Deep Summer

It’s time once again to start to say farewell to our long, hot days. I hope you all had as much of an amazing summer as I did…there were mountain vacations and hikes galore, pies and cocktails and nights on patios. Time spent watching horse riding and learning to drive a riding lawnmower…barbecues and perfect tomatoes.

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I was researching insect songs today for a story I’m writing and got swept away in a tide of love for summer. I love the slam of insect song that greets you when you step outside on a hot, hot day, and I love the crickets that come out when the sun goes down.

Here’s a short little NPR clip about the “night chorus.”

And an AMAZING Radiolab segment about a man, David Rothenberg, who breaks down the music of cicadas.

David Rothenberg has a CD out called Bug Music, which has this great description on its website:

There has been rhythm on this planet for millions of years longer than humans have opened their mouths to sing.  Long before birds, long before whales, insects have been thrumming, scraping, and drumming complex beats out into the world.  David Rothenberg decided to investigate the resounding beats of cicadas, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers and water bugs in his unusual third foray into music made with and out of the animal world.  After working with birds and whales, he now tackles the minute complex tunes of the entomological universe, building songs live nad in the studio with cicadas who emerge only once every seventeen years, treehoppers who tap complex vibrations onto plant stalks, and a tiny beetle who makes one of the animal world’s loudest sounds by vibrating its penis underwater.

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But beyond the world of bugs, I wanted to do a round-up of music that just overflows with the sense of the end of summer. Those endless late afternoons full of honeyed sunshine. Lazy hours spent basking. Almost drowning in torpor before autumn snaps us awake.

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Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Dass wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

We have through sorrow and joy
gone hand in hand;
From our wanderings, let’s now rest
in this quiet land.Around us, the valleys bow
as the sun goes down.
Two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the light air.

Come close, and let them fly.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let’s not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the evening’s glow!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

George Bellows, Summer Night, Riverside Drive (1909)

George Bellows, Summer Night, Riverside Drive (1909)

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One Man

Hey all! Today I’m going to take up a cause and champion it! Hoorah!

BUT FIRST: two rather exciting annoucements.

The first is that I’ve had my short story, “Alpirsbach,” published in the most recent issue of Cobalt. I’m incredibly excited and grateful; that story is very close to my heart. Go read it! It’s super short, I promise it won’t take long. 🙂

The second is that this blog–yes, this very same one you’re reading right now–is 3 years old! HAPPY BIRTHDAY AMPERSAND! I think you’re getting better with age. (She says not at all self-servingly).

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Fireworks: the only way to celebrate.

On Ampersand’s first birthday, I did a brief history of its namesake. (I’ve always championed it as my favorite punctuation mark, but if I’m truly, brutally honest, I think I actually prefer the semicolon. Ask me about it later).

Some recent posts I’ve been proud of: Play it Again, my attempt to corral my thoughts about what music school taught me about writing and life; Song of the Earth, a roundup of music generated by the planet; and Playing Tricks on Me, an attempt to visually describe what the world looked like when I got my pupils dilated (I know that sounds lame, I know it does, but I think it’s actually pretty cool). So maybe check those out if you’re new here!

BUT TODAY. Oh, today. Today I’m going to tell you to read something. And that something is this:

61UbQXxc-iLStoner is a small, forgotten novel by John Williams which was given to me at Christmas by a friend. It was unassuming, not flashy; I read the summary and wasn’t dazzled. But it turned out to be one of the most beautiful reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.

It has a simple premise: this is the story of William Stoner, a man who was a professor of literature in the 1920s and 30s. He comes from a farming family in Missouri, he goes to school, he gets married, he has a daughter, he is stymied professionally and at home, he has an affair, he has to end it, and years later he dies.

But Williams imbues the world with so much clarity and beauty, ties everything together with such precision, that somehow this ordinary life is transformed and elevated into a beacon of humanity and integrity. It’s astonishing. I’m reminded of a quote I read in a recent New York Times article by David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List.” (I know, it’s kind of a bad title. But a good read! He talks about wanting to live with a generosity of spirit and depth of character). But here’s the quote, about living as a “stumbler”, a person who “faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty,with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend.”:

“The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquility. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.”

Now, Stoner is constantly thwarted. His life does not treat him better than he deserves; in fact, life screws him. But Williams still manages to convey this incidental transcendence within a life made small by the people around him. Moments of Stoner’s life are gifted with rare beauty; does this balance out the overall disappointment of what he’s accrued? I don’t know. Probably not. But this book just hit me right in the heart.

I went through and tried to decide what excerpts and quotes were most effecting in trying to convey its effect, but in the end I decided on two longish sections from the very very end of the novel, as Stoner lays dying.

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that….He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not know what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love, and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had to let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?

What did you expect? he asked himself.

He heard the distant sound of laughter, and he turned his head toward its source. A group of students had cut across his back-yard lawn; they were hurrying somewhere. He saw them distinctly; there were three couples. The girl were long-limbed and graceful in their light summer dresses, and the boys were looking at them with a joyous and bemused wonder. They walked lightly upon the grass, hardly touching it, leaving no trace of where they had been. He watched them as they went out of his sight, where he could not see; and for a long time after they had vanished the sound of their laughter came to him, far and unknowing in the quiet of the summer afternoon.

