my little garden to advantage. Even though I don't have a lot of space for my garden, I have been strongly influenced by Japanese Zen gardens in my planning, and this shows that well.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Flags at Night

It’s Memorial Day weekend. In my small Midwestern town, there’s a region of the city cemetery dedicated to veterans. On Memorial Day they raise 50 flags on display, and also decorate the gravestones with small flags. It’s quite beautiful. They leave the flags up till Veteran’s Day in September, so they remain all summer long. Many years in the past, I've gone over there to meditate for awhile, and make images of the multiple flags.

Last night I started making images a half hour after sunset. Most exposures were between 2 and 6 seconds long, with the camera on a tripod. Flags were illuminated by a hand-held flash unit.

This is a basic night photography technique: put the camera on the tripod for a long exposure, then walk around with a hand-held flash unit, popping it off several times during the long exposure. It allows for multiple exposures and several different angles of illumination. I've done this technique with people as well as objects, so you get multiple portraits of the same person within one image.

It was a warm night after several hot days, some strong thunderstorms in the afternoon, and in the evening fitful winds that come and go.

Sometimes the flags flapping in the breeze reveal the crescent moon behind them. Later in the dark, the moon is bright enough to show right through the fabric.

Adjustable flash unit set on low-power, so you can do multiple flashes in sequence. On high-power settings you might only get one bright flash before the unit has recharged, before the exposure is done.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Songwriting: Is Listening

Yesterday someone gave me the 1949 edition of The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, a nicely-printed hardbound book which will go on the shelf by the piano in the living room, next to the two volumes of collected lyrics by Oscar's most famous student, Stephen Sondheim. Oscar's presence is found woven throughout Sondheim's commentaries on his own lyrics. Skimming through the book I found many familiar song lyrics, but also many I didn't know so well, which I was able to read on the page as though they were poems, and appreciate them as such.

This was a pleasant, rare experience, for me, since songwriting is words-and-music, and the two are usually so inextricably twined that you can't separate them. Even though many poets are biased towards words alone, and even though many fans claim to enjoy reading songs by their favorite singers as poems (the Cults of Dylan and Cohen are particularly prone to this), in truth it's almost impossible to read song lyrics on a page without hearing the melody in your mind, especially with songs you know well. Songwriting is a synergistic artform, not a purely literary one: words-and-music together are a greater whole, most of the time, than they are separately; in truth, most song lyrics, if presented on the page purely as poetry, are often limp and banal.

So it was pleasant to encounter Oscar's more unfamiliar, to me, lyrics, and be able to in fact read them as poetry. And I have to say, everything good that people have said about Oscar's skill and craft in writing lyrics, held true in my casual reading through this book of collected lyrics.

As I look more deeply into songwriting as a means of artistic expression, as I embrace it more as a mode of music composition, as I accept the fact that I've always been writing songs even if I didn't label the activity as such, I find myself doing more and more listening, as a songwriter, to songs written by a wide range of others, in a diverse range of modes and styles. In my occasional browsing through local thrift stores, I allow myself to pick up CDs by singer-songwriters that I might have ignored before, to see what I can learn from them. I listen to a lot of these CDs in the truck, and I do make remix CDs and playlists in iTunes of newly-discovered favorite tracks, so I can listen more closely, again mostly while driving. I find myself giving a lot more attention to Nashville than I ever imagined I ever would, if only because Nashville as a recording haven is more diverse than most people think it is.

I have subscribed to American Songwriter magazine and so far have found it to be a wealth of useful information, reviewing, and especially thoughtful interviews. Within the past year they've done a special Country issue, an overview of contemporary country trends and artists that had a sense of history behind it; they've done a Bob Dylan 50th year career assessment and overview; and there's been a profound interview with Paul Simon. I like the magazine's iPad app, which adds multimedia layers to reading the articles, including lots of videos and audio tracks, extra sidebars to interviews, and so forth. So far, my experience of this magazine has been that it's an essential resource for any songwriter. It also makes me want to go back to reading classic folk/roots music periodicals like Sing Out!

I now listen to a lot of music that these days is labeled as Americana, which encompasses styles that are home-grown rural and regional in origin, often from here in the Heartlands that bicoastal urban types fly over and ignore. Music that actually has a pretty broad range to it, and can encompass styles ranging from folk, blues, classic country, introspective balladry, and bluegrass, to swamp rock, zydeco, Missouri jazz, Appalachian fiddling, and more. What these musics all have in common is sincerity of origin and history, depth and longevity of tradition, and an appreciation for honesty and authenticity. Many have stories to tell of ordinary people living life as best they can even when life is hardscrabble and unexalted. There is no "bling" here, no lapidary exaltation of the surface of life, no emphasis on the ephemeral at the expense of what has endured.

A lot of contemporary country music artists talk about "traditional values" and "family values," but the best of these artists, people like Willy Nelson, include a lot of diversity and acceptance under the banner of "tradition" and "family." Tradition means you are not ignorant of your own history, nor trying to rewrite it to your personal gain. Family means you love the people in your life, even if sometimes you think they're full of crap.

