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Posts Tagged ‘music’

23 JUNE, 2015

Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Importance of Believing in Each Other and How Art Fortifies Our Mutual Dignity

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“We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man… We must believe, without fear, in people.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their prescient 1970 conversation on race, “because we are still each other’s only hope.” It is in such troubled times as ours — times of shootings, beatings, and the only kind of violence there is: the senseless kind — that we most need to heed Baldwin, to be reminded of who we can be to each other, of the tender and tenacious common humanity that undergirds all surface otherness.

Count on legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the past century, a man of immense insight into the creative impulse, deep capacity for gratitude, and complex emotional life — to do the reminding.

A decade before the assassination of JFK prompted Bernstein to write his unforgettable speech on the only true antidote to violence, he penned a beautiful and elevating short essay for NPR’s This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the same altogether magnificent compendium that gave us Thomas Mann on time and features other ennobling reflections from beloved luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

Bernstein writes:

I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for the truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one human being who meets with injustice can render invalid the entire system which has dispensed it.

A century after Thoreau wrote that there is “no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor,” Bernstein kisses awake our capacity for self-transcendence, from which our capacity to change the world springs:

I believe that man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. I believe in man’s right to be wrong. Out of this right he has built, laboriously and lovingly, something we reverently call democracy. He has done it the hard way and continues to do it the hard way — by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C. Man cannot have dignity without loving the dignity of his fellow.

I believe in the potential of people. I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of “human nature.” Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead. If we believe that man can never achieve a society without wars, then we are condemned to wars forever. This is the easy way. But the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neruda’s exquisite metaphor for why we make art, Bernstein considers the power of art as a medium of love that confers dignity upon existence — our own and each other’s:

I believe in man’s unconscious mind, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love. For me, all art is a combination of these powers; for if love is the way we have of communicating personally in the deepest way, then what art can do is to extend this communication, magnify it, and carry it to vastly greater numbers of people. Therefore art is valid for the warmth and love it carries within it, even if it be the lightest entertainment, or the bitterest satire, or the most shattering tragedy.

Exhorting us to believe “in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity,” Bernstein echoes John Steinbeck’s memorable assertion that “the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world” and adds:

We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.

Complement the wholly wonderful This I Believe with Bernstein on motivation, his beautiful letter of gratitude to his mentor, and his electrifying tribute to JFK, then revisit Viktor Frankl on why it pays to believe in each other.

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22 JUNE, 2015

Welcome, Stranger, To This Place: William Blake Set to Song

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“We reap not, what we do not sow…”

For centuries, the poetry of William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) has inspired creative interpretations and homages across a multitude of media — from Maurice Sendak’s forgotten formative illustrations to JoHee Yoon’s beastly verses to the Provensens’ wondrous vintage children’s book. Half a century after Allen Ginsburg’s musical adaptation of Blake, British independent music project The Wraiths offers a contemporary counterpart in Welcome, Stranger, To This Place (iTunes), setting twelve of Blake’s most beloved poems to song.

The first track, after which the album itself is titled, in turn borrows its title from the first line of Blake’s “Song First by a Shepherd,” found in his Collected Poems:

Welcome stranger to this place,
Where joy doth sit on every bough,
Paleness flies from every face,
We reap not, what we do not sow.

Innocence doth like a Rose,
Bloom on every Maidens cheek;
Honor twines around her brows,
The jewel Health adorns her neck.

Welcome, Stranger, To This Place is quietly magical in its totality. Complement it with E.E. Cummings set to song by Tin Hat, 13 songs based on W.B. Yeats by jazz vocalist and composer Christine Tobin, and Natalie Merchant’s musical adaptations of Victorian nursery rhymes.

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12 JUNE, 2015

Elizabeth Gilbert on Inspiration, What Tom Waits Taught Her About Creativity, and the Most Dangerous Myth for Artists to Believe

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“It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all [the muse] wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”

Few writers enchant the modern imagination with such soulful, pleasurable prose and sheer generosity of spirit as Elizabeth Gilbert. The famous Ole! with which she ends her magnificent TED talk, one of the most viewed talks of all time, has become a clarion call for the creative spirit by which we stubbornly summon the ever-elusive muse, and it reverberates throughout her most recent book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — an investigation of the somewhat miraculous, somewhat methodical workings of inspiration.

Since all creative work is the product of extensive incubation, as T.S. Eliot believed, the inquiry into creativity itself is no exception: Long before the release of the book, Gilbert incubated many of these ideas in her long, layered, and thoroughly rewarding conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber. Here are some particularly delectable highlights.

On the machinery of inspiration and the artist’s immutable frustration at failing to will the muse, which F. Scott Fitzgerald articulated brilliantly a century earlier:

You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.

On profiling Tom Waits and what the encounter taught her about the relationship between inspiration and perspiration — something Leonard Cohen addresses beautifully in the now-legendary interview from which Holdengräber is quoting:

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I loved him so much and I loved so much what he said about the process of songwriting that can apply also to the process of making art, the process of writing a book.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What did he say?

EG: He said that every single song has an individual character. He believes in the magic and the muse and the true believin’ — he’s on our team. He said, “Every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently and there are songs that are like scared birds that you have to sneak up on over the course of months in the woods.”

PH: And he had an experience which is not unlike that poet where he’s caught in traffic precisely.

EG: He was caught in traffic. He had one song, and he talks about songs that you have to bully and songs that are like dreams through a straw, and then this one: He said that there are songs that don’t want to exist, and you have to let them go, and you have to let them not haunt you — which is another way to not become insane as an artist. And he was driving down the freeway one day…

PH: …in Los Angeles…

EG: …in Los Angeles, and he heard a little tiny trace of a beautiful melody, and he panicked because he didn’t have his waterproof paper, and he didn’t have his tape recorder, and he didn’t have a pen, he didn’t have a pencil — he had no way to get it.

PH: He only had his car in Los Angeles.

EG: And he thought, “How am I going to catch this song?” And he started to have all that old panic and anxiety that artists have about feeling like you’re going to miss something, and then he just slowed down and he looked up at the sky, and he looked up and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come back and see me in the studio. I spend six hours a day there, you know where to find me, at my piano. Otherwise, go bother somebody else. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

PH: And I love that, and I love that because … Leonard Cohen, when asked about inspiration, he said, “If I knew where inspiration came from, I would go there more often.”

EG: But you know, there’s a way to go there more often, and it’s to show up at your desk at six o’clock every morning.

PH: The Herzog line, “get back to work.”

EG: It’s the Sitzfleisch. How do you say it?

PH: I’ll tell you. Sitzfleisch.

EG: Sitzfleisch.

PH: Sitzfleisch means literally the meat you have on your tushie.

EG: Ass flesh, in less —

PH: …to keep yourself sitting.

EG: The ability to sit.

On Norman Mailer and the perils of buying into the Tortured Genius archetype — a criticism to which the stark contrast with Gilbert’s usual radiance of mind and deeply uncynical perspective only adds import:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There’s a line which you like to quote which happened here on this stage when I brought Günter Grass together with Norman Mailer when Mailer said that “every one of my books has killed me a little more.”

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Honestly, that’s how I feel about that… I’m sorry: Norman Mailer was a great man, he was a great — well, he wasn’t a great man, he was a great writer in certain regards — but it just bores me. I find myself very gently falling asleep when I hear somebody like that, who lived a long, robust life…

PH: …very robust…

EG: …wrote a pile of books that made him famous, that made every woman in the world want to sleep with him — and he did — say that his work was killing him. I just, I’m like, pff, just boo, you know? I’m sorry, rest in peace, Norman, but you know.

PH: You’re writing against that.

EG: I am so vividly against that and I also just think, are you kidding? First of all, who are you kidding? You know, he was the biggest narcissist in the world — it gave him a platform, it gave him attention, it gave him fame, it gave him notoriety, it gave him a way to run for mayor of New York, it gave him everything: It gave him life. And the ingratitude of it is what irritates me, because I feel like if you’re lucky enough — if you’re lucky enough ever in your life to be able to walk in a creative path — then at least be grateful. And it sounds like an indignant, spoiled rich child to me, and I hate it… I just hate it.

And you know why? I don’t hate it for him — because I don’t really care about Norman Mailer’s life — I hate it for the people who were in that audience that night, and who thought, “Oh, yes, true,” you know, or “I’m an aspiring writer, and therefore I must feel that, I should be feeling that way too,” and he’s teaching that and perpetuating it. And it’s a cancer.

Many of Mailer’s contemporaries pushed back — from Ray Bradbury, who tirelessly championed the sheer love of writing and often proclaimed that he never worked a day in his life, to Susan Sontag, who was a true celebrator of writing and of writers (and who, incidentally, once publicly eviscerated another of Mailer’s toxic attitudes).

Few writers in our own time provide more vitalizing an antidote to that cancer than Gilbert, a concentrated dose of which she delivers in Big Magic.

The event was part of the library’s LIVE from the NYPL series, which has also given us such stimulations as Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Malcolm Gladwell on criticism, tolerance, and the art of changing your mind and Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on aesthetic force. The audio recordings of the series belong to the finest podcasts for a fuller life. Join me in supporting The New York Public Library so they may continue making such gifts to the public possible.

Photographs by Jori Klein for NYPL

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08 MAY, 2015

A Lovely Illustrated Children’s Book Celebrating Trailblazing Jazz Pianist and Composer Mary Lou Williams

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How an extraordinary woman transformed bullying into beautiful music and came to lift the spirits of millions.

The history of jazz is strewn with Y chromosomes and credit-hogging egos, which makes pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910–May 28, 1981) all the more dazzling an outlier — a generous genius who, like Mozart, began playing the piano at the age of four. At a time when women sang and danced but rarely played an instrument, Williams became a virtuoso pianist who went on to write and arrange for legends like Duke Ellington and mentored a generation of emerging icons, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Ellington himself, who believed she was “like soul on soul,” aptly captured her spirit and legacy in noting that “her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless.”

In The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (public library), writers Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald tell Williams’s uplifting story of passion, perseverance, and prolific contribution to creative culture. What emerges is not only a wonderful addition to the loveliest picture-books celebrating creative luminaries, but also a bold antidote to the striking statistics that only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists and a mere 0.3 percent include characters of color.

The story, illustrated by the inimitable Giselle Potter — the talent behind Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, Toni Morrison’s dark allegory for freedom, and an original love letter to dreams — begins with a long train ride little Mary took with her mother and sister from their hometown of Atlanta to Pittsburg, known as “The Smoky City” for its fuming steel mills, where they were to live with her aunt and uncle.

Chug-ga
Chug-ga
Clappety
Clap
Clap

The night she left Georgia, Mary couldn’t see anything but lights out the train window … but she could hear! She listened to the train and clapped out its sound on her knees.

She sang the sound of its whistle.
“Chug-ga, chug-ga, chug-ga … Toot! Toot!”

The train went faster, leaving home behind:
“Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack!”

Mary clapped and sang softly, so that Mama and her sister, Mamie, could sleep.
By the time they arrived at the big station in Pittsburgh the next morning, Mary had sung herself to sleep, too.

Music was Mary’s most exuberant love — a love seeded by her mother, who was an organ player at their church back in Georgia, attesting once again to the power of attentive, creatively supporting parenting in cultivating artistic genius.

When Mary was three, Mama played a tune, holding Mary on her lap.

As the last notes sounded through the room, Mary reached out and played them back to her mother. Mama stood up and Mary went tumbling. Mama cried to her neighbors, “Come hear this! Come hear my baby girl play!”

But they had to sell the organ when they moved, so Mary stopped playing. To make matters direr, their new home was far from welcoming — hostile to newcomers, the neighbors threw bricks through their windows and tirelessly taunted the family with unwholesome epithets. The local children called Mary cruel names, pulled her hair, and ridiculed her clothing.

And yet even at this young age, Mary possessed that singular skill of great artists — the ability to turn trauma into raw material for art — and transmuted the trying experience into music:

Ugly names and cruel words… Mary called them “bad sounds” and she taught herself to play them out. Even without a keyboard, she could do it. Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds and sang out her sadness. She crooned and whispered and shouted out until her spirit was lifted free.

One day, when little Mary was picking dandelions in the street, a kindly lady from the local church passed by and invited her over for ice cream. As soon as the little girl entered the house, a treat far more delectable transfixed her — a big old piano, sitting in the corner under a lace cover. Intrigued by the little girl’s interest, the lady invited Mary to play her a tune.

Mary sat down and lifted the cover. She drew a shaky breath and her fingers found the keys. They hadn’t forgotten a thing. Soon she was riding those keys, playing a tune that rumbled along like a freight train.

“Lord have mercy!” said Lucille. The teacup jumped in her hand. She went to the stairs and called up.

“Cephus! Come down here and hear this child play.” But Cephus was already halfway down the stairs.

Soon, the neighbors and the whole town were bewitched by Mary’s talent and she became affectionately known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” People even started paying her to play for them — something that calls to mind another pioneering woman of the era, the great children’s book artist and author Wanda Gág, who was so talented as a child that she sold her drawings to feed the family.

The remainder of the wholly wonderful The Little Piano Girl goes on to tell the story of how Williams came to lift other spirits free with her music the way she had once lifted her own, electrifying people the world over and becoming one of the most influential musicians humanity has ever known.

Complement it with more magnificent picture-book biographies celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists, including those of Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Neruda.

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