Saturday, May 30, 2009

Concerto: The Dharma of John Adams

I have followed the work of John Adams since my return from India. At that time, minimalism was all the rage in classical music. I can handle most minimalism, similarly with – say – bluegrass music, only for maybe a half hour. Then I want to go screaming down the street, arms flailing, from the repetition and insane sameness of it all. Philip Glass in particular, though he is critically acclaimed, drives me up the wall and strikes me as enormously overrated.

But things were always different for me with
Adams. The repetitiveness of his minimalist style always had something added. I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

His early works like
Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), Shaker Loops (1983), Short Ride on a Fast Machine (1986) or the Chairman Dances (1987; from his opera Nixon in China) were ornately rhythmic pieces I wanted to listen to again and again. Even now I enjoy listening to them. Common Tones remains a particular favorite of mine. Ironically being the earliest work I own, it is more indicative of Adams’ mature style that the other compositions mentioned.

Fearful Symmetries (1988), Adams reached the height of his minimalist style, producing what is for me the best of all his efforts to that point. From here onward, he began to express a more complex voice. Though the work is still fundamentally minimalist, Adams begins to apply these pristine fundamentals to elements of an emerging, unique personal style. This style was more fully realized in his Violin Concerto (1993), which is an obvious departure from his earlier work, and with Naïve and Sentimental Music (1998), a splendid piece on a symphonic scale, dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen.

On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) was a commission that Adams was reluctant to accept. It was a commemoration of the first anniversary of the tragic September 11, 2001 attacks upon America. Adam’s discusses the problems he had with coming up with an appropriate idea for the tragedy that would not seem overdone, common, or disrespectful. (He begins discussing his composition about 1:30 into the video.)

The result is an innovative use of street sounds, spoken words, children and adult chorus, and an over sized orchestra. The names of victims are strewn throughout the work making a very personal, ethereal experience, interspersed with explosive orchestral episodes. Adams
won the Pulitzer prize for the composition.

Recently, I purchased
The Dharma at Big Sur. This is an amazing work and certainly ranks among the best contemporary classical creations in this first decade of the new century. Essentially a second violin concerto, the piece was composed specifically for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Its world premiere in 2003 was conducted by Salonen. The CD was released in 2006.

There is an excerpt of
an interview with Adams on youtube that expresses some of the difficulties the orchestra had in realizing Adams’ intent. (You can see Salonen struggling to master the work in the video and ultimately bringing it to realization, of course.) The initial rehearsals descended into utter chaos. I was reminded of Richard Wagner’s frustrations with the initial rehearsals for the Overture to Das Rheingold, another piece of music in another time which was meant to be performed in another new theatre – Bayreuth.

The overture begins very simply. Just two chords. A slow build of the orchestra. Adding layers of sound. Just like The Dharma opens. Wagner was enraged that the orchestra just couldn’t get it.

But, it seems with very simple compositions there is no context for the performers. They don’t understand how to play together. That is the conductor’s responsibility. But, in the case of both The Dharma and the Das Rheingold Overture, the composer had to intervene and ultimately express what the music was about, beyond the notes written on the score. Only then did the sound jell, the chaos reside, and beauty emerge.

Adams’ inspiration for The Dharma comes from the writings of
Jack Kerouac.

Unlike the Das Rheingold Overture (or most any other classical composition for that matter) the orchestra is remarkably muted throughout much of the piece with occasional, transitional exceptions. It creates a simple sphere of supportive tones within which an amazing electric violin commands and dances. The Dharma is an American original, very satisfying, upbeat not brooding, at times joyful but not sappy, gentle yet complex and richly fulfilling.

As with Wagner (I’m thinking of Die Meistersinger more than the Ring here), Adams gives us something unlike anything we’ve heard in classical music before. When I first listened to this it was like discovering an old friend anew. A fresh, vibrant John Adams. Memories were recalled of listening to
Mahler or Bartok or Lutoslawski for the first time. So exhilarating.

John Adams, a leader in a particular brand of late 20th century classical music, has transcended the “minimalist” label while producing some brilliant work in the early 21st century, with still many years of composition ahead of him. To have followed him for more than 20 years from his pure minimalist beginnings to his current (more sophisticated) style has been a pleasure and I eagerly await exposure to his more recent compositions. Like the symphony composition from the original operatic material Doctor Atomic and his first String Quartet performed for the first time in January this year to favorable reviews.

Note: Some of the above links to Adams' work are to videos of ballet segments from his operas, and other dance pieces. I don't really get into opera and Adams is no exception.
It is important to note that Adams has a abundance of operatic material.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"So blessed"

We had a typical ‘Dillo friends gathering at our home Saturday and Sunday. A wide range of topics were discussed along with a healthy dose of my own Neil Young mix. The food was a traditional approach this time. I grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for everyone. Great salads and fixin’s were supplied by our friends who came chiefly from Atlanta. There was sweet, juicy watermelon. Jennifer supplied the GMC chocolate cake I drool over so much.

Jennifer was afraid no one would bring champagne, so she requested everyone bring champagne. Everyone obliged. We drank 8 bottles of champagne (with four left over) along with several outstanding bottles of wine, and coolers of iced beer. There was a vodka tasting that began about 12:30 AM Sunday morning.

You get the idea.

At one point in the late evening, the gathering inevitably broke up into these little groups that spontaneously form as conversational partners wandered around, changing with the free form of topics from tick bites, to the national debt, the supreme court, how our various jobs were going, music, books, class reunions, old backpacking trips, and half remembered events from past gatherings. A conversational tossed salad.

I played Salonen's Helix for Ted and he enjoyed it. I listened to him tell me about all the different angles his family geneological research was taking him. Mark and I talked a little baseball. Bryan was still anxious to move forward on the renovation of his house. Richard's business was surviving well enough in the struggling economy. As was Jeffery's mechining business.

I was with Mark sitting in the media chairs in my living room listening to Neil Young play "old black" on several DVDs from 1970, 1979, 1981, 2000 - over 30 years with the same guitar that gives that distinctive crunchy, arcing, grungy and genuine strength of his rock side. There are many sides to Neil though. Part of my mix earlier had included Neil doing jazz, rockabilly, and country, in addition to some fine songs from some albums that are honestly not all that great. But, if you manage to put out a dozen awesome albums out of, say, 40 in your creative lifetime then you’ve accomplished something. He’s not dead yet. There might be another gem in his creative longevity.

Anyway, Mark and I had just heard Neil perform
Cowgirl in the Sand at Red Rocks, Colorado and then turned right around and listened to him perform the same song with Crazy Horse at Fillmore East 30 years earlier. Same guitar, different bands, different approaches to the extended rock song.

When we had finished listening, we were momentarily our own Armadillo micro culture, mutually dazed by the booze and the wonderful guitar performances of Neil. There was a pause. Mark looked at me and very slowly articulated how he had known Jennifer and I for a number of years now (a couple of decades in fact) and that he “felt so blessed” to know not just us but to have all the associations in the room (including some who were not able to make it.)

I smiled and acknowledged my appreciation of where he was coming from. Earlier in the day when I played Helix for Ted our conversation drifted toward the fact that he recently turned 61 while I turned 50. I told him – and later reiterated this to Mark since the occasion warranted it – that I felt really good turning 50. I realized that in some ways the next 40 years of my life might not be as much fun as the last 40 but that didn’t bother me. I take care of myself. I stay mentally and physically active. But one thing was clearly better about turning 50 as opposed to when I turned 20 or 30. Time had revealed to me a more precise perspective by which to appreciate the ordinary moments of each day, and particularly our gatherings, my aesthetic interests, my land, the value of how I chose to live my life and the precious few others who could understand it and to some degree share it with me.

I take nothing for granted anymore. The moment is no longer disposable. No longer do the pregnant possibilities of the future lead me to lightly toss aside the current Now for the coming Now. Each day is a treasure – or should be – and if it isn’t it is my own damn fault. This deeper appreciation of Being, examples of which go back through the moments of this blog and clearly to our trip to Alaska last summer, was something I did not value highly enough at a younger age. Therefore, I had grown in Being and so I could see how we were all “so blessed” to have that party this weekend just the way it was.

Will said this morning that he felt like he had “dodged a bullet”. Everyone managed to keep things between the ditches, as it were. Our kitchen slowly became a hive of activity for brunch, after about 36 cups of coffee to get us all going. There was more champagne (
mimosas mostly), French toast, fresh maple syrup, or fresh strawberry spread, figs, turkey sausage, and Bryan’s signature frittatas made with fresh herbs from our spring garden.

My 1930’s mix served as milieu for the brunch and much of the typically rambling discussion to follow. Several commented how nice the music was. Diane and Bryan and Eileen were just terrific at helping tidy everything up. Afterwards, I listened to Richard and Bryan have a discussion, with others occassionally chiming in, on the centuries long plight of Native Americans. Several of us had read and admired
Guns, Germs, and Steel.

We all made plans for the upcoming trip at
Swan Cabin this July 4. We toured our land on a mostly cloudy day. Light breeze, really nice. Jennifer got to identify all her plants to the inquisitive group. Her gardens are diverse and pretty well thought out and are at one of their peaks this time of year (the other time is October).

By 3:30 everyone had gone. Jennifer went to pick up our daughter. I moved on to chores, pausing long enough to review my birthday gifts. Excellent bottles of champagne (of course), some very thoughtful book selections (with emphasis on baseball and Arctic explorations), a wonderful professional quality print of Neil playing old black circa 1979, Jeffery and Ted came through with a fresh pack of Depends and a can of prunes. Nice thinking guys.

