Friday, August 31, 2012

Serenata Concertante op. 105

The Serenata Concertante is absolutely one of my favorite pieces of any genre. The 22-minute composition in six movements was written by Anton Diabelli (1781 - 1858) and makes use of flute, guitar, and viola. I've found that in classical music I gravitate towards material performed by small ensembles featuring interesting combinations of instruments, so it's no surprise I responded to this work.

Diabelli was an Austrian music publisher and teacher (both guitar and piano), who achieved a great deal of success (he discovered Schubert). Diabelli was also a composer. I first heard of him when I began learning to play one of his sonatinas on the piano. It's one of my favorite pieces to play and, because it's a longer piece, I got a wonderful sense of accomplishment after taking the time to learn it. However, from what I gather, classical music aficionados regard Diabelli as a minor composer.

Be that as may, I fell in love with the Serenata Concertante and several other pieces he wrote when I purchased the pictured Finnish CD recorded in 1997. The music on this CD has the further attraction of being played on period instruments: a copy of a flute from around 1800, an 1838 guitar, and a viola form 1817.

I usually play the Serenata Concertante just as Spring starts.  For me, the opening flute lines in the first movement suggest leaves just opening or flowers poking up out of the soil. There is a light feel to the composition overall that suggests the gentleness and warmth of a Spring breeze, and the piece often becomes joyously carefree. Just the way I feel after we emerge from five or six months of winter and snow!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The First Acquisition

Buying 'Summer' and 'Fall' at the Timmel Collection, Saugatuck, MI
Jim and I spent the past weekend celebrating our 16th anniversary in Saugatuck, Michigan. We hadn't been there in over a decade, I believe, so it was a good time to go back for a short getaway. We had a very nice stay, but what the most memorable part of the trip will be that - after a good deal of reading up on art collecting and consideration about actually doing it - I finally took the plunge and made my first purchase!

Or I should say 'purchases'!  I picked up two paintings by Chicago-area artist Darren Jones. I hadn't planned on buying anything of this kind during this trip. I'd just figured I was going to bum around the shops and have a nice anniversary weekend. Although we were planning to gallery hop, I figured I would do my usual lurker routine: walking around, salivating over a few items, but not daring to buy anything.

Of course, I'd been giving collecting serious thought after it occurred to me that I would be interested in it as a...passion ('hobby' seems like such a poor word for this). I'd also done a good bit of reading on the subject, as well as getting back into learning about what was going on in contemporary art. How do people collect? What things do you keep in mind in choosing a piece? A big part of this was reading interviews with major fine art collectors and hearing them relate how they got started and what drives them. Still, each time I considered making a purchase, there was this hesitation and I'd walk away empty-handed. Art is not cheap, and I feared a painful bout of buyer's remorse if I regretted my purchase later.

This time, however, things were different. Of course I really liked the work by Darren Jones that I saw at the Timmel Collection in downtown Saugatuck, but I'd liked a lot of other things too and not pulled the trigger. The difference was that, after we left the gallery the first time and I had not bought, I was filled by a sense of futility and frustration. Like a diver at the end of the springboard, afraid to take the plunge. We've been in our house 14 years and there are a lot of walls with no artwork or artwork that I'm not all that crazy about. Why was I allowing this? What was I waiting for?

Spring, 2010 Darren Jones Mixed medium, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24”
While Jim and I were at lunch I talked the whole thing through with him. One: I had done a quick web investigation and checked out Jones' website and artist statement. Liked what I read. Check.  Two: I'm not being a flake about this. I have a god deal of art education, and I know what I like (and, far more importantly, why I like it), so I'm not going to buy something dreadful. Check. Three: All the collectors I read about emphasized you have to start with what you like, even as they each evolved their collections into something with a (sometimes very tight) focus. These paintings definitely fit with what I like about and respond to in art. Check. Four: I was not buying these paintings as an investment or with the dream of making a fortune when Jones became the next Big Artist, died, and all his works soared into the six-figure range for auction estimates. I was buying them to have something in my home that I enjoy, that has personal meaning for me, and that I think are beautiful. Check. Five: I could think of several places in the house the paintings could go, so there was a definite functional aspect to this purchase. Check. Six: The idea of two pieces of a similar style and yet with the sharp color contrast these two works have adds to the appeal. Check. Lots of good reasons.

