Lost in the [Sound] Cloud

b3fc32203f30dd86b68ba31fd7becf64_biggerSoundCloud, at first glance, would seem to be a sort of audio-only version of YouTube – a place where people upload music and other audio files to the internet.  But in the two years or so I’ve been using it, I’ve discovered that it’s as different from YouTube as a library is from a video arcade.  It’s the only “place” online in which I feel a sense of community. I use Facebook, Google Plus, and a couple of other popular “platforms,” but their populations and activities are too varied and diffuse to generate feelings of kinship in me. In the case of the ubiquitous YouTube, the pervasive nastiness that infects many of their comment threads triggers something akin to a gag reflex whenever I stray onto them.

SoundCloud is different. Almost all the people I interact with on it  are engaged in creative endeavors. They’re musicians, composers, sound designers, singers and songwriters. Some are relative beginners, others are experienced and accomplished. Anyone can post a “sound” on SoundCloud – a song, a piece of avant-garde electronica, a sound effect, a radio broadcast, your baby’s first words – anything that can be contained in a digital audio file.

According to a piece in the June, 2013 issue of Wired Magazine, “…the Berlin-based company now has 40 million registered users… and reaches more than 200 million people each month…”

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

SC cofounders Walforss & Ljung

Cofounder Alexander Ljung was quoted in in the same article: “We have some people who are into dubstep, some people who are into the sound of songbirds. People can find their own niches and participate.”

My SoundCloud icon

My SoundCloud icon

In the year I’ve been exploring SoundCloud, I’ve found a number of these niches populated, respectively, by songwriters in many different genres, jam bands, electronic composers, radio stations and record labels, print publications like The New Yorker, well-known jazz, classical and pop recording artists, sound designers, archivists and audiophiles of all persuasions.  I’ve found “clouds” (as individuals’ pages are called on SoundCloud) devoted to the sounds of Southern California history, sounds of explosions, genres of music I had never heard of,  NPR content,  and much more. A search of SoundCloud for the word “cosmology” brought up over 500 audio tracks, 57 “clