Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My Doctrine

Reading commentaries online on Memorial Day emphasized for me that we should exercise extreme prudence when committing our troops to the battlefield. It's commonly held that to get foreign policy decisions right you need a "doctrine." George W. Bush had a doctrine, which was to never negotiate with "evil" and to aggressively promote freedom and democracy globally, including through the use of armed forces. Obama, on the other hand, has been criticized for not having a doctrine, causing him to flail. In my view, Obama's approach is better; it's the essence of pragmatism to respond according to the needs of a situation rather than the demands of an ideology. Clearly, though, Obama has gotten it wrong sometimes as well.

So maybe a doctrine is in order after all. Here's mine. Do not engage in armed conflict if we aren't prepared to give all the returning vets all the support, help, and attention that they need. It's unconscionable that we send troops into war without  being adequately -- no, supremely -- prepared for their return. The only circumstance in which we might be allowed to be a little unprepared would be if we needed to move quickly into a major war out of self-defense. This clearly has not been the case with any of the wars we have waged over the last two decades. That we go into conflicts without a clear and explicit acknowledgement of our responsibilities is an outrage. Under my doctrine it wouldn't happen as frequently.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Nicholson and Van Gogh: Boots Paintings

Life is comprised of different categories of pleasures. Still lifes traditionally depict scenes of food, silver, and flowers. In these cases the sensual and aesthetic pleasures of art are employed to celebrate aspects of daily life that are also sensual and aesthetic. It's a sort of a piling on or intensification of these modes of pleasure. Other pleasures of life are utilitarian, none more so than a trusty old pair of boots. It's a dynamic combination when the aesthetic sophistication of painting is focused on this category of unpretentious happiness. Here are paintings of boots by William Nicholson (bottom) and Vincent Van Gogh (top). Oh, a quick aside: Married people often lament when their partner morphs from being an object of romantic desire into being merely comfortable like an old shoe. I think that undersells the value of footwear that fits really well and lasts for years. Right?

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Sunday Sermon: Every Kind of People

Heat Haiku

Gray-bottomed cumulus clouds
Rise ten thousand stories
Above the skyline

Stepping out for lunch
The heat is an old friend
Who wears out his welcome fast

In the rush hour heat
The roar of the city buses
Is louder than I can handle

M. Bogen
May 2016

(Less Than) Half a Man

Let's do a tally of where I stand on the Man Meter. OK, I do have a 1) man bracelet and 2) a man bag, though I should clarify I don't have a man tote.

I also do not 1) have a man bun, 2) engage in man-scaping, or 3) have a man cave. (I do have something once called an "office.")

Oh, and ladies, I never, ever, indulge in mansplaining. This is no special virtue but the result of me being ignorant of man stuff like explosives, cars, machines, business, fantasy sports, and all things patriarchal.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Grateful Dead Channel

I was visiting family back in the heartland last weekend and had a rental car. I'm too ignorant to figure out how to play the music on my phone through the Bluetooth, so that left the radio for entertainment. In this neck of the woods the music options on the radio amount to Classic Rock, Christian Rock, and Contemporary Country. There is an NPR station that plays some classical but I wasn't in the mood. That left Sirius as the best option. As I scrolled through the 25 channels I was appalled at the banality of the music pretty much across the board. And the predictability. I mean, they can't think of anything other than "Hotel California" on the Classic Rock channel? The Alt Rock channel seemed to feature lots of Pearl Jam, whose music is kind of boring, except for live, where their energy compensates for their melodic shortcomings. The Jazz channel was playing routine contemporary big band music, so, no go. I did listen to the Hip Hop channel a bit. The music had more character and attitude than the other options.

Oddly enough, they also had a Grateful Dead channel. Talk about an outlier! All the other music, though technically varied by genre, occupied the same compressed sonic and textural range with nothing to disturb the uniformity. As for the Dead, they are nothing if not all over the place. There is little about their sound that is palatable in any conventional sense. Indeed, if an unsuspecting listener dropped in during one of their oft-feeble, nay, catastrophic, attempts at vocal "harmonies" they would likely flee, never to return. But to me their spirited incompetence had more appeal than any of the other Sirius options, so after a bit the dial stayed there for the rest of the trip.