Some of this is music that I've always listened to and been involved in, although I haven't overtly tried to craft my own songs within its styles. Folk music, old-style country, roots music, singer-songwriter material, and some interesting hybridized music that years ago I had to come up with a name for, which I called new traditions music: music that is brand new yet rooted in tradition, syncretizing existing folk traditions with the exploratory spirit of the avant-garde.

There are certain record labels that I've long known were trustworthy for finding and presenting quality songwriting. I now find myself listening to many artists new to me, just because they're on these labels. Several of these labels, by no coincidence, have long been prominent in the folk music and songwriter recording worlds, and are well-known to anyone interested in that music: record labels that are too big to be dismissed as mere "niche" labels, but small enough to remain independent and not subject to the vagaries of pop music fashion. Rounder, Philo, Folk-Legacy, Flying Fish, Nonesuch.

The latter, Nonesuch, has been since the 1970s a label that has brought to the eager listener many folk and world music recordings not otherwise commercially available; the Nonesuch Explorer series was produced, recorded, and written by actual ethnographic scholars and ethnomusicologists; as I go through my old vinyl LPs in the basement I discover that I still have most of these releases. I've listened to some of those recordings so often that for me they are as indelible in my youthful memory as rock 'n roll is for others. I am as familiar with Paul Berliner's album of Shona mbira recordings, and Robert Brown's several recordings of Central Javanese gamelan, as some of my friends are with Led Zeppelin. The formative influences on the young musician were about the same, although the sources diverged radically. I can hear many subtle influences in my own composed music that others might not be aware of, that are rooted in the world music I listened to in my formative years; one example is that I felt I was given permission to not write linear-narrative tonal programmatic music, but in modes and cycles instead. A very different approach to using music theory in practice. I know a lot of musicians who began in garage bands, imitating the music they were listening to on the radio and on their LPs; in truth I did the same, only the LPs I listened to were quite different.

So I find myself picking up and listening to a lot of singer-songwriters in the thrift stores that I overlooked before. This is part of my education as a songwriter. I'm not learning by directly imitating what I hear—I have too much experience as a composer and poet now to absorb influence so blatantly anymore—but rather by immersion in subject matter, mood, performance style, tone of voice, and the subtleties of arranging. I am discovering songs and songwriters that are incredibly good, and learning from all of them. Again, the range is diverse.

New to me is Tab Benoit's swamp blues style, but it's fantastic and gutsy. New to me is songwriter's songwriter Ellis Paul. My sister introduced me last year to Shania Twain's great feminist anti-love songs, and more. I am rediscovering folk humorist Christine Lavin, having found a few of her live albums. Nickel Creek. Alison Krauss and her various groups and collaborators. Carrie Newcomer.

And of course I go back and listen to those songwriters and folk musicians who I have listened to for many years: Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Gordon Bok, Michael Smith, Lynn Miles, Carol Noonan, and more. There are many contemporary women songwriters who owe such a huge debt to Mitchell that, despite their various and divergent styles and means, I think can seriously be called The Daughters of Joni Mitchell. One of the best of these is Sarah Mclachlan, and she passes on the torch with the regular Lilith Fair women's music festivals that she organizes and headlines, including the live recording CDs that follow.

Michael Smith, from Chicago, is another songwriter's songwriter, who I've listened to for years: everybody knows or has done his songs, but he himself isn't that well known; Claudia Schmidt's recordings of "The Dutchman" and "Vampire" are still better known that his own versions. Yet his albums on Flying Fish are essential, as no one else writes or plays or sings quite the way he does. His song "Panther in Michigan," based on a true story of a live black panther than roamed free for an entire year in southeastern Michigan, which I remember because I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, is a particularly fine example of topical balladry that transcends the form and becomes timeless.

I also go back and listen to singers and songwriters who I knew about, but now look at more carefully and attentively, with deeper appreciation, and deepening respect. Kris Kristofferson, Patsy Cline, Greg Brown, k.d. lang, Jane Siberry, John Mellencamp. Essential blues artists like Bessie Smith. And I have a lot of vinyl LPs in my basement that I am going through and rediscovering, including many that I'm digitizing to be able to listen to again since as far as I know those albums never were re-released on CD.

There are also a number of roots and blues and soul/R&B and rock 'n roll artists that I've been going back and listening to as part of this cycle of absorbing and learning, appreciating them more as singers and songwriters, many of whom I overlooked back when they were very often in the Top 40, but when I still mostly listening to anything but the Top 40. Or who I knew one or two songs by, but now have been listening to their whole catalog, to learn from them regarding the craft of songwriting. My respect for Tom Petty has gone way up in the past few years, for example, although I thought all along that he was an innovator and explorer in several ways. Rediscovering Robert Palmer has been fun, because of his sheer joy in life and music. Bruce Springsteen I've written about at length, elsewhere, in regards to the folk-sourced aspects of his music.

The list, and the listening, goes on.

My appreciation for the craft of playing guitar while singing is also on the ascendant. I'm learning from listening to singer-songwriters who play and sing guitar at the same time. What I'm learning is tricks of performance and presentation, as well as the formal craft of how to write an effective song as simply and minimally as possible.

Not that I have any interest in learning to play guitar as well as many songwriters do. (Bruce Cockburn and Bonnie Raitt continue to be underrated as guitarists, which surprises me, although it must be admitted that their often elegant guitar work is always in the service of the song, and not shown off for its own sake.) I do have an adequate guitar now, and have been teaching myself to play it, but in truth I've avoided guitar for most of my life precisely because it's the instrument everyone and their grandmother plays. I started at age 6 on piano, and also play many other instruments, but guitar I avoided out of an almost perverse desire to be different. No, that's not quite accurate. To be completely honest, and more accurate in retrospect, deep down inside I always knew that I was different, anyway, and no amount of trying to conform to the norm was going to change that; I tired and failed throughout my youth to "fit in" and I never did. So I gave up trying to fit in musically and socially while still relatively young (although in terms of career and finance I gave up trying to fit in much later in life). For one thing, the stereotypical teenage male notion of joining a band to "get some girls" that I saw many young kids take up guitar to get into did not appeal to me at all—since I was more into getting boys than girls. Yes, we're talking about knowing about that difference about yourself, and it did indeed affect some musical decisions as well as other life-choices.

Anyway, now I have an adequate guitar, and I am learning how to make musical sounds on it, but mostly for studio recording rather than performance. I also don't tune my guitar in any standard way, but use open tunings that ring out sonorously. Something I learned from musicians as diverse as John Renbourne, Robert Fripp, and (again) Joni Mitchell, all of whom have championed non-standard tunings. (And again another way in which I was attracted to music-making that was different, in part because of my other differences.)

Meanwhile, I've crossed off the checklist the songwriter's inevitable first time playing and singing live in front of a coffeehouse crowd: I sang a new song I wrote at a cabaret event a few months ago, while also playing Stick. So, we're making progress.

My point in this discursive ramble has been simple, however: To be a songwriter, you need to listen to a lot of songwriting, and that's what I've been doing. It's the same reason that writers need to read, read, read, and read some more; poets especially, perhaps, although novelists are not excused from the task of reading. You learn much more by example and observation, and then trying things out for yourself, than you ever do in the classroom. There's a reason most authentic singer-songwriters are still mostly self-taught—which is not to say that they are ignorant of music theory or craft or technique—and that's because learning by doing is a richer way to learn than sitting and listening to a lecturer expound. And that's why I'm listening to so much music that is relatively new to me—new folk, Americana, roots, and the all the rest: I am educating myself to become a better songwriter. This is journeyman work, and I relish it.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Canticles for Robert Espindola

In the past few weeks, my favorite aunt and two friends have all been found to have cancer, some quite virulently, and all three are dealing with cancer in the neck and throat areas of the body. I don't know what it means, if indeed it means anything; I just note the compelling synchronicity. I wish all of them the best during their medical journeys, I will be keeping good thoughts for them, keeping them in my prayers, and hoping for the best possible outcomes in every case.

When I gave up my own life (and faltering corporate design career) to move back in with my father to be his full-time live-in caregiver following his diagnosis with colon cancer, caring for him for the last year of his life; when I then took care of my mother till she died less than a year later of complications brought on by Alzheimer's; and when, in between my parents' deaths, I was diagnosed with a serious chronic illness that had already decimated my health and well-being for probably two decades before it was recognized; and when, while still ill and weak with illness, I had to close down my parents' house, buy my own, and try to live my own life again; and, soon after, when my own chronic illness worsened to a severity that almost killed me, caused my health to be utterly destroyed, and which led to a journey of multiple surgeries to first cure my chronic illness, and eventually (I still hope) reverse some of the damages done to me—when all of these dovetailing journeys of cancer, death, multiple hospital and clinic and doctor's visits, when all of these things happened to my family and in my own life, I learned many lessons about endurance, about survival, about refusing to give in to illness and death, and about just getting through the bad days, nothing more, nothing less. When I had the first surgery, last year, I was promised my health would eventually recover, and I would get my life back. That still hasn't happened, not yet. I am still on my own medical journey. I'm nowhere near finished with my journey. I'm not "all over it" yet. I know the needles, the smells of medical care, the scars, the radiation burns, the weakness, the suffering, both personally, and through watching my loved ones go through it, and I know these only too well.

I know only too well that some journeys don't end, you just learn to be a traveler. You do what you have to. You go on. You get through it, however best you can. One day at a time.