Done. Went in, made the purchase, and I have to say I had such a rush afterwards! Buying a painting may not seem like a big deal but, if you love art and are serious about what you are buying, I assure you it is a very big deal! I made the artist working at the gallery who helped us with the purchase (he's not Darren Jones) get into the picture above with me. Yes, I geeked out. But this is a first step into a larger world, so I had no desire to restrain myself from geeking out. I've made a life-long passion into something concrete, and that makes me very happy.

Fall, 2010 Darren Jones
Mixed medium, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24”

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ten Questions by Bernard Pivot

James Lipton closes each interview he does on Inside the Actor's Studio by asking ten questions of his subject. He's quite open about the fact that he lifted the questions from a French TV host named Bernard Pivot. The answers these questions evoke can be impressive, funny, even wistful, but always personal. The answers reveal so much about a person, yet they intrigue us by what they leave unanswered.

As a game I tried to answer the questions about myself and found that it took a lot of thinking to feel I was answering them deeply. Once I had my answers I thought there's no point in not sharing. Maybe if I post on Facebook, I can get my friends to share their answers?

What is your favorite word?
'Phoenix'. It’s a symbol I’ve held dear most of my life. It’s the idea that at the end of a phase in my life, or when things get really bad, something fantastic will come out of the ashes if I just keep going.

What is your least favorite word?
‘Perceived’. There’s too much concern about how things are perceived. People get so wrapped up in it that they don’t spend enough time thinking about what ‘is’.

What turns you on [creatively, spiritually or emotionally]?
The alien, the other, the taboo, the unfamiliar, the untested, the unknown. These things run opposite to what’s popular and accepted; they mess up established order. Growth comes when we are challenged and when we reach beyond.

What turns you off?
People who embrace mediocrity and just sort of idle there.

What is your favorite curse word?
‘Jesusmotherfuckingchrist!’ Said like it’s one word. What a release!

What sound or noise do you love?
Whatever sounds are there when I am just silent with myself. The sounds we tend to tune out: the creaking of a tree, the distant echo of a train at night, a squirrel hopping by (yes, you can hear that!). These sounds make me feel very present in the moment, and that feeling refuels me on every level.

What sound or noise do you hate?
Ringtones. 99% of cell phone conversations I end up having to hear are clearly meaningless. It’s like people have them just to fill time. It makes me wonder if people are afraid of what they’d think or feel if they stopped ‘being busy’ for even a minute and spent that time quietly taking a good, hard look at their lives.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
An artist, specifically a painter.

What profession would you not like to do?
A politician.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I’d be disappointed if there was a god waiting there or if there were any pearly gates or if there was anything like that at all. If there’s anything beyond the grave, I’d hope it would be something that I can’t even imagine right now. Maybe some higher form of existence where I’m free to explore everything and learn everything.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Speeding Towards 400

Yesterday, Jim and I did a 25-mile loop on Saturday, starting in downtown Wheaton (see map). We took the Illinois Prairie Path east through Glen Ellyn. Lombard, and downtown Villa Park to the junction with the Great Western Trail. This junction is well-marked, although there is a detour right now in the course of the GWT that forces you through an annoying intersection or two.

The Great Western Trail isn't as well-travelled as the IPP is between Wheaton and Villa Park. The solitude and quiet is a plus, but the reason the trail is not used as much is that for a good stretch, roughly between Lombard and Wheaton, it's not all that pretty. Not ugly by any means...just kind of okay.

As we got closer to the junction with the IPP Elgin Spur (by County Farm Road), natural beauty made a come back. I bet the GWT in Wheaton is beautiful during the fall. Then we rode the Elgin Spur south back into Wheaton. Overall, a good ride!

