Friday, July 30, 2010

4 Weeks Until Rank Test

I've learned the stuff I think I need for the blue stripe, but I also think I've been taught most (if not all) the stuff I need to also test for the blue belt. The Master often lets people test for more than one belt if they are ready, so I'm hoping over the next four weeks - when the next rank test happens - that I can get everything I need under my belt (so to speak!).

Monday, July 26, 2010

Emilie Autumn's Victorian Asylum

In general, I find goth music formulaic and more about fashion that music. However, in my teens, I was hooked on Siouxsie and the Banshees Hyaena. I also loved Everyday is Halloween and Bela Lugosi's Dead, and I also flirted with Depeche Mode, Front 242, and some of the more industrial stuff during college.

One of the pleasures in listening to music is getting these subgenres under your belt, revisiting them from time to time, finding an artist making amazing music, and knowing you're one of the few people in on the secret.  Emilie Autumn is such a discovery.

I discovered Emilie Autumn a couple years ago in this way, and listening to her releases and even hearing some of her interviews has been a constant pleasure. A classically trained violinist, Autumn can play with intensity and great beauty.  She can also shred her instrument like it's an electric guitar with a banshee's soul trapped inside. 

The first album of hers I listened to (Enchant) is not what you would call mainstream, but it cleverly flirts with mainstream sounds. Fact is, Autumn uses traditional melody and pop structures the same way she uses any other influence she pulls from; if it works it comes in, if not she shuns it. The result is a widely varied album including a full range of material from beautiful, aching ballads ('Ever'), experiments grafting classical musical sensibilities to drum machines to create subversive pop ('Juliet'), gothy atmospherics ('Across The Sky'), and jagged odes to self-empowerment ('Chambermaid').

The music is crisply performed and recorded, and her voice can be crystalline in its fragility and purity and then switch to gothic moans and phrasing that suggest a nervous disorder. It's a lot of influences to control, and she pulls it off virtually throughout the entire album.  I enjoyed this one so much, and then I saw she had a new album out Opheliac.  Just the creativity of the title intrigued me immensely. As it turns out, she's working off a motif around an 'Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls' which, as best as I can summarize it, is a theme about the way women's mental states are often disastrously confused by men and women themselves with their repressed desires for self-fulfillment. It's an awesome idea, especially given her interest in literary lyrics and classical arrangements. Plus it certainly opens the door for her outrageous fashion sense, stage shows, and promo photos to come into the mix.

Opheliac (the pic here is the deluxe edition) is nothing like Enchant.  The sound is much more challenging, and the flirtation with pop is pretty much over (and she sounds pissed off about the break-up!). Her singing is really harsh on a lot of the tunes and more theatrical (sometimes self-consciously so, such as 'The Art of Suicide' and 'Thank God I'm Pretty'), but it's an amazing evolution from the prior album. I found myself alternately loving the new direction (the stunning title track, 'Dead Is The New Alive') and other times wishing for more of the old style (she does have some tracks that build off her work on Enchant, such as 'Swallow' and the dizzyingly beautiful 'Shalott'). I actually think the impact of these tracks is heightened by their inclusion with the more brutal sounds of this album. It broadens the emotional range and variety of the album.

Autumn is full of surprises.  She cut a maxi-single with covers of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun'.  I can see why she picked the tunes, but I was much more intrigued by her Laced/Unlaced release. The Laced part (which of course refers to corsets and all they imply, but might also refer to drugs used to keep a 'wayward Victorian girl' more controlled) has her playing classical violin music, as well as classically inspired compositions of her own. The Unlaced material is Autumn playing her violin like she's Paganini on an electric guitar. Have to admit I bought the album more for the Laced material, but I'll definitely be stretching my ears with the Unlaced stuff too!

Anyway, I think she's a massively talented and creative artist.  Her albums each have a very different character, yet the concerns and ideas that interest her are consistently dealt with throughout. Seems like she's based in Chicago, which makes it weird that initially I only saw her albums available as imports!  What a sad comment on the American music business that you have to go to Europe to get homegrown talent! 

My fantasy is she does a Halloween concert in Chicago, and I can go dressed as a Victorian gentleman (Pince-nez, cane, and all!). Here's the link to her website:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mumonkan, Koan 4: The Western Barbarian With No Beard

Wakuan said: "Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?"

I was up at 6 AM this morning meditating. Not sure how long it lasted. It could have been an hour, but it seemed more like 30 minutes.  It would be interesting to time how long I stay in samadhi, but I hate to try that as I could see myself trying to 'beat my time' or something equally useless. I'll avoid that.

It is a very cloudy and rainy morning, and I found myself looking out the window to clear my mind. However, I was best able to reach samadhi when I stared straight ahead at what happened to be in my line of sight. It happened to be a corner of my drafting table, and I thought of Bodhidharma staring at a wall for nine(?) years without moving. Seems that this works better than picking something I prefer or want to look at.

In any case, while I had a good zazen session, I'm not sure I made much progress on the koan. The 'barbarian' it references is Bodhidharma, and he always had a beard.  My honest response to the question is "Who cares whether he has a beard or not?" Not sure I'm satisfied with that answer, so maybe I'll meditate over it again before looking at Mumon's notes about this koan.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Empty Nest

Yesterday the baby birds were looking pretty big, and their eyes were open. I thought: "I'll snap a picture of them tomorrow."  Too late! Peeked out the window tonight, and the babies are no longer there.  Sniff sniff!

Man, that was fast!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Emile Zola

Emile Zola is a writer I've come to have quite a bit of respect for. His biggest achievement is his series of twenty novels about a family during the Second French Empire period that, as a whole, are referred to as the Rougon-Macquart novels.  The novels detail the decadence and corruption of the period (the mid to late 1800s) and, while intertwined thematically, each novel can be read on its own.

As a Naturalist, Zola was not interested in the romanticist flourishes of Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas.  They wrote about the world from an idealized vantage point. Heroes were larger than life and their lives were filled with amazing deeds, high drama, and romance.  Instead, Zola wrote about people and society as he found it. He didn't sugarcoat or idealize anything; his novels are gritty and bleak and were sometimes even considered shocking and indecent by critics and the public of his time.

One thing I like about him is that his naturalist bent sometimes turns his novels into time capsules, allowing us to feel like we are really in Paris during the 1800s.  For example, his novel The Masterpiece details the life of bohemian artists, and there is an extensive section focused on the all-famous Salon.  The Salon was the 'it' show for artists of the time and, as the twentieth century approached, it became a bastion for the status quo and rejected most of the artists we now all consider great: Monet, Cezanne, Manet, etc. In reading this section of The Masterpiece, I really felt as though I was seeing what the Salon was really like!  Other novels of his do the same thing for the street markets of Paris, the theatre, etc.

Every so often I return to him and read a few of the Rougon-Macquart novels. My long term goal is to get the entire twenty novels under my belt.  What an achievement of reading that would be! The only bad thing is that many of his novels do not enjoy recent translations, so I have to settle for a translation by Ernest A. Vizetelly who translated the entire cycle many, many years ago. While his translations seem pretty crisp, he also bowdlerized the text and removed material he found objectionable making for an inaccurate representation of Zola's style and intent. But I guess beggars can't be choosers.

Anyway, Zola is not easy to read in many ways.  His novels are often very bleak and he generally takes a rather depressing view of mankind (no heroics, noble deaths, or wonders of the human spirit appear in his books).  Anyway, as I'm currently about done with The Belly of Paris, perhaps I'll post reviews for his novels as I read them, as well as for the novels I have already read.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Warlords

Like Red Cliff, The Warlords is a martial arts movie in a different sense of the word. While there are a couple scenes with Jet Li dishing out some wushu, the bulk of the action consists of large scale battles, sieges, and raids.

That said, there is definitely a rock hard moral core at the heart of this movie that fits with what I like about more typical martial arts movies: the sense of honor and the importance of male bonding over personal gain. What gives this movie its heart is that the brotherhood created by the characters played by the three male leads spins apart and leads to tragic consequences.

