Neuroplasticity as Opposed to Materialist Reductionism; Quantum Theory and Jazz Improvisation; and John Beasley’s MONK’estra at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

In preparation for this blog post, I have been taking notes on books by three very different authors, but each book leads to a compatible hypothesis (or conclusion) on their part. The authors are Jeffrey M. Schwartz (The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force), Henry P. Stapp (Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer), and Dean Radin (The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena).

I concluded my last blog post by saying that, when I wrote again, I would like to address “the ongoing debate (or ‘civil war’) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (‘The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles’) and (2) neuroplasticity (‘rewiring’ of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional ‘causality relating brain and mind’: two opposite sides in that ‘war’ that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that ‘fixed’ or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock–empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or ‘measured.’

Here are visionary artist William Blake’s painting of Sir Isaac Newton, “measuring” (In a letter, Blake wrote, “Pray God us keep/From Single vision & Newton’s Sleep”; and in a poem: “Newton’s Particles of light/Are Sands upon the Red sea’s shore”; also: “Can wisdom be put in a silver rod?”)—the second print is Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” also with compass or calipers in hand, instruments “sinister” to the poet, both literally and figuratively. (Photo credits: www.wikiart.org; wikipedia)

William Blake's Newton

William Blake's Ancient of Days

I concluded that post with: “‘Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,’ states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul is of considerable interest, along with [Stapp’s book]. I will save an analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please ‘stay tuned,’ for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.”

So here we are, now, with some thoughts on (and quotes from) three different views of the on-going Brain/Mind controversy (classical Newtonian physics versus neuroplasticity). Jeffrey Schwartz is a research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine; Henry P. Stapp “has spent his entire career working in frontier areas of theoretical physics”—pursuing “extensive work pertaining to the influence of our conscious thoughts on physical processes occurring in our brains”; and Dean Radin is a parapsychology researcher, Senior Scientist at the  Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), in Petaluma, California, and former President of the Parapsychological Association.

All three authors have focused their attention on the issue of “mind-brain” interaction, on how contemporary basic physical theory differs from classic physics, on the role of consciousness in human agents when they encounter the structure of empirical phenomena—and all three would seem to favor philosopher David J. Chalmers, when he writes about “the hard problem” of consciousness (“There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”), and in his book The Character of Consciousness, Chalmers devotes 568 pages to an attempt to explain this all-too-human condition.

In cruel contrast, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author (The Selfish Gene) Richard Dawkins attempts to resolve the issue in four succinct sentences: “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. That is exactly what we are here for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.”

Schwartz, Stapp, and Radin–whatever their differences–spend considerable space (and words) in their books attempting to show (and support with examples) the obsolescence of mainstream (“only the physical is real”) materialism, classic Newtonian physics, Hard Science, reductionism (as quoted before: “the idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movements of material particles”)—and openly (and courageously) espouse the merits of neuroplasticity: the “ability of neurons to forge new connections, to blaze new paths through the cortex, even to assume new roles … rewiring the brain.”—or, God forbid, Free Will!

Schwartz came to his position, or vision, by way of innovative therapy sessions he worked out for patients suffering from (or locked into) obsessive/compulsive behavior—alongside an extra-curricular interest in Buddhist “mindfulness.” Schwartz quotes the following from “one Buddhist scholar”: “You’re walking in the woods and your attention is drawn to a beautiful tree or a flower. The usual human reaction is to set the mind working, ‘What a beautiful tree. I wonder how long it’s been here. I wonder how often people notice it. I should really write a poem’ [or worse: ‘I should probably cut it down for firewood!’] … The way of mindfulness would be just to see the tree … as you gaze at the tree there is nothing between you and it.” Schwartz adds, “There is full awareness without running commentary. You are just watching, observing all facts, both inner and outer, very closely.” You are just living the tree?

Here are David J. Chalmers’ The Character of Consciousness; Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force; and a photo of Schwartz himself. (Photo credit: Goodreads)

David Chalmers The CHaracter of Consciousness   Jeffery Schwartz The Mind and the Brain

Jeffrey Schwartz

Here are some other observations by Jeffrey Schwartz I appreciated: “Individuals choose what they will attend to [two of his favorite words are “awareness” and “attention” (“intended action!”)]… Science ceded the soul and the conscious mind to religion and kept the material world to itself … By choosing whether and/or how to focus on the various possible states, the mind influences which one of them comes into being … The triumphant idea can then make the body move, and through associated neuroplastic changes, alter the brain circuitry … Radical attempts to view the world as a merely material domain, devoid of mind as an active force, neglect the very powers that define humankind … The science emerging with the new century tells us that we are not the children of matter alone, nor its slaves.”

He also praises (for its far ahead of its time insight), the words of William James: “Nature in her unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and fire, of brain and mind, that the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other’s being.”

Jeffrey Schwartz is also fond of quoting his friend (and eventual collaborator) Henry Stapp: “the replacement of the ideas of classical physics by the ideas of quantum physics completely changes the complexion of the mind-brain dichotomy, of the connection between mind and brain … In quantum theory, experience is an essential reality, and matter is viewed as a response then of the primary reality, which is experience.”

Henry P. Stapp’s prose style is, overall, more technical, demanding, and, although of considerable interest, perhaps less accessible at times (to someone like me, a definite “layman”), but he is dealing with the subject about which the renowned physicist Richard Feynman confessed (in his series of The Character of Physical Law lectures), “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Stapp would hope to convince you otherwise, commencing the Preface to Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer with these words: “The new theory departs from the old one in many important ways, but none is more significant in the realm of human affairs than the role it assigns to your conscious choices.”

Stapp cites a “tremendous burgeoning of interest in the problem of consciousness” now in progress, and quotes from an article by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: “At the start of the new millennium, it is apparent that one question towers above all others in the life sciences: How does the set of processes we call mind emerge from the activity of the organ we call brain?” Damasio answers his own question: “I contend that the biological processes […] now presumed to correspond to mind in fact are mind processes and will be seen to be so when understood in sufficient detail”—and he hints that biological processes “understood in sufficient detail” are really “quantum understanding.”

Enter Henry P. Stapp with his “deep interest in the quantum measurement problem.” His own book is loaded with vital information on (and understanding of) every phase of quantum theory from the fundamental role of the observer; the wave/particle phenomena; placebos; the locality/nonlocality issue;  Einstein’s “Spooky Action at a Distance”; the Quantum Zero effect—a host of aspects of the two co-existing parallel mental realities; and even an extensive analysis of Alfred North Whitehead’s thoughts, one of the first mathematician/philosophers to comprehend quantum mechanics and incorporate its theories into his organic philosophy and Process Ontology.

Here is a photo of Henry P. Stapp, and the cover of his book, The Mindful Universe. (Photo credit: Alchetron.com)

Henry Stapp (2)   Henry Stapp The Mindful Universe

I won’t try to do justice to all I found of interest and value in those sections (Much!), but a chapter and material that followed is devoted to “The Impact of Quantum Mechanics on Human Values,” and Stapp states, “The quantum concept of man, being based on objective science equally available to all … has the potential to undergird a universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”—and would thus provide “material benefits,” in every area from ethics to medicine.

Among the advantages, Stapp lists: “consciously experienced intentional choices,” “a foundation for understanding the co-evolution of mind and brain,” “free will of the kind needed to undergird ethical theory,” and improved “self-image … with consciousness an active component of a deeply interconnected world process that is responsive to value-based human judgments … Behavior, insofar as it concerns ethics, is guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole.”

If “attention” (“intended action”) was a favorite, a key word for Schwartz, “interconnection” is the choice of Henry Stapp. He has a Utopian vision. EVERYTHING is interconnected! Without being fully aware of it, we are ALL (people and particles alike!) intimately interconnected—always! We are truly the molecular, and otherwise, music of the spheres, uniting medieval cosmology and NOW. His vision of and for the future is not “systematic,” and the structure of his book is loose; the book—although divided up into “chapters,” seems to float, from section to section, agreeably, as inclusive as quantum theory itself, with ease and unpredictability (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” at play), enjoying its own playful quantum “jumps.” Another frequently employed word is “dynamics”—and nothing is preserved in stone, set forever, or lasting (as Newton’s classic physics did) for three centuries; all is in flux (I once wrote a poem that began: “I flux, you flux, everybody flux flux.”).

Stapp states: “According to the new conception, the physically described world is built not out of bits of matter, as matter was understood in the nineteenth century, but out of objective tendencies—potentialities—for certain discrete, whole actual events to occur … This coordination of the aspects of the theory that are described in physical/mathematical terms with aspects that are described in psychological [subjective] terms is what makes the theory  practically useful. Some empirical predictions have been verified to the incredible accuracy of one part in a hundred million.”  

Here are photos of: quantum mechanics equations and the wave/particle double slot experiment. Photo credits: www.thoughtco.com; http://www.liquidgravity.nz)

Quantum mechanics equations

Wave particle experiment

“Mindfulness” (attention, interconnectedness) would seem to be the order of the day.

Although Dean Radin shares conclusions and convictions with Schwartz and Stapp, he comes at the mind-brain dilemma from a slightly different angle or perspective: defending his field of specialty (parapsychology) from constant attack or criticism on the part of hard science, which regards the study of the mental phenomena he has devoted his life to as inexplicable—or an illusion.

His book–The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomenais systematic: a carefully sequenced argument, or act of persuasion, from the Preface (“When we set out to prove the boundaries of consciousness and reality … it is essential to cultivate tolerance for the unexpected”) to the book’s “wrap up” on page 339: “Future generations will undoubtedly look back upon the twentieth century with a certain poignancy. Our progeny will shake their heads with disbelief over the arrogance we displayed in our misunderstanding of nature. It took three hundred years of hard-won scientific advances merely to verify the existence of something that people had been experiencing for millennia.”

Radin is devoted to noetic (from the Greek word “noesis” or “noetikos”: intuition or inner wisdom, direct knowing, subjective understanding) science: a branch that employs rigorous scientific methods with multidisciplinary scholarship in the study of what philosopher William James (far-seeing in 1902) referred to as “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” Using this method Radin recognized (discussed under the heading “Belief Becomes Biology” in his book) that an external suggestion can become “an internal expectation” that can “manifest in the physical body”–the implication being that the body’s “hard physical reality can be significantly modified by the more evanescent reality of the mind.”

Radin offers sections of text that carefully, and clearly, define such phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition, ESP, out-of-body experience, near-death experience, and reincarnation. He feels that, in spite of the fact that such states have been in existence (with much evidence of them) “for millennia,” science itself has evolved into the absurd position of “the mind denying its own existence” (“Science has effectively lost its mind.”), and he believes that underlying the world of ordinary objects and human experience “is another reality, an interconnected world of intermingling relationship and possibilities”—an underlying reality “more fundamental–in the sense of being the ground state from which everything originates—than the transient forms and dynamic relationships of familiar experience.”

Here is Dean Radin, and the cover of his book The Conscious Universe. (Photo credit: http://www.deanradin.com)

Dean_Radin_Photo    Dean Radin The Conscious Universe

I like a witticism Radin attributes to physicist Nick Herbert, who makes the claim (along with other writers we’ve encountered) that consciousness is our “biggest mystery,” but adds: “it is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness, we simply have no sense of them at all. About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the feet.”

Henry P. Stapp’s favored concept, “interconnection,” shows up again. In support for his case or stance, Radin quotes Teilhard de Chardin: “The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter, by means of increasingly powerful methods, the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts … All around us, as far as the eye can see, the universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to take it as a whole, in one piece.” And Radin quotes Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying): “Everything is inextricably interrelated. We come to realize that we are responsible for everything we do, say, or think, responsible in fact for ourselves, everyone and everything else, and the entire universe.”

Radin likes the word “uni-verse”: a connected world, “not a set of isolated fragments,” which suggests another responsibility (or creative challenge) entailed: “We all carry ideas about who we are, or who we have been taught to believe we are … not only is our perception of the world a construction, but also our sense of who we think we are.”

For all his idealism, Dean Radin’s book is not devoid of practical application. In a section dealing with such (with a heading, “Medicine”), he writes, “We envison that future experiments will continue to confirm that distant mental healing is not only real, but is clinically useful in treating certain physical and mental illnesses.” And he closes on a hopeful note: ‘A society that      consciously uses precognitive information to guide the future is one that is realizing true freedom … This would allow us to create the future as we wish, rather than blindly follow a predetermined course through our ignorance.”

Thus spake Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, and Dean Radin. Before we move on to “jazz” (and applying some of these theories to the art of improvisation), I’d like to cite a final passage from another book I mentioned in passing: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul—a book whose final vision for the future contains even larger aspiration than the others I’ve discussed: “Mystical experience from various spiritual traditions indicates that the nature of the mind, consciousness, and reality as well as the meaning of life can be apprehended through an intuitive, unitive, and experiential form of knowing … The proposed new scientific frame of reference may accelerate our understanding of this process of spiritualization and significantly contribute to the emergence of a planetary type of consciousness. The development of this type of consciousness is absolutely essential if humanity is to successfully solve the global crises that confront us … and wisely create a future that benefits all humans and all forms of life on planet earth.”

Here’s  my own “take” on the mind/brain drama: I tend to get frustrated, and feel quite helpless, when a “machine” I own (such as the laptop I am working on just now; or a blood pressure monitor, or even the kitchen toaster) doesn’t function as it should (James Thurber quipped, “Machines don’t like me!”), so if I am a machine myself (as classic Newtonian physics claims), and I don’t function well (which happens from time to time—maybe I should say often!), it’s no wonder I spend (precious, hopefully potentially productive) time being upset. On the other hand, Quantum theory allows us to live our lives in the moment as it is, whatever it is or may be (being and becoming), no matter what matter it’s made of (rim shot!), and we truly need to take this gift, this moment in time–and ourselves–just as we find it (and ourselves!), and make the best of it. The same holds true for the external world, not just our internal existence—for the two are One.

So what does any of this have to do with jazz improvisation? Well … everything! The best “ingredients” of quantum physics can be found in the best jazz—when both are moving, grooving as they should: interconnected, mindful, intuitive, unitive, and experiential. Which brings us to the wondrous world–or universe–of jazz itself (at last, you may quip, and I don’t blame  you!). I was ready, I was “up,” for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, because I was eager to see and hear a group I had heard (and read) “good things” about: John Beasley’s MONK’estra.

Journalist Willard Jenkins interviewed Beasley regarding his fresh, brilliant, innovative (all the things Thelonious Monk himself was!) arrangements of the music, and Willard quoted Beasley: “The germ of MONK’estra started with my desire to experiment with 21st century harmony for big band that swings and grooves … I started reimagining Monk’s “Epistrophy” and quickly realized that his music was the perfect match for this. The swing is already written in and since his music is very pliable, I found that I could stretch my imagination.”

Willard Jenkins adds, “John Beasley has done a marvelous job of contemporizing Thelonious Monk’s music”—and Beasley himself continues: “I compare Monk’s music to how the public must have felt upon its first view of Cubist art by Pablo Picasso, which revolutionized modern art.” I agree, because, whereas I was fascinated when I first heard Monk play, I couldn’t grasp what he was up to, and resisted it—the way that he was revolutionizing jazz. Beasley says, “On the eve of his centennial it is evident that we have finally caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here’s a photo of John Beasley and the full MONK’estra aggregate—and a photo in performance. (Photo credits: www.laweekly.com; http://www.montereyjazzfestival.org)

John Beasley and Monkestra

John Beasley's MONK'estra_(c)Eric Wolfinger_SFJAZZ_2015_0182_crop

At the Monterey Jazz Festival, MONK’estra performed on Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but took notes from the start on what I heard: a not just swinging, grooving big band, but one that rocked (fully inclusive, with a surprising backbeat)—an ultra-tight ensemble, with powerful section work to support (surround and enhance) soloists who offered their share of funky licks: a little bit of everything (trying all the options on for size, simultaneously, something for everyone, like Henry Stapp’s “universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”: Quantum Physics!); a host of Monk tunes, a medly seemingly undifferentiated, a continuous suite of Thelonious. I didn’t bother to write down the titles. I just dug the tunes as a truly handsome bunch, and the full range of interpretation and improvised ingenuity based on the originals: explosive dynamics (deep growling baritone sax: Adam Schroeder; wailing trombone: Francisco Torres; altruistic alto sax: Bob Sheppard); fulsome ensemble support or “fill”; luscious unison work; luminous orchestration (as if John Beasley, like Hector Berlioz, who wrote the book on it, knows the exact timbre, texture of each and every instrument—and the best combinations or match ups); each separate melody or “head” the genesis of the next—and the truly recognizable (some of my favorite Monk tunes, “Pannonica,” “I Mean You,” “Ugly Beauty,” “Gallop’s Gallop”) emerging with all their grace and style.

Few of the tunes were announced (if I remember correctly) throughout (Beasley slipped over to the keyboards himself, unobtrusively, for “Pannonica”): just a perfectly put together wild wonderful onslaught of Thelonious, with glimpses of counterpoint, blues vamp, more than just a little “Latin touch,” a wire brush percussive break, smooth liquid sequences building to a full force orchestral flourish, and close out.

Something I realized, writing those last two paragraphs now, is that I could supplement many phrases of description with Quantum Theory “fill”—as if John Beasley’s continuous suite had been composed on Quantum principles, for it was rift with the distinct flow of particles acting as waves, nonlocal “instantaneous action at a distance,” music fully grounded in itself (its own nature, its affinity with natural life: free of the tendency of free jazz straining, trying too hard, at times, to be “free,” yet free, also, of the tendency of big bands to get locked into mandatory, or obligatory concord or unity; this group was just MONK’estra, itself, having a grand Quantum Monk time!): its music a fully present “fact,” in the Alfred North Whitehead sense of the “preeminence of congruence” established “over the indefinite herd of other such relations”—music intimately interconnected, at one with itself: music, in Henry Stapp’s words, “guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole”—abundantly laced with joyous “mindfulness,” John Beasley has fulfilled his desire, his intent “to stretch [his] imagination” and, on the eve of Thelonious Monk’s centennial, “to finally [get] caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here are two geniuses side by side: Thelonious Monk and Alfred North Whitehead (Photo credit: www.burtglinn.com)

Thelonious Monk 8     Alfred North Whitehead Process and Reality

I had two enjoyable encounters following the exceptional MONK’estra set. I stopped at a long table set up on the grounds, and had a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale (North Coast Brewing has donated over $1 million from proceeds of the sale of the beer and gear to support the Jazz education programs of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.). Standing next to me was a very short man dressed like Harlequin, an outrageous costume. I’d done some work for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival (copy for an exhibit of historical posters, “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast,” and a series of humorous historical anecdotes included in a video shown at several venues that weekend), and I was wearing what prompted my just-made friend to say, “Your badge would suggest you are a person of some importance.” Ironically, at that moment, one of my anecdotal “slides” appeared on a large screen in a pavilion adjacent to us that had couches and chairs and served drinks—so I told my new friend and his companions about my work for the Festival, and said, “Look, that’s one of mine.” They seemed impressed and asked for my card, which I gave them, and they all promised, on the spot, to buy all three of my jazz books—claiming, “Why, you yourself are living history! And you look like a writer!”

Here’s an example of one of my anecdotal “slides” (on an appearance at the MJF by Miles Davis) and the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival:

Leonard Nelson Miles Davis Quote   MJF-17-Poster_small4

The encounter was good fun, but the next one was even better. I set out for the North Coast Brewing pavilion, to meet a journalist friend, Dan Ouellette (who conducts the DownBeat Blindfold Test each year at the MJF), and who should he be talking to when I arrived but John Beasley himself, who’d retired there with nearly his entire orchestra after their set. Dan has written about John, so he introduced me, and we sat together for … a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, of course!   

Fifty-eight year old Shreveport, Louisiana born John Beasley has a (Southern?) gentlemanly presence, well abetted by urban studio work savvy (He was lead arranger for American Idol for eleven years), and a genuine genial jazz musician’s “cool” manner. You might say he’s very quantum inclusive! I enjoyed talking with him, much! I told him about my own experience as fully undeserving house pianist at a place called the 456 Club in Brooklyn in 1956 (when I attended Pratt Institute), and meeting classical and jazz composer, arranger, and pianist Hal Overton there. It was Overton whom Thelonious Monk selected to score his piano works for orchestra; a performance of these compositions recorded live in 1959 (and released as The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall).In 1963, Monk recorded a second live album with orchestral arrangements by Overton at the New York Philharmonic Hall, released as Big Band and Quartet in Concert.

Here are the two Monk CDs for which Hall Overton provided arrangements:

Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall   Thelonious Monk Big Band and Concert CD

John Beasley seemed interested, and even asked if I would give him my card (“Living history,” and Wow, I’d now handed out two of my “business” cards in one hour!). I even told John that I’d had a cabaret card in New York City when Monk couldn’t get one (he’d ben arrested on an extremely questionable charge of “possession,” and not only confined for sixty days in prison, but the New York State Liquor Authority removed his cabaret card, without which you could not get hired for local club dates.) He was reinstated in 1957. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1964.

John Beasley’s own life, and career, is fascinating. He grew up in a musical family. His grandfather, Rule Oliver, played trombone in territory bands; his mother, Lida, taught music in public schools and colleges, as well as conducting operas (she earned a local Emmy for her work in Faust). John’s father, another Rule, is a pianist and bassoonist who played with the Fort Worth Symphony, and was a professor of music at two colleges. John Beasley learned to play trumpet, oboe, drums, saxophone, flute—and jazz piano, for which he is best known now, along with his arranging)—and he went on to record and perform with Miles Davis, Sergio Mendes, Steely Dan, Dianne Reeves, and James Brown. John became musical director for the Thelonious Monk Institute Tribute and International Jazz Day concerts, and has been nominated for an Emmy Award and three times for a Grammy for three different albums.

He claims he “always had a thing for Thelonious Monk,” and in 2012, he wrote a big-band chart for “Epistrophy,” then “Ask Me Now.” He formed a 15-piece band composed of top West Coast musicians, and has released two MONK’estra recordings. Here they are:

John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 1    John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 2

Thelonious Monk’s son T.S. has stated, “My father would have approved.” Writer Neil Tessler comments on Beasley’s “refreshing 21st century take on the ever new music” of Monk, and praises the arranger’s solid “link to the composer’s vision,” exceptional “orchestral writing,” and even Beasley’s willingness to “spark some controversy” (“using darkened harmonies and backbeat rhythms,” “a tonal pallet reminiscent of neo-soul,” on a familiar tune such as “’Round Midnight”). Tessler writes that the arranger “has deftly pulled [“Midnight”] into the orbit of modern listeners … has simply returned this song to its roots, with a conceptual twist that simultaneously makes it fresh.” Beasley has created “an entire collection of excitingly re-conceived and marvelously executed compositions.”

Elsewhere, Tessler has written that Beasley possesses “a willingness to engage  these compositions with an ingenuity as audacious as the one that created them.” John Beasley’s “lifelong love of arranging” has made it possible for him to take Monk’s music, so open “to interpretation,” and enhance it with (in his own words) his own “architecture,” going well beyond “the idea of theme-solos-theme,” because, “like all great songs, Monk’s songs lend themselves to a more personal interpretation, especially when it comes to arranging.” Tessler adds, “Maybe Beasley’s affinity for Monk was simply meant to be. Monk was born October 10 in 1917; 43 years later to the day, Beasley showed up.”

I’m grateful that he did: not only in this life and for the sake of jazz, but, selfishly for my own sake, for that Sunday afternoon MONK’estra set at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and for the excellent conversation I had with him after, over Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale! Thank you, Dan Ouellette, for introducing us—and thank you, John Beasley, for all you have given us by way of music.

I love writing this blog—the quantum “freedom” of it (when I can find time and presence of mind to do so), and if you’d told me years ago that I would someday put together an “informal essay” that combined an examination of quantum theory with an account of a first-rate jazz performance, I would more than likely have thought you crazy. So thanks for being a bit crazy in a manner to inspire me now! I look forward to surprising you (again?) with my next blog post, whenever it happens and whatever it’s about (the “uncertainty principle” again).

 

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A Ten-Day Hospital Stay (as Disclaimer); Jazz Pianist Kei Akagi; and the Premiere of John Clayton’s “Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration” at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

I should, perhaps, rename this blog “Bill’s Collective Apologies for Not Posting a New Blog When He Says He Will,” but that’s not an appellation likely to attract and hold readers–although given the nature of our topsy-turvy times, it just might work. Once again, I find myself in the position of apologizing for not providing what I said would be my next blog post, which was: “I’d like to continue the theme of ‘More About Music,’ and write about this recording [a CD, Contrast & Form, I’d received from jazz pianist Kei Akagi, whom I’d written about in my book, Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within; University of Michigan Press, 2004]… Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!”

I do intend, in this blog, to make good on all that I suggested there: Kei Akagi’s new CD Contrast & Form, his impressive body of work in general and his thoughts on improvisation–and two outstanding sets I heard at the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival: The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra premiere of a commissioned piece: Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration (with special guests: pianist Gerald Clayton, John’s son, and his trio); and John Beasley’s MONK’estra, featuring John’s imaginative, solid arrangements of the music of Thelonious Monk.

Here’s a photo of the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a photo of yours truly standing beside some copy I wrote for a retrospective exhibit of posters called “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast” (Photo credit: Stuart Brinin):

MJF-17-Poster_small4   MJF Poster Exhibit Stu Photo

But first … the inevitable disclaimer as to why it’s taken so long to get around to this blog. My last post was on September 8, just a few days before the Monterey Jazz Festival. At that time, knowing I would spend three nights and two days hiking the Fairgrounds in quest of all the fine music afforded at several venues, I was concerned about trouble I was having with my right knee (trouble that would occasion a trip to ER at Community Hospital–and X-rays that disclosed a sprain and torn meniscus), but there was no way I was going to miss attending the Festival, nor compromise an eight day trip to Kauai my wife Betty and I were looking forward to in October—nor two music gigs I had coming up in November (in connection with a book of mine that came out, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.)

I made it through all these events—occasions that proved so delightful, rewarding in themselves that I failed to acknowledge the pain I felt in my knee. In late November, I made an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Peter Gerbino, who recommended an MRI, which disclosed a right knee sprain, three torn meniscus, and “severe bone marrow lesions.” Dr. Gerbino recommended a new minimally-invasive fluoroscopically-assisted procedure called Subchondroplasty that “targets and fills subchondral bone defects through the delivery of AccuFill® Bone Substitute Material (BSM), a nanocrystalline, highly porous injectable calcium phosphate (CaP).” We set up a date for surgery: December 5.

What began and was anticipated as a half-day stay (at most) at the Surgical Center on Cass Street in Monterey turned out to be a 10 day stay at Community Hospital up on Holman Highway. The 7:30 AM surgery itself took less than an hour, and by 10:00 I was on the verge of being discharged to go home, but when I stood up to do so, I fell over (fortunately on the gurney that bought me from surgery). I discovered I had no feeling whatsoever in my LEFT Leg–as if my left leg had somehow been amputated by mistake!

Over the next few hours, I attempted to stand three more times, but–in spite of some feeling returning to my toes (I could wiggle them just a bit) and calf—it was impossible to stand (my left leg was dead for the most part: it no longer existed). Doctor and staff decided it was too great a risk to attempt to move me to our car and have my wife Betty drive me home and somehow get me (even in a wheelchair) to our front door—so I was placed in an ambulance, where two paramedics would deliver me (an IV–a “drip”–was set up in route) to Community Hospital for “observation” (in attempt to find out just what the hell was going on–or rather not going on–with my left leg).

I was taken to the Emergency unit, and then assigned the “last room” in an overspill outpost area. I remember thinking, “I will never walk again,” and I’d even begun to imagine my future life confined to a wheelchair. A breakthrough came when, my left foot flat on the floor, a physical therapist had me shuffle my toes as far forward as possible, then back, sideways, and then try to lift them atop the lower frame of a tray (just off the floor). The next day she placed a handkerchief-sized cloth on the floor, and asked me to stand on it (with the assistance of a “walker,” of course). She then again had me “walk,” moving my foot as far forward as possible, back, sideways, slowly in increasing distances.

I was not officially “registered” at the hospital until Friday, December 8, when I was moved to the Main Pavilion, and another physical therapist escorted me (again, on a walker) down the length of a corridor and back, where I was cheered by a group of well-wishers: my family (Betty, sons Tim and Steve, who had arrived) and a host of nurses—a VERY moving experience; a major Minor victory indeed!

A neurologist (someone I knew of: a highly respected man) had been called in (everyone–doctors, nurses, staff, my family, and me!–remained totally puzzled by the “loss” of my leg), and I underwent a CT and five (!) MRIs in two days—on my head (brain), lumbar spine, head again (for “acute bleeding”), cervical spine, thoracic spine–a carotid Doppler, and Echocardiogram. The neurologist “suspected” (this did not show up on an MRI, but apparently that can happen about 6% of the time) “a small right hemispheric stroke, probably ischemic, related to small vessel disease”—and that (after considerable debate on everyone’s part) would go down as the final diagnoses.

Here are some photos of yours truly: shortly after being admitted for “observation” at Community Hospital; dressed, and with Betty, after I found out I would be discharged; sitting in a real chair when I arrived home; and standing with my new constant companion, my “walker,” after I’d been home for a while.

Bill in Hospital (2)   Bill in Hospital with Betts

Bill in Hospital Fincally at Home 5   Crab Christmas Braveheart 3

I was “discharged on aspirin and statin” (and the pain killer Norco) from the Main Pavilion, and given a room overlooking the hospital putting green (and a feast of trees that came up in the light each morning) in the IRU section of the hospital—for rehabilitation. Each day I was given a set schedule of sessions (three hours of intense workouts) with an extraordinary (beautifully competent and empathic) team of physical and occupational therapists, and after three days of strolling the hospital grounds (always with a walker), sessions in the gym: climbing stairs, standing alone (without a walker), even practicing rhythmic “dance” moves (extension and flexion), toe taps, standing balance progression (eyes closed—scary!); learning to bathe myself while seated in a chair in a shower; isometric finger exercises and even “putty” curls—I graduated, after spending an evening declared “Independent” (no more assistance to the bathroom, obtaining objects in my room on my own, etc. I was, now, truly “going solo”–like the title of my book). When Betty arrived on the morning of December 13, we were provided instruction on getting me in and out of our car—so I could depart and arrive, the next day (December 14), safely at home. Home! Which we did (arrive safely, with the assistance of our son Steve.

And that’s how I spent ten totally unanticipated days in the loving care of Community Hospital. I did make some fine friends, one of whom was Maria, a nurse from the Philippines, one of the most incessantly cheerful, buoyant persons I’ve ever met. She would come bouncing into my room singing, without words, beautifully, but claimed she couldn’t carry a tune at all. When my good friend Bob Danziger came to visit, he told Maria he’d traveled throughout the Philippines, and asked if she knew a particular song for children he’d heard. Maria did, and proceeded to sing that song (with words) beautifully—a performance she repeated, delightfully, when Betty and sons Tim and Steve arrived that afternoon.

I am pleased to report that, after completing my 7th physical therapy session on January 26 (with Chris Tinker, an exceptional therapist—and an avid jazz fan!), I took my first “walk” across the room with just a cane, rather than the sometimes cumbersome “walker” that’s been my constant companion since that ten-day hospital stay.

Which (Maria’s song) brings us, tangentially, to the subject I originally intended for this blog, back in September (!) “More About Music.” I had heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within: Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” What I heard on the CD intrigued, and pleased me—so I decided to write about the direction his music had taken.

A fortunate “extra,” or favor an artist can offer an audience (and herself or himself, and the music itself) is being an articulate human being willing to take time to provide an interesting (and enhancing) description of intentions, or aims, and the means by which they were fulfilled. Kei Akagi is such an artist (and human being): an educator as well as a consummate musician, for alongside his musical contributions (14 CDs as a solo artist and leader; over 60 CDs as a sideman and accompanist—including Miles Davis’ last recorded works) and 70 published compositions), he is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

He offered engaging, philosophically-inclined liner notes for Contrast & Form, writing: “We can’t have one without the other. Faced with the rich tapestry of greys that comprise life, we rely on contrast and form to make sense of it all. In the absence of perceptive contrast and form, we must somehow provide it. That is one of the things art can do. It is my hope that the music you hear on this recording will contribute in that way.”

He elaborates: “The world now is filled with wonderful jazz musicians, maybe more than at any other time. We dialogue with tradition, we negotiate with modernism, etc., but we ultimately confront music as a totality of past and present, all of which pushes us into the future as we speak. Within the kaleidoscope of musical possibilities we see ever-changing contrasts and forms, all within a continuum of perpetual sonic transformation, some lasting a moment of time and others lasting decades. We are free to embrace it all; I do so with gratitude.”

That “embrace” is what Kei Akagi’s Tokyo-based trio, (drummer Tamaya Honda and bassist Shunya Wakai) now in its fifteenth year of collaboration, attempts to do, and succeeds at doing, in this recording. The pianist states that the pieces themselves were composed over a three-year period, but “the performance methods of the Trio evolved over a much longer time.” Formed in 2000 as “an experimental performance collective,” Akagi finds their “point of departure in the rich history of jazz,” but feels the group also engages in “constant spontaneous deconstructions of the rhythmic and harmonic elements that define the music.” Eschewing the traditional roles “of the instruments associate with a piano trio format,” the Trio has chosen to emphasize “the equal role of each member within the ensemble.”

Here are photos of Kei Akagi; Kei at the piano; the cover of the CD Contrast & Form; and the Trio: bassist Shunya Wakai, Kei Akagi, and drummer Tamaya Honda (Photo credits: UCI Music Department; youtube.com; Masashi Kageyama):

Kei Agaki 3  Kei Agaki

Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form  Kei Agaki Trio Contrast & Form 2

That emphasis is apparent on the CD’s first track: “In the Fold,” on which the members of the trio “fold” into one another as tightly, and spontaneously, as origami; a minimalist framework–which Akagi often adopts–focused on internal process, stasis with gradual transformation, the reiteration of musical phrases, and persistent motif embodied in a simple six-note melodic line characteristic of Japanese songs for children (Gene Krupa’s very popular in Japan trio, with Charlie Ventura on tenor sax, recorded a children’s song, “Sho, Sho, Shojoji,” “Badger’s Party,” in 1952—and the piece can be heard and seen, performed live by them to this day, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ro6CWhcYbs).

“In the Fold” displays the Bach-like precision, and clarity, of Kei Akagi’s trio, variety and surprise within the deceptive minimalism (you truly have to listen, with great care, for the nuance), and a range of mood from lyricism to sudden dramatic excursion, bright accents within the smooth flow—creative juxtaposition which is carried over into the second track, “Playground: The Dog and the Snake,” the minimalist repetition carried here to an extreme: the same theme persisting, over and over again, on piano, albeit abetted by subtle left hand riffs and drummer Tamaya Honda’s (in Akagi’s words) “incredible cross rhythms that occur in the middle of the track, purposely clashing with a regrouping of 21 beats into seven equal divisions of three.”

This is how the “equal role” of each member comes in, and pays off—with the variety and surprise I mentioned. A playful tension is set up between a nearly exasperatingly consistent (repetitious) again “simple” seven note theme (no let up relief on that, although that theme is—do I dare say it?—“charming” in and of itself); and the overall motion is one of ascent, the piece climbing, climbing, ending in a fade, the piano dropping out, with bass and drums carrying the melody, fully in sync, at the close.

Many of the tracks, such as this one, have engaging titles: “Ame to Kaeru (The Rain and the Frog)” and “Where You May Be”—the former, again in Akagi’s words, “a mini-suite of three sections,” although, in keeping with avant-garde minimalist “principles,” the piece remains non-narrative, non-representational—which just makes it all the more intriguing (You seem to be invited to invent a “story” of your own ). The piece provides a quick note (piano in sync with snare drum), stop, quick note, stop rhythm, repetition as prevalent as in “Playgouund.” Shunya Wakai’s bass steps in and takes over—then bass and drums interlaced, the exotic rhythm ongoing as Akagi’s piano work prevails with deft extended runs, three distinct personalities, worlds, functioning as “one,” and comfortable with one another just as they are—melodic or dissonant, the tempo never letting up, solid piano comping, STOP, piano in sync with bass and drums, STOP: a wild, good fun romp until the end, and then another sudden STOP, signifying The End.

The last track on the Contrast & Form CD, “Where You May Be” (another engaging title) is one of my favorites: melodic (a floating supple “undertoe” present with a dreamy liquid top)–reiterated, but with subtle modulations of intent. This gives way to staggered rhythm that ascends, and hesitation that suggests a quest of sorts, a seeking; then a stable reflective mood, lyrical, lovely (with handsome offsetting bass work by Shunya Wakai), an extended piano run, florid finger work matched with stabilizing solid block chords (and fine offsetting cymbal work by Tamaya Honda), this followed by an admirable bass solo (with fine sharp accents): the trio a tight group with active respect for one another—and back to liquid ascending piano, staggered rhythm again, and perfect piano/bass counterpoint that slows to a fade, with two unique harmonic configurations at the close. Beautiful!

The pianist/leader offers some more reflection on making music his way in a short video, “Kei Akagi: Master of Improvisation—UC Irvine,” talking (and providing examples on the piano) about “creation within the moment”; how he feels he must bring everything he feels to the creation of the music, because there is “no distinction between composition and improvisation; I am spontaneously composing … What are the elements, since I’m composing on the spot?  I can choose to play it [he offers a melody] very playfully … or, no, maybe it’s supposed to be interpreted [and here, he provides a somewhat solemn, no nonsense version of what he has just created on the spot] … a different mood … I’m constantly, as an improviser, providing information to myself, and the trick is to interpret that correctly; it’ s a really fun process.”

You can find this video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tES2SGU54N0.

When it comes to teaching at UC Irvine, he was going to set up a standard “program,” but settled for “allowing each student to express their own personality,” because jazz is “very personal … If you have five different musicians, even if they’re playing the same composition, they are all supposed to express five different world views,” adding at the video’s close, “For everything you learn, there’s a different way to do it!”

Here are the covers of three more CDs featuring Kei Akagi: The Asian American Trio (the album I wrote about fourteen years ago, in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within); Mirror Puzzle; Playroom; and another photo of him “in action” at the piano (Photo credit: WMKY).

Kei Agaki Asian American Jazz TrioKei Agaki Mirror Puzzle

Kei Agaki PlayroomKei Agaki 2

Kei Akagi is not the only contemporary musical artist with such an open, risk-taking approach to improvisation. Legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter returned to Blue Note Records (after 43 years, and at age 79) with an album appropriately, accurately called Without a Net: music the New York Times described asspellbinding intuition, with an absolute commitment to the spirit of discovery”; the BBC, referring back to a statement Shorter made when he played with Miles Davis for six years, “We never had a rehearsal. How do you rehearse the unknown?”, praised Without a Net as “full of spontaneity … unhinged abandon”; and Mark F. Turner wrote in All About Jazz: “Wayne Shorter is still one of jazz’s most ardent provocateurs,” citing “the seemingly telepathic and subliminal messages that Shorter, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and pianist Danilo Perez communicate in these recordings largely captured from the quartet’s European tour in late 2011.”

Alec Wilkinson, in an article on pianist Vijay Iyer (who majored in mathematics and physics at Yale) said, “He doesn’t care to have his music labeled at all, but he sometimes calls it ‘creative music,’ adding that improvisation involves “the ability to perceive, think, decide, and act in real time.” Iyer’s bassist, Stephen Crump claims, “Vijay is interested in the collective dynamic,” and drummer Marcus Gilmore approaches his instrument from “a harmonic and melodic base.” In a blog, Ted Pankin writes, “Three years an independent entity, the trio aggregates information from multiple streams, sculpting Iyer’s arrangements and compositions along equilateral triangle principles that make it unclear where melodic responsibilities lie at any given moment … at a moment’s notice, the flow morphs into [in bassist Crump’s words] “zones of building from pure vibration and resonance, with everyone constantly micro-adjusting the pitch, dealing with textures and colors … the trio instantly became a more organic beast.” Iver himself claims, “If music is the sound of bodies in action, then we’re hearing not just sound, but bodies making those sounds … It’s a source-based perception rather than a pure sound-based perception. It’s not just about making pretty sounds. It’s about those sounds somehow emerging from human activity. The beauty has a story behind it—how did it get there?”

