Wednesday, November 30, 2016

More John Marin: Peak Colors in New Hampshire

John Marin, "New Hampshire, October," oil on canvas, 22 x 28 in.
I posted a late-autumn watercolor by John Marin a few days ago (see below). It really exemplifies Marin's refreshingly "non-pretty" approach to that medium. Here's an oil painting by Marin depicting the White Mountains during the peak colors of October. Like a van Gogh it employs bold, sometimes squiggly brush work to portray the spiritual energy emanating from nature, the vibrational force of life itself. And the way the composition leans toward elegant abstraction might bring to mind Cezanne. But there's nothing derivative about the work, in my view. This is a pretty spectacular painting, and it has me already looking forward to next October!

Marin is prominently featured at the Philips Collection art museum in Washington, DC. Here's what their website says about Marin:
Over the years Phillips wrote copiously about Marin. He admired his calligraphic line, luminous color, and ability to hint at the fleeting essence of the subject, and believed that he was one of America's finest modernists. In Phillips's estimate, Marin was both an impressionist and expressionist, because he could capture a moment and location as well as his subjective response to it. For Phillips, Marin’s abbreviated impressions of nature conveyed "glimpses of cosmic truth" and became "universal nature poetry." Marin experimented "on the frontiers of visual consciousness," Phillips wrote, making masterful use of space, light, and the dynamics of color. His works "required from the beholder an intuition...and an apprehension of the elemental which transcends school and dogma."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Wayne Shorter's "Beauty and the Beast"

I'm intrigued by the practice of arbitrarily categorizing utterly subjective products as "the best." For example, Oprah Winfrey is always doing stuff like identifying the "best pie" in the United States. I don't doubt she knows her pie, but any given town, say, will feature hundreds of different pies that are unbelievably good, right? The same with all those food issues of local magazines that run features identifying the "best hamburger" in the city. I don't know about you, but I can attest that if the bun is fresh, almost every burger I've ever had is pretty darn good.

Now that the absurdity of the venture is acknowledged, let me jump in and declare Wayne Shorter's solo on his composition "Beauty and the Beast" to be the best recorded jazz solo ever. Have I heard even a small fraction of all solos? No I haven't. For the sake of integrity, then, I'll qualify my claim and say that it is impossible for a jazz solo to be better than this one. The painter Hans Hoffman was famous for his "push-pull" theory for creating dynamism in abstract works. Every time I hear this solo, I think to myself that this is the essence of the push-pull in music. The serene melodic sections of the piece (the beauty) are contrasted with the sections in which the rhythm falls squarely on each beat (the beast). First of all this demonstrates what they mean when they say that funk needs to hit "on the one." This is indeed funky. But the really cool thing about that regular beat is that it gives Shorter the opportunity to create tension by employing phrases that start in all sorts of places relative to both the single beat and the four beats that make up each measure. Starting at 1:54, his lines tumble forward and drag back, they stretch out and contract. Herbie Hancock's piano creates further tension, filling in gaps and accenting various ideas. If you are new to jazz, I recommend listening to this track more than once, since it is a textbook example of jazz improvisation, clear in its methods and supreme in its expression.

John Marin Autumn Landscape

John Marin, Hilltop, Autumn, Maine, watercolor and crayon on paper, 1923, 16 7/8 x 20 1/2 in.
Who doesn't lament the inexorable march of autumn toward winter, signaled by fading, muted colors and all that ever-thinning light? The task of the artist, however, is not to lament, but to understand, interpret, represent. This is yet another masterly watercolor from John Marin, who captured New England landscapes and seascapes with energy and authority during the first half of the 20th century. Here's to the beauty particular to every season.

UPDATE 11-29
Not long after I composed this the voice of my Ideal Reader took up residence in my mind: It spoke thusly (and sarcastically): Not the artist's place to lament? Have you ever heard of a little painting called Guernica? By a guy named Picasso? Or how about that musical form composers call a Requiem?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Power of Gratitude

Even those of us smarting over the election have plenty to be grateful for. In fact, it's good practice to seek sources of gratitude in the unlikeliest places. A brief essay at the website of the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) explores why gratitude is always an essential practice. Here's an excerpt.

"While the admonition to 'count one’s blessings' may seem trite, in times of trial a sense of gratitude for what is good in our lives can ground us and provide a basis for meeting and overcoming difficulties. In this sense, gratitude is the key to unlocking a more open and rewarding perspective on life. Feelings of appreciation are always accompanied by the elevation of one’s state of life and the broadening of one’s perspective. And, the more our life expands, the more profound our sense of gratitude becomes, to the point where we can feel appreciation even for the problems we face in life.