So, yeah, the food, the appreciation of art, the diversity of topics by a well-read group of creative thinkers, the celebration of bountiful food and drink and humor and ideas in the space of my home and my land, the gifts, the laughter, the surprises we still didn’t know about each other…yeah, Mark is so blessed. And so am I. And so are we all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ad libitum: Witold Lutoslawski

I became a fan of classical music in college thanks to my friend Matt. He and I would often spend evenings playing wargames (which he usually won) and listening to his modest classical record collection. Beethoven and Mozart mostly, but he was a big Wagner fan too.

Later on I developed my own tastes and a small collection. After my return from India I began building what has become a classical collection of several hundred CDs. All periods interest me to some extent. I cover everything from Gregorian Chants and lute music of the Renaissance to music by modern composers.

As tradition would have it, I have more Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler than anything else. But, recently I have turned my attention to contemporary classical music, the stuff that is often so difficult for even lovers of classical music to listen to.

Classical music is not something that happened several centuries ago. It is very much alive, with a surprising diversity of compositional styles. About 1 of every 5 CDs in my collection feature compositions since 1950, most since 1980. My collection includes a healthy dose of Elliott Carter (still composing at age 100), Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Gyorgy Ligeti, Henryk Gorecki, and Wolfgang Rihm among many others.

By far my favorite modern composer is Witold Lutoslawski. I am not really acquainted with anyone who is connected with the happenings of contemporary musical arts, so I sort of have to stumble across great modern works on my own.

I discovered Lutoslawski in the late 1980's when Jennifer and I were spending regular weekends visiting friends in Atlanta. I would often work in a trip to a music store and peruse the modern classical music section for anything that looked new and interesting. Once I found a CD with a balding, aged man on the cover entitled Lutoslawski Conducts Lutoslawski. It looked like a recent classical work only about a few years removed from me. So I gave it a try.

The CD contained Lutoslawski's Third Symphony
which made a great impression on me. Its rich, layered and sustained musical textures are often lyrical but also punctuated with moments of aleatorical composition. Lutoslawski did not develop this technique but he used it in his more recent compositions in varying degrees to astonishing effect. The orchestra, under certain controlled cues from the conductor, plays somewhat randomly and spontaneously so that parts of the symphony literally are performed by the players without strict guidance. The effect changed my appreciation for modern composition.

A couple of years later I managed to pick-up Lutoslawski's dazzling Piano Concerto as well as his composition entitled Chain III. It is fairly safe to say the Lutslawski’s Piano Concerto is the standard by which all works following it are measured. It is the greatest such concerto of the last half of the 20th century. You can listen to the entire concerto in four parts on youtube.

These were among the few works I knew during his lifetime. Lutoslawski died in 1994. It was only after that that a wider range of recordings, including his complete orchestral compositions on the Naxos label, were released. I gathered everything I could.

Somewhat distinctive among composers (Mahler also comes to mind), Lutoslawski
was working on musical ideas and theories that could best be realized only in an orchestral setting. So, the great majority of his creations are not chamber works but intended for the abilities unique to orchestral composition.

By now I have listened to Lutoslawski's Third and Fourth Symphonies probably more than any other symphony in my collection. This would include Mozart's 40th, Beethoven's 3rd and 9th, Mahler's 6th and 9th and Shostakovich's 5th and 10th - all of which I consider to be brilliant.

Since the start of spring I have found myself listening to everything Lutoslawski, including some exciting performances conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen has conducted several world premiere recordings of Lutoslawski's music (including his Fourth Symphony) and Salonen’s own work is obviously influenced by Lutoslawski.

It is no longer difficult to become a Lutoslawski aficionado. Unlike composers such as Carter and Rihm who have seemingly countless compositions to collect (Rihm is so prolific that many of his 400+ compositions have never been performed), Lutoslawski's entire output consists of little more than 50 - 60 compositions, including incidental music and songs. I own perhaps 45 or so of them. He was painstakingly exact with his compositions, often taking years to complete a piece of music.

Again, I have no musical training, so I have to grasp at words to try to convey what it is about any musical work that I find captivating. With Lutoslawski, I find that the concept of "musical space" is best.

Imagine a large orchestral hall. It is empty, designed to be filled with music in various ways. Handel's "Messiah" or Beethoven's 9th Symphony can fill it with what are considered more traditional musical works involving a choir in addition to an orchestra. The notes and chords are familiar to us. Easy on the ear.

But these musical compositions focus more on the harmonies and lyricism of the classical form. That is, they fill the space but call no attention to the space itself. By contrast, for example, the final movement of Mahler's 9th encapsulates the space with string instruments performing long, sustained notes that define the space more specifically. A vast, loving space. You can feel an openness in listening to this part of that work.

Other composer's have used this same approach (Carter and Rihm come to mind but they are fractured and spiky, not lyrical) but none as effectively, in my opinion, as Lutoslawski. There are passages in the Third Symphony or in Chain II that are punctuated with bold, ad libitim, aleatorical moments
where large portions of the orchestra are simply playing notes or chords of the composer’s choosing but at the player's discretion.

These moments often end abruptly, falling into a soft, supportive sustained use of just a few strings or woodwinds. The immense boldness succumbs to a soft, gentle, drift of melody. You get the feeling, as with Mahler, that you are suddenly in this immense, relaxed space of music, lovingly nurtured as the listener. These are magnificent experiences that are quite distinctive. And they point specifically to the space within the music. Silence and ambiance are as critical here as any other compositional element.

You can listen to an example of his compositional style for orchestra on in a two part youtube video here.
This example predates the more mature style of his Third Symphony and the Piano Concerto, however.

These moments are combined with the usual modern classical elements of atonality, dissonance, chord complexity that gives the music its edge or bite. But with Lutoslawski the bite is always innovatively ensconced in textured layers of lyricism and melody that are captivating yet not in any way “romantic.” It is, rather, fully of this artistic time, perhaps more akin to “space music” than anything else.

Lutoslawski is uniquely ambient. He composes large sections of complex music where sections are played boldly and often spontaneously. But, these do not dominate his greater works. They are punctuations for extended periods of sophisticated yet relaxed sound. Few notes, most extended, few instruments, each moving in and out of harmony and melody, generally not in sync but in layers distinctive to Lutoslawski’s mature style.

All of this makes Lutoslawski a gardener of sound spaces. Richly complex stratum of assorted types of musical textures
– varying from loud, utter chaos to string sections sounding like a swam of bees to lovely isolated oboes and flutes floating in gentle Khachaturian-like beds of sustained harmony. All of these are cultivars of his craftsmanship.

Lutoslawski experimented with a “chain” method of composition that is worthy of note. It was presented over the course of 1983-1986 in Chain I, Chain II, and Chain III. According to a program note by the Chicago Symphony:

“In the mid-1980s, after the success of the Third Symphony, Lutosławski wrote three independent works he called Chain, after the overlapping forms of their design. (The first, for chamber ensemble, dates from 1983; both the second, for violin and orchestra, which is performed at these concerts, and the third, for large orchestra, were premiered in 1986.) ‘Over the last few years I have been working on a new type of musical form,’ the composer explained, which consists of two structurally independent strands. Sections within each strand begin and end at different times. This is the premise on which the term “Chain” was selected.

“Chain 2, for solo violin and orchestra, has four movements, alternately ad libitum and a battuta (with the beat)—that is, switching back and forth between the free and the strictly conducted kinds of music that define the mature Lutosławski style. In the ad libitum sections, the conductor presides over the written ‘improvisations’ of the various instruments without dictating the way they unfold: ‘Any coordination is undesirable,’ Lutosławski writes in the score. The last movement is itself a microcosm of the whole, beginning and ending a battuta, but with a short, ‘elastic’ ad libitum section in the middle."
The entire note is here.

Click here to watch Lutoslawski himself conduct Chain I in a youtube video.

I am fortunate that I knew of and appreciated Lutoslawski during the last six years of his life, though his wider body of luminous work only came to me in the years following his passing. Today, my appreciation for him has grown. He was a musical genius, and a primary influence on new music by both Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, among many other young composers.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lost: Locke just isn’t himself these days…

Note: This is a follow-up to my post of January 20. It was written after I had a chance to re-watch last Wednesday's Season Five finale to Lost. It is filled with spoilers about the previous five seasons.

A man eats fish on the beach, observing a sailing merchant ship as it approaches 2-3 miles off shore. He is dressed in a white hand-made shirt, pants and sandals. The time is a couple of hundred years ago. Another man, dressed in dark hand-made shirt walks up.

Man Two: Mind if I join you?
Man One: Please. Want some fish?
Two: Thank you. I just ate.
One: I take it you’re here because of the ship.
Two: I am. How did they find the island?
One: You’ll have to ask them when they get here.
Two: I don’t have to ask. You brought them here. You’re trying to prove me wrong aren’t you?
One: You *are* wrong.
Two: Am I? They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.
One: It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.
(Pause. Waves crash on the beach.)
Two: Do you have any idea how badly I want to kill you?
One: Yes.
Two: One of these days sooner or later I’m going to find a loophole my friend.
One: Well when you do I’ll be right here.
Two: Always nice talking to you Jacob.
One: Nice talking to you too.

This scene takes place under Jacob’s home – the base of a gigantic statue of the Egyptian goddess Taweret.

So begins the finale of the fifth season of Lost. In typical Lost fashion, we have never met either of these characters before. We know in a vague sense who Jacob is, but we nothing at all about the other character. (Or do we?)

Lost has a knack for shifting gears on the audience. The series started out in 2004 as an incredible story of survival by a dozen or so major characters from the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 on an uncharted island.