Here are photos of Wayne Shorter’s quartet, and Vijay Iyer’s trio (Photo credits: college.unc.edu and NPR.org):

Wayne Shorter Quartet Barbicon

vijayiyer

As for another topic I suggested I’d include in this blog post, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra 60th Monterey Jazz Festival premiere of the commissioned piece, Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebrationjust about everyone I talked to, after its performance, said it was the best MJF commissioned piece ever. Writer Andy Gilbert felt the work was “the Festival’s centerpiece … [It] surpassed all expectations. The bassist [John Clayton, who composed and conducted the piece] offered a brief emotional roadmap to the eight-movement piece”—and I found this “road map,” the verbal “introduction,” equal to the music itself: eloquent, honest, inclusive. I just wish I could get my hands on a copy of it!

A review in Classical Voice North America announced, “A major work was born on the Lyons stage that evening, a 40-minute MJF-commissioned world premiere by John Clayton You didn’t have to read any specific political details into the piece in order to sense the passion in its marching party grooves or marvel how its complex, diverse structure held together.” Andy Gilbert, also, commented on the “timely” tone (directly addressing our own era) of the piece, citing specific sections: “Responding to the divisive political climate. A sense of anger and dismay came through clearly on ‘Tidal Wave’ and ‘Slow Burn Baby Burn,’ but what was most striking about the piece was the way he effectively melded the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Gerald Clayton Trio … With the orchestra’s Tamir Hendelman, on keyboards, playing unison lines with Gerald’s piano, and several drum duets between Jeff Hamilton and Obed Calvaire, the two ensembles worked as one, roaring and whispering into a spiritually charged duet for Gerald and his uncle, alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton.”

Looking back over my own notes, I realize these two writers were alert to much that I found meaningful and unique in the piece: how handsomely it all held together (and the work was epic in its diverse elements); the powerful presence of a Big Band committed to several themes, evolving (seamlessly) from conception to overt celebration, with gifts of well-earned righteous anger, discord, outrage matched with solemn concern along the way–from tidal wave to cleansing prayer, a critique of current conditions, yet a homage to the longevity of jazz itself as an art form, with a wondrous juxtaposition of appropriate riffs and motifs.

The “exchange” between Gerald’s trio and the orchestra–the ingenious call and response–was first-rate; as was the conversation, the dialogue that took place between the two drummers: Jeff Hamilton’s thoughtful, stoic grin ever-present throughout Obed Calvaire’s wild one-upmanship explosions (Hamilton’s simple subtle cymbal “sizzle” winning out after one such display), but no real “cutting contest,” here: just acts of respect and individual (and generational) identity, an encyclopedic array of percussive approaches, all in “good fun” to boot.

Here are photos of the full orchestra at work on Saturday night, a close up of John conducting, and Jeff Hamilton on drums (Photo credits: Jim Stone and hamiltonjazz.com):

John Clayton conducting entire Big Band

John Clayton conducting 2 Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Clayton’s solo was beautiful, within the “spiritually charged” duet with his nephew Gerald (and John Clayton’s bowed bass solo was a work of art in and of itself, as were Gerald’s nuance-filled indwelling solo excursions). These “family” moments were “gifts” I had anticipated, because my very talented good friend Bob Danziger was commissioned to prepare a series of videos on artists featured in the 60th anniversary celebration, and one of the videos was on John Clayton, filmed while he was composing : Stories of a Groove: Conception, Evolution, Celebration. In that video, MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson says that John and Gerald are “part of a long tradition of great families that have performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival,” calls Gerald a “musical revelation of a son,” and comments on the stress they place on “musical honesty and vocabulary” with Next Generation artists, adding that father and son “live that advice … jazz is renewed in their hands, infusing influences from all over the globe … family, history … artistry and hard work make John Clayton’s commissioned piece … so special.” Gerald claims that piece is about “celebrating that feeling of freedom after overcoming something really hard to do”; and at the close of the video, John tells us his composition is going to be about “bringing our light to the darkness versus getting sucked into the darkness … We’re going to make it shine!”

And indeed they did! An All About Jazz review states, “One of the most inspiring programming features of the 2017 was a family affair and focus of the sweetest and deserving kind. Pianist Gerald Clayton, one of the festival’s artists-in-residence, appeared multiple times, and with just the right approach in each setting”; and Paul de Barros, in a Downbeat review, called the commissioned work “a majestic big-band epic … which spurred the swing-loving crowd to a standing ovation. As Clayton conducted the piece with brio and his son soloed, it was pleasant to recall how Gerald had blown the crowd away with his trio on the grounds several years before and to remember past performances by the CHJO. It was a treat to see the crowd so delighted by the warmth and relatability of this swinging, bluesy, welcoming piece.”

In another review by him in San Francisco Classical Voice, Andy Gilbert wrote, “Spiritual succor was the theme of bassist John Clayton’s festival commission … His third time getting the MJF assignment, he rose to the occasion and delivered one of the more memorable commissions since Tim Jackson reinstated the program in 1994. Pairing the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which he co-leads with his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and his best friend, drummer Jeff Hamilton, and his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, provided a vast array of tonal colors. And the fact that he was working with intimately familiar ensembles allowed him to write for specific voices. He introduced the eight-movement work by referencing our roiling political divide, and the cathartic piece moved through dismay, despair, and anger to healing and beatific joy with the trio and orchestra melding and separating throughout the set.”

The last words in my own notes were: “John Clayton was his absolutely commanding, charming self throughout the performance, exhibiting intentionality, dignity, grace under pressure, and the absolute joy of knowing (it seemed) what a magnificent work he had composed and his “family” (the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and Gerald’s Trio) had presented—his own presence dancing with delight at the close.

Here is the video I mentioned:

Here are photos of Gerald Clayton, Jeff Clayton, and again: the entire orchestra (Photo credits: Jazz at Lincoln Center; centrum.org; writeopinions.com):

Gerald Clayton  Jeff Clayton

John Clayton band 2

I had intended to include an account of the Sunday afternoon performance of John Beasley’s MONK’estra orchestra (“Celebrating the Thelonious Monk Centennial”) at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and a conversation I was fortunate to have with John Beasley just after that, but this blog has managed to accumulate 13 pages (my “Baroque” tendencies at work again!)—so I feel I should save MONK’estra for another–the next—post; along with some thoughts I have (and which I feel relate, in a somewhat ingenious manner, if I do say so myself) to the current “state” of the art of jazz.

Those thoughts center (and this may seem a BIG JUMP–giant steps–but I hope to show, to prove it’s not) on the ongoing debate (or “civil war”) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (“The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles”) and (2) neuroplasticity (“rewiring” of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional “causality relating brain and mind”—opposite sides in that “war” that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that “fixed” or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock, and empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or “measured.”

“Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,” states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s also of interest The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, and Henry P. Stapp’s Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer I am reading just now). I will save the analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please “stay tuned,” for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.

As a final photo, here’s one of John Beasley and MONK’estra (Photo credit: Music Works International):

John Beasley and Monkestra

 

More About Music

At the close of my last blog post (“Apology for Sabbatical Leave—and Resumption of Bill’s Blog”), I wrote that “Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.” A better phrase might have been “engage in.”

At the time, and that was in early May (too much time between posts, I know, but once again I will attempt to explain why), I had resumed work on another writing project: what began (over-ambitiously) as a book, but turned into a series of individual articles on Poetry and Song. I contemplated posting a portion of a piece called “Renaissance Song,” which focused on Elizabethan era composers such as Thomas Campion (a first-rate poet who could also provide first-rate musical settings for the words: a rare, and fortunate, combination)—and also included some thoughts on W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s excellent, insightful introductions to their An Elizabethan Song Book.

However—as happened throughout the long delay that occasioned “An Apology for Sabbatical Leave,” I somehow found myself buried in alternate projects (and even actually work, getting hired to do some writing no less!), and that activity would occupy me for three months, building up to a performance I gave (on July 15) with two exceptional musicians at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, California: a “launch” for a book of mine just published, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.

The participants were Richard Rosen (harmonicas), Manuel Macucho Bonilla (cajon: a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru—as is Macucho himself), and I: piano, vocals, and reading short passages from the book we “fleshed out” with songs from the era the book is about–songs such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Nature Boy.”

I’ll present here: the front and back covers of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958 (and access to the book on amazon.com, if you’d like to have a copy, at: https://www.amazon.com/Going-Solo-1953-1958-William-Minor/dp/1943887500/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503603573&sr=1-1&keywords=going+solo+by+william+minor ; and some photos my wife Betty and a good friend (and former student) David “Catfish” Hall took on the afternoon of July 15—plus access to a video David filmed of the trio doing a song my idol Nat “King” Cole recorded with his trio: “What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry?”: https://www.facebook.com/william.minor.56/videos/pcb.1945171992414191/1945166269081430/?type=3&theater

The photos are: one Betty took amidst the standing room only audience; the band: Macucho, Richard Rosen, and I set for the “show,” focused, ready to go; three shots of the miraculous hands of Macucho at work and play; a close up of Richard going solo; the “author” signing a book for Michael Fields (himself a fine musician) after the reading/musical program; and signing a book and chatting with Cynthia Beach Guthrie (who was there with her husband Dick, both fine writers, and Dick known to sing a song or two himself on occasion).

Going Solo Cover  Going Solo Back Cover

July 15 Book Launch 2   Old Capitol Books Music 9 (2)

Old Capitol Books Music 6  Old Capitol Books Music 2  Old Capitol Books Music 7

Old Capitol Books Music 4 (2)  July 15 Book Launch 3 (2)

July 15 Book Launch 4 (2)

I feel a good time was had by all; entertaining (I hope) stories got told (from Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958); and engaging music was made (songs with which people could connect; our friend Jane Haines wrote on Facebook: “The presentation was wonderful. I was floating after the opening lines. I stayed aloft, lifted by the words, the melodies, the beat. Thank you for a marvelous afternoon.”). And I even sold some books!

The Monterey Jazz Festival will celebrate its 60th anniversary soon (September 15-17) and, since the turn of the year, I have been involved in three projects leading up to that occasion. I was rehired to provide copy for 26 more JAZZBUS shelters–with only a month to complete my portion of the project: 100-word “histories” for each year, 1991-2017; but we got the job done and the new material is now up “around town.” I am pleased to have been a part of this great project (thanks again, Phil Wellman!)—each JAZZBUS and each stop, or shelter (with histories, classic photos, and a provision to listen to the music of a particular year), providing daily reminders to folks throughout the community that such a thing as “jazz” exists as a vital part of our lives.

Next: a good friend of mine (with whom I’ve been playing music and making videos; you can find one at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI), Bob Danziger, was asked to create videos that will introduce individual sets on the main stage throughout the weekend of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (The 60th anniversary celebration), and Bob asked me to assist as an “historical” consultant–which I did. Bob’s considerable talent—and his respect for the artists represented–will be displayed by way of six excellent, fully engaging videos. And THEN: Artistic Director Tim Jackson phoned and asked if I would write copy for two exhibits of 60 years of MJF posters and program covers (“Monterey at 60! A Visual Feast”), which I also did. One exhibit, at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, is on display now (Betty and I went to a reception Friday night, and that “show” looks good); the other will be up in what used to be the Coffee House Gallery, but is now the California Jazz Café.

Here are some photos from the JAZZBUS project I’ve posted before: yours truly beside one of the shelters, a shelter (1978) by itself, and one of Pablo Lobato’s brightly colored and handsomely designed buses. After those photos, a sampling of posters: from the Monterey Jazz Festival’s first year, 1958; Earl Newman’s scandalous 1964 poster (a bit of Festival folklore: in the book Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, I wrote: “Newman’s official poster featuring a stylized drawing of a saxophone player drew an X-rating from the mayor of Monterey, who asked shopkeepers to withdraw it from their windows. The three hundred posters that were printed immediately became collector’s items and the mayor was deemed by many to be a prude.”); Earl’s first trumpet on a chair (which would become a Festival icon) poster, 1967 (Earl’s hand-printed posters, of which he would provide a total of ten in the 1958-1979 era, would become synonymous with the Festival itself, defining these placards as works of art); Jerry Takagawa’s poster for the 50th anniversary in 1967; Pablo Lobato’s 2009 poster; a very striking 2013 poster (Phil Wellman/Maria Corte); and this year’s poster, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Jazz Bus Line  Jazz Bus Line 3

Jazz Bus Line 2

MJF Poster 1958  MJF Poster 1964  MJF Posters Newman First Chair

MJF Poster 50thMJF Posters 2009  MJF Poster

MJF-17-Poster_small4

The lineup of artists who will perform at the 60th anniversary event is extraordinary. To cite all of them would take pages, so I’m just going to put together a gallery of portraits (photos) of those I hope to see and hear. On Friday night, September 17: Herbie Hancock—who will open the Festival, and close out the weekend on Sunday night in a “Two Master/Two Pianos” performance with Chick Corea—which should be sensational (I have a copy of their 1978 Columbia acoustic piano double LP, recorded in San Francisco and San Diego, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea in Concert) and to see and hear them–live!–together, now, should be a rare treat!

On Friday night, the great Kenny Barron (with Roy Hargrove, Sean Jones, and Perdito Martinez) will offer a “Tribute to Dizzy Gillespie at 100″ (I’ve had the blessing of hearing Kenny Barron play piano at MJF with artists such as Stan Getz and Regina Carter)—and, Regina Carter will perform in a “Simply Ella” homage (a tribute to you-know-who). (Photo Credits: NNDB, Radio Serenidad, The Mercury News, NPR)

Herbie Hancock  Chick-Corea

Kenny Barron  Regina Carter

Unfortunately, the weekend’s overall fare is so abundant, I am going to have to make some quick moves (not so easy at this age!) to take it all in—to also “catch,” on Friday evening: vocalist Roberta Gambarini and drummer Matt Wilson with his group Honey & Salt, out on the grounds. Saturday afternoon offers Monsieur Perine (“Global Fusion—South American style”) with Catalino Garcia’s “Sugar-sweet, sunshiny vocals at the center of their signature ‘swing a la Columbia’ style”; and Mr. Sipp (“The Mississippi Blues Child”). Pianist Joanne Brackeen performs out on the grounds—and my journalist buddy Dan Ouellette conducts a DownBeat Blindfold Test with saxophonist Tia Fuller. (Photo Credits: AllMusic, The Seattle Times, NBC News, Nashville Public Library, DR Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola).

Roberta Gambarini

The "7-Piece Sextet" performs on the Mainstage to wrap up the 2011 Centrum Jazz Port Townsend Festival.

Monsieur Perine

Mr. Sipp  Joanne Brackeen

Dan    Tia Fuller

Because of the amount of writing I’ve been doing for the 60th anniversary celebration coming up (just a week away now!), I did not attempt a full account (as I usually post on this blog each year) for the 2016 MJF—although I did post an account of sets by Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter. I had hoped to write about two exceptional vocalists I heard that year: Claudia Villela and Somi, but before I could get around to that, I received another “call” (this in the form of an email letter) asking me to contact Leonard Nelson (a Video Production Manager), who was at work on a “Festival Fun Facts” project that would acknowledge people (such as Bob Danziger) who’d created the previously mentioned videos to be shown (introducing individual artists)—and include, at the suggestion of Managing Director Colleen Bailey: slides related to festival trivia or amusing incidents.

I did call Leonard and we discussed what might be included, and I agreed to provide two sentence anecdotes, or verbal vignettes (incidents that have become part of MJF folklore)—and I had no trouble coming up with twenty-two such items. Leonard Nelson has already responded with three handsome samples of what will be shown at this year’s event. I will not “unveil” his fine work here, but I can post a few of my favorite “fun facts,” as I rendered them in words. They do represent another side of this great event—“behind the scene” stories folks may not be as familiar with as they are the music itself. Here are a few:

1. The MJF had acquired a fleet of Oldsmobiles as transportation for performers. When popular Sarah Vaughan, known as “Sassy,” came out of her hotel and saw one of these cars awaiting her, she said, “We do not ride in Oldsmobiles,” and officials had to search all over town for a stretch limo to take her to the fairgrounds.

2. 1967: The Festival audience was dancing in the aisles to Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin, who finishing her set, blew her nose on the Main Stage curtain, climbed into her blue Hillman Minx stuffed with junk food wrappers, and drove off to ultimate fame. [Thanks again, Rick Carroll, for that story.]

3. 1971: Herbie Hancock made his first solo appearance, but after 45 minutes of what he considered “noodling avant-garde,” Jimmy Lyons told stage manager Paul Vieregge to close the curtain—and when Hancock, well into his solo, opened his eyes, his audience was gone.

4. 1979: “The Night The Lights Went Out”: a major power failure on opening night left Dizzy Gillespie stranded on stage in the dark, until the audience lit matches and lighters, and Stan Getz strolled out to lend his mellow sound to “’Round Midnight.”

5. 1995: Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was scheduled to play at the MJF, but took the wrong plane, to Monterey, Mexico—not California. He would make it safely in 1997, as part of Dave Grusin’s orchestra for West Side Story.

6. 2008: Jamie Cullum joined Kurt Elling on stage in Dizzy’s Den, and after singing “Say It (Over and Over Again)” together, they engaged in some playful banter, Cullum, who is quite short, alluding to a woman offering the phrase “Tall, dark, and handsome,” Elling responding, “I don’t believe she was talking of you.” Cullum: “I have a very high opinion of myself”: Elling: “That’s not something visible to the naked eye”; Cullum: “Small things come with big packages.”

I love continuity, continuance, unbroken and consistent existence, endurance, longevity—and the Monterey Jazz Festival has certainly provided that over the years. As I wrote in the Introduction to the two exhibits of posters: “Alongside sixty years of some of the greatest jazz the world has ever known, the Monterey Jazz Festival, on its 60th anniversary, intends to honor the posters which embody the spirit of the Festival as a whole: posters which represent all the great music and the complementary ‘scene’ that exists just outside the venues hosting the music.”

Continuity can be found by surprise on occasion. I recently heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (University of Michigan Press, 2004): Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” Akagi himself is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.

Here are: Kei Akagi at the piano, and the cover of the book Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (Photo Credit: UCI Music Department):

Kei Agaki           JJJ Cover

In my next blog post, I’d like to continue the theme of “More About Music,” and write about this recording, and three other CDs I have by Kei Akagi: Sound Circle: The Asian American Trio (with drummer Akira Tana and bassist Rufus Reid), Mirror Puzzle, and Playroom.

Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!

Apology for Sabbatical Leave–and Resumption of Bill’s Blog

“But nothing promised that is not performed” is the last line of Robert Graves’ fine poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” It’s a line I have more than likely quoted too often, by way of apology (for promises I’d made myself, but failed to make good on, failed to “perform”) in this blog—but, here I am in that position again.

I find it hard to believe I have not offered a blog post since February (!!), yet I also find it not so difficult to believe that’s true, when I look at what was marked on the calendar for the past three months—can’t believe just how perpetually busy I’ve been (and at age eighty-one, when I should be sitting in a full lotus–which I can no longer manage–on some mountain top, just saying ”Om” or humming favored melodies from the movie La La Land). I have managed to stay busy, both as an actual working stiff (more about that in a moment) or doing lots of what I love, but in areas other than this blog.

Back in February, when I did last post a piece (“The Worlds of Poetry Part Two”), I wrote that I would soon get back to writing about jazz (with an emphasis on the Monterey Jazz Festival, which I’d witnessed as far back as September 2016); and then I believe I did the same with regard to some fine music I heard on an October trip to Connecticut. However, between September and February, I got sidetracked on other subjects (“Imagination and Hard Science”; “Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence”; “The Worlds of Poetry: Part One”: and “The Worlds of Poetry: Part Two.”)—and I am grateful to those of you who follow this blog–the many Faithful–for sustaining ongoing “traffic” over the past three months: Bill’s Blog visits from folks in the USA (253), UK (29), Greece (24), France (19), Germany (15), Brazil (9), Canada (8), and MANY more countries. Thanks!

Most persistent throughout that time, as both a distraction and as a task that took on major proportions, has been completing a four year book project: just now done, finished (the last stage reading proof), a four year project soon to appear as a book in print: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. Here (just to exhibit the fact that I’m not merely “making up” excuses for such a long delay for this blog post) are: the front and back cover of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. The work should be available as a book at amazon.com fairly soon. I’ll let you know when!

Going Solo Cover      Going Solo Back Cover

Alongside all that work came a very pleasant surprise: another project, but one unanticipated. If there’s been a long delay on a blog report on last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, another contributing factor–ironically–was getting re-hired to contribute copy (100-word histories) for twenty-six new MST/MJF JAZZBUS shelters. We (MJF graphic designer Phil Wellman and I) had just a month to complete our share of work on these. Four years ago, I contributed copy for the initial stage of this project, and wrote the following about that activity on Bill’s Blog: “The Monterey Jazz Festival/Monterey-Salinas Transit JAZZ BUS lines … feature bright orange vehicles decorated with lively designs, each shelter providing historical photos, my copy (on Festival highlights), and music (when you make a smart phone connection with a bar code) from the year represented —all while you wait for your bus!” To see how all this works, check out Phil Wellman’s national award winning TV ad for the JAZZBUS lines at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk9IhA9g7Ek.

Here are some photos of the project. I’m standing beside one of the shelters for which I provided copy (1963: the year Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk made their first appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival):

Jazz Bus Line  Jazz Bus Line 2

MST MJF JAZZBUS pavilion 2Jazz Bus Line 3   

I posted photos from and an account of our trip to Connecticut on Facebook, not long after it occurred, but for our purposes here (all that jazz I’ve been promising), here’s an abbreviated account that focuses on what my wife Betty and I heard by way of music, while there. In Old Saybrook, we commenced nearly every morning at Carol Adams’ Ashlawn Farms Coffee House (with her exceptional double espresso for me, accompanied by tasteful—mostly jazz standards by top artists—background music selected by Carol), and we ended nearly every evening with live music: listening to the Tuxedo Junction Big Band at Bill’s Seafood in Westbrook; enjoying the genial ambiance at the Griswold Inn in Essex (where they offer a wide range of music every night; we heard the Shiny Lapels band there, and returned for a “Psychedelic 60s” night); attended an exceptional production of “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam: a musical that featured Ruby Rakos as a young Judy Garland; and thoroughly enjoyed one last evening of music, at the Copper Barn in Somers, where we practically sat on top of the Java Groove quartet (Check out their presence on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/javagroovemusic/). I had a good talk with guitarist James Alio: this group my favorite of all those we heard: tight, swinging, fine ensemble and solo work—and lots of the best Sinatra tunes.

Here’s the quartet at work (and play), and a poster for one of their gigs (Photo Credits: facebook.com/javagroovemusic and beeandthistleinn.com)

Java Groove Quartet

  Java Groove Quartet Poster    Java-Groove 2

When we returned from Connecticut, I not only resumed work on the book project (Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958) and undertook the resuscitation of the JAZZBUS shelters, but commenced a series of musical projects: recording songs I had written myself (four of them) with Bob Danziger (on synthesize-sampled “cello”), Heath Proskin (bass) and yours truly on piano. There was a sense of urgency, necessity on these sessions, for—having worked (played music) with Heath for fourteen years, he was leaving the Monterey Bay area to live in Sacramento, where his wife Celina, having graduated with a medical degree, has undertaken a new job.

Here are the results of two of those musical projects: the first an audio version (Bandcamp) of an original poem called “Genesis” set to music I composed (the poem itself, which, at poetry readings, I recite over the musical accompaniment–included on the Bandcamp site), and  a YouTube video of a poem called “Kindness: A Song for Betty” (Betty is my wife of sixty years), the words of which are shown alongside photos of Betty–the film a result of the musical, visual story telling and production skills of the amazing Bob Danziger. 

“Genesis”: https://billminor.bandcamp.com/track/genesis

“Kindness: A Song for Betty” (You Tube) can be located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI

As if all this didn’t keep me preoccupied enough (Be patient: the disclaimers are almost over, although I hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am recalling the immense amount of positive, productive activity they occasioned–and the results), I gave a reading at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, CA, with an excellent poet named Cathleen Calbert. Here she is, the cover of her book The Afflicted Girls, a flyer for the event itself (at which I did read “Genesis” and another poem, a translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam, “This Constant Wish,” available in audio on Bandcamp also: https://billminor.bandcamp.com/track/osip-mandelstams-constant-wish), and two shots of me: playing the CD I would read over, and … well, just lost in thought perhaps.

CalbertHeadshot-200x300   Afflicted_Girls_Front-210   Flyer for February 12 Old Capitol Books Reading

Old Cap Books Reading Feb 12 1  Old Cap Books Reading Feb 12 2

In March, soprano Norma Mayer and her husband, Richard Mayer (flute and arrangements) and I presented an in-house concert (at their home): “An Afternoon with William Blake,” which featured Norma and Richard performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song settings of Blake’s poems—and I read other poems by Blake and talked about the genius of this poet/artist and his life in general. We had given two previous performances of this “show” at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, CA—and this past March we drew a “full house,” and the musical performance by Norma and Richard was … well, sublime. Here’s a photo of the three of us:Richard, Norma, and Me

I’ll toss in one more activity or project undertaken recently—another YouTube video. Patricia Hamilton, of Park Place Publications (which is responsible for the book I have coming out soon: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958), is also publishing a book about the town my wife and I (and formerly our sons) have lived in for forty-six years: Pacific Grove. The book will be called Life in Pacific Grove, and Patricia is collecting stories from “all the people who are enjoying life in our special corner of the world”—hoping “to create a snapshot in time … a tapestry woven of the many threads that make up our community.” She suggested I might write a song about the town, in connection with the book project—so having lots of free time on my hands (ho ho), I did so. Here are the results, on You Tube (the lyrics to the song included in the video). I did offer a disclaimer with regard to the vocal when I posted the song on Facebook (I’m no Nat “King” Cole—whose sense of pitch, and poise, made him my idol among singers), but I refrain from any extensive apologies for what you hear. I’ll only say the video was made in good fun, and hope it’s received that way. You can find it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-8Nvjn_sUo&feature=youtu.be.

In the midst of all this artistic activity, we somehow managed to squeeze in a trip to San Francisco Giants Spring Training Camp (and saw two games) in Phoenix, Arizona—where Betty’s two sisters, Wendy and Nora live. Back home, at night, I watched a lot of Golden State Warriors basketball (nearly every game). I’d made another promise not to discuss medical matters on either Facebook or this blog, but I’ll slip in a quick confession that, alongside visual and vestibular “issues” I’ve been dealing with for some time, my blood pressure took a sudden unhealthy climb or rise–but that situation is under control now, …so this, Folks, is how I have spent my sabbatical leave from blog production from February until now; and it’s time now, I feel, to write something about my favorite  “acts” at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival–but maybe not as much as I’d hoped to, because of ALL I’ve offered  here (of one nature or another) already (I’ll save the leftovers for the next Blog, so I can make sure I give you the relatively complete story I promised back in February).

At the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival (2016), I was eager to see and hear tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, Showcase Artist of the year and scheduled to play three sets: with his group Still Dreaming (in the Night Club), with The Bad Plus (in the Arena), and with another quartet of his own (in Dizzy’s Den), to close out Sunday night. In effect, he was slated to both open and wrap up last year’s Festival

I was especially keen to see him with the two different groups of his own, for I have been following his career since 1997, when I wrote about him in Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, in a chapter called “Sunday’s All-Stars,” devoted to the Festival’s Jazz Education Program, of which Josh had been a part, emerging–as I wrote—“as one of the most illustrious graduates of the Festival’s High School All-Star Big Band program” (Redman graduated from Berkeley High School, class of 1986, after having been a part of the award-winning Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble for all four of his high school years.). I had also served as script writer for a film documentary produced by Clint Eastwood (same title as the book: Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years), a film in which Josh served as a host, alongside another All-Star Big Band graduate, Patrice Rushen.

The saxophonist’s opening set in the Night club featured himself, Ron Miles on pocket trumpet, Scott Colley on bass, and my favorite drummer, Brian Blade (I had once written–without too much exaggeration–that I could spend an entire Festival weekend just listening to Brian Blade play drums, solo—he’s that good!). The Still Dreaming group would pay homage to a predecessor, Old and New Dreams, which had featured Josh’s father, Dewey Redman, on tenor sax; Don Cherry on pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden on bass; and Ed Blackwell on drums—all Ornette Coleman alumni who shared his revolutionary musical vision “in their own uniquely personal ways throughout their careers” (to quote the Festival program notes), so that “when the four of them came together at various points from 1976-1987, the results were never short of magical.”

And the same would prove true of the set I witnessed featuring Still Dreaming. Here are photos of that group, alongside Old and New Dreams (Photo Credits: mercurynews.com and sfjazz.org/onthecorner):

Josh Redman Still Dreaming 2
Still Dreamin’ musicians are Brian Blade, left, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Joshua Redman. (Jon Brown)

Old and New Dreams 2

A popular Los Angeles DJ named Leroy introduced the members of Still Dreaming as “some of the more beautiful personalities in the business … Give ‘em a hand”—and the group commenced with a cool, fairly straight ahead “groove” that stressed Ron Miles’ pocket trumpet subtlety, Scott Colley’s steady accents, and Brian Blade’s truly exquisite brush work—this inception flavored with an engaging dissonance occasioned by overlapping sound, echoes of one another, call and response; then mutual free play, its wild turn followed by a lyrical lull, a gentle drone, and then back to the solid main theme—the close further enhanced by the Billy Higgins smile Brian had maintained throughout. The tune–announced a bit later–was “Blues for Charlie.” About the opening tunes (and the set in general), Andy Gilbert wrote: “Still Dreaming helped to open the 59th Monterey Jazz Festival with loose-limbed grit and capering grace, as Blade made every tune feel like it was designed for dancing. Joshua joked at one point that the project “is a tribute to a tribute band, which is kind of postmodern,” but there wasn’t a jot of air-quote irony in the performance, whether the quartet was playing Cherry’s seductively sinuous ‘Guinea’ and Dewey’s scorching ‘Rush Hour,’ or originals like Joshua’s spaciously lowdown ‘Blues for Charlie’ and Colley’s buoyantly bouncing ‘New Year’ (which sounded like kissing kin to Ornette’s ‘Una Muy Bonita).”

When Joshua, who contributed his own handsome solo offerings on these tunes, took the microphone and named them, he began, “It’s been a few … I’d love to say we’ve been coming here for 59 years, but … not quite!” He added, with regard to Old and New Dreams: “I’m not sure they played here” (I checked and they didn’t), but he mentioned “my father Dewey Redman” and the rest of the group, “All gone, as for their physical presence here”—implying what I felt: that the two groups were somehow playing alongside each other; that a larger presence was somehow on hand within the music. This Still Dreaming set turned out to be one of the most perfect (in terms of meaningful content and mutual musical accord) I have ever attended—honestly!

I felt as if I’d discovered–in the very first set I witnessed–a standard of excellence I would be impelled to hold up to whatever other sets I attended throughout the weekend—which seems grossly unfair to the others, I know, for I felt what I’d heard “right off the bat” (as they say) was perfection: total rapport among four musicians, and miraculous invention. I would not hear Joshua Redman play with The Bad Plus, but I made attending his last set, featuring a group of his own with entirely different “personnel,” a priority. That group, which played in Dizzy’s Den, was made up of Josh on tenor, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and another of my favorite drummers, Gregory Hutchinson. Of this aggregate, its leader would say, “We first formed, I guess, in ’98, so we’re going on 20 years. They’re three of my closest collaborators and they’re three of my best friends … they’re just that level of empathy and trust.” I suspected I might be finding myself in for another round of perfection!

I was familiar with pianist Aaron Goldberg, whose CD, The Now (which also featured Reuben Rogers on bass), I’d admired—and he did not disappoint on Sunday night in Dizzy’s Den: providing tasteful comping (both repetition and excursive configuration) behind (and within) Joshua Redman’s gorgeous tenor sax tone, which included everything from lush lyricism to crusty growls—offset by apt precision by Greg Hutchison on three ride cymbals. The group offered a different context than that of Still Dreaming: less precise, “tight,” simultaneous perhaps; more capricious, variable, unpredictable—passionate. The tunes were not announced, and the group moved so swiftly from one to another (at a variety of tempos) the set took on the shape of a suite, rather than just a sequence of individual tunes. They included pieces with sharp edges and harsh accents: the texture of Joshua’s signature sound constant and engaging, no matter what tempo he played at, or how wild a solo became (and some got delightfully wild), the rest of the group fully supportive, offering counter rhythms or melodic lines that revealed the respect they have for him, and also themselves—trusting their own individual instincts and inclinations.

The group played originals, exclusively (aside from a unique treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s familiar “Stardust”)—tunes with titles such as “Emerald Eyes” (a beautiful ballad, rising to an anthem close), “Wish,” and “DGEAF” (employing those five notes in that sequence), an up tempo romp that evolved into good old-fashioned ( a la Jazz at the Philharmonic) tenor sax honk and stomp, assisted by teasing rhythms on piano (vamp/stop/six single notes/vamp/stop)—all the tricks of the trade displayed. On other tunes, Aaron Goldberg offered handsome bop chops, rounded off with a precise single note Basie-like “plink”; and Greg Hutchinson disclosed deft left hand accents throughout a wire brush solo. And Josh revealed just about all that can be done on a saxophone, by way of clicks and glocks and squeals and squawks, falsetto leaps, the full range of joyous musical flatulence, teasing pyrotechnics matched with straight ahead eloquent serious statement. And the audience loved it! Rueben Rogers contributed a first-rate solo of his own while Joshua replaced a worn reed with a fresh one, and came back in, right on time, for a smooth totally in sync fitting close to a fully enjoyable set for which the group was rewarded with a standing ovation. I felt as if I had witnessed perfection (each of its own kind, different, distinct) twice within the weekend: on opening night and at the very end.

Here are photos of Gregory Hutchinson in action, Aaron Goldberg in friendly repose at the piano, and Joshua Redman working his considerable magic, on soprano saxophone, not tenor (Photo Credits: dummerworld.com; news.allaboutjazz.com; experiencenomad.com):

Greg Hutchinson

© hansspeekenbrink.nl
All rights reserved

Johnua Redman 1

I’m exhausted—just thinking about (and feeling, experiencing again) what I heard at those two Joshua Redman sets, and because I’ve attempted to describe both in some detail, I’ll only cover another splendid quartet I heard at the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and then call it quits for this (renewed) blog and save the rest of what I witnessed for the next post.

The other quartet I’d like to tell you about is that of quintessential Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophone), with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and–once again, and what a blessing!–the ever brilliant Brain Blade on drums. This group offered a “Festival Commission & Premiere Performance” of Wayne’s “The Unfolding,” which also featured the Monterey Jazz Festival Wind Ensemble, conducted by Nicole Paiement. I’ve heard Danilo Perez at the Festival before, with Wayne and with his own group, The Motherland Project. He is another wonder, an exciting pianist who, like Brian Blade, could well be isolated and listened to just for his own  exceptional skill alone. As a member of this group he was valuable not just as a sort of “glue” that held it together, but as a rare sort of “Velcro” that bound it tight and free at the same time. This Main Arena set, which started at 7:00 on Saturday evening, was enhanced by a sunset that prompted, in my journal, a “Wow! My God, what a beautiful, comfortable evening–a rosy glow in the distance” (which, unfortunately, may have been partially occasioned by the severe fire surrounding Big Sur at this time—as I realized later).

Wayne’s quartet is characterized by exceptional dynamics—every element (such as Brian’s smallest loving, skillful hi-hat stroke) essential. Perez provides delicious chordal comping, a nest for Wayne Shorter’s melodic lines, the synchronicity extended by way of Patitucci’s large strong resonate bass presence. The group is so comfortable, so compatible together, and that fellow feeling, empathy was not at all compromised when the string ensemble entered the game—the composition “fleshed out”; the piece acquiring a sumptuous, symphonic sound I liked, made even more opulent through Perez’ well-placed subtle notes. Brian maintained the level of genius one has come to count on from him, and Wayne was … well, Wayne: very moving, although he remained seated throughout much of the set.

I love music this well constructed and executed (and “conducted” by Nicole Paiement): music that combines lush melodicism with orchestral force: not just another attempt to find a “Third Stream” (a marriage of classical music and jazz), but a collaboration in which the customarily separate genres “drop out” in the name of genuine union, become “one” as best they can, enjoying more than just an “acquaintance,” truly embracing one another, with assurance the “marriage” will work out.

Here are photos of: Wayne Shorter and the group I heard at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, both performing and “still”; and the miracle-working ever-smiling drummer, Brian Blade (wayneshorter.com; kalamu.com; jambase.com; sfjazz.og):

Wayne Shorter by Robert Ascroft  Wayne Shorter Quartet Barbicon

Wayne Shorter Quartet 2  Brian Blade

Toward the end of the set, the piece grew predictably “loose” (a fairly recent CD by the 83-year old saxophonist is called Without a Net), Perez providing his stabilizing influence—as did the soothing presence of an oboe and bassoon, the combined voicings, and the dynamics I mentioned. The ending, too, was suitably “epic.” I felt pleased and impressed: “The Unfolding” having unfurled, uncoiled, extended to a large measure, as I hoped it would.

I hope the same has proved true, for you, with regard to this blog post—which grew predictably long (given my “Baroque” nature), but I hope enjoyable. Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.

 

Heloise & Abelard

My last three blog posts on the “marriage” of music and poetry have prompted me to go back and take a good hard look at what I was doing, or attempting to do, in a book-length manuscript project (undertaken some time ago) on “song.” I am surprised at, and somewhat amused by, the “ambition” of one of the chapters: “From Plain Song to Polyphony: The Wandering Scholars, Peter Abelard, the Troubadours & Trouveres to Guillaume de Machaut”—a huge extent of time and genres I intended to include and cover (and I can see, now, why I abandoned that chapter before I’d even finished with the “troubadours”!). I did like what I found–by way of a draft–on Peter Abelard and his extraordinary counterpart, Heloise—and (what’s been billed as) “the tragic story of those immortal twelfth-century lovers.”

Working on the original book-length manuscript, which took me from the Middle Pleistocene age (781,000 to 126,000 years ago) through 13th century BC Egyptian love poetry and songs to Ancient Greek (covered in two recent blog posts) and Roman eras of song, and building to the Renaissance of the 12th century, I became intrigued by the tug of war that took place between “sacred” and “secular” song, and just how much they leant to one another (perhaps without knowing it). Even more exciting for me, was to discover actual music—re-created in recordings, now, and available in notation to boot!—and this the music of one of my favorite human beings, Peter Abelard, who, paired with the brilliant Heloise, became my favorite Medieval “couple.”

Helen Waddell introduced me to Abelard and Heloise, by way, first, of The Wandering Scholars; her novel Peter Abelard; and Abelard’s own extant work in Medieval Latin Lyrics. I then read his Historia calamitatum, an account of the calamity that befell him as a result of the romance with Heloise; their letters to one another (including Constant Mews’ The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard), Etienne Gilson’s Heloise and Abelard; and James Burge’s Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography. Then I found the music: two hymns by Abelard with the musical settings.

Here are: Helen Waddell’s novel; Mews’ Lost Love Letters; Gilson’s Heloise and Abelard; and the James Burge biography:

Heloise and Abelard WaddellHeloise and Abelard Lost Love Letters

Heloise and Abelard Gilson Book          Heloise and Abelard 3

The bare bones of the couple’s sad love story are familiar, the “plot”: 1100 northern France as the “intellectual hub of Europe,” and the name of Peter Abelard sounding loudest in the ears, not just as the forceful, dynamic teacher of logic in Paris that he was, a brilliant and attractive philosopher, but a popular (secular) songwriter–something (at age thirty-seven) of a “rock star.” Engaged as a private tutor for a quite young (sixteen or seventeen years-of-age) Heloise by her uncle and ward Fulbert (a canon at Notre Dame), their study sessions led to an inevitable “sating” of passion, which led to their discovery by Fulbert and the castration of Abelard—the lovers eventually (and again, inevitably?) ending up as Abbot and Abbess of respective monastic institutions, one Abelard himself having founded, the Paraclete, granted to Heloise and her nuns.