Today we did another 17 miles here in Naperville. That gave us a weekend total of 42 miles, bringing the season total up to 370 miles. Within spitting distance of 400! Looks like this is going to be a good season - in terms of mileage - after all.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rediscovering The Future Sound of London

One of my favorite bands was/is The Future Sound of London, even though their output comes after long breaks and not everything they put out is for everyone who listens to them. They even have an alter-ego band (Amorphous Androgynous) under which some of their music is released.

A little background is required as to why they hold such a place in my heart and mind, aside from their challenging, brilliant music. Back in the early to mid 1990's, I was in my twenties and living in the city. It was an amazing time of liberation for me. For the first time I was truly independent and on my own. No school, no teachers, no parents, nothing. I was free to explore life, ideas, my sexuality, my writing/performing, and to define my identity entirely free of any outside influence or controls. I read massive amounts of early 20th Century literature, went crazy publishing my poetry and doing open mics, built new friendships, got my career going in the direction I wanted, dove deep into the latest thinking in particle physics, quantum mechanics, and astrophysics, ate up all the independent theatre in the area, and spent free time in coffeehouses all over the place soaking up every kind of input from new people I was meeting.

Independent music stores like Evil Clown and Reckless Records allowed me to swim in a sea of non-mainstream, non-major label music.  I was exposed to acid jazz, afropop, trance, goa, gangsta rap, downtempo/lounge, and trip hop. I was able to hear classical jazz through the ears of people who understood it, experienced music by artists from all over the world not just the stuff record companies spoon feed the masses here in the US, and I got to see amazing live performances.  One guy took me on a date to see Sir George Solti conducting "Bolero". Another highlight was seeing Guru perform live at the Metro after the release of his second Jazzmatazz release (with Vanessa Daou opening).

In this setting, FSOL's 1996 album Dead Cities was one of the first techno releases I ever bought, and it blew me away completely. It's a mixture of a sonic collage mentality, an aesthetic that bends and twists sounds like silly putty, a dark/dystopian tonality, and savage beats juxtaposed against ominous ambient vibes. I'd never heard anything like it or even dreamed anything like it could exist. So it was one of my first "wow!" moments as I dove into new sounds and musical sensibilities.

After that eye-opening moment, I purchased several other offerings by FSOL from time to time. Their maxi-single for the track "My Kingdom" off Dead Cities is an amazing release on its own merits and it takes the idea of a maxi-single into an entirely different universe. There was something almost akin to classical music in the 'movements' presented in the maxi-single. I also bought Lifeforms, the maxi-single for the electrifying "We Have Explosive", and the maxi-single for "Cascade". Loved them all and became very much into their approach to music.

Since then I have been exploring electronic music genres of all kinds and have heard some really phenomenal stuff but, as always happens, sometimes the album that 'breaks us in' to a style of music holds a special place in our heart. However, I also am glad that my first listen for this kind of challenging techno or IDM was a masterpiece like Dead Cities. Very lucky. Just as I was lucky my first gangsta rap album was Gangstarr's Daily Operation. Always good to hear something phenomenal at the start!

More recently (in 2002), FSOL put out their follow-up to Dead Cities (The Isness).  I bought it without listening to it or knowing anything about it, got it home, tore it open, and put it on the CD player. I was hungry to be taken somewhere unbelievable all over again. And then...I hear a bunch of retro sounding hippie music! WTF! I hated it! I gave it a few more spins, reminding myself that you can't judge a band based on what you expect them to do, but I could not get into it. Into the closet it went. 

This past week, after listening to some of the sitar influenced work by Bombay Dub Orchestra on their 2008 album 3 Cities, I recalled some of the sounds and textures on The Isness and thought I'd give it a try again. For whatever reason, I immediately was able to enjoy the album. Not even sure exactly why it was so objectionable to me in the first place. Well, that's not entirely true. The shift in tonality and style from Dead Cities to The Isness is pretty neck-snapping, but in fact the approach FSOL takes to music is apparent in both albums, and I can see that now. (The fact that the tracks like "Elysian Feels" and "Divinity" hit me in my sonic-emotional g-spot doesn't hurt either).