"SGI President Daisaku Ikeda frequently calls on young people to take on difficult challenges, in order to be able to grow. To be able to look back on one’s struggles with appreciation is proof of spiritual victory. To be able to greet even the most severe hardships with a sense of gratitude, rooted in a firm confidence of ultimate triumph, is an expression of the free, unfettered life condition of Buddhahood.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Polarization and Confirmation Bias

"The facts are being fixed around the policy." So observed British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (in the infamous "Downing Street Memo") about his conclusion that Bush and Cheney had long ago decided to invade Iraq but were now, after the fact, manufacturing justifications to support that policy. This was a major act of deception, to be sure, but I think that when it comes to politics we all do something like this on a small scale. Once we make our decision why we reject one candidate but support the other, or make the decision to be a Democrat as opposed to a Republican, we set about, or continue, looking for the facts that confirm our decision as to why X is good and Y is bad. Polarization then occurs when we think we have reached our conclusions in good faith but the others have not, for if they were acting in good faith how could they not agree with us?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Elaine de Kooning Rocks

Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, oil on canvas, 77 5/8 x 131 1/4 inches
The Denver Art Museum has created an exhibition that's getting a lot of attention in the arts press. It's called "Women of Abstract Expressionism," and from what I can tell it does a good job showing how absurd it is that women artists of the time weren't considered by taste-makers to be quite first-tier. I haven't made a study of sexism in the arts, but I've always thought it strange that the lists of greatest 20th century artists are dominated by men but that at the local or regional level there is no sense at all that men are, generally-speaking, better artists than women. Our own collection might be 50-50 or might even tip toward women.

I'm posting a strong Elaine de Kooning painting from the show here. I might be betraying my lack of training in art history, but it's not apparent to me at all why this would be considered inferior to the works of her husband, Willem de Kooning, often considered one of the top two or three abstract expressionists. People with trained eyes can probably make some important distinctions here, but who could deny this is a great example of the genre? I would be hard-pressed as well to say that there is anything particularly feminine about the work. What I do know is that the brushwork is extraordinarily vigorous, the composition has a swirling (and stabbing?) energy, and the balancing and harmonizing of very strong colors is mighty impressive indeed.

Sidebar: Of all genres of painting, abstract expressionism is closest to jazz improvisation, since it reveals the thought processes and aesthetic choices that result in the final product. In fact, process and result are one. This is why jazz solos are usually more compelling to me than the composed solos of classical music. Jazz solos are rarely going to be as "perfect," but somehow the act of "thinking along" with the artist is immensely engaging for me. I generalize of course. For example, Bach is really great at inviting the listener to think along with him as melody and counterpoint unfold.

Gwen Ifill and the Power of Remembrance

It was my wife who introduced me to the habit of reading obituaries. Even more than in "human interest stories," well-written obits can provide a full and holistic view of what it means to live a life and make a positive impact on the world. And so it was that the too-soon passing of journalist Gwen Ifill led to an outpouring of grief, love, and appreciation that stood in stark contrast to the particularly squalid politics that have commanded our attention for far too long now, and which threaten to bum us out far into the future.

We get our evening news from the PBS News Hour, where Ifill served as co-anchor and co-program editor with Judy Woodruff. Sometimes it would hit me that, hey, we're watching the evening news and both anchors are women, and more than that, one (Gwen) is African-American! The reason it only hit me occasionally is because both were so good at what they did. This was no misguided affirmative action maneuver. I especially appreciated Gwen's facility with interviewing. I do interviewing as part of my work, and I marveled at her clarity, poise, focus, and all round intelligent awareness of how the conversation might go to attain maximum results. It's not easy, mostly because it's happening in real time. It also requires a lot of background knowledge to get it right.

The News Hour even devoted a full program to an appreciation of Ifill and her work. Since this happened just a few days after the election, it meant I could lift my self-imposed news moratorium for one evening. For fifty minutes we didn't have to hear about the Orange Person Who Shall Not Be Named! Rather, we heard about what it means to live an extraordinary life and how deeply one can change so many lives for the better. Yes, politics is real. But living a good life, a rich life, is even more real. I was moved to see how much she meant to young women of color, and how her example and mentoring was the truest gift of all. Certainly it was painful for those close to her, but for me, it was a pleasure to learn more about and be inspired by a person who so manifestly made the most of her life.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Getting Ridiculous Now: Mose Allison Is Gone

Mose Allison is gone, and just like that the music world is diminished yet again. In a way, Mose Allison and Leonard Cohen were similar, in that their lyrics were highly literate and that there just weren't any other artists like them. There was no mold. One must beware of identifying an artist as a "maverick" for the simple fact that there aren't that many singular figures. But it is appropriate for both Cohen and Allison. Since Allison's music was based on the blues, his literate lyrics were more minimalist than Cohen's, though both favored precision.