So I feel a huge swell of empathy for my aunt and friends on their current journeys, both minor and major. The echoes in my own life of recent years are too loud to articulate—except in art, poetry, music—and sometimes all I can do is pray, meditate, hope, wish the best for those I love. I make art about all this as a way of coping with it. I write poems about surgery as a way of dealing with its aftermath. I make visual art directly involving the numerous blood transfusions and surgery as a way of owning it. I wrote numerous poems about my father's chemotherapy and treatments as a way of not going crazy with being his live-in caregiver. And this all feeds into my music, too.

It can make you feel utterly helpless to do anything, when people you care about are suffering, and you can't wave a magic wand and just "fix" it—at which point you have to learn even deeper lessons about acceptance of what is, just simple acceptance with clear vision and no filters blocking it, and go on from there. Life will go on, even after we die. It's what we do with our lives, with our brief time in eternity, right here, right now, that matters. Start where you are. The journey can begin in no other place.

And so, after hearing about Robert Espindola's probably major, even radical cancer surgery journey to come, I was moved to write the poem below. As it happens, it was one of those poems that came to me at white heat, with no warning, that wrote itself in the space of an hour, and which needed little revision. I will let it stand.

It's terribly presumptuous of me, I know.

Robert and I know each other only as acquaintances who meet on occasion. Each time we have spent time together, we have gotten along well, and I for one have always enjoyed his company, but I'm hardly a close friend in the inner circle. Yet he, as a poet and lyricist, and his partner, Robert Seeley, as a composer, have been a tremendous influence on me, inspiring me to throw my hat in the ring to write new music for LGBT choral groups. Last year I was commissioned to do just that, and that new music will be performed less than a month from now. "The Roberts," as we who have worked with them, and know them familiarly, call them with affection, have been responsible for creating some great new works for LGBT choruses, with many commissions, such as Metamorphosis and Naked Man, that are now standard repertoire in GALA choral circles. Personally, I would be content to follow in their remarkable footsteps, write lots of music for GALA choruses, and enjoy every moment of doing so. That's how they have been an example to me, and it's in the spirit of gratitude for their gifts to all of us, and hope for Robert's medical journey, that I wrote this poem.

It's presumptuous of me to write this poem, equally so to share it. Yet I say: we're all survivors. Sometimes we all need to vent, to scream, to get the horror and rage and anger out of our bodies. Even if we are voiceless because cancer has taken our very ability to speak, our throats, our lungs (as my favorite uncle's lungs were taken, also by cancer), we can still cry on each others' shoulders. Be well, regardless. No matter what.

Canticles for Robert


Orpheus of cancer
a journey to the underworld and back
of needles, disinfectant, hospital stink
sterile gauze, and protons flung
at tissue till it melts

Melts into airy dream
and feathers fall as though
unleashed by the magus
back into elemental formlessness
where books are drowned

Wings quiver on the lips of cliffs
where voices cascade into seas
much broader than we imagined
we in our little worlds
that had given up singing

All a poet can do today is warm
to find a fire in words that conjure worlds
you pull the fabric to the mirror
that concealed what could be seen
and make of it a mystery

Voices melt as throats row into heat
a canvas made of charism
a proteus of doubt
some needle made of dissonance
that melts a lover's hearth


My father melted into silence
further down this same journey
you now find yourself enroute
I too have known the needle jab
and copper stink of blood
the chemical fear and torment
of the unknown and unremarked

I am no great shepherd of
the matters of the world
I can only wish for you my dying father's
behest, which came to me an hour
after he had passed: he smothered me
in joy and laughed that it all
was so much better than he'd dreamed

but still myself walking the world with you
still scarred and scared and myself melting
still on an unfinished journey
where at last I've found my voice—

my perfect voice of love and melting
anger not irresolute
nor uncomplicated by a quest
not unlike yours, to make the world
a finer place through song—

my central wish for you is: more life
more life, much more, and dignity

take heart to know, no matter what:
mage, your song will remain heard
in the infinite ears of ocean, of desert
fragrant storm that ripples
out to every melody and merges:
that song itself can give its voice
that breath itself sustain us

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Video: Snow

Snow, a winter video poem, 2012

The artistic constraint used in making this piece was simplicity: this is a single long video take made from the front porch of my old house, during a blizzard in March 2008. That winter we had several blizzards like this, and record snowfall numbers. This was a single long take made when no cars were driving by, because of the storm, and I could get a long take of snow being blown hard through the trees, and off the roof of the house.

The music is similarly constrained: it is an improvised piece played live to stereo recording, with a little processing later. I played my Chapman Stick through an effects box direct into the computer, then added Frippertronics-style tape-loop effects (in this case made using the remarkable VST plugin Ellotronix.)

The haiku was written at the same time as the blizzard was filmed.

under fresh snow
white flowers bloom anyway:
the days passing

Very simple constraints were used, then, producing a focus on one mood, one moment, one vision.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Heartlands: A round on "When We Sing"

In preparation for the GALA choral Festival 2012 in Denver, an email went out to composers who have been involved with GALA, or who have been commissioned in the past by GALA choruses, artistic directors, and other interested composers. At every Festival there are evening concert blocks, with volunteer mass choruses made up of the members and delegates. There are always sing-along moments included in these events, and during the opening and closing ceremonies—this is a choral festival, after all, so sing-alongs are likely.