A little background on the Taiping rebellion, even a blurb from Wikipedia or the like, would be a good thing to read as the movie clearly assumes we know a bit about it. By and large though, this information would make the film richer but not knowing it does not impair your ability to follow the story.  The position of each male protagonist is a little vague at the start of the film, but this again is a minor issue.

The battle scenes in this movie are astounding. Some really shocking shots with limbs being severed, etc. It's graphic, but not gratuitous. Despite all the effects and costumes and such, the film never loses its emotional core. I was surprised how much I came to care about the brotherhood of these three men in under two hours.  That said, there were a few scenes that did drag a little, and this would be another slight flaw with the movie.

Of course, the length of the movie brings me to the major problem with the US release. From what I understand, 15 minutes has been cut from this film for the US release. why? Why? WHY??? Reviews on suggest the cut footage - as was the case in the US version of Fearless - eliminate scenes that enhance the emotional power of the story. In the case of Fearless, I luckily obtained and watched the full director's cut of the international release so I was able to see the intended version of the movie.  However, no such option is available for us Yankees with The Warlords, and I have no doubt that the film suffers from the missing footage.

I find it increasingly irritating that I have to be careful to purchase or am simply unable to purchase the unedited version of so many films from overseas.  DVDs and blu-rays can store a lot of information on them. There is not reason not to release a movie with the original cut as well as the 'for dopey Americans' cut. Let the viewer decide if it's going to kill them to spend 15 more minutes with the film!

Anyway, while the pacing is a little slow at times and some of the details of the story are sketchy given the lack of historical background and the missing footage (most likely), I enjoyed watching The Warlords, though it is not a movie I would buy for my DVD collection.

The Scars of Battle

Sparring some more in hapkido, and this time I got some going away prizes. I have no idea how I got this cut on my foot. After I was done sparring and had to go sit back down, I felt my foot burning and looked down to see blood.  Once I wiped it away it was pretty clear it wasn't really that bad. One guy says I probably got cut on my opponent's belt.

I also have a bruise the size of a large apple on my shin, a couple thumbprint bruises on my wrists, a bruise the size of a half dollar on my forearm, and another greenish one on the side of my knee.

I'm very proud of myself for being able to spar, as physically attacking someone just isn't my style. I think what I like about it is that it allows me to put together multiple moves (block, punch, kick) together with a live opponent. If I didn't spar, it would be like learning how to read music without ever playing an instrument.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Feed Me!

The chicks are really growing fast...but so is the rosebush and I can no longer see them from my study window.  So I have to wait for the mother to fly away and hunt so I can get in close and snap some pics. Both chicks seem to be doing just fine, but I may have been wrong about their eyes being open.

The mother is always very cautious in approaching the nest; she clearly wants to avoid us seeing her fly into it. So while we're sitting outside, I try not to look at her when she starts hopping towards the nest.

As always, you can click this picture to see it bigger.

Friday, July 9, 2010

And then there were two...

Looks like the babies have their eyes open.  Also they can lift their heads up and open their mouths.  Still very weak.  Sad to report that there are only two babies now!  We just noticed this evening. Not sure what happened to the third.  Maybe it was stillborn?  In any case the mother probably carried it off.  She's been very careful that way; she didn't even leave the egg shells beneath the nest because they'd give away the nest location.  At least the two babies left look healthy.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

They've hatched!

We have three new additions to the household! They're not exactly the cutest things in the world, are they? They can't be more than a day or two old! Hard to believe the information I found on the website that says that it only takes a few weeks for these helpless little blobs to be strong enough to jump from this nest to the ground six feet below and walk around on their own.  They're pretty still now but, from what I read, they become active and noisy when their mother comes by. This is going to be such an interesting few weeks!

