Posts Tagged ‘Ceremonies’

The Magician

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

superstar

A still from The Magician, a video by Kate Greenstreet

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)

“Magicians will always tell you the trick is the most important thing, but I’m more interested in telling a story.” Marco Tempest

Most artists are unknown or little known outside their neighborhood or town or small circle of friends. This is not a bad or good thing, but merely the way of the world. My favorite poets are known to only a handful of people, and many of the finest musicians and painters and actors I’ve had the good fortune to hear and see will never be known outside the little kingdoms inhabited by their personal friends and acquaintances.

All of the hundreds of artists I have known in my life, save for those rare few who for one reason or another succeeded hugely in the mainstream of our culture, either came to accept and even relish their relative anonymity in the greater scheme of things or they ceased to make art because the hope of great success was their primary motivation for making art.

A few of my books have sold thousands of copies, but none of my nine music CDs have sold more than a hundred copies. Many people unknown to me have read my books, but most of those who enjoy my music are known to me by their first names. And yet I have always been as dedicated to my music as I am to my writing, and I intend to practice and compose music for as long as I am able. Lovers of my music are few, but they are zealous lovers, and that is sufficient.

A few years ago I recorded an album of solo piano improvisations entitled Ceremonies, each piece an accompaniment to an imagined ceremony.

One of the pieces on the album is entitled “Dance of the Seahorses” and as I improvised that tune, I imagined the slow underwater dancing of those remarkable fish, a hypnotic enactment of a never-ending ceremony.

Another piece entitled “Blue Cathedral” is a churchy blues I imagined as a sacred processional in a cathedral bathed in ethereal light.

And my favorite piece on the Ceremonies album is entitled “The Magician.” As I played that mysterious tune, I saw in my mind’s eye a graceful mime performing a slow dance full of mystical and subtly humorous flourishes.

Fast forward to October 13, 2015, four days shy of my sixty-sixth birthday. An email arrived from my pal Max Greenstreet in New Hampshire informing me that he and his wife Kate Greenstreet had just released Kate’s video-poem The Magician, with my composition “The Magician” underpinning the narrative; and that short film is now viewable on Vimeo, a web site where filmmakers can share their creations with the world.

Words are inadequate to describe how thrilled and gratified I am that Kate chose my music for this video-poem she made in league with Cynthia King. I am a huge fan of Kate’s video-poems, Max her right hand man in the making of her films, and it is not hyperbole to say that having my music harmonizing with her words and imagery is a validation and encouragement that will sustain my musical pursuits for the rest of my life.

You can watch The Magician by going to https://vimeo.com/142189708

“It is the unspoken ethic of all magicians to not reveal the secrets.” David Copperfield

A large part of my joy about Kate and Max using “The Magician” in their exquisite film is that I have endeavored several dozen times over the course of my life to collaborate with other artists on a wide variety of creations, and the vast majority of those collaborations ended in creative or emotional or financial disaster, and usually some combination of the three. It would be convenient to blame my collaborators for these disasters, but since I am the only constant in these many failed equations, I suspect the fatal flaw lies with me.

Long ago in the days before digital cameras, I collaborated on the making of a short film I wrote and directed. The audio engineer on the project said he would only collaborate with me if everyone involved in making the film had his or her role in the process clearly defined, written down, and agreed upon, and that as the instigator and financier of the project, my judgment in all creative matters would be the final one, with everyone involved agreeing to that, too, with signed documents attesting to these agreements.

At the time, I thought such punctilious preliminaries unnecessary, but he was a superb sound engineer and I very much wanted to work with him, so I agreed to his conditions. My cameraman bridled a bit at the strict clarification of his role, but he signed his agreement as did the few other people involved, and we got to work.

No collaborative endeavor I have been involved with before or since ever went so smoothly. The potential clash of egos was dispensed with at the outset, and clashing egos, as I’m sure you know, make collaboration difficult if not impossible.

And though today my creative endeavors are solo flights—no one to argue with but little old me—I often fantasize about how grand it would be to team up with a drummer or filmmaker or singer or dancers who find my music and words exactly what they’ve been looking for to meld with their artistry.

This is why I am so thrilled that Kate and Max used my music in their movie The Magician. My music, in the words of Goldilocks, was just right—our collaboration arising from friendship and mutual admiration.

As I resume collaborating with myself, I imagine my novel-in-progress calling out to prescient publishers and daring movie makers, my latest piano explorations ringing through the global etheric in quest of people who will hear my music as soundtracks to bold new explorations of the light fantastic.