Every so often, this happens with music or art or literature (or even food - see my entry on falling in love with sushi). We are exposed to something and we just can't get into it, but much later we suddenly 'get it'.  Perhaps I just needed more time to amass the experience or information needed for The Isness to make sense to me? Whatever the reason, I'm listening to The Isness right now and finding myself as enthralled by it as I was all those years ago when I first gave Dead Cities a spin.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The End of a Giant Tree

32 mile ride yesterday! That takes us over 300 miles and sends us almost a third of the way to 400 miles. We're at 328.

I mentioned in a previous post that going north on the path out of Wheaton we saw plenty of evidence of the storm from several weeks back: broken trees, dead branches, trees with bark ripped off. Must have been really crazy!

For scale: I'm 5'10"
Up closer towards Elgin we came across this sight, and I had to have Jim get an image of me with it this time (big picture, so click to expand). Was this huge tree really uprooted during the storm?! At first, I couldn't believe it. Maybe someone did it on purpose. But the tree's been lying there for a few weeks now, and why would anyone uproot a tree and then leave it there? When people get rid of trees, they usually do so to get them out of the way.

I also noticed that on the other side of the path, there was evidence of the tree causing damage. Two clearings where there used to be brush and a taller tree that has had its bark scraped off from the base to above fourteen feet up. Usually, when people take out a tree of this size, they cut off the upper branches. They don't just knock it down. Someone did cut the branches just to the right of what we show in this photograph, probably to keep the path clear, but this would have been after the tree fell. So I guess it really was the storm that did this.

Jim counted at least 36 rings at the cut which, again, was at a branch to the right of this photo. That would be at least twenty feet from the base of the tree. This was a powerful tree, but an even more powerful storm. Amazing example of the forces of nature.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre - 'The Wall'

The Wall is a collection of five short stories that Jean-Paul Sartre published in 1939, the year after he published his electrifying novel Nausea - one of the key works of fiction in Existentialism. This post is about the first story in the collection, also titled 'The Wall'. It's about a man - Pablo Ibbieta - who captured during the Spanish Civil War. He and two other prisoners are sentenced to death by firing squad. How the prisoners handle their impending death is the launch pad from which Sartre expounds his Existentialist creed, and the story is chock full of imagery and loaded language. I definitely won't do the story justice, but here's some of what I pulled out of it.

The story begins with a mock trial, and the first line is: "They pushed us into a big white room and I began to blink because the light hurt my eyes." This image evokes a meeting with God in the afterlife and the judgement religion says we will face. However, the judgement here is a military tribunal with no concerns for morality or justice, good or evil, innocence or guilt. Sartre is clearly likening this irrational procedure to our illusions of divine justice. Given the randomness of existence - who lives and who dies - how can God be much different than these bureaucrats?

In their cold cell, Pablo and two other prisoners - Juan Mirbal and Tom Steinbock - try to make sense of their impending death. Tom tries to warm up by exercising, but fails to do so. He just winds himself. His futile efforts are a metaphor for the futility of any action that attempts to avoid the 'cold' reality of death (the 'wall' of the story's title). Our actions do not change the fundamental fact of our reality: that we will die.

Tom deals with his sentence the best - on the surface. He almost seems to go on as normal with no pronounced reaction, but Sartre soon shows us something different. When Tom seeks to comfort the horrified Juan, Sartre asserts he is doing so because "it would have passed his time and he wouldn't have been tempted to think about himself". Again, Sartre's words are full of meaning. Tom is simply ignoring the issue; he's in a kind of denial. Later, when Tom references the wall they will stand against when executed, he seems to begin dealing with his death. As he imagines the firing squad, he says, "I'll think how I'd like to get inside the wall, I'll push against it with my back...with every ounce of strength I have, but the wall will stay, like in a nightmare." Tom cannot avoid the fact if his own death no matter how hard he tries.

