Sunday, December 28, 2014

Loose Ends 2014

Late in 2014 my iPad Flipboard app was updated. Flipboard bought Zite, much to my dismay, earlier this year.  Zite is still a useful, somewhat intelligent, search and filtering engine for online content to your specifications.  But, it is a slowly dying app as well.  Now, Flipboard has incorporated some of Zite's vast topic catagorization capability and can filter online content for you quickly.  As a result of this I stopped emailing articles to my email account, as I used to do, and instead "flip" content into my several Flipboard magazines.

You can read my magazines without the Flipboard app but they are formatted for that app so the page might look funky. My magazines are...

Notice Magazine

Notice: Space
Notice: Climate Change
Notice: The Police State
Sex and Intimacy

The last is by far the most popular.  I have the most followers there and over 6,800 page flips, so a lot of viewers to that particular topic.  Sex.  Go figure.

Then there is a catch-all magazine for my wide ranging interests...

Loose Ends

Loose Ends has no followers.  It has few viewers and only 600 page flips with a lot more (wildly varied) content.  But sometimes people will flip articles out of Loose Ends into their Flipboard experience.

I have often written Loose Ends posts for this blog. Here are examples from 2011, 2012, and 2013.  I just use Flipboard these days to keep track of all this, the online content I sift through day by day on my iPad.  Once you figure it out, it is a very efficient information storage system.  So, here are some of the larger themes dancing in my head in this moment at the end of 2014...

When she was 14 the Taliban tried to kill her.  Now, at 17, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize.  See her inspiring acceptance speech here.

More human beings died from Ebola in 2014 than in all previous years combined since its discovery in 1976.  Time Magazine's Person of the Year award went to the people collectively fighting this disease.  

Apes continue to exhibit remarkable reasoning powers and emotional depth.  Two recent stories stand out.  One involves a Chimpanzee who has mastered sign language and adopted an young orphaned chimp after her own two babies died. What the chimp communicated to her keeper reveals a high level of personal awareness.  The Chimpanzee taught her adopted child to sign with their human keepers in only eight days.  The other story involves one smaller monkey attempting to save the life of another after it had been rendered unconscious.  Though the chimp's efforts were haphazard, the other chimp was revived.  In related news, an orangutang was granted "basic rights as a person" in Australia.  Human being is a special thing but it is more closely related to apes than most people care to admit.

As I have written before, human language is a key to understanding human experience.  Any spiritual or philosophical path that does not adequately address the importance of language in this regard is lacking in its scope. It was revealed this year that humans who are bilingual have more efficient brains, a direct impact of language upon neurology. Other modes of human expression, such as meditation, often boast of a positive influence on the brain, yet hardly anyone recognizes language itself as such an influence. Further evidence of the importance of language on human experience is revealed in the fact that people who speak multiple languages more often than not express different personalities depending upon which language they speak. Human beings express and experience life differently within language itself.

Yoga remains an important part of my life. Recently, I came across articles relating to how yoga can improve your sex life and, somewhat more cautionary, how sex abuse is a dark side of yoga.  It seems the spiritual tool can be used many different ways depending upon the person involved.  So while yoga potentially frees a practitioner from some of the effects of karma, the discipline itself has a karmic force of its own where human sexuality is concerned, and in other ways as well.

The central dialectic between body and mind is something I continue to observe.  The debate continues between those who elevate the human mind to encompass all reality and those who feel the brain and body (rather than mind) deserves primary place in our experience of reality.  The full power of the human brain is only dawning on us. For example, for the first time ever a man was able to control two prosthetic arms with his brain this year.   Similarly, scientists have developed a technique to potentially teach human beings to experience synaesthesia, a rare condition where humans mix-up sensual experiences such as hearing colors and tasting words.  Now wouldn't that be extraordinary?  To widely teach and completely different way of sensing reality.

But, so what?  I'm not sure mimicking abnormal sensory intelligence leads us anywhere of significance.  Part of the problem is that the issue tends to be greatly oversimplified by advocates on both sides.  This article, for example, argues that abstract art demonstrates that perception is reality. No it isn't.  Human perception affects human appreciation of reality.  But that, in turn, has no effect on reality per se.  To think our perceptive powers actually shape the vastness of reality is just a form of arrogance.  I will blog more about this subject in 2015.

Fun fact:  The drunkest day of 2014 in America was the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day.  Why did alcohol universally develop throughout the earth when there was little or no cultural interaction on the planet?  It seems to have happened about 10 million years ago over the question of what to do with rotting fruit.  Maybe alcohol is the surest proof of human evolution.

On a more practical level, the U.S. Economy kicked ass in 2014.  The year was enormously bullish for stocks and for employment.  At present it seems that the Fed expertly handled of the Great Recession.  2014 was the best year for jobs in the US since 1999.  The Dow closed above 18,000 for the first time in history.  There were many Dow Theory confirmations during the year and it looks like the markets will continue higher into 2015.  

Unfortunately, I missed most of this move and am mostly in cash awaiting a correction that is apparently going to occur later rather than sooner. Calls for a correction were wrong all year. The historic drop in oil prices in 2014 presents a new investment opportunity, which Jennifer and I are discussing.  It is worth noting that some of those most heavily invested in stocks are now selling.  No one knows what happens next.