This year, there was a new idea, and this is where the composers come in, and I quote:

Why not create a body of simple, songs that could be taught on the spot in a sing-along setting and then taken out into the world by our choruses?

As a GALA friend and composer, you are invited to create a short round/canon or chant for GALA Festival 2012. All songs will be taught from stage by rote, but delegates will be able to download the complete collection of songs to take home to their own chorus to be shared, copied, taught, sung and performed without restriction all over the world. We want to get this music OUT there!

The call was for rounds, canons, chants, simple enough to be taught by rote from the stage in a few minutes, should include multiple voice parts not restricted to any particular voice so that men, women, and others could all join in, and be unaccompanied (a capella) vocal music.

So I joined in, and wrote two short pieces, a round and a canon, and sent them off. Hopefully they'll be part of the Festival mix. If the response is overwhelming, there won't be time to do all the pieces submitted, so they'll pick and choose.

But I thought this would be a great way to both join in, as a composer, and present my work to the GALA members. After all, it would be nice to be commissioned again to write music for a GALA chorus, as I was last year. I wrote "Heartlands" on commission, both words and music, and selected movements will be performed at the 2012 GALA Festival in Denver, in July. Participating in the GALA round/canon call would be one good way to get my music known by others, and also be a bit of free advertising for "Heartlands."

So while I wrote one completely new piece, I also took a refrain from the finale movement of "Heartlands," titled "When We Sing," and arranged it into a two-part a capella round.

Here's the music for it:

(Click on image for larger version.)

One group of singers will read through the first line, then go on to the second line while another group of singers does the first line. You go around and around till deciding to stop, which is how rounds are constructed. It's a very old musical form; if you think about it, you know some nursery rhymes and campfire songs in this form, such as "Row Row Row Your Boat." For this piece, I also opened it up to free harmonizing on the repeat, after every group has gone around the form once or twice.

I wrote two pieces in two days for this call for compositions, and sent them off right away. As I said, one was completely new, and this one was taken from "Heartlands." That ties it to the larger work, and hopefully makes connections and gets people interested in the larger work. And in my work as a composer in general. Nothing would make me happier than to have to do it all again.

Writing in short forms can be challenging. It's like writing haiku: you have to compress as much as possible, to get in as much information as you can into a very small space. Short forms such as rounds are technically challenging, as well, for needing to be circular and layered. You can think of a round as a variety of musical Moebius strip, with the musical line constantly turning back in on itself, each layer interacting with other parts of the music to add up to a larger, synergistic whole. Each line has to be checked against the others for effect, contrast, and similarity. So you end up thinking in circles, as you're writing in circles. Or at least I do.

This was quite a bit of fun. A fun challenge, and a good occasion for which to write a new piece. We'll see what develops next.

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Places Where the Road Runs Out

Urban landscapes in extreme high-contrast monochrome B&W mode.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Video: bell ringing in an empty sky

bell ringing in an empty sky, a meditation video, 2012

This was made using time-lapse photography, photographed at 1 frame per second, played back at variable frame rates. Shot using a tripod; the pan effects were made by turning the tripod slowly as the camera clicked through frames. The only lightsource was the candles in frame.

Another experiment in using tools to make style. We learn by doing. Sometimes the tools themselves give you a clue towards what the subject matter is, and the tone and style in which to present it. Artists need to listen to their tools, usually more than they do. There's a wisdom in the hands that often supersedes the egocentric directions of the head.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Approaching Dusk: poem for video

Approaching Dusk

something not quite seen
not quite there
approaching out of the corner
of the eye

not quite invisible
saturated with secrets
at day’s end

something in the water
the sky’s heartbeat
where the water rises
up to heaven

a small mystery
not quite visible

world whirling on its axis
what do you flee?

why do you hesitate?
who’s coming?
just around the corner
behind that next shadow

something like twilight
like approaching dusk
that takes the edges off the day
full of secrets

This is the poem transcribed from my pocket notebook, written at the same time as I was shooting video segments to be edited later. This poem was used as the spoken text for the short film of the same name.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Video: Approaching Dusk

Approaching Dusk, a video poem, 2012. Words, music & video by Arthur Durkee.

My YouTube video channel, where new short films will be posted as I finish them, is: apdurkee

A few notes on this video:

This is a mood piece, pure and simple. I had the idea for it one evening, and began working on it immediately. It was shot on consecutive evenings in early May, at dusk. That time of day just after the sun has gone down, but it's still light outside. In summer, twilight lingers a long time. The mood I was feeling when I shot the video segments was haunting, poetic, mystical. Not a cheerful mood, not a dark mood, but that mysterious and beautiful in-between mood you often feel at dusk.

