Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Beautiful Beauty: The Maria Schneider Orchestra at Berklee


The orchestra in action, shown here somewhere other than Berklee.

Caught the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Berklee on Saturday. Twice, my eyes welled up with tears, and not out of sadness, but rather because of the great beauty and joyous, generous spirit of the music. At another point I thought to myself: Every person up there has had their heart broken; and now, here they are, to attest to the nearly incomprehensible majesty of living, a majesty that can only be expressed in art. I'll update later with some thoughts on Schneider's musical conception.

Here's her website.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cultural Anthropology

There was a tribe that had 14 names for snow.
They also had 43 names for killing
And 23 for bravery in battle,
But only 3 for the nurturing of children.
They had 11 names for the sun
And just one for the moon,
17 names for knowledge
But only 2 for wisdom
And a couple for empathy.
19 for us, a few for them,
27 for the past, barely any for the future.
That tribe is gone.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Blue Note Album Covers

A super hip visual complement to some of the greatest American music of the past century. Such a happy convergence: Fortune smiled!






Monday, April 21, 2014

The Trouble With Historical Analogies

In the wake of the flood of comparisons of Putin to Hitler because of the Ukraine, Alex Kingsbury says enough already.
Allusions to the Third Reich are legion, but the American public square is lousy with countless others — each as equally easy on the ear as they are thin on the facts. Is Kabul the next Saigon? Are we witnessing a new McCarthyism? Are voter ID laws the new Jim Crow? Is this a new Sputnik moment? Is that the new Inquisition? Are we in decline like the Roman Empire? What nonsense.

The Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt famously bemoaned the rise of political demagogues, the “terrible simplificateurs,” those who would reduce history’s complexities to a pure, simple, and tyrannical truth. The lessons of the past, he felt, could best be understood by acknowledging and appreciating their nuance and complexity. And the enemy of nuance is the historical analogy.

We should start avoiding such comparisons like the plague.

Past events are poor indicators of the future. History never repeats itself, despite the oft-cited mantra. Events play out on fresh stages, with a unique set of players and scenes. Most importantly, says veteran intelligence analyst John McCreary, historical analogies are always imperfect — because leaders learn and adapt.
Read Kingsbury's full editorial in the Boston Globe.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Revealed Like Cards In a Blackjack Game

I just made a pretty interesting addition to my April 4th post, "Approaching Infinity." Significant enough to warrant re-posting the updated version, I think.


A few weeks ago I posted a tongue-in-cheek piece called Cosmic Inflation for Laymen which riffed on that week's revelation that the universe as we know it was largely populated within a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Clearly such a time designation is so small as to be preposterous. What I think is happening is that since infinity and nothingness are impossible in our manifest reality, we are coming up with measurable figures of "somethingness" that get us as close as possible to those impossible states, while keeping us safely, if barely, within our space-time continuum. It's easier for us to conceive of an expansion happening in a trillionth of a second than it would be for us to say it was instantaneous, with no time elapsing. In some other dimension we might find that one thing doesn't have to follow another in an endless stream of cause and effect, and we might see that infinity is, well . . . I don't know.

UPDATED 4-20-14

I've been reading the thriller writer Thomas Perry, and encountered this nice instance of synchronicity soon after I posted the above thoughts on infinity. His heroine is a Seneca woman named Jane Whitefield who helps people who are in trouble to disappear and start new lives. In the course of various plot maneuvers, Jane meditates upon many aspects of the worldviews and cultures of indigenous "American" peoples. This jumped out at me:
"Jane closed her eyes again. The plane was flying over the Southwest now, toward the places where the desert people lived: Mohave, Yavapai, Zuni, Hopi, Apache, Navajo. Some of them believed that events didn't come into being one after another but existed all at once. They were simply revealed like the cards a dealer turned over in a blackjack game: they came off the deck one at a time, but they were all there together at the beginning of the game."
How cool is that; how wonderfully illustrated! You know, these are some of the thoughts that also inform the Bhagavad Vita, and the dilemmas faced by its hero, Arjuna. More on that later.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bruce Cockburn: Pacing the Cage



Here's a really high quality video of Bruce Cockburn's beautiful "Pacing the Cage." My soul doctor recommends listening to this two or three times in a row to feel better: spiritually, mentally, physically.

Choice lyric: "I've proven who I am so many times / The magnetic strip's worn thin."