Palmer Alaska

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

palmer alaska max

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Henry David Thoreau

When Marcia and I got together eight years ago, we embarked on a fascinating process of making a studio album with the help of Peter Temple, the recording savant of Albion. I played guitar and piano and sang, Marcia wrote and arranged and played gorgeous cello parts for our original tunes, and the late great Amunka Davila supplied tasty percussion. The project took several months longer than I thought it would and used up most of the money I’d set aside for such creative endeavors.

We were happy with the results, the CD entitled When Light Is Your Garden, and when the manufacture of the album coincided with the birth of my books Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books, we decided to go on a tour of the Northwest and see if we could sell some product and have fun while we were at it.

We gave concerts in bookstores, libraries, restaurants, and private homes from Mendocino to Lummi Island, our enthusiastic audiences ranging in size from three to sixty people. By the time we returned to Mendocino, our songs had changed dramatically, we had added some jazzy instrumentals to our repertoire, and we decided to make a second album entitled So Not Jazz. When that CD—more of a live affair—was finished, we gave one final concert together at Preston Hall in Mendocino, took our bows, and settled down to life without the stress of performing together.

Marcia returned to her classical music pursuits, and I embarked on a piano journey that has resulted in five CDs—43 short piano improvisations, Ceremonies, Incongroovity, nature of love, and Mystery Inventions (bass and piano duets)—with a sixth piano album in the works. That is the back-story, as they say in Hollywood.

So here I am with boxes of seven different CDs. No longer a giver of concerts, I nonetheless want to share my creations with the world. The contemporary course of action is to make little videos with the songs as soundtracks and post those videos on YouTube with links to download and streaming sites. I don’t know how to do any of that (I’m the president of the Advanced Techno Doofus Society) and I don’t have the money to pay someone to make little movies for me, though I have lots of good ideas. Our tunes are downloadable from iTunes and Amazon and CD Baby and other sites, but the challenge is convincing people to take a listen and possibly purchase the albums or individual songs.

My main course of action has been to try to get radio airplay. Not Internet airplay. Old-fashioned radio airplay. To that end, I have used the Interweb to search out the playlists of DJs all over America, and when I find one of those extremely rare people open to playing music by someone other than the hyper-famous, and that person spins music kin to ours, I send them a letter and a likely CD, wait a few weeks, follow up with a query, and monitor their playlists for a few months to see if he or she plays us.

In the past seven years I have sent my/our music to approximately three hundred DJs and music directors at dozens of itsy bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot public radio stations. I have discovered that if a station runs Democracy Now! for their national news, they might possibly be home to DJs open to our music. If they play National Public Radio, forget about it. As for the larger commercial stations, only corporate product need apply.

So far, my hundreds of hours of research and courtship have garnered a handful of DJs across America who play our albums on a semi-regular basis, including Tom Cairns KHSU Arcata California, Jim Roettger WMRW Warren Vermont, Cindy Beaulé WFHB Bloomington Indiana, Peter Poses KRFC Fort Collins Colorado, and Carol Newman KMUN Astoria Oregon. Alas, our own KZYX grants us a spin only once every seven blue moons, which makes me sad, in a local sort of way, but such is life.

The recent good news is that in my ongoing quest for likely DJs, I found the playlists of a fellow in Palmer Alaska, population 5,900, home of the Alaska State Fair, and his musical choices gave me hope. I sent him my piano CD Incongroovity. Months went by. He fell off my list of playlists to check. Then last month I did my annual visitation of the last fifty DJs I’ve sent music to, and lo, Mike Chmielewski KVRF Palmer Alaska had played several cuts from Incongroovity! I sent him a thank you email and shipped him our other CDs. And verily he has been playing our music like crazy, and by that I mean two or three songs a day.

True, we are not being heard by a great many people, but our tunes are wafting out into the pristine Alaskan air, night and day, and for the likes of me this is mightily inspiring. Every artist wants to be seen and heard and appreciated by someone else. The thought that Marcia’s gorgeous cello solo floating atop my rhythm guitar on “Samba For Mooli” might cause someone doing the dishes to stop scrubbing for a moment and allow those dulcet tones to tickle their fancy is gigantically pleasing to me.

So I shout to Marcia when I discover we’ve had another play in Palmer, “Honey, we’re still going strong in Alaska.”

Todd and Marcia’s CDs are available from UnderTheTableBooks.com and are widely downloadable, too.

Whoopsie Doopsie

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2011)

“The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough is love.” Henry Miller

A couple years ago I created a catchy blues tune entitled Whoopsie Doopsie, and after I performed the song to the apparent delight of my wife Marcia, I thought I might make a recording of the tune and see how the world liked it. I wrote a note to myself—Whoopsie Doopsie Project—and put the note in the center of my just-cleaned desk, thereby establishing a new bottom layer for the accumulation of papers and books and drawings and letters and bills that would inevitably grow into a high plateau of dysfunction until, in a fit of frustration, I abstained from eating and drinking for several hours until the mess was properly expelled.

Thus time and again over these many months, I worked my way down to a little yellow square of paper on which was writ Whoopsie Doopsie Project, a trio of words that sent me to the piano to bang out the latest rendition, after which I would say to myself, “Yes, I really should record that and see what the world thinks of it.” Then the tides of time and paper would rush in again and submerge the note, and the project would largely vanish from my consciousness, except on rainy mornings when I was practicing the piano, at which times I might essay a version or two of the pleasing apparition.

Feeling especially sad one such rainy morning, I played a very slow Whoopsie Doopsie, and the sweet little love song became dark and plaintive; and I appreciated the song in my bones rather than with my sense of humor. And that very night we went to a dinner party at which the hostess asked me to play, and Marcia suggested I premiere Whoopsie Doopsie for the public, as it were. So I performed a rather timid version of the tune, the piano unfamiliar to me, and everyone in the audience said I must bring out a recording of the song—everyone being four people.

Here are the lyrics, in their entirety, of Whoopsie Doopsie.

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Whoopsie daisy, I’m in love with you

Whoopsie doopsie, doopsie do

Tell me how you like it,

Tell me what to do

Wanna make you happy

When we’re making whoopsie do

The last line is a not-so-subtle tribute to Ray Charles. As you can see, we’re not talking about great art here. However, we are talking about the artistic process, which I find fascinating and difficult to write about. The difficulty in writing about creative processes, for me, lies in the non-verbal nature of those processes through which original art and original concepts emerge and evolve and are ultimately captured so others may experience those creations. Since there are no words for that which is wordless, the best one can hope for in describing such wordless processes are faint approximations. And the other large challenge for me in writing about making art is to ignore the nagging feeling that I am describing a process that almost always results in mediocrity or crap, otherwise known as failure.

“There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

On the other hand, many great teachers, Buckminster Fuller among them, espouse the idea that there are no failures in the inventive process, that everything we do is a valuable part of the continuum of experience. Failure, these wise ones suggest, might more usefully be understood as a necessary step along the way to discovery and fruition. Two of my favorite quotes about this idea, referring specifically to musical improvisation and composition, are from Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Miles said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note, it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” And Bill said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions. I think of all harmony as an expansion and return to the tonic.”

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

My favorite composer of classical music is Felix Mendelssohn. Why? Hard to say, for love is as ineffable as creativity. Maybe his use of complex harmonies resonates especially well with my chakras. Maybe the brilliant confluences of his polyrhythms synch perfectly with my inner groove. I don’t know. In any case, I dig the cat. So a few years ago our very own Symphony of the Redwoods performed Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and after hearing Marcia practice the cello parts for several weeks, and then being enthralled by the marvelous local rendition, I got out my Mendelssohn books to read about the Italian Symphony.

In Conrad Wilson’s Notes on Mendelssohn, to my great interest, I found that though the Italian Symphony was an instant and enormous success (the composer conducted the world premiere in London in 1833 at the ripe old age of twenty-three), Mendelssohn was dissatisfied with the composition and immediately after its premiere set about “changing the coloring of the andante, adding fresh touches of poetry to the third movement, and considerably extending the finale.” Yet despite Mendelssohn’s great fame, “his revision remained unperformed for a century and a half, and has only recently been issued in a performing version upon which most conductors are turning deaf ears.” I rushed to get one of the few extant recordings of the revised symphony (not readily available in the United States, but gettable from England) and to my ears the revised version is vastly superior to the original.

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Oscar Wilde

With the help of Peter Temple, I have made two solo piano CDs in these last year two years: Ceremonies and 43 short Piano Improvisations. While working on those albums I was forever being seduced by a particularly alluring chord pattern I would improvise on for hours at a time; yet only one diminutive piece born of that pattern was strong enough to include on 43 short Piano Improvisations. However, I continued to be enamored of that pattern and felt that one day I might succeed in recording a few longer takes of what I call Mystery Inventions.

Meanwhile, the Whoopsie Doopsie Project was bubbling away on a back burner; and verily it came to pass (driving to town one day, singing nonsense songs to the clickety-clack of our old truck on a country road) that a new and very different version of Whoopsie Doopsie escaped my lips and catalyzed an epiphany: why not make an album composed of several different interpretations of Whoopsie Doopsie, and throw in a Mystery Invention or two, too?

“One must bear in mind one thing. It isn’t necessary to know what that thing is.” John Ashberry

As of this writing (early October 2011) the Whoopsie Doopsie recording project has been seriously (or at least continuously) underway for a month, and save for a slightly menacing a cappella version of Whoopsie Doopsie that came to me in the absence of a piano, nothing is turning out as I imagined anything would. Indeed, I would say the Whoopsie Doopsie Project is currently in creative free fall, and I am not surprised. The song that inspired this undertaking becomes less and less significant with every new Mystery Invention we capture, and new tunes audition daily as I chop wood and plant garlic and pick apples and make spaghetti sauce. Old tunes, too, long neglected, saunter out of the woods, tap me on the shoulder, and sing, “Hey, what about a revised version of me?”

The floodgates have opened. Mazel tov! So long as I don’t panic and attempt to control the flow too soon or too restrictively, there’s no telling what might come pouring out of that mystery reservoir I am convinced was once a river free of dams.

Ball Bear Cat Piano

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Humphrey Bogart

Jon Miller, my favorite bard of baseball, recently used the words egregious, preposterous, cerulean, prodigious, and greensward whilst painting verbal pictures of our San Francisco Giants sweeping the Rockies and the Snakes, and making history as they did so. Jon revealed today during a lopsided loss to the Cubs, that no team in the long history of baseball had ever won six home games in a row in which they scored less than four runs in any of those six games. I agree that isn’t nearly as important as the ongoing meltdowns of the Fukushima nuclear power plants, but it does prove we have some mighty impressive pitching.

Sometimes Jon will quote the Bard (Shakespeare) himself. Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
 Hover through the fog…” might have been written expressly for baseball in San Francisco in July, except those prescient lines were written in England five hundred years ago. Yes, a baseball game announced by a gifted raconteur is an entirely different game than the same game seen on television. How can this be? Because television leaves nothing to the imagination, whereas visualizing a game while listening to an artfully improvised run of words is a prodigious imaginative feat; and every listener’s imagining of the game is unique.

Another wonderful thing about listening to intelligent, witty, insightful people (with great swaths of time to fill when nothing much is actually going on) is that they often say amazing and thought provoking things. Case in point: did you know that though the average major league baseball game takes roughly three hours to play, the action of the game—everything that actually happens other than the pitcher pitching and batters swinging or not swinging—takes only about six minutes of those three hours?

Here’s something else amazing that Jon recently imparted to us in his mellifluous voice. (Yes, I’ve heard Jon use the word mellifluous, too.) “From the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, it only takes the ball a quarter of a second to reach home plate. A quarter of a second. That’s how much time a batter has to decide whether to swing at the pitch or not.” Heck, I can’t snap my fingers in a quarter of a second, let alone swing a big old bat accurately enough to strike a nearly invisible little orb hurtling toward me at ninety-five miles an hour. Hence the famous quotation from Ted Williams, the last player to hit over .400 in a season (1941): “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

So a few days ago I was listening to the Giants battle the Arizona Diamondbacks (the Snakes) when my phone rang and it was my neighbor Cindy calling to say there was a bear in their front yard finishing up some leftovers in the garbage can they hadn’t gotten back inside the bear-proof shed quite soon enough. This news interested me more than the game (that particular game at that particular moment) because I’ve lived in this house on this land adjoining a remote part of Big River State Park for six years and had yet to encounter one of our local bears. I had frequently seen the aftermaths of their visits—bear scat, flattened deer fences, broken boughs in apple trees where bruins had climbed in pursuit of apples—but I had yet to actually see a bear.

“How big is he, or she?” I asked, thinking I might tip toe through the huckleberries to get a peek at the bear.

“He’s sitting down,” said Cindy, “and his head and shoulders are visible over the front end of the overturned garbage can. One of those very big cans. What’s that? About three feet?”