Monday, July 5, 2010

The 411 on Robin Chicks

Got a pic of the mama bird in the nest!  But where are the chicks? We have a bird house hanging in one of the trees, and some wrens had chicks there. I think the chicks are gone, so why are the robins are taking so long?  Here's what I was able to gather from a search on the web:
  • Robin eggs hatch 12-14 days after the last egg is laid. Since we just had a third egg drop, we're looking at about 10-12 days for chicks.
  • Chicks jump from the nest about 13 days after they hatch! Wow! So before the end of July, the nest should be empty. This is going to move fast! The mother bird apparently keeps feeding the chicks while they are on the ground.
  • Another 10-15 days pass before chicks can fly. That struck me as very odd. Why would they leave the nest before they can fly? Seems like they'd be easy prey.
  • Robins can lay more than one clutch of eggs per season, so we may have more babies before the summer is out.
Wish I knew exactly how many days since the first two eggs were laid. I guess I'll just have to keep an eye on things. Though I still avoid peeking out the window too much. One of the sites said a mother bird may abandon a nest if she thinks a predator has found it (and I'm sure seeing my big head sticking out a window from above might not be a welcome sight). She can also abandon a nest if it is moved in some way.  On the other hand, the idea that birds abandon young that are touched by humans is a myth. Apparently birds have a poor sense of smell.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Three eggs now

How can there be a third egg suddenly when there have only been two for so long? How does that happen?

Anyway, I'm hoping I can webcam the hatching and post here.  I would love to go up to the nest and get a pic of the mother bird sitting there, but I just know that's an awful idea. She might get spooked and abandon the nest. The other thing I worry about is what if one of the babies falls out of the nest? There's no way I could let 'nature take its course'. Have to find something I could use to pick up the baby without leaving a human scent on it. Hopefully, it won't come to that!

I also wonder why robin eggs are blue? Wouldn't it make more sense for them to be brown or grey so they blend into the nest more? Blue eggs seem like they'd be easier for predators to spot.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bliss - Quiet Letters

This is an older CD (came out in 2005), but it is the first time that I have purchased a Bliss CD. I first heard them on the Real Ibiza 3 compilation (Chilling You Softly), and I've thought about purchasing an album ever since.

Their most recent CD (No One Built This Moment) didn't impress me from the clips. I liked the music, but the vocalists were so idiosyncratic that it detracted from the music. Luckily I found Quiet Letters at a good price at the Theosophical Society bookstore (of all places) after hearing some samples. 

This album is fantastic! Very understated, dreamy music, using a wide variety of instruments, yet maintaining a very consistent sound throughout. Another thing I like about it is the diversity of the members of the band. They come from disparate backgrounds: Denmark, Sweden, and Guinea-Bissau. This creates some interesting juxtapositions musically. One song has classical guitar, male vocals in an African language, female vocals in English, and synth touches.

I tend to skip over the first song on the CD but, after that, it's an enthralling sonic experience and I almost always listen to the album to the end once I start. Beautiful!

Samantha James - Subconscious

I've been looking forward to new music from Om label artist Samantha James for a long time, and her new album is great! Her first album (Rise) came out in 2007, and I immediately fell in love with her sound. She's what I call 'deep house', music that has the bounce of house music but employs more musicianship than the usually generic club trax that are typically dubbed as 'house'. It's a genre with lots of artists on my ipod.

This album has the same lush, relaxed feel of her first effort, but there's a slightly more subdued tone to the music. This makes it a little less immediate than the first album, but it quickly grows on you.  I really like how, even though she's working a similar musical style, that nothing on Subconscious sounds like a retread of Rise. It's like getting more of the same, but with a twist that makes it fresh.  James has a lovely voice that fits wonderfully with the warm soundscapes created for her songs. It's the perfect music for driving with the roof and windows open on a sunny day or - on lower volume - to drink wine to while watching the sun set. The whole set is infused with a positive vibe that is really uplifting without being 'too much'.

A lot of great music has come out of the Om label, so I have the site stored online and check it out often to see what's new.  Here's the link:

Nest Watch Update

Nothing new with the robin and her eggs yet.  I guess I thought all this stuff happened in the spring?  Or maybe that's just the mating.  Oh well, still looking forward to the sound of little birds chirping!