It is a sad tale, for Heloise never stopped loving him in a way he was no longer equipped to acknowledge or fulfill (they’d had a “secret” marriage and even produced a son, named Petrus Astralabius), but Burge’s book provides as much of a “happy ending” as one may have a right to expect–outside of Hollywood. “Reunited” after ten years of silence without contact, Abelard was asked to write and made good on 133 hymns for use at the Paraclete—although “the music for all but two of them is lost”: the two I found! (more about them in a moment). Burges writes that one reason to believe that Abelard visited the Paraclete in later life is “that he obviously loved the place,” and when Heloise took it over, “he had even more reason to love it.”

They were by now “a mature couple” (she in her mid-forties, he in his late fifties), and “the passion of their early life could be expected (even in their case) to have diminished.” Burge presents a very pleasing picture of the two of them walking the grounds of the Paraclete (I like to see them holding hands beneath or within their robes!), discussing “plans for expansion” or visiting the site of the new church under construction. “They would have had plenty to talk about.” Philosophy, theology, the future of the Paraclete, “while all the time avoiding topics that related to the unresolved aspect of their lives.” Burge reminds us that Heloise had left a loophole in one of her letters, saying, “I will therefore hold my hand from writing words that I can’t hold my tongue from speaking,” and that whatever passed between them “did not prevent [her] from drawing Abelard even closer to the convent they both loved.” The author ends this appetizing portrait with the words: “Perhaps, however, her greatest achievement was to harness the very aspect of Abelard that had made her first love him: his ability as a songwriter.”

The lovers are interred, side by side, in Paris. In May of 2004, when my wife Betty and I made a trip to France, I went to Pere-Lachaise Cemetery to pay homage to Heloise and Abelard. Here are photos I took at the time: a “pathway” that immortalizes their names; the shrine in which they reside; Heloise’s “side” of the shrine; Abelard’s; and a shot I wish I might have taken, but didn’t: (Photo credit: missedinhistory.com)

Paris Heloise and Abelard        Paris Heloise and Abelard 2

Paris Heloise and Abelard 3  Paris Heloise and Abelard 4      Heloise and Abelard side by side 2

In the first letter Heloise wrote to Abelard after contact had been re-established, she recalled her first acquaintance with him, at the time his “manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body”: “What king or philosopher could match your fame? What district, town or village did not long to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you or crane his neck and strain his eyes to follow your departure? Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.” At the time of their love affair, those joys had been celebrated in song–songs composed by Abelard, known throughout Paris, and beyond. “You had besides, I admit, two special gifts whereby to win at once the heart of any woman—your gift for composing verse and song, in which we knew other philosophers have rarely been successful … The beauty of the airs ensured that even the unlettered did not forget you; more than anything this made women sigh for love of you. And as most of these songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me.”

In his Historia calamitatum, which is largely an account of the insidious run of ills that came about in consequence of their “forbidden” love, Abelard could not resist pointing out to the monk friend for whom it was intended (as admonition to avoid such ills) that, his “musical offerings have, fifteen years later, stood the test of time and did indeed reach their intended Audience … A lot of these songs as you know are still popular and sung in many places, particularly by those who enjoy the kind of life I led.” Burge adds, “As his pride in the success of his songs shows, Abelard was not displeased with the idea of being a celebrated lover.”

It’s a shame those songs could not stand the test of (a thousand more years of) time, rather than just fifteen … for none of them are extant.

Here are: a painting of Heloise and Abelard at their “lessons”; another (a close up) from a painting of “the whole show” (being discovered by her ward, Fulbert): (Photo credits: kimberlyevemusings.blogspot.com; painting by Jean Vignaud (1819): scanalouswoman.blogspot.com; historia.ro)

Heloise-Abelard 2     Heloise and Abelard 5 Scandalist

Heloise and Abelard 6 encreviolette

Grand as Abelard’s reputation was, historians find Heloise equal to him in about every way. She may well have complemented and completed him where he fell short. In James Burge’s biography, the author mentions the “lost years” or seemingly unaccountable years, 1137 to 1140, and states that “there are substantial reasons to believe that there was a great deal of contact between [Abelard] and Heloise during this period,” that they “met frequently,” or that Abelard even remained for some time at “the convent that he had named the comforter” [The Paraclete]. When Abelard fulfilled her request to “prescribe some rule … suitable for women,” and supplied what seems “a critique of rules in general rather then a request for more of them,” he replied in a manner “consistent with the ethical viewpoint they shared,” one based on a belief that “intentions rather than actions were the criteria for deciding whether something was good or evil”–Heloise asserting the need to be “totally occupied with the inner man [or woman!] rather than outward works.”

A book, Problems of Heloise, framed as a conversation between them, contains forty-two questions Heloise posed (all “intelligent and challenging,” according to Burge), each with an answer from Abelard. Burge concludes, “It seems most likely that this collaboration would have taken place during face-to-face encounters rather than by letter.” Another book on cosmology (an interest they shared throughout their lives: “Their early love letters are filed with references to the stars,” and they named their child, Petrus Astralabius, after “an instrument that models the movements of the heavens”), this book called Hexaemeron, was written at Heloise’s “instigation and persistent urging.” One of the hymns he wrote for the Paraclete nuns (and her!) celebrates human love as “strong as death for those who know the Lord” (“Rising as the morning light she walks on high / Bound to Him.”). This hymn is cited as possessing “a specially personal meaning for the couple while ostensibly celebrating the relationship of nuns to God.”

Constant Mews, the scholar who identified newly discovered letters as those of Abelard and Heloise, and included them, with abundant commentary, in his book. The Lost Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth Century France, believes that a hymn the Paraclete nuns sang on Easter Sunday, the Epithalamica, was actually written by Heloise (“Desire made unbearable by waiting, / Till lover comes to visit the beloved”), along with two short sequences about Mary Magdalene. Mews points out that Heloise’s ideal of love integrated three normally distinct concepts: amor (passion or subjective experience), dilectio (the choice of or decision to love another person), and amicitia (friendship), and that the quality Abelard “so much admired in her was that her words were matched by her behavior,” whereas other people’s words “seemed to him to be empty by comparison.”

Mews also cites other occasions, such as their mutual reform–or revision–of the Lords’ Prayer, in which it is not clear “whether the initiative” came from Abelard or Heloise. Saying that she “seems to have been sympathetic towards simplifying religious observance at an early date,” Mews mentions a poem of “unusual sensitivity” offered by a nun at Argenteril in 1122, “remarkable for its sophistication and interest in human sorrow,” a poem that provides “little reason to doubt that Heloise is its author.” Another long poem written by “an admirer of Aristotle and the discipline of logic,” found in a 12th century anthology, also appears to be the work of Heloise—and Mews concludes that she enjoyed “a reputation of her own as a poet,” at a time when women were not so acknowledged, even if they were poets of merit.

Here are: a highly romanticized painting depicting her departure from Abelard when she  became a nun; meeting again at the Paraclete; and “Hollywood” versions: two scenes of before, at their “lessons,” from the film Stealing Heaven—and after: Diana Rigg as the Paraclete Prioress Heloise: (Photo credits: historyandwomen.com; wikepedia.org; Cineplex.com)

Heolise and Abelard Farewell Getty Images  Abelard_and_Heloise

MBDSTHE EC005
STEALING HEAVEN, Derek de Lint, Kim Thomson, (as Abelard & Heloise), 1988.

Heloise and Abelard at their lessons         Heolise and Abelard Dianna Rigg

Peter the Venerable (Abbot of the monastery at Cluny), who consoled Heloise at the time of Abelard’s death, compared her to famous women from the Bible and throughout history, and told her that, “even though he did not meet her,” he had heard of her thirty years before as a young man when, even then, she was already “famous for her scholarship and devotion to serious study.” At the time of Abelard’s death, he wrote her, saying, “You have surpassed all women in carrying out your purpose and have gone further than almost all men.”

I literally “ran across” Abelard’s “Dolorum solatium”—David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan—in a book called With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made by Leo Treitler (a book that was of much value for understanding this music). I found notation for Abelard’s piece in a final chapter of Treitler’s work called “The Marriage of Poetry and Music.” There, he summarizes a contention developed throughout the book regarding this union, stating that it is “mainly through the correspondence of melodic and poetic syntax that medieval musicians conveyed their readings of the poetry they sang. They did not go out of their way to achieve that; it was for them the central compositional process, the natural way of articulating meaning. And when their teachers set out to explain the syntax of melody, it was through its reflection of language syntax that they did so … A poem, like a melody, is a sounding phenomenon and it is as both sounding phenomena and syntactical orders that poetry and melody engage one another.”

Treitler demonstrates this conclusion by way of two manuscripts of transmission of Abelard’s “song,” and I was able to “flesh out” what I found there by not only playing the respective melodies as written (on the piano), but by way of a recording I found: baritone Paul Hillier’s Troubadour Songs and Medieval Lyrics, and then a second version or interpretation by a group called “Ensemble fur fruhe musik Augsburg” on another CD: Hildegard von Bingen and Her Time: Sacred Music of the 12th Century.

Here are: Jonathan taking leave of David; David and Saul; and two sides of Abelard as a bard (a medieval manuscript painting and a statue): (Photo credits: wikepedia.org; en.wikepedia.org; sonusantigra.org; historymedren.about.com)

Jonathan_Lovingly_Taketh_His_Leave_of_David_Wikepedia   Davids lament over Saul and Jonathan Wikipedia

Abelard as bard 2   Abelard statue

The Hillier “reading” begins with two instrumental lute chords that seem to set the key rather than evoke a mood, to function as cue cards rather than sonic support, although Hillier’s voice is solemn and respectful from the start, the clear articulation of plain song or chant employed to tell the tale (without extraneous dramatization), no striking ‘dynamics” or stark emphasis such as one finds in 19th century “song” (a la Berlioz or Richard Strauss), yet the story is emotionally engaging, quite “moving” as the narration unfolds. The opening words set the tone of sorrow (“sadness most fitting”) the music providing simple accents rather than overt emotional enhancement:

Dolorum solatium / Laborum remedium / Mea michi cithara, / Nunc quo maior dolor est / Iustiorque meror est /  Plus est necessaria.

(As a consolation for sorrow, / as a healing for distress, my harp for me—now that sorrow is heaviest / and sadness most fitting—become more than necessary).

We learn of the “great massacre of the people,/the death of the king and his son,/the victory of the enemy,” and the overall vocal tone does reinforce the fact of “the multitude’s despair” that fills “all places with mourning.” The line “The faithless nation hurls insults” is emphasized, but the mood remains surprisingly “even” (stoic?) until the lines “The mockers say–/Behold how their God, about whom they babble,/ has betrayed them.” The effect of the line “the vanquished king is dead” is striking, followed by a reflective pause, respect for Saul forcefully enunciated or declared rather than dramatized; and what follows builds to outright grief: “Ve, ve tibi madida / tellus cede regia” (“Woe, woe unto you, Saul still moist with kindly blood”), a rise in voice, and pitch, then easing into the sincere remorse of “Planctum Sion filie/super Saul sumite” (“Daughters of Sion,/lament over Saul”), the singer’s, David’s, sorrow explicit in “Alas, O why did I agree/to such an evil resolution,” his contrition over having failed to come to Jonathan’s assistance in battle (“Jonathan, more than brother to me”)–the language handsomely translated by Helen Waddell:

Low in thy grave with thee / Happy to lie, / Since there’s no greater thing left Love to do; / And to live after thee / Is but to die, / For with but half a soul what can Life do?

The narrative that follows is straightforward, yet remorseful, an instrumental “break” (which is dramatic) inserted, and we return to the sentiments expressed in the first six lines: “Do quietem fidibus’ vellem ut et planctibus,” which Waddell renders as, “Peace, O my stricken lute!”—the voice so soft at the close it does resemble “sleeping strings,” a nearly whispered melismatic “spiritus” the last word in the song.

The second version of “Dolorum solatium” (David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan), the ensemble interpretation on the Hildergard von Bingen and Her Time recording, is far more elaborate than Paul Hillier’s, and commences with a lavish instrument intro (more about re-creating the strictly musical ambiance of these songs in a moment), and then subsides into a single male voice delivery much as the other, a straight-forward rendering albeit heavily “graced” with instrumental flourishes, one that forced me, I’ll confess, to “tune out” the more the ensemble joined in. The entrance of a contra tenor was accompanied by somewhat jazzy rhythms which, augmented by a host of instruments (it seemed), threatened to turn Abelard’s solemn “Plactus” into the sort of thing you might expect to hear at an Appalachian blue grass festival. The instrumental flourishes tended to obscure the text, the variety of rhythms and stark stress on certain words not always in accord with the overall “sense.” A significant passage, spoken directly to “my Jonathan”—“Alas, O why did I agree / to such an evil resolution, / that thus I was not able to be / a shield in battle for you?”—is so inflated as to seem shouted rather than sung.

The first male voice comes back in on, or for, a stanza that begins with what Waddell translates handsomely as “So share they victory, / Or else thy grave, / Either to rescue thee, or with thee lie; / Ending that life for thee, / That thou didst save, / So death that sundereth might bring more nigh,” but the rhythms that surround it prance as if in a dance, a pretty frisky “Planctus” or lament, nearly “hip hop”–or more like what might accompany a wake rather than a restrained memorial service. The ending does succumb to, or just dies, in another soft “deficit et spiritus.”

Here’s the Hildergard von Bingen and Her Time recording on which I found “Quanta Qualia”; and a “chart” for the piece as written by Abelard—along with a close up of the sculpted portrait previously shown, and a photo of Le Pallet, where he was born and grew up in the Duchy of Brittany, and where the “love child” of the union with Heloise, Petrus Astralabius, was also born. (Photo credits: fsu.digital.flrc.org; historicaldilettante.blogpost.com)

Abelard on Hildegard album            Abelards Quanta Qualia chart

Abelard sculpture   Abelard home at Le Pallet

There’s a disclaimer, or rationale for the approach, in the CD’s liner notes: “The limited tone range of the Gregorian Chants were for Hildegard [but this is a piece by Abelard, not her] no longer sufficient enough to express her exultant love of God.” Hildegard of Bingen (also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath) insisted on composing “dramatically emotional, jubilant sequences of melody that testify to great musical talent.” She and Abelard were contemporaries, and “Planctus” was found, apparently, in the library of St. Martial in Limoges, a center for Aquitanian polyphony of the 12th century—along with numerous names of instruments, which are cited (recorder, shawn, psaltery, chitara saracenica, harp, vielle, lira, miscellaneous percussion and even “hurdy gurdy”)–the existence of which at one time “enable and justify [the producers of the recording claim] using many instruments of this era.” I can see the “necessity of harp” as “consolation of sorrow / as a healing for distress,” but I’m not at all certain that the fact so many interesting instruments existed justifies attempting to use all of them at once. That seems a typically 19th century grandiose rather than a “medieval” approach.

The “Ensemble fur fruhe musik Augsburg” made amends, for me, with their interpretation of Abelard’s other hymn, “O quanta qualia,” the blending of voices beautiful, and respectful of the occasion, each word fully articulated, enhanced by pitch rather than distorted. The interlacing melodic lines bring out the best in the words: “ubi non praevenit / rem desiderium, / nec desiderio / minus est praemium”—and as rendered in English, again by Helen Waddell, they are the best, paying homage to “Sabbato ad Vesperas,” the peace “the high courts of heaven” bring “the weary” (“When God in Whom are all things/Shall be all things to men.”):

Where finds the dreamer waking / Truth beyond dreaming far, / Nor there the heart’s possessing / Less than the heart’s desire.

The ascent of the female voice is perfect for “Nostrum est interim / mentem erigere / et tois patriam / votes appretere” (“But ours, with minds uplifted / Unto the heights of God / With our whole heart’s desiring, / To take the homeward road”), and this piece does reach and satisfy “The fullness of the heart,” with dignity and restraint.

Listening to this performance, it’s not at all difficult to understand why Abelard was held in such high regard as a “songwriter,” and again, I couldn’t help but wish that his secular songs were available as well. I had the additional fortunate (and by surprise) experience of finding both of these pieces available on YouTube, along with Epithalamica, the piece Constant Mews actually attributes to Heloise, not Abelard.

Commenting on the six laments that Abelard wrote, and calling “Dolorum solatium” (David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan) “the greatest of all,” Helen Waddell wrote that within it, “the passion that never escaped in those strange remote letters to Heloise for once awakes and cries.” Constant Mews claims that “David’s lament that he has lost half his soul echoes those love letters in which Heloise offered [Abelard] ‘half a soul’ and described herself as part of his soul,” Mews adding “While writing about the parting of David and Jonathan, Abelard was mourning a relationship with Heloise which had never been allowed to come to fruition.”

James Burge praises the amazing couple, their extraordinary “collaboration,” when he writes that, composing the Laments, Abelard not only became “a significant champion of the rights of women in religious orders but he has started to apply his intelligence to questions of feelings … he begins to dramatize (and therefore at some significant level to analyze) the feelings of others regarding the universal experiences of love, pain, and separation.” Burge finds it “credible” that the “Laments and their subject matter would have been discussed during Abelard’s visits to the Paraclete,” and that “it is not so farfetched to see Heloise’s influence in Abelard’s new areas of interest.”

Here are: Heloise “crowning” Abelard as a Philosopher King (in “better days”); Abelard greeting Heloise at the Paraclete; a statue of her; the cover of John Marenbon’s excellent book, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard; and a final quote from Abelard: (Photo credits: robertplantconundrum.blogspot.com; quirkality.com; abilardandheloise.com)

Heloise and Abelard 4 Robert Plant        Abelard and Heloise at Paraclete

Heolise statue 2        Abelard philosophy

Abelard If I am to be remembered

In The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, John Marenbon shows that, whereas Abelard ‘was controversial in his lifetime and remained so after his death” (seen, then and until recently, by his detractors as “superficial and misguided”), he was in actuality a “constructive” thinker who produced “cogent and often original answers” to the philosophical questions he raised; developed “a sophisticated account of the semantics of universal words”; and “elaborated a coherent, systematic and wide-ranging moral theory.”

Abelard’s life, although productive in this sense, was by no means “easy” once separated from Heloise. His arch-rival, “Saint” Bernard of Clairvaux, succeeded in having him declared a heretic; a ban was placed on his writing and his books condemned. Having abandoned teaching (what Pope Innocent called his “perverse doctrine”), Abelard would end his days at a Cluniac priory, “over sixty years old and possibly suffering from a form of cancer” (in Marenbon’s words). Peter the Venerable was able to have the “sentence of excommunication” lifted, and, his “time spent in prayer, reading and what writing his health allowed,” Peter Abelard would die in April of the year 1142.

At for the love between Heloise and Abelard, at the close of his biography, James Burge concludes that the couple’s collaboration over the Paraclete “must have been, for those who knew about it, an example of the possibility of true friendship between a man and a woman. As one commentator has recently put it, they had given male-female friendship a legitimacy. How far Heloise herself saw the final stage of her relationship with Abelard as the success of her quest for the perfect combination of love and friendship is less easy to know. We can only guess whether or not the lives they shared at this period did indeed begin to provide the comfort of friendship for which she had begged in her letters.”

I don’t need to guess. I am certain that it did.

An interesting documentary on the romance of Heloise and Abelard—Famous Love Stories: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NY75SqBrDo –and excerpts from two films: Abelard’s hymn, “Quanta Qualia” as part of the first, Stealing Heaven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jueyUN5H4hc ; and a second film, Cesare/Lucrezia: Abelard & Heloise, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nAETpRO0cM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poet Osip Mandelstam on Music, and Beyond

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing the last two blog posts on Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient and Modern (Parts One and Two), and I’ve had some positive responses to that work. Thanks! I’d like, now, to stay with the general subject—the “marriage” of poetry and music—for one more post: this time with an emphasis on the thoughts of my favorite 20th century poet, Osip Mandelstam, on the topic–and attempts on the part of composers to set his poems to music.

