Monday, March 29, 2010

It All Makes Perfect Sense

It was sunny this past Saturday, the humidity was low, not a cloud in the sky. I did my usual grocery shopping after a morning with extra coffee, a slower pace, some reading and listening to music. After groceries I got in a run. It was breezy but comfortable out. When I got back I had lunch, vacuumed the entire upstairs, and then got out my chainsaws to clear some trees that had fallen in our walking paths since last fall.

I planned to mow after that but, in between, I opened up the windows, let the early spring breeze run through the house and drank a couple of beers while sitting in the sunshine on my front porch. Jennifer joined me for awhile. She was busy weeding and mulching. I have been listening to Roger Waters outside of my classical explorations recently. I decided to crank up Amused to Death and blast it out into the brilliant bird-filled afternoon.

This is the way life ricochets sometimes. Jennifer had gone on a camping trip with some of our friends to Cumberland Island in February. She came back very relaxed and satisfied with having spent time back in that magical place. But, she surprised me with a request for our copy of Dark Side of the Moon (see my March 11 post about this record). That had been a musical selection by one of our friends on the island. So, after she loaded it onto her iTunes, I gave it a listen as well. This translated in my seemingly random mental ways into a desire to listen to Roger Waters’ post-Floydian work.

Amused to Death (1992) is Waters’ best solo effort and his only record that truly compares favorably with the post-Waters Pink Floyd albums, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) and The Division Bell (1994). The comparison must be made on artistic grounds alone, however. Pink Floyd ’87 far outsold anything Waters attempted to create. David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright sold 10 times as many albums as Waters did solo. Waters’ genius for ideas and lyrics is not commercially popular of its own accord.

Pink Floyd ’87, however, while never attaining the height of the original band in 1970’s, sold millions of studio and live records. They played to stadiums filled with adoring fans while Waters went on the road to much smaller venues, often not filling them to capacity. Waters put out some interesting concept albums while Pink Floyd continued to be a mega-money machine. The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) was an appealing idea, but came off a bit tedious for me except for a song or two. Radio KAOS (1987) was more listenable but, frankly, not that fascinating. Waters’ career was struggling but he seemed to catch his stride again with Amused to Death, only he never toured with that material.

Years later, in 2000, Waters came out with his In the Flesh Tour which was captured on an excellent DVD. Here he gave a very good acquittal of his artistic talent and live showmanship. Pink Floyd ’87 had faded by then, with 1995’s Pulse being their final effort. In the Flesh compares favorably with Pulse in my opinion. Waters serves up a nice mix of old Pink Floyd standards, including the ancient Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and a wonderful full 17-minute rendition of Dogs (a personal favorite of mine) from 1977’s Animals album, along with a nice set of his solo material heavily featuring Amused to Death, which the sold-out crowd of 10,000 or so seemed to highly appreciate.

I recently watched the DVD again. It captures a lengthy and impressive two and a half hour performance. For Jennifer, I played back just the segment of the live performance featuring several of the better moments from Amused to Death...Perfect Sense Parts 1 & 2, The Bravery of Being out of Range, It's A Miracle, and the title track. But for missing David Gilmour’s vocal abilities and guitar work this could be a Pink Floyd concert.

In turn, this led to me listening again to all of Waters’ solo work (including his opera) recently along with the two Pink Floyd studio albums that came after Waters quit the band. Amused to Death (ATD) holds my interest unlike any of the other albums mentioned. “The Germans kill the Jews and the Jews kill the Arabs and the Arabs kill the hostages and that is the news. Is it any wonder that the monkey’s confused?” Where else are you going to hear a line like that as a lyric? “Why do I have to keeping reading these technical manuals?” is another line that stands out, very melodically presented by a great female back-up singer (see the link above for Perfect Sense Parts 1 & 2). Overall, the album’s lyrics have that great sense of melody that Waters sometimes strayed from in the past but with a certain added depth and breadth when compared with anything Pink Floyd could come up with without Waters.

Whereas Momentary Lapse of Reason (MLoR) is highly listenable musically, the songs really don’t stitch together that well thematically and the lyrics are just mediocre. They aren’t really intended to be heavily conceptual. Meanwhile, Waters work on Pros and Cons and Radio KAOS is highly conceptual and very entertaining from that perspective. But, even I don’t enjoy Pros and Cons that much beyond its rational appeal. Listening to Waters scream brilliant lyrics into the mic for about 20 minutes out of 43 just doesn’t work for me anymore. The Wall was enough of that and I enjoyed it. Then, the last Waters-led Pink Floyd release, The Final Cut, went too far.

