Posts Tagged ‘notes’

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.”                        

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.