Posts Tagged ‘Frederic Chopin’

Sources of Wonder

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature necessity, and can believe nothing else.” Blaise Pascal

Marcia and I watched the movie Source Code last night and I loved it. I very rarely watch American movies and almost never watch films containing more than a suggestion of violence, and this movie was made by Americans and is full of violence; yet I did not feel I was watching a violent movie, nor did the film seem remotely American. I will not spoil the show by telling you the plot, but I will say that for me Source Code beautifully and skillfully explicates the Buddhist notion of karma and how through our actions and intentions we create our future.

I was thinking about Source Code this morning while walking on Big River Beach, amazed by how vivid everything looked and felt to me, as if the movie had somehow altered my perceptions. And then I realized I was in a state of wonder, that my personal cares and woes were no longer holding sway as they so often do these days, and I was inseparable from the wind and the roaring of the waves and the ravens gliding through the air and the sand underfoot. I was only there, it seemed, because all these other things were enlivening me, and in their absence I would disappear.

When I got home from the beach, I sat down at the piano and played with such ease and fluidity I was in heaven, and I knew the movie was working in me, though I couldn’t say how. I played and played, riding the waves of sound and marveling at the multitudes of harmonies—the entire escapade improvised yet sounding entirely composed—my hands and fingers guided by muscle memory and forty years of learning to be open to what wants to come through.

 “One never knows how one’s gifts to the world may brighten it for others and contribute to the ever-changing mystery.” Taylor Stoehr

I correspond regularly with three men, and each is a source of wonder to me. Max is about ten years younger than I, Bob is exactly my age, and Taylor is eighteen years my senior. Max is an artist and musician, Bob a former video producer turned Special Ed teacher, and Taylor is a retired English professor, poet, and translator. I am very interested in these guys and what they think and do, and they are interested in me. I have never met Taylor in-person, only met Max in-person a couple times thirty years ago, and only see Bob once a year, though for fifteen years we lived a few blocks apart and we saw each other every day.

These three men are my best friends, other than Marcia, and when I think about the truth of that I am both amazed and grateful—amazed that we have such rich connections through the words we write, and grateful that these sweet souls care enough about me to stay in touch over so much time and space. Their letters always induce in me a state of wonder in which I become for a time inseparable from their thoughts and feelings—a holiday from inhabiting this separate solitary self.

“‘I consider in my own mind whether thou art a spirit, sometimes, or sometimes an evil imp,’” said the lama, smiling slowly.” Rudyard Kipling

When I was in my early forties, I met a British fellow at a party and we got talking about our favorite authors, and he was wildly effusive about Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the novels of Russell Hoban. I had never heard of Hoban and had only read a short story or two of Kipling’s in my childhood. Because I was ever in search of great writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore in Sacramento, Time Tested Books, and got Hoban’s first three novels, The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz, Turtle Diary, and Kleinzeit, along with a beat up paperback of Kim.

You may have heard of Turtle Diary, which was made into a charming movie in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Each of Hoban’s first three novels is quite short, with chapters only a page or two in length. I gobbled those books and liked them pretty well, though the greatest gift I got from them was to be on the lookout for Hoban’s next novel, Riddley Walker, which is Hoban’s masterpiece, though not an easy read. Written in the imagined vernacular of a twelve-year old boy two thousand years after nuclear war has laid waste to the earth and the English language, I needed three determined tries at the book before my brain was able to translate Hoban’s disintegrated English into something I could understand—but I was glad I made the effort.

Reading Kim, on the other hand, was a complete life changer for me. I have now read Kim ten times in the last twenty years, having consumed it most recently a year ago. When I read Kim, I lose myself entirely in the language and the story, and always emerge from the experience deeply inspired to continue my creative pursuits, to amplify my spiritual investigations, and to relish every moment of life I am given.

For some years I urged everyone I knew (and even people I barely knew) to read Kim, but few of those who read the book on my recommendation found it to be the holy book it is to me. And more than a few women said the book was a male fantasy and not for them, and more than a few people said they thought the story dated and the writing florid, and some said Kipling was a racist and a sexist; and so I have ceased to recommend the book to anyone without massive disclaimers. Still, I read Kim every two years and the grand saga never fails to be a fabulous source of wonder and rejuvenation for me.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

In 1979 I was living in Santa Cruz and frequently attended concerts at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, a small joint in those days where jazz people with weekend gigs in the Bay Area would come down to give Monday night performances. One Monday evening I got to the venue early so I could sit close and watch Roland Hanna play. I had seen Roland when he was the pianist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I loved his playing on Jim Hall’s Concierto album, but I had never heard him play solo.

Roland Hanna was sometimes called Sir Elf because he was short and because he’d been given an honorary knighthood by the king of Liberia. But he became a giant to me that night, playing so melodically, so thoughtfully, so spontaneously, and with such groovy swing, that I walked out of Kuumbwa feeling blessed and more determined than ever to keep pursuing my own piano explorations.

My favorite Roland Hanna album was Swing Me No Waltzes, solo piano recorded in Sweden in 1979 on a Bösendorfer grand piano. I wore that record out; my favorite tune Roses Not Mums. Fast-forward several years to a jazz joint in San Francisco, Roland Hanna to play solo piano. Once again, I was there early so I could sit close, except there was some snafu with the club manager who didn’t know anything about anything and was insisting Hanna get a trio together because that’s what had been advertised. So Hanna’s manager got on the phone, and while the maestro sat in a booth sipping wine and waiting for a bass player and drummer to show up, I got up my nerve and went over to tell him how much I loved his music.

To my amazement, Hanna gestured for me to sit opposite him in the booth, which I did, and after I blurted something about seeing him at Kuumbwa and loving Swing Me No Waltzes, he smiled and said, “You play?”

“Um…well…yeah, though…”

He shook his head. “No though, man. You play. Own it.”

“Okay,” I said, sudden tears in my eyes. “Okay. Yes, I play.”

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.” He sipped his wine. “I like to play for players. You know? Because you guys get what I’m doing in a deeper way, you know?”

He was talking to me as a fellow musician, miracle of miracles, though he knew nothing about me. And then I realized he did know something about me. He knew I loved his music, especially Swing Me No Waltzes, which was an esoteric and wholly original creation, and my naming that album must have told him many things about me, about my taste and my personality. Or so I decided to believe.

“What’s your favorite tune on that record?” he asked, reaching up to shake the hand of one of three bass players who’d showed up in hopes of gigging with him.

Roses Not Mums,” I said, nodding. “Such a great tune, such an amazing journey.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” he said, nodding in time with me, “but I don’t play that tune anymore. Wrote it for my favorite bass player, and since he died I don’t play it now. But I will play something you’ll dig, I promise.”

I dug everything he played that night, and when he died ten years ago at the age of seventy, I played his music day and night for three days, thinking of him, loving him, hearing him say again and again, “No though, man. You play. Own it.”                        

Creative Paradox

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
garth hagerman

Photo by Garth Hagerman

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

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Nadia Boulanger

During the four years in the early 1990’s when I ran the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I oversaw the work of two hundred teenaged writers and worked intimately with fifty of those talented scribblers. Three of the two hundred were, in my estimation, brilliant and original and highly accomplished writers; yet these three were so deeply introverted I predicted they would never succeed as professional writers. Sadly, so far, my prediction has proved true. In the publishing world of today, ambition entirely trumps talent, and believe it or not, ambitious imitators rule the narrow roost of your favorite bookstore, independent or otherwise.

We recently watched the first two-thirds of Robert Altman’s excruciatingly painful film Vincent and Theo about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo—two-thirds of the movie being all we could bear, and even at that I was an emotional wreck. Whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of the real Van Gogh, the movie conveys the very real suffering that many visionary artists feel in the absence of lasting emotional connections to other people and society, emotional connections these artists desperately want to make through their art. Yet because society is largely a manifestation of well-established perceptions and carefully regulated protocols for the presentation of those perceptions, most creative introverts are doomed to commercial failure unless they are rescued through the intervention of a sympathetic agent (catalyst) in the body of a functional extrovert.

The few moderate successes of my own writing career occurred because of the divine efforts of an extraordinary literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, the likes of which no longer exist, for she was wholly concerned with quality and originality, while caring not a whit about commerciality or the emotional idiosyncrasies of her clients. When Dorothy died, I was left to my own devices, which, for the most part, proved unacceptable to corporate operatives who care not a whit for quality and originality, and care only about their bottom lines showing large profits.

We want to think those elegant hardbacks awaiting us on the New Arrivals table at our favorite bookstore are the cream of a diverse cultural crop, the work of artists and original thinkers, but this is rarely true, for the source of nearly all of these books is corporate fascism, the antithesis of everything we wish our culture to be. Thus the most original of our writers and musicians and artists survive on the fringes of our cultural mix and remain largely unknown to you or to me or to anyone, save for a few friends, if they are fortunate to have friends.

This systemic isolation of original artists has probably existed since the dawn of urban life, when for the first time in human evolution large numbers of people came to live together in relatively small geographical areas. Certainly without the untiring efforts of Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother and agent and only friend, we never would have received the enduring gift of Van Gogh’s genius. And because in the course of my life I have been fortunate to read the unpublished work of a handful of contemporary geniuses that few others will ever read, I assume there are thousands of such writers and artists toiling away in anonymity; which assumption brings to mind the cultivation of carrots and how of the several hundred seedlings that sprout in the carrot patch only a lucky few will survive the seemingly random act of thinning so they may attain full carrotness, with only the rarest of carrots attaining carrot magnificence.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

Having published ten books with nine different gargantuan publishing houses, eight works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, and having had essentially the same dreadful experience with each of these corporate behemoths, I, the former Executive Oddball of the International Order of Barely Functional Introverts, finally decided to embark on the path of a self-publisher. Succeed or not, I would at least have some small control over my creations (if only to be in charge of hiding them); and best of all I would never again have to watch as my years and years of toil were relegated to the trash heap with the wave of some moron’s hand, before or shortly after what should have been publication days of joy and celebration.

Though it may seem incredible, even unbelievable, to those unfamiliar with mainstream American publishing, the entire system has, for over forty years, been based on the buying and publishing of thousands of books every fiscal quarter with the foreknowledge that most of these books will be intentionally killed before or shortly after their official dates of publication. How could such a bizarre system have taken hold in a field that most people still think of as a creative part of our cultural framework? A thorough explanation of how this self-annihilating practice came to be would fill a fat volume, but I will use the brief tale of one of my own books as an example of how the system operates.

In 1995, having gone nearly a decade since publishing my fourth novel, I sold my fifth, Ruby & Spear, to Bantam for a 25,000 dollar advance. A rousing contemporary myth, Ruby & Spear is about an impetuous white sports writer, Vic, and his adventures with a fabulous black basketball player named Spear, a sexy feminist named Greta, and Spear’s tough old mystical grandmother Ruby. When they purchased Ruby & Spear, Bantam was owned by Random House, which in turn had been swallowed by a massive multinational corporation that now owns most of the previously freestanding publishing houses in America. In truth, there are only three gigantic publishers left in America, each masquerading as several publishing houses, each in reality a tiny division of a multinational behemoth.

Why did Bantam buy Ruby & Spear? I would like to say it was because their editors and sales people were eager to bring forth an entertaining literary gem; but that would be untrue. Bantam bought Ruby & Spear because they were guessing (gambling) that the movie rights to the book would be optioned for the movies before the book was published, which optioning would result in thousands of dollars of free publicity for the book; and if, indeed, a movie of Ruby & Spear was made there would be millions of dollars of free publicity. Bantam hoped the book might be sold to the movies because another of my novels, Forgotten Impulses, was on the verge of being made into a major motion movie, and because my first novel Inside Moves had been made into a film during the Pleistocene, which film caused many copies of that book to be sold.

But when Forgotten Impulses was ignominiously dropped by the movie people, and that dropping coincided with a few stupid studio execs complaining that Ruby & Spear was strangely void of violence and chock full of strong complex women and atypical men (and it wasn’t set in either New York or Los Angeles, but in Oakland, for godsake!) Bantam decided not to bring out a hardback version (ending hope of widespread reviews); and then they decided to kill the paperback edition on publication day.

To kill a book, a publisher declares the tome out-of-print and ceases distribution before that book has a chance to live. This is the fate of the vast majority of books published by large publishers, and is especially the fate of literary fiction, a rare kind of writing that does not fit into any obvious target genre such as murder mystery, sci-fi, teen vampire, adult vampire, teen wizard, or bodice-ripping historical romance. 25,000 dollars, to a corporation making most of its billions from strip mining and manufacturing cell phones and buying and selling governments, is not much of a gamble, so….

So here I am, an introverted self-publisher, my first two self-published books winners of multiple independent publishing awards, yet almost no bookstores in America carry my books, and that includes those revered independent bookstores. Why? Simple. Many people who buy books have seen and heard myriad advertisements for the latest bodice-ripping historical vampire fantasy, and many of these same people enjoyed the previous seven volumes in that marvelous series, so they very much want to read the latest regurgitation; and they have not heard of Buddha In A Teacup or Under the Table Books, nor have the bookstore people heard of my unclassifiable tomes, neither of which contains a single vampire, though both volumes are mysteriously sensual. Thus we live with the painful irony that independent bookstores generally carry only the most popular mainstream gunk because they don’t have the shelf space for (or the knowledge of) less popular books.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

Long ago I had supper with one of the most powerful publishers in America who happened to be married at the time (ever so briefly) to the editor of one of those novels I published in the Pleistocene. And when this famous publisher was nicely lit after downing a few goblets of breathtakingly expensive wine, she raised her glass and proclaimed, “Every book that really deserves to be published eventually does get published.”

And though from a career-building point of view I should have raised my glass and cried, “Hear, hear!” instead I retorted, “Methinks you are rationalizing the actions of unscrupulous corporations,” which only made her hostile. Oops. Silly me.

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Gazing back thirty-five years through the telescope of hindsight, I realize that my editor’s wife, a great and powerful publisher (who was just a person, after all) was giving voice to what we all fervently want to believe, which is that great new creations will eventually find their ways into the lives of more than a few lucky people. And I think we harbor this belief in the inevitable ascendancy of excellent original art (which hasn’t been the case for thousands of years) because for most of human evolution, when our kind were much fewer and farther between, when we lived in bands and tribes and everyone knew everyone else, that when a good new creation came along, that song or story or painting or dance or myth or spear or drum or flute stood out like the only black horse in a herd of white horses, or vice-versa, so there was no way the glorious thing could be overlooked.