But debt is still huge and the Fed "called time" on almost $6 trillion of debt generated for emerging markets, which now make up half the global economy.  This threatens these markets.  How will we manage this massive liquidity of cash and bonds?  While it is true that lower unemployment has brightened the outlook of the American consumer, it is equally true that the average net worth of typical families was over $135,000 in 2007 but is about $82,000 today.  The aftershock of the Great Recession is still very much with us. Nevertheless, the U.S. Economy grew at an outstanding 5% rate in the third quarter...with no inflation in sight?  Most people are still dissatisfied with economic performance.

Collectively, the world is experiencing its worst refuge crisis since 1945.  The United States has spent $1.6 trillion on wars since September 11, 2001.  NATO promises to be more responsive to recent acts of aggression by Russia.  There are conflicts spread all across the globe as we enter into 2015. And yet, as this excellent article in Slate Magazine reveals, we have never lived in more peaceful times.  The number of combat deaths and the victimization of children are at historic lows, while the number of nations moving toward democracy are at an all-time high.  We know a lot more about the world today thanks to the Internet and more varied and vigorous reporting, but the fact is the world is not falling apart and that is a hopeful sign.

Art continues to be a guiding light of my life.  Here are the "breakthrough artists" of 2014 according to The Museum of Modern Art.  Here is a list of the European artists whose art sold at the highest prices in 2014.  Here is the best "viral art" of the year.  New York City's best graffiti art of the year. The best snow scenes ever painted.  Here is one take on the best modern paintings of the last 100 years.

Some of the best photos of the year can be seen here.

Flipzines that I follow by other flipboarding folks out there in cyberspace include these relating to Art...

Red Lipstick (a Tumblr feed)

The Aesthetic
Love of Art

A 75-year study of male Harvard graduates concluded this year than boys who are most loved, particularly by their mothers, are significantly more successful financially and emotionally in life than boys whose mothers do not physically show them as much love.  An interesting fact, but did they really need all that time and money to prove this?  There is some value in instinctual (as opposed to academic) knowledge.  We all knew this (or suspected it) already.

NASA satellites have changed the way we look at the Earth. The International Space Station continues to provide amazing imagery of the Earth. Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope continues to impress as it gazes beyond our Solar System. Here are the best images of the Earth from space in 2014 according to Wired Magazine.  Among the many magnificent images I saw this year was this one of sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas on the surface of Titan.

This past winter solstice was the longest night in human history.  In fact, every night seems to be the longest going forward as the rotation of the Earth microscopically slows down.

Check out my magazines if you want to keep up with some weird and widely-varied items of interest.  

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Wall: 35 Years Later

Some animation from the film Pink Floyd The Wall. 1982.
So ya
Thought ya
Might like to go to the show.
To feel the warm thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow.
Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you wanna find out what's behind these cold eyes
You'll just have to claw your way through this disguise.

In September 1977, as I was beginning my college journey, the members of Pink Floyd discovered to their chagrin that they had lost the majority of the vast wealth they had accumulated off their recent highly successful albums and subsequent live tours.  They had hired a financial affairs firm that horribly mismanaged their money in all sorts of bad venture capital investments.  Eventually the firm went broke.  With only a fraction of their previous fortunes still intact Pink Floyd needed to do something.  Something big.  The only band mate with any big ideas at the time was Roger Waters.

"The scale of Waters' vision was larger than any of his band mates might have imagined.  'He came round my place in Chelsea, and played me the demos,' says Gerald Scarfe.  'It was all very rough, but he told me The Wall was going to be a record, a show, and a movie.  He obviously had the whole thing mapped out in his head." (Blake, page 261

I remember living in a college dorm during winter quarter in 1980.  My roommate and I crammed into a room a few doors down on our hall.  It was heavily decorated with rock and roll paraphernalia.  The two guys that lived there were having a small party in their room.  They were passing around a bong made out of a Heineken bottle.  I thought that was really cool.  Everybody was laughing and drinking beer and joking but on their stereo was a brand new Pink Floyd album that had just come out a few weeks earlier.  Just in time of the Christmas shopping season. 

One roommate got into this discussion with someone about the album, which I could not listen to distinctly but nevertheless kept thinking this is good music, really good.  What was the album about?  And I recall some sort of phrasing that involved the words "all this psychological shit, this guy puts this wall up between him and society...or some shit like that."  

I had not read much on the album and, indeed, did not become a serious Pink Floyd fan until after I bought my own copy of The Wall a few days later.  Up until then they were just a cool band that created Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon.  Rock news was not as accessible then as it is today.  If you did not read Rolling Stone or Billboard regularly, which I did not, then you were largely out of the loop. 

The rest of that winter and into the spring quarter my roommate and I listened to The Wall.  We played "Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two)", "Young Lust", "Hey You", "Vera", "Good-bye Blue Sky", "Run Like Hell", and "Comfortably Numb" dozens of times.  Sometimes just laying in the floor staring at the ceiling.  Sometimes with girls over and partying.  Girls were crazy about the album too. The album was a college status symbol.  If you owned and played it a lot you were totally cool to hang out with.  Music is like that at different times for almost every college student. 

Now let's jump forward in time.  Last year a friend of mine had heart surgery.  For whatever reason as he left the hospital he was singing out random lines from "In The Flesh".  It was humorous but I wondered why that tune was stuck in his head after all these years.  That is a trivial example of a much larger karmic force.  The Wall is one of the great rock and roll albums of all time and its resonance and relevance remains strong today. 

Back in 1990, when the Berlin Wall came down, Waters was soon thereafter in that storied German city for a historic performance that is really pretty good (see the whole show here).  It is not Pink Floyd but it is Waters at his theatrical best.  The final stage appearance of Waters, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason occurred when Gilmour agreed to perform "Comfortably Numb" for Waters in 2011 as part of the latest (and possibly last) The Wall tour. That extended tour has now ended and it became the third highest grossing rock tour of all time.

