Thursday, March 29, 2012

Origins and Ends: Keeping Focused

In Zen one is invited to meditate on one’s “original face”.  In the New Testament, St. Paul even mocks those who look into the Word of God (which "in the beginning" was God) , see what they really look like, and then wander off, forgetting that experience and get lost in everyday existence.  Whether one looks to the East or the West, this is an important exercise.  The same is true in music.

And whether Eastern or Western in outlook, keeping one’s goals and the end of any particular process or exercise in mind is equally important.  We do this all the time with reflections on our own Constitution and Bill of Rights, and with the political process of assessing what our vision for our country is.

My previous post involved a recollection of those first primal experiences that grabbed me by the hair and dragged me into the lair of the Muse.  Of course, one is much more likely to have those kinds of thunderbolt experiences in childhood and adolescence.   That doesn't make them any less valid  (see my previous post about the inspiration for "The Glance").  This is the musical equivalent of First Love.  I have likened it to having the top of one’s head cut open, and then rising up to a totally new and unsuspected view of a mysterious landscape, one that speaks directly of feelings and understandings at the root of reality that one never even knew one had.   I think it’s important for all artists and musicians to keep in mind, to cherish and meditate on these powerful seminal events, all along the way.  It is so easy to not follow a path requiring great effort, discipline, and sacrifice.  And then it is almost as easy to get immersed in the pursuit of craft, of technical excellence for their own sake.  My first mentor, Robbie Basho, always used to say, "Vision first; technique later."  And my own experience has been that often, vision creates technique, by its demands that one stretch to express the new thing. 

And having remembered that original First Love inspiration, one can then cherish the blind hope that one's own fumblings in the dark, by staying true to the night vision, may lead to further connections with this deeper reality, so that one might be a channel for others to experience that rising.....

Never forget your original face.  If the thunderbolt experience of music is a falling in love, we must never forget the Beloved.  In pursuit of that hope, of that crazy dream, one has to learn to listen to one’s own heart and the most subtle movements of sound and silence:  we cannot arrive at the goal by re-creating someone else’s path.   My constant guide in the studio is a saying that my first classical guitar instructor from the 1970's (Fred Gibson) used to repeat:

              "You can play as good as you can hear!"

Attention!   Attention!   Or as the old Christian hymn sings, “Wake!  Awake!”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Warning: What music is meant to do....

I just watched a documentary about Glenn Gould, one of my favorite people, "Genius Within:  the Inner Life of Glenn Gould".  
This put me in touch with my earliest encounters with the music of Bach, and its lifelong effects on me. 
Then, synchronicity being, well, synchronous, this morning I ran across this short poem that I improvised seven years ago (the internet community The Well has a "topic" for writers called "More 2-minute Poetry"), and thought it appropriate to share here:

like it was yesterday
the memory of Bach first ravishing me
so many years ago
flayed wide open
brain unfurled and nailed thin
to black velvet night with star points,
a living specimen,
left hanging as a warning
to any who would heed
the whisperings of the heart

            --   8.17.05

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

CONCLUSION: 8. Hard Time

As we neared the end of recording (and I was figuratively crawling on hands and knees to try to reach the finish line), I realized that the album really needed to have one tune that was under 3 minutes, 30 seconds.  That is a time limit that apparently defines the outer limit of attention for radio DJ’s and is an industry standard.  One PR firm I spoke to had suggested including three “radio edits” of my pieces on the album, but I didn’t like the idea of being represented by something that gets your attention and then fades out.   To make things worse, since Bev passed away last April, I found it extremely difficult to improvise in the studio (the only exception being “A Song of New Beginnings”:  go figure.)

I had one little melody fragment that, like other discoveries in the studio improvising, was going to open up into a new “fragrance”, a new landscape.  I hadn’t gone back to it yet, because it is so dark, but I decided that since it’s all I had, I would move it forward.  And the rest of the piece quickly developed.  It would have been nice to close the album on a bright note (for instance, I could have put “A Song….” at the end).  But, despite it’s gravity, this little piece seemed perfect for the end.  Thematically, it relates to several of the other pieces:  I always like to have motifs being echoed back and forth through a piece or a larger opus.  And then, just as the opening invocation piece had ended on a note rising to a high 5th or dominant of the scale with a note of promise, “Hard Time” ends with a figure descending to a low 5th/dominant note, and thus also not really closing off or ending the music.  Contradicting my earlier statement (about having a distaste for symmetry), in this case, I do like the symmetry, maybe because it’s not a mirror reflection perfect symmetry, but a “handed” symmetry, more like a call-response.

Anyway, there you have it.  Some more notes on all eight tunes on the CD.  I hope they are of some interest.  Let me know if you have any thoughts about these commentaries or any questions. 

