Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lakota Dark Clouds

                     Lakota Dark Clouds

I got on my horse and we headed north
Never guessin' what might come forth
As we trotted along into the Black Hills mouth
I began to wonder, should we be goin' south?

Above us were loomin' those Lakota Dark Clouds
Bearing down upon us, yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Drummin' in the distance, had heard that sound before
Smoke was risin' from that distant plateau floor
Our scout returnin' began to come in view
Sitting Bull was spotted, what're we gonna do?

All 'round us we're seein' Lakota Dark Clouds
Growin' bigger, oh yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Coyote calls were heard as the sun began to set
Fears were growin' but the real danger not yet met
Wind was howlin' down the narrow canyon walls
To keep on goin' would take some real big balls

In the twilight, still see those Lakota Dark Clouds
Gettin' darker, oh yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Sittin' on our bedrolls, eatin' beans warmed in the fire
Gettin' home alive, our only real desire
Nervous whispers and restless sleep that night
While changin' lookouts, guarded the moonlight

In the dark, still feelin' those Lakota Dark Clouds
Seems like always with us, yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Startled awake by a soaring hawk's daybreak call
Climb back on horses, feelin' small, but sittin' tall
Must keep movin' forward, as quiet as we can
Crossed the line of safety for ordinary man

Now turquoise skies, are there no Lakota Dark Clouds?
Pray we make it through, safe from Lakota Dark Clouds

Trails are gettin' rugged, begin to feel hemmed in
Ledges all around us, thinkin' 'bout next o' kin
The map showed a clear passage to our far off goal
But we're in a box canyon, the walls dark as coal

Look up, rollin' in are those Lakota Dark Clouds
They're back again, oh yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Reachin' the ridge, head down to the forest below
Many foot paths trampled, we hope by wild doe
It all seems too quiet, no singin' by the birds
Look off in the distance, see no buffalo herds

All around are growin' those Lakota Dark Clouds
No doubt about it, ah yes, Lakota Dark Clouds

Natives all around us, we had no place to go!
Bull, no longer sittin', came t'ward us, awful slow
Now no chance of runnin', as captured in their trap 
Sitting Bull had waited, we landed in his lap

Our hearts sank low, done in by Lakota Dark Clouds
We'll never escape now from Lakota Dark Clouds

We felt a strong proud presence, on us it did pull
Made the great 
Sun Dance Alliance, here Sitting Bull
He warned of his vision, soldiers falling nearby
Peered into my eyes, "like grasshoppers from the sky"

We're now at the mercy of Lakota Dark Clouds
Will they make us suffer, those Lakota Dark Clouds?

Having heard our sad story and pleas for escape
He considered our future, we're now in bad shape
Looks after these people in their island of trees
We all stood there a shakin', while tryin' to freeze

For all 'round us we're feelin' Lakota Dark Clouds
Far above and beyond us, Lakota Dark Clouds

We had entered the sacred center of their world
For nine thousand years, here Indian lives have swirled
"But you're not the enemy we'll soon be facing 
Trespassing white man soldiers, we'll surely be chasing"

Ancient lands looked over by Lakota Dark Clouds
Dark forests of life under Lakota Dark Clouds

"The Great Spirit gave us Pahá Sápathis land
Hunting grounds to nourish, so here we make our stand 
Go back to your world, your families to grow
And here supernatural powers we'll show"

Ancient truths intoned under Lakota Dark Clouds
Our lives don't belong under Lakota Dark Clouds

Sitting Bull bowed before us, and we can depart
Relieved, we thank him, from the bottom of our heart
Need not be welcomed, anywhere we wish to go
Create our own future, while not makin' a foe 

Around we admire these Lakota Dark Clouds
Home to proud people under Lakota Dark Clouds

We mounted our horses and followed their guides   
Headin' south with great gifts of buffalo hides
More tribes still a'comin', Alliance would grow
Secure ancient homelands, invaders reap what they sow

We learned a good lesson from Lakota Dark Clouds
Proud people protected by Lakota Dark Clouds

©  Ron Chester 2010  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Monday, May 31, 2010

Is Live Music the Key to Peace and Love?


The Woodstock Music & Art Fair of 1969 was one of the biggest events in the 1960's, establishing the cultural importance of the flood of new music and alternative lifestyles that had been developing for years, and then celebrated with its own documentary film, soundtrack albums, books, commemorative festivals, a museum, and untold references to the event in the popular culture.  Although the event originally generated $1.4 million dollars in debt, countless promoters have been trying to duplicate its success ever since. 

When the event occurred I was just about to begin my graduate studies at UC, Berkeley.  When word came that one of our friends, Bill, from our recent days at Oberlin College, had attended the event and described it in glowing terms, my small world of recent Obie graduates was jealous of Bill's good fortune.  It seemed so unfair. Here we had all moved to Berkeley, the center of the new counter-culture, and now our thunder had been stolen by an event on a dairy farm in New York!

Less than four months later we got our own chance to be involved in a historical event of music and coolness, thanks to the Altamont Speedway Free Festival organized by The Rolling Stones and presented on December 6, 1969 not far from our new home in Berkeley.  The timing of the event just barely got it included in the Sixties.  And though it became historic, it was not for its coolness or "peace and love," but for its violence, shown in a documentary film of its own, as the symbolic end of the hippie era, a conclusion to the youth culture of the Sixties.        

We all went, as it was free and promised an incredible lineup of acts: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.  How could we go wrong?  Surely this would trump Bill's good fortune on the East coast and confirm our wisdom in moving West.  The first sign of what was to come was when we had to park our car by the side of the road miles from the venue and start walking.  In fact Stephanie Gutieri and I hitched a ride, sitting on the trunk of a car inching its way forward in the gridlock.  Stephi is the one who had gotten me into Dylan only three years before at Oberlin.  The ride must have taken about an hour, which we mostly passed playing a question and answer game of "Who Am I?"  As it turned out, this was the high point of the day for me and is still one of my fondest memories of Stephi.  Rest in peace, dear Stephi.  I miss you and have for many years!

Once we got to the event, we staked out less than nine sq feet of space with our blanket and then endured the day, feeling claustrophobic and threatened by the bad vibes rolling through the audience all day long.  And it was only later that we learned that a man had been killed right in front of the stage, no more than fifty feet from our cramped location.  To his credit, Bill never rubbed it in with any of us.
But this is not a history lesson about the Sixties.  This blog is about the transformative experience a live musical performance can provide, when the "numbers were burning."  Amazingly, this even applies to Altamont, now known as "an infamous rock concert."  The Stones performed last and by the time they appeared we were worn out from the long day of cramped quarters and bad vibes.  And though the violence interrupted their "Sympathy for the Devil" song, with Jagger then urging everyone to be calm, the band restarted and played on, even as Meredith Hunter was killed in front of them at the foot of the stage during "Under My Thumb."  The band was afraid that if they stopped playing a full-scale riot could develop.

Their decision was a wise one.  The one thing that finally unified the crowd and brought peace to the day was the charismatic and electrifying performance of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Imagine this, the very next song they performed after the killing of Hunter, was the first ever live performance of "Brown Sugar," yes, a world premiere they had saved for that day.  And somewhere along the way, during the rest of their set, Stephi and I, as well as all those around us, finally gave up our guarded enclave and rose to our feet for the rest of the show.  Jagger had turned around the bad vibes and gotten the audience with him and only him.  Finally we were all in the moment, witnessing a powerful performance and letting the good vibes of the glorious music wash over us.  For the last songs of the set, "Satisfaction" and "Honky Tonk Woman," we were fiercely dancing around, like all the rest, culminating in perhaps the most ironic song selection ever to end  a concert, when the band finished with "Street Fighting Man."  

This is one of the best examples from my own life of how the performer and the audience interact to create the experience and how the power of music can bring peace to the unruly mob, as suggested by Dr. Karl Paulnack.  As I write this on Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen soldiers, I wonder whether it would be more effective to invade foreign shores with armies of artists, rather than soldiers.

The Latitude Festival is an example of what music festivals have become.  Also presented on farm land, but in England, it strives to be an all-encompassing festival for all the arts, with performances on its various stages "from the worlds of comedy, literary, poetry, cabaret, theatre, film, art and dance."  That's a tall order to fill, but they seem to be fulfilling their promise, as all tickets for their fifth season had already been sold out, two months before the festival was to begin in July 2010. 

Park in one of their lots and then transport your tent and other camping gear to your weekend home on the farm using one of their rented "cloth barrows" or skip the trouble of bringing your own stuff and buy a ticket for one of the campsites with "ready pitched and fully equipped tents for hire" in the Tangerine Fields.  Surely the Beatles would have found these ideas to be truly delightful.

A wonderful synthesis of pastoral beauty & the bright colors of the arts.

And surely this festival offers something that no other venue can offer: neon bright pink and orange sheep.  Getting cold at night? Cuddle up with some lovely pink wool.

Which brings me to the origin of this festival in July of 2006.  One of the performers presented in their inaugural outing was the great Patti Smith, a woman from my own generation, who helped create the punk rock movement of the 70's when she started reciting her poetry to the chords of an accompanying guitar, and later singing them with a full rock band.  

By 2006 she had already been named a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and less than eight months later she would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recognizing the importance of her significant contributions to music.

On July 15, 2006 Patti Smith and her band performed on the second day of the first ever Latitude Festival.  Fortunately her performance of "Gloria" is now preserved on YouTube, placed there by John Macaulay, who shot the video.  Many audience videos of live concerts are difficult to watch, often marred by bad positioning, noisy crowd near the taper, jerky cameras and lousy sound.  In this case the filming was done from an excellent position very close to the front providing engrossing closeups of the performers throughout and the noisy crowd adds to the passion of the performance, rather than detracting from the recording.

Two minutes into the performance, the audience begins to catch fire, which inspires Patti to greater passion and by five minutes into the song she and the audience are performing the song together.  Just short of six minutes in, the taper is rightfully drawn into shooting video of the audience, not just Patti, as they have become performers as well, and then she is enthusiastically thanking the audience. "Thank you!!  I'm at the place of my ancestors. I'm bucked down!" and the rest is pure love and joy.

She thanks her always guitarist, Lenny Kaye, and then "Be! We the People!" And at the very end she thanks the crowd again with, "Attitude, ya got the good attitude!"

Is there any better example on YouTube of what the Spanish call El duende, the spirit of evocation?  As Wikipedia says, "It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive." 