What did you expect? he thought again.

A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure–as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, fathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

Stoner gets written up from time to time, (here are two recent examples), always with headlines like “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of”, or something like that. Well, now you’ve heard of it.

Please tell me: what’s something else I’ve never heard of? I want to read it all.

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Unashamed & Unrestrained: My Cheesiest Musical Loves (’80s Edition)

All right, so hopefully you guys have noticed that, generally speaking, I try to keep up a certain standard of thought/exploration/etc when I write these posts, connecting certain threads, or pointing out cool shit, or…I dunno. HOWEVER. I gotta tell you, I have been jamming on some awesomely cheesy ’80s music lately (I blame the radio at work), and I feel compelled to share the underside of my brain today.

Some of these I can’t explain; some I have justifications for that may or may not hold any water. 😉 As much as my musical training makes me an utter, complete, intolerable snob, I admit to two huge, giant blind spots: classic rock and 80s music. Oh my god. Throw a synthesizer or some big hair into my life and I’m a happy, cheesy camper.

Anyway, following: some songs that bring me pure, unrestrained joy. 🙂

First up, Toto in all their glory. Oh my god this song makes me make a complete fool of myself in public.

(I hope you all pictured an awkward, uncoordinated girl trying to dance while singing into a rolling pin like it was a microphone. It’s happened).

Second, it’s Elton John being as awesome as always. His songwriting is always more complex than I give him credit for, but, still, I can’t excuse my insane affection for this song.

Things I get mocked for, Volume XIV: Oh my god. It’s Gerry Rafferty, guys!

I can’t think of that song without thinking of this one: Steve Winwood really likes Valerie, everyone. This music video is amazing, by the way. Just check out that hair.

There was a time in my life when I listened to this song every day before falling asleep. (I know, I know…try to restrain your judgement.) I have mixed feelings about Rod Stewart in general, but of my feelings for this song, I am absolutely sure. It’s true love.

All right, I think I’ve given you all enough to hold against me the next time I climb up onto my high horse. 😉 I hope that you enjoyed this trip down the Street of Ridiculous Things, cause I have to tell you, it absolutely made my morning to listen to these songs as I put this together. I’m gonna sit back and listen to them again.

Have a good week! Cheers,

B

P.S. I had so much fun doing this, I may or may not do a Series of Cheese. Possible installments: Hair Bands, erstwhile 60s folk (John Denver, anyone?), classical music with little or no artistic value but a lot of Bang. Thoughts? Let’s be cheap and happy together! 🙂

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Grab-bag

Well hello, all.

So–I’ve been kicking around a few ideas for blog posts lately and absolutely none of them will effing cohere, so…today is a grab-bag! Just some brief things I’ve been paying attention to lately, some songs, some quotes, more songs…I would feel bad about not presenting a complete idea except this blog is subtitled “the intersection of all good things,” so I’m allowing myself to feel justified. 🙂

First up: heard a report on NPR the other day about pop songs that sound like other pop songs, that borrow from familiar tropes in older (or even not-so-old) songs that we recognize pretty easily. Great example is the new Fall Out Boy single, “Centuries,” which heavily features Suzanne Vega’s 1981 “Tom’s Diner.” Now, I have a weird relationship with “Tom’s Diner,” in that sometimes I hate it and sometimes I think it’s not obnoxious, but it is very interesting to see songs like this so blatantly sampled recently. (Pit Bull and Christina Aguilera did this with Aha’s “Take on Me” in their single “Feel this Moment,” but I’m not gonna post that one because I love “Take on Me” too much.

Here’s the Fall Out Boy/Vega juxtaposition:

But what this really reminded me of is the problem I’ve been having with a track off of Beck’s new album, Morning Phase. (Which, by the way, is amazing. Seriously. Get it). I fell in love with “Wave”, not the least because it is an incredibly evocative song, but because it’s an addictive listening experience; it reminds me of so many things I cannot place. I know it reminds me of at least 2 pieces of classical music, and at least 2 film scores, and a couple other things too. So with the help of a friend who’s better at this than I am, we came up with a couple candidates to try and ease our minds.

(Cause seriously, is there anything worse than when a sound or smell reminds you of something and you can’t remember what?)

Here’s the Beck:

Here’s the first piece it reminded me of (particularly in terms of mood and opening melody):

And here’s the second, which may seem more on-point than the Hindemith (not my realization! Totally had help on this one):

And also this soundtrack (particularly around the 3:00 mark):

So…anyone else hear something?? Want to help me work this shit out? Cause yes, it is still driving me crazy. 

*        *        *

Okay, Part 2!

I’ve been thinking a lot about minimalism in non-classical music.

Or…maybe not minimalism, but the kind of music that inspires in the listener the same reaction that minimalism inspires. I recently read an article from I Care if You Listen (a great blog, btw) on minimalism, called Minimalism is Boring (and that’s OK). The argument boils down to this quote, essentially:

minimalist music has helped me to live in the present. By nature, I tend to be rather future-oriented. I see the end goals of a project, I constantly anticipate pitfalls, and when I find spare moments to let my mind wander, it is almost always to an imagined future. But minimalism doesn’t allow for that. For a variety of reasons, minimalist music creates a temporality that denies the past and future in favor of what some have described as an “eternal present.” Memory and expectation are irrelevant; it is only the moment which is important.