Three feet to the shoulders while sitting down? Hmm. I decided not to go have a look, recalling a frightening documentary about bears in which it was said they can outrun humans, no problem. Or what if this was a sow with cubs lurking in the huckleberries? So I turned the game back on just as Cody Ross smacked a double—nice to have Cody getting his stroke back—and the phone rang again, Cindy telling me the bear was now heading my way on the footpath through the rhododendrons.

I went to the window at the west end of our living room and looked down the gravel driveway toward our woodpile, but my pickup truck was blocking the view of where the aforementioned footpath meets our driveway. I was certainly hoping to see a bear, but I wasn’t expecting to see such a big bear. This guy (I have good reason to believe the bear was male) was huge. And when he came around the nose of the pickup truck and went up onto his hind legs and looked in the passenger window of the truck, I gasped, because this bear was much taller than my truck. Indeed, this bear seemed to be roughly the same size as the truck. Of course he wasn’t really as big as the truck, but let us say that had he been human, he would have needed a bigger truck.

Seeing or smelling nothing worth eating in the diminutive vehicle, the bear dropped back down on all fours and continued into our front yard—a small meadow ringed by rhododendrons in glorious bloom and huckleberry bushes laden with blossoms presaging another abundant late summer harvest. I expected see the bear traverse the meadow and disappear into…

The bear came directly to the bottom of our front stairs. I know this because I was standing at the front door, the sliding glass variety, looking out at the bear looking up at me from six stairs down. That’s how many stairs there are: six. Then the bear rose up onto his hind legs again, perhaps to show me how big he was, or to reveal his gender, or to get a better look at me. In any case, he stayed upright for a long moment and then went back down on all fours and started up the stairs.

Two things struck me in that moment. Well, more than two things struck me, but two things struck me harder than the other things that were striking me. 1. For some reason I was not particularly frightened, though I thought I should be. 2. The bear looked goofy. He did not look anything like the bears I saw eons ago in Yosemite, nor did he look like the bears I’ve seen in National Geographics, the magazine or the documentary films. This bear looked goofy. He had lopsided floppy ears, and one rheumy eye noticeably larger than the other rheumy eye, and flies buzzing around his goofy face, which made me think he might be a very old bear with failing eyesight, which would explain why he was wandering around during the day instead of being appropriately nocturnal.

In any case, when he placed his enormous paw on the second step from the bottom, I banged on the glass, made what I hoped was a frightening face, and I growled. Roared, actually. To which that huge goofy bear responded by turning tail, so to speak, and hurrying away.

“Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.” Bob Veale

Relieved to have so easily vanquished the bear, I turned the radio back on just as Andres Torres smacked a double down the right field line—so nice to have Torres back in the leadoff spot—and I noticed our cats Hootie (slender and black) and Django (fat and gray) were nonchalantly sprawled on the sofa as if nothing untoward had just happened. Important factoid: Hootie and Django are cats who run and hide when I, the person who feeds them and pets them and calls them silly names, makes too sudden a movement or raises my voice much past a whisper. Hootie and Django will catch a whiff of something (a passing mountain lion?) and thereafter refuse to leave the house for days on end. These are cats who scurry under the bathtub when people they’ve met seventy times come to visit. Yet these scaredy cats seemed utterly clueless that a gigantic bear had just been moments away from breaking down the front door, ransacking the house, and eating them! Why were the cats so unmoved by the bear?

Because maybe the bear wasn’t a bear. Maybe the bear was a spirit being disguised as a bear. Wouldn’t that explain the goofy face and floppy ears? Maybe the bear was the embodiment of some old terror of mine, some old unfinished business that was now finished because I banged on the glass and made a terrible face and growled. I had become the bear. I had become my fear and thereby released the fear to be carried away into another dimension by the spirit bear being. Or maybe the cats knew this bear, knew he was goofy and harmless, and so were not afraid.

“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” Earl Wilson

So…after the Giants won a nail biter on Cody Ross’s walk off single in the bottom of the ninth, I sat down at the piano and played for a while. And as I played, one of my favorite things happened. Hootie hopped up beside me on the piano bench and listened to me play. Or maybe he wasn’t listening, maybe he was just hanging out and enjoying the vibe of the person who feeds him enjoying playing the piano.

I don’t play written down music. I improvise on themes and patterns and inventions I’ve found over forty years of playing every day for an hour or two or three. And on that day the bear came to visit, I played with the bear in mind, the music changing from somber to funny to nostalgic to grandiloquent to sweet—our little black cat sitting beside me the whole time.

Todd’s new CD of piano improvisations Ceremonies is available from underthetablebooks.com and downloadable from iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby.