Posts Tagged ‘guitar’

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

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.

Practice(ing)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

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

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

Marcia and I were walking on Big River Beach yesterday, the wet sand firm underfoot—Big River swollen and muddy from the recent deluge, a light rain falling.

As we reveled in the windy wet, free from our various indoor practices, our conversation ran from gossip to silence to politics to silence to memoir to silence to what we might have for supper. And at some point Marcia asked me about a speaking engagement I’ve accepted, a keynote address at a writers’ conference, the dreaded topic—The Creative Process—chosen for me by the conference planners. I say dreaded because I think most of what I’ve ever read about the so-called creative process is hogwash, and I fear that anything I might add to the dreaded subject would be hogwash, too.

Long ago I worked in a day care center overseeing a mob of little kids. The day care center was located ten minutes from Stanford University and we were forever being visited by earnest graduate students writing theses about educational techniques, educational philosophies, educational processes, and God knows what else pertaining to mobs of little kids. Having no degree of any kind, let alone a degree in Small Child Management, I found it highly amusing to be the frequent recipient of attention from these humorless academics, some of whom, I’ll wager, went on to author textbooks for aspiring nursery school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and other Small Child Management educators. Could it be that information gathered from interviews with me conducted by these earnest humorless people helped shape curricula for early childhood education in America? I hope so, but I doubt it.

One day as I was supervising my mob of kiddies in our outdoor playground, a woman named Stella, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, stood beside me, clipboard in hand, asking questions about my supervisory process, a process I had theretofore never tried to elucidate to anyone.

Stella: I note at this time that all the children seem to be safely and happily occupied. I have recorded a current population distribution of one group of five children, two groups of three, four dyads, and three solitary individuals. Would you say this is a typical distribution of the total?

Todd: Um…well, certainly not atypical.

Stella: Would you characterize these as established groups or new and/or developing configurations?

Todd: The configurations are ever changing, though girls tend to hang out with girls, and boys with boys, especially among four and five-year olds. Two and three-year olds tend to be more gender polyrhythmic, if you know what I mean.

Stella: (makes a note) We’ll come back to gender aggregates, but for now I’m curious to know what specific actions you took to precipitate this particular distribution of individuals and groups, and if you employed any specific techniques for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Are you serious?

Stella: Yes. I have noted zero incidents of crying, fighting, or moping in the entire population for over fifteen minutes now, which defines these play actions and this particular population distribution as successful.

Todd: Could you repeat the question?

Stella: (reading) What techniques did you employ for settling the children into these successful play actions?

Todd: Let me think about that for a minute. (shouting across the playground at a five-year-old boy about to destroy a sand castle just completed by a four-year-old girl) Don’t do it, Lance.

Stella: Wow. (flips to a new page) Would you characterize that as a tone-based warning or a content-based warning?

Todd: Both. And now if you’ll excuse me, Megan is about to slug Bianca and I would like to intervene before their play action becomes highly unsuccessful.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” Yogi Berra

I want to be helpful to people who aspire to write, so I will try to come up with an inspiring keynote address—because inspiration can sometimes get the ball rolling—though in truth there is no “the creative process.” Each of us has to roll our own ball our own way, and that’s all there is to it: rolling your own creative ball. I use rolling to mean doing, acting, working—everything else is just talking about rolling, which is not the same as rolling, believe you me.

“It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.” W.H. Auden

Thirteen years ago I published The Writer’s Path, a book of my original writing exercises, and before the silly publisher took the book out-of-print, The Writer’s Path sold ten thousand copies with never a penny spent to promote that most helpful tome. Excellent used copies of The Writer’s Path can be found on the interweb for mere pennies plus the dreaded shipping charge.

I designed each exercise in the book to be a non-analytical way to practice a particular aspect of the writing process (not to be confused with the creative process.) For instance, many writers (as in most writers) have big trouble rewriting their initial drafts. Among the many underlying causes of this big trouble are: 1) rewriting skills are developed through thousands of hours of practice, and very few people are willing to work so hard for so little in return 2) rewriting is all about change, and most people are deathly afraid of change 3) rewriting reveals the inadequacies of the original drafts, and such revelations, especially for beginning writers, can be huge bummers.

So I came up with a series of exercises involving the swift creation and destruction and re-creation and re-destruction and re-creation of lines of words, intuitive processes that obviate fear and short-circuit analytical thinking—the great enemy of spontaneous word flow—to give writers invigorating rewriting workouts.

Writing, drawing, and playing music are muscular activities as well as mental processes, and I have no doubt that all original stories, pictures, and songs result from synergetic collaborations of our physical muscles with our cerebral muscles, along with valuable input from unseen agents of the unknowable, if you believe, as I do, in such fantastic nonsense.

“The world is a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Sean O’Casey

When at nineteen I embarked on a vagabond’s life and could not take a piano with me, I bought a guitar in the sprawling mercado of Guadalajara and taught myself how to play. A year later, having spent a good thousand hours developing a thumb-dominant style of picking and strumming, I stood on a sidewalk in Toronto, strumming and singing. And lo a miracle befell me. Yea verily, dozens of smiling Canadians threw coins and paper money into my dilapidated cardboard guitar case and thenceforth I was a professional musician. Not long after that initial sprinkle of heavenly largesse, I bought a much better guitar and for a time made a minimalist living as a troubadour.

Eventually my piano regained supremacy in my musical life and my guitar became (and remains) a sometimes friend. Two years ago, Marcia and I produced two groovacious CDs of instrumentals and songs featuring guitar and cello (When Light Is Your Garden and So Not Jazz), though of late my focus is on piano improvisations and Marcia is happily immersed in various classical music pursuits. But I digress.  

What I set out to say was that I became a highly functional guitarist through thousands of hours of practice, and I always—this is key—used a thumb pick (on my right thumb) when I played the guitar. And then a few years ago I made a startling discovery, which was that unless my right thumb was actively involved in the playing of a tune, I (this body brain spirit consortium) had no idea where to put the fingers of my left hand to make the chords for any of the songs I knew. That is to say, my right thumb, for all intents and purposes, is the only part of me that really knows how to play my songs.

People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.” Sandy Koufax

Marcia’s mother Opal is ninety-three and still drives her car all over Santa Rosa where she lives in her own apartment in a commodious retirement community. Two years ago, Opal took up pocket billiards, otherwise known as pool, playing twice a week with friends in the billiards room across the hall from the ping-pong room. When Marcia and I go to visit Opal, we play three or four games of pool with her every night, Marcia and Opal teamed up against Todd, their dyad getting two turns for every one of mine, which makes for a fairly even contest.

What I find most inspiring about Opal learning to play pool so late in life is that every time we play with her, she not only plays better than when we last played, she plays much better.