Waters needed Gilmour’s musical sense and smooth vocals to make his relevant, puncturing musical clusters listenable. On the other hand, Pink Floyd '87 missed the bite and poetry of Waters. The absence of one in the other clearly demonstrated that in the post-Waters era Pink Floyd was only an imitation of its former self while Waters suffered from too acute a case of “notion sickness” to be popular. Which could be one reason MLoR takes on the title it does. A subtle jab by the band looking at what seemed to be the effects of the Waters dictatorship.

As for the 1994’s The Division Bell (TDB), Pink Floyd returned to the studio with material that was better than MLoR. Tunes like Coming Back to Life , Keep Talking, and High Hopes offer a glimpse of Pink Floyd in their heyday. Once again, the album is easier on the ears than any Waters solo effort. It is the best post-Waters Pink Floyd effort. The material is actually better when featured on the live album follow-up Pulse. Still, very little of it resonates in my mind the way almost all of ATD does.

ATD is hauntingly intimate, soulfully adhesive, and challenging. TDB is easy to get in to with some truly wonderful moments but it fails to linger. I find myself wondering what ATD would have been like as a Pink Floyd record. It sold about a million copies worldwide in 1992. But, a typical Pink Floyd ‘87 effort would sell many millions more...and led to inevitable “live” album follow-ups which generated much more revenue. Nothing in either MLoR or TDB, however, compares with ATD in terms of its content and relevance. But nothing in ATD compares with the melodic easy and outright rocking nature of the Pink Floyd ‘87 releases. Such a shame.

Musical history is filled with egos that clashed in the creative process. Great artists reach a point where they must ask themselves (because the are truly great) “Why should I settle for less than what I envision?” For Roger Waters and David Gilmour – both artists with egos the size of their considerable, though diverse, creative prowess – the answer to that question was incompatible. Neither could ultimately find their vision in the work of the other.

Perhaps that is a good thing. MLoR and TDB are entertaining works that would not have been created had Waters still been running the show. ATD is a powerful record on its own that probably would not have been fully realized without Waters’ dogmatic control of everything about it. For Roger Waters it is his high moment of solo near-perfection. All three albums are satisfying and entertaining though for completely different reasons.

But on Saturday afternoon with my stereo blasting the music out into the sun and sky and early blooms of a spring all made Perfect Sense.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"A big f**king deal"

President Obama has won a major political battle (we'll see later who wins the war). He has succeeded where Bill Clinton failed back in 1993. The victory means we will have the largest expansion of social services in the US since 1965, essentially the biggest so far in my lifetime.

As VP Joe Biden so eloquently put it:
"This is a big f**king deal."

As a result, some 32 million Americans (the number was over 40 million during the 2008 election hype) will be joining the ranks of the medically insured. Many, if not most, of these are health insurance companies dreams - young adults who were healthy enough to freely opt not to have insurance. Now they will be forced to pay and that pool of new money, along with $940 billion in federal fiat dollars,
will likely make heathcare more profitable in the short-term.

Here's a nifty timeline of what should unfold over the next several years of reform.

The passage of the health reform bill is all about making sure more people get involved in basically the same chaotic healthcare provider we've always had. More people participating in essentially the same thing. That is called "reform."
Most healthcare stocks were up on the news of the bill's passage. Wonder why?

And, as I have posted before,
what about the costs of all this expansion in health coverage? Where does this bill address the cost of a trip to the emergency room or routine exams like mammograms and colonoscopies? It is difficult to find where this bill will affect the fundamentals that drive the cost of healthcare. And if we don't drive the costs down, isn't the taxpayer eventually going to have to pay for the higher costs?

Proponents argue there are plenty of cost controls in the legislation. I suppose this is possible. There are certainly complex arguments on both sides of the issue. But, taming the hungry monster just as we put more money in the mix doesn't strike me as an easy - or even realistic - task. The truth is the bill itself never addresses the sources that drive up health costs in this country.