Back in June, I did a post on Allison called "Mose Got Attitude." I featured the song "What's With You?" Check it out.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Carmen McRae Sings "A Song for You"

Talk about being whipsawed! For the last week we've been toggling back and forth between vile politics and the loss of musicians of note, first Leonard Cohen, now Leon Russell. Admittedly Russell was more of a niche artist, but many stars, i.e., more popular musicians, admired him and acknowledged his influence as a pianist, including most recently Elton John. He did however write a couple of the best songs of the 20th century: "This Masquerade" was covered by George Benson, resulting in a massive hit in the 70s. It's a great example of what I call the Single Metaphor Song. Then there is "A Song for You," which is in a class by itself, a perfect song covered by dozens maybe hundreds of performers. Russell said he wrote it in ten minutes. In that instance he was an open channel through which the muses blessed our world. Most tributes will feature this song, but I'm posting a version that I'm sure no one else will be sharing. It's a live version from the great Carmen McRae, recorded in the 70s. Listen how centered her tone is, how she controls the bending notes, and how she really puts the lyrics across. The minimalist backing is perfection: Low piano chords and deep bowed bass. The sustained high note she sings at the end is a thing of beauty.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Quick Trump Dump

Some final (for now) Trump thoughts. Then back to celebrating the arts!

1. Polling showed that most Republican voters believed Hillary was more qualified, had a better temperament, and cared more about working people, but they believed Trump would bring "change" so they voted for him. How's this for change? Trump's top advisors are Rudy Guiliani, Newt Gingrich, and Chris Christie. How fresh! Oh, and his "anti-Wall Street" candidate for Treasury is Wall Street titan Jamie Dimon.

2. But didn't he express heterodox positions such as a repudiation of the Iraq War? Let's unpack this one. Trump knew which way the wind was blowing and since he wasn't part of the Republican establishment he didn't have to defend the tragedy of that horrible war. So what does he do when elected? He looks to guys like John Bolton to serve as Secretary of State. John Bolton! The most extreme neocon of them all and co-architect and chief booster of the Iraq War. The question here is whether Trump is pulling a bait and switch. I don't think so. That would require Trump to know what he is doing. I just he is too ignorant to know he is contradicting himself. But I do think his heart is with the neocons.

3. Wanting change is one thing, but willfully seeking the support of and encouraging racists is another. It will never be acceptable that the Republicans nominated, elected, and endorsed to lead our country a man willing to legitimize racism and xenophobia. Trump and the Republicans owe us a repudiation and an apology, but what are the chances of that?

4. Along with "Build that wall," the main rallying cry of Trump's campaign was "Lock her up." If that happens it will be the end of the American experiment in democracy, and the country won't survive it. Thus far Trump has given no indication that he won't pursue the imprisonment, and the Republican Congress has reconfirmed they will follow through on this. Their calls for unity ring hollow.

There's so much more that needs to be said, but I'll wrap it up here, and try with all my might to keep alive my love for the better parts of life.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leonard Can Talk to Hank Now

Well, the master songwriter Leonard Cohen is gone. After the election I'm literally in a state of depression that has really hampered my ability to get excited about the arts, which of course is the raison d'etre for this site. But I must soldier on! Cohen himself liked military metaphors for his art. On tour he called himself Field Commander Cohen, and when he spoke of writing it was always as an effort or a battle. For him it was work, noble work. He wrote slowly and his works favored precision. He liked to tell a story about when he met Dylan. He expressed his affection for Bob's "I and I" while Dylan spoke kindly of Cohen's famous "Hallelujah." Cohen asked how long it took to write "I and I" and Bob said 20 minutes. Cohen responded that "Hallelujah" took him several years. Note: this later song demonstrates how Cohen, raised as a Jew in Montreal, chose to infuse his work with the kind of Christian imagery that surrounded him there.

Most tributes are going with "Hallelujah" but I'll go with "Tower of Song" from his best or at least most accessible album, I'm Your Man. That album opens with a nice piece of attitude: "Well they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom / for trying to change the system from within." No, Cohen wasn't political, and maybe there's some solace in that right now.

"Tower of Song" features Cohen's trademark irony and wit. And also his humility. Note that Hank Williams is 100 stories above him there. And it features a couplet that is among the best any songwriter has ever come up with, a couplet that is small 'p' political I guess, and which is resigned, not cynical. If were just cynical, it wouldn't be funny. "Now, you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure," Leonard observes. "The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor."