I myself love minimalist music. I find it unchains my brain, allows for a longer “field of vision,” if that makes sense, unhooks me from temporal restraints. I don’t feel the press of time in the way I normally do.

That said: sometimes, I find myself wishing that minimalist music weren’t being played by traditionally classical instruments. Perhaps I’m too well-trained to expect a certain emotional response from, say, a resonant violin, a virtuosic  pianist. And so I get very excited when non-classical musicians craft a sound that provokes the same “settling in” that minimalism provides me. Following are some of my favorite artists who do that.

First up, naturally, Sigur Ros: 

The excellent Explosions in the Sky:

Arcade Firewho I don’t normally love, did an insane soundtrack for Her:

I hope that gives folks a jumping-off point for investigating some less “goal-oriented” music…if anyone has suggestions or things I have to hear, please let me know! I always love exploring. 😉

*     *     *

A brief non sequitur.

I re-read this David Foster Wallace quote about once a month. Thought I’d post it just in cause somebody else needed to read it too.

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers–not all of whom are modern…I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this–becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul. So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.” –David Foster Wallace, Quack this Way, 2006

*     *     *

And finally, this interesting (I hope) juxtaposition. (which may or may not tie this mess of a post back to the beginning). 🙂

First, Barbara Muller sings the traditional version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” It’s gorgeous.

And then Led Zeppelin takes the same thing and just—-shreds it. It’s equally effing gorgeous.

Hope you all are weathering the snow and the wind with grace and good cheer. (HA!) As always–if you have any art, music, books I need to check out, let me know!

Cheers,

B

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My Year in Reading

Every year around this time, The Millions (an excellent blog for those who love reading, writing, and the mess that comes with it) publishes a series of essays on their contributors’ Year in Reading: those books that they conquered this year, or that conquered them. Their impressions, their loves and dislikes, the ways their minds grew to accommodate new worlds. I love these essays, and could devour them hour after hour. (The full list of this year’s essays here).

So, of course, I want to do one of my own.

(Not that anybody asked me to). 🙂

This was an up-and-down year for me, reading-wise. I set a goal for myself at the beginning of the year: I wanted to read over 100 books before January 1, 2015.

So I whipped out my little reading-list notebook and dutifully chronicled each one as I slammed through it. I was averaging 10-12 a month for the first chunk of the year, and kept up the breakneck pace until about September, when I fell into the most abject reading slump of all time. Blah.

Nothing could hold my attention except for the trashiest of trashy novels, and even those I read at a sloth’s pace; instead of mainlining good literature I watched a lot of Doctor Who and developed a social life, which was a sad and sorry substitute for good books.

Eventually I realized that by holding myself to a speed-oriented goal, I wasn’t allowing myself to sink into quality writing, I wasn’t letting myself fully inhabit worlds, and I wasn’t giving myself the time to appreciate longer, denser material.

So I stopped keeping track of what I was reading. Just chucked out the list.

And I’m happy to say that things have picked up! I’ve read several things in the last few months that I’ve totally, completely enjoyed, and I’m remembering those things from earlier this year that I died for.

Here are a few highlights.

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This was such a beautiful novel. It was truly a novel, and by that I mean it told a story, a true, deep story of one person’s life, and her love, and it a way it was so, so simple. But it was also incredibly powerful, and involved in Ifemelu’s story were many strands of issues about the world at large: about life in Nigeria, and race in America, and about sacrifice and family. I learned so much from this book without it ever being preachy. This absolutely tops my list of favorite books this year. It was eminently readable, and an important thing for me to have read.

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I’ve loved David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction for years, and this was my first foray into his fiction. It was…………..unlike anything, ever. I hated it. And then I loved it? And I can’t stop thinking about it. I love the feeling that this was my first read-through of something I will return to again and again, understanding more of it each time. It was impossible and surprising, threw me for a loop and intrigued me. And despite its narrative craziness and its intense world-building, I also loved the characters, which is beyond impressive. I’m so looking forward to stepping inside this book again. Which is not what I felt when I finished it. This book has changed for me so drastically; I feel like I can’t even talk adequately about it until I’ve read it at least three more times. (For a teeny example why, take a gander at this diagram of the novel’s character relationships).

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I read both Birds of America and Bark, Lorrie Moore’s new collection, this year, but I think Birds of America is what sticks in my memory; these are the stories that circle back and back to my mind. These are the works of a great craftsman, but I think Birds of America has more in it of what it means to be human.

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Perhaps Cloud Atlas keeps springing to mind because I just finished David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, this week, but I don’t think so. I was so totally engrossed by this matryoshka doll of a novel; I loved the nesting layers and its accessibility despite its cosmic impact. Mitchell’s flexibility is so impressive; he jumps from style to style to style and is almost always convincing; there are hiccups, and strange moments, but all of that disappears into the overall whirl of such an ambitious, epic story.

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This year was my first foray into the work of Kyung-Sook Shin, a Korean writer who’s only had a fraction of her work translated into English, and who is the only woman to have won the Man Asian Literary Prize. (In 2012, for Please Look after Mom).  I loved this beautiful, complicated book. I think about it often, and found it completely haunting. I am so looking forward to exploring more of her work.

I also want to make special mention of the short story collections I read this year. Besides Bark and Birds of America, I also greatly enjoyed Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, the Collected Stories of Alice Munro, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Toibin’s The Empty Family, Woodrell’s The Outlaw Album, and Peter Orner’s Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge. I think I can safely call 2014 The Year of the Awesome Short Story.

Okay. So what’s next? How am I to avoid the Great Reading Slump of 2014?

Well, I completely threw out my quantity-related goal. To start the year, my sister, a couple friends, and I have decided to do the 2015 Reading Challenge that’s been circling the web recently. After that, I think I’d really like to devote myself to a Big Project. I’ll keep poking around for what that is, but for now I’m focusing on reading just what I like, when I like, and not stressing about it too much.

How was everyone else’s year? Read anything you think I should know about? Let me know! I’d love to hear about what you loved this year.

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Blog Tour 2014: The Writing Process… In Which our Heroine is a Master of B.S.

Is anyone surprised that, after near-constant tooth-pulling in order to get a new post written, the thing that finally gets my nose to the grindstone is a bit of navel-gazing?

Yeah, me neither. Sigh.

BUT I actually have friends, y’all, despite the sheer utter nerdiness that goes on in this blog, and some of those friends are writers, and some writers right now are doing a blog round up about the creative process, and it, surprisingly, has trickled down to me. And I am breaking my hermitage to respond and be a member of a community, dammit, because I lectured myself about not being a loner exactly one post ago. Thanks to Shannon Waller for the nomination/questions!

Here’s the Q&A about the precisely nothing I know about my creative process:

1). What are you working on?

Stories. Always stories. I won’t say they never stop coming, because one day that well may run dry, but for now–I’m always juggling short stories. I love them.

Also, of course, as every, in the middle of the first rewrite of something very long. It’s terrible. I’m trying to learn how to give it the freedom to be terrible for a while longer.

2). How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I wasn’t aware I had a genre.

I wish I had a better answer for this question.

Actually, I wish this were a better question.

3). How does your writing process work?

I daydream 83% of my time in this life. Then, usually 3 days a week (what my work schedule allows), I sit down first thing in the morning and write. Eyes open, coffee in hand, headphones on, and write. Before the neurons connect, before my higher functions take over. That’s the best way for me to get my true intention down, fiction-wise. I’ll set a goal for the day (1,000 words, finish a story, get to x plot point), and can usually get there, although it may be 11 am or 2 pm by the time I’m finished. I’m usually pretty gross at this point. It’s not pretty.

If I’m doing editing work that day (which is a real bitch for me), I’ll wait til my brain is clicking before I get started. I’ll go to the gym, read a book or the NYT Book Review, maybe play some music, something that will jostle into place my knowledge of grammar or my concept of structure. NO TV. Good GOD, no TV.

Non-fiction I write in the late afternoon. I don’t know why; I just always have. (Why do you think these blog posts are so few and far between? I start them at, like, 5, and they take approx. 13,000 hours, and I’m a baker. My higher brain function ceases at 8).

Anyway. So far, this is what works for me.

4). Why do you write what you do?

I’m pretty sure it would take me years with a therapist to uncover that, and as it is? I kinda don’t want to look behind the curtain.

Most of the time, though, characters just show up, like ghosts. And I sit with them, and abide with them, and sometimes they’re interesting, and sometimes they’re not. And that’s pretty damn fruity, I know, but…there it is.

I will say this: thematically, I work a lot with identity, with people finding a place, making decisions; this has been a major theme in my daily life as well. I write very “internal” stories; I live a very internal life. I think my writing is a very direct reflection of who I am (except it’s not as light-hearted–I’m working on that). (Humor’s hard, you guys).

So that’s that.

Most of the fiction writers I know have already done this/been nominated, but there is one person I have to nag for information, mainly because I’m so insanely impressed by everything she does, pretty much, and want to know her secrets!

Imani Mosley is an incredible scholar, writer, and musician; you can find her papers, music, etc, at www.imanimosley.com. And her awesome musicology blog is: Another Musicology Blog. (Sorry to be so creepy, Imani! It’s born from admiration). 🙂

_________

N.B. Am working on a links page, so look for that in the next…year….or so…..

And also! Am working on a song post, so….see you next August…. 🙂

Just kidding. Soon!

_________

P.S. Random tidbits from today’s thoughts:

Earthshine
Earthshine-327pct-1-30-06-0907

Barber’s “Desire for Hermitage”, sung by the incomparable Leontyne Price.

ALSO THIS.

Ok, carry on. 🙂

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Play it Again

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I, as a person and as a writer, learned by going to music school.

