Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

…Of Which Reason Knows Nothing

March 9, 2013

 Chair in fireplace

In the New  York Times the other day* there was an interesting article about Norwegian firewood.  Apparently the subject arouses considerable passion in the Land of the Midnight Sun.  There is a bestselling book – Solid Wood  – and a twelve hour television documentary that, through its course, catalyzed a string of invectives via text of which half complained that the firewood was stacked bark side down and half worried about what they saw bark side up.  Uhm, the denouement of this program was a live, fixed, close take of a hearth borne conflagration log after log after log.

  Thinking that perhaps related emotions were cathected into the Beatles’ tune Norwegian Wood, I investigated.  Probably not.  The lyrics most likely refer to cheap pine paneling in allusion to a venue of illicit love.  John: “I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair…”  Really great melody in the key of E Major and was their first song to employ Harrison on the sitar.  Rolling Stone placed it #84 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

  But back to the bark.  If you need some firewood, let my little black angel help as she did in the photos above and below.  At top you see a kitchen chair she dispatched to the woodpile by gnawing through all four of the lower horizontal cross members.  It still stood, and I would have kept it, but wife was concerned for embarrassment should it one day collapse beneath a friend or relative.  Pulling apart its back I felt like how I imagine a surgeon does while making way through a ribcage.  In contrast, the seat fell with measured grace to my Scandinavian axe.

  The scene at bottom is another of creative firewood procurement and this one is special on two counts.  First, the painted shingles shorn from the front of our house add a certain sparkle to the fire made all the more special with the knowledge that they are no longer available.  Second, notice the exposed TV and Internet cable at lower right.  Service has lately acquired a special intermittency.

  Oh well, she has my heart  and as per Pascal: “The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

Missing Shingles

*NYT 2/20/13

** This is a wood cut by daughter of her friend Max


We Are Alive

August 3, 2012


 In the July 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker there is an interesting profile of rocker Bruce Springsteen.  Interesting to me for something “wingman” guitarist Steve Van Zandt said.  Back in the day one was judged by how well he was able to duplicate play from the radio – “cord for cord, note for note.”

  “Bruce was never good at it.  He had a weird ear.  He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords.  When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original.  Well, in the long run, guess what: in the long run, original wins.”

  OK big deal you say.  Well, Pythagoras found, more than 2500 years ago, that there is a mathematic correlation to music that pleases.  Vibrating strings of different lengths, but in certain ratios make sounds good to hear while other relationships will be dissonant. 

  Subsequent observations of the universe led him and his followers to wonder – if musical harmony could be described by numbers, why not the whole universe – a “harmony of spheres”?  An almost contemporaneous biography of Pythagoras held that elevated minds such as his could audibly perceive the music made by the regular motions of heavenly bodies.

   No question that math does an excellent job at describing the cosmos with such things as the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Numbers being found in wide and disparate corners of it.  And through the ages, artists and musicians of all stripes have attempted to tease out methods of their employment that might yield grand success.

  To no avail.  “History has shown however, that the artists who have produced works of lasting value are precisely those who have broken away from academic precepts.”*  Duh again. OK.  But what is truly amazing to think about are these relationships on the grandest of scales. 

  Einstein showed that without the presence of matter or energy in the universe, there would be no space-time warp.  No gravity.  No harmony.  No dissonance.  No originality.  Perfection. Boring.  But, of course, not to worry.  There are inclusions, imperfections, noise.  As the Springsteen article is entitled: “We Are Alive”.

*Golden Ratio, Mario Livio

Whoa Black Betty Bam-Ba-Lam

May 11, 2012


   The look is almost passé now I guess, having first appeared in hip hopdom more than twenty years ago, but I finally got around to divining its genesis and evolution.  They are surprisingly multifaceted and complex – sort of in the manner of a Freud portrait.  In a single picture he was remarkably able to “include more than one expression”.

  The provenance of a fashion statement that requires nearly continuous attention – the holding up of one’s trousers – must be profound I figured.  Had to have entered and then pervaded the collective unconscious of a sizeable segment of society before going mainstream.  (Ok tributary maybe.)

  Some suggest that the look arose first as boys and young men wore clothing several sizes too large because of hand-me-down affordability.  Or even more purposefully to denote the absence of a more senior male family member.  The sign of a deliberate assumption of responsibility.

  Unfortunately the assumption of a role for which one has had no model can lead to trouble.  The broad swaths ofAmericalargely bereft of meaningful fatherhood are characterized by strife, violence, and dead ends.  Many young men end up in detention of one sort or another.