How I Keep It Simple

I resist reading things like Real Simple magazine which will just clutter my mind with a bunch of ideas and suggestions for simplifying my life that I'll never do thus making me feel worse than I did before I tried to simplify my life by reading that pretentious magazine.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Crimes of Hate and Terror

This week, we're all thinking about the Boston Marathon bombings, and what it all means. In thinking about justice in this case of terrorism, I reflected on why we treat such killing and injuring as something different than other, "regular" killing. I think it is because it strikes at the fabric of civil society; it's meant to terrorize a community when it is coming together in common cause and celebration. It strikes at the commons.

I think this relates to the reasoning behind hate crimes legislation. The gay writer Andrew Sullivan, a significant intellectual leader of the marriage equality movement (and one of my favorite writers, period), is adamantly against treating hate crimes as a separate category; the goal of the gay rights movement in his eyes, is equality, not special treatment. There's a lot of sense to this. But when a person is singled out because of the group they represent, that can portend bad things, as the Holocaust and other episodes of "ethnic cleansing" so clearly demonstrate.*

A question I have is whether "cop killing" also carries special weight. It seems to me that it would make sense if it did. Again, the strength of the fabric of civil society is at stake. I would never think to call myself a "law and order" guy, but respect for (not adulation or worship of, or excessive regard for) law enforcement is a part of the smooth and safe functioning of society.

I present these thoughts in the spirit of open reflection. I'm not an advocate, per se, of special punishment, as in the cases discussed here, but as I think about about it, I can see why it might make sense.

* As of this writing, the white supremacist killer in Kansas has not been charged with hate crimes, but with the most serious levels of murder charges.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Robert Janz: Going Back, Way Back

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE

The artist at work in lower Manhattan, 2014

When in doubt, do a Robert Janz post. That is my blogger's creed! Wait, I said that last week about El Greco. But that's OK. The words ring true in both cases; one does not negate the other. El Greco was Christian mystic of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Robert is a modern day medium, summoning forth the vision of the artists who expressed themselves in the caves and on the mountain sides of Europe, thousands of years before El Greco came along. Robert says he is a practitioner of "glyffiti." He works on construction walls that have already been postered, flyered, or otherwise marked upon. His paintings complement, comment upon, or tweak what's already there. In all cases, it is understood the the images could be painted over at any time. This image of Robert at work is from the Dusty Rebel, a website dedicated to documenting street art.

Go to Robert's Janzwork website for much more of his ephemeral art.

Monday, April 14, 2014

GoT: We Get It Already

It only took about two minutes into the season premiere of Game of Thrones last week to serve us a significant dose of gratuitous nudity, which I define as nudity that does nothing to advance the plot. It seems that some prince (don't ask me to tell you his name) is in town (King's Landing?) to seek vengeance on the Lannisters for some offense which I've already forgotten. The important point is that he's a Bad Guy, and, as such, frequents high end brothels where, wait for it, he objectifies the women (girls?) he finds there. If 30 seconds were spent establishing why he was angry at the Lannisters, a few minutes are now devoted to having him make the whores disrobe for him, and while he's at it, proposition a servant lad, who appeared for no other reason I can tell except to demonstrate the standard issue omnivorous lust that's a given in this fantasy land. Dear Game of Thrones show runners: We get it already. Surely you understand this, which suggests that you, and not the characters, are engaging in objectification, and are inviting the viewers to do the same. Sure, a little gratuitous nudity and bodily objectification is fun now and then, but let's not conclude that just because it's on a critically acclaimed premium cable show it is anything other than what it is.

Last year I offered this take on Game of Thrones.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

El Greco: Holy Toledo!


El Greco, View of Toledo, c. 1596 - 1600, oil, approx. 19 x 17 in.

When in doubt, post an El Greco. This is my blogger's creed! It is a blog after all. Why not let the master do the heavy lifting of beauty and provocation? What I get from this is a swirling feeling of high, menacing energy. The whole landscape, buildings and sky included, pulses and swells with life. It's a mystical vision of the world, suggestive of what van Gogh would be up to three centuries later, though their painting style isn't similar. Sure, we know that plants and such are alive, but the aliveness being communicated here is the power that imbues and animates all of the manifest material world -- all of creation, if you will. For comparison here is a van Gogh from 1889, Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon.

oil on canvas, approx. 31 x 36 in.