Looking back, it’s easy to kick myself and say, “I should have studied ——-,” with that blank being filled by any number of words: English. Creative Writing. Literature. Library Science. Engineering (on the off chance I ever felt like making money). But I didn’t; not even close. For four years I went to a conservatory that offered classes on music and only music, barring the 1 literature class and 2 language classes I took. Which, at the time, was wonderful. All my friends in traditional university settings were moaning to me about their gen-ed classes, and I would say, “Oh, so sorry, I’m late for orchestra rehearsal.” Or woodwind quintet rehearsal. Or music history, or music theory.

But now, now that I make my living by baking things and I spend almost all my free time writing or reading, I wonder, sometimes, if that time couldn’t have been better spent. I hold all my writing to a ridiculously high standard, and when I fall short of that I always end up feeling that if I had studied this stuff, I’d be way more ahead of the game.

So in order to assuage my feelings of incompetence, here’s a list. The 5 most important things I learned in music school.

1). Creativity without discipline is useless.

We have a family friend whose child always runs amok at family gatherings. She’ll scoop the kid up and say, “We’re encouraging him to be creative.” Well. Great.

Creativity, or ideas, or imagination, only have a function if you are successful in conveying them. And the trick to learning how to convey things successfully? Practice. Sitting down, day after day, and working. Because it IS work: whatever medium in which you practice art, doing it at a high level IS work. It’s the marriage of imagination and the discipline to sit down, tune out your procrastinating instincts, and get to work. Nothing teaches you that, I don’t think, quite like year after year after year of sitting down in a practice room and drilling passages over and over and over again.

The end goal is always art, but I think the person who studies classical music realizes that that goal isn’t achievable without some serious woodshedding time.

2). Three-Dimensional Learning

When assigned a piece of music, by a private teacher, say, the implication is not “learn these notes.” The implication, and the expectation is: “learn this music,” which means finding out about the composer (When/where did he live? What was going on in his world at that time? Shostakovich and Copland were writing music at the same time, but they were reacting to very different things.) What is this piece trying to convey? Are there extra-musical associations (meaning: does this music have a program, or specific ideas/images that need to be put across?) Are there historical implications? Where would this be performed? What’s the overall style/era/genre? Etc, etc, etc.

Don’t read/write/paint/live in a vacuum.

3). Circular Learning

By which I mean: Letting one thing you learn lead you to the next thing, which leads you to the next. (See also: Wikipedia Syndrome).

No one sits you down and says “Here are all the composers you will ever need to know, the pieces you will be expected to learn, this is the roadmap to where you as a performer are trying to go.” Your own curiosity is supposed to get you there. You are supposed to be inquisitive, ask questions, look things up, don’t let your ignorance slide. Otherwise you’ll be sitting in a room your senior year as the only person who doesn’t know who Kurtag is.

(Or you’ll be sitting in orchestra, ignorant of what those German score markings mean, and then your conductor looks at you and asks, “So, 3rd horn, exactly what is your conception of lebhaft bewegt, then, hmmmm?” And you look around and you’re the ONLY ONE who hasn’t translated her score.)

Be rigorous in your curiosity! Look words up! When you discover a book you love, read the authors that author loved! When you’re reading a great article that cites a poem and you kinda like the quote, look up the poet! And let each discovery lead you on to the next.

4). Seek out a Community

It’s lonely out there for a freak. No one else cares that you found a great new recording of the Mahler Piano Quartet in A minor, something that really changes the way you view the piece. Hell, changes the way you view music!

Find the person (or people!) who cares what your favorite Beethoven symphony is. Who wants to know your opinion of 12-tone music. Find them and keep them and DO NOT mock them if they like minimalism and you think it’s largely a hack job, because they don’t mock your love for Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony” even though it’s a total yawn.

5). You can do better.

However good you get, however great a musician you become, you can always go further. There is always something new to master, something exciting to learn. There’s always something you don’t know.

Don’t be intimidated by that; get back in the practice room, listen to more music, read more, learn more, do more.

This isn’t a career, it’s a life.

*****

Studying classical music has taught me so much about life, and about people, and above all, about being responsible for your own education. For holding yourself to a higher standard. For trying, trying, trying, and then when you think you can’t try any more, try again, goddammit, because in the end the work is its own reward.

In the end, it’s all about the music.

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Song of the Earth

I’ve been hoping, as spring becomes more and more beautiful every day, to do a couple roundups of songs inspired by or invoking spring, in the same way I did the winter post a couple of months ago (when everything seemed permanently sealed inside a deep freeze!). Instead, what has recently grabbed me is not music about the Earth but songs generated by the Earth.

The work of composers who have in some way harnessed some specific physical features of this planet and somehow induced it, directly, to make music. It’s fascinating stuff, really, and all quite compelling, hypnotic, and beautiful. It is by nature slow to evolve and develop, and all of it, I think, really gives a sense of planetary movement and shift, seasons changing, trees growing, epic things happening–but nearly invisible to the naked eye. Wondrous stuff.

(If I find a way to write this whole post without sounding like the world’s biggest hippie, it’ll be a miracle. So….just….well, I guess I’ll just go there).

Accompanying the following selections of music are photos of work by Andrew Goldsworthy, an artist who manipulates found, natural materials into site-specific sculptures. (It can be very hard to find titles/years for his work, so please bear with me if some are unattributed–I really did scour for information).

OH!! So glad I just found this! You can watch Rivers and Tides, an excellent full-length documentary on his work, for free here.