In contrast, Juan is a young man who never really accepts or faces his death.  Because of his youth, both Tom and Pablo reason that he will be spared. But when the prisoners learn they are to be shot in at dawn, Juan's reaction is shocked disbelief ("Not me...I didn't do anything."). The jailer responds with a shrug, and we even get the impression that the wrong sentence has been attached to these three men through some clerical error. Age and innocence mean nothing in the face of death. As Juan emotionally breaks down in response to his death, Pablo thinks critically: 'the kid made more noise than we did, but he was less touched." As the story progresses, we see that Juan's reaction to death is paralysis. Complete fear. He is passive and neither resists nor accepts his mortality.

Meanwhile Pablo offers up gallows humor about death. He refuses to cry, because he "wants to due cleanly". He also rejects the comforts offered by his captors: cigarettes and alcohol. He avoids all physical, philosophical/spiritual, and emotional means of comforting himself about his mortality. He thinks: "Several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal." Of the three men, only Pablo survives. I won't how or why, but it's enough to say that he escapes through a completely random chance event. This blackly humorous ending underlines Sartre's point that there is no fairness about existence, no justice. This lack of overarching morality is one of the hallmarks of Existentialism.

'The Wall' is a very short story and a cool little read if you enjoy early twentieth century literature. There's a lot to think about and read into this brief story; well worth a read.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Zen Buddhism and Existentialism

I've always found Existentialism fascinating, although I don't agree with what seems to be a consistently negative view of the world and life that comes from it (if you take the literary output as any indication).  I guess I get past that and remain attracted to Existentialism because some of its underlying principles seem to echo Zen Buddhism.

In fact, I often think Existentialists are just depressed Zen Buddhists!

For example, both systems rely on the experience of the individual as a road to truth. Of course, I suppose existentialists might disagree with the idea of there being 'truth' of some kind out there. As a corollary to this, they both reject the role of the supernatural or canned 'moralities' as substitutes for our own direct perception of reality.

Another similarity is that both schools of thought seem to believe our reality is very much driven by what we make it. I guess the major difference along these lines is in how we deal with that reality. Zen Buddhists feel that we create much of our own sorrow through undisciplined thinking. So, by disciplining our minds, we can avoid delusion and shape our reality in a positive way, although we are not actively trying to root out unhappiness. For Existentialists, I get the impression they feel there is a certain sorrow or emptiness innate in life and/or that we have to work against the emptiness of existence to create happiness or serenity.

Another similarity is that both systems stress epiphanies as fundamental to a true understanding of the world around us and our place in it. In Zen Buddhism, we have moments of satori or kensho. In Existentialism, there is the 'Existential Moment' in which a person comes face to face with the absurdity of life.  In both cases, it is a kind of enlightenment. It changes us. The difference seems to be that for Zen Buddhists this epiphany can lead to freedom and a sense of serenity, while Existentialists gain a sense of freedom but with a very stiff chaser of angst. It may also be true to say that Zen Buddhists believe we gain knowledge from satori and kensho, while the Existential Moment doesn't seem to impart knowledge. It's merely the way the Existentialist comes to terms with reality; it's about accepting existence, not learning about it.

Maybe these differences - despite some of the similarities it has with Zen Buddhism - is why Existentialism seems so depressing and bleak.  Again, I guess I'm going mainly by what I find in novels written by the movement's leaders (e.g., Camus, Sartre). The moment of 'enlightenment' - for them - leads to darkness or nausea (to steal the title from Sartre's first novel) not something innately positive. Not to say it's hopeless for them, they do seem to feel you can create that meaning through passionate action.

So while there are a lot of similarities that strike me, I guess there are also as many differences. This makes the comparison that much more interesting for me.  Of course, I'm no scholar when it comes to Existentialism so I may have this all wrong. But these thoughts struck me as I was reading a short story by Sartre (The Wall). More on that in a later post!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Almoooost 300

21 miles today...with a deer on the path.  Up to 296 for the season.