As readers know by now, I have always been more concerned with the costs of this welfare-state expansion than with the matter of the uninsured. The vast majority of Americans are not excluded from our heathcare system. Certainly, our physicians are inefficient, the pharmaceutical companies and attorneys and insurance costs and the health habits of the American people (just to cite some primary factors) have combined to form
a chaotic system that is bankrupting the country anyway. But, saddling the American taxpayer with more of the burden without a clearly defined approach to the cost of physician visits, tests, and routine procedures seems risky business.

Nothing in this bill tames the beast. Costs are of secondary concern. Even today there is very little about costs in the news.
What little there is seems mostly regionalized. There are a few stories here and there. Unfortunately, much of the concern comes in the form of neocon political rhetoric instead of solid fiscal debate.

Most of the news is about
how the bill will affect business, or how it will be implemented, or how it will impact charities, or how it wasn't a bi-partisan effort (like Medicaid and Medicare were), or even if it is constitutional. All this energy is wasted, in my opinion, because the reform is here and now we must pay for it...forever.

Now, that is a huge freakin' deal. Probably more than anyone realizes.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Goin' to Nationals!

For Father's Day last year, my daughter's gift to me was several artistic photos she had taken (see June 21, 2009 post). Later, she entered the one above ("A friend in the pool") into the local PTA Reflections art contest. She also entered the "babyface" pencil sketch featured in my November 17, 2009 post. Well, both of those pieces won their respective art competitions at the county level. Today we moved on to the State level competition held at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

She took Second Place in the "visual arts" category with the smiling baby rendering. With the pic above, however, she took First Place in the "photography" category for all high schooler's in the State and this photo now moves on to National level competition. Woohoo! My daughter's work accounted for two pieces of art out of almost 300 scattered through various categories considered at the State level. These 300 were culled from over 29,000 entires statewide. Only 24 students will represent Georgia in the National competition. Needless to say, my daughter is very pleased. She received a nice plaque, a classy blue ribbon, and a modest cash award. So, look out world, here she comes! Jennifer and I are so happy for her. You go girl!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Great Thirds

Proof of purchase. Two recordings of Mahler's weighty Great Third. One in the upper left is Benjamin Zander conducting (with accompanying lecture CD, 2004). Next there is the great Bernard Haitink with the Berlin Philharmonic (1990). To its right is a young Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Beethoven's "Eroica" in spirited fashion (1988). Beneath that is the recording of Henryk Gorecki's Third (1992) that was so commercially popular. To its left is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (1985) in a solid, emotional performance of the Schumann symphony. Finally there is Lutoslawski conducting himself with the Berlin Philharmonic (1986). I have very few composers in my collection conducting themselves, which makes the Lutoslawski CD a special, well-worn recording.

The greatest Third symphony belongs to someone we haven't mentioned so far, which might be rather surprising considering he is probably the greatest composer of all time. Ludwig von Beethoven's first two symphonies are certainly not mediocre works. But, they don't compare strongly with the other symphonies I have thus far mentioned.

This all changes with Beethoven’s Third. Although today it sounds to us as a typically classic composition, at the time most patrons of the arts thought it was an overblown, laborious piece that lasted far too long. Most symphonies ranged from 20 - 30 minutes at the time of its composition (1805). Beethoven's Third is a good 45 minutes in length.

But, there is not a weak or wasted moment in this magnificent four movement piece of art. It is truly one of the greatest symphonies ever composed. Though each movement is strong, my favorite passage is the second movement. It is, overall, an inspiring composition.

Beethoven originally conceived of the work as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte for the Frenchman's leanings toward individual freedom and democracy at the close of the French revolution. But, when Bonaparte crowned himself King of France, Beethoven disgustedly changed the dedication of his Great Third to one of the composer's patrons and stuck the label "Eroica" on it.

Needless to say, no one finds the work too cumbersome today. Its length is expected and the strength of each moment is satisfying and distinctive, making it seem as if it doesn’t last as long as it does. With Beethoven’s Third we are witnessing the birth of Romantic music from the more strictly Classical style of say, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn (Beethoven personally knew them both). The symphony is rich with emotional elements in addition to the technical expertise required to play it. Beethoven also uses the entire orchestra with equal respect. No one section dominates the piece. To that extent, it is probably the most balanced symphony we have mentioned thus far.