But then the survival story becomes an adventure in subsequent seasons. There are other people living on this island. In fact, two hostile groups of people have been living on this island. Their past is slowly revealed and it becomes increasingly intertwined with our survivors. Then yet another group (mercenaries this time) comes to the island to take it over. So, the character of Ben makes the whole thing vanish before our eyes.

Several of our major characters get rescued and return home. Meanwhile, the island goes skipping through Time (repeat – skipping through Time) with terrible effects on those left behind.

Through the seasons, there are plenty of shocks, surprises, and action-adventure to keep the story lively but the core to it all is not any of that. It lies in the characters themselves. No television series has ever given its audience more character depth than Lost. These characters are connected in ways they themselves aren’t aware but the audience knows. Then again, they are connected in surprising ways that the audience discovers at the same time as the characters. The writing is often brilliant and solidly based on fleshed out, characters that feel very genuine to the viewer.

Yet, there is this other, underlying level to the show. The metaphysics of Lost. This aspect of the series has been only hinted at now and then throughout the previous four seasons. As Season Five ended it is brought front and center, though it is still nebulous and even the most ardent viewers do not understand it. (Though everyone really wants to debate their personal theories about it all.) I have a feeling that Season Six, the final season of Lost, will focus on this underlying metaphysical theme that has been hinted at all along. So the show will morph yet again into something that it wasn’t.

I have no solid idea what this metaphysical aspect might be, although my guess is that it probably has something to do with quantum physics and the quest for power. And with John Locke. Or rather the “non-Jacob” character somehow reborn as John Locke.

Locke began the season dead and ended the season both alive and dead. Whoever has been John Locke the last portion of this season – the John Locke who is alive back on the island after having escaped the island only to be murdered off the island by Ben – is something greater than Locke. Locke returns to the island in a second passenger plane crash (this time a crash landing). He returns in a casket along with those who escaped the island (though they are not dead but flying first class). Only after the landing Locke is suddenly up and walking around, eating mangos, watching the surf and seemingly on a mission only he knows. Eventually, Locke has Ben stab Jacob to death – apparently. But before Jacob is murdered he looks at Locke and says: “I see you found your loophole,” obviously referring back to the episode’s opening scene.

So, Locke isn’t Locke but probably this non-Jacob dude. This kinda sucks for me because Locke is my favorite character. Hey, but there’s no whining in Lost. You have to roll with this stuff if you want to be a true Lostie.

It is also worth mentioning that Terry O’Quinn (who portrays Locke) and Michael Emerson (who portrays Ben) are absolutely jaw-dropping dynamite in scenes together. These two accomplished actors are worthy on their own but together they create a chemistry that is the height of the traditionally crude and shallow television art.

There is a deep mythology to Lost that I do not understand. We know the historical “reasons” why Flight 815 crashed but we do not know the metaphysical reasons of why these people who survived the crash are so important. Each of them obviously is, however. Jacob visited many of them in the past. Sometimes as children. Sometimes as adults. Each encounter was mundane. The characters wouldn’t remember him. It was apparently important for Jacob to physically touch each of them (shake hands, exchange an item, etc.). The viewers just don’t know why.

Ultimately, you have to accept the fact that Lost is not only a series of great adventure and tremendously dense character back stories; it is making a statement of some kind about Time and the nature of human action in life. We have no idea at this point what that statement is, however. In fact, when the series started it wasn’t about this statement at all. But, it has nevertheless always built to this point. Hopefully the final season will fill in some of the details.

Although there is always a risk when you start revealing the nature of mysteries. Several shows (the X-Files comes to mind) have butchered themselves trying to explain their mysterious nature.

Nevertheless, Lost has given us bits and pieces to tantalize the very active and thinking 9 million U.S. viewers this show possesses (even when it is directly up against that behemoth of a TV show – American Idol). You don’t casually watch Lost. You either watch it, re-watch it, discuss it, analyze it, think about the character depth, the mysteries of the island, but you sure as hell don’t just watch it now and then just because you’re bored. If you don’t watch it every week and repeat the viewing before the next episode then you truly are “lost”. That’s the cultish nature of this incredible television series.

Season Five did not disappoint. It was filled with the metaphysics of time travel and the deep human anguish of survivor’s remorse. Half of the many major characters were skipping through Time, the other half were miserable (with the notable exception of Desmond and Penny) after being rescued. Inevitably they returned – although in doing so they became scattered in Time themselves. Some in 1977. Some in 2007.

Hey, deal with it.

Lost is great for its suspense, its complexity, its quirkiness, its clever writing, its not giving a shit whether anyone can even follow it anymore (We'll go up against American Idol without making any sense to even our most rabid fans because we are soooooooo cerebrally hot!). I love the feisty attitude of the show. Most of all, I love these characters. They are fleshy and deep and complicated and real. Once more, they are unique in television history in the fact that we know so much about them. Lost is more like a novel than a TV show in this respect. And, in the end, regardless of what mysteries are and are not solved...the characters are what carried this show into an out of the ordinary classic.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Overture: Salonen

I’ve been listening to more classical music lately while reading less. I’m hardly reading anything at all at the moment except for some Nietzsche and the content on various internet sites. My interest has been almost entirely devoted to contemporary classical music, the stuff even most classical lovers find tough to listen to sometimes.