I am working my way towards completing more multimedia video work, incorporating poetry, music, and image, and even adding words moving on the screen at times. I've been working towards this for awhile, but finally am getting there. I have made some films like this before, using still photos and poetry, but this film takes the technique and tools to a new level.

To make this video, I set myself come arbitrary creative constraints.

I learned a big lesson from my mentor in music school, Bill Albright, who once told me that sometimes it's liberating to set an arbitrary limit or boundary on your creative materials. Working within set parameters can sometimes free you up mentally, so you get creative. Many writers find their most difficult moments to be when they're staring at the blank page, when anything is possible. To break through that barrier of too many possibilities, which if it's not pushed past can lead to creative block, is to start small, start anywhere, just improvise, set a limit and go with it. A painter can be just as intimidated by a blank canvas: Where do you start? Sometimes setting the arbitrary limit is enough to get you going. You can choose to stay with it until the finish of the work, or transcend the limit later if necessary, but the most important thing is that it gets you started. If you do break out of the limits, it's for a reason, because inspiration and the creative process has led you in that direction.

This insight about creativity really stuck with me. I explored the idea, as a composition student under Prof. Albright's tutelage, by working with unusual instrumental groupings, and by setting arbitrary choices on musical materials. I wrote a three-movement for the archaic early music ensemble of an unbroken consort of recorders. I wrote a piece for english horn and vibraphone. I wrote a percussion quartet, which won a national award. I found that when a musician friend asked me to write a piece for their instrument, it freed me creatively to learn about the instrument and explore its possibilities. I wasn't thinking about a grand career as an orchestral composer, which was too intimidating, I was thinking about just getting this one piece done. I wrote a lot of chamber music, and most of it got performed, and recorded.

As a writer, the setting of an arbitrary limit also works well. I know that some formalist poets talk about how working within a fixed form frees them up rather than limits them. My version of that is to invent a new form, or discover a form emerging organically from one poem and then use that same invented form when writing new poems later. Most of the poems that I write in a fixed form are within forms that I invented, or discovered. I also write a lot of haiku, which is the poetic form I feel most naturally. I have no "feel" for the sonnet, or the sestina, or most of the forms inherited from the history of English-language literature; they don't come naturally or easily to me, and the results tend to be too intellectual and not very lifelike. For example, the only sonnets I've ever written ended up being stale five-finger exercises rather than finished pieces. Haiku and its related forms, tanka, renga, haibun, and haiga, all come naturally and easily. I can almost always write a haiku on the spot. I often write haiku when editing photographs, as a response to the images I made perhaps a month or a year ago, but haven't looked at again till mastering them in Photoshop.

So i set myself some arbitrary limits for the making of this video, in part to learn my tools better, in part as an aesthetic choice made to constrain technical craft in the service of vision. The limits I set myself for shooting the video segments were:

Shoot at dusk.

Make each take short, between 5 and 12 seconds, with the intention of stringing them together later to assemble the film.

Only sharp cuts and very quick crossfades would be used in editing, so many of the video segments were shot with that intention at the forefront.

There were a couple of exceptions to the set time limit that happened, that I knew in the moment of filming were the very best video segments I had captured that day, two of which ended up as longer segments in the final film. The video was shot on two consecutive evenings in early May, and is basically unaltered except for editing segments for length and putting them together.

The video was shot entirely on my iPhone (my phone!), using one video-capture app to make a consistent look. The audio track was made from an ambient recording of my backyard mixed with music I played in GarageBand on my iPad.

I wrote the poem in my pocket notebook at the same time I was shooting the video, just to keep the mood operating on the same level. The poem was revised slightly, and recorded into the same multitrack mixing mastering software that I used to edit the video and audio tracks, on my home studio computer.

The resulting film took a couple of weeks, off and on, to finish editing and mastering. That's typical: post-production always takes longer. Still, I think the mood is captured and sustained, and all elements converged to make a short film that recaptures exactly what I was feeling at the time I made it.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

In the Garden Grows the Heart

This spring I've been too distracted, too busy, occasionally too tied up in knots medically, even depressed, to give my garden much attention. Suffice to say that I have been challenged, unhappy, and mostly not having a good time. I haven't been physically sick—this is the first winter in almost twenty years that I have not been stricken with a cold or flu. I got through the entire winter with no illnesses, no walking pneumonia, nothing. That's new since the surgery.

I do love getting my hands in the dirt: it's very healing. But for one reason or another, I haven't had much time for gardening this year so far. That's okay, though, because over the past few years since I bought my house I've been planning and panting a garden that is mostly self-maintaining, mostly perennials, and can tolerate neglect.

The garden is designed so that some flowers are blooming, giving color and light to my home, from early spring through the first frost in autumn: there is always color, always fragrance. When the crocuses fade, the daffodils and tulips begin. At the end of the season, after the lilies have gone, the chrysanthemums reach their peak, sometimes lasting till All Hallows.