Despite the fact that Beethoven's Third is one of the greatest symphonies ever written, Mahler manages a fairly close runner-up to it with his massive Great Third. If audiences in Beethoven's day thought his Third ran too long to be enjoyable, they would have gone screaming from the performance hall 100 years later when presented with Mahler's Third, which – weighing in at about 100 minutes - is the longest symphony in what is considered the "classical repertoire."

Mahler’s Third is composed in a non-traditional six movements, two of which by themselves are longer than most other symphonies. It employs a larger than usual orchestra. As with his Second, many of the instruments are meant to be performed offstage to provide a sense of space and distance. Mahler’s Third also marks an interesting contrast with his first two brilliant symphonies in that the string section is largely secondary to the horns and winds, which dominate throughout.

Unlike Beethoven’s Third, Mahler’s was well-received by the late-Romantic audiences of his day. Besides his Second, this symphony was the only other one Mahler composed that was popular during his lifetime. In addition to the larger orchestra, the symphony calls for a children’s choir in addition to a regular full chorus. This is truly composition on a huge scale.

For me, the work is not as satisfying as his first two symphonies. The individual components are all expertly conceived but they don’t fit together quite as well as the other symphonies we are mentioning here. The highlight of the symphony lies in its third movement as far as I’m concerned. And despite its slightly weak overall cohesiveness, it remains a pleasure to experience, especially in individual components. More often than not, I don’t listen to the entire thing. I don’t have 100 minutes and when I play Mahler I listen. I don’t do other things. 30 minutes here, 17 minutes there, the children’s choir movement at Christmas. That is my actual experience of Mahler’s Third.

Robert Schumann’s Third (subtitled “Rhenish”) is one of the highest examples of a classic-Romantic symphony available. It is a pleasure to listen to, its length is around 35 minutes, and the orchestration is balanced. It is an upbeat piece that came along in 1850. Much of the symphony is based on folk tunes and it takes on a folk-like character as a whole. There are several emotional moments in the symphony. It was very popular in its day and is certainly one of the compositions that make Schumann one of classical music’s great creative forces. The symphony consists of five movements. My favorite part is the symphony’s great fanfare-type opening movement. The other movements are lyrical and highly accessible. The finale reprises the wonderful themes of the powerful opening, transforming them into a triumphant conclusion. A fabulous piece of music.

My other two choices for Great Thirds are a bit more controversial but they are honest ones from a personal perspective. Both are the most recent symphonic works I have mentioned thus far and they happen to both be by Polish composers. The first I’ll discuss is Henryk Gorecki’s Third, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, composed in 1976. As the title indicates this work is in contrast to the uplifting Thirds of Beethoven and Schumann. But, strangely for me at least, I find this work very uplifting, if more bleak. My friend Jean (who has a good bit of piano training and skill) dislikes the piece. I can see why. The symphony is a musical Nazi death camps memory. The orchestration heavily favors the string sections, with a detectable but subdued contribution by other orchestral elements.

The orchestra itself merely serves for creating a musical mood and space for a female soprano part. Often the symphony seems to take on an ethereal quality that I find relaxing and virtually hypnotic due to its slow, repetitive simplicity. It is a three movement work, with the second movement being my personal favorite. All three movements are marked Lento with some additional, separating notation. Gorecki’s Third has the distinction of being one of the best-selling classical music recordings of all time and clearly resonates with many listeners despite its distinctively modern compositional style. It simply strikes a universal, emotional chord, and is an outstanding listening experience.

Finally, there is Witold Lutoslawski’s Third, which – as I have posted before – is the one symphony I have listened to the most over the last two decades of my life. I do not really have sufficient musical knowledge to express exactly how this symphony is composed. It is, by far, the most contemporary sounding work that we have considered to date. Completed over a ten year period in 1983, I can only describe Lutoslawski’s Third as a soundscape of layers and textures of music, dramatically presented in a rather complex, emotional, melodic style. Although the symphony is composed in three “movements” it is seamlessly performed as one continuous piece.