I'm so glad my wife and I saw his North American tour, three or four years ago. Tremendous. So farewell, Leonard. When you get to heaven you will have the option of having your pain taken away, but I bet you will choose to keep it. That's where some of the best songs come from.

"Tower of Song"

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I'm very sorry, baby, doesn't look like me at all
I'm standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah, they don't let a woman kill you, not in the Tower of Song

Now, you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there's a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song

I see you standing on the other side
I don't know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We'll never, we'll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back
They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song

Yeah, my friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Friday, November 11, 2016

An Observation

The trouble with especially windy days in November is that the remaining leaves get knocked down fast and suddenly there is no color at all.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Karrin Allyson Sings "Smile"

Yes, this offered in the spirit of positive self-talk. But she is my favorite jazz singer, so it's always worth raising awareness about her. Her piano accompaniment provides an incredibly interesting and creative counterpoint to Charlie Chaplin's melody (which Wikipedia tells me was inspired by Puccini's Tosca).

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Enough Is Enough

I really don't know who reads this blog, but I hope readership includes self-identified Republicans. I want to say something about Trump, and I'll keep it brief. Whatever one might think about Trump's virtues (which are evident to his supporters if not to me), it is undeniable that he has made racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism more acceptable in our country. I know what political correctness is -- I live in Massachusetts after all -- and I'll say that to be concerned about this is not a matter of being politically correct or overly touchy. For this reason alone Trump should not be allowed anywhere near the White House. But he doesn't believe that stuff he says, argue some supporters! Well toying with racism is dangerous and unforgivable. And what does it mean that he is willing to use racism as a tool to promote himself? What does that say about a person? So, if you haven't been to the polls yet, please don't vote for Trump.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Even the Chairs Around Here Change Color in November

Self-Talk for the Last Days of the Campaign

Well, when Tuesday night rolls around half the country will be relieved and happy, and the other will be in despair. How many are like me, mentally preparing for the worst? Maybe everyone. When I lapse into fear I tell myself that Charlie Parker probably didn't know who his senator was when he invented Bebop. And can anyone tell us who was president when our grandparents fell in love? It's clear at this point that I'll never succeed in becoming apolitical. I envy those guys who say, "I never vote; it just encourages those bastards." The best I can do, I guess, is try to keep some perspective and watch out for depressing self-talk. Politics is vitally important and unimportant at the same time, isn't it? Let's just say when I'm dying I probably won't be replaying any election cycles in my mind. And if the politics of 2016 does worm its way in there, well, hopefully the doctors will have some meds for that.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Speaking In Tongues Album Cover

Designed by David Byrne

UPDATE 11-4-16

This classic cover is a clear (at least to me) homage to Jasper Johns' series of "target" paintings. I'll say it owes the most to "Target with Four Faces" from 1955. Why? Well the elements placed in juxtaposition to the circles total four: four lower faces in one, four chairs in the other. The faces appear to have no "meaning" in relation to the concentric circles. They are just there for friction, and to be weirdly suggestive. It's like a Zen koan. There isn't an answer. I don't want to impute intention to David Byrne (I don't want to insult him like that), but when I see those four chairs they don't quite seem meaningless. They look to me just like the kind of chairs you would see in homes in places where they actually speak in tongues: Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, the Smokey Mountains, like that. Overall, I would say Byrne's rendition feels more tribal too.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Charters and the Question of Good Teaching

We have a ballot initiative here in Massachusetts to increase the number of charter schools. A highly contentious issue, at least around here. So there have been scores of pieces revolving around choice, waiting lists, privatization, funding mechanisms, and so on. One crucial issue gets little if any attention though. That is the question of what we think actually constitutes good teaching and learning, and based on that what structures will get us there. Charters mostly buy into the idea that the best measure of student achievement is results of standardized tests, thus they are structured first and foremost to get high scores. This means that they need to find teachers who also buy in. A person who is a career teacher and who has spent many years, decades even, considering what constitutes good teaching and learning, as well as the best ways to nurture the development of the child, understood holistically, most likely will not want to get on board with the charter approach -- and not because they are selfish union members, as we so often hear. Tellingly, charters are mostly staffed by very young teachers who don't have much training in pedagogy but rather are people who did well academically as undergrads and now want to give back. These people are more credulous about the testing model. Crucially, many or most of these teachers leave after a couple years. I recall my mentor teacher telling me it took him at least five years to become a good teacher. I believe him, and worry about the ways charters don't seem to get this important point.