Friday, February 28, 2014

Charles Jencks: The Garden of Cosmic Speculation


Here's what Charles Jencks says about his stupendous work of landscape architecture, some of which he designed himself, and some of it by others. 
Forty major areas, gardens, bridges, landforms, sculptures, terraces, fences and architectural works.  Covering thirty acres in the Borders area of Scotland, the garden uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humor.  A water cascade of steps recounts the story of the universe, a terrace shows the distortion of space and time caused by a black hole, a "Quark Walk" takes the visitor on a journey to the smallest building blocks of matter, and a series of landforms and lakes recall fractal geometry.

Jencks is known as the leading theorist of postmodern architecture. It's hard to pin postmodernism down, but if you asked me, I'd say it accepts fragmentation and celebrates eclecticism, irony, and humor. Wikipedia confirms this and clarifies that this was in reaction to modernism's self image as a total and standardized aesthetic. My first introduction to postmodern architecture happened when I heard Robert Venturi lecture on it back in the 80s. He's famous for tweaking Mies van der Rohe's maxim "Less is more" into "Less is a bore."

I actually had some personal contact with the Jencks family many years ago. When we moved to Somerville so I could do graduate work in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School, I signed up for part time work through something called Harvard Student Agencies. The work could be brutal, like moving furniture. It could also be great, even inspiring, like when I was assigned to help catalog the work and writings of the composer Gardner Jencks, sometime after his death, in preparation for them to be archived at one of the local universities.

Gardner was father of Charles, and also of Penelope Jencks, who is an accomplished sculptor here in New England. She supervised the work along with the music professor in charge of the archiving. The Jencks house sat at the end of a fairly wooded cul de sac in mid-Cambridge, not far off Brattle Street, and it felt a bit like being in the country. The main living area was large enough to easily feature a grand piano, and the whole place had a somewhat ramshackle bohemian vibe. It was a pleasure to be there for a week or two. It remains a treasured sensory memory.

Gardner was a modernist composer, somewhat like Morton Feldman, I think. In listening to an album of his piano pieces, which Gardner's grandson Edwin gave me, I heard that one of his purposes was to find a way to create an impression of the music existing outside of a regular pulse or rhythm, with an avoidance of obvious pattern; to create a sense of suspension. In looking at some of his scores I could see that one way he achieved this was to assign a different time signature to each bar of music.

Note: This post came about because I was listening to Michael Gandlofi's contemporary classical work inspired by and named for the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Musicians Who Paint #4: Miles Davis

Sometimes a musician's painting aesthetic doesn't match their musical aesthetic. In Miles's case, it does: Minimal, elegant, asymmetrical. The background isn't supposed to be this gray, but what the hell.

Previous installments of Musicians Who Paint include John Mellencamp, Paul McCartney, and Joni Mitchell.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Epic Re-Naming Fail: "Being Flynn"

Those of you who have seen the TV series "Californication" know that the show's foundational joke is that bad boy novelist Hank Moody's Bukowskian cri de coeur "God Hates Us All" was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster called "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love." It's a good joke, and if it seems too much of a parody, it's not.

I just finished Nick Flynn's terrific, edgy and literate memoir, "Another Bullshit Night In Suck City," which, when made into a film, was retitled "Being Flynn," an incredibly innocuous title for one of the least innocuous books going. In fact, the original title is essential as it captures the foul misanthropic attitude of author Flynn's father, Jonathan, the subject of much of the book. It's not just a matter of "being Flynn" in Jonathan's case, it's a matter of being an amoral con man with delusions of himself as a great novelist; a man given to drunken jags on vodka, the occasional passing of fraudulent checks, and outbursts of racist and homophobic invective and violence. Maybe not communicated so well in the name change!