Early in the twenty-first century one of the great works of classical music is definitely Helix for Orchestra by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I recently bought a lot of contemporary classical music CDs and my Helix recording is one of the newest - just produced last year. The work itself comes from 2005 which is practically yesterday in terms of the evolution of classical music. Salonen builds Helix meticulously, his use of the string section in rhythmic, almost-Wagnerian, style is bold and often commanding, and their climax in the work makes it a brilliant short orchestral piece.

A youtube video of a performance of Helix is here. But, of course, you really have to listen to it with better quality sound to fully appreciate it. The video does this piece no justice except for making it possible for me to show you what I’m talking about. These instruments make distinctly lovely, if often loud, sounds that you need to appreciate in subtlety to fully enjoy the piece. I recommend this new CD from Deutsche-Gramophone.

Helix is a rush of adrenalin. It is fresh and triumphant and whips itself into a frenzy for the audience, ending with a flare. Since getting the new CD, I’ve listened to Helix probably a dozen times already. I find it that captivating and since it runs at just under 9 minutes, repeat hearings are easy to work into both my work and leisure schedule.

To have fresh, innovative classical music being composed in our time is a wonderful part of my aesthetic life. It is exciting to experience art in the present tense. Classical music is not something that only belongs to the distant past. It is alive and vibrant and there are many paths from which an appreciative listener may choose. Salonen, who is both a noted conductor as well as composer, represents one of the best.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sweet Intoxication

Privet near our road.

The privet just started blooming in the last ten days or so. It brings with it a rich, sweet smell that permeates the air outside my home. Whereas our wisteria a few weeks ago created clouds of subtle sweetness, privet boldly fills the entire sky of smell.

Jennifer doesn’t enjoy privet because it is so sweet. Mixed with robust honeysuckle and many other flowering things, the air becomes a blended alcohol of strongly scented opulence.

Supposedly, smell is the strongest memory and perhaps the last thing to go even though there are some who hope that hearing goes last. Who knows? The aroma of mid-May carries me back to a morning in the mid-90’s.

Honeysuckle, young sassafras, kinda misty. Late-afternoon, very humid, swarming with mosquitoes...already.

I had just arrived home in the false dawn, my daughter had just been born. We had privet at our back door then. The door most everyone uses to enter our house. I left the windows open and the house was filled with the scent of privet. I laid down on the sofa, fell off to sleep. I woke an hour or so later. The sun was coming up now. Morning light. I made coffee.

Jennifer’s parents, whom I had called just before and just after my daughter was born, arrived from a two-hour drive. They had been up most of the night too, since my reports to them on the birth of their only non-adopted grandchild. We shared some coffee and chatted about how well Jennifer was doing and about the rather rapid progressions through the various stages on her labor.

Spirea in bloom.

At one point Jennifer was wanting to push while lying in the back of our Subaru. She felt my daughter coming. I was speeding down I-75 to the hospital. She felt euphoria in between the contractions. We both breathed rapidly and she did not push. Until we got her to the hospital about 25 minutes later.

They were skeptical of exactly what to do with us until they verified if Jennifer was sufficiently dilated. They didn’t value the fact we were both certified in the Bradley Method. When our mid-wife checked she felt the top of my daughter’s head.

She was in my arms 45 minutes later.

I looked at her. It was extraordinary. Much later, about 4 a.m., I think I drove down to the house to check on a few things and meet Jennifer’s parents coming up. We somehow managed to coordinate all this without cell phones. And so I laid down. I breathed in the pervasive privet. I napped.

Life was sweet, life was plentiful. There was a lot of life. Nothing but splendid life.

See the bee?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

India: In the Cave at Arunachala


Another trip away from Shantivanam took me to the sacred mountain of Arunachala. I went there because I had gradually learned that Abhishiktanada had been a student of Sri Ramana Maharshi and I had come to read some transcripts of speeches Maharshi had given in the 1930's. Maharshi is renown in India as a holy man of the advaitic tradition - something that profoundly interested me at the time. This was my journal entry of that trip...

At Ramanashram in Tiruvanamalai followers go around the advaitic teacher’s grave chanting. They sit before photos of him and meditate. They speak of his “presence” at the ashram. I wonder if it must have been similar with the followers of Jesus just after his death. Sri Ramana Maharshi has been dead for about 30 years. In the early Christian Church, the oral tradition was just beginning to be written down at this point. Much directness with the actual Jesus had been lost by this time. I imagine it is the same with Maharshi. Though many people remember him, I wonder if their interpretations are accurate.

