Saturday, December 27, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #7: Melody Matters

I've been making slow but steady progress with my voice to the point that the overall improvement is now pretty clear. In fact, it got to where I wasn't totally afraid of playing one of the cammed videos I use to hear what I sound like for my husband. I had to know if I was crazy or if I was really getting better. (Luckily, he is not someone to coddle me). I played one for him, and he agreed that it was okay (something no one has ever said about my singing!). It's not good singing, but the effort and practice is paying off. That's all I need to know to be really happy.

As I'm making this progress, I'm running into several things I have to think about while singing: how I breath, where I project from and to, and restraining myself so I don't over-sing. It's slow going for me to get all this right. However, it's worth it for more reasons that just learning voice. Learning to sing is teaching me about how to effectively write songs. For example, just the other day I had a living case study about why it's important to actively compose the melody line and not wing it by relying on what 'sounds good' with the music. By 'melody' I mean the notes being sung (I may not be using correct terminology).

I had been totally winging my melody lines, not knowing what notes were being sung. I learned what a mistake this is the other morning when I had the house to myself (and was therefore free to practice singing). All morning, I was consistently missing specific notes in the song I was working on. It wasn't a range issue, because the notes were sandwiched in the middle range of the song. Over and over I missed the same two notes, and I could not figure out why. As I played around finding the specific notes on the guitar so I could pitch my voice to them and solve the problem, I realized that neither of the two notes I was missing were part of the chords I was playing while they were to be sung. In fact, each was a half step off from the closest note in the chord. The problem was that I had no guide for my voice and - worse - the chord was guiding me away from the correct note!

The solution, fortunately, was simple. I adjusted the chords to match the melody line. Then I went through the melody of the whole song to make sure it was aligned with the music. I performed the song again was like a switch had been thrown. I could easily sync up to the vibrations in the body of the guitar and hit my notes. Even better, not falling out of tune made it easier to get through the entire song smoothly.

After the initial burst of triumph, I felt kind of dumb for not figuring this out sooner. I mean, wow, yeah, how surprising is it that the music should match the melody line? Who would've thought? It seems so obvious now, but then part of the fun in learning is figuring things out.

Another plus is that by adapting the chords to fit the melody line, I ended up shifting towards less commonly used chords. This added some interesting color to the song and perhaps made it sound a bit more distinctive. I'm sure this is going to help me write better music in the future, as my composition of melody is a bit more intuitive and less constrained by ideas of chords and structure. If I sing it and it works, then it's the melody. By letting the melody more directly influence the music, I should end up with far more interesting songs. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Anais Nin - "A Spy in the House of Love"

I know very little about Anais Nin other than her fame for her journals, that her life involved many famous artists and writers, and that a couple collections of her erotica were published posthumously. I also can't remember what drew me to read A Spy in the House of Love when I was in my 20s. Perhaps it had something to do with my having come out a few years before and, being in the city, my first feelings of freedom related to this. The only other book of hers I've read is Delta of Venus, and I also saw Bells of Atlantis, a short experimental film from the fifties, directed by her husband, in which she reads one of her poems.

It's both easy and difficult to believe A Spy in the House of Love was written in 1954. On the one hand, for anyone to openly discuss aspects of sexuality that live well beyond the roles accepted in society (that's openly, not explicitly) without positioning it politically or for obvious media attention is very rare even today. On the other hand, the milieu of the novel is heavily steeped in the post-war bohemian world of blues, jazz, and modern art. Her writing and voice could easily be transplanted to today, but the artistic circle she moves in lacks the tepid angst or bloated self-consciousness of today's artiste.

I've come back this novel (or novella, perhaps?) several times over my life, as I never feel I fully grasp what Nin is getting at. Certainly there are themes of identity, but there is also an aspect of perception and how we view ourselves - even analyze ourselves - that is unique in modern literature I have read. Further, Nin seems to position Sabina as living 'life as art' (or, more accurately, 'sexual life as art') and this is woven into both the analysis of identity as well as the fevered flights of her sexual 'adventures'. Each time I come back to the novel I find something very different.

This time around, in the last sections of the book, the description of Jay's paintings at the night club are what resonated for me. It crystallized an idea developed throughout the novel that we are all made up of multiple versions of ourselves, created by our experiences. No one version can be selected to represent us, yet it's hard to pin down who we are without reference to all of them. Her view may possibly apply most (or mostly) to artists or creative people, who interact with the world in a specific way in the process of creation.