There are periods in the 31-minute work where the performers are instructed to improvise within a specific pace of time. The conductor leads the orchestra as in any other classical composition but this control is lessened at specific intervals so the performers can play freely around a specific chord or chords. Then, just as the orchestra was released into this ad lib type performance, the conductor brings the players back into a controlled structure. This makes the piece spontaneous in many respects and virtually guarantees it will never be performed exactly the same way twice. My favorite passage is when the string section is whipped into a spontaneous frenzy that sounds to me like a hive of bees. The other passage I enjoy is near the end when spaces of silence are placed, controlled, between full, powerful orchestral notes. Lutoslawski’s Third is magical and powerful throughout and ends with an optimistic flair that is punctuated by the same four separated notes hit in time by the entire orchestra with which the symphony begins. Unfortunately there is no recording of this symphony available on youtube or other such places on the web.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Being Bullish

Last March the markets were crashing. There was a mild panic. No one knew how low it could go because it had already sank further than most predicted.

What a difference a year makes.

Today we had a
Dow Theory Confirmation. The Dow closed at a new high for the rally and above the 10,725 level, above the 50% Principle. Plus the Transports also closed at a new high for this most recent rally. First "commandment" of Dow Theory is that there is no clearer indication of future market trends than when the Dow and the Transports both close at new highs (or new lows) on the same day. This is a strongly positive signal.

The consensus is that the promise of
continued low interest rates fueled the rally today. This part of a continuing strategy by the Federal Reserve to promote historic levels of liquidity as a means of fighting off recession. Investor money is now coming back into the markets with more confidence.

So, is the Great Recession now over? Well, there are still
issues with employment and the federal debt. There is legitimate concern (in my opinion) about the long-term policy of the Fed. But, for the near-term consumer spending somehow remains strong even as the consumer paradoxically pays down their debt.

Despite the Confirmation, however, it is difficult to see how consumer spending is going to continue to hold up when there are no new jobs being created. The interesting thing in this situation is that, under ordinary circumstances, this much liquidity in a radically low interest-rate environment would produce at least a moderate level of inflation. That has not been the case. Because it hasn't been the case we are in some kind of strange limbo between deflation and inflation.

Deflation is a killer because of the high levels of public debt. In a deflationary world, the cost of most things goes down but the level of debt stays the same. Therefore, the debt feels larger in relation to everything else. On the other hand, in an inflationary world - with no job growth - the stress on cash flow can become overwhelming. In either case, stocks are subject to bearish retractions. Gold, however, is a more stable investment either way.

Overall, this appears to be the strongest economic trend since I started this blog. I could be second-guessing my sell-off of stocks back in December. But, I still put my faith in gold more so than in stocks. Clearly, however, the market is outperforming gold in recent weeks. Will that continue? No one knows but, according to Dow Theory, the near-term picture looks bright.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reinventing the Sacred...not really

As you know, I am an avid reader. Reading is my television to the extent that I spend hours every week doing it. I generally read several books simultaneously. For example, I am currently reading Anthony Beevor’s D-Day, a wonderful listener’s guide to Mahler’s symphonies, there’s always some Nietzsche stuff on my reading table. For bedtime I’ve been re-reading a chapter or two most evenings of Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant novel War and Peace.

And I just finished a 290-page book called Reinventing the Sacred.

Now, I am currently near page 400 of the 1450 page Tolstoy novel and I’ve only been reading it mostly at bedtime since mid-January. But, Reinventing the Sacred took me over four months to finish. Funny how often the length of a book has little to do with how long it takes me to read it.

Reinventing the Sacred by
Stuart A. Kauffman is one example of many works available today that attempt to somehow reconcile the apparent polarizing worldviews of science and religion.

As science goes, it is not my strongest subject. Astronomy is the closest thing I have to a scientific passion. I also have a more than passing interest in evolutionary biology and the neurological aspects of cognitive science. But, when it comes to the presentation of facts about various chemical or biological happenings, or the workings of quantum physics and theories associated with this soup of facts, my mind dramatically slows down. I just don’t “get” a lot of it. I have to reread passages, let the book sit awhile as I ponder, or simply give-up on a solid comprehension and push on.

Here’s an example of Kauffman’s style as he attempts to summarize the book’s thesis: “If the biosphere and the global economy are examples of self-consistently co-constructing wholes, and at the same time, parts of these processes are not sufficiently described by natural law, we confront something amazing. Without sufficient law, without central direction, the biosphere literally constructs itself and evolves, using sunlight and other sources of free energy, and remains a coherent whole even as it diversifies, and even as extinction events occur.” (page 6)

Kauffman argues forcefully and scientifically that Creativity is a source of wonder and the central “god” to everything. He denies the existence of a supernatural god, a god of eternal life or damnation. He says human reality can be sufficiently explained scientifically without need of a god-concept to conveniently and naively deal with matters we don’t comprehend. The workings of Creativity throughout human experience and, indeed, the universe as a whole, are wondrous and more than justify the spiritual side of our humanity and can be the answer to our spiritual needs.

Kauffman also argues with equal passion that science itself shouldn’t get too uppity. Biology cannot be reduced to physics. Reductionism, so common in the sciences today, is damaging to true science and to the nature of science within human experience. Life very possibly may have originated from non-life but that process ultimately is a non-reducible, fundamentally Creative holism.

Along the way he proposes several models of theoretical mechanics that are most often difficult for me to fully grasp. The mathematics of string theory as it relates to our concept of “mind”. The Universe is open-ended, pregnant with possibilities, rendering it “
nonergodic.” And this one, which is quite profound after you finally realize what Kauffman is writing about : “…via decoherence, the quantum coherent state has consequences for the physical classical world.” (page 225, the emphasis is Kauffman's)

I was most interested in the reasoning Kauffman puts forth in offering Creativity as a model for the sacred that many different religious and non-religious perspectives might be able to grasp and appreciate. It reminds me of some of the work of Hungarian psychologist
Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who's book on Creativity - and partcularly his book and concept of "flow" - has influenced my thinking.

The book was enjoyable to the extent that I always am interested in attempts at ‘unifying theory’ or worldviews that attempt to be more inclusive rather than closed and self-righteous. The latter expression of human truth is found, perhaps, most commonly in various fundamentalist mentalities regardless of their actual religious origins. Of course, I learned some things as well.

But, about two-thirds of the way through the book I started to get the feeling that, try as he might, Kauffman was failing where so many other scientists have before. The simple fact is you cannot rationalize the idea of the spiritual because the spiritual has very little to do with rationality. That is science’s biggest challenge with respect to a dialog with religion.

The scientific method itself is just another belief system; it deserves no more (or less) elevated status than the chanting of some ascetic sitting in a cave in India. Looking for a sense of the sacred in factual science doesn’t really broaden our experience of the sacred because that experience springs from the non-rational aspects of our humanity.

The sacred is a part of human experience that pre-dates rationality. Sacredness even pre-dates human emotional experience. The sacred comes from our pre-conscious, more instinctual selves where there are basic drives beyond thought or love or fear. As such, the sacred is shut-off (or at least distanced) from the rational mind. It is this very fact that makes the polarization of religion and science a natural, rather inevitable, consequence of being human. Individuals such as Kauffman (and myself to a great extent) may attempt to find elements of the sacred in our factual world, but we should never confuse our apparent need to resolve such contradiction in our Being with our ability to actually bring about such resolution.

We are forced to live with such a schism. It is, in fact, who we are. Spiritual Beings with basically the same nervous systems we have had for the last 10,000 years or so, trapped in an accelerating postmodern reality of functional technique. The only way to live genuinely in both worlds is, in fact, to accept their fundamental incompatibility.

This sounds rather bold, but it is supported (in my opinion) by another personally influential work entitled Synaptic Self published in 2002. “Our brain has not evolved to the point where the new systems that make complex thinking possible can easily control the old systems that gave rise to our base needs and motives, and emotional reactions….we have imperfect conscious access to emotional systems…” (page 323) That book was also a slow read for me at the time.

My personal belief is that most of this is driven biochemically and instinctively (“base needs and motives”) within each human being. Emotions themselves are probably no more insightful than the proclamations of rational fundamentalism. The sacred arises within us from a place we cannot (or can only imperfectly) consciously go.

Still, I applaud Kauffman for his effort. Creativity seems to me to be as good a place as any to attempt to rationalize the spiritual. The fact that he fails to do so is not as important to Being as the intimate bravery in attempting to understand things and stitch them together, however inadequately. The effort is worth more than the failure.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"I've been mad for f**king years..."

Dark Side of the Moon is one of the greatest artistic and commercial successes in rock music history. Although it reached the number one position on the Billboard charts for only one week way back in 1973, Pink Floyd's Dark Side surpasses every other musical record in history for its longevity. It spent a total of 741 consecutive weeks (over 14 years) on the Billboard Top 200 before fading.