There are many reasons why this album remains significant and people keep paying all that money to see it performed many years after its release.  One is that it is a spectacular theater piece.  It is a true "show" as much as any Broadway caliber performance.  Another reason is that the music is superb.  As with my college days, this record gets played over and over again and stands up to repeat hearings, filtering into the subconscious of the listener to pop out now and then as with my friend following his heart surgery. 

The thematic material itself is a powerful draw.  The Wall is a metaphor of many things and each listener can apply their own meaning to the concept of the album.  It is about alienation, withdrawal, the challenges of living in the modern world, the pressures of society, drug abuse, sanity, memories of childhood, the search for love and meaning.  Really, The Wall is about many fundamental human experiences in modern life and how they can possibly find resolution.  If you have not personally felt or been exposed to some of its strong angst then you probably at least have a good friend or two who has.  

Everyone into rock music can relate to the messages of the The Wall as they perceive them. According to Phil Rose, The Wall was conceived in the mind of Waters during the years when Pink Floyd first toured before massive stadium audiences of 60-80,000 people.  Waters felt increasing frustration at the distance created between the band, the music, and these large numbers of fans who seemed beyond the reach of the music.  For that reason The Wall tour was performed entirely in smaller venues of 15-20,000 people.

Waters himself became so enraged at the behavior of some of the fans during the 1977 Animals tour that he actually spat at the audience during a performance.  He felt badly about this afterwards and pondered where this anger came from within himself.  Part of his answer was articulated in The Wall.  Waters realized what he had personally become in the act of touring and that, in turn, becomes the journey of Pink, the main character, in The Wall, which ultimate results in the tearing down of the wall that was built up throughout the performance.  

Rose writes of the conclusion of the concept album:  "That Pink's realization comes too late makes him a tragic figure, but through his symbolic gesture he emancipates himself from guilt.  Pink Floyd the group, under Waters' supervision, did likewise by choosing to perform the work in smaller venues - shows which proved to be the last that Waters would perform with the group.  Following the performances the barrier between the group and its audience came tumbling down, after which they strolled amongst the rubble and performed 'Outside the Wall' using acoustic instruments - a signification of authenticity and innocence, which was portrayed also by the children's voices on the studio version of the piece.  The work's ultimate meaning is allegorically powerful, and is best expressed by its author who says 'the show is about redemption, and we are redeemed when we tear our walls down and expose our weaknesses to our fellow man and sit around the fire and talk. That's the acoustic song at the end.'" (page 134) 

The album went through a difficult birthing process.  At the time only Waters had any motivation to come up with new material.  He still closely consulted with band mate Gilmour.  Waters offered Gilmour a choice between material for The Wall and material Waters was also working up for what would later become the first solo-Waters effort, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.  Gilmour wisely chose The Wall and went on to co-write three of the songs with Waters.  But Waters wrote virtually everything else. 

Unlike past albums , this was not a Pink Floyd collaboration.  The band was starting to fracture.  Mason was basically just around to play drums as needed.  Meanwhile, Richard Wright was going through a divorce, battling depression and a severe alcohol problem, and spent much of his time sailing on vacation.  Both Waters and Gilmour were upset with Wright for generally not contributing anything of originality to the album.  So, with Waters in the lead, the band basically fired Wright.  Wright would tour with Pink Floyd on live performances of The Wall but he did not receive the same revenues as the other three members.  He was only paid a per show fee, as any other session musician. 

Meanwhile, Waters pushed on.  Initial recording for The Wall began in July 1978.  Several studios were used during multiple extended recording sessions.  This gradually grated on everyone's nerves as Waters took on more authority to push the project through.  In truth, Gilmour and Mason were only marginally less lethargic about the project than Wright.  But they did show up and make contributions and argue with Waters over certain things.  Recording was completed in November 1979 just a couple of weeks before the album's release.  It had taken 17 sometimes agonizing months. 

The Wall went to #1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for 15 weeks.  Sales of the record continued to be strong through 1990 when it reached the 19 million mark.  This was assisted by the strong Top 40 hit single "Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)". The initial tour was wildly successful as was the subsequent, rather famous performance in Berlin in 1990.  The Waters tour of The Wall from 2010 - 2013 grossed over $450 million dollars.  Detractors say this bloated success is evidence of the album's pretentious, self-indulgent, kitsch nature.  Obviously, I don't agree. 

Goose-stepping hammers from the film.

In 1982 the film version of the album came out.  I remember going to see it opening weekend and getting a free t-shirt which I still have today.  It seems to have shrunk with the passage of time (that is a joke haha) but it is still wearable though thinned with the passage of time, the imprint still legible.  The film itself was a terrific visualization of the music I had by now been listening to for two years.  It is not a "great" film. On my scale I'd give it a 7 overall but I am a huge fan of metaphorical films in general and this movie is heavily that way, just like the music it represents.  In some ways it brings the concept of the album into sharper focus.  Today it is part of my DVD collection.  (See a detailed analysis of the film (and subsequently the album too) here.

I particularly enjoy the animated sequences created for the film by Gerald Scarfe.  It was the first film I ever saw by Alan Parker, a talented and underrated director.  Overall, it was well received by the critics, with Siskle and Ebert giving it two thumbs up.  But, if the making of the album saw Wright torn from the group, the making of the film further fractured the Gilmour-Waters relationship.  The film is 10 minutes longer than the album so pieces of the music had to be re-recorded to fit with the cinematic timing.  Waters also wrote additional songs for the film.  These sessions brought on more animosity and a clash of Waters-Gilmour egos.

It seems the more The Wall morphed as a music and art project into in its many phases and expressions the more divisive it was for Pink Floyd.  Mason began to spend more time racing cars.  Gilmour would work with Waters on The Final Cut but their interaction as a team became minimal, their relationship adversarial, and it ended after that album, an appendix to The Wall really, which hit record stores (remember those?) in 1983. 

The Wall was released in the US 35 years ago this month. (See a recent Billboard interview with Waters about the enduring nature of The Wall here.)  It has been a steady but fading part of my adult life.  The only song from the album that I still listen to with any regularity is "Comfortably Numb" but I did pull out my CD (I still have my original vinyl record of it as well) of the album recently and enjoyed it as it brought back a flood of memories.  It is an 81-minute rock theater piece that is simultaneously, disturbing, nostalgic, tragic yet hopeful, with some really solidly rocking music that gets you grooving deep.  That is when I recalled that night long ago in the winter of 1980 when life was just about partying and having fun and passing classes and meeting girls; when The Wall first entered my mind as the backdrop to a student social gathering.

All alone, or in two's,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists 
Make their stand.
And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.

Pink Floyd circa 1980.  Waters, Wright, Gilmour, and Mason standing before The Wall.
Notes: David Gilmour performed "Wish You Were Here" publicly last night. Possibly riding the success of The Endless River, Dark Side of the Moon is back in the Billboard Top 20 tonight.  The immense endurance of this band is truly amazing. Pink Floyd produced 15 studio albums, this is how they compare on the Billboard charts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Aesthetics of Friedrich Nietzsche

I keep on-going research on a variety of subjects, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche especially, since I devote another blog to him.  In 2014 I purchased a newly published academic work entitled Nietzsche on Art & Life.  Art, as my many posts on the subject attest, is held in high esteem by me intimately.  I can not bring it into sharp focus yet, but there is something about Art that is sacred to me and is connected to my existence. Nietzsche's philosophy is rooted in the subject of Art (among other major subjects) and this new book attempts to shed insight into Nietzsche's application of Art to human life.

Eleven diverse essays grace the pages of this book. Each offers a perspective either slightly or significantly different from the others.  Generally, however, it is agreed that Nietzsche's views on Art and aesthetics changed significantly over the course of his life.  Early on with The Birth of Tragedy he was under the influence of Schopenhauer  and Wagner - Art was a source of refuge and salvation for enlightened human beings. Tragic art contextualized our sense of Beauty and thereby made high Art relevant today.

Later, Nietzsche came to see Beauty as too limiting a perspective within the vast potential of Art.  His ideas became more complex and placed the act of creation, being the creator, as actually more important than Beauty itself.  Life should be relevantly affirmed and aesthetically embraced through suffering and struggle in addition to an appreciation Beauty.

The book's first essay, as others offered throughout its pages, argues that Nietzsche always understood Beauty to be an illusion, adopting a perspective that was essentially escapist. Nietzsche argued that when the creator took charge through the will to power then life would be affirmed and loved (amor fati) as tragically beautiful.  Rather than escaping life through Beauty, the artist should embrace it in all its difficulty. Indeed the difficulty itself becomes the revalued Beauty of life.

The second essay goes so far as to emphasize that Nietzsche, in his later philosophy, came to believe that Truth was, in fact, Ugly and that traditional ideas of Beauty hinder genuine insight.  Instead, there is Beauty in the struggle of the artist and what the artist attempts to tragically express is the highest manifestation. "Nietzsche urges that to find value in the very 'activity of confronting and overcoming resistance' without that activity's reaching any ultimate resting place where desire ceases, is to discover a 'new happiness'." (page 41)

The following few essays are variations on this overall theme. The nature of tragedy redefines what is beautiful.  "If Nietzsche is correct that a fundamental problem of human existence is an existential lack of meaning, and that a fundamental function of tragedy is to create the comforting illusion that even if individual lives are wretched they form part of a greater whole imbued with genuine significance, then the appeal of tragedy is understandable.  Tragedy acknowledges the intrinsic painfulness and disappointments of the hero's life, but from a distanced perspective that puts the tragic hero's life in a context of a clearly significant greater narrative.  That our lives, as insignificant as they seem from our very partial viewpoints, might themselves be part of a greater meaningful whole is the great solace and pleasure tragedy can offer us." (page 104)

Nietzsche's special sensitivity to the aesthetic qualities of music, particularly the music of Richard Wagner, is covered in three essays.  Music serves as a great example of how creativity and art relate to loving an inspired life in spite of the challenges that life confronts the adventurous spirit freed from the confines of traditional morality and ethics.  In another essay, the book's editor, Daniel Came, makes a contribution on what all this means in terms of human character and virtue.

"His is an 'immoralist' doctrine that proposes an outright replacement of traditional morality, seeking to devote himself exclusively, not necessarily to aesthetic goals, but to practical-existential criteria which are best served by aesthetic devices, and to regard all conventional normative considerations as potentially matters of indifference, suspicious, or magnificent contempt." (page 131)

"Compared with the superfluous, the higher man has the great aesthetic virtue of originality: he is 'solitary', his song is 'unique' - and it is uniquely his, for he possesses 'greatness, that is to say, creativeness'.  It is 'necessary' precisely because it has the gratuitousness of true art, born not in the vulgar 'marketplace' of practical life, but in self-imposed seclusion of spiritual inwardness.  What, in his 'creativeness', does this splendid individual create?  The most obvious answer is, 'himself'." (page 136)

Two essays resonate with me more than the others in this collection.  One deals with how similar, rather than dissimilar, Nietzsche's approach to Art and aesthetics is compared with Arthur Schopenhauer, who Nietzsche originally admired and later tried to distance himself from. The other essay has to do with the act itself of distancing oneself.  I'll turn to the second of these two first and then finish up the essay on the Nietzsche-Schopenhauer shared aesthetic.

"Nietzsche on Distance, Beauty, and Truth" begins by clarifying the personality traits of Nietzsche's aesthetic sense, the goal and existential manifestation of the artist's self work. "Contrary to the superficial process of association by which we might be tempted to link the 'will to power' or the Übermensch with ideas of sheer brute force, it is clear that among Nietzsche's main objects of aesthetic esteem are levity, delicacy, poise, nuance, 'halcyon' self-sufficiency, and calm - in contrast to coarseness, vehemence, noisy assertion, and emphatic gesture.  Among his favorite images for the free (yet disciplined) movement of thought is that of dancing." (page 202)

The essay proceeds to contend that the philosopher equated "giving style" to one's character to be "the aesthetically motivated project of adapting and transforming one's character into something that can be contemplated with pleasure."  When this intimate project is undertaken it is a noble artistic expression that inherently distances the artist from the mass of humanity.  The highest art is for the highest free spirits who transcend commonality to become distinctively rare beings.

"The idea emerging in the last few passages cited - that of an emotional distance which restrains the noble, or aristocratic, type from any facile impulse to 'plunge into' the life around him - can be regarded as one of many variations on the theme of distance played out in Nietzsche's thought.  Again, this theme connects a certain pattern of response to straightforwardly 'aesthetic' phenomena with other - more pervasive or structural - features of Nietzschean mentality." (page 209)

"Nietzsche can speak simply enough of 'high culture' as something with which he and his putative reader are familiar; and in this kind of context a political motive promptly reappears. Mass higher education, for Nietzsche, is an oxymoron, for any 'higher' curriculum 'belongs to the exceptions alone...Great and fine things can never be common property'.  There are, no doubt, books 'for everybody', but these 'are always malodorous books: the smell of petty people clings to them'.  In general, we must remember that 'what can be common has ever but little value...great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and, in sum, all rare things for the rare'." (page 213)

For Nietzsche it is the rare individual who is capable of the highest aesthetic experience of life. This explains why their life experience is existentially distanced or removed from the what common individuals can aesthetically grasp. Most essays in this collection correctly stress that Nietzsche's aesthetic sense evolved with his application of Beauty to the aesthetic life.  Relevant aesthetics for the Übermensch involved more complex and varied manifestations than the limiting experience of what is commonly understood as Beauty.  Beauty expanded for Nietzsche.  For him it became "beautiful" to embrace the difficult and even ugly aspects of human existence and to find the inspiration in those experiences as well.

Yet, according to the essay entitled "Attuned, Transcendent, and Transfigured", even though his definition became more complex Nietzsche did not stray so far from his original mentor, Schopenhauer, with relation to the nature and importance of Art as a force in living an intimately transformational, creative life.

"Nietzsche owes to Schopenhauer the key features of what is arguably his most central aesthetic concept, biz., that of aesthetic transfiguration.  The idea that aesthetic transfiguration can invest human experience with positive value - that despite its suffering, strife, and pointlessness life can be 'aesthetically justified' - is already implicit in Schopenhauer's account of artistic activity." (page 166)

"It is precisely because of its transfigurative power that art plays the vital role it does for Nietzsche: through art, we learn to see human experience for what it is, and yet to love and honor it - we learn to view life honestly, yet optimistically....the transfiguration by the work of art of the material of which it treats - its content or subject.  Secondly, there is self-transfiguration - the project by which we can exploit aesthetic strategies to transfigure ourselves, acting as artists in a broad sense of that term, recreating our own characters and destines." (page 167)

"It is indisputable that Nietzsche took engaged aesthetic experience to be intense, impassioned, and cognitively captivating....He often uses the term 'Rausch' to capture this aspect of aesthetic experience.  'What', he asks, characterizes 'the psychology of the artist'?  His answer is that 'If there is to be art, any aesthetic doing and seeing, on physiological condition is indispensable - Rausch'. Rausch is sometimes translated as 'ecstasy' or 'rapture'....Another common translation of 'Rausch' is 'intoxication', which likewise carries more or less appropriate connotations; there is something right in that its suggestion of a state in which agency is compromised (as in drunkenness), and also in the idea that one has been overpowered by something affecting all levels of thought, feeling, and perception." (pp. 172-173)

" regard the world aesthetically so to regard it, like an artist, creatively and affirmatively.  Doing that, we find that art enables us both to understand reality more deeply and to value it.  For Nietzsche, as for Schopenhauer, Art affords the former - the deeper understanding - in part by eliciting our fully attuned attention to its objects, such that the one is absorbed by or immersed in them to such an extent that the contents of one's consciousness can only be incentivized in relation to them." (page 190)

For Nietzsche, the higher self creation of individuals in tune with Art is the greatest manifestation of both Art and the artist.  "Self-overcoming is, inter alia, a matter of 'giving style' to one's character - an art 'practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of the nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and even weakness delight the eye'.  Put most simply, it is a project of self-creation, in which one stands back from one's character - one's given desires, dispositions, ambitions, values - rather as the painter stands back from his easel.  Like the artist, one uses this distance to decide how one shall organize, arrange, and manipulate them according to an artistic vision." (page 190-191)

"For Nietzsche, the evaluative consequences of this sort of aesthetic insight likewise reintroduce the interested, individual subject.  Indeed, that subject re-emerges with a vengeance as the Übermensch, that ultimate artist who is prepared to take on the task of creating his values from the ground up. Such transformed valuations are, Nietzsche insists, art's ultimate raison d'être.  (Hence art ultimately is to be viewed 'from the perspective of life'.)  Art, not nature, is the proper paradigm for the psychologist - and for each of us - because it shows us what artistic reconstruction is capable of doing, viz., realigning our evaluative dispositions at the deepest level, proposing novel and creative ways of framing human experience." (page 198)

This essay's emphasis on placing Art at the center of a psychological paradigm for human experience and individual development strikes at the heart of Nietzsche's philosophy and at the essence of who he was as a human being.  " is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified."  He proclaimed that in The Birth of Tragedy and that little piece of his philosophy never changed.  It is, in fact, embedded in Schopenhauer.  So this thin thread of Schopenhauer remained with Nietzsche in spite of how the philosopher redefined Beauty and many other human aesthetic traits.  To become the artist of oneself and to transform one's act of living into a work of art is, for Nietzsche, the highest possible expression of human identity.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Endless River is (Likely) the End of Pink Floyd

Proof of Purchase.  A handsome package.
Pink Floyd is my all-time favorite rock band.  I have blogged about, among other Floydian things, their final set in 2005 and about their final bow in 2011. Now comes their final studio album (as Pink Floyd).

The Endless River is almost 55 minutes of mostly wordless musical conversations, jam sessions taken from many hours of recordings unused in the band's excellent 1994 record The Division BellDavid Gilmour and Nick Mason revisited this material which heavily features the keyboard work of Rick Wright who died in 2008.  Roger Waters, the driving force, lyricist, and visionary behind the band's best works, quit in 1985.  Earlier this year the two last men standing in Pink Floyd went back into the studio, sifted through the unused recordings, picking the best parts of what were at the time (in late-1993) hours of improvised musical doodles created while laying down more established songs for The Division Bell.

The resulting new music is not actually a new idea. Back in 1994 the band was toying with the idea of using some of their recorded jam sessions as a compliment to The Division Bell. At the time they referred to the potential music as The Big Spliff. But nothing ever came of the idea until this year when Gilmour and Mason reworked some of their playing, added parts for other vocalists and musicians, and came up with 18 tracks of new music surrounding Wright's remastered keyboard work.  The only song with lyrics is the final track, "Louder Than Words", which features Gilmour's still superb vocals singing the lyrics written by his wife, Polly Samson.

Like most of the best Pink Floyd albums there is a concept or underlying theme to The Endless River which simultaneously ties it back to The Division Bell and yet is distinctive in its own right.  The result overall is an accessible, meandering album, handsomely packaged, that has that classic Pink Floyd feel.  I was not blown away by anything on the record. It is not one of their greatest efforts but it appropriately punctuates the improvisations of Wright and the band in what is apparently their final musical offering, released some 20 years after the original recording sessions.

"Keep Talking" is an important track on The Division Bell. And the theme of human communication, understanding, and relating to one another ties much of that album together. That theme is carried forward on The Endless River which is rather ironic.  There is hardly any words on the new album though the importance of human dialog is not dismissed, rather the new album seems to transcend the previous theme by uplifting the power of things left unsaid, of understanding without words.

This is underscored at the very beginning of the new album with the usual Pink Floyd affinity for background sounds, layered effects, and spoken words laid down underneath and supporting the musical development.  The Endless River starts with Wright's voice stating "We certainly are under-spoken and understanding...But there's a lot of things unsaid as well..."  As the opening music slowly develops we hear what I think is Gilmour chime in with "...ah well we shout and argue and fight and work it on out..."  The importance of understanding without words is held in equal esteem with the often necessary friction of dialog to come to an understanding.

Though I have rationalized The Endless River so far in this post, the truth is that it is very listenable and immersive without any thought given to it at all. In fact, Jennifer and I both enjoy the music but we agree that it works just fine as something in the background establishing an ambiance. There is no need to concentrate so heavily on it to find deeper meaning as with, say, The Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall.  This is certainly not a thematically "heavy" album though, as I said, there is a thread of concept here.

For me, the best tracks on it are "Sum" and "Skins." These tunes are a bit more sophisticated and rock a bit more than the rest of the collected tracks.  I enjoy a nice rocking Floyd and you do not really get much of that on this record.  Which is fine, as I said, it all strikes me as more music you drift in and out of rather than something you dance to or sit and ponder within.  Some critics are disappointed by the album. But most reviewers of the record seem to have accepted it as valid and decent if not artful.

"Autumn '68" is another track worth mentioning. Here Wright performs on the great Royal Albert Hall pipe organ. To my knowledge, that great cathedral organ does not appear on The Division Bell, which means the band rented the Hall organ one day back in 1993 and let Wright air it out, yet they never used any of that work on the final studio album.  So, it seems especially important that we get to experience the previously unheard work of Wright with this grand instrument of 10,000 pipes.

The title The Endless River is the last lyric sung on "High Hopes,"the last song on The Division Bell. This new music is definitely integrated with the more vocal and more rocking album released two decades ago.  Another stitch that ties The Endless River with The Division Bell is the electronic voice of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who was featured on the "Keep Talking" track back in 1994. In 2014 we have a track entitled "Talkin' Hawkin'" where the scientist once again briefly discusses the importance of spoken dialog in human history.  He says:

"Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together; to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking.  Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future, with the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking."

But, overall, this album is more about the potential power of human understanding beyond words. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that words are necessary to achieve understanding but the actual understanding, empathy, compassion, love, whatever you want to call it, really resides in the unspoken, almost wordless realm.  That is where all this instrumental music comes in.  These three guys were improvising and achieving a form of musical understanding 20 years ago that required no lyrics nor was any written music needed.  The music emerged out of just slow jamming and understanding where one another wanted to go with the music, sometimes led by guitar, sometimes led keyboards with percussion providing the backbone.

My deluxe Blu-ray edition of The Endless River is a piece of art in terms of the packaging.  The cover art is by a previously little-known Egyptian artist filling in for Storm Thorgerson, who produced such outstanding album art for the Floyd for many years.  (Thorgerson died last year.) The album's presentation contains a thin hardbound book of lyrics, credits, and photographs from the original recording sessions.  There are three nice photos included each in a heavy-stock postcard format. One is a photo of a simple abstract sculpture of two heads talking (you can see it in the middle of my pic above), connecting us back to the main artwork for The Division Bell.  Another is a really cool reflective hologram vibrant sphere that pulses and glows as you move the card stock around.  The last is a nice photo of Gilmour and Mason sitting on a dock probably on the Thames River.  The sleeves for the Blu-ray and CD are decorated with a techie looking circular and intricate almost spaceship looking symbol that pervades the disc labels and other places in the packaging.  Each component is of the highest quality.

The Blu-ray also features a number of interesting short videos capturing these extended jam sessions. Some of the music presented here is actually on The Division Bell.  The band seems to have been working out variations on the tracks presented on that album. You get to see Wright and the other band members working alongside several studio musicians in trying out different forms of musical expression on the various established ideas.  They are not talking with words here.  They are talking with their instruments, occasionally making eye contact and nodding at one another, communicating either a shift in the music or bringing things to conclusion for that particular jam.  I enjoy video features on music Blu-rays and many of these particular cuts rock harder than anything presented in the 18 tracks on the album.  I like some of this spontaneous music a lot.

Upon its release,  the album reached number one in sales in its initial release in the United Kingdom. This warm reception is more a reflection of the band's solid reputation than the specific music on this effort.  The album is decent but not outstanding. The album has received mostly mixed critical reviews.

Hearing this new Pink Floyd inspired me to go back and listen to their previously final studio recording from 1994 from which this music emerged. "Wearing the Inside Out" and "Coming Back to Life," like "Keep Talking," are great Pink Floyd songs.  The Division Bell is their best post-Waters album, but in itself it is not as good as any of the Waters-led Pink Floyd of the 1970's.  The Endless River is not as good as The Division Bell.  It is only significant because it contains the final fine keyboard stylings of Wright as a member of Pink Floyd.  And with Wright gone now, with this recording apparently, so goes the Floyd.  

The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that The Endless River is the end of Pink Floyd's musical journey. Things are not "endless" at all. This is the end. Or perhaps the music goes on.  Perhaps that's the point.  I don't know. I still enjoy most of Pink Floyd's music. (Nick Mason still holds out hope that Roger and David will join him on stage somewhere again.) But it seems in this case it is the Floydian world coming to an end, as T. S. Eliot proclaimed, "not with a bang but with a whimper."

Repeated Note to Readers: The title of this blog comes from Pink Floyd’s fourth album. It is a double album with one record devoted to the band’s early live performances and the other devoted to various experimental pieces of music by the individual band members. As such it is a collection of scattered personal ideas linked to a record of the band in life. Kind of like this blog itself. Hence the name. Legend has it that the word also has certain erotic connotations which I find clever and are somewhat revealing about myself. Don’t tell my mother.

Late Note:  The Endless River debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200.  Here is an article on how all Pink Pink Floyd studio albums fared upon their initial release.  Here is another article speculating on why The Endless River is so popular.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Neil Young: Storytone

Neil Young has had another busy year both as a performing artist and personally.  Earlier this year he released an album of covers he recorded in Jack White's special "phone booth" studio.  It was intended as an experiment for the fidelity of vinyl sound.  The recordings themselves were not that appealing to me and I will add this one to my Neil collection at a later date when I can get the CD cheaply. 

Then Neil left his wife, Pegi, apparently for Daryl Hannah. This motivated long-time band mate David Crosby to critique Neil's new relationship on Twitter.  Crosby has difficulty keeping his mouth shut at times and his comments pissed Neil off. Even Graham Nash, a lifetime collaborator with Crosby, called the comments "inappropriate."  But Neil went a bit too far, according to Nash, on his side of things and declared during a performance that CSNY would never play music again.  Nash thinks that it would be tragic for the musicians not to continue to collaborate just because of this little spat.  Neil was most revealing about all this, (although he remained skimpy on the specifics) in a recent interview with Howard Stern.  So, the jury is still out on what comes next, if anything, for CSNY.

Meanwhile, Neil toured this summer in Europe with Crazy Horse, trying to complete the 2013 tour that was cut short when Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Poncho Sampedro broke his hand.  Just before the 2014 re-tour started Crazy Horse bass player Billy Talbot suffered a light stroke.  Rick Rosas, who has played bass for Neil on many recent recordings and tours, filled in for Talbot.  Now, tragically with the quasi-Crazy Horse tour over, Rosas died suddenly at age 65.  So, that whole aspect of Neil's life is a bit of a downer.  A ride with the full-blown Crazy Horse might be over forever, just as, apparently, we might be at the end for CSNY.

Always a political activist, Neil was also involved in a concert to stop the Keystone pipeline project and involved with continuing concerns over a variety of political issues. This is in addition to his work on enhancing the quality of music through the near-future launch of his Pono sound system as well as his continuing efforts of focus attention on the possibilities of bio-diesel and electric powered cars such as his experimental LincVolt.  

Neil also published his second book.  This one is semi-autobiographical and is mostly about automobiles, his first and most lasting true love, and memories he has of his life surrounding automobiles.  As with the covers album, this is not a topic that especially interests me.  But I still want to read what Neil writes about so I will pick it up later off the discount shelf.

Last week, Neil released his 35th studio album (more than 50 albums overall), Storytone, a double CD set that features ten new original songs delivered two ways.  Disc One contains the 'solo' versions of the tunes with Neil on piano or guitar or ukulele.  Disc Two delivers the same songs in the same order but in an "orchestrated" format. The orchestration might be full symphony orchestra or a big band or a rock band configuration. Sometimes it is a mixture of the formats.  I found the album to be sort of middle-of-the-road for Neil, with a few really great tunes, a few mediocre ones and the rest just kind of OK.  It is not Neil's strongest recent work, certainly not as exciting as 2012's Psychedelic Pill, but it is an interesting addition to any serious Rustie's collection.  Neil is still pushing boundaries and trying to find new sonic experiences for himself and Storytone fits that ambition.

The ten tracks are featured in the same order so it makes for an interesting and entertaining comparison between the two musical ideas, one simple and minimalist, the other more refined and layered with various instruments and vocals. After several listenings, I came up with my own mix of the two discs, taking what I felt to be the best versions of each track and combining them into one nice mix.  I will review the material as I selected it for my mix.

As of this post you can listen to both discs in their entirety on youtube here.

"Plastic Flowers" is a beautiful piano ballad and a good way to kick off the mix with a slow, reflective piece filled with the quirky, ironic, and poetic lyrics that are such a mainstay of Neil's musical oeuvre. Neil's vocals are an acquired taste but overall he does a pretty good job with his harmonies throughout Storytone.  The full orchestral version of "Who's Going to Stand-Up?" comes next.  This is one of the highlights of the album.  Neil is featured with a large orchestra here, reminiscent of the some early works he did on his now-classic After the Gold Rush LP.  This is quite a contrast to the raucous rendition of the ecologically-minded song that he performed with Crazy Horse this past summer.  I really like the orchestration here (arranged by Chris Walden, not by Neil). Neil may have worked with orchestras in the past but he has not performed anything that sounds more like true classical music than this wonderful piece. 

"I Want to Drive My Car" follows.  I actually already posted on this blog about a year ago when Neil made a surprise appearance with his then-wife Pegi's band The Survivors. This orchestral version features electric guitar and harmonica backed by a large brass section for a wonderful big band sound. It is surprisingly rocking tune on an otherwise laid back album.  "Glimmer" is way over-composed for my tastes in the orchestral version so I prefer Neil on solo piano again on this one.  Another introspective piece, this time about cars and relationships, sort of like his recent book I suppose.

"Say Hello to Chicago" is a fun, bluesy number again with a lot of brass backing it up.  I really like the way this tune swings a little.  This sounds more like a Frank Sinatra song than anything else. "Tumbleweed" is not bad in its orchestral version but it is such a wonderfully simple and sweet song that I decided to go with the solo version for my mix.  Neil is strumming a ukulele on this one (throughout the solo disc Neil strums, he does not pick) which makes it a nice contrast sandwiched between the multi-layered tunes on my mix. 

"Like You Used to Do" might be my favorite song on Storytone.  It is a fun, swinging track featuring an excellent sonic blend of big band and blues.  By contrast, "I'm Glad I Found You" is one of the album's weakest moments, slightly more tolerable in its orchestral mode than solo. "When I Watch You Sleeping" is a relaxing tune with a nice country folk feel, adding yet another dimension of musical style to Storytone's exploratory range. Likewise, "All Those Dreams" hearkens back to Neil's great Harvest Moon album with a smooth string section supporting drums and bass and acoustic guitar.

Overall, the sonic variety on Storytone is really entertaining. With the exception of a couple of noteworthy tracks, there is nothing particularly outstanding on this album.  But it is accessible and makes for some easy listening.  My parents would probably like this music.  Much of it reminds me of something that Bobby Goldsboro or Jim Reeves might have done in the 60's.  The full orchestration on tracks like "Who's Going to Stand-Up?" is particularly worthy of attention. Neil does not reinvent himself with Storytone.  He merely accentuates some undercurrents of sound that have been there through past solo efforts and special explorations like his off-beat album This Note's for You and, more recently and successfully, Prairie Wind

It is interesting that Neil credits each of other the more than 100 musicians and vocalists that contributed to Storytone. But he does not credit himself on any song.  So, you do not know specifically what instrument, if any, he is playing on each track.  He did credit himself on the watercolors that he painted for the CD cover and inside.  On top of everything else in Neil's life, he has an exhibition of his paintings displayed this month in Los Angeles.

Storytone serves as the capstone on another complex, successful, and conflicted year for one of the great living songwriters and performers from the classic rock era. As of today it ranks #2 in amazon's "folk" music category, #5 in "classic rock", and #12 in "rock."

Late Note:  Neil's latest record debuted at #33 on the Billboard 200 chart.