When I first landed on the channel the group was in the middle of one of their "space" jams, their ritualistic mid-set foray into abstract, "out-there" music. This is one of the areas where the Dead resonated with free jazz. The idea is that the relationship between figures, forms, and tonalities is intuitive rather than formal. You can't say why exactly one statement supports or connects with another, except that if feels right or interesting in an unarticulated way. It's true in a way detectable just outside of normal consciousness.

The Dead are much better instrumentally than vocally. Jerry was a good and unique, if limited, vocalist. Bobby Weir has his moments, but his leads never sound completely at ease to me. But the relationship between Dead and audience was one of community. So the Dead Heads were pretty forgiving about the vocal blemishes. In a way it's kind of punk. You can imagine that on a night where the harmonies were in tune and tight, fans might react by saying, Hey, the boys actually nailed it tonight! Nevertheless, there are limits for the somewhat casual listener. The channel played a live "Box of Rain" with bassist Phil Lesh on lead vocals that were just bad, I mean, not even interesting-bad, which had me wavering on a channel change. My finger was poised, but I held back and stuck it out.

But it's all about the instrumental passages with the Dead, which is pretty much a jazz thing.* But since the Dead's music was grounded in traditional American musical forms, including country and bluegrass, their improvisations didn't actually sound "jazzy." The Dead Heads lived for the moments when the improvisations took on a morphing, mystical life of their own. They were willing to withstand some clunkers to get there. That's wise.

When the Dead brought it all together, which was frequently, it did in fact seem like the sound of wisdom, or maybe the sound of insight. At one point during the weekend, the channel was playing a complete set from the 1970s -- from Cincinnati I think it was. I didn't recognize the song, but after the vocals the group calmly worked through a series of rising arpeggios that could only be described as majestic. And chill-inducing, yes. Something not possible in the compressed safe-zone of the other 24 Sirius channels.

One of the Dead's most consistently listenable sets for the non-believer is the live album Reckoning. Above I have posted their classic "Ripple" from that LP. Hey, the harmonies sound pretty decent! Check out when Bobby's dog Otis wanders onto the stage at 1:39.

* I'll speculate here that the Dead's vocal limitations helped them achieve true greatness. The vocals being what they were, perfection was never an option. The temptation of being a chops-oriented prog band never stood a chance, even though many of their early tracks fit into the prog genre. I like prog as much as any other white guy who came of age in the 70s, but prog is rarely transcendent.

Ripple, by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Thought for the Day: Whitman & Trump

Like Whitman, Trump contradicts himself. Unlike Whitman, he does not contain multitudes. Just one big gelatinous, narcissistic blob. But it is the best blob ever. So great you won't believe it!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Philip Guston's Enigmatic Symbology

Philip Guston left behind a successful career as a painter of abstracts to become a painter of enigmatic, fascinating works that featured the same symbology and color palette reworked through a range of variations. Who are these cigar-chomping figures? Some sort of Klansmen -- i.e., guys who think they are tough but who are actually just absurd? In his weekly column for the Boston Globe, Sebastian Smee discusses Guston's body of work and the above painting, which hangs at Harvard's Fogg Museum. Smee is a great art writer, so check it out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rimbaud Traded Poetry for Life

Arthur Rimbaud, 1854 - 1891
The legendary French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing before the age of twenty-one. He didn't quit because of frustration; his work was well-received by the literati. But, as Wikipedia says, he was a "libertine and a restless soul." It seems that he wanted to experience life rather than to write about it. And, no, being a libertine isn't a pejorative here. In 1876, at the age of twenty-one, he joined the Dutch Colonial Army and went to Java in present day Indonesia. The Army was too much of a stretch so he deserted. He went on to work construction in Cypress and then joined a trading company in Yemen. Ultimately he went to Ethiopia where he became a coffee merchant, apparently at the forefront of that industry. An interesting footnote is that while in Ethiopia he became friends with the father of Haile Selassie, who became a deity to the Rastafarians. He died of cancer in 1891, ending his brief but legendary life.