  Prison garb is not bespoke.  No belts.  Thus if jumpsuits aren’t the standard issue, pants will sag.  Furthermore, exposed undergarments can be the analogue of a low cut dress.  Advertising.  Or even relate to some cultures’ particularly accoutered wives, though the tone of the message here a bit more harsh: “I’m someone’s bitch, touch me at your peril”.

  Not what you get at first glance is it?  Whole thing reminds me of the backstory of the folk song Black Betty one rendition of which you can listen to below.  My initial encounter with Ms Betty was during the pregame warmup to youngest daughter’s college soccer matches*.  More than rousing, it’s almost riotous. 

  The song was similarly employed in the pilot episode of the successful and award winning program Friday Night Lights; also the pilot of Eastbound and Down; the films Blow, Dukes of Hazzard, Miss Congeniality; many advertising campaigns, video games, and more.

  Some believe that the name first was used to refer to a certain flint-lock musket with the “bam BA lam” being onomatopoetic gunfire.  In his Drinker’s Dictionary Ben Franklin tells us that to have kissed Black Betty was to have had too much.  Inmate transfer vehicles have been called by that name.

  Father and son ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax found that Black Betty “was the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons”:

Whoa, Black Betty (bam-BA-lam)

Whoa, Black Betty (bam-BA-lam)

She’s fromBirmingham(bam-BA-lam)

Way down in Alabam’ (bam-BA-lam)

Boy she makes me sing (bam-BA-lam)

Whoa, Black Betty


  No question but that she’d make me sing and the problem then would be how to find a way to kiss her while holding my pants up – all the way up – with both hands.

*Pertinent lyric: “Black Betty had a child – The damn thing gone wild” Those girls would every time come up smiling after mixing it up so fiercely they’d fall to the ground legs atangle.


December 23, 2011


  Yesterday I was reading an article* about Carlos Jimenez, a young (52 which is younger than I am anyway) architect in Houston and remembered visiting him in his office about a decade ago.  Looking back through my notes, I remembered that he introduced me to the concept of generosity in architecture – its power to enhance the quality of one’s living.

He had entertained thoughts of entering the priesthood.  Those thoughts had long ago left him but, “my Catholic background was very beneficial because I learned a lot about human qualities that have a kind of transformative power.  And as I do architecture, I realize that one has a duty to transform certain realities.  Any project calls forth an occasion to solve its problems and aspire beyond them.  That is when a work of architecture arises…”

As opposed to a thoughtless agglomeration of rooms.  There are differences both subtle and not so.  It is no surprise that great architects relish opportunities to design places of worship whether they be churches or museum.  People visit those building types hoping to be moved spiritually and are thus prized consumers of finely wrought spaces.

All makes me think of the off quoted notion (here and elsewhere) that “architecture is nothing but frozen music” and am sure that many folks more quickly recall being moved by music than by moving through built space.  It is universal.  Incredibly so.

A few months ago on NPR’s Fresh Air I heard a researcher describe a situation involving a profoundly handicapped young woman.  She had been born with only the most ancient components of a brain enabling only the most basic physiological systems.

There had never been any concern for her experience of life because no one figured there was awareness.  One day, for some reason, someone brought in a music box, wound it up, and pushed go.  It was immediately apparent that there was register as she turned toward the device ever so slowly in a process reminiscent of a slow motion take of a flower turning toward the sun.  There were gasps all around.

Those of us more fortunate can notice differing effects of the differing permutations of particular arrangements of notes or rooms.  Take the exact same sets of either, rearrange them, and voila – something new, but generative of very different emotion.

Like this for example:

  Or this:

*Architect, December 2011

**Jimenez was on the shortlist for the design of a new art museum in a city by the Mississippi.  Here is what he said about the site: “I am struck by the rich potential of the chosen site…challenge will be to address these two compelling forces (urban grid and the river) in a building that bridges and filters one and the other.  The collection, the galleries, light, space, flows, views, landscape, all must merge”.    His aesthetic is similar to the one selected, but method of delivery more sensual.

Pocket of the Groove

April 22, 2011

  Ok.  I’m continuing with my attempt to learn how to play the guitar and enjoy it immensely even though I’ve yet to play anything through without a fat fingered mistake.  It’s amazing how absorbing practice can be.  Just a few notes in, and even the most acute of the day’s existential crises have dissolved.