7. A Song of New Beginnings

This is the only piece on the album NOT performed on my wonderful old acoustic steel-string made by Vincenzo DeLuccia in 1915, (and restored at Jon Lundberg’s wonderful shop in Berkeley). 

Last year, I got a National resophonic steel guitar (O-14).  For years, I had treated these instruments in the traditional way:  blues, with or without slide.  Frankly, I am not the greatest blues guitarist, and so I never really clicked with the instrument.  But two years ago, I was in a shop having luthier Trevor Healey do some work on the DeLuccia, and they happened to have a National on consignment.  Having nothing to do, I tuned it in the way I tune my guitars for raga style explorations (variations of open C), instead of either standard tuning or the typical open G.  Admittedly, this was also a very good quality National.  But suddenly, bringing the instrument into the Indian raga realm suddenly made perfect sense:  it has a timbre closer to my favorite instrument, the sarode, even than a steel-string guitar.  I knew then that some day I was going to have to get one.  And that “some day” happened last summer (2011), in one of my visits to the wonderful Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto.  They had three brand new Nationals just in, and this one had the perfect balance I am always looking for in an instrument.

As I say on the album “A Song of New Beginnings” is “a straight-ahead raga, exploring the rasas (emotions) of hope, courage and the joy of unfettered voyaging on the high seas.”  A typical Hindustani raga will begin with an initial free-form exploration (everything is improvised, BTW) of the notes and melody of the piece, before the drummer enters;  this is called the "Alap".  Well, actually, technically, there is no "beginning" of a raga:  an instrument called a tambura sets up a repeated background drone that establishes the connection with the cosmic "Om" of all creation.  That drone continues throughout the entire piece.  Out of this cosmic sound, the Alap then emerges.  When this free-form meditation is done, the drummer (player of the two drums called the tabla) begins the "gat" or main body of the raga by establishing the rhythmic cycle, just as the soloist plays the melody of the raga.  Both melody and rhythmic cycle are always in the background of the rest of the piece, although the improvisations and variations take it all over the place. 

This is the only song on the album played on the National steel resophonic guitar.  Although at the time I was deeply struck with grief following the death of my lovely wife Bev, this song kind of dropped down out of somewhere, piercing the gloom to let me know of what lies ahead some day when the dark clouds clear up.  In the context, it was surprising, to say the least, and that is where the title came from.  Another joyous piece that I love to play

6. Knights of the Interior Castle

Dedicated to the great Carmelite saint, St. Teresa of Avila, one of whose master works is “The Interior Castle”, a description of the inner journey to union with God.

On the album, I wrote “They appear mysteriously in the upper keep of the interior castle, fan the songs of the blessed into flame, wheel around like chariots of fire, and disappear back into the night.”

Clearly there is a “Bolero”-like arc to the piece, except I didn’t want this to end with a big orgasmic explosion, but rather to let the melodic elements play out and evolve, the “songs of the blessed” to be heard as a background chorus, the steeds to open up their gait and burn brightly through an expanding interior space, and then have the knights just vanish as mysteriously as they had appeared. 

A lot of Moorish overtones on this one, naturally.  It is a nice “framework” for improvisation, and I have performed it several times as a duo improv with the talented Mari Aranoff on flute.

5. The View from San Damiano, with Rain

The album mentions the Franciscan retreat house San Damiano in Danville, California.  And clearly the piece recreates a rain storm gradually approaching, pouring down, and leaving.

The title of, and idea for, this piece came from a composition by the great Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, "Cuban Landscape with Rain."  I played this composition with a classical guitar quartet I belonged to about 10 years ago.  At the time, I kept trying to convince the other guitarists to treat each of the little themes that we each had for each section of the developing rain storm as a matrix for improvisation, but no one was going for it.  Ironically, the composer himself was very interested in such ideas, and had incorporated "aleatoric" (i.e. randomness) techniques into instructions for some of his other works.  As a result,  the performances of Brouwer’s piece, even the recording by the LAGQ, always sound mechanical and way too regular to my ear.  I am hoping some day to get one or two other guitarists to play with me my own version of a rain storm, in this free and improvised way:  I think the results could be astounding.  And fun:  we are meant to PLAY the guitar, not to WORK it.

For the active guitarist, the approach used here opens up a lot of possibilities for exploration.  The use of randomness and allowing uncontrolled happenings opens one back up the mystery of the real world:  this is how events happen, and interact all together in the real world.  Only in recent times has there arisen an actual way to study this phenomenon, generally referred to as “chaos theory”.  Part of this new mathematics involves the notions of “Mandelbrot sets”:  the creation of large organic-looking structures (whose elements are scalable:  tiny leaves are arranged in patterns that create self-similar larger leaves), and the discovery that relatively simple procedures of iterations can create complex systems.  Another interesting aspect of chaos theory involves the discovery of, and attempts to describe, “strange attractors”:  apparently random events nonetheless strangely seem to keep appearing in particular places that have a certain order to them, creating these shapes called strange attractors.  