 

Rowan Leaves, Andrew Goldsworthy

Rowan Leaves, Andrew Goldsworthy

 

First up in the music department, the work of Bartolomaus Traubeck, an Austrian musician whose whose website has this to say about his project Years:

A tree’s year rings are analysed for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music.

The result? Beautiful, hypnotic, tones that sound both random and carefully planned, sonorous yet atypical. The fact that each species of tree sounds so wonderfully different is a particularly delightful discovery.

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Next up, a discovery I made about a year ago–I tweeted about it then but it more than deserves a second mention. I kind of got a little obsessed with the following video; kept playing it over and over and over again. It features a sound installation called Cryoacoustic Orb, and is the work of Jonathan Kirk and Lee Weisert. They froze hydrophones into blocks of ice and recorded the sound of the ice melting, which was then run through a processor to yield subtle, shifting sounds that I find utterly enthralling.

 

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I’ve been won over by the idea of Aeolian harps for quite some time; I love the idea of such an ancient instrument, played only by the wind….how must it have seemed to the average person who ran across it? This harp that played itself? Like the music of spirits, or some invisible hand…I kind of hate that I know how it’s done, or, even if I was seeing one for the first time, that I could probably guess.

For a modern take, here’s a great video of Douglas Hollis‘s installation in San Francisco.

Hollis does a lot of interesting work in this vein: installations that explore the acoustic properties of water, singing beach chairs that are not-so-secretly pipe organs, and this incredibly eerie, quite powerful Sound Garden (1983):

Here’s a lecture that he gave at the University of Michigan in 2009, called “Learning to Listen”; he talks about creating “sound sculptures” with the wind as a collaborator.

 

Rainbow Leaves, Andrew Goldsworthy

Rainbow Leaves, Andrew Goldsworthy

 

And finally, no discussion of music of this ilk would be complete without talking about John Luther Adams. (Whose Become Ocean just won the Pulitzer!! So excited!)

He is an incredible composer in a class all his own, and I really can only touch the tip of the iceberg here. If you’re interested, I highly, highly, recommend this article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker (also called “Song of the Earth”, by the way…we’re obviously both taking the titles from Mahler–I’ll post some videos at the end).

And I cannot do better than Ross in describing “The Place Where You Go to Listen”. Here are his always-excellent words:

At the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the composer John Luther Adams has created a sound-and-light installation called “The Place Where You Go to Listen”—a kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that magical idea, the mechanism of “The Place” translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into an intricate, vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.

“The Place” occupies a small white-walled room on the museum’s second floor. You sit on a bench before five glass panels, which change color according to the time of day and the season. What you notice first is a dense, organlike sonority, which Adams has named the Day Choir. Its notes follow the contour of the natural harmonic series—the rainbow of overtones that emanate from a vibrating string—and have the brightness of music in a major key. In overcast weather, the harmonies are relatively narrow in range; when the sun comes out, they stretch across four octaves. After the sun goes down, a darker, moodier set of chords, the Night Choir, moves to the forefront. The moon is audible as a narrow sliver of noise. Pulsating patterns in the bass, which Adams calls Earth Drums, are activated by small earthquakes and other seismic events around Alaska. And shimmering sounds in the extreme registers—the Aurora Bells—are tied to the fluctuations in the magnetic field that cause the Northern Lights.

Oh, boy do I want to see that in person. I mean….I really, really want to see that in person.

Here’s a video that I’m sure can only approximate what it’s like:

That’s the best recording I saw, and I can tell it can’t hold a candle to what sitting in the exhibition must be like.

……sooooo……anyone for a field trip to Fairbanks?

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If I’ve missed anything fantastic you think I should know about, please do leave a comment and tell me about it! I would love to learn more.

 

***

Also! NB! Title taken from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and a video follows of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic. (Just the first movement, unfortunately).

And here’s a “Personal Introduction by Leonard Bernstein”. Gotta love him.

 

Sugar Maple Leaves, Andrew Goldsworthy

Sugar Maple Leaves, Andrew Goldsworthy

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Perennials

In honor of the newly-blown spring that is surely just around the corner, I’m writing today about literary perennials, those constants we couldn’t do without, the volumes that get read and reread and kept close to us no matter what.

When I moved from New York to Ohio recently, I had to put about 98% of my library in storage. I went through my books carefully, making mostly sage but sometimes rash decisions about what I would need with me. I held each book, thought, “will I miss this for the next 6 months to a year?” and boxed them accordingly.

Of the “I will miss them so terribly I can’t bear to be parted from them” box, there are some that are so important to me they can’t even live on the shelf. Following are some pictures I’ve taken from my desk over the past few months.

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I don’t know if you could see, but there are certain titles that never leave the desk; while I do keep my “books in waiting” there as well, The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume II (1923-1925), Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, selected books by Beatrix Potter, and Jane Eyre are always immediately to hand, along with a book of maps of Vienna, just because.

Why? Oh, different reasons. The Elements of Style for any sudden questions of grammar or formatting, Hemingway’s letters because I find the story of his early struggles inspirational (living above a sawmill, able to afford no entertainment other than long walks, writing in a cold garret, and above all his quest for truth and style) and comforting. If a Great Writer once felt as I do, as insecure and unsure, then maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for me yet.