But didn't he squander his literary gift? No he gave literature what he wanted to give it, or maybe what he could give it. There's no point worrying about what never was. Literary works that were never written are no kind of loss. Further, there is no such thing as a higher calling, be it literature, art, education, the ministry, or entrepreneurship, for which one should sacrifice oneself. Life is for the experiencing of it, and only each individual can define how that is meaningful to them. That can include some choices that are pretty bad, like crime, for which one hopefully pays the consequences. (How those choices fit in the scheme of things is another essay.)

But Rimbaud's prose-poems, not great in number, planted many literary seeds, including for the Surrealists. Here's a section from his poem "Childhood," in his book Illuminations.

I am the saint at prayer on the terrace like the peaceful beasts that graze down to the sea of Palestine.

I am the scholar of the dark armchair. Branches and rain hurl themselves at the windows of my library.

I am the pedestrian of the highroad by way of the dwarf woods; the roar of the sluices drowns my steps. I can see for a long time the melancholy wash of the setting sun.

I might well be the child abandoned on the jetty on its way to the high seas, the little farm boy following the lane, its forehead touching the sky.

The paths are rough. The hillocks are covered with broom. The air is motionless. How far away are the birds and the springs! It can only be the end of the world ahead.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

How Cool Is This?

From the Photos of the Week feature at the Atlantic website: LED lights attached to pigeons leave light trails in the sky while they fly during the ‘Fly By Night’ art installation by Duke Riley above Brooklyn, New York, on May 5, 2016.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Peter Wolf: The Elements of Showmanship

It's widely agreed that Peter Wolf, pride of Boston and lead singer for the past and occasionally present J. Geils Band, is a front man beyond compare. What is less talked about is what that means exactly. On Thursday night we caught Wolf and his band, The Midnight Travelers, at the Somerville Theater, just down the road from us. Here are a few elements of showmanship on display during the rip-roaring performance.

1. Dress the part. Peter was rockin' a black and white leopard print jacket of the type you can only wear if you've got the confidence. The jacket came on and off during the performance, often for dramatic effect, rather like James Brown tossing off the cape to get back to it and "get on up" one more time.

2. You need some cool moves and Wolf really brings it. High energy is an understatement, and considering the man is 70, it's astounding. He knows he sets the tone for both the band and the audience. It's like: Have no fear 'cause Peter is here. Show time.

3. When I read the Miles autobiography, he said he learned from Billy Eckstine that a good performer steps into the applause. What he meant was that when you play a crowd-pleaser and the crowd is going nuts start the next song while the applause is at its peak. The Midnight Travelers did this a few times, with the follow up song being a fast rocker.

4. Be a master of pacing. The concert took the crowd up and down and back again several times. Peter can do hard rockin' and pin-drop quiet with equal skill. Decades of touring have taught him what works and when. Similarly, the songs ranged from sexy to serious with no drop-off in the engagement level in the house. The set went from strength to strength. Of course, you need a strong catalog, and Wolf has it. I love his solo work -- especially 2010's Midnight Souvenirs -- so it's not a matter of sitting through the new stuff to get to the old hits. This set featured songs from Wolf's latest: A Cure for Loneliness. But when the J Geils hits came in toward the end, it was definitely blissful. The evening ended with "Must of Got Lost" segueing into Jackie Wilson's  "(Your Love Is Taking Me) Higher and Higher."

5. Be a master of song forms. Like Wolf's recorded work over the last couple decades, the concert featured songs working every mode of classic or vintage soul, R&B, rock, country, and the blues. Among the genre highlights: the song Wolf recorded with the late, great Merle Haggard, "It's Too Late For Me." Like the classic soul performers, Wolf arranges the songs for maximum impact, bringing the levels up and down, and employing devices like dramatic pauses -- all moves that require the band to be responsive like a sports car taking tight corners.