You notice that by the end, both the performers and the audience were creating this moment together.  And Patti appreciates that fact and thanks them for their participation.  She maintains no professional distance, as the "legendary performer."  She is just like them, as she acknowledges with her "We the People!"

Now I consider this video very unusual for having captured this magic in a tiny window on our computers.  You can begin to feel what it must have been like to be there.  I laughed and cried while I watched it.  But here is the part I want to emphasize.  I have seen Patti Smith perform a number of times and every time I have been inspired by her performance.  So it gets back to my repeated encouragement for everyone to get up from behind their computer monitors and go see the live performance of music.  Patti Smith would be a good place to start.  She is one of the best performers I have ever seen for really connecting with her audience and encouraging their participation. She is real, just one of us, though bursting with talent and always totally life affirming.
Peace and love to all on this Memorial Day!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Glorious Sounds of the Many-Tongued Mimic

A major proposition of this music lover's blog is that witnessing music performed live, in person, is far superior to experiencing music in any other way.  But who has the time or means to go to the symphony or a club every day to satisfy their need for a live musical experience?

If one lives in Northern California, one could be fortunate enough to have an alternative in the spring.  That is, if a Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, decides to take up residence in one's neighborhood.  Mimus polyglottos means "many-tongued mimic," a name given this bird because of its wonderful ability to mimic the sound of many other species of birds, as well as neighborhood cats, dogs, car alarms, rusty swinging gates, whatever.

Now that word "mimic" has a rather disparaging connotation, doesn't it. As though they weren't creative enough to come up with their own sound, so they had to just copy the ones they heard around them.  To me this seems a little unfair.  After all, did the neighborhood Robin or Cardinal come up with their own sound?  I don't think so.  They copied it from dad, or it was already built into their dna.  Same for every other species.  But along comes the Northern Mockingbird and he starts to belt out the songs of all the other birds.  Hey, that's pretty amazing.

Elvis made a pretty good career out of singing songs that were all written by others, and now they call him "The King!"  So let's give the Northern Mockingbird some respect.  It's all about how one performs the sounds in live performance, right?  Well our Mr. King bird does pretty well on that score.  Each of the songs of these other birds is repeated by Mr. King several times, and then another song is taken up and repeated many times over, before going on to another.  One can listen to this performance for quite a long time and not hear him start over with a song he has done before. On top of that, he may spread his wings and flutter up in the air in a circle and come back to the branch he launched from, while continuing to sing, and not missing a single beat along the way.  Elvis wiggled his hips, but did you ever see him do that?  Not I, not even on the Ed Sullivan Show.   

And here's the best part of all.  He often sings like this in the middle of the night, when all the other birds are sleeping or watching the late show, or whatever.  He doesn't take a break.  He's out there on the highest branch he can find, singing away at the top of his voice in the stillness of the night for hours on end.  
But is it music?  You betcha!  Perhaps you read my article about the deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, who said her aim in life "is to teach the world to listen. . . allow your body to open up, allow your body to be this resonating chamber. . . just experience the whole journey of that sound." The medium of music is sound.  The composer John Cage said, "There is no noise, only sound."  And musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez said, "the border between music and noise is always culturally defined.  By all accounts there is no single and intercultural universal concept defining what music might be, except that it is 'sound through time'."

For me the sound of the Northern Nightingale singing through the middle of the night is glorious sound through time.  For me that is music to my ears! And it has the other qualities that make the live performance of music special to witness.  You hear it in the moment the sound is created and then it is gone.  Take it in fully, "experience the whole journey of that sound," as it is there now, but perhaps not for long.  The particular sequence of sounds, the sequence of bird songs that are sung, the rhythm, tempo, dynamics, timbre and texture of those sounds are unique to that one performance, never to be repeated again.  That is what makes live performance so exciting.  It is not ordinary.  It is special, created in that moment, heard in the moment, and then it is no more.  So enjoy it while you can!

Did you notice him do his little dance of flight in the middle of his performance?  Now listen to the incredible variety of sounds in this next one.

And finally here's a chance to go to school and really learn about this amazing performer.  At 3:30 in the video, they even identify which species of bird song the mockingbird is singing as it goes along.  So if you are lucky enough to have a Northern Mockingbird take up residence in your own back yard, as I have this spring, that one creature will create the sound of an entire forest of different bird species, all by himself.

Often I like to take a walk around my neighborhood late at night, after most people have retired for the night. There is no traffic on the street, no people walking about, and one can be alone with one's thoughts and the stillness of the night.  The jumble of the day can fall away and one can more clearly see the way ahead.  Two nights ago I finished up a lovely hour long chat with my Facebook friend on the Northumberland Coast of Northern England. I had been thinking about capping off the evening with a walk, but as I got up from my desk I heard my many-tongued mimic wailing away in the back yard. So instead of the walk, I stepped out onto the porch and sat down and listened.  Mr. King was singing his heart out without a moment's pause, and his singing was the only sound to be heard in an otherwise totally silent night. I just sat there, in the same spot that was Marcia's absolute favorite place to sit, and I just took in the performance.  It was marvelous.  I know Marcia loved the green grass, the trellis and vines, the flowers and lush foliage of the yard, as well as the squirrels, hummingbirds, and cats that made it their home.  But I don't actually know whether she ever enjoyed a performance of a night time Mockingbird from that favorite spot.  I hope so.        