Here's the passage where the author introduces the title phrase. There are many modes of writing in the book, from straightforward description to a sort of deadpan surrealism. This one is an poetic meditation, written from inside the mind of the father, now homeless in Boston.
If not for the rats you could crawl beneath a bush. A bush. A bench. A bridge. The alliterative universe. Rats too can pass through that needle's eye to enter heaven, as easily as they pass into a box imagined into a house. Houses inside buildings, houses inside tunnels, some exist for only a day, some, miraculously longer. This box held a refrigerator, the refrigerator is in an apartment, a man is in the box. Tomorrow the box will be flattened and tossed, you've seen the garbagemen stomping them down to fit into the truck. Wake up on grass, soaking wet. Dew is the piss of God. Another bullshit night in suck city, my father mutters.
The "plot" of the book, such as it is, is quite good, including great reflections on the author's time working at the Pine Street Inn, Boston's largest homeless shelter. But most of all, it's Nick Flynn's superb writing and portrayal of human pathos that makes "Another Night" a riveting read. Oh, and I haven't seen the movie. Yet?

UPDATE: 2-26-14

A related Crime Against Literature is to put a movie star's face on the cover of a classic, for example retrofitting Jane Austen book covers with images of Colin Firth and Keira Knightley and the like.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

RTF: Will Ferrell Bait

The great jazz-rock fusion group Return to Forever, sometime in the 70s

Monday, February 17, 2014

George Washington's Choices, and Ours

You know this guy

Writing in the Boston Globe today, Presidents Day, James Carroll recounts the decisions George Washington made that did so much to set us on the path to be a functioning democracy. 
By a succession of well-known choices, Washington turned the abstraction of a nation ruled by “the people” into something real. A military commander deferring to a nascent Congress, he established the principle of civilian control. Upon victory, when he might have become an American Napoleon, he disbanded the army and returned to his farm. His personal prestige was the bridge from the Revolution to the Constitution. Unanimously elected president by the Electoral College, he eschewed trappings of monarchy, honored the separation of powers, resigned after two terms, saw to the transition, and staunchly defended the republican ideal in his farewell address. He created the presidency we know. Democracy was all theory until George Washington showed us. And then, at death, he ordered his slaves set free a signal of what had to come.
I think one reason we venerate the founding fathers so much is because the choices and actions of an individual then could make a huge difference. Integrity mattered a lot, passion mattered a lot, as did the ability to find common cause with one's opponents. This is what I took away from Joseph E. Ellis's best seller of 2000, Founding Brothers. We can glean from the title that relationships were critical to the creation of a constitutional republic that would last (even when relationships devolved to the extent that Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel!).

Because of this, we tend to think the founding fathers were better than us. And maybe they were. Maybe it took a rare confluence of remarkable, visionary people to launch this great American experiment that has indeed been a "shining city on a hill" when at its best.

But the truth now is that the United States is a behemoth, a juggernaut, one that runs in some ways on autopilot; whose directions are shaped as much or more by massive and entrenched big money interest groups as by the efforts of regular citizens and elected officials. There just isn't that much space for an individual or group of individuals to make as much of a difference. I'm not saying that the integrity of individuals doesn't matter today, but that it's just really rare that a person might be seen as a shaper of a nation's destiny.*

The greatness of the founding fathers was in many ways a product of the times in which these men found themselves. Neither is their greatness untainted, as the great injustice and inhumanity of slavery was kicked down the road in the interest of creating this thing called the United States.

* An alternate theory might be that it's easier for a person, or small group, to make a big negative difference than a positive one. Think of the 9-11 terrorists, and a strong individual, Dick Cheney, who almost single-handedly defined our catastrophic responses to their heinous acts. For more on this read Mark Danner's great new essay, In the Darkness of Dick Cheney, at the New York Review of Books.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Power of Crackpot #1: "Back On the Chain Gang"

My favorite Pretenders song is "Back on the Chain Gang." Indeed it's one of my favorite songs, period. It was written as a tribute to original Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who died of a drug overdose in 1982, and its striding, propulsive bass line and chiming, majestic guitar refrains create an atmosphere of noble defiance.