This year my crabapple tree was astounding. Just bursting with colors, and full of very happy bees.

In addition to the idea that something should always be in bloom, I planned my garden to inspire me photographically. I make new images every year. Even when I neglect my gardening duties, it mostly takes care of itself, and surprises me. This year the lilies have split again and in a month or so I will surrounded by literally dozens of lilies in several varieties and colors. Come July, the perfume will be overpowering in the evening, just as I desire.

This year the columbines have exploded, bursting out in huge bunches of blue, white and purple.

at sunset the bees
hover fitfully over stars:
blue columbine

The bleeding hearts lasted a full month, due to the initial warm days followed by weeks of cool and wet. The garden looks a little wild and dense this year—more English country garden than Japanese Zen garden—and the little dry sculptures I've made out of rocks gathered throughout my travels are mostly hidden by green growing things.

I admit it. This garden has taken me years to plan and assemble, but I love it. It's the talk of the neighbors, who complement the garden every time we meet on the street by the mailboxes, or just to chat.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Full Moon 2

Overcast, with fast-moving clouds, or raining, all weekend. No sunsets, no moonrises. Late at night, though, a thinning of the clouds, They moved very fast, hiding and revealing the moon for brief moments at a time. I did make some more photographs, slower exposures on the tripod, and one or two are good with foreground trees moving in the breeze.

Night photography will push your technique, when you engage with it, to a new level. Astrophotography is tricky stuff even for those who have done a lot of it: it’s always a challenge to balance extremely bright and dark elements.

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RIP Maurice Sendak

This wild thing, for one, feels sad today.

One thing I loved about Maurice Sendak was that he aware that childhood has a dark and scary side, which shouldn't be suppressed. His books were often attacked by adults who would prefer that children would be innocent and pure, even though they're not. As Sendak himself said, "Children know everything." But children themselves loved him, for understanding them better than most adults, for knowing their terrors and nightmares and silly playful joys alike. It's another example of the critics being moralizing and clueless about an author, while the author's readers understood far better what was really going on. I know plenty of sane, mature adults who recall fondly their childhood encounters with Sendak's books. So where was the harm?

When I was an adult myself, working in a publishing company, I had access to many children's books that I had missed as a child, since I grew up in another country. A lot of classic children's books that many of my peers recalled fondly I had never heard of. But I knew about Sendak. One of the first children's books I bought for myself while working in book publishing was Where The Wild Things Are. (Probably the second one I bought for myself was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz.) The wild things still speak to all of us: the book has never in fifty years been out of print. (Speaking as someone who has run press and pre-press, I stagger at thinking how many times the printing plates have had to be remade during that tenure.)

That wildness is still in us. We often try to deny or suppress it, to make it conform to some manicured suburban ideal, but it pops up relentlessly. Better to embrace it, to have a bad day, to go howl at the moon and trees, then resume our routine. Wildness is necessary. It's part of us, and we deny it at our peril. It's the deniers who end up dancing the insane tarantella of repression and obsession.

Of course Wild Things is only the most famous of Sendak's many books, illustrations, and designs. I enjoyed his art whenever and wherever I encountered it.

A couple of essay assessments available online (hat tip to Frank Wilson and Dave Lull):

NY Times article

Bloomberg article

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Friday, May 04, 2012

Full Moon 1

It's cloudy and cool here tonight. I went out at sunset to photograph the rising moon, forgetting that the actual night of the full moon is tomorrow.

It was cloudy at sunset. Later, though, there was a brief gap in the clouds. I went out into the front yard with the tripod and made a few images.

The clouds were moving very fast on high, and there was a breeze on the ground, too. So the clouds are blurred by motion, and in the shot with the tree the leaves are blurred as well because of motion. Embrace the blur!

Settings: Manual focus set on infinity. ASA 400. f3.5 or f.40. 0.6 second exposure. Tried a couple of 1.0 second exposures, but they were too washed out. Shorter is better to get definition in the image of the moon's face. I did have to increase contrast slightly using Levels in Photoshop. Didn’t change the settings, just moved the sliders enough to increase the contrast.

I hope that it’s clear tomorrow, so that I can make clear moonrise images.

Meanwhile, it was a dark and stormy night, moody, gothic, where the werewolves are lurking, howling at the moon. It's a theory.

A note on composition: When I’m making images like this, the last thing I do is center the moon in the frame. I think that off-center composition is more interesting. I admit to being influenced in this instance by design concepts from ancient Japanese design. I almost always think of a few enameled writing box covers I’ve seen in museums.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

May Sarton

Born May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium, and a naturalized U.S. citizen from the age of two, she remained something of an outsider, which no doubt made her a better observer. That's probably one of the reasons I have always appreciated her: a perpetual outsider, not always a happy one, occasionally caustic, but with an eye for detail that missed little of what was around her. Nobody sees what's actually there better than a stranger. Her poems were usually compressed lyrics, often reflective of the universal within the particular, often full of those details that an outsider sees. Sarton didn't follow any poetic fashions or schools, and was not a self-conscious literary experimenter like many of her generation. In her novels, which I would also call lyrical, she had a fine ear for the subtleties of relationships and human family drama. Some of her very best fiction is about love, insightful and funny and harrowing and profound all at once.