Perhaps the glorious sounds of this bird has won itself some respect after all.  Of course one of the classic tales in American literature is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee called To Kill a Mockingbird.  In the book, Miss Maudie explains that mockingbirds never harm other living creatures.  "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us."  So to kill one would be to kill what is innocent and harmless, and Atticus warns that "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."   
Mockingbirds have not always lived only in the wild, as they were once popular as pets.  In fact Thomas Jefferson had such a pet, which he named Dick.  He didn't know about "The King" back then.  This aspect of the lives of mockingbirds was described in the traditional lullaby, "Hush Little Baby" which had lyrics that said:

Hush little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring. 
In 1963 Inez and Charlie Foxx cashed in by recording their version of this song, simply called "Mockingbird," which became a big hit in both the US and the UK.  Since then the song has been covered by the great Dusty Springfield, as well as by Carly Simon & James Taylor, Toby & Krystal Keith, and Katie Melua.  It was also featured in episodes of the TV series "Will and Grace" and the film "Dumb and Dumber."

Of course now you want to hear this song.  And YouTube is waiting to serve up any one of them to you.  The Dusty Springfield performance at the 1965 New Musical Express Poll Winners concert is the best.  But in the spirit of our many-tongued mimic, I've decided that it's most appropriate to give you a version of pure mimicry, perhaps the best example of lip synching to be found on YouTube, the work of amy and kass.

That's all folks!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How I Discovered My Passion in Life

Let me start by saying I wasn't trying to discover my passion in life. Of course I had heard many say that one should find and follow one's passion in life to be happy and successful.  There are books written on the subject, blog posts and websites with lists of questions to ask one's self to discover it, as well as courses offered on the subject by websites and even churches.  I had no urgency about finding my passion, as I had been working successfully for over thirty years in a career that I enjoyed and it always kept the wolves at bay.  I had a lot of interests in life which occupied whatever free time my work allowed.  Mostly my life was goal oriented, following the path to accomplish that next purpose.  So I had never tried any of those approaches, as there was apparently no need.
But my approach to life began to change in the summer of 2009 when Marcia got her diagnosis of cancer, not long after I learned that one of my very best friends in college had succumbed from a heart attack.  Life had become more precious and my generation no longer enjoyed a really long future, the immortality of youth.  One began to think more seriously about what to do with whatever time one might have left.  Then on November 1, 2009 when Marcia passed on, I found myself in new, uncharted territory.  Suddenly all that mattered was to deal with our loss, as the mourning process began.  There was no purpose to achieve, no clear path to follow, no timetable to meet a deadline.  Thankfully, Marcia's suffering had finally ended.  Nothing could be done to bring her back.  But how would I deal with this?  
At her memorial service, I listened in my grief to her friend and minister of forty-three years and his wife tell about her life, stories going back to 1966.  Then her son gave a beautiful, emotional, chronological account of her life, story after story after story that illustrated the strength and character of his mother, who he clearly loves and respects very much.  There we all were, her friends and family, enjoying these stories, learning all kinds of interesting things about her life, and remembering those parts we had experienced directly.
As I looked around the room, I could see we were all genuinely grateful to hear more about her life and to discover things we hadn't known.  But it suddenly dawned on me that there had not been a single story told that I had not already heard, directly from Marcia!  I had known her for nearly forty years, but only intimately during the last decade of her life.  I realized that during those ten years, Marcia had shared with me everything she considered precious and important about her life.  A huge wave of gratitude came over me as I realized how lucky I had been to share that time with her.  This feeling was a blessing, but quickly an even stronger, transcendent feeling of pride and joy welled up inside of me, as I realized the particular bond we had developed was a gift she gave only to me, a very strong and intimate connection, which I will always keep close to my heart and will never ever forget.
This brought me a huge amount of relief and peace.  I resolved to always honor her memory, and attend to whatever came my way in this mourning process.  The grief had been replaced by the wave of gratitude.  I  still thought of her every day, but I was in no hurry for that to change, or to "get over it" in any way.  I would just see how life would go now.  I was open to any thoughts or feelings I had about her, was willing to accept any communication I had to her, or from her, and remained open to any other ideas that might come my way.
And it was with that open attitude that I planned to celebrate her birthday on January 24, 2010.  I've already written about that evening when I listened to Mahler's "Farewell to Life" and realized that I needed to experience more live classical music in my life, which led to my planning the series of concerts that I have been attending.  And now I've written about the first concert with the performance of The Planets (don't forget the Corn Nuts), the magnificent performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and the transcendent moment I experienced upon the completion of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.
But now it's time to go back to February 10, 2010, the evening before that first concert in the series.  I had made the final plans with my Chiro Friend for getting to the concert hall for the show.  She had never attended a symphony orchestra concert, so I had briefed her on what to expect.  I told her she could wear a ballroom gown, but then relented and admitted that concerts were no longer quite that formal.  In fact, I assured her that I would probably not even wear a tie, just a nice sweater.
So the night before the concert I decided to pick out what I would wear from my closet.  I slid open the closet door and began to pull out sports jackets for consideration.  As I looked over the shirts, I began to think about ties and I had this strong feeling that one goes with the other.  So I pulled out some ties and found myself selecting which tie would look the best with the shirt and jacket I had chosen.  I set them aside, so they were ready for the following evening.  Okay, I was going to wear a tie after all, in spite of what I had told my Chiro Friend!  Somehow, that felt very good.  I went to bed looking forward to the next day and the start of my concert season.
Only I couldn't get to sleep right away, as I thought about how I felt as I picked out those clothes.  A comfortable, familiar feeling had come over me.  I was feeling very much at home, in a safe frame of mind.  What was this feeling?  Was it because I was going to wear a jacket that Marcia had bought me many years earlier?  No, it went deeper than that.  I was pulled back to 1964, getting ready for one of the dozens of concerts that I attended as a student at Oberlin College, where we always wore a jacket and tie, both at concerts and at dinner every evening.  Decades later I had been experiencing that same delicious anticipation from getting ready to see another live performance of music.  It was a dance I had been through so many times, which always led to a very positive and enjoyable experience.
As I had been going through the mourning process, I had been paying close attention to my feelings and seeing where they would lead me.  And that's what I did again that night.  Only this time, parts of my life began to fall into place like a puzzle.  The feeling I had when I began the process of dressing for a concert was the key that unlocked the door and all the connections came tumbling out.  I began to look over parts of my life, the important parts, and my life began to make sense, in a way that had never occurred before.  As more and more of these connections came to mind, I began to get more and more excited, as the epiphany fully took hold of my consciousness.
Far too excited to sleep, I finally switched on the light and pulled out the notebook by my bed and started to write, summing up my life, as I now clearly saw it, in one single line.