Beatrix Potter because those were the stories I first loved and understood on the level of “a story.” Also they’re cute. Jane Eyre because I reread it every year and now I have a beautiful early edition…I have a different relationship with Jane every time I go through that novel. (I wrote a little bit about my love for that novel in an earlier post).

And Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a book-length interview edited by Alan Licht, because reading his views on art, creativity, and productivity are like taking the hand of someone familiar. My copy is beaten up and signed by the artist; I can dip into it at random and always pull up something I needed to read in that moment. Stuff like:

Q: Do you think a song is every really finished?

A: I feel like a song is completed when the writing is done and I present it to a friend, partner, or group of musicians. Then it’s completed when we record together and finish mixing. Then it’s completed each and every time someone listens. I think that a song, for the most part, is completed by the listening experience. It enters in people’s brains and mutates and then might get completed again–in their dreams, in mix tapes that they make, or in new listening experiences that they have. So it isn’t ever finished because there’s never going to be a definitive listening experience.

and

Q: Overall, what effect do you think the audience has on your work? 

A: I feel the value of my work is determined very precisely by the audience. What does entertainment mean, anyway, and what’s the difference between that and art? I would say the main difference is that art isn’t necessarily funded by the consumer, but entertainment always is. In that way, entertainment is a million times more important to me than art, and being an entertainer is more important to me than being an artist. The relationship with the audience is so direct, while the government or rich collectors are going to pay for something that is art rather than the person who is actually going to have a relationship with the piece. That’s what’s most important to me about what I do. I think of entertainment as being very serious and important, from Laurel and Hardy upward. It has to do with emotions of release, giving up, or extreme hilarity and absurdity.

It’s rewarding when I find a broader audience that doesn’t think I’m too crazy. [I’m] trying to make something for that audience to experience, also knowing that at some level I will be sharing the experience. My absolute, purest particular taste would not be something that could be appreciated on a grand scale. It just wouldn’t. If I really made a record just to serve myself I would end up in a dark, wet room, you know? That’s not really where I want to be. That’s why it’s more important to me to make a record that serves itself and its audience well. A good record should involve my needs, the listeners’ needs, and the needs of the other people who worked on the record. If I manage that, I feel I’ve accomplished something; but ultimately it is the audience that holds the lion’s share of determining if a record is worthwhile. The only way for my entire audience to appreciate the music is if they come to it of their own accord and find something in it that satisfies them as individuals. I’ll do what I do, and they’ll do what they do, and hopefully a mutual understanding can be formed.

 

One thing I value about him as a musician and a performer is the depth of thought which goes into each presentation of and interaction with his work. It creates music that  can stand up to (and rewards) close listening, repeat listening. As this book, for me, rewards rereading.

Ok, so….what else? What other treasures did I skim from the top of the chaos of my library?

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100 Years of Solitude, a book so close to perfect it seems not written but made, something simply plucked, pre-formed, out of the sky.

As a matter of fact, I got a nasty shock reading this Paris Review interview: Marquez talks about writing about Macondo. He talks about it being hard to write about. He writes about different attempts to write this book, none of which were right. I just…..that blew my mind. 100 Year of Solitude was in fact written, and written by a human hand. I know that statement seems hyperbolic, but sometimes when I read this novel, it seems like it must have always existed, timeless, just out of sight.

I wrote about Macondo’s wondrous bookseller here.

His collected short stories also escaped the storage unit.

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I kept both of Alex Ross’s books close; when writing about music I frequently turn both to The Rest is Noise and Listen to This. Incomparable resources, both, and entertaining, informative and lovingly indulgent. (Wrote briefly about the opening essay of Listen to This here).

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A Moveable Feast accompanied me, as well as Hemingway’s collected short stories. I mentioned before that I find companionship and solidarity and comfort from his descriptions of his early writing, before anyone knew who he was besides his wife and Gertrude Stein.

Other than that, I brought home works I find myself dipping in and out of….a lot of short stories, for example. In addition to those of Hemingway and Marquez, I keep close those of Annie Proulx, Colm Toibin, Ann Beattie, DH Lawrence, and Eudora Welty. The poetry of Rilke and Walt Whitman. The Fran Lebowitz Reader, because she will never not be funny, and she’s always there when I start missing New York.

Also, that book has the BEST. COVER PHOTO. EVER.

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What books do I regret locking away for a season? What do I keep thinking of ruefully, wishing I had close at hand? Consider the Lobster, the amazing book of essays by David Foster Wallace, and The Giver, which has been one of my favorite books since I was about 8.

A Tale of Two Cities (unaccountably). For Whom the Bell Tolls. Never Let Me Go. No Country for Old Men. Winter’s Bone. 

I daydream about being reunited with my library. The day after I move to my next place, I’ll let the clothes sit in the suitcase and leave the cups and saucers wrapped in newspaper. I’ll sit amid towers of alphabetized boxes and pull out each volume and move my hands over the cover. I’ll flip a few pages. I’ll greet each book like an old friend (which each one is). I’ll combine them with the books mentioned above, and the books I’ve acquired since I moved (Oh, how they’ll have to move aside for Infinite Jest). 

