Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

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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31 MARCH, 2015

How Music Heals the Soul: A Beautiful Conversation with Singer-Songwriter and Peace Activist Morley

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“Music is the sound wave of the soul.”

There are few people for whose presence in our world I am more grateful than singer-songwriter, peace activist, and luminous human being Morley’s — an extraordinary woman emanating James Baldwin’s heart, the Dalai Lama’s spirit, and Abbey Lincoln’s voice. Her 1998 debut album, Sun Machine, humbled critics into instant veneration and elicited comparisons to Sade and Portishead (TIME), Annie Lennox and Tracey Thorn (Spin), and “the socially-conscious soul of the early seventies” (Newsday), but only as a cultural backdrop for her uncategorizeable brilliance. In the years leading up to her most recent record, Undivided, she has played at Carnegie Hall, jammed with Jeff Buckley, performed for Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, and done conflict resolution work with genocide perpetrators and survivors in Rwanda.

In this magnificent Design Matters conversation, part of the show’s tenth-anniversary season, Morley shares the remarkable story of her creative and spiritual journey — her formative childhood in colorful Jamaica, Queens; her rebirth as a choreographer and poet after a serious injury ended her career as a dancer; what teaching yoga and meditation to ex-convicts taught her about the human spirit; squatting in Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop’s abandoned apartment; working at a children’s hospital and observing music’s enlivening effect on the soul in its purest form.

Punctuating the interview are live performances of some of Morley’s most bewitching songs. Please enjoy — transcribed highlights below.

On what music is, and what it does for us:

Music is the sound wave of the soul.

[…]

It opens you up to another part of yourself, or beyond the notion of yourself. That’s what music can do.

On how a news story moved her to write her now-iconic peace anthem “Women of Hope,” which she has performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the late Nelson Mandela:

I was watching a CNN program about women and war. The opening line is directly from these two women in Rwanda, who were standing in tall grass, right under a tree. They were being interviewed and they said, “The soldiers came today and we will be left to die in solitude.” It just moved me so much. I wrote that down on a napkin that I was using also to cry into, at the hotel in Germany. After I saw that program … there was no one around I knew that I could talk to. And I wasn’t alright. I couldn’t just go out and take a walk or go for a run. So I picked up the guitar and I turned to music.

You know, sometimes you take something a little too much, when you read the news. There is something that we have that is filtering, so that we can survive. Every day. And that thing wasn’t there when I watched [this CNN program]. I was raw. And thank god I had that guitar there.

On how the song’s poignant chorus line, inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s words — “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.” — carried it around the world, to dignitaries and common souls alike:

That song itself has long legs. Sometimes, you create something and it just travels, and it resonates. And they’re not my words — they’re Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, which is so great. It’s even better when you can pass on … some great recipe for life.

Complement with a rare and wonderful interview with Jeff Buckley, conducted by a Brain Pickings reader in Italy in the 1990s, then treat your soul to Morley’s enchanting music and subscribe to Design Matters for a steady stream of inspiring conversations.

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06 MARCH, 2015

Iterations: A Lyrical Animated Film about How We Grow as Human Beings and the Iterative Nature of Self-Transformation

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“I am recycled cells, I learn to like myself more with each iteration…”

Psychologists now know that a “growth mindset” is one of the greatest predictors of a fulfilling life. And yet only children are at ease with the discomfort necessary for growth — the rest of us are chronically resistant to stretching ourselves in the very ways that push us to transcend the lesser versions of ourselves. Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and wrote: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” How is it, then, that we bestir ourselves to grow?

In 2005, actor and director Joseph Gordon-Levitt founded hitRECord with his brother — a global creative community and independent multimedia production company, uniting artists from around the world on a variety of projects. The endeavor’s first decade has produced a wonderland of magical collaborations, including the fantastic Tiny Book of Tiny Stories series, but none more wonderful than Iterations — a beautiful and bewitching musical film created by artists from Hungary, Cyprus, Scotland, Canada, and the United States, with enchanting original music by Irish singer/songwriter Sarah Daly, better known as Metaphorest.

The artists were tasked with interpreting the theme of “The Road” and this musical journey was the result — a lyrical story of our incremental growth as human beings and the iterative nature of self-transformation.

Have you seen my old self?
I think I must have lost her
I wonder if I cost her
Her life?

Have you seen my second self?
She seems to grow younger
More delicate than ever
But never better

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

Where is my restore point?
I found an old sore point
All disjointed
My file corrupted

Where is my replacement part?
I need another new heart
The other one’s beat was
Interrupted

I am recycled cells
I learn to like myself
more with each iteration

I’m an experiment
Each trial is a test
Constant recalibration

Complement with Susan Sontag on rereading as rebirth and some timeless ideas for self-refinement from the wisdom of the ages.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2015

Mozart on Creativity and the Ideation Process

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“It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.”

In 1945, French mathematician Jacques Hadamard set out to explore how mathematicians invent ideas in what would become The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (public library) — an introspective inquiry into the process of discovery, using both his own experience and first-hand accounts by such celebrated scientists as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Albert Einstein. But what Hadamard uncovered in the process of writing his treatise were the general psychological pillars of all invention and the inner workings of the creative mind, whatever discipline it is applied to.

In staging the scene of his investigation, Hadamard quotes a letter from Mozart in which the legendary composer — who had plunged into the creative life at a young age — details his ideation and editing process, touching on some of the most universal principles of the creative experience long before contemporary psychology demonstrated them.

Applying to the question of creativity the same passion with which he imbued his love letters, Mozart considers the origin of his ideas:

When I feel well and in a good humor, or when I am taking a drive or walking after a good meal, or in the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind as easily as you could wish. Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those which please me, I keep in my head and hum them; at least others have told me that I do so. Once I have my theme, another melody comes, linking itself to the first one, in accordance with the needs of the composition as a whole: the counterpoint, the part of each instrument, and all these melodic fragments at last produce the entire work.

More than two hundred years before poet Mark Strand would come to capture the electrifying flow of creative work and a century before Tchaikovsky would come to write of the “immeasurable bliss” of creativity, Mozart describes a similar experience:

Then my soul is on fire with inspiration, if however nothing occurs to distract my attention. The work grows; I keep expanding it, conceiving it more and more clearly until I have the entire composition finished in my head though it may be long… It does not come to me successively, with its various parts worked out in detail, as they will be later on, but it is in its entirety that my imagination lets me hear it.

Mozart then turns to the question of originality — a concept many creators have denounced as an illusion. (Most memorable of all denunciations is Mark Twain’s spectacular letter to Helen Keller, with Pete Seeger as a close second.) But for the great composer, originality — and thus the integrity of the creative impulse — is as indelible a part of our individuality as our fingerprints:

Now, how does it happen, that, while I am at work, my compositions assume the form or the style which characterize Mozart and are not like anybody else’s? Just as it happens that my nose is big and hooked, Mozart’s nose and not another man’s. I do not aim at originality and I should be much at a loss to describe my style. It is quite natural that people who really have something particular about them should be different from each other on the outside as well as on the inside.

Complement The Mathematician’s Mind with the similarly spirited The Art of Scientific Investigation, an exploration of the ideation process published more than a decade later that builds on Hadamard’s work to stretch the inquiry even further into the frontiers of the creative mind, then see pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential elements of creativity.

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