   2:43 AM       What ties my life together: MUSIC!       2/10/10
This was followed by five pages of single spaced writing, listing one example after another of that realization, covering events from all periods in my life, going all the way back to before I started grade school.  I finally stopped after listing fifty of these examples from my life.  My understanding of my life had taken a quantum leap forward.
I had discovered the thread that ran through my entire life.  I had discovered my passion in life.
The mourning process had gotten me to open up my attention, to let it reach out in all directions, not just the path ahead.  And finally I came to see what held my life together.  I had always concentrated on the path to my goals.  The beautiful green trees were always there, but they didn't lead anywhere.  It was the path that lead somewhere and so it was the path that needed to be followed.  Or so I thought.
Those trees had always been there.  They were so much always there, that I didn't realize this was anything unusual or special about my life.  They were so much a part of me that I didn't even recognize that they define who I am.  It wasn't until February 10, 2010 that I finally got a look at the forest from above.  And then I realized that it was a forest, not just a path passing through pretty green trees.
Of course the forest is the music, my love for music, my passion for music, that holds together all phases of my life and makes it uniquely MY LIFE.  Realizing this has changed everything.  I have given myself some time to let this sink in, perhaps to make sure that I'm not just delusional.  I'm not.  This is important and real.
As I said at the outset, I wasn't looking for this understanding.  And if the question had been posed to me, "What is your passion in life?" I would have said, "I don't know."  Or maybe I would have said that I was passionate about a lot of things, and I'm not sure that One Single Passion in Life is possible, or worth trying to discover.  Marcia once wrote that I am an "honorable and passionate man."  I liked that, because I knew I could feel passion and express passion at times, and it felt really good to do that.  But how could there be a Single Passion in my life?
But there can be, if you realize that the passion can be as big as a forest going out in all directions and off into the distance.  And there are a lot of paths down there among the trees, but what is most important is the beauty, strength and stability of the forest.  Even though I wasn't looking for it, I'm very glad I found it.  And now I encourage everyone, including you, to take a look around and notice what is always there in your life, that makes you YOU.  And if you're fortunate like me, and you discover your passion, I think you'll find that it brings a lot of order to your past and it orients you in a positive way that you may not have previously experienced.  And if this does happen for you, tell me about it in the comments.  I would be very interested in your experiences.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Redemptive Power of Music

Yesterday an important new talk was posted on the TED TALKS website.  It is a talk given in Long Beach in February 2010 by Robert Gupta, a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, about his experiences with his musician friend, Nathaniel Ayers.  He describes how he personally witnessed "the redemptive power of music" work its healing magic on Mr. Ayers.  Please watch this short video right now, before I continue. 

Were you moved by his story and his conviction to always make music with his friend?  I certainly was!  Gupta was very eloquent when he summed up his experiences with this man and how it relates to music.

"And I understood that this was the very essence of art.  This was the very reason why we made music.  That we take something that exists within all of us at our very fundamental core, our emotions, and through our artistic lens, through our creativity, we're able to shape those emotions into reality.  And the reality of that expression reaches all of us and moves us, inspires and unites us."
And in the line that TED used for the title of the Gupta talk, he said the following.

"Music is medicine.  Music changes us and for Nathaniel, music is sanity."
Correctly, the title of the talk generalizes the last three words, by removing the specific reference to Nathaniel.  This applies to all of us.  I don't suffer from a mental illness, but as I was going through the mourning process after the loss of Marcia, I realized the medicine I needed to add to my life.  Which I stated in the following way.

"I need to experience live classical music more often. It makes me stronger, more sane. I will be better, with more of it in my life."
 And clearly I was totally right to draw this conclusion, as shown by the fact that I experienced healing moments during both the performance of Mahler's 2nd Symphony and the performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.  