The mountain of Arunchala looms above the ashram. Here hermits live in various caves throughout the rocky cliffs. There are patches of wind-swept grass along the path up the mountain. You see many workers harvesting the grass crop as you ascend. They will usually beg westerners for money, suddenly assuming pitiful expressions and stances where a moment before they were vigorously working.

The mountain is dotted with a few large mango trees. Near one of them sits a cave where Maharshi lived and meditated for seventeen years of his life. Today the space is inhabited by an ascetic hermit known as Maniswami. He has lived there for ten years. In that time he has never been off the mountain, has visited neither the ashram or the city below.


Maniswami in the cave.

Maniswami is in his sixties. Thin with dark, rough skin, he has piercing shining dark brown eyes which share a face that is eternally smiling.

I meditate in the cave for an hour or so. The actual opening is sheltered by a room which has been constructed on the side of the mountain. It stands about 10 x 15 in size with a small sleeping space, a shelf with a dozen or so books, and a small kitchen area. The cave itself is not much larger. It contains an altar to the god Shiva built out of cement blocks. There is a raised area around the altar which allows for sitting. The whole situation is somehow more to the point of Maharshi’s teachings than the activities of the ashram below.

Afterwards, we talk. Maniswami tells me in his broken English about the two times he met Maharshi. Nothing spectacular, just that he was in awe of the man who he now tries to emulate. He often says “Shiva” softly, confidently to himself as we speak. It is a habit to help him remain focused, he tells me.

“Moon will soon be coming,” he tells me in his strange phrasing. He gestures with his open hands toward the cave. This is his way of inviting me to spend the night with him. I cannot refuse. I go back to the ashram to gather my few belongings.

Upon my return we enjoy a meal together. It is simple. Sweet apple bread, fresh warm milk with medicine root, and bananas. The sun is going down but Maniswami’s eyes still radiate. He chants a chapter from the Bhagavad Gita in the native Sanskrit. It is like a song, rhyming and beautiful. Later, we go back into the cave for sleep. The incense that perpetually burns relaxes me. But the sound of bus horns from the city below echo about the cave walls. I wonder if such would have affected Maharshi during his seventeen years in this space.

I awake before sunrise. The bus horns are gone. I feel strength in the dark silence from the rhythms of Maniswami’s breathing. I meditate until the false dawn begins to bring faint light into the cave’s opening.

The temple at Tiruvanamalai was visible from the cave entrance. Notice the pilgrims at the bottom of the photo making their way up the mountain path to the cave.

Outside the air is very cool. I watch the morning mist blow up the side of Arunachala. It is like a waterfall flowing backwards. The sun rises over the city. Bus horns begin again. Maniswami and I enjoy some hot tea with fresh ginger. I meditate again. Other westerners begin to visit for the day. I leave a 10 rupee donation on the altar and return to the ashram. There is nothing here like the holiness of the mountain. Everyone seems to be living in the past. Worshipping a dead man rather than following his insights. I sit for a long time near Maharshi’s shrine and watch wild monkeys play in an open garden.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

India: The Temple at Madurai

Two towers of the temple at Madurai.

This was my journal entry for a short trip I took away from Shantivanam...

Madurai is a large pilgrimage center near the southernmost tip of India. Thousands flock there every year to worship at the great temple located in the middle of the city. I spent the last three days there, traveling with an American friend who, like me, has been at the ashram for several months. It took us six hours to get there on the dusty back country roads in a crowded bus.

Bus travel is a challenge in this country. The roads are usually rough. The drivers always cram as many passengers into the bus as possible. People sit in the isle. They ride for hours that way, always moving at an excessive speed. Apparently, they consider high-pitched, squeaky female voices to be sensuous. That is what they always play on the bus’s audio system. Also, I assume since the audio idea is relatively new to them, they tend to approach it with an adolescent frame of mind. They play the music at a volume level that actually causes distortion in the small speakers. This is rather irritating to any westerner listening to it.

I was glad to arrive at Madurai. Though the same type music is played by loudspeakers throughout the streets of the city, at least it wasn’t played into my ears from directly overhead. There are not as many cars in Madurai as in other, equally large, Indian cities. The southern tip just doesn’t seem to be as developed as
Madras or Bombay. Still, people crowd the streets, hurrying here and there, rickshaws are abundant.

The temple was the major reason for going there. It featured three large towers, several smaller ones, and a network of other structures. There were mythical Hindu carvings over the entire area, giving it a surrealist, magical quality. I was allowed to tour the interior of the temple with my camera one afternoon. They have magnificent mandalas painted on the ceiling in once bright colors, now fading with the exposure of time. I suppose the entire area was painted at one point, but it is not longer practical to do that.

A hallway with mandalas painted in the ceiling. There are hundreds of such paintings.

One mandala.

The temple is over 1000 years old. It looks strange when you first come upon it, towers reaching higher than any of the more modern buildings surrounding it. Its architecture is alien to all that is around it, representing the tide of change that is rampant in the country.