  Just now trying to find my way through “Scarborough Fair” familiar to me (and you maybe) courtesy of the Simon And Garfunkel cover on their 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.  For me, their rendition was even more important to the 1968 film The Graduate than their “Mrs. Robinson” for the former’s telling of a wonderfully mysterious tale of courtship. 

  It is an old English ballad.  Some say it arose in the time of the plague and that the refrain: “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” refers to an herb bundle used to mask the then pervasive odor of death. 

  Of also Mrs. Robinson perhaps.  It would take something pretty powerful to gain the willing hand of a fair young maiden with the mother of whom the suitor had also slept.  And indeed that collection of herbs held ancient pagan esteem for their power to arouse and attract. 

Love imposes impossible tasks,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,
Though not more than any heart asks,
And I must know she’s a true love of mine.

  The music itself is interesting for this here novice to play around with.  The first two notes are the same, but the first is a half note and the second a quarter note which means that the first is held twice as long as the second. 

  One obviously doesn’t watch a clock so what is interesting is the different emotional impact of even slight variations in duration.  As luck would have it, Paul Simon was quoted in an article about working with just that in this week’s NYT Tuesday Science section:

  “The stopping of sounds and rhythms, it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone?  If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

  “My brain is working that way – it’s dividing up everything.  I really have a certain sense of where the pocket of the groove is, and I know when you have to reinforce it and I know when you want to leave it.”

  Well, his is a sensibility to which one can only aspire.

*Interesting to note that Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate, originally wanted Robert Redford for the role that launched Dustin Hoffman’s career.  Shortly into a screen test with Redford he realized that he needed someone else.  “The Graduate only works if it’s a 21-year-old going on 16, who’s sexually insecure.  Well, Redford is this… classic sexual matinee idol…”  From NPR’s Morning Edition Broadcast 12/9/02

Time Makes You Bolder

March 20, 2011


  Landslide.  Great song. Not least because it doesn’t’ easily give up much to exegesis. When you can learn all there is to know from one take of a work of art – whatever medium – it may be enjoyable, but also either shallow, pandering, or pornographic.

  Music and lyrics must weave fine fabric of course.*  More importantly however, the former must find that resonance rooted in our evolution that signals the presence of emotional and/or existential truth.  Then we find ourselves motivated to search for understanding.

  It is sort of like a shared dream.  The words draw meaning from that mind from which they emanate as well as that upon which they fall.  There’s an overlap, but not a complete one.  Each mind has its own constellation of chemistry, experience, and complexes.

  Ms. Nicks has offered different, even slightly contradictory, sources of inspiration for this song.  For me, this makes it all the more interesting – oracular even.  While you’re working to figure out where it came from in her, you’re trying to figure out why it fits with you.

  “I wrote it for Lindsey – for him about him.  It’s dear to both of us becaue it’s about us.  We’re out there singing about our lives”.  “It’s about a father-daughter relationship”.  “It meant the whole world could tumble around us.”

  As I piece the background together, the pair tasted a moment of success, but were quickly set back to waiting tables and cleaning homes.  Buckingham left Nicks in Aspen for a spell while he took a few gigs with the Everly Brothers.  Left alone to ruminate among the jagged peaks, Nicks conjured up all manner of pitfall and possibility. 

  She left to visit her folks for a bit for second opinion(s).  Dad told her to give it more time and that he and her mother would be there for her whatever fate might befall.  “Cool, I can do that”.  Father then fell ill and underwent successful surgery.

  Then back to Aspen with Buckingham, where they somehow found themselves in a beautiful house with a piano and – voila – out it poured.  “Landslide I wrote on the guitar and it’s another one that I wrote in about five minutes”.  Like how it takes only a few seconds to win the Olympic gold in the 100m dash.  That and a gift, work, and inspiration.

  Mountains can indeed be a place to see something about oneself.  French alpinist Gaston Rebuffat said that they brought “before him a mirror of stone or ice, a mirror which helps us to get to know ourselves…”  Same with relationships.  Love is not always long requited.  Bad shit will happen in both the physical and emotional realms.

  The issue is how one handles what comes.  Will he/she struggle past the mother and father complexes catalyzed in every youth – only after which can really begin the process of individuation?  Or will they first lead to a twelve step program?  Acceptance of the very real possibility for anxiety is preferable to giving up to depression and rage.

  Well, children do indeed get older; I’m getting older too; and amazingly enough it does feel like time is making me bolder.  Be interesting to see what happens next.  

*And well woven such fabric can even cover up mixed or run-on metaphors…

**Covers.  There have been a few.  Dixie Chicks below.  Their three part harmony is wonderful and I love myth and metaphor, but I prefer the video on top.  The one below – not without some beautiful images – is too florid for me. 


