Friday, December 30, 2016

My Resolution

Carvaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602, oil on canvas, 52.6 in. x 66.7 in.
I don't have any immediate plans to reduce my vices, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in self-improvement! So today, in front of God, the blogosphere, and everyone, I resolve during 2017 to learn more about the Baroque master Caravaggio (1571-1610). Here, Judas has just betrayed Jesus with a kiss. But is it actually betrayal, when the act was essential for the cosmic salvation story to play out as it was ordained to?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Healing Song for 2017: "Witchi-tai-to"

We need healing, we need it soon, and we need it for real. Jim Pepper was an accomplished Native American jazz saxophonist of Kaw-Muscogee descent. Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry urged him to draw on his roots to create his own sound. So he did. He composed "Witchi-tai-to" by adapting a traditional peyote ceremony healing song.* I've listened to it several times this week. My dream is that instead of having a child singer and a smattering of Rockettes perform at Trump's inauguration they would put this song on repeat and everyone would lose their power ties and join in a giant improvised circle dance. I visualized that and it felt good. Maybe in some parallel universe it will happen, and the bleed-through will help us out a bit. Be well.

* After the opening chant, the music kicks in at around 0:35.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Getting Zen About the Meaning of Zen

The linguist John McWhorter was on NPR this morning. He's exceedingly convincing on why words are always morphing in meaning and pronunciation. Honestly, he makes the vigilance of the Language Police seem not just misguided, but useless and absurd. The idea is that words mean whatever people want them to mean and that definitions are gradually codified through usage as opposed to the top-down judgments of language authorities. Still, some usages grate. I mean, I'm totally fine with the use of words like 'totally' and 'like' as modifiers (or are they qualifiers?). But there are limits. In my view it's simply wrong to describe anything having to do with yoga as being "very Zen," as is the current colloquial practice. The Buddha created his mode of spiritual practice after explicitly rejecting the exertions and strivings of yoga as a path to enlightenment. In Zen, a form of Buddhism, enlightenment (or satori), occurs in a flash of insight into the nonduality that undergirds existence. Nothing could be less Zen than yoga, since the insight comes without effort. To me it would be like describing a mosque as being very Christian. All that being said, I realize that my objections are ultimately meaningless, and that the word Zen, like all other words, will come to mean whatever people want it to mean. What's hard about this one is that I'm watching the change happen in a real time, and, having been a student of world religions, acceptance is tough. But McWhorter has convinced me that I would be wise to let it go. That would be Zen.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Townes Van Zandt: "Tower Song"


So close and yet so far away
And all the things I'd hoped to say
Will have to go unsaid today
Perhaps until tomorrow
Your fear has built a wall between
Our lives and all what lovin' means
Will have to go unfelt it seems
And that leaves only sorrow

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall some day

You close your eyes and speak to me
Of faith and love and destiny
As distant as eternity,
Truth and understanding
The wind blows cold outside your door
It whispers words I've tried before
But you don't hear me anymore
Your pride's just too demanding

The end is coming soon, it's plain
A warm bed just ain't worth the pain
And I will go and you'll remain
With the bitterness we tasted
A mother's breast, a newborn child
A poet's tear, and drunken smile
Can't help thinkin' all the while
Their meaning won't be wasted

A Frank Auerbach Christmas?

My wife has been getting into the British painter Frank Auerbach lately, so I thought I would post an image. I plucked this one from the Tate Britain website, which hosted a large Auerbach show in 2015. I chose this portrait because it's a particularly arresting image and also because I'm a sucker for the prominent use of white in oil paintings. Then I started to reconsider. I mean, this is the holiday season, the season of good cheer, and this painting is hardly cheery, nothing if not turbulent. But wait. The impact of Jesus, or the idea of Jesus, or the experience of what is perceived as Jesus, has also been turbulent. How else could an entire civilization be built around such a source? We do know that Jesus was a philosopher of nonviolence and common dignity, but we also know he said, in Matthew 10:34, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." This is a metaphorical statement regarding the wrenching process of transforming society from the (small 'p') politics of domination to the politics of brotherhood, a process which has proceeded in fits and starts but which has also carried us a mighty long distance from the Roman Empire. The portrait above also conveys ambivalence (Is the figure emerging or dissolving?), which also describes the state of peace-oriented spirituality in today's world (advancing or in retreat?). It sure seems like Rome is ascendant now, with belligerent top-down governing and corruption the flavor of the moment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thank You Obamas, Plus a Reading List

I loved President Obama and the way he and Michelle represented our country. When I saw them in action I was proud. They represented so much of what I value, and it was a distinct pleasure for me to watch their form of leadership. To say that Republicans disagreed is an understatement. They despised the Obamas with a fury that was and is still shocking to me. It just shows that reality is pretty subjective. As they have proclaimed for years, they prefer a leader in the mold of Putin. So now we have our bargain basement version in the person of Trump, which fills me with shame when I think that he represents us. So the shoe's on the other foot now -- and it pinches my toes severely and my heel comes up when I walk. And to add insult to injury, I hate the way it looks.

I'm trying to not read obsessively over this turn of events. But here are some pieces well worth your time.

