Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

04 NOVEMBER, 2014

Lucinda Williams on Compassion

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“You do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”

Recently, in witnessing the astounding haste with which people were lashing out against one another, without so much as a moment of pause for understanding, without so much as a basic intention to reflect and respond rather than react, I lamented that the world would be much kinder if everyone believed that everyone else is doing their best, even if they fall short sometimes. Mere hours later, my heart stopped as I heard the first track from Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (iTunes), the altogether spectacular new album by Lucinda Williams.

Titled “Compassion,” the song — a line from which lends the record its name — pins down with devastating precision just what we do to one another, and what we reveal about ourselves, when we deny each other the simple human dignity of kindness. It is nothing short of a masterwork at the intersection of poetry and philosophy from one of the greatest songwriters of our time.

Have compassion for everyone you meet
Even if they don’t want it
What seems conceit
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign
For those you encounter
Have compassion
Even if they don’t want it
What seems bad manners
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign

Always a sign
of things no ears have heard
Always a sign
of things no eyes have seen
You do not know
What wars are going on
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

For everyone you listen to
Have compassion
Even if they don’t want it
What seems cynicism
Is always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign
Always a sign

Always a sign
Of things no ears have heard
Always a sign of things no eyes have seen
You do not know
What wars are going on
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down there, where the spirit meets the bone
Down where the spirit meets the bone

That Williams should possess the poetic form with such mastery should come as no surprise — the daughter of the prolific poet Miller Williams, she grew up reading and writing poetry. Her father’s mentor was none other than Flannery O’Connor, whose house young Lucinda used to visit with her dad and whose Southern Gothic sensibility seems to permeate Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. “Compassion” itself is, in fact, adapted from Miller Williams’s poem by the same title, found in his 1997 collection The Way We Touch: Poems.

In her short memoir, Williams reflects on the interplay between misery and compassion:

Here’s the thing about misery. I had a lot of misery when I was growing up. I have enough misery to last me for the rest of my lifetime. The misery is like a well, and I just dig into the thing and pull it out anytime I want. I have misery and then some. I don’t need to create any more.

[…]

The hardest thing is not looking like you’re pointing the finger and blaming someone…

Complement with Anne Truitt on compassion and our chronic self-righteousness and Mark Twain on what a simple remark by his mother taught him about compassion.

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03 NOVEMBER, 2014

Bruce Springsteen’s Reading List: 28 Favorite Books That Shaped His Mind and Music

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From Montaigne’s philosophy to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, literary anatomy of the creative icon.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful essay on reading and writing. It is also, perhaps, a seed planted in another’s garden of consciousness. It is no coincidence that most highly creative people are voracious readers — books, after all, enable us to live multiple lives in one by giving us access to emotions and experiences impossible to compress into a single lifetime, and creativity is the combinatorial product of all the ideas and experiences floating around our minds. To peek inside a creative icon’s lifelong reading list is to glimpse his or her existential library of the mind — the range of ideas and influences and inspirations that were fused together into the work for which that person is known and beloved.

Joining the previously published reading lists of notable luminaries — including those of Leo Tolstoy, Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, David Bowie, and Brian Eno — is singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, one of the most influential and celebrated musicians of the twentieth century, and the recipient of twenty Grammy Awards. In a recent New York Times interview, marking the release of his charming picture-book Outlaw Pete (public library), Springsteen shares the books that shaped his music and his mind, from poetry to philosophy to children’s books — an eclectic reading list spanning numerous genres and sensibilities, life stages and moods. (Favorite childhood book: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; last book that made him laugh: Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land; last book that made him cry: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

  1. Moby-Dick (free download; public library | IndieBound) by Herman Melville
  2. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library | IndieBound) by Sarah Bakewell
  3. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe (public library | IndieBound) by Dennis Overbye
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera (public library| IndieBound) by Gabriel García Márquez
  5. Anna Karenina (free download; public library | IndieBound) by Leo Tolstoy
  6. Leaves of Grass (public library | IndieBound) by Walt Whitman
  7. The History of Western Philosophy (public library | IndieBound) by Bertrand Russell
  8. Examined Lives (public library | IndieBound) by Jim Miller
  9. American Pastoral (public library | IndieBound) by Philip Roth
  10. I Married a Communist (public library | IndieBound) by Philip Roth
  11. Blood Meridian (public library | IndieBound) by Cormac McCarthy
  12. The Road (public library | IndieBound) by Cormac McCarthy
  13. The Sportswriter (public library | IndieBound) by Richard Ford
  14. The Lay of the Land (public library | IndieBound) by Richard Ford
  15. Independence Day (public library | IndieBound) by Richard Ford
  16. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (public library | IndieBound) by Flannery O’Connor
  17. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (public library | IndieBound) by Greil Marcus
  18. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (public library | IndieBound) by Peter Guralnick
  19. Chronicles (public library | IndieBound) by Bob Dylan
  20. Sonata for Jukebox (public library | IndieBound) by Geoffrey O’Brien
  21. Soul Mining: A Musical Life (public library | IndieBound) by Daniel Lanois
  22. Too Big to Fail (public library | IndieBound) by Andrew Ross Sorkin
  23. Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression (public library | IndieBound) by Dale Maharidge
  24. The Big Short (public library | IndieBound) by Michael Lewis
  25. The Brothers Karamazov (free download; public library | IndieBound) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  26. Great Short Works (public library | IndieBound) by Leo Tolstoy
  27. The Adventures of Augie March (public library | IndieBound) by Saul Bellow
  28. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (public library | IndieBound) by L. Frank Baum

Complement Springsteen’s Outlaw Pete with a sweet illustrated adaptation of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

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30 OCTOBER, 2014

Jazz Legend Bill Evans on the Creative Process, Self-Teaching, and Balancing Clarity with Spontaneity in Problem-Solving

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“The person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time.”

In a 1915 letter to his young son, Albert Einstein advised that the best way to learn anything is “when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” Many decades later, psychologists would give a name to this distinctive, exhilarating state of immersive, self-initiated learning and creative growth: flow. Again and again, artists, writers, scientists, and other creators have described this state as the key to the “spiritual electricity” of creative work.

In 1966, legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980) sat down with his composer brother, Harry Evans, for an intense and deeply insightful conversation later released as Universal Mind of Bill Evans: The Creative Process and Self-Teaching. From filmmaker William Meier comes this gorgeous cinematic adaptation of Evans’s thoughts on the autodidactic quality of creativity and the value of working at the intersection of clarity, complexity, and spontaneity.

Here is a longer excerpt from the documentary, where Evans discusses the step-by-step process of creative problem-solving:

The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play jazz is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense, conscious-concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more.

I don’t consider myself as talented as many people but in some ways that was an advantage because I didn’t have a great facility immediately so I had to be more analytical and in a way — that forced me to build something.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and that he has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure. They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general [that] they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance.

Universal Mind of Bill Evans is revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with the great composer Aaron Copland on the conditions of creativity and Julia Cameron on how to get out of your own way and unblock creative flow.

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