I’ll Have What She’s Having…

March 11, 2011


  Normally, I hesitate before expounding upon something I have not yet seen in person.  More to the point, I avoid even thinking about a building in which I have not actually been.  It’s the “Ce N’est Pas Une Pipe” thing.  It’s not a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe.**  So to be clear, what follows is my impression of a building of which I’ve only seen photos and read reviews***.

  It’s Frank Gehry’s first skyscraper – an apartment/mixed use building at 8 Spruce St in NYC.  It is the tallest such building in the city standing some seventy-six stories and holding more than nine hundred apartments, a gym, a swimming pool, and a new public school.  The assemblage of those spaces is reportedly pleasingly functional, but the building’s allure is far greater than their sum. 

  Something immediately tingled inside me when I turned to that page, but it was Gehry’s description of his motivation that brought me full flush:  “I had one of those eureka moments, at three o’clock in the morning, when I thought of Bernini.  Michelangelo is rounder, Bernini is edgier”. Right on.

  I’m in awe of the subtle manner of Michelangelo’s graceful conveyance of form and tension in his sculpture, David for example.  It’s cool and I’ll not forget the experience of it.  But, well, when one thinks of Bernini, how could not the image of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa leap into one’s mind? 

  In a book about art and beauty Umberto Eco wrote of the expression of pain in the visage of that St Teresa.  How could he possibly have had that reaction?  He needs to see an ophthalmologist or shrink maybe.  That woman is in the throes of something grand whether the tumescence was spiritual or otherwise.

  I have been in, on, and around several Gehry projects and enjoyed those experiences.  There’s often an element of exuberance.  But this is different.  Does not that building appear to be on the verge of a shudder? 

  This might be a stretch, even for me, but the east elevation of 8 Spruce St makes me think of Katy Perry:

I might get your heart racing
In my skin tight jeans
Be your Teenage Dream tonight
Let you put your hands on me
In my skin-tight jeans
Be your Teenage Dream tonight…

*If you don’t get this allusion, that’s your problem

**cf post of April 24, 2009

***Photo at top by Richard Barnes in a review by Paul Goldberger in the 3/7/11 New Yorker.  Other photo of the building is from article by Nicolai Ouroussoff in the 3/9/11 NYT

Out of Africa Honeychile

November 19, 2010


  The score of Out of Africa won one of the film’s seven Academy Awards.  Composer John Barry did a masterful job at conveying what biographer Judith Thurman called the melancholy elegiac “clear darkness” of Karen Blixen’s story.

  Director Sydney Pollack originally intended to incorporate a background of East African sounds and tribal rhythms.  What a different film it would have been.  Barry was unconvinced: “Sydney, it’s not about Africa, it takes place in Africa, but it’s seen through two people who are madly in love with each other.  It’s really their story”.

  Though four-fifths of the book is a non-chronological take of the people and places of early twentieth century Africa from the point of view of a European visitor, the film does largely follow the relationship of Ms. Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatten.

  The pair did enjoy each other’s company and shared attitude and sensibility about life as expats in the Kenyan bush.  Finch-Hatten quoted Coleridge: “He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast”*.  Blixen wrote: “Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams”.    

  The big ‘however’ though is that the emotional tone of both the book and film is hauntingly numb.  With third person knowledge this should be no surprise.  Blixen’s father hanged himself when she was quite young.  Her husband was unfaithful from early on and gave her syphilis.  Finch-Hatten refused to marry her even though he was her partner through at least one miscarriage.  Finch-Hatten died an accidental death.  (Only the last of these events is mentioned in Blixen’s book.

  The high point of the film (and perhaps the book) in every sense is when Finch-Hatten takes Blixen aloft in his Gypsy Moth biplane.  She called it “the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm”.  Pollack and Barry collude to engender that feeling in us.  Upon her return to earth, several of Ms. Blixen’s Kikuyu colleagues ask if she’d had a glimpse of God way there high up above the clouds.  Oh how we wish for her that she had.

  Having seen the film several times and had my heartstrings plucked by the score alone, I was amazed – no shocked – to find that, among many other projects, Barry was responsible for the music of James Bond, from Dr. No through The Living Daylights.  Incredible for one person to be able to transmute the affect of both those two extremes.

  Thinking about that I realized that Out of Africa and the Bond series look at stuff of similar essence from the point of view of a woman in the first case and a man in the second.  The similarities between Denys Finch-Hatten and 007 are relatively obvious.  Both shoot first and ask questions later.  If at all.