Traditional science has confined itself to carefully controlled experiments in the lab:  all parameters except the one being studied are eliminated.  This clearly separates the phenomena being studied from the natural, real world, where all things co-exist and interact, and are even co-creating (as the Buddhists say) and co-dependent (well, not in the abusive way of alcoholic families!)  Chaos theory arose out of the perception that despite the complex irregularity of patterns in nature, we intuitively feel that there is order in them:  they are pleasing to us.  And in some ways, the irregular “chaotic” order of natural processes (waves, and clouds, and leaves, patterns of plants, and rocks and all things interacting….) are more deeply satisfying than highly regular, predictable, symmetrical representations of order, “classical order.”    This is important territory for me because I have always been driven crazy by hard-edged, symmetrical, overly regular, starkly defined things and environments (and people, for that matter!)   I prefer oak trees to pines, plants and animals to man-made structures, and maintain a LARGE distance from artificial environments like malls.

If we can learn to be in tune with these complex rhythms of nature, they may become great assistants in generating new and interesting musical ideas.  This is not a new idea, by the way.  Leonardo Da Vinci once said that all he needed for inspiration was to see an old wall with moss and discolorations running every which way. 

There are a lot more significant things to be said for this realm of investigation, but I hope I have spelled out my own interest in it to illuminate the ideas for the listener, and made a good case for its relevance for the active musician.

Monday, March 12, 2012

4. The Glance

On the album, I wrote:
“A single glance from the beloved is enough to inspire a lifetime.  For my wife Bev. 

The genesis of the piece lies really in the heart and origin of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”!  This masterpiece of spirituality (and literature) was written by the Florentine in the latter part of his life, therefore in the 13th Century.  Its basic premise is that the narrator “awakes midway through this life in a savage wood”, discovering he has unconsciously wandered off the true path.   He can see the highway through the woods up above, but when he tries to go there directly, he is prevented by three savage beasts (symbols of his own lower nature).   Soon, he encounters a guide, sent to him through the prayers of one in heaven who is watching out for him, Beatrice.  He learns that the only way back to the true path is to travel an entire journey through hell and purgatory and heaven itself, to see what the results of all of one’s actions are.  

One of the most astounding things about this great work is that it is not directly through the Blessed Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, but through an actual earthly woman connected to Dante whose love will guide him all the way (albeit through the power of the Blessed Virgin Mary).  Thus, Dante establishes a complete and total continuum of love, creating a highway from the earthly to the divine.  Although the Church has always taught the sacramental nature of the love relationship, this goes light years further than mere theology, and really connects with our own personal experiences of a real life lived here and now.

Now, the second astounding thing about the genesis of this master work is that Dante fell in love with Beatrice at the age of 9, after seeing her once on the streets of Florence.  And, although he saw her again a few times, their families were not close, and eventually he grew up, married someone else, had children.  But when it came time to symbolize the great mystery of the journey of redemption, he went back to this primal, seminal mind-blowing event that had clearly stayed quite bright and living all through his life.

At this point, my own personal story joins the stream.  I had been working on the piece at the time my wife Bev was suddenly and taken ill, (totally out of the blue and without any antecedent conditions).  Within six weeks, she succumbed.  However, at the very last minute, we were somehow granted, totally unexpectedly and against all medical odds, to share a glance together for about two minutes just before she passed.  And that was when the musical piece was completed, as I added the final tolling of a bell at the end, and the lingering farewell of the conclusion.

3. Joelle's Song

3.         Joelle’s Song

This was music composed for the wedding of a daughter of a friend.  The theme kind of appeared all at once, and then worked itself out so easily that I was convinced for the longest time that it must be someone else’s song.  The wedding occurred in a small historic building in Aptos, California.

Basically, the song is in two sections:  a Processional called “To the Brink”, and the Recessional called “Setting Sail”.  When I first discussed the music with Joelle and her mom, I told her that my sense of a marriage is of a very powerful and meaningful first experience for the bride and groom in their lifes, an awesome moment filled with anticipation, hope, anxiety, deep feelings and thoughts of all kinds.....  I wanted the music to be minimal and unobtrusive, a kind of very light high-register setting for the very real and meaningful human events unfolding in a sacramental space.   It seemed to me to be wrong to intrude musically on those few moments the bride and groom have as they physically and mentally approached the event.   Joelle’s mom was hoping for something grander and magnificent (and yet she was the one who asked me to play for the wedding, and therefore knew it would just be solo guitar).  But Joelle herself liked the approach I was taking.