Prior to coming across View of Toledo this last week, I was only familiar with El Greco's portraits and groupings of saints, angels, and striving humans. This makes sense, since Wiki tells me that there are only two surviving El Greco's that are pure landscapes. Here is an El Greco that mixes figures and landscape, and which explicitly demonstrates the swirling energy that is present to some extent in many, maybe even most, of El Greco's works. Called The Vision of St. John, it's currently owned by the Met in NYC. Their website clarifies that this "canvas was an iconic work for twentieth-century artists and Picasso, who knew it in Paris, used it as an inspiration for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" (shown here below the El Greco), a painting that resides diagonally across Central Park from the Met. So their proximity is both aesthetic and geographic.

El Greco, The Vision of St John, c. 1609 - 14, oil on canvas, 87.5 x 76 in.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, 8' x 7'8"

One last note: The reason he is called El Greco is because he was born in Crete but lived and worked in Toledo, Spain. If he would have stayed put, we would know him by the much more unwieldy Doménikos Theotokópoulos. And, of course, had he stayed put, maybe he would not have been inspired to create work of such consequence. Yes, this is idle speculation, but this is, as I said, a blog.

View a previous post on El Greco.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Novel Foreign Policy Idea

Try not to get too enmeshed with states that feature "oligarchs," "warlords," "mullahs," "insurgents," "patriarchs," "tribal chieftains," "fanatical sects," or "ethnic factions." To say nothing of "unresolved centuries-long conflicts." We've got our hands full with our own oligarchs and fanatics!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Jackson Browne: Before the Deluge


 
 
Have always loved, loved, loved this song. With the everyone going on about Noah (the movie) the last couple weeks, let's see what Jackson Browne has to say. I like how the song slowly comes into focus over the course of  about a minute, with the first explicit riff/lick appearing at 0:40. That hairy gent in the back wearing the Elvis shirt and white socks is Browne's longtime sideman, the string virtuoso David Lindley. Is the song crackpot? Of course, a little bit. That's why it's awesome.

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature
While the sand slipped through the opening
And their hands reached for the golden ring
With their hearts they turned to each others heart for refuge
In the troubled years that came before the deluge

Some of them new pleasure
And some of them knew pain
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged loves bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in the moment they were swept before the deluge

Now let the music keep our spirits high
And let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by
By and by--
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky

Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour
And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge

Now let the music keep our spirits high
And let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by
By and by--
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky

Friday, April 4, 2014

Approaching Infinity


A few weeks ago I posted a tongue-in-cheek piece called Cosmic Inflation for Laymen which riffed on that week's revelation that the universe as we know it was largely populated within a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Clearly such a time designation is so small as to be preposterous. What I think is happening is that since infinity and nothingness are impossible in our manifest reality, we are coming up with measurable figures of "somethingness" that get us as close as possible to those impossible states, while keeping us safely, if barely, within our space-time continuum. It's easier for us to conceive of an expansion happening in a trillionth of a second than it would be for us to say it was instantaneous. In some other dimension we might find that one thing doesn't have to follow another in an endless stream of cause and effect, and we might see that infinity is, well . . . I don't know.

UPDATED 4-20-14

I've been reading the thriller writer Thomas Perry, and encountered this nice instance of synchronicity soon after I posted the above thoughts on infinity. His heroine is a Seneca woman named Jane Whitefield who helps people who are in trouble to disappear and start new lives. In the course of various plot maneuvers, Jane meditates upon many aspects of the worldviews and cultures of indigenous "American" peoples. This jumped out at me:
"Jane closed her eyes again. The plane was flying over the Southwest now, toward the places where the desert people lived: Mohave, Yavapai, Zuni, Hopi, Apache, Navajo. Some of them believed that events didn't come into being one after another but existed all at once. They were simply revealed like the cards a dealer turned over in a blackjack game: they came off the deck one at a time, but they were all there together at the beginning of the game."
How cool is that; how wonderfully illustrated. You know, these are some of the thoughts that also inform the Bhagavad Vita, and the dilemmas faced by its hero, Arjuna. More on that later.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What Can We Learn from the Stoics?

A couple of years ago I interviewed philosopher Lou Marinoff on the theme of "the power of philosophy." We created this and other video clips in conjunction with the release of a book my place of employment published featuring Lou in dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda. That book was titled "The Inner Philosopher." In it, Lou said: "We cannot always or immediately alter our circumstances or indeed change brute facts. But we can always and immediately alter the views we take of them. This can make all the difference in the world." This is an element of Stoic philosophy, which he discusses in more depth here.