In the TED Talk by Evelyn Glennie, she said, "Music really is our daily medicine."  And you may recall that Dr. Karl Paulnack says that "Music is a basic need of human survival."  So there is a lot of agreement on the importance of music and I started this blog to report on my life in music.   

Now as it turns out, I had already heard something about the life story of Nathaniel Ayers, as I had seen the piece 60 Minutes did on him.  When you watch that video below, you'll get to see him playing his cello and trumpet and you'll get to meet the journalist, Steve Lopez, who discovered him on the streets of Los Angeles and wrote many columns, and then a book which became the film The Soloist, about those experiences.  You will also see Ayers interacting with Gupta and other members of the LA Philharmonic.
You will also see his sister, Jennifer Ayers-Moore, describe the devastating after effects of the shock treatment that Ayers was subjected to, in an attempt to restore his sanity, after he first became ill at Julliard.

"I remember when he came out, he had this look on his face, it was . . . almost like a zombie.  She [their mother] expected him to go in and come out a different person.  And that . . . it just didn't work out that way."

You may recall that Gupta mentioned that Ayers now refuses treatment, having been treated so long ago with "shock therapy and Thorazine and handcuffs."  In the 60 Minutes piece, the journalist and his sister are left hoping at the end that he will eventually accept treatment from one of the so-called "new, more effective drugs."  It seems to me that Ayers learned his lesson then and it's time the world recognizes he now benefits from a humane treatment, in his work with music and his musician friends.

So the journalist voiced his wish that, "This man is well on the way to recovery" only to discover that, "The next day, he's the devil."  But the musicians clearly get that his redemption has come and will continue to come through his work with the music and the musicians.  How much easier would his path had been, if he had not been so seriously harmed by the shock treatment?  Well the musicians and Ayers himself are the heroes of this piece, saving the planet, one soul at a time!!

And notice that Ayers does not view himself as a victim, in spite of the harmful treatment he received.  On the contrary, in one lucid moment in the video, he states, "Music is saying, you know, life isn't that bad . . ." and in another, "It's very good to be alive right now."  And think about this.  How many people on the rough streets of Los Angeles has Ayers himself helped by performing his own live music?  My guess is that it is more than a few.    

And so we end with a performance on the cello by Nathaniel Ayers, accompanied by Joanne Pearce Martin, Principal Keyboardist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Remembering Bill Bacon

Monday night, March 22, 2010, I met the Dancing Cellist at Davies Symphony Hall for the third in my current series of concerts.  Our seats were in the first row of the 1st Tier on the left side of the stage, so we had a bird's eye view of the orchestra, with a clear view of the hands of the pianist, Denis Matsuev, for the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.  I had brought along my binoculars, so I could get good close-ups on any of the performers.

"The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (colloquially known as "Rach 3") is famous for its technical and musical demands on the performer. It has the reputation of being one of the most difficult concertos in the standard piano repertoire."
The Rach 3 was the reason I bought tickets to this concert.  When I was a student at Oberlin College, one of my best friends, Bill Bacon, was a piano student at the great Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  Bill was consumed by one purpose at that time.  He wanted to learn to play this difficult piece.  I'm sure that was the first time I had heard of Rach 3 and maybe even the first time I had heard about Rachmaninoff.  That was back in 1965, long before the movie Shine had introduced the piece to millions all over the world.  Bill was excited because the great piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, had recently returned to the stage at Carnegie Hall.  And I'm pretty sure that it was the Horowitz performance of  Rach 3 on RCA that Bill had in his collection.  So that's how I first heard the great concerto.

I always meant to go see the film, Shine, but somehow it never happened.  I understand it is a true story about a talented Australian pianist, David Helfgott, who learned Rach 3 for a concerto competition, but suffered a mental breakdown in the process.  Sadly, that seemed to be the process Bill was going through at Oberlin as well.  He became depressed and dropped out of the school sometime during my sophomore year.  But he continued to hang out in our section of the dorm until the end of the school year, as he had a girl friend, Cheryl, who was still a student.  In the end, they moved to Chicago together and the last time I saw them it was when I visited them in their apartment there.  I remember the apartment had been furnished with an ancient and very black and crusty gas stove, which Bill had proceeded to take apart and refurbish to a grand and nearly new looking condition.  I think all that manual labor had been good for Bill and he was justifiably proud of the restored stove.  He and Cheryl seemed happy together.  And then we parted and went about our separate lives.

I never knew what became of Bill, or whether he ever learned to play the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto.

So when Denis Matsuev, a large handsome Russian, came out to perform the piece, I had Bill in the back of my mind.  Bill had told me what a difficult piece the concerto was to perform, so I felt a sense of danger as the music began.  Would this young man be up to the task?  Well he certainly was!  I have played the concerto on my stereo many times (dozens, hundreds of times?) over the years and know the sound like an old friend.  There below me on the stage, Matsuev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, were performing the music just like I had heard it so many times in my home. Only this was far better, as it was a live performance in a wonderful concert hall.  The feeling of danger quickly subsided as Matsuev tore through the piece with no sign of distress or difficulty.  He made it look easy.