But even that was temporary. For reasons unknown to me, 12 weeks ago Dark Side returned to the Billboard 200 and ranks #172 as of this post. Needless to say this is a rather astonishing occurrence.

Wired Magazine proclaimed yesterday that Dark Side is the greatest concept album of all time. It is also currently ranked a very strong #21 on Billboard's "Catalog Albums" Chart, where it has now been listed for 949 weeks - or more than 18 years. So, if you add the two charts together, the album has measured in Billboard's rankings one way or another for over 1,700 weeks...most of my lifetime.

One is left to obviously ponder why Dark Side resonates within the musical world when virtually everything else from its time has been largely forgotten.

According to Roger Waters, who wrote all the lyrics for the record, "Dark Side of the Moon was an expression of political, philosophical, humanitarian empathy that was desperate to get out." Well that certainly sounds poetic, if a tad self-serving, but it probably is close to the mark. The album's examination of the pace of modern life, sanity, and mortality is certainly as relevant today as ever. We see what Dark Side is about all around us still.

But, of course, few people really buy it for its deeper meanings. That is not what popularity is usually all about. The music itself, which was written by all four band members at the time to go with Roger's lyrics, is outstanding. Dark Side is a collective musical space that sounds as fresh today as anything out there. The album rocks you with tunes like the hit Money. But, it also allows you to relax and your mind to wander through brilliant musical compositions like Us and Them and The Great Gig in the Sky, the latter composed by the late-Floydian keyboardist Richard Wright.

More than that, however, Pink Floyd nailed it as far as making all the music fit together seamlessly. The album has no pauses between tunes. It uses recorded voices and a wide variety of advanced (for its time) studio effects to stitch the songs together. But, the songs all sound like they are meant for each other as well. It is a collection of musical pieces where one flows into the other and, before you realize it, the entire album has passed while you've been listening.

Perhaps what I find most amazing about the album is that it effects me a variety of ways and always seems to fit whatever mood I am in. If I am reflective, then Dark Side gives me plenty of philosophical tidbits to chew on. If I am brain-dead, the album allows me to relax and simply drift along. If I am sad the album shows me reason for hope and optimism without any sentimentality.

I think there is something to all this. Something unique to this particular album. Its quality of presentation, its innovation, its sense of lyricism and melody, its depth of meaning are all juxtaposed in such a way as to speak to all kinds of rock fans in all kinds of ways for more than 35 years.

Can't say that about many artistic endeavors. Can you?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Feast 2010

The forever to be remembered as way beyond decadent chocolate peppermint mousse stacks with the accompanying wine. The flute contains cheap Korbel Brut which is a surprisingly great value in champagne if you ask me. Note the added touch of the overturned giant sized plastic Cool Whip container on the right. Just the right balance, Dillos riding the karmic party wave in Dillostyle.

The annual Dillo gathering know as ‘first feast” was delayed this year due to the reclamation effort and remodeling of Mark and Eileen’s home, which received significant flood damage during last year’s torrential downpour in the Atlanta area (see September 21, 2009 post).

Better late than ever is a constant Dillo mantra though and the evening did not disappoint. Jennifer and I arrived mid-afternoon to enjoy some pre-dining champagne with our hosts and take in a brief tour of the renovations. The house looks great with most of the wood floor throughout having been replaced, a gorgeous new dining room table, and a completely upgraded bathroom complete with heated large tiled floor. Never saw one of those before but it evenly distributes the heat throughout the comparatively small space. The fixtures and trim work are exquisite.

Afterwards, we enjoyed some casual conversation and opened a second bottle of champagne. Over the passing of this time, Clint, Ted and Jeffery arrived. We watched the last half of a college basketball game and munched on hors d'œuvres. Eileen had created this magnificent pate from scratch, some incredible deviled eggs, to compliment a host of different cheeses, dates, grapes, crackers and toasted breads. In true Dillo fashion it was already a feast and most everyone hadn’t even shown up with their stuff yet.

In the midst of this, after Mark’s alma mater lost to a rival in basketball, we managed to pop in the Gustavo Dudamel DVD. Eileen was the one who told Jennifer about Dudamel last year, who in turn bought me the CD for Christmas, which caused me to purchase the DVD. So, there was a connection here. Also, Jennifer and I had dined with Mark and E (as she is affectionately known) last month at a great local restaurant. At that time E opined that there was a real lack of good recent classical music being composed. I had mentioned the John Adams’ piece that opens this DVD as an example of something great and recent.