Sarton considered herself first and foremost a poet, with more than a dozen volumes of poetry published, but she also published nine volumes of journals and nineteen novels. It seems likely that her journals and memoirs will be what she is most remembered for, as they remain her most popular books. They continue to inspire new generations of readers. There is an honesty, even in edited form, about the difficulties of reconciling life and art. Journal of a Solitude is still one of the most often read of the journals, a story of living alone on the Maine coast, mostly cut off from others, with the occasional visitor: such an occasion as makes an artist go within and examine one's own darknesses and shadows.

In 1965 she published her tenth novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, which describes a woman’s quest to belong in the world as an artist and a lesbian. After that novel was published, to some controversy even though her reputation as a novelist was already well-established, her later journals were more revealing about her own love for women. In Journal of a Solitude she wrote, "The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing . . . a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality. . . ." Eventually she admitted what many readers believed, that this novel was autobiographical in spirit, if not literally so in every detail.

Nonetheless, she always insisted that she wanted to known as a poet and novelist, not a lesbian novelist. Some of that of course was the more circumspect times, and the generation she belonged to. There was some critical backlash against Sarton after that, but she has always had a devoted and dedicated fan following. I find this interesting because it means she was always a success to her readers, even if some of the critics were not supportive. What artist doesn't feel sympathy with that?

That double assessment continues to this day. Every so often I still get comments on my blog post here about the day I spent in Nelson, NH, where Sarton lived before Maine, and where she is buried: May Sarton at Nelson, NH. Yet two years after Sarton died in 1995, Margot Peters published May Sarton: A Biography. I read it a few years ago. It's thorough, discusses her entire life, her most important friendships, the places where she lived, and what she wrote. It's also a hatchet job, a biography that is biased towards depicting Sarton as an impossible person who was hard on her friends and angry all the time. Well, she was indeed restless, tempestuous, and strong-willed—but to be a woman artist in her times, one needed to be strong-willed. She doesn't paint herself as perfect in her journals, she doesn't pretend to be without fears or hard times. Nonetheless the journals contain moments of exceptional beauty, of near-awe, of pathos. Any artist who struggles with making a living and making art can sympathize; that many readers do just that speaks highly for her relevance. Plant Dreaming Deep, her first mature memoir, a series of short pieces about her house and friends in Nelson, set a new standard for memoir and journal writing; it remains a lucid and engrossing book, in some ways exceptionally brilliant. So I didn't like Peters' biography very much; it felt quite unbalanced. I think we're still waiting for a more balanced, definitive biography.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Video: Ocean Arch

Video: Light & Silence

I've opened up my own channel on YouTube, apdurkee, and uploaded two short videos by way of experiment. Eventually I plan to make better-quality uploads. There will more experimental short videos like this on my channel soon.

I have been making short video films since 2005, incorporating my still photography and original music, along with the occasional use of my poems as texts either presented as type in the video itself or read aloud as part of the audio track. I want to explore these possibilities in more depth; it's just taken me some time to figure out the technologies involved. (Including YouTube itself.)

Honestly, making the videos is the most time-consuming part; the upload is relatively easy. Creating, editing and mastering video programs brings out my latent perfectionism: you want to get everything just right, and look and sound its best. This means going over the finished product as a viewer two or three times, to find the last tweaks to make. It's the same process, really, as recording and mixing a song in a recording studio: you do the creative work, you finish the mix, then you take a short break, then sit down and listen through the track with fresh ears (and eyes) for final tweaks.

The video for "Light & Silence" was shot a couple of years ago, on an autumn visit to Grand Teton National Park. The dramatic skies made the day I spent making photos and video some of the best images I've made while at these mountains. The Tetons are one of my favorite places on the planet, in any season. The original video footage was in color, but I've been wanting to experiment with B&W video for some time, to bring the B&W photography aesthetic into the video realm. Two of the shots in this video are time-lapsed, to bring out the movement of the clouds over the mountains.

The music for this short film was made using software synths on my iPad. After recording the basic track, I did some sweetening with reverb while mastering the combined audio and video tracks. The music was recorded very plainly, to keep it simple and clean. It's essentially an improvisation within planned parameters—a way I like to compose a lot of my ambient music. You set an arbitrary limit, perhaps on scale, perhaps on instrumentation or tempo, then you improvise freely within those constraints. This is a way of working as a composer learned from Brian Eno, John Cage, and others. It is partly determined, partly free. Limits give you room to work within. My composition professor back in college once said that limits help us focus, using the constraints they place on us to give us freedom to work within; a lesson i've never forgotten.

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