And so I relaxed and just reveled in the glorious sound, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes while watching his fingers fly across the keyboard.  It came to a most amazing conclusion, with a flourish of virtuosity from the pianist and a crescendo from the orchestra in support, all ending with a glorious crash, that sent a chill down my back.  Wow!  I had not expected such a dramatic conclusion and it felt great to feel a chill down my back again from live music.

And just like that, Matsuev was up and taking his bows from an excited audience. Cheers and cries of "Bravo" rolled across the concert hall as we clapped and clapped.  The conductor and orchestra took their bows, then left the stage and returned two or three times and finally Matsuev came back out without the conductor.  I had been taking it all in and enjoying the celebration that accompanies the end of a fine musical performance.  Life was good.
And so Matsuev sat back down at his Steinway for an encore.  He announced what he was going to play, which from the 1st Tier sounded like "Music Box," (but was actually "Musical Snuffbox"  Op.32 by Anatol Liadov) and proceeded to perform this new number, a delightful, mostly quiet piece that contrasted nicely with the virtuosity of Rach 3.  As soon as his fingers touched the keys and the music began, I was nearly overcome by a sudden intense feeling of grief mixed with joy.  If I had been home alone, I would have just burst out in tears, with loud sobbing.  But with Matsuev playing quietly down below me, I had to restrain myself, so as not to disturb the attentive audience.  I slammed my eyelids shut, as my eyes filled with tears, and I reminded myself to breathe, and keep on breathing, deeply.

As the Music Box played quietly down below me, the sudden surge of feelings began to subside, like a wave pulling back from the shore.  I opened my eyes and watched the end of the encore and the applause that followed.  An excited peaceful feeling returned.

What was that?!  I think my body had been experiencing the loss of my friend, Bill, and when the concerto was concluded so successfully it allowed all the tension about the difficulty of the piece to be released, which led to the feeling of joy, but it was accompanied by the long ago submerged grief over the loss of my Oberlin friends from my life.  The suddenness with which it appeared was rather disconcerting, but the experience was healing, as the feelings made their way out.

Once again I had experienced a transcendent moment at a live performance of music in San Francisco!   

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Experience the Sound

Did you ever attend a concert performed by a solo virtuoso percussionist?  Could there even be such a thing?  Well yes, there really could be.  But let's stretch credulity a bit more.  How about a solo performance by a virtuoso percussionist who is so profoundly deaf that she must read people's lips to be able to converse with them?  There is such a woman!  She is Evelyn Glennie from Scotland, "the first full-time solo percussionist in 20th-century western society."  Please take a brief detour and follow the above link to the Wikipedia entry, to get to know a little bit about this remarkable woman.  I'll wait for you to get back.  You might even want to follow the link there to her "Hearing Essay."
Okay, I'm glad you're back.  I discovered a Ted Talk this woman gave in Monterey, CA in February 2003.  I just started watching it, with no idea of what she had in store for me.  I've now watched the entire 32 minutes three times through.  She begins with this startling statement, especially so, coming from a so-called "deaf" woman.      
"Of course, my job is all about listening.  And my aim, really, is to teach the world to listen.  That's my only real aim in life."
And that is what she proceeds to do in the talk.  I'm sure you've heard about how those with a particular disability (e.g. deafness) can develop the other senses (e.g. hearing) to a much greater degree.  This is what she has done, as she doesn't just listen with her ears.  She says, "I also hear it through my hands, through my arms, my cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs and so on."  In fact you'll notice that the first thing she does is to remove her shoes, so that she can hear the music she plays better.

Well, do we need to be deaf too, to do this?  No, she encourages us all to really learn to listen, to fully experience the sound of the music.  She says, "It's unbelievably important for us to really test our listening skills.  To really use our bodies as a resonating chamber."

And she concludes with the following challenge.
"The next time you go to a concert, just allow your body to open up, allow your body to be this resonating chamber.  Be aware that you're not going to experience the same thing as the performer is.  The performer is in the worst possible position for the actual sound, because they're hearing the contact of the stick on the drum, or the mallet on the bit of wood, or the bow on the string, etc.  Or the breath that's creating the sound from wind and brass.  They're experiencing that rawness there.  But yet, they're experiencing something so unbelievably pure, which is before the sound is actually happening.  Please take note of the life of the sound, after the actual initial strike or breath is being pulled.  Just experience the whole journey of that sound, in the same way that I wished I'd experienced the whole journey of this particular conference, rather than just arriving last night."

Wow, now there's a woman who has mastered her instruments.  And I really love her wonderful Scottish way of speaking!  I wish I could roll my R's like that!

Well I took her challenge to allow my body "to be this resonating chamber" when I went to see the Mahler's Second Symphony performed last Sunday.  And it was certainly a wonderful experience, with the amazing variety of sounds that Mahler delivers in that awesome piece.  And really, there is no way to experience that sound as fully as at a live concert hall with a full orchestra and chorus.