In Sabina's case, the multiple versions come to be through her experiences with her lovers. There are different aspects of herself that come to the surface with each one. Taking this to a logical extreme, it speaks to the importance of sexual identity and sexual exploration in truly understanding ourselves. More broadly, it suggests a way of looking at all our interpersonal relationships - sexual or otherwise. We show a different facet of ourselves to different people based on who they are and what they mean to us. This isn't a facade or a pretense; it's a legitimate but limited part of ourselves. A shard of us. Sabina's quest is to find a way to express her totality with one person or to be able to continually express all parts of herself (which requires more than one lover). It's an interesting way of depicting identity and interpersonal relations.

That said, the novel is kaleidoscopic enough to allow for many avenues of thought partially because it's not clear whether Nin has fully resolved her ideas or if she is still figuring them out as she's writing. Stylistically, the novel is inviting and crisp, barring one section with heavy-handed Freudisms and Nin becoming too 'talky' as a narrator in the last quarter of the novel. Otherwise, A Spy in the House of Love is a well-conceived, fascinating, and unique addition to a collection of modern literature. Temporally it fits with few of the modern writers I've covered on Zen Throw Down (e.g., Gide, Camus, Sartre), but intellectually it's definitely in the same vein. Written in the fifties, I classify it as part of a 'last gasp' of modernism before the 'idealism' of the Baby Boomers and 60's counterculture banged its rattle on the high chair.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Joys of Running: A Potential Prelude

Born to run?
For a long time, I had this fantasy of doing a triathlon someday. The idea is attractive because - aside from being a really great 'I did it!" moment - it would provide a goal to direct my rather hit and run relationship with fitness. I've tried lots of things to keep active and stay in shape, but I find I get bored pretty easily and need to move on often. Martial arts was the one exception, but it required a commitment that my work schedule (and now work commute) makes difficult.

Admittedly, another reason is that a triathlon seems tantalizingly within my reach. I've been biking for years, so that part's easy. While swimming in fresh water is more demanding than salt water, I've done enough of the latter to reasonably believe I could squeeze out a mile or half mile without tons of training. The only question mark is the running; I never, ever jog. Further, when I observe joggers braving winter from the warmth of my car, I think: "Crazy!!!" This is northern Illinois, after all.

However, many of my friends do 5K runs and all other kinds of runs. Their dedication made me think there must be some fun in it. This, along with the lure of the triathlon calling to me like a distant song of glory (or perhaps beguiling me like a siren song), finally got to me. As often happens, one day I just made up my mind: I'm doing this. When I make up my mind like that, obstacles cease to exist. Starting in winter? Who cares, I can bundle up. The fact I haven't even done treadmill running in over a year? I'll tough it out. When would I fit this in? I'll figure out the details later.

And so three days before Christmas, armed with a 'Couch to 5K' program and a half certainty I was going to hate the whole thing anyway, I went on my first run. My planned course was .8 of a mile, way below Couch to 5K standards. I also planned to use a run-walk-run approach so I could ease into it. Modest goals for sure. 

Sure enough, it was awful! My run-walk-run strategy turned into walk-run-long ass walk-run-walk. Meanwhile, in a delightful jab from Fate, it started to drizzle while I was running. I finished my .8 mile run in a far-from-Olympian 13 minutes. As I unheroically hurled my panting carcass through the imaginary tape at the finish line, my shins were burning, my feet hurt, I was winded, I was cold, and it was impossible to not think: "I'm an out-of-shape old fart". In other words, it wasn't fun in any way, shape, or form. 

But I had made up my mind. So I just didn't think about any of this and went on with my day as if nothing had happened. Two days later - still willing myself to ignore my first run - I forced myself to do a second one. Same course, but the results were much different. I still couldn't run the whole thing, but I was notably less winded. The amount of time I ran as opposed to walked was close to two-thirds of the course (an improvement, I'm embarrassed to admit). I didn't ache either (that day, 24 hours later my right thigh is stiff). Progress!

Am I looking forward to my third run tomorrow? No. But I'll be out there, knowing some driver will pass by me and think: "Crazy!!!

Let's see where this goes!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Holiday Bash 2014!

As every year, here are pictures from our annual holiday bash. Thanks to everyone who came and made it - as always - a special way to celebrate the season!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 30: Baso's "This Very Mind is the Buddha"

Zen Master Baso
Daibai asked Baso, "What is the Buddha?"  Baso answered, "This very mind is the Buddha."

My first reaction was that this wasn't a koan. It's a question and an answer without any riddle or ambiguity. However, as I thought about it, I found myself considering the exchange itself. The question is an odd one to ask, since answers of this kind cannot be given to someone. Certainly not verbally.

If Zen could be transmitted verbally, I suppose this would be the way to do it. However, this answer doesn't give Daibai anything...even though it is correct. What he is asking about - what he seeks - must be found and experienced on one's own, not imparted in this manner.

Taking this line of thought to it's logical conclusion, asking such a question of another person in hope of gaining knowledge or instruction is wrong-minded.