  It is more interesting to consider just how kindred are the spirits of Ms Blixen and, say, Bond woman #1, Honeychile Rider.  Ms. Rider was born to a colonial family in Jamaica.  She was orphaned at an early age and raped not long thereafter.  She was beautiful, intelligent, and very independent.     

  Ladies Blixen and Rider would have enjoyed each other’s company – to the sorrow of Msrs Finch-Hatten and Bond…

*This would also be Finch-Hatten’s epitaph.

**It would be interesting to see if a technical analysis of the scores of the two films would yield a reflectivity similar to that of their emotional tones.

…All Sounds Are Music

October 8, 2010


  Just after putting up last post I turned on TV and there was the opening of August Rush.  No foolin’.  What adds to the amazement, given this particular turn of events, is that Sting wrote the music and lyrics for “Synchronicity”.  That’s the term coined by Carl Jung which has been defined as a combination of events that do not obey rules of time, space, and/or causality*.

  The film is the incredible story of the first eleven years in the life of the orphaned musical prodigy to whom you just listened.  He was the product of a chance, but seemingly meant to be, encounter between a classical cellist and an Irish rock musician. 

  Here’s a transcription of the opening lines: 

Can you hear it? 
The music. 
I can hear it everywhere. 
In the wind… 
… in the air… 
… in the light. 
It’s all around us. 
All you have to do is open yourself up. 
All you have to do… 
… is listen. 

  Several things interest me about those words.  First of all, they relate truth.  Music is sound and sound is vibration and as Daniel Levitin wrote in his This Is Your Brain On Music:  “… it would be difficult to imagine an advanced species that had no ability whatsoever to sense vibrating objects”.  Earthbound or otherworldly.  The science is quite convincing.

  In humans, music is wired into a brain more tightly than the perception of color.  If a particular note, say an A at 440 Hz, is played into an ear, certain neurons would fire at exactly that frequency.  Electrodes attached to those neurons would send out a 440Hz signal.  Nothing similar happens with vision and color.

  Secondly, the essential concept buried deep in that soliloquy goes way back.  All the way to Pythagoras.  It’s called ‘music of the spheres’ or ‘harmony of the spheres’.  It states that “heavenly bodies, being large bodies in motion must produce music… It is hidden from our ears only because it is always present…”**

  Thirdly, in between came American radical musician/composer John Cage whose work “4’33’’” debuted on August 29, 1952.  It consisted of him sitting before his piano for four and one half minutes without making a sound.  “There is no such thing as silence” he said.  “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement.  During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof”.

  In a recent profile of Cage in the New Yorker*** scholar Kyle Gann calls the “4’33’’” “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.”

  Below you will see the prodigy during his first encounter with a guitar in which he doesn’t exactly play it, but he’s not just sitting there either.   And it certainly is music.

*Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis

**Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

***The New Yorker October 4, 2010

When the West Wind Moves

October 1, 2010


  That’s obviously Sting’s “Field’s of Gold”.  The piece is an incredible combination of emotive music and powerful poetic narrative.  It is said that the notion for the piece came to him as he walked through a barley field near his home not far from Stonehenge.

  Wind moving through that field catalyzed the thought of a young couple making love upon it – “See the west wind move like a lover so upon the fields of barley”.   From there the story of a relationship unfolds, develops, and matures.

  The song came out in 1993 on his “Ten Summoner’s Tales” album and I remember listening to it then.  It became one of two bits of music I set up as goals eight months ago when I began my relationship with a guitar.  I bought an “Easy Pop Melodies” songbook in June and turned to the page, but couldn’t even get started.

  Several days ago, I thought I’d give it a try again.  A few pickup notes and a single measure later I was almost overcome with surprise by having figured it out and with emotion at the power of the sound being made by my clumsy fingers.  I was shocked.  I felt like an apprentice wizard with a magic wand and spell book.

  Perfect timing for several reasons.  First of all is that the mostly corn and bean fields around here are ripening to gold just now and it is beautiful to move among them*.  It is at this turn of seasons – summer to fall – that one’s mind casts back a bit to consider lives lived thus far: 

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the Fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold. 

  Secondly, roommate’s out of town again and dang if that doesn’t heighten the impact of such music and rumination.  We have for the most part been able to “forget the sun in his jealous sky” but, pushing sixty, the pace of reminders has begun to quicken. 

*Of a sudden the opening of August Rush came to mind.  See it if you haven’t.