5. Be a master story-teller. The interweaving of stories made the whole thing feel like an accomplished piece of performance art as opposed to just a concert. Wolf creates a total experience for the audience. The best story involved his boyhood in the Bronx in the 1950s when he and his pals (who taught him to "smoke, drink, and spit") went down to Times Square for an X-rated movie. They got in because in the gang was one of those kids who, Wolf said, is eleven but looks like he's going on 40. Springsteen is someone who is also a master story teller.

6. Have a band that is so good that it requires you to raise your game. The Midnight Travelers* are a group of unassuming virtuosos -- artists not just musicians, Wolf said. More than once after a killing solo Wolf would go over to the player for a congratulatory handshake. I love when the backing musicians aren't taken for granted. Wolf also thanked his crew and his team by name, another classy move that reveals that Wolf, though a showman par excellence, is not on a star trip.

7. Be grateful. At one part there was this guy standing near the stage and Wolf went over, mid-song, to shake his hand, at which point the guy kissed Wolf's hand. Didn't expect that. But totally didn't expect it when Wolf kissed the guy's hand back. Maybe the best showmanship is be, deep down, not a showman at all, but a lover of music and what we get from sharing music together. Even after all his years as a successful musician, says Wolf, he still thinks of himself first and foremost as a music fan.

* Duke Levine, guitar; Kevin Barry, guitar; Marty Ballou, bass; and Tom Arey, drums.

Friday, May 13, 2016

We're All Downstream

So read a sign at a protest gathering in Northern Minnesota, covered on PBS, in which Native Americans and allied citizens are organizing to try to protect the health of the lakes that the tribes have fished for centuries. The safety of the local ecosystem is being threatened by industrial chemicals.

That little handwritten sign said it all. As slogans go, it's a good one, well-suited for t-shirts and bumper stickers and Internet memes. Which is not to say it's trivial. When it comes to environmental degradation we are all in this together. Wealthier people, however, are better insulated from the harm, so they tend to think about it less. Pollution is always hardest on poor people. That's a fact. So those of us who are somewhat protected need to put ourselves in the shoes of the disadvantaged. And we need to internalize that in the long run none of us are immune.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Deborah Meier Takes Aim

The Boston Review has an excellent round-table forum of essays on the topic, "What Is Education For?" It's a fundamental question that the ed sector spends too little time considering. Deborah Meier doesn't hold back in the conclusion to her contribution:
Our current educational paradigm has lost more than the civic agency that every citizen needs in a democracy: it barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about. I watch in horror as schools adopt a new fad erroneously called personalized learning, which involves no human contact, no mind connecting with another mind, no back-and-forth—no empathy, curiosity, or questioning of authority. Instead, students interact with software and digital devices tailored to their individual “performance.” There is nothing personal about it, just two machines hooking into each other, one of them a child.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Verse, Low and High

We just completed a full week of nothing but clouds and rain. To make sense of my sinking mood, I felt moved to versify: "April showers / Bring May flowers / May showers, on the other hand / Just suck."

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. By way of amends, let me share this prose poem from Leonard Cohen's Book of Mercy. It's called "In the Eyes of Men."
In the eyes of men he falls, and in his own eyes too. He falls from his high place, he trips on his achievement. He falls to you, he falls to know you. It is sad, they say. See his disgrace, say the ones at his heel. But he falls radiantly toward the light to which he falls. They cannot see who lifts him as he falls, or how his falling changes, and he himself bewildered till his heart cries out to bless the one who holds him in his falling. And in his fall he hears his heart cry out, his heart explains why he is falling, why he had to fall, and he gives over to the fall. Blessed are you, clasp of the falling. He falls into the sky, he falls into the light, none can hurt him as he falls. Blessed are you, shield of the falling. Wrapped in his fall, concealed within his fall, he finds the place, he is gathered in. While his hair streams back and his clothes tear in the wind, He is held up, comforted, he enters into the place of his fall. Blessed are you, embrace of the falling, foundation of the light, master of the human accident.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