1. The best piece on Obama, race, and American culture that I have encountered is by Ta Nehisi Coates, writing at the Atlantic. Truly a superb essay. It's called "My President Was Black."

2. Extremely interesting interview with Noam Chomsky at Truthout.

3. For foreign policy analysis I read Daniel Larison at the American Conservative on a regular basis. Bush-Cheney Part II anyone?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Milton Babbitt: Abstract Audio/Visual

Babbitt is one of the great composers of 20th century "classical" music, also known as "new music" or "experimental" music. Thanks to YouTube, music that once was very hard to purchase in the form of LPs or CDs is right there for the listening. It hardly needs to be said that this kind of music is unpopular: it is. But now with accessibility so increased it's easier to make the case that the unpopularity is unwarranted. Babbitt had a reputation as an especially difficult composer, but I think that's less because of the music than because of an article he once wrote called "Who Cares If They Listen," a polemic in defense of experimental and "advanced" music and against the notion that popularity tells us something about the worth of a work of art. He did himself no favors with his rhetoric, which seems to embrace the notion of his music's difficulty. But then again, it's a good conversation starter, no?

This version of "Composition for 12 Instruments," conducted by Ralph Shapey, is exponentially enhanced by the incredible montage of abstract art images so wonderfully composed by the videographer, identified at YouTube as lendallpitts. I see a lot of images in the style of Franz Kline, as well as some early Picasso, some Miro, some Klee, some Rothko, as well as a bunch I can almost but not quite identify. The music and the art share the quality of not being concerned with what I will call "getting from here to there." The music has no clear time signature and the artworks lack narrative, so there aren't the usual features listeners and viewers like to grab onto in order to be carried away. Instead one's focus moves to the beauty found in moments, in the ring of an oboe tone, in the intensity of a given color; the unusual quality of a harmony, the texture of a brushstroke as white overlaps on black. The "not going anywhere" aesthetic is very close in spirit and experience to mindfulness meditation. Is it possible for music and art to be both austere and ravishing? I think yes.

Yesterday I watched a Beyonce video that had 58 million views. This Babbitt clip has 14,000. That gap won't be closed anytime soon. But maybe Babbitt could rise up to 50,000 views. And that would be cool, even if Babbitt himself couldn't have cared less.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lou Marinoff: Reflection, Distortion, and Ethics

I've had the pleasure of engaging with the philosopher (and "Renaissance Man") Lou Marinoff in the context of my work. One of Lou's big things is to revive philosophy as something intimately connected with living a good life. His reflections here (about reflections) give a good taste of his approach to philosophy, art, and life.
“Reality is not stable; it is constantly shifting and shimmering. In consequence, every instant is unique. Reflections in water illuminate and exaggerate these evanescent instants, producing images that are even more fleetingly original (and hence more poignantly real) than the actual things reflected. Since glass is also a fluid — albeit a super-fluid that flows in ultra-slow motion  — it is also capable of producing similar illuminations and exaggerations. Every reflected image is a unique slice of reality. It can only be seen once, if at all. Every photo is a mere slice of a slice, but with persisting view-ability. If anyone objects that reflections are distortions of reality, consider that almost all views of reality are distorted to begin with. Those whose views are distorted in harmful ways produce harm; in helpful ways, help; in beautiful ways, beauty.”
Visit Lou's website.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Simon & Garfunkle: "American Tune"

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it's all right, it's all right
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

Let's Hear It for Linda McCartney

Look. I try to be fair. No, more than fair. Scrupulously fair. But you knew that. That's why you're here. At any rate, here's a case in point. We all know that Paul McCartney's post-Beatles body of work is, by comparison, pretty lame. But the question is, how lame? Not as lame as is often suggested is my short answer. They were showing a Wings concert from the mid-70s on the music channel recently and I got into it. I wasn't bored at all, and was actually impressed. Part of it is the ridiculous amount of musical talent displayed by Sir Paul. Part of it is that his melodies continued to charm and engage throughout the Wings years. ("Maybe I'm Amazed," "My Love," etc.) They hadn't yet become workmanlike. With that out of the way, I turned my attention to the burning question in the hearts of all Beatles fans: What was Linda doing up there and could she actually sing? Yes, she could sing. She wasn't going to take any leads, but her backing vocals were in tune and mixed nicely with the other voices.

That dispensed with, I thought that in all fairness* to Linda I really should spend some time looking at her photography. This, after all, was her true art form. I haven't seen enough of her work yet to form a full opinion. Most of the images view-able online are her pics of various rock stars. The fame of the subjects is distracting, so I don't want to judge on that basis. But there is one really great photo prominent online. It's a family scene with Paul in his bathrobe balancing on a fence and a couple of the kids playing beneath him. You can see why Paul might have found this preferable to being a Beatle. The photograph reads like a very successful homage to Cartier-Bresson, with spontaneity and composition fused in a manner most felicitous. A really great photo. Below is a delightful image of their daughter Stella.

* And here is another title option for my non-existent memoir: In All Fairness

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Trump Versus Whitman

Like Whitman, Trump contradicts himself. Sort of like Whitman, he contains multitudes. Except in his case they're all conspiracy theories and confidence schemes.

Saturday, December 3, 2016