In the actual event, the bride was at least 30 minutes late, and so the music before the Processional became a full-blown raga (that was mostly ignored by the room full of celebrants, all of whom were talking at once).  And then, as so often happens with the “plans of men”, the Recessional was by-passed and shuttled off to the side by the minister who spontaneously changed how the exit of married couple and celebrants would proceed.  As a result, Joelle never heard the song in its entirety until last year! 

For me, it's piece filled with joy, expansion, hopes, dreams, expansion.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Giving Voice": Cut 2: The Meeting Pool at Moonrise

2.         The Meeting Pool at Moonrise

This is a very dream-like piece, with figures that weave through the middle and upper voices.  As I said on the album, we really become human as we share our stories with each other, as we take each other’s stories into our own hearts.  Through hundreds of thousands of years, we have been doing this, often around a campfire, a gathering at the end of the day:  an exciting hunt, a scary encounter, a funny stumble, a heart-felt connection or an old memory.....  each is recounted, re-enacted and shared.   There was also the common meeting pool where people come together, to get water, to play, to wash, sometimes just to watch the water flow by and the dragon flies hover and dart, and more stories are shared.   But at night, when people come to be by the meeting pool, and the moon rises, an entirely different order of story is being shared, something deeper and harder to express, something too delicate to be brought out in full sunlight.

Sharing stories, to use a term coined by an older metaphysical novelist and writer, Charles Williams, we “in-other” each other.  That is, we take each other in and partake of each other, and in a sacramental way even become each other.  Have you noticed that I tend to talk about these things with images and stories and concepts and thoughts, instead of some kind of abstract musical terms?  The aspect of story-telling, the music as “statement” and journey are an important part of the process for me. I do not think in literal terms, or at least rarely do.  But I follow the journey of the heart and it often feels very concrete.

For the performer, it is easy to get lost in sheer pattern on a piece like this, because it is very trancelike.  The trick is to keep looking up, continuing to let new moonbeams illumine new parts of the theme in different places.

The creation of the piece was more like suddenly discovering a new kind of space, a new horizon, and felt very akin to being suddenly penetrated with a new and very complex fragrance.  It made me remember that in the last conversations I had with Robbie Basho before he died, he had said that he saw his main strength as being a purveyor of fragrances.  Now, knowing that he was a Sufi, I also understood this as a spiritual metaphor as well, and a reference to the famous13th century Sufi saint who took the name Attar, who was a pharmacist also.  Another aspect of this term “fragrance” is that it is an English equivalent perhaps of that Indian term “rasa”, or the emotional essences that define each raga.  At the time Robbie said this to me, I felt that it underplayed one of his great strengths, that of melodic invention and forming.  But now, years later, when I stumbled into a new kind of musical space myself, the experience was powerful, even primal, in a way that smelling is the oldest of our five senses and connects to the deepest and oldest part of the brain.  In fact, it felt exactly like discovering a new world through a fragrance.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Beginning a Commentary on the Songs on "Giving Voice"

Because my first solo CD, "Giving Voice:  Guitar Explorations", has just been released, I thought I would start a series of commentaries on each of the tunes.  I hope this is illuminating....

1.         Into the Silent Land

The title comes from a wonderful little treatise on the practice of Christian contemplation.  I chose both the piece and the title to open the album as an invocation.  It is in the style of the formless meditative exploration called an “alap” that usually begins an Indian raga.  I wanted the listener to have an immediate strong sense of my particular musical voice and vision, to throw open the door on this particular musical horizon.  It is meant also to establish from the outset the importance of silence in music, both as underlying matrix and as the powerful “negative space” (a term from the world of art) in and around the notes.

The traditional Indian raga begins with an unstructured free exploration of the notes and melody of the raga called an “alap”.  The soloist meditates on the essence of the raga before the drummer (“tabla” player) enters and establishes the strict rhythmic cycle.  It could be said that in one sense ragas don’t actually begin at all.  The first one hears is always the sound of the “tambura”, the drone, which plays throughout the piece:  it connects the time-space to the universal cosmic ground out of which the raga, the play of incarnate life, arises.  So even the meditative alap is perceived to emerge out of this cosmic consciousness.

Each traditional raga is associated with a time of the day, with a season, with particular gods and goddesses, and also with particular emotional essences called “rasas”.   The clear and conscious focus on emotional essences and the place of these fragrances or aural landscapes in the spectrum of human feeling and consciousness is part of the great achievement of Indian classical music.  For my part, I also try to keep this focus.  This particular piece, then, is focused on the rasas of deep yearning and reverence.

Just in passing, I also wanted to note the echoes of certain themes of Rachmaninov that arose in the piece.  This kind of thing often happens in my explorations.

The piece was a pure improvisation, recorded in one take.  As an opener for the album, I liked that it “ends” (or rather rejoins the Silence!) in a rising movement at the close instead of a cadential falling motion, thus ascending to the dominant (5th of the scale) rather than the tonic (home base).