The song attributes the OD to the machinations of a world too corrupt for her friend to survive in. In other words, he is portrayed as a martyr and a victim, which we know is a crackpot notion, but I'll be damned if the song isn't beautiful and inspirational anyway. Or maybe it's beautiful and inspirational because it's crackpot. A more measured response wouldn't move us, would it? I'm not sure who "they" are, but they won't defeat us. And I mean that. Here's the bridge:
The powers that be
that force us to live like we do
bring me to my knees
when I see what they've done to you.

But I'll die as I stand here today
knowing that deep in my heart
they'll fall to ruin one day
for making us part.
This is what I call a "repeat button song." It might be crackpot, but it makes me want to get back on the chain gang and keep on fighting that good fight: to always stand up for beauty and soul and generous hearts everywhere.


1. Chrissie Hynde is a total badass with a completely original and recognizable vocal style.

 2. Young readers will want to know that the "ooh ... ah" background vocal part references Sam Cooke's immortal hit "Chain Gang" (1960).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Carmen McRae: It's Like Reaching for the Moon

How's this for a Valentine's Day love song? It's from the incomparable Carmen McRae, and is a song of yearning and insecurity rather than fulfillment, which makes it the purest kind of love song. The song starts at just past a minute in. After "Reaching" she does "I Only Have Eyes for You."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ray, Ting, and James Taylor

James Taylor with Ray the Cat and Ting the Pug.

We lost our beloved pug Dexter last June, but we are still devotees of the breed. So we were delighted to learn that James Taylor is a pug lover, too. Americans are dog crazy, but celebrities must love them the most. When so many people are always trying to kiss up to you, it must be refreshing, so to speak, to come home to a pet who has no qualms about farting in your face. We're all equal in the eyes of our pets, and every pet owner is as blessed as the other. The name Ting is a nod to the fact that the pug is an ancient Chinese breed.

BTW: Did anyone else find the Westminster Dog Show to be more compelling than the Winter Olympics the last two nights?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Blues Is a Haiku

The blues is a haiku and a haiku is the blues. One is American and one is Japanese, but both are built on simple three line structures that invite everyone to try their hand at it. The technical threshold is pretty low. The challenge is being able to understand life well enough to tell the truth, or be brave enough to deal with the facts -- both lyrically and instrumentally. These are democratic forms. That said, there are infinite variations and levels of sophistication available within the forms, and also when you stretch them.

The core blues structure is the twelve bar blues, with the first line repeated twice, creating the atmosphere and setting up the payoff line, where the insight comes in. Each line is four bars. Here's an Elmore James classic.
The bell just toned, my baby done caught that train and gone 
The bell just toned, my baby done caught that train and gone
It's all my fault, I must have done somebody wrong.
Another stone cold blues classic is T Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday."
The eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
The eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Sunday I go to church, and I get down on my knees and pray.
As Willie Dixon has explained, all blues are the facts, and it's mistaken to describe the blues as sad. That's because when you tell the truth you trigger recognition in yourself and others, thus creating the connections that give life meaning. In live performance the payoff lines often trigger laughter, especially when the pain being communicated is greatest (or playfully exaggerated). I like how the Elmore James payoff line captures that vague feeling of foreboding you get when you know you're not living right, and bad things are happening, even if the connections aren't clear. Call it bad karma.

The facts the blues are dealing with might be categorized as emotional facts, emotion being the heart of the human condition. The facts being communicated in haiku are also facts of the human condition, but they are portrayed indirectly and feelings are evoked, most often, through concrete observations of the natural world, expressed in haiku's compact three line structure.
Sticking on the mushroom
The leaf
Of some unknown tree.
(All haiku from The World of Zen, an anthology edited by Nancy Wilson Ross.)