I played the last movement for the group and everyone seemed to enjoy the way City Noir ends, even though we managed to blow out a couple of Mark’s stereo speakers from having it cranked up a notch (or more) too much. Then, as more people arrived, the Mahler First played in the background. I have never considered Mahler to be decent background music. But, most that seems out-of-place is perfectly acceptable at a Dillo gathering. As the evening wore on the music became very diverse – another Dillo gathering tradition.

Sometime amidst the Mahler, Deanna arrived followed by Erin, with the guy who renovated Mark/E’s bath and his wife. The gathering gradually transformed into a full-blown party as dinner was being finalized by various people doing various things, E leading the charge, Mark being the perfect host. Will, as usual, brought up the rearguard, about 2 hours after he said he’d be there. He brought excellent port to drink and Jennifer was most pleased by this development.

Much of the discussion naturally centered around the whole essence of Dillo-ness, a recent trip by several of our group (including Jennifer) to Cumberland Island. Dillo is short for our self-proclaimed cult: the Cumberland Island Armadillos. But, what that’s all about will have to wait a future post. Suffice it to say that it is the ground-swell of many friendships over many trips over many years.

Long-story short, everyone who went agreed it was awesome, wondered why they had waited about 9 years to go back, especially since it used to be such a central feature of who we were together as friends. Well, it still is, I guess. More of a slumbering, underlying current at this time in our lives. Of course, there plenty of pics and stories to be shared.

The first course was scheduled for 8 pm. But, also in Dillo-fashion, it was closer to 9 pm. A garlic soup started things off, which turned out to be a perfect transitional piece from the heavy hors d'œuvres to the bountiful main course – a brilliant poached tenderloin. The beef was complimented with this incredible “cloud” of mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, brown rice, collars and turnips, and a great vegetable medley thing Will created. There were far too many different kinds of wines going around the table for me to recall.

Diane and Brian arrived last, having a conflicting engagement. She made the desserts. Dark chocolate bunt cake with lush blackberries was served along with chocolate peppermint mousse stacks and a special sparkling dessert wine. For me by this time, strong coffee was in order. I was driving home after all. All that sugar and caffeine put me in hyper-alert mode.

Ted made CDs of a bunch of older Dillo pics he had recently digitized from various slides and prints in his collection. There was a folder on each CD for each “original” member of our backpacking group. Most of the pics went back 15 or 20 years and featured Cumberland Island and other camping excursions. Despite the fact that he had a folder of pics of himself, for some reason that made perfect sense to he and I at the but now I can’t recall he told me he had “transcended folderhood.” It seems like a cool insight at the time.

My personal conversations in the orgy of ideas, humor, and general blabbering were diverse as usual. I spoke with Deanna about what it was like for her to teach a bunch of seventh graders science all day. Clint and I worked in a Proust conversation (he is now reading the novel a second time) and also about the recent 180 he did in the middle of a busy Atlanta expressway, having been tipped by someone in his blind spot. No one was injured fortunately and there was only minor damage to his vehicle. Ted and Mark and I discussed scanning slides. Erin and I talked about this (apparently) cool niche store called Anthropologie, Erin had on some really hot boots from there. Diane and I talked about great restaurants that are no longer open in Atlanta. Jeffery told me his machine shop business is picking up noticeably. It is all usually random like that.

Afterwards, Coldplay was on the stereo, we ventured out into the cold, clear night for “a breath of air” returning to the warm quasi-new abode for more port or some micro-brew. I had switched completely to water by this time. People gradually started filing out the time being past midnight. Jennifer and I (with Charlie on a rare roadtrip behaving pretty fine) drove back that night - this morning in fact. It takes about an hour and the drive was easy, not much traffic at 1 am.

First Feast was a tad late this year. But, it seems we’re all the better for it anyway.

This is a pic on the CD Ted gave us last night. It is me in the guest bedroom of his house in January 1991 after a terrific New Year's Eve party at his place. It was the first time Ted met Clint as I recall. Jennifer says it was the first time she and I met Mark as well. I drank way too much scotch however. It was the last time I got sick as a result of partying. Which is more than I can say for my wife. I am laying face down under a blue sleeping bag that is open like a blanket, the late morning (it was noon when I finally got up I think) sun shining brightly.