Close-up of one of the towers. Each tower has many hundreds of carvings.

In the evening, hundreds of worshippers meet in the lower levels of the temple to chant and throw Ghee at the statues. I was caught up in one crowd as it approached the goddess Kali. I moved with them, unable to escape their momentum which irresistibly carried to the stone figure. All their faces were focused upon it, their minds intent with there chanting.

Later, walking through the other areas of the lower level I saw vast markets, tourist traps basically, filled with religious merchandise that pilgrims could purchase. Beads and portraits and incense and icons of all manner were being bought in great profusion. I thought of Jesus in the Jewish temples many centuries before this one was ever constructed.

Outside the temple, walking through the streets of another place and time, I was approached several times by pushers wanting to sell me opium, marijuana, and other drugs.

Note: It is obvious from more recent photos that the temple has been thoroughly upgraded and painted since I was there. Great to see.

Monday, May 4, 2009

India: Pyres by the River

I went to India to stay at the Christian-Hindu ashram of Father Bede Griffiths originally founded by Ahbishiktananda. I kept a journal while I was there. I typed most of the journal into a now lost Wordstar document. But I have a printout. This was one entry…

My first night at Shantivanam there was a pyre down by the Kaveri River. An old woman from a nearby village had died. They carried her on a brightly decorated rack down to the river bank. A pit was dug there beside a forest of planted Eucalyptus trees. A breeze was always blowing in from the wide river late in the afternoons.

Her body was wrapped in white cloth, placed into a shallow pit on top of some wood, and covered in a concoction of mostly mud and the dung from cattle. It slid over the body, drying quickly to form a kind of shell. Then the wood was set ablaze.

All the while a Brahmin chanted. The woman’s oldest son had his head shaved. As the smoke started to thicken people held out parts of their garments to catch the river’s breeze. The bright reds and oranges and yellows looked festive as they flapped like flags. The smoke carried back through the ashram where occasionally you would catch a faint scent of burning flesh.

I’ve seen several pyres since then. Each morning after a burning some representative of the family returns to the shallow pit to search for remains. If the bones are not all thoroughly reduced to ashes it is considered a bad omen. Pineapple, milk, and bananas are left behind as an offering to the expired soul.

One night, after all family members had departed and the body was left alone, I cautiously walked up to it. I stood right beside the head, now covered completely and flaming in its makeshift oven. Hearing a human body burn quietly, removed from all the world and even the light of day, touched me.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

India: Distant Rising Suns

Sunrise on the Kaveri River in January 1986.

A couple of weeks ago I finally got around to watching Slumdog Millionaire, the Best Picture for 2008. It was better than expected though not anything I really want to own. I thought the screenplay was the strongest part of the film.

Anyway, as so often with karma, it just so happened I was going through some old photographs a few days before I watched Slumdog. Among them were family pictures from my college graduation, some old trips to Daytona Beach, and a bunch of photos from when I traveled to India in 1985. There were a lot of little things in Slumdog that brough back memories. I spent about 2 weeks in and around Bombay during my visit almost 25 years ago.

The photos are all fading with time so I decided to scan them in for future preservation.

I spent almost six months in India in 1985-86, mostly staying in at the Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu studying yoga. But I traveled around a bit too, mostly in southern India. A future trip was to visit the north and go into the Himalayas in Nepal. But, that hasn’t happened so far.

Anyway, here are a few pics that I feel are among the best of the batch. These were all developed in India. The quality of the prints was never that great. Many of the photos are yellowing a bit.

The pic up top is of a German acquaintance at the time whose name I have long forgotten. He would practice yoga in the pre-morning breeze along the Kaveri River where the ashram was situated. I often saw him there after I had already completed my own yoga training with Swami Mariabhakta. I came there to meditate in the sunrise, as did the German. One morning I brought my camera and didn’t meditate while he did.

Swami Mariabhakta and myself. I studied yoga with him for about 4 months.

One of my favorite pics. A man riding an elephant through an Indian town. A car attempts to get around the elephant while overhead the banner reads "Learn Computer Programming." India is a great study in contrasting eras.

Jennifer thinks this shot looks like a painting. Taken one afternoon as the Kaveri River was very low. A farmer lets his ox cool off in the water. He is splashing some on the animal's back. This could have been taken 1000 years ago.

A woman selling apples on the side of a town street. I like the composition of this shot. It is a mundane scene, which is what makes it so special.

After I watched Slumdog, I dug into my hoard of file folders on various things to find some notes and brief essays I wrote just before, during, and after my trip to India – ranging from 1985 to 1989. Reading over them I was surprised to learn how much my basic “metaphysics” or “beliefs” remain unchanged from what I wrote then – especially after my return from India in the late 1980’s. I’ll share some of the impressions I wrote during my stay in India in the next couple of posts.