Alan Watts describes haiku in a way that might apply to the blues. Haiku, he said, "is a poetry where the reader is almost as important as the poet, where deep calls unto deep and the poem is successful to the degree that the reader shares the same poetic experience which, however, is never explicitly stated."
The tree frog
Riding the banana leaf
sways and quivers.
The long night.
The sound of the water
says what I think.
I must have done somebody wrong, right?

Watch two of the greatest blues men ever, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King, perform the greatest blues song of them all, "Stormy Monday."

Friday, February 7, 2014

William Stafford: The Un-National Monument

A few weeks ago I did a post on the many meanings of peace. This poem from the prolific William Stafford (1914 - 1993) provides a nice follow up to the idea that peace is not a pipe dream, but fundamental to us, if we choose to see it. Stafford, by the way, was a pacifist.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

From The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems. Copyright © 1998 by William Stafford.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Musicians Who Paint #3: John Mellencamp

Folks, I've got a real sleeper here. In all my investigations into musicians who paint, I'd have to say I haven't come across any better than the lefty roots rocker John Mellencamp. Here's what he says about his work:"German painting remains the basic foundation for what I do, same as folk music is the foundation of my songs. Discovering Beckmann to me was like discovering Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan." But he also incorporates the expressionistic graffiti look of Basquiat and the collage-like effects of Rauschenberg. It's almost like this is the best forum for his politics, as opposed to his music. Well, I'm not fully versed in his music, but his visual art is painterly and powerful.

Here's a nice little Rolling Stone interview with the artist.


View the previous installments of Musicians Who Paint: Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Big Events of Little Consequence

It made sense that the Grammy Awards and the State of the Union Address happened during the same week. Both are events that seem important but don't have much to do with anything that matters. The Grammys exist in a parallel universe to everything I care about in music, and have little to do with what motivates ninety nine percent of the musicians out there. Likewise, the State of the Union has not much to do with how governing will happen and politics play out this year. The sound and the fury!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Accoutrement of Misery

Between storms, February 1, 2014

Mingus on Ornette: Organized Disorganization

Ornette Coleman

For today's diehard jazzer, Charles Mingus is always called Mingus and Ornette Coleman, Ornette. Who knows why? At any rate, I was reading a collection of historic Downbeat interviews and came across this assessment of Ornette, delivered by the fearsome Mingus in a May 26, 1960, "Blindfold Test" with Leonard Feather. Mingus could be brutal in his take-downs of other musicians, so it was with trepidation that I looked to see what he had to say about the notorious innovator of "free jazz." As it turns out, Mingus got to the essence, praising Ornette as both sui generis and someone you have to deal with. He touches on some bop conundrums, too. And he does so by commandeering the interview. Very Mingus.
You didn't play me anything by Ornette Coleman. I'll comment on him anyway. Now, I don't care if he doesn't like me, but anyway, one night Symphony [Sid] was playing a whole lot of stuff, and then he put on an Ornette Coleman record.

Now, he really is an old-fashioned alto player. He's not as modern as Bird. He plays in C and F and G and B-flat only; he does not play in all the keys. Basically you can hit a pedal-point C all the time, and it will have some relationship to what he's playing.

Now, aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole tones -- tied whole notes, a couple bars apiece -- in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.

I'm not saying everybody's going to have to play like Coleman. But they're are going to have to stop copying Bird. Nobody can play Bird right yet but him. Now, what would Fats Navarro and J.J. have played like if they'd never heard Bird? Or even Dizzy? Would he still play like Roy Eldridge? Anyway, when they put Coleman's record on, the only record they could have put on behind it would have been Bird.

It doesn't matter about what key he's playing -- he's got a percussional sound, like a cat with a whole lot of bongos. He's brought a thing in -- it's not new. I won't say who started it, but whoever started it, people overlooked it. It's not like having anything to do with what's around you, and being right in your own world. You can't put your finger on what he's doing.

It's like organized disorganization or playing wrong right. And it gets you emotionally, like a drummer. That's what Coleman means to me.