In the best book I’ve read on Mandelstam, An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: God’s Grateful Guest, author Ryszard Przybylski writes, “Opinions of professional musicians about a poet’s attitude towards music should be considered authoritative,” and he goes on to cite composer Artur Sergeevich Luriye saying that Mandelstam “loved music passionately, but he never talked about this love. He kept it deeply concealed.” Przybylski concludes that Mandelstam “listened to music and said nothing about it. He said nothing and he wrote. And thanks to that writing he entered the history of Russian music.”

Here’s the cover of Przybylski’s excellent book—and two photos of Mandelstam as a young poet: (photo credits: Gregory Freidin, from his fine book, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation, which I’ll also show here; and ralphmag.org).

Book on Mandelstam    Mandelstam

Mandelstam 6     osip-mandelstam5

We’ll take a look at what Mandelstam wrote in the way of poetry in just a moment, but first: an observation of his in prose that I found interesting: “Musical notation caresses the eye no less than music itself soothes the ear … Each measure is a little boat loaded with raisins and grapes.” Mandelstam appears to have loved everything about music—including the sight of it and even the suggested taste!

In a poem written in 1931, “Self-Portrait,” in which he makes fun of his own peculiar (verified by nearly everyone who knew him, including his wife) appearance, he says (translation by James Greene):

Here is a creature that can fly and sing, / The word malleable and flaming, /And congenital awkwardness is overcome / by inborn rhythm!

Przybylski writes, “He treated everything he did as flight and song … a poet who heard existence … who felt he was filled with rhythm, the fundamental form-creating element. He was incapable of separating poetry from music because he was incapable of separating form from content. For him art was music, which, as Boethius explained, “sometimes makes use of instruments and sometimes creates poetry.”

Here’s a series of drawings and woodcut prints I did myself—in homage to the various stages of Mandelstam’s   life (and more about the last “stage” later):

Mandelstam 1 Mandelstam 2Mandelstam4

Osip 10Mandelstam5  Mandelstam 3

In a poem written in 1908, the first poem in his first collection Kamen (or Stone), Mandelstam hears (Przybylski’s own translation) “The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree! / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”; and Przybylski responds: “In the beginning there was silence. Nothingness is silence … All things arose through sound, and without sound nothing which exists would have come into being … Thus, sound is born from silence’s singing. Silence is music. This seeming paradox haunted Mandelstam throughout his life [in 1910, he wrote about a “soundless chorus of birds” that flies through “silence at midnight”] … Music, then, incorporates both silence and sound. Singing man is a form of God. The interruption of silence means the appearance of form.”

Przybylski spends considerable time on alternate theories regarding this “birth”– theories Mandelstam eventually rejected—such as Theophile Gautier’s concept of the birth of Aphrodite from ocean foam as “the birth of love,” Russian Symbolist Sergey Solovyov’s notion that she initiated a “paradise of love,” and neo-Parnassian Alexander Kondratev’ s view that Aphrodite became an emblem for “the joys of life.” Mandelstam broke with these Neo-Platonic traditions, for his Aphrodite is Anadyomede, or the one who simply “swims out of water,” and Aphrogeneia, the one “born of the ocean foam.” The Greeks believed that all births required motion and moisture (as they do )–two things “that the sea has in excess.” In another poem, “Silentium,” one of my favorites, Mandelstam sees Aphrodite as both the soul and original foundation of life, simultaneously. Here’s my own translation of “Silentium”:

It is the unborn, still— / She and the music and the word / Sustaining, unbroken /The living coherence.

Here are two classic interpretations of this moment, one the famous painting by Botticelli (“The Birth of Venus”); the other a 2nd century Roman sculpted piece: (Photo credits: waymarking.com; wikipedia.org)

Aphrodite 1  Aphrodite 2

Przybylski quotes musicologist Paolo Carapezza: “In ancient times music and the living logos [phonic organization of words as language] were an inseparable unit, and what is more, the former was considered to be the conscious and deliberate perfecting and refining of the latter, the revelation of it internal essence; the living logos was music in raw form, like gold in the form of ore.” Carapezza also cites a time of “esthetic transformation” when music stopped being “an extract of logos” and became “that in which the logos swims and by which it is surrounded.” Music was no longer structured on a plane equal with the word, “not according to the word,” but “appropriately according to its own patterns.” Music began to be constituted “independently of the word.”

Mandelstam, according to Przybylski, understood the meaning of this process well. In his essay “Pushkin and Scriabin,” the poet wrote: “The Hellenes did not allow music any independence: the word served them as the requisite antidote, the faithful sentinel, and the constant companion of music. Pure music was unknown to the Hellenes; it belongs completely to Christianity. The mountain lake of Christian music grew calm only after the profound transformation which turned Hellas into Europe.” And Przybylski adds, “The symbol of this unity of music and logos was, for Mandelstam, Aphrodite, but … before she swam out of the ocean foam, when she was still living in the foam or, better yet, when she was foam. For among the Greeks love was an initial movement and very quickly it became a unifying force. Thus, it fused meaning with song, intellect with rhythm, communication with expression. Thanks to love, music was born of the natural prosodic melody of the word. Each thought arose out of music, all music gave birth to thought.”

Mandelstam rejected Vladimir Solovyov’s Goethean “Eternal Feminine.” For him Aphrodite was the “primal Aphrodite, mythical, cosmogonical.”

Let my lips discover / What they cannot say: / Some crystal note / In pure birth!

For Mandelstam, ocean foam symbolized primal chaos, but not as a “negative value, an evil, or a threat.” Chaos, like silence, was “a collection of all possibilities, a prenatal anxiety, a formless proto-unity.” It was precisely this proto-unity that made it possible for the word to be “united with music.”

Again, by way of contrast, Przybylski separates Mandelstam’s beliefs regarding the marriage of music and word from those of his contemporaries and predecessors. Andrey Bely had accepted German musicologist Hanclick’s thesis that “music is a more elevated language than speech,” and Bely approved of Schopenhauer’s concept that “the esthetic priority of symphonic music, which is a ‘product of reflection,’ is completely separated from the world of phenomena, and cleansed of all contact with the word.” The Russian Symbolists praised the emancipation of “pure music,” but, according to Przybylski, a paradox existed at the foundation of their “linguistic Utopia”: the despised word had to take on the function of pure, instrumental music, which became “the highest value only because it had separated itself from the word.” Mandelstam resolved this paradox. For him, the conscious sense of the word, the Logos, was “just as magnificent a form as music is for the Symbolists.” He endorsed the wisdom of “origins.” He did not seek the essence of musicality “in an instrument, but in the word.”

Mandelstam rejected the era’s “beloved paradox” (“Yearning for wordlessness is in essence yearning for music”). He turned away from Tyutchev’s “silence as the music of the soul, deprived of the possibility of authentic communication” and even Homer (“the soul itself is a form of music, a harmonious chord”), and, unconcerned with the music of the soul, he saw “silence” existing “only in order to change formless possibility into sounding form.” Again, silence was the “expectation of sound,” “the collection of possibilities.”

O Aphrodite, remain foam! / Let words return to music, / Heart, stay heart, ashamed /If not coupled, always / With where and how you began.

Although Stravinsky never set Mandelstam to music (that I know of), Przybylski  couples the two, citing the former’s “Le Sacred du Printemps,” in which he interpreted the myth  “as it suited his music,” and sought primal musical material in the ancient world–a “vision of a ritual rite of the rebirth of life” in the ballet, “thanks to which man, steeped in the primitive sound of primal musical material, makes contact with the biocosmic unity.” The piece, “thanks to its ‘barbaric’ rhythms,” is transformed into “an apotheosis of sacred eroticism.” Both Stravinsky and Mandelstam sought the “same value” in primordial chaos: “Freudian Eros, the instinct of love, which supports the current of life, continually renewing the cosmos and building culture.”

Here’s a collage with Stravinsky imposed upon Henri Matisse’s painting “The Dance” (I didn’t realize how large, how monumental, this painting was, and when I first saw it, “live,” in the Hermitage, I told my wife Betty she should come back in a month or so and “rescue” me from viewing it!); scenes from “Le Sacred du Printemps,” the original production and a contemporary performance  (Joffrey Ballet performance at Los Angeles Music Center); and a portion of Stravinsky’s score (Notice all those small dancing “raisins and grapes”!): (Photo credits: NPR Today; theguardian.com; huffingtonpost.com; YouTube).

igor-stravinsky-with-dancers-by-matisse-collage-npr-today1

Rite of Spring  Rite of Spring 2

score for Rite of SpringIn his poem “Silentium,” Mandelstam’s “silence” has a “musical character.” In his invocation to Aphrodite, if she will remain foam, the word will return to music, because “every renewal takes place only after the return to beginnings.” Mandelstam’ s “silence” was not a “criticism of language as a means of communication … primal silence was a phenomena in which form, Aprodite, is concealed.” Like Mozart, Mandelstam saw silence optimistically. Mozart “insisted” that silence was more essential than sound in music, because only in silence, “filled by mental effort, is a decisive grasping of form possible.” The “Prince of Silence,” Miles Davis, is known to have said “In music, silence is more important than sound.”

Przybylski concludes this portion of his book by asserting that Mandelstam’s “silence” is not a “modernistic Nirvana, but the source of creation. Creation, in turn, is affirmation of life, the acceptance of the material world, the joyous sensing of things.” Mandelstam “linked his art with life, with the earth.”

Przybylski then turns his attention to a “primal abyss” that some people feel as a threat. He says “we should not be surprised that Mandelstam expressed the thought that music is unable to save us from the primal abyss. Music itself, after all, belongs to a certain extent to the abyss, because it was born out of silence … but a sound can interrupt the terror silence, it can charm the abyss. That is why the soul signifies a bursting into song. One must summon rhythm, even though it appears only rarely, like grace. Only a singing soul can create form. The poet, then, is a man in whom molino vivo, the creaking mill of life … has not destroyed his ability to sing. Creativity is a kind of song. That is why Mandelstam did not just recite his poems and did not try to force the meaning of the lines into meter. If a sentence in a poem does not fit the melody, it has no meaning. The meaning of a poem is in the music. So that Mandelstam sang his poems.”

Przybylski reminds us of a single phonograph recording of the poet “singing” a poem of his [and more about this poem at the end of this blog post], and the testimony of his contemporaries bear this out. “The wandering aoidos probably sang Homer’s epics like Mandelstam”–which reminds me of what I’ve said elsewhere about Homer as the first “anchor person,” but singing the evening news: “There was a fierce battle in Troy today,” et cetera.

“The musician is depicted in Mandelstam’s poetry as a priest entreating the abyss,” Prybylski writes, and once again, he asserts: “To create, then, means above all to create music. For the wave comes out of the sea to a measured beat … rhythm is the source of shape. A poet is a creator only when he creates musical shape. The musician is the archetype of the creator.”

Przybylski offers Mandelstam’s thoughts on Bach and Beethoven, for the poet has written a poem about each. For the poet, Przybylski claims, Bach was an artist who understood music as “the organized resistance of the spirit against the elements … Above the dust of time, above the disharmony of sounds swirling in taverns and churches, [Bach] triumphs like a new Isaiah, because Isaiah is continually proving the obvious: that God exists, that A = A.” Mandelstam himself has written, “Logic is the kingdom of the unexpected. To think logically is to be perpetually astonished. We have come to love the music of proof.” And he found such music in Bach.

The introduction of the words “logic” and “proof” after “Isaiah” and “God” made me think of an interesting book I am reading just now: physicist/saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and The Structure of the Universe. In the Introduction, the author writes: “Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking … The intricate way that the fundamental laws of physics work together to create and sustain the overarching structure of the universe, responsible for our very existence, seems like magic—not unlike the bare bones of music theory have given rise to everything from ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ [the “bare bones” or underpinings of the song “It’s a Wonderful World”] to Coltrane’s Intersteller Space. By using an interdisciplinary focus, inspired by three great minds (John Coltrane, Albert Einstein, and Pythagoras), we can begin to see that the ‘magical’ behavior of the blossoming cosmos is based in music.”

Here are: cover of The Jazz of Physics; Stephon Alexander at work; the cycle of fifths, and cosmic conclusions John Coltrane (literally) drew based on the cycle of fifths (a diagram he entrusted to saxophonist Yusef Latif): (photo credits: sourcesnpr.org; Miles Okazaki).

The Jazz of Physics   The Jazz of Physics 2

circle-of-fifths-3     John Coltrane drawing

Throw in a little Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Richard Feynman for good measure. And within Osip Mandelstam’s inclusiveness (the “sum of opposites”: his unique blend of religion, mythology, and pagan ritual), he maintained a healthy respect for empiricism. He once wrote: “O poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral crystal enjoys.” And he included the following two lines in a poem: “… here on earth, not in heaven, / as in a house filled with music.”

Mandelstam also believed the “abyss” could be controlled by an artist who was the opposite of the reasonable logical Bach: a mad, Dionysian artist like Beethoven, whose music was “a modern orgy, a holy intoxication, a momentary deification of man”–madness which allowed Beethoven, for a time, “to achieve the fullness of existence.” Przybylski adds, “On this is based Beethoven’s joy … Like an epic poet, an artist in the full sense of that word, [Beethoven] transformed his ‘I,’ that Dionysian arch-pain, into the subject of art, and sang it in Apollonian measure.” Przybylski believes that “to prove or to drive mad” is the function of art: “to lift man above his terror.” He mentions the word “panmusicality,” for he feels the world itself “has a musical character.”

So much of what Przybylski says is said in the name of Mandelstam: thoughts that derive from him or which would have met his approval. For Mandelstam, music was “divine fullness, the sum of opposites, silence and sound, primal formlessness and form, barbariousness and culture, fear and joy, terror and liberation … Mandelstam loved the logic of forms in music, but he was also fascinated by screams of pain … as a sum of antinomies, music has a divine nature. Musical form is the product of wonder, and its function is proof.”

Robert Tracy, who has translated Mandelstam’s first book, Stone, points out that the poet “only rarely” had a room of his own in which to work and write–that he usually composed his poems in his mind “while walking the streets and wrote or dictated them only at the end of the poetic process.” He cites a question Mandelstam asked regarding Dante: “How many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy?” Mandelstam imagined his “admired Dante sharing his own work habits”–that The Inferno and especially The Purgatorio “glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking.” And Przybylski reminds us that “that is why Beethoven also fascinated him as a walker measuring the fields and woods in the environs of Vienna.”

Here are: Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice on one of his walks (painting by Henry Holiday); and, coming up next, Terpander with his lyre (looks as if he’s playing a game of tennis!): (Photos credits: Wikipedia.org; findagrave.com)

Henry_Holiday_-_Dante_meets_Beatrice     Terpander

Przybylski’s book on “God’s Grateful Guest,” contains some final thoughts on, a summary of, Mandelstam’s love of music in a chapter called “Terpander’s Lyre,” focused on a stanza from a poem, “Cherepakha” (“Turtle”), dedicated to that poet’s “Turtle lyre,” the stanza itself dedicated to musicality, that is, to “that element of poetry which Parnassus had completely forgotten” (Przybylski’s own translation):

Unhurried is the turtle-lyre / Fingerless, she just barely crawls out./ Lies about in the sunshine of Epirus / Silently warming her golden stomach. / Well, who will fondle such a one, /  Who will turn over the sleeper? / She is awaiting Terpander in her sleep. / Anticipating descent of the dry fingers.

What a set of wild, sexy images; what graceful lust for an instrument made from a turtle’s shell in order to make music come alive–with the assistance of a poet’s “dry fingers” of course! Once again, Przybylski hammers home the “exceptionally high value” [highest?] that Mandelstam placed on musicality in poetry. “He was pleased that Verlaine placed “De la musique avant toute chose” [“You must have music first of all,” Verlaine adding, in the seventh and eighth lines: “Nothing more dear than the tipsy song/Where the undefined and Exact combine.”] at the beginning of his Poetic Art. Convinced that poetry’s origins are in song and that the phonetic element is more essential than the pictorial in poetry, the author of Tristia [the book in which “Turtle” appears] could not follow the path of the Parnassians, “who did not understand that admirers of Hellas cannot ignore and reject musicality … Despite the set opinions of several scholars who were fascinated by the plastic arts, it was music that occupied the central position in Greek esthetics. Among the Greeks a true creator was a poet or a musician: a sculptor was only a craftsman … according to legend, the lyre fell from heaven. It was a gift of the gods. The seven planets were compared to its seven strings. The canon of beauty was based on the numbers which the harmony of tones dictated.”

Przybylski claims that Mandelstam rose above any “artificial division” or distinction between the “Classical” and “Romantic,” that he had reached back to a tradition that was earlier than the “French error,” and arrived on his own at the genuine tradition of Classical poetry: molpe–song and dance. “The ancient Greeks’ bard was at one and the same time a leader of the dance and a director of the chorus. His poetry was not performed in isolation. Words were always tied to music and the rhythm of the dance. ‘Dance’ and ‘music’ also had a different meaning in those days, and were certainly not specialized. The ancient Greeks’ poetry was created, then, by the musically inspiration of the bard.”

Przybylski concludes: “Mandelstam linked musicality with inspiration. In his conception, music liberates in the poet thought which has been prepared by intellect … he placed a high value on … incantation, without which he could not imagine intensity of experience. The element of incantation, remaining forever in a poem, could evoke in the reader a movement of his soul, or ecstasy, which allows him to understand the poet’s thought: to recreate the creative process.”

The greatest gift that Google has ever given me is the actual voice of Osip Mandelstam. I made this discovery inadvertently, by accident, searching for something else: any and all musical settings of his poems by composers–a number of which I did find. The surprise that came up was a 1924 recording of Mandelstam himself reading his poem “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” this and “Tsyganka” (“Gypsy Girl”) on a Northwestern University site called “From the End to the Beginning: A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse,” a site that also contains several of his poems in print.

I was only partially prepared for what I heard. Here was Mandelstam himself–actually standing, reciting, no, singing, in my studio! I had previously run across various accounts of, testimonials regarding what it was like to hear him read when he was alive: his body “slightly rocking to the rhythm of the verse,” his entire face “so transformed by inspiration and self-abandonment” that, ordinarily “unassuming,” it had become “the face of a visionary and prophet.” Those attending such performances claimed they could feel “the presence of the spirit possessing the poet”; they could hear the poet’s “oracle” and experience “that which is sacred but remained concealed in ordinary life.” At one reading, Mandelstam presided as “a shaman for two and a half hours,” as if in trance. Boris Pasternak was present and was overcome by “the terrifying exorcism.”

What I heard–in spite of the heavy pops and blips and crackling that accompanied this nearly prehistoric recording–more than verified what witnesses had described: that Mandelstam did not just recite but sang his poems. He did not do so in the somewhat “singsong,” wistful, studied, somewhat theatrical style of Yeats reading “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” but in the highly urgent, instantly affecting manner of that Russian tradition that Vladimir Mayakovsky made familiar, “at the top of his voice,” and Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko perpetuated throughout the era–the 1960s–in which they made their public readings available to listeners like me. The closest American equivalent may be our own tradition of public oratory, but Mandelstam’s purpose was never overt or all-too-obviously political or religious persuasion (the two so often combined in our culture), but the art of poetry itself. Mandelstam enunciates each syllable as if it were as round and real as his beloved stone, a phenomena sacred in and of itself–and the total result is an aria as memorable as any you might know from opera by heart (but free of the schmaltz occasionally associated with opera). Mandelstam sings the pure joy of language that embodies all that human music can contain.

After being stunned by this experience, and having played the recording over and over and over again (I didn’t want him to leave the room!), I turned my attention to composers who had attempted to set his poems within their own music: Elena Firsova (who has provided chamber cantata for solo voice and ensemble settings from the poems in Tristia through the Voronezh Notebooks–“the most tragic poems,” in her estimate by her “favorite poet,” as he is mine). Firsova comments, “From his poetry I learnt that we can speak very quietly about the most important things, and that we can see the most tragic occurrences in the light of beauty.”