I think of them, cold in their boxes, waiting for me.

This may sound melodramatic to some, but to others this will make perfect sense: I miss them every day.

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Perennial forget-me-nots, appropriately.

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Playing Tricks on Me

I had an interesting visual experience the other day.

My optometrist had to dilate my pupils, which sounds rather dull until you realize the world has turned into a thrill ride of panoramic vistas and cinematic views…it was as if a filter had been dropped in front of my eyes. Our country here abouts this time of year is rather picturesque in a sad, snowy sort of way, and with the added sepia-toned glasses I had to wear to reduce the killer glare from the ice and the sun, well, my drive through northeast Ohio was damned fine.

(This experience turned into a drag when it turned out I couldn’t read, write, or use the computer properly until the next morning. But for the afternoon it was a grand old time).

Everything I ran across seemed so visually rich and, again, I’ll say: cinematic. I kept thinking of works of art as I drove around, and I thought I’d share them here, in a sort of gallery: Becca’s Visually Impaired Tour of the Western Reserve. 

Evening at Kuerners, by Andrew Wyeth, 1972

Evening at Kuerners, by Andrew Wyeth, 1972

We’ll start with a rather straightforward depiction of the way things actually look around here right now, courtesy of one of my favorites, Andrew Wyeth. The above is Evening at Kuerners. 

You can find a badass picture of him here:

Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth

I can add nothing to that.

Here’s Haystacks and Barn, by George Bellows, which exactly portrays the way the sun was slanting over the hills, shining right into my photophobic eyes. 

Haystacks and Barn, George Bellows, 1909

Haystacks and Barn, George Bellows, 1909

(I recently had the privilege of seeing an excellent Bellows exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, which……looks like it’s no longer running. Ah, well. They still have a very interesting Matthew Brandt exhibit running through March 9 and a Toulouse-Lautrec that just opened).

Another great portrayal of blinding late winter light is Roofs of the Cobb Barn, painted by Edward Hopper in 1931.

Roofs of the Cobb Barn, Edward Hopper, 1931

Roofs of the Cobb Barn, Edward Hopper, 1931

I’ve always loved this next one.

Gray and Gold, by John Rogers Cox, 1942

Gray and Gold, by John Rogers Cox, 1942

That’s Gray and Gold, by John Rogers Cox. I know it’s more of a summer picture, judging by the height of the wheat, but the aesthetic is the same.

From here on out I’d like to venture out into a more abstract depiction of what my poor freaked-out eyes were trying to process. These next are similar in tone and mood, if not in image, and actually, though an interior portrait, this was the first painting that sprung to mind as I was thinking about pulling this together.

Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, James Whistler, 1862

Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, James Whistler, 1862

Whistler’s Symphony in White. 

(As a brief and unnecessary aside, I would here like to mention that I once dated a fellow who told me I reminded him of Whistler’s Mother. So. There’s that.)

Anselm Kiefer, Wooden Room, 1972

Anselm Kiefer, Wooden Room, 1972

In our second painting of the day from 1972, that’s Anselm Kiefer, with Wooden Room. 

Up next is an abstract minimalist painter that I really, really love, for somewhat unaccountable reasons. His Sea Painting is one of my favorites.

This is Brice Marden’s Avrutun: 

Avrutun, Brice Marden, 1971

Avrutun, Brice Marden, 1971

And yes, I know Ohio isn’t Venice, but the lighting in JMW Turner’s Venetian Festival is pretty perfect. (As his lighting always is).

Venetian Festival, JMW Turner, 1845

Venetian Festival, JMW Turner, 1845

And finally, I was recently introduced to the spectacular work of Diana Al-Hadid via a spectacular exhibit of her work at the Akron Art Museum….I highly encourage anyone unfamiliar with her paintings or sculpture to check her out. I could never post enough to do her work justice, so hop on over to her website to get a better idea of the scope of her projects, or try to see an exhibit of hers.  Besides Akron, I know one is open in New York through March 19.

Divided Line, Diana Al-Hadid, 2012

Divided Line, Diana Al-Hadid, 2012

That’s a painting/panel installation called Divided Line. Any picture I post cannot convey the full impact of her stuff.

Here’s one teeny tiny close up from her sculpture Suspended After Image: 

Suspended After Image, Diana Al-Hadid, 2012, detail

Suspended After Image, Diana Al-Hadid, 2012, detail

And the full thing:

Diana Al-Hadid, Suspended After Image, 2012

Diana Al-Hadid, Suspended After Image, 2012

This short video from Art21 is a great introduction to what she’s doing.

Well! I hope you all enjoyed a tour through my ocular impairment….before you go, I want to share one more thing.

I woke up this morning in a very strange mood, dour, almost, which intensified as I worked on some writing I’m doing for another project. I don’t know why exactly; maybe something happened in my dreams. But I was completely shaken out of it by this recording, and I just wanted to share it with you in case you could use a dose of enthusiasm or joy.

Beethoven’ll get you going.

Here’s my favorite recording of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, led by Carlos Kleiber. (The 1st movement is really what did it for me).

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