What does this say about the ear buds and iPods we see everywhere we go these days?  Well it certainly is limiting the experience of the sound to what is coming in through the ears!  Remember, she said we should "really try to connect with those sounds far far more broadly than simply depending upon the ear."  So for me, attending a live performance of music is far and away more satisfying than any other way of experiencing music.  I invite you to put down your headphones, or turn off your boom box and go to the telephone and order some tickets to a real live concert.  You'll be glad you did.
But I just can't restrain myself from making one final point.  You'll recall that she said, "Every one of us, depending upon where we're sitting will experience this sound quite quite differently."  Of course she's right, but for one exception!  And that is when the performers, the conductor and the audience are all participating as one in the creation of the sound of silence!  I had the privilege of being able to help create that glorious sound when I went to hear Mahler's Ninth Symphony.  It was an exceptionally rare and moving experience and one that I will never forget!!  Remember when she asked about the sound of snowing?  It's the same thing!  So you can do that too, on a snowy night.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Uncle Art's Scrapbook

I was born in Galesburg, IL and my family lived in a rented house on Florence Avenue at that time.  Right behind our house was the backyard of a house on Brown Avenue, which was the next street over.  In those days in the Midwest, people talked to their neighbors and often became good friends with them.  That's what happened with my family and Art and Mary Stilson, who lived in that house behind us on Brown Avenue.  My Mom and Dad became close friends with the Stilsons while we lived there.  In 2007 I took a picture of that house, which is a lot fancier now than when the Stilsons lived there.
 I don't remember anything from that period on Florence Avenue.  Before I started grade school we had moved to another house that my father had built for us across town.  My memory does go back to that house.  Even though we had moved across town, we stayed close friends with the Stilsons and would often go visit them in their small home.  And they had come to be known as Uncle Art and Aunt Mary to me and my brother, even though there was no true blood relationship there.

Uncle Art was a large man of modest means who lived happily with his wife, who was an excellent homemaker and interested in the arts.  She was an excellent cook, she did a lot of sewing, and she often sang in a local choir.  They had an upright piano, which she liked to play  Their backyard was filled with a very large garden, where they probably grew most of the food they ate.   I remember row after row of very large stalks of corn in that garden.  They didn't have any kids of their own, but they were always glad to see me and my brother arrive for a visit.  We always got Christmas cards and birthday cards from them, and probably some presents along the way as well.  Aunt Mary always had a cat.

Uncle Art had been laid off from his job, so they were getting by with limited resources.  But they had that garden and Aunt Mary always canned a lot of food for the winter months.  Occasionally there were serious talks with my parents about their situation, but usually they were just happy to see us and we'd have a lot of fun together.

Uncle Art did a lot of reading in newspapers, magazines and books.  I don't recall there being a television in their home in those days.  Uncle Art loved to find interesting stories, tidbits, and oddities in his readings.  He would clip them out and when we would come to visit, he would be sure to pull  something out from his scrapbook to show us.  "Oh, look what I found in the paper the other day," he'd say.  Then he'd watch while my Dad read it, perhaps aloud to us all, and then he'd laugh loudly with us all about the story.

He also had records that he'd pull out to play for us.  Early on they were probably 78's, but later he upgraded to regular LP's.  I remember him playing Spike Jones for us and howling with laughter over those hilarious tracks.  And one time he had a very special record to play for us, as he had discovered this amazing piano player called Victor Borge, who could really play the piano, but was really a comedian.  I clearly remember the day he played the Phonetic Punctuation routine for us.  We were all rolling on the floor with laughter on that one.

Uncle Art would have loved the Internet.  I'm sure he would have been all over the web, reading and saving interesting tidbits and oddities for his scrapbook.  And when I came across the following video, it made me think of Uncle Art immediately.  He would have loved this video of Carl Sandburg, in which he makes an accurate prediction about the outcome of the 1960 Presidential election.

You see Uncle Art was a big fan of Carl Sandburg, who was also born in Galesburg, only a long time before me.  He had written the definitive three volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which was on Uncle Art's bookshelf and I'm sure he had read them.  Of course Lincoln was the most famous American our state of Illinois had ever produced and Sandburg was the biggest name to ever come out of Galesburg.  Uncle Art loved them both.

Many years later, after Uncle Art and Aunt Mary were gone, I discovered a link between this favorite son of my hometown, the favorite son of my home state and my favorite songwriter, Bob Dylan.  In fact, Dylan had once quoted Sandburg when he was performing one of his early songs, Talkin' World War III Blues.  When I first heard this song on the Freewheelin' album, Dylan was quoting Lincoln in the song.                                
Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all of the people can't be all right all of the time.
I think Abraham Lincoln said that.
And yet when he performed it in the Halloween Concert at Philharmonic Hall in NYC in 1964, he sang:
All the people can be some right part of the time,
Part of the people can be some right all of the time,
But all the people can't be all right all of the time.
                        Carl Sandburg said that.                          
What's with that?  Why did he change the line?!  Which is right?
Of course with the connections to my hometown, I had to research the point and finally wrote up the answer to those questions on my Dylan bibliography website, Conclusions on the Wall.  The key to my solving this puzzle came when I discovered a two record set of Sandburg reading from his Lincoln works.  I had to buy the records because I remembered that Uncle Art had owned that album and had played it for us.  It was Halloween 1998 when I found it in the CD shop and took it home with me, exactly 34 years after Bob had sung the Sandburg line in New York City.

Once I figured it all out, I put together a page in my bibliography website all about it.  I think I enjoyed making that page more than any other on my website.  And to be sure, if Uncle Art had still been around, I would have proudly pointed him to it.  He would have loved it and would have surely added it to his scrapbook!
Take a look for yourself and see what you think!