Here are Mandelstam and Elena Firsova: (Photo credit: YouTube)

Mandelstam by Firsova

I also listened to Yelena Frolova’s “Russian Silver Age” settings (which includes poets Blok, Bely, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, and Yesenin as well as Mandelstam); Gordon Beeferman’s Now no one will listen to songs, which features “With vaguely-breathing leaves,” the last stanza of Mandelstam’s “Why is there so little music/And such silence?”; Vladimir Dukelsky’s (otherwise known as Vernon Duke) Ode Epitaphe 1931; a song cycle by Michael Zev Gordon; Giya Kanchel’s  Don’t Grieve (presented by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky as vocalist soloist); Valentin Silvestoir’s Silent Song (six poems by Mandelstam); and a Dances for Petersburg program presented by the University of Michigan Dance Company, which offered Jessica Fogel’s “We Will Meet Again in Petersburg” (a cycle that includes that poem, “The Admiralty” and “At a terrible height”).

Some of what I’ve heard seems to carry too much self-conscious “weight” for what would be appropriate for or equal to Mandelstam’s work–an attempt on the part of the singers to out-Chaliapin Chaliapin perhaps, bypassing nuance for the sake of overlarge boulders that do not, to my mind, possess the fine resilience of the poet’s beloved stone.

A well-meaning effort that, unfortunately, suffers from this fault is Steve Lacy’s (and he’s one of my favorite jazz soprano saxophonists) Rushes, 10 Songs from Russia, which pays homage to Marina Tsvetayeva and Anna Akhmatova, as well as Mandelstam.

Here are poets Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva: (Photo credits: wikipedia.org; silveragepoetry.com)

altman-akhmatova         TsvetaevaM

One of Mandelstam’s poems represented is “I say this as a sketch and in a whisper,” other favorite of mine (here in David McDuff’s excellent translation):

I say this as a sketch and in a whisper / For it is not yet time: / The game of unaccountable heaven / Is achieved with experience and sweat … / And under purgatory’s temporary sky / We often forget / That the happy repository of heaven / Is a lifelong house that you can carry everywhere.

Stacy’s stated purpose was to make the poet’s words “better known,” to set the poems “without betraying their spirit, into jazz art-songs,” but my disappointment was immense when I heard what he and vocalist Irene Aebi had done with this poem–its “spirit” betrayed from the very start, to my ears: Aebi shouting, nearly screaming “I say it … in a whisper.” The conception struck me as totally contrary, at odds with the intention and tone of Mandelstam’s fine, subtle poem.

A poem previously cited (“The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”) provokes, after a handsome subtle Tracy instrumental introduction, the same sense of over-kill–of being at odds with Mandelstam’s concept of music “emerging from silence.” Another of my favorite poems  (“I have the present of a body–what shall I do with it / so unique it is and so much mine.”) is rendered in French (this after Lacy, in the liner notes, has stated as a disclaimer of sorts: “The Russian language is already music”); and a very moving poem about the  Terror–“Into the distance –go the mounds of people’s heads / I am growing smaller here–no one notices me anymore”–is rendered redundant through over-dramatization.

As composer, Lacy may have been too preoccupied with Mandelstam’s ultimate fate (those who know of it can’t help but feel considerable compassion), for he states, “Real jazz is dissident music. In Russia, poetry can be fatal” (which is true enough), but he goes on to say that Mandelstam was “crushed like an insect, after having brought forth a carefully preserved, full life’s work, of timeless literature.” Mandelstam’s fate was cruel (more about that in a moment), but this was a man who stood up to the regime in his poetry, who refused to succumb to “official” jargon, the trite slogans of the era (publicly pressed at a reading as to what he “believed in,” he bravely replied that he believed in “world culture,” not Soviet)—a man who believed there was nothing tougher than a human being. Osip Mandelstam was decidedly not someone “crushed like an insect.”

I’ve spent some time on what I feel is a misrepresentation of his poetry in music because it’s something one does encounter, on occasion, on the part of well-meaning composers and singers not fully “in tune” with the work itself. When that happens, I almost wish they’d just left the poem alone, and stuck with a strictly Schopenhauer “’product of pure reflection’ … cleansed of all contact with the word.”

That was not at all the case with another discovery I made, again, by way of a most fortunate  “accident”– another gift that made Mandelstam truly come alive for me through a marriage of poetry and music. In the summer of 1990, my wife Betty and I traveled 9,000 kilometers throughout the former Soviet Union, gathering information on and interviewing musicians for a book subsequently published: Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union. We met and spent time with a host of fascinating folks–both musicians and jazz fans–but two of the most interesting and engaging musical artists were composer Igor Egikov and his wife, singer Irina Vorontsova.

Here are: the cover of my book; a poster for a “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”) concert by Igor and Irina, and the Novospasky Monastery (to which they took Betty and me): (Photo credit: Moscow.info)

Unzipped Souls    Vorontsova and Egikov

Novospassky-Monastery 2

I fell in love with the delightful Vorontsova the instant I laid eyes on her. Her face is round above Tatar cheekbones (an ancestry of which she is proud), a face framed by long hair, unzipped dark eyes beneath handsomely arched eyebrows, a small pug nose, and a generous mouth. Meeting her and Igor came about by chance. I had shown a Professor of American Literature at the University of Moscow, Irene Norikova (who was helping me translate), a booklet of photographs our son Stephen took of my own woodblock prints and paintings of Russian poems, the text included in each work. Irene was interested in my having chosen poems by Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, for she had a friend who’d set their work to music she said, adding, “He is an excellent composer, and his wife is a famous singer.” Irene arranged for us to meet them.

Neither Irina Vorontsova nor her husband, Igor Egikov, spoke English, so we relied mostly on Irina’s cheerful disposition and devastating smile to convey the meaning of her brilliant chatter as we set out, packed into their small car; on a grand excursion to a Moscow we would otherwise never have known, ending at the Novospasky Monastery (New Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior) on Krutitsy Hill just above the curl of the Moscow River leading out of town (the first monastery to be founded in Moscow in the early 14th century). In spite of a slight drizzle, we strolled the grounds, Irina singing Bulat Okudzhava (my favorite Russian “troubadour” of the 1960s) songs at my request. Igor Egikov was cheerfully reticent. A pupil of Aram Khachaturian, he specializes in writing music for his wife. According to a review in the Boston Globe, when the couple performed in this country, Igor was interested “in finding a new direction for music, a third stream, that would reconcile serious classical music with popular idioms.” The Globe referred to “the vibrant Vorontsova, a world class cabaret singer,” as a woman who “talks with her eyes.” She does, so I listened.

Outside the monastery we sat in their car and drank fine Georgian wine they had given us as a gift along with a large poster announcing a concert “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”—the name of an album they also gave me), an evening of songs, romances, ballads and poems by Akhmatova, Okudzhava, and Marina Tsvetaeva set to music. We had insisted on sharing the wine there and then, Igor acquiring a glass, our loving cup, from one of those vile gazirovannaia voda vending machines (mineral water dispensed in cups that everyone shares, a highly suspicious rinsing device also provided). We chatted and joked, exchanging pictures of respective families, discussed art and music and life and all things under the sun as best we could with what we had by way of mutual language.

It was time for Betty and I to return to the Variety Theater for the final concert at the jazz festival we were attending. Here’s a flyer I saw posted on a wooden wall in Moscow—the event the “First International Moscow Jazz Festival”:

First Moscow Jazz Festival

As another parting gift, Igor and Irina gave me a cassette tape with a single poem by OsipMandelstam on it, a poem entitled “Where Are They Taking Me?”, written in 1911, but a poem too prophetic, for Mandelstam would die, as a political prisoner, in a transit camp in Vladivostok in 1938 at the age of 47, initially arrested in 1934 after reciting, at a party, within earshot of a few close friends, a sixteen line poem highly unfavorable to Stalin (calling him a murderer in fact). Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, in her miraculous book Hope Against Hope. suggests, in a chapter called “Who is to Blame?”, that no one person was responsible (even though they knew who turned him in), that everybody was culpable: mutual complicity, the outrageous compromise of, at that time, an entire society.

Here are: a photo of Mandelstam as a political prisoner, and another quote from his wife, Nadezhda: (Photo credit: poetrysociety,org; azquotes.com) The translation following is mine:

Mandelstam 4  Mandelstam 7

How slowly the horses step, / How dimly the lanterns glow. /  These strangers surely know /Just where they are taking me.

And I entrust myself to them, / For I am cold. I wish only to sleep. / Suddenly, at the turning, sharp / I am thrown out among stars.

Jolted, my head swims feverously, / But icy fingers sooth me. / The dark shape of a fir tree / Lingers, out of focus.

The Russian, the language alone—as Steve Lacy recognized—is  beautiful:  Kak malo v fonaryakh ognya / Chuzhie lyudi, verno, znayut, / kuda vezut oni menya / A ya vreryayus ikh zabote … / Goryachey golovy kachane / nezhnyy led ruki chuzoi–and Igor and Irina transform and transmit that language with full respect. The piece opens with Igor’s solo piano vamp (in F minor), one that matches or imitates the pace of the horses perfectly–and softly, slowly, like a “dimly” lit lantern herself, Irina’s voice enters, rich with troublesome irony (“These strangers surely know / Just where they are taking me.”), fitting in light of Mandelstam’s subsequent experience, but not exploiting it. The only “content” not in the poem is her subtle and moving “ejaculations” at the end of each stanza: a single syllable, “ah,” repeated, and, before the last stanza, “oi yoi yoi yoi yo oi,” which perhaps I could have done without, but which again are fitting (“earned”) and not overly dramatic (in excess of tone and circumstance)–offered so “delicately” and inobtrusively that I feel Mandelstam himself would approve, would not object.

The couple’s interpretation of this poem is so handsomely self-contained (just like the poem itself), consistent in tone (like the poem again), the dynamics so fitting, subtle, everything so “well placed,” the economy so in keeping with Mandelstam’s intent and style (Irina’s voice disclosing maximum effect with regard to the words without impeding them in anyway), I cannot imagine their version being improved in any way. Bravo! Thank you (spasibo bolshoi), Igor Egikov and Irina Vorontsova, for showing just what can happen to a poem, emotionally, when the word, logos, is truly married to music—that balancing act Mandelstam managed so well in his work: a blend of romanticism and equilibrium, logic and a touch of madness: poetry all the more powerful for its depth expressed through economy and restraint.

I wish I could close this blog post with an example of my own attempt to set a poem by Osip Mandelstam to music, but, whereas I have set a few of my own poems that way, I have yet to find music for one of his. I do have a reading I did (on YouTube) of “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” which I translated. My friend, the amazing Bob Danziger, a gifted musician, composer, sound sculptor, inventor, author, entrepreneur, and a key player in the alternative energy industry for over thirty years, undertook the video project, and he asked me to participate directly. First he had me select a piece from his exceptional music project, Brandenburg 300; then, in his studio, he asked that I read Mandelstam’s poem over (and “within”) this music–to which he would add visual material (I gave him the names of Russian artists from Mandelstam’s era: Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” Levitan, Vrubel; and also, at his request, some of my own art work, a series of drawings and woodcut prints I’d done of Mandelstam and other pieces, and some photos from my own life).

Bob located excellent photos of Mandelstam (and the art work from his era)–his intent to make this video a genuine “Mandelstam and Minor” (the title of the piece) collaboration: to honor the poet and also, as he put it, the fact that I have “survived.” Bob submitted “Mandelstam and Minor: I Am No One’s Contemporary” to the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival: films to be shown at an award ceremony at the Lighthouse Cinema in Pacific Grove, California, and the film was accepted. Our homage to Mandelstam can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxliLhcnyAY.

Here’s a “still” from the video of me reading “No, never was I anyone’s contemporary”:(Photo credit: Bob Danziger and the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival).

Mandelstam and Minor photo

I’ll close with a poem of Mandelstam’s I did a painting of (“Insomnia”), the painting I stood in front of for the film–a poem I’ve also translated (and appeared in the literary journal  Hanging Loose 49).

Mandelstam Helen2

Mandelstam's InsomniaI love the line “The sea, Homer–everything is moved by love”; and that seems a perfect “note” on which to close.

 

 

 

 

Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern

I have been working for some time (more than a few years now!) on a book-length manuscript: a study of the history of poetry “married” to music, or “song,” from the Singing Neanderthals (see Steven Mithen’s excellent book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body) to the present day. Mine is a “book” grown so copious (I’m only at English Renaissance poet/composers such as Thomas Campion now), I may not be able to finish it within my lifetime. And I know there are other fine books on the subject (James Anderson Winn’s Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music; Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History); yet I have a friend who is interested in ancient Greek poetry set to music, and he asked if I knew anything about it—which I do. Both Ancient and Modern Greek poetry set to music in fact (there’s a definite continuum there)—so I’d like to “share” what I know by posting it on Bill’s Blog.

In Chapter Four of what I ‘ve written so far, I had the audacity to call the Greeks (both Ancient and Modern!) “my friends,” and that’s because they were, or became so, when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece (on Crete and Paros, with many side trips to other islands) for nearly a year in 1979/1980–and also because I have enjoyed reading both classical and Modern Greek poetry (in the original) and hearing it combined with music, since 1959, when I began to make a serious effort to be able to do so. In this post, I’d like to start with the near present (1979) and work my way back to “antiquity,” because this marriage of poetry and music displays amazing continuity, and longevity, and–to my mind and ears–has provided one of the most fortunate “blends” of the two forms.

When Betty and I left Greece in 1980, we gave all of the warm clothing we’d brought (wool sweaters and lumberjack shirts) to our landlord and landlady on the island of Paros, where we were living at the time, and I filled the suitcase with phonograph records: LPs that ranged from Vitzenzos Comaros’ epic poem from Crete, Erotokritos; Tragouthia tou Gamos (wedding songs from Crete, as well as Greece at large); instrumental music from Crete (tambouras [small bouzouki], laouto [lute], lyra [three-string bowed instrument]); vocal music from Crete (mostly mantinades: two fifteen syllable lines which rhyme, set to music); and Mikis Theodorakis’ handsome settings for the poetry of Giorgos Seferis (Mithistorima), Yannis Ritsos (Epitaphios), and Odysseus Elytis (Axion Esti).

Here are: the cover of a recording of Ancient Greek music (Musique de la Grece Antique: Atrium Musicae de Madrid) and a poster for a performance of To Axion Esti:

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover     Performance poster Axion Esti

When we first arrived in Greece, we took–after a short stay in Athens–a boat from Pereus, landing in the town of Chania in Crete. We thought we might find a house or apartment there; but Chania–in spite of its interesting history (the town built on the site of Cydonia, which dates back to just after the Minoan period) and an appealing waterfront–seemed too large (38,467 inhabitants at the time) and intractable. Also, we couldn’t find any music! So we got on a bus and headed east along the north coast, to the town of Rethymnon, which we fell in love with immediately–and which, throughout our four month stay there, would provide us with “live” music nearly every night. There is a saying in Crete: “Chanians for arms [at the time we were there, Souda Bay was not only the largest most secure bay in Crete, but in the entire Mediterranean]; Rethymnians for arts”–and that proved to be true. Here’s the harbor in Rethymnon, with its Fortetsa on the headland in the distance: (Photo credit: galaxie.gr)

rethimno harbor from air

While the Turkish occupation may have compromised the town’s famed artistic “flowering” (which took place during Venetian times), Rethymmon is still decidedly picturesque, with its two snowcapped mountains (Psiloritis or Mt. Ida, one of several birthplaces of baby Zeus in Greece, and Lefka Ori), red tiled roofs, narrow Venetian streets, old Venetian mansions, its Fortetsa on the headland (which harbors an abandoned mosque); three minarets (one the high point of the town, at its center), and a small, intimate, compatible harbor–even though I discovered the words “Exos Americanos” inscribed in large letters on one of its walls (“Americans, leave!”), and did not tell Betty, nor our son Steve (who was traveling with us after having just graduated from high school) this until much later. Here are: Mount Psiloritis and the Fortetsa in Rethymon (Photo credits: Fysimera.com and destinationcrete.gr)

Greece Mt. Ida         Fortetsa in Rethymnon 2

A spanking new tourist office was run, proudly, by a short, balding man named Kostos Palierakis, for whom I would soon be doing clerical work, helping to translate letters he received and responding to them. Kostos immediately found us a small house just a block from the beach, one with a heater that had to predate the Minoan civilization, a heater we would share (a blanket cast over our six knees beneath a table, to retain the heat) and a shower with a timer–hot water lasting all of about three minutes; the drain set on the high side of the floor not low, so the flood of water would rise above your ankles.

Here are: the view outside the window of the house Kostos found for us, and Kostos Palierakis himself with Betty:

Greece Crete WindowGreece Kostos and Betty

The small yard contained citron and olive trees, a grape arbor, trumpet vines, roses, Bird of Paradise, geraniums, and mandrake. We also fell in love with the town’s market area: its shops and periptera (kiosks), gypsy visitors leading a baboon through town, along with a huge bear with a ring in his nose. We found fresh fish daily (barbouni [red mullet], maritha [smelt], lithrini [sea bream], mourouna [cod], and fresh hot psomi [bread] we tucked beneath our arms for warmth (the Biblical name for “shop,” Astorieon, appropriate: “Give us this day our daily bread”). We found elies (olives) galore; giaourti (yogourt); meli (honey); turi (cheese: kasseri, kafaloteri, Cretan graviera)and britzoles from the butcher just beneath our house (when I asked for this, a lamb chop, he simply reached behind him and grabbed any piece of meat available, chopped it, and handed it to me!). We were provided with wine from the woman who ran the pool hall beneath the post office: wondrous Cretan kokkino krasi–red wine–for fifty drachmas (about $1.35) for a 1 ½ kilos jug. When I first went there I purchased the same amount of ouzo for 60 drachmas, but deciding I did not wish to die within a week, I never bought ouzo there again. Here are some streets scenes from Rethymnon: (Photo credits: synergise.com; tour-smart.co.uk; Jasmin Spiridaki)

Street scene in Rethymnon 2   Street scene in Retymnon 3Street scene in Rethymnon 3

So what does any of this have to do with the marriage of poetry and music in Greece? Well, everything! To my mind, the Greeks–in antiquity and down to the present day–were/are the first people to realize that such a union could never come about without acknowledging the full range of human experience: a complete social context in which song might evolve, even from seemingly trivial “daily round” or “day in the life” stuff, or subject matter, all of the commonplace richness of the human condition: food and drink and shelter (complete with imperfect toilet facilities) and sleep and a full palette of human aspiration that included every form of sensory activity, including sex–and then being willing and able to celebrate it all, both joyously and sadly on occasion, in song.

This came home to me, vividly, one night, lying in bed after midnight, fully content before falling asleep, having returned “home” after helping Kostos write some letters. No matter how elaborate the demands of potential American or European visitors (frequently professors, on sabbatical, like myself, but these seemed to require a plethora of rooms, toilet facilities, maid service, etc.), Kostos would command, “Vasilis [my Greek name], please, take letters; write, ‘Come to Crete!’” And that was it. He’d rewarded my efforts that evening with a couple shots of what he called “good Cretan water”: soul-bracing, throat-scouring raki. At home, attempting to fall asleep, I heard a group of university students (from a university located on the outskirts of town) coming up the hill by our house after a night at the local disco. Saturday Night Fever had come out in 1977, and John Travolta’s charismatic oscillations were still very much in vogue (not yet pronounced dead by Staying Alive), but these young men, having danced to such music all night, were not singing disco tunes. They were singing a poem from Odysseus Elitis’ epic work Axion Esti, set to music by Mikis Theodarakis:

“Tis agapis aimata me porphirosan/ Kai chares aneithotes me okiasane/ Ocheithothika mes sti votia/ ton anthropon/ Makrini Mitera, Rotho mou Amaranto.”  

“The blood of love has robed me in purple / And joys never seen before have coveredin shade. / I’ve become corroded in the south wind of humankind / Mother far away, my Everlasting Rose.” (Translation: Edmund Keely and George Savdis: The Axion Esti, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974)

I couldn’t believe my ears! These kids were singing, in fine chorus if a tad inebriate, the words of a Nobel prize laureate set to music by one of the finest composers in Greece–and doing so by choice, after an evening of ordinary fun, not coercion. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing cultural phenomenon in Greece, but it would not be the last.

Betty, our son Steve, and I began to explore the harbor area and found a small, casual, cozy restaurant (“Taverna Adelphia”) owned by a family named Koumiotis. Together, the youngest son, Tony (Andonios, who was the same age as Steve) and the oldest son, Thomas, proved to be a force when it came to attracting people of diverse national backgrounds to the place. I’d brought my guitar along on the trip (it proved to be an invaluable “passport”) and even on nights when we’d taken a stroll, sans guitar, and stopped off at the restaurant, Papa Koumiotis would reeve up his motor scooter, stash me on the back, and off we’d go to our house to fetch the instrument. Thus commenced a series of full-fledged hootenannies in which the common denominator of the French, Australians, Germans, Welsh, and Scandinavians present would be the tune “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” or, after Thomas sang a Greek song that included animals, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” with each nationality providing its own linguistic equivalent for the “critters” called off. Another popular tune at the Koumiotis was the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

Here are photos of: the entire Kumiotis family with Betty (Mama, Tony, Papa, Thomas); Tony holding the sign I painted for the restaurant (not all that pleased, because “First born” brother, Thomas, insisted I put his own name alone on the bottom):

Greece Kumiotis Family

Greece My Sign for Kumiotis

Even better than these sessions at the restaurant were nights at the Agrelia, a tavern run by a man named Nikko, located in a whitewashed former Venetian stable with vaulted walls (the troughs lodged in the walls now held candles), the place buried amidst the narrow, winding Venetian streets. The Agrelia featured the owner on bouzoukia and an excellent guitarist named Paskalis, assisted by another guitarist named Dotheros. I began to take my guitar there, and on one occasion, that trio playing a Cretan tune with heavy Middle-Eastern overtones, I was told, “You can’t hear our rhythms,” but later, when they tried to play jazz, I got revenge—just short of saying, “You can’t hear our rhythms.” And we all got along beautifully from that point on.

I never heard Nikko speak a word of English, until, much later, on a day in March, the winter chill not having abated but he walking with a Danish girl who’d returned to Crete, I said, “Kanee kreeo” (“It’s cold out.”). Nikko replied, in perfect English, “No longer; I am quite warm now.” Up to that point, the talk and the music had been strictly Greek, which was good enough for me. Especially with regard to the music, although Paskalis refused to write down any lyrics of the songs he’d sung.

Here are: Nikko (bazoukia-player and owner of Agrelia) with Betty; Paskalis; and  Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night. The harbor wall behind him is the one that bore the words “Exos Americanos” (“Americans: Leave!”) when we arrived:

Greece Taverna owner and Betty in Crete            Greece Ponos Guitarist in Crete             Greece Plate Smasher in Crete

“You know that song you sang about ponos (pain) last night?” I would ask; “Would you write down the words for me, parakalo (please)?”

All of our songs are about pain,” he replied, a bit short. “And I’ve heard you speak Greek, good, so all you should need to do is listen. ”

None of the Greeks ever used “charts,” or written words and music, no matter what they played (I had “cheat sheets,” lyrics with the chords, for Leonard Cohen songs, which they seemed to love, Cohen having once lived in Greece). They felt, working strictly from oral tradition as they were, that I should be able to do the same. I began to excuse myself from the taverna, as soon as I heard a song I liked–such as “To Pallikari echei kai ‘mo,” a Theodorakis setting for a poem by Manou Eleutheriou, translated as “the Young Man Is Sad,” but the context of which is really “tonight, the brave young bachelor shall find more grief, because of women”–“kai’mo” being one of those wondrous Greek words which implies a grief so terrible, so unbearable, so full of unamendable sadness, it cannot even be named. I would walk up and down the beach until I had both words and tune down by heart, at which time I would return, proudly, to the taverna. The process required lots of (mental, and emotional) effort on my part, but I filled two notebooks with songs I’d learned by the time we left Greece.

After he had collected names and addresses from foreign tourists his age whom he met at the Koumiotis restaurant, our son Steve left Crete to travel to thirteen different countries on his own (from Egypt to Sweden), and I became a regular at Nikko’s (Betty’s journal began to include entries such as, “Bill took guitar to taverna again last night, and retuned at 3:30 am”). There was music at all hours, night and day. When Betty went to the greengrocer just below our house for eggs, the owner played the lira for her. At the time of Epiphania (Epiphany), children came to the house to sing “Kalanda.” One of these kids, who sported the remarkable name Robogianomis Phragmismos, repeated the words of a song to me in Greek so I might copy them down to translate:

” … I am given/ the pearl, the key/ to open Paradise, to drink cool water,/ to pass into sleep/ beneath an apple tree–/ apples falling at my feet,/ roses upon my head.”

Mama Koumiotis, who had worn black from head to toe following the death of her father, years ago, never left the kitchen of the restaurant (except to shop, I suppose), but she would–from within her “station” there–sing mantinades (popular Cretan couplets, even inscribed on calendars), and I would frantically jot down the words, for she, too, thought I should just listen, and she wouldn’t repeat them:

“Departed, far away,/ the rose that I love,/ yet the fragrance is strong/and still burns me.” Or: “To Psiloritis peak/ the birds cannot go,/ but my love flies there/ and returns, freely.” To which Papa Koumiotis would respond: “Four crosses hang/ upon the neck of the priest;/ the faithful kiss them, but I would rather kiss your cheek.”

Itinerant musicians–bouzoukia, lira players–would arrive in Rethymnon, and word got around quickly (grigora) that they’d be playing at one of the taverns or restaurants. After one of these spontaneous performances at a place called Yannis, I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with Thomas and Tony (a very popular program with the pallikaris: “brave young bachelors”), the sentence “You’all can go ta hell in a breadbasket!” translated as “Fige parakalo” (“Please leave”) in the subtitles. While Steve had been in Crete, he and I heard vocalist Viky Moskoliou live at a local theater on which a billboard for an American film, Super Vixens, was translated into Greek as Girls Who Are Dynamite in Bed.

I had once, in my teens, worked as a real estate sign painter, so the Koumiotis asked me to paint a new sign for their restaurant, which I did. It attracted so much attention that fishermen, who were repairing and repainting their boats for spring launching, asked me to re-paint the names on the sides of their boats. I received so many requests that we decided it was time to leave Rethymnon (on sabbatical, the last thing I wanted to do there was work!), and we did, heading north to Paros, in the Cyclades Islands. We would miss the music–and other small stuff, like a guy named Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night: a privilege he took full advantage of. I also had the privilege of meeting a legendary local poet, Andreas Spanouthakis, who recited his poems for university students while he prepared souvlakia (shish-kabob) for them at the grill of the stand he owned.

He also recited–or sang!–his poems for me, and played tapes of rizitika (folk songs from the eastern mountains of Crete). Here he is—and while I’m at it, I might as well toss in a photo of a man playing a goatskin bagpipe (τσαμπούνα: tsambouna). Lots of interesting music in Crete!

Greece Souvlaki Singing Poet            Greece Man playing goatskin bagpipe

The presence of the university (the young people I met spoke pretty good English) had preventing me from using and adding to my mostly (aside from reading) “functional” Greek in Crete as often as I’d wished, so on Paros we deliberately found a place to live about two miles from the town of Pariokia, in a valley, and I had to use the language on a daily basis because our landlord, Tasos, and landlady, Helena, did not speak any English. The taverns in town had all gone strictly “disco,” so there was little cause to go to town at night anyway (no more Agrelia, and Nikko and Paskalis!)–so I settled into a pleasant routine of sitting on our comfortable small porch, which faced a field of barley and other fields being cultivated by our landlord, plus the Aegean Sea, and played and sang the songs I’d learned on Crete.

Here is the house we found on Paros (in the Valley of the “Petaloudes”: Butterflies), as seen from the fields of barley in front of it (with a small chapel just across the path that led to the house); Betty on our front porch—my guitar (a tenor guitar: four strings, tuned like a mandolin) to her left; me with our landlady Helena (right) and her daughter and her child; and our son Steve (who returned eventually from his travels and joined us on Paros), our landlords (Tasos and Helena), a neighbor and her mother.

Greece Our house on Paros

Greece Betty our porch on Paros with guitar     Greece Me with landlady and her daughter on Paros

Greece Steve and Betty with family on Paros

Archilochus:

Paros–and it was not by accident that we had chosen to go there–was the birthplace of my favorite Greek poet of antiquity: Archilochus, born in the first half of the 7th century BCE: inventor of the iambus and a professional soldier. A mercenary with a mind of his own, he was driven out of Sparta because he wrote a poem about abandoning his shield, “beside a bush,” in favor of saving his own life; a poem mocking, in Guy Davenport’s words, “uncritical bravery” (the shield would bring “joy to some Saian,” a soldier from Thrace), and Archilochus felt he could find another just as good elsewhere. The poet was a satirist with a “nettle tongue” so effective that, when a man named Lycambes retracted his daughter’s hand after having promised it to the poet in marriage, the latter’s abusive verses were said to have driven Lycambes to suicide. The influence of Archilochus was so persuasive that both poets Sappho and Alcaeus were said to base their “measures” on his. Plutarch credited Archilochus with the invention of trimester: unique combinations of “unlike measures.” He was also the first poet to employ stanzas of long and short lines, or “epodes,” recitative or rhythmical recitation of poetry to music (and the style of music to which recitative was set); and he has been credited with reciting iambic lines to music and singing the others, a technique afterwards employed by the tragic poets (and opera: recitative!). Archilochus was thought to be the first poet to set the music of an accompanying instrument an octave higher than the voices, instead of in the same register as had been the custom of his day.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian thought Archilochus had acquired “the highest degree of facility” as a poet, possessing the “greatest force of expression,” with phrasing “not only telling but terse and vigorous,” the “abundance of blood and muscle.” Contemporary scholar/poet Guy Davenport names him “the second poet of the West. Before him the arch-poet Homer had written the two poems of Europe,” but Archilochus, both poet and mercenary, was the first poet flexible enough to combine a host of original ingredients that range from satire (his tomb was said to read “Hasten on, Wayfarer, lest you stir up the hornets”) to pure lyricism (The Greek poet Meleager called him “a thistle with graceful leaves”—like 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who described himself as “a cloud in trousers”?).  And Archilochus could be bawdy! A long poem said to be by him (not just a fragment as too many available are) turned up in 1974. Raucous, comic, British poet Peter Green called it “The Last Tango in Paros.” The tone is that of Francois Villon (another favorite poet of mine!) and the concluding lines, as translated by Davenport, read: “I caressed the beauty of all her body/And came in a sudden white spurt/While I was stroking her hair.” On a more delicate note, he defined “music” as “My song/And a flute/Together.” Another fragment states: “Myself the choir-master/ On the chant to Apollo/ Sung to the flute in Lesbos.” Here are two sculpted homages to Archilochus: (Photo credits: aboutparos.gr)

archilochus statue 2    Archilochus statue

Unfortunately, there are no extant phonograph recordings (ho ho) of Archilochus set to  or accompanied by music, but one of my favorite poems of his is so inherently musical that it’s difficult for me to recite it without singing it (I can hear the music!).

Echousa thallon mursines eterpeto/ rodes te kalon anthos, e de oi kome/ omous katestiadze kai metaphrena.

Here’s my own translation (not half as musical, I know!): “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back.”

Archilochus is said to have been killed by a man named “Crow,” who claimed it was “a fair fight” but was banished from temples for having slain a man “sacred to the muses.” Indeed, when the poet’s father inquired about his son’s birth, Apollo himself foretold that he would beget a son who should be immortal. And Archilochus is, through his poetry. I just wish I’d been there to have heard it sung! I did manage to get as close to him, the poet ranked “second only to Homer,” as I could. Betty and I hiked to the cave, located behind Cape Aghios Fokas on a sheer rock cliff, where he was supposed to have sought inspiration. I’m not sure how he ever got down there, unless he invented rappelling by rope as well as the iamb, although the terrain may have changed (considerably) since the seventh century BCE.

Here’s the view from inside the cave where Archilochus wrote his poems–and here I am (that’s not another sculpted homage to Archilochus, ho ho) at the cove (across from a beach in Paros) where Betty and I went each day–and where I wrote my own poems and translated both Classical and Modern Greek poetry: (Photo credit: paros.gr)

Archilochus cave

Greece Bill at our cove in Paros

An interesting article by poet/composer Alan Shaw, “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997), is set up as a sort of debate, the author responding both “pro” and “con” to questions related to specific issues, such as, “Was ancient Greek a musical language?” Shaw states, right off the bat, that arguments for the “intrinsic musicality of a language are apt to be rather circular” (he provides the example that people may talk of Italian as being musical simply because a number of operas have been written in it–and vice versa!). The prevalence of “open vowels” is cited in favor of Italian as a musical language, but Shaw points out that one could “just as well say that English is more musical than Italian because it has a much greater variety of vowel sounds.”

In favor of the musicality of ancient Greek, he provides evidence of the “intimate relation–indeed the theoretical identity–between Greek music and poetry,” and the fact that the two most basic elements of music–“the duration of sounds and their pitch”–form two “clear and distinct systems” in Greek (whereas they tend to get “confused” in English). In Greek, poetic meter was based on “the relative duration of syllables, which permitted a fairly direct translation into musical terms.” Word accent was based solely on pitch, and “hence has often been called a ‘musical’ accent.”

Here’s a copy of the “original” of a poem by Archilochus–alongside a woodcut print I made of another poem previously cited as I translated it: “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back”:

Text of a poem by Archilochusarchilochus myrtle shoot

On the “con” side, Alan Shaw finds the notion that “ordinary spoken Greek was naturally closer to music than other languages” misleading (doing actual damage to understanding ancient poetry and its relation to music). “It may be true that certain qualities of the language made it easier for the Greek poet-musician to set words to music,” but the fact that something is done easily “does not necessarily guarantee a superior artistic result.” He refers to English, saying the language falls easily into verse measures of four beats, “which is the ‘common time’ of most Western music,” but this has rarely been used as an argument for the inherent musicality of English, and can actually serve as a “hindrance” as much as an aid for some composers (the four beat pattern is too obvious and has to be evaded–or “transcended”–somehow, I suppose).

Shaw asks if the melodies of ancient Greek music actually followed the accent of a text, and once again, he finds the evidence “confusing,” and the answer is at first “no,” then “yes.” The few available fragments (and there are just a few) from the classical era would suggest that “they did not necessarily do so” (most lyrics were in “strophic form, and a melody designed for one strophe would rarely fit the accentuation of the other”), yet Shaw cites jazz singing as an example of a form, or nomos (a “tune-making formula or family of tunes”) that allows “great freedom in this regard, mostly for purely musical reasons, but often to better express the words of different verses as well.” If there were no requirements at all that different strophes have the same melody, it “may be that the metrical identity–the identical pattern of long and short–between strophes was enough for the Greek ear to recognize them as the same” (“a particularly subtle form of strophic song, of which modem examples could be found as well”).

Here are some samples of Ancient Greek musicians playing instruments that might have accompanied such poetry: (Photo credit: iconicmusicacademy.com; Wikepedia; danaspah.top)

Ancient Greek double flute and lyre

Delphi: Apoll     Ancient Greek double flute

Ancient Greek Music

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that the similar accent may sometimes have been indicated by a downward rather than an upward “jump in pitch,” and if this happened in ordinary speech, it would make a “correct” observance of accents much easier in singing, especially if “different verses were really required to follow the same melody.” Shaw states that pitch in a musical context is quite different from pitch in ordinary speech (“strange things, akin to optical illusions in painting, can happen”) and that, as song composers know, “the same sequence of pitches can accentuate a syllable in one context, and leave it unaccented in another.”

Did ancient Greek poetry have a beat? “Beat” is quite different in English poetry (the word used as a synonym for “stress” or “accent”) than it is in Greek. “Stress” has no part in classical Greek prosody. The ancient term for “beat” is ictus, which “the testimony of the ancients said clearly existed, at least in poetry associated with the dance,” but its nature was controversial. Again, Shaw finds the issue “relative.” In one sense all music, or at least any music that involves more than one performer, has a “beat” (“otherwise the players or singers couldn’t stay in time”), but we do distinguish music that has a definite beat (such as rock n’ roll) and that which does not (such as Gregorian Chant). “The ethereal rhythms of chant have attracted many as a model for what Greek choral music must have been like.” Like Greek music, chant was monodic, and “drew its rhythms directly from the text”–yet chant was “not danced to, as Greek choral music was.”

Shaw considers other aspects of Greek poetry and music: such as tempo (What happens when you slow it down? Poems recited at a “plodding taste”–T.S. Eliot reading “Prufrock” anyone?–lose the “beat”); duple and triple meter (“Greek verse, scanning by the rule that one long syllable equals two short ones, is often neither clearly in one nor the other”); and Greek musical notation, which consisted “only of marks to indicate pitch; time values, being given by the verse itself, were not needed.” Shaw uses the jazz analogy again: music that “swings” in the sense that “adjacent notes notated with identical time values are made unequal” (my old friend “rubato” again!).

Here’s a range or “collection” of Ancient Greek instruments (Credit: Nikolaos Ioannidis):

Greek musical instruments

In conclusion, Shaw says Greek poetry, when sung, “probably did have a beat,and when it was danced as well,” in which case, “The beat could have been fairly kinetic.” Greek dance figures were identified with certain rhythms, and many steps were performed in time with the music–just as they are today. Shaw does mention another old friend, Archilochus, saying this unique, inventive poet grew weary of the “melodic mythologizing” of his colleagues and wanted “something more down to earth,” for which he devised a meter that, “apart from being regular, had little in it that was suggestive of song,” but was more akin to the dialogue in plays, which was written in iambic trimester–a type of verse “closest to ordinary speech.”

Archilochus preferred “quick iambs, for which slower spondees are unpredictably substituted,” providing a more subtle beat that would find “a successful equivalent in English” as one of the models for the blank verse of Elizabethan dramatists. Archilochus (as he was for so much else) a forerunner of both Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams? It’s quite possible; he was that flexible. I think the good doctor, if not Shakespeare, would be pleased.

One final point within our context of poetry set to music is important: describing the “amateur” or “professional” status of Greek music, Shaw claims that the Greeks made a distinction between musicians exclusively devoted to “the art of sound” (instrumentalists) and “the poet-composer who put noble words to music,” and that in their culture, “the latter had far greater prestige.” “Mere pipers and such might be virtuosos [professionals] but knew nothing of rational music, which always began with words.” Were these poet/composors the sole creators, and the rest [performers] mere interpreters, as in the recent classical tradition? Were the poets simply songwriters, like those of the thirties in America, surrounded by a crowd of creative performers who knew how to flesh out their tunes? Shaw adds, “Certainly by the classical era the poet’s words … were sacrosanct; no one would have thought of changing those. But were the poet’s tunes treated with the same reverence?” His answer is: “The invention of musical notation at about this time would seem to argue that they were, while its relative crudity, and the rarity with which it has been preserved, might lead us to think that the reverence was no greater than, say, a jazzman’s reverence for a Cole Porter tune.” Which, I might add, can by considerable on occasion: witness the highly imaginative pianist Bill Charlap’s respect for, “reverence” of, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein tunes–and the American Songbook tradition in general.

This seems a good spot to close out on this, the first, of a two “post” look at Greek music and Poetry (both Ancient and Modern). I’ll end with another pilgrimage we made while living in Crete: to Heracleion (capitol and largest city in Crete) to see the grave site of Nikos Kazanzakis (author of Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Report to Greco, and many other fine works). The text on a stone placed next to the wooden cross on his grave reads: “I hope for nothing; I fear nothing; I am free.”

Grave of Kazantzakis2   kazantzakis grave inscription 3

Next Post: Part Two of “Greek Music and Poetry: Ancient and Modern.”