I Prefer Adagio

I had a friend back in the 80s who loved the arts and all things bohemian, as did I. He was a bit older and knew more about things like classical music than I did. He was also a bit off the wall, a bit hard to grasp, but I enjoyed him. Once he told me that European classical music had an unfortunate tendency to prioritize final movements and endings that valued the fast, loud, and dramatic, and that this had something to do with colonialism. Or did he say patriarchy? It's fuzzy to me now and undoubtedly it was fuzzy then. But it made an impression. He said it related to something Alan Watts said about sunsets, which is that we always face West and look for the gaudy colors when it's just as interesting to look East and watch the sky move through subtle gradations of color and tone. Sometime I make it a point to turn around.

Philosophy aside, I've always felt that it's a cheap trick to always end symphonies so dramatically. When you build everything up in terms of tempo and volume and then halt it abruptly you are guaranteed to get the audience leaping to their feet and cheering bravissimo. It's kind of like loading your site with click bait (not that I would have a clue how to do that). This is all a long way of saying that I prefer the slow movements of symphonies. You can really feel them and the melodies tend to be the best. And there's more emphasis on texture. Here's Bernstein conducting the third movement, "Adagio Espressivo," of Schumann's Symphony No. 2. If symphonies closed this way it would be like looking to the East.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Agnes Martin Leaned Out . . . Thankfully

Sheryl Sandberg wants women to "lean in" so as to compete better with the boys. Since she hit the market with her book last year, I've wondered why she didn't urge the boys just to lean the hell back a bit instead. After all, quietness has power. When a musician wants to be heard in a loud room the best thing is to start playing softly. True leaders know how to reach people with a well chosen and well timed statement or observation. The kind that blossoms in the mind for a long time after the original utterance, with the import becoming ever-more clear. This was the heart of Liev Schreiber's portrayal of Boston Globe editor Marty Baron in last year's Best Picture, Spotlight.

Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004) was a master of quiet art. Thankfully, she found the resolve not to create loud and "heroic" works, just because the Abstract Expressionist Boys were doing it. In the 50s she was friends with artists such Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, gay men who also rejected the machismo of the Pollacks and DeKoonings. But she went her own way, demonstrating her unique take on the strength of minimalist subtlety. The piece shown here is from the 1990s, by which time she was living in New Mexico. The Guardian has an excellent article about Martin and her later years called "Agnes Martin: The Artist Mystic Who Disappeared Into the Desert."

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Village Vanguard, At Last

M. Bogen, 4/29/16, NYC
If there is a Jazz Mecca, it's the Village Vanguard, on Seventh Avenue South in New York's Greenwich Village. Some friends and I went there Friday evening, which means my Hajj has finally been completed. Incredibly, more than 100 live jazz albums have been recorded there. Among these are landmark recordings such as the John Coltrane Quintet's "Live at the Village Vanguard," released on Impulse in 1961. The impact of the club on jazz music is in inverse proportion to its size. The small basement room, which is shaped like a triangle, holds a mere 125 tightly packed listeners. But the small size is part of the key to the club's success. One of my friends remarked that she prefers the Village Vanguard to other clubs precisely because of it's small size. This is because jazz is an intimate music that requires close listening, and which thrives on reciprocal energy from the audience. Summer jazz festivals are hugely popular, but it's hard for those performances to catch fire, since audience energy and attention are so varied and diffuse.

We heard a challenging and thrilling set from Trio 3, featuring jazz masters Andrew Cyrille on drums, Oliver Lake on sax, and Reggie Workman on bass. All are associated with the "new jazz" that grew out of the 60s. This means that they make music that resists cliches or easy hooks upon which one can hang one's hat, music that above all has a searching quality. It's the opposite of background music. It requires from the listener concentration and a willingness to go into unusual sonic spaces, which is why it is best experienced live, as opposed to on a recording. I find this mode of jazz to be invigorating. I call it a palate cleanser for the soul. Jazz lives!