Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

03 JUNE, 2014

Allen Ginsberg Sings William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”

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“Come live, and be merry, and join with me, / To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha ha he!’”

In December of 1969, Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926–April 5, 1997), one of the most beloved and influential poets of the twentieth century, recorded a strange and wonderful LP, setting William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience to song. Accompanied by an eclectic orchestra — Cyril Caster on trumpet, Janet Zeitz on flute, Bob Dorough on piano, Don Cherry on bass trombone, beaded gourd, sleigh bells and finger cymbals — Ginsberg gives Blake’s binary battery of innocence and experience a whole new dimension of enchanting duality.

Blake’s poetry was a particularly poignant choice for Ginsberg at a time when his own spiritual journey had taken him into the depths of Buddhism — at once a curious contrast with Blake’s heavy Christian influence and a sensical parallel to the ambivalence about the human soul, coupled with social and religious ambivalence, at the heart of Blake’s message.

Thanks to the remarkable PennSound archive at my alma mater — which also gave us Adrienne Rich on creative process, love, loss, and happiness, Gertrude Stein’s reading of “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” Yeats on modern poetry, and Charles Olson’s reading of “Maximus, to Himself” — these rare recordings endure in digital form. Here are three of them for our shared delight.

THE GARDEN OF LOVE

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

LAUGHING SONG

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;

When the meadows laugh with lively green,
And the grasshopper laughs in the merry scene;
When Mary and Susan and Emily
With their sweet round mouths sing ‘Ha ha he!’

When the painted birds laugh in the shade,
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread:
Come live, and be merry, and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha ha he!’

NIGHT

The sun descending in the West,
The evening star does shine;
The birds are silent in their nest,
And I must seek for mine.
The moon, like a flower
In heaven’s high bower,
With silent delight,
Sits and smiles on the night.

Farewell, green fields and happy groves,
Where flocks have took delight,
Where lambs have nibbled, silent moves
The feet of angels bright;
Unseen, they pour blessing,
And joy without ceasing,
On each bud and blossom,
And each sleeping bosom.

They look in every thoughtless nest
Where birds are covered warm;
They visit caves of every beast,
To keep them all from harm:
If they see any weeping
That should have been sleeping,
They pour sleep on their head,
And sit down by their bed.

When wolves and tigers howl for prey,
They pitying stand and weep;
Seeking to drive their thirst away,
And keep them from the sheep.
But, if they rush dreadful,
The angels, most heedful,
Receive each mild spirit,
New worlds to inherit.

And there the lion’s ruddy eyes
Shall flow with tears of gold:
And pitying the tender cries,
And walking round the fold:
Saying: ‘Wrath by His meekness,
And, by His health, sickness,
Is driven away
From our immortal day.

‘And now beside thee, bleating lamb,
I can lie down and sleep,
Or think on Him who bore thy name,
Graze after thee, and weep.
For, washed in life’s river,
My bright mane for ever
Shall shine like the gold,
As I guard o’er the fold.’

Complement the LP, copies of which are findable online and well worth the hunt, with Ginsberg’s passionate love letters to Peter Orlovsky, then revisit more musical arrangements based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, and e.e. cummings.

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27 MAY, 2014

A Lesson in Listening from John Cage

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A simple and beautiful reminder that we only hear what we listen to.

“Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around,” the legendary avant-garde composer, artist, and Zen Buddhist scholar John Cage once remarked. But even though life began with a Big Bang that was actually silent, our civilization has evolved away from silence, rendering true listening an art reserved for the eccentric few. Still: “How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her diary. Or listen.

In “At the Microphone,” one of the shortest and most wonderful essays in the altogether fantastic collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — which also gave us the celebrated author on what to say when people ask you why you write or make art — Tillman describes a 1975 conference called “Schizo-Culture” held at Columbia University for an audience of 300 or so grad students, where a roster of “magnetic and illustrious” speakers discussed such subjects as the structure of the unconscious. Among them was John Cage — perhaps humanity’s greatest champion of the beauty and transcendence of silence as medium of art and life. Tillman captures the essence of his character and credo in a short fable-like anecdote with exquisite, subject-appropriate economy of words:

All day, men — no women — took the microphone and spoke. There was always a buzz in the audience, whispers, an audible hum of excitement. Then it was time for John Cage. He walked onto the stage and began to speak, without the microphone. He stood at the center of the small stage and addressed the crowd. He talked, without amplification, and soon people in the audience shouted, “We can’t hear you, use the mic. We can’t hear you.” John Cage said, “You can, if you listen.” Everyone settled down, there was no more buzz, hum or rustling, there was silence, and John Cage spoke again, without the microphone, and everyone listened and heard perfectly.

In 1962, in Japan for the first time, Cage visits his Zen Buddhist master, D.T. Suzuki, who had shown him the heart of silence.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, which goes on to explore everything from Kafka to Gertrude Stein to the poetics of downtown, is a dimensional and pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement this particular meditation with Kay Larsen’s breathtaking Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

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21 MAY, 2014

Bob Dylan on Sacrifice, the Unconscious Mind, and How to Cultivate the Perfect Environment for Creative Work

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“People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

Van Morrison once characterized Bob Dylan (b. May 24, 1941) as the greatest living poet. And since poetry, per Muriel Rukeyser’s beautiful definition, is an art that relies on the “moving relation between individual consciousness and the world,” to glimpse Dylan’s poetic prowess is to grasp at once his singular consciousness and our broader experience of the world. That’s precisely what shines through in Paul Zollo’s 1991 interview with Dylan, found in Songwriters On Songwriting (public library) — that excellent and extensive treasure trove that gave us Pete Seeger on originality and also features conversations with such celebrated musicians as Suzanne Vega, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, Carole King, and Neil Young, whose insights on songwriting extend to the broader realm of creative work in a multitude of disciplines.

Zollo captures Dylan’s singular creative footprint:

Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain,” yet there are few artists in this evolutionary arc whose influence is as profound as that of Bob Dylan. It’s hard to imagine the art of songwriting as we know it without him.

[…]

There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that has sustained his songs throughout the years.

One essential aspect of Dylan’s creative process that comes up again and again in the interview is the notion of the unconscious and the optimal environment for its free reign. Dylan tells Zollo:

It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…

Like many creators, Dylan values that unconscious aspect of creativity far more than rational deliberation, speaking to the idea that the muse cannot be willed, only welcomed — a testament to the role of unconscious processing in the psychological stages of creative work. He tells Zollo:

The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it.

In order to do that, he adds, one must “stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” Contrary to Bukowski’s punchy assertion that the ideal environment for creativity is an irrelevant delusion and E.B. White’s admonition that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper,” Dylan believes this optimal frame of mind can be induced — or, at least, greatly aided — by the right conditions:

For me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It’s a contemplative, reflective thing…

Environment is very important. People need peaceful, invigorating environments. Stimulating environments.

To foster such unconscious receptivity, Dylan argues that “you have to be able to get the thoughts out of your mind” and explains:

First of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of them thoughts.

Then you can do something from some kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see it but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take. As so many situations in life are today. Take, take, take, that’s all that it is. What’s in it for me? That syndrome which started in the Me Decade, whenever that was. We’re still in that. It’s still happening.

Dylan makes a seemingly controversial statement that resonates with new layers of poignancy in our present age of seemingly infinite cloud libraries of streamable music and a constant, industrialized churning out of disposable pop hits:

The world don’t need any more songs… As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred songs, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs.

Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story.

But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it… Everybody writes a song just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them.

In fact, Dylan seems to regard “popular entertainers” — despite counting himself among them — with a certain degree of contempt and mistrust:

It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.

Dylan considers what it takes to be among the few rare exceptions worthy of true creative respect:

Madonna’s good, she’s talented, she puts all kinds of stuff together, she’s learned her thing… But it’s the kind of thing which takes years and years out of your life to be able to do. You’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot to do that. Sacrifice. If you want to make it big, you’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot.

When Zollo asks Dylan whether he sees himself the way Van Morrison famously characterized him, Dylan replies:

[Pause] Sometimes. It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication.

[Pause] Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau, or whatever. Poets don’t… poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and … and usually they know why they’re poets! [Laughs]

[…]

Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code.

[Pause] And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings…

When the conversation veers into the question of whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare and people’s skepticism about accepting that a single person was able to produce such a body of work, Dylan makes a remark that extends to a great many more aspects of society:

People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.

He seems especially dismissive of public opinion and even more so, similarly to David Bowie, of artists’ preoccupation with it:

It’s not to anybody’s best interest to think about how they will be perceived tomorrow. It hurts you in the long run.

As the conversation progresses, Zollo returns to songwriting, citing Pete Seeger’s assertion that originality is a myth and all songwriters are “links in a chain,” to which Dylan responds:

The evolution of a song is like a snake, with its tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.

Considering his own songs, Dylan contemplates their nature, the self-transcendence necessary for writing, and the creative value of being an outcast:

My songs aren’t dreams. They’re more of a responsive nature…

To me, when you need them, they appear. Your life doesn’t have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That’s why a lot of people, me myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who’s never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.

Songwriters On Songwriting is a magnificent read in its hefty totality. Complement it with similar meditations on process and creativity from the world of writing, including thoughts by Anne Lamott, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Susan Orlean, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Michael Lewis.

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13 MAY, 2014

Pete Seeger on Combinatorial Creativity, Originality, Equality, and the Art of Dot-Connecting

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“All of us, we’re links in a chain.”

In 1987, shortly after being appointed editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, Paul Zollo began interviewing some of the greatest songwriters alive — Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Madonna, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, and dozens more — “always with the assurance that my focus is strictly on songwriting and the creative process, as opposed to the celebrity-oriented queries often directed to them by the press.” These remarkably candid and wide-ranging conversations, collected in the impressive tome Songwriters On Songwriting (public library), transcend the realm of songwriting to unmask the essential elements of ideation in just about every creative discipline, from writing to illustration to design. Indeed, Zollo’s most striking realization from the series was that despite writing songs that are “infinite and eternal — everywhere at once, untouched by time,” these songwriters themselves are deeply human, “as finite and earthbound as the rest of us.” Zollo, a songwriter himself, reflects:

[This] underscores the knowledge that all songwriters are in the same boat, and that even the most enduring and magical of their songs began where all songs begin — with a single spark of inspiration that is balanced with the mastery of craft that comes from years of work.

Pete Seeger (photograph by Annie Leibovitz)

Among the most spectacular conversations in the volume, conducted in 1988, is that with beloved folk musician and activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014), one of the most prolific songwriters of the past century. In reflecting on his ample creative output, Seeger echoes Henry Miller on originality and speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that everything is a remix:

Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little.

[…]

It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.

He later adds a remark that applies just as much to creators of all stripes — artists, writers, inventors — as it does to songwriters:

I look upon myself and other songwriters as links in a long chain. All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.

Pointing to the legacy and spirit of jazz as a perfectly illustrative example, where “the melody which you sing the first time is just considered as the bare bones” and improvisation builds upon it, Seeger echoes Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “words belong to each other” and adds:

Even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it. After all, the major scale and the minor scale were invented thousands of years ago… And the English language was invented a long time ago, and the phrases that we use. And we’re just rearranging these ancient elements.

Seeger later revisits how this layering of ideas and language fuels the creative process and the circumventive quest for Truth:

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

My father also had a nice little simile. He said, “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.'”

In discussing how his Vietnam War song “Our Generation” was born, Seeger once again acknowledges the combinatorial nature of creativity — that slot-machine quality of ideation that Paula Scher so memorably described, which David Lynch has also echoed. Seeger tells Zollo:

I [came] across the phrase in some little radical magazine: “Our generation wears sandals like the Vietnamese.” And I took that line and built a song out of it.

That quite often happens to me. I’ll read one phrase somewhere. A middle-aged woman in Ohio wrote a poem that said, “The month of April, when we pay for the burning of the children.” Talking about the income tax, of course. That’s where we pay for the burning of the children. So I built a whole song around that, called “The Calendar.”

To further illustrate this unconscious connection-making, Seeger recounts reading a short passage in a chapter of a famous novel about Czarist Russia, which gave him the basic idea for a song. He diligently copied the passage in his pocket notebook but, true to the pivotal role of unconscious idea-incubation in the creative process, it was another two or three years until he revisited it — unconsciously:

I’m sitting in a plane, kind of dozing. And you know, when you’re dozing, that’s when the creative ideas come.

Suddenly, the passage from the novel came to mind, as did a line he had written five years earlier but never used in a song. His unconscious mind brought the two together — for isn’t that capacity the definition of the creative mind? — and his beloved song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was born.

Later, in discussing his famous anthem “Rainbow Race,” a song that had come to him at six in the morning, Seeger echoes Stephen King’s belief in wakeful dreaming and the power of “creative sleep,” considering the conditions most conducive to such unconscious dot-connecting:

I don’t know how other people are, but a number of my ideas come early in the morning or late at night. When the brain is somehow released from the pressures of the day.

He goes on to elaborate:

In solving a problem, you often have to make connections between two things that aren’t usually connected. You know, E.M. Forster, the novelist, was asked, “What are your words of wisdom for future generations?” He said, “Only connect.”

[…]

Your brain often suppresses such idle connections because you’re busy with the business of the day. You’re doing whatever you’re supposed to do. But there come times when you’re no longer doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re just kind of rambling, making strange connections.

(A photographer whose work I admire tremendously, for its ability to connect place and presence with unparalleled emotional resonance, recently used the phrase “mumble with my eyes” to describe her work — a phrase that inadvertently captures what Seeger is describing with wonderfully poetic elegance.)

In considering the relationship between creative integrity and commercial success — a question increasingly timely in our age of vacant made-to-sell pop hits — Seeger contradicts Picasso and speaks unambiguously of commercial culture:

Bless my stars that I met people who had nothing but contempt for the commercial world… I write a song because I want to. I think the moment you start writing it to make money, you’re starting to kill yourself artistically.

When asked about his relationship with the Bible, Seeger — a longtime proponent of gender equality — offers a wonderfully wise lament on the role of organized religion in the history of gender relations:

I don’t read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I’m amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically.

It’s quite obvious that once upon a time the human race shared everything equally; it was like living in a garden. And then we got smart and invented farming. And all of a sudden we had class society and injustice and male supremacy and a whole lot of other cruddy things.

But the priests wanted to keep women in their place. So they invented the story about Eve and the apple. You can see that was invented by a bunch of male supremacists: “These women are misleading you. They are evil. They misled you before; don’t let them do it again.” Women threatened the power of the priest. They undermined the priests’ power with their husbands: “Oh, don’t listen to that priest. Listen to me, honey.”

But cultural conflict, for Seeger, has its silver lining. In talking about his song “Last Train to Nuremberg,” he echoes Anaïs Nin on the role of emotional turbulence and tells Zollo:

Crisis brings out some of the best art the world has ever known. Whether it’s somebody being in love or a country at war or revolution.

Songwriters On Songwriting is absolutely fantastic in its hefty 750-page entirety, featuring fifty-one more equally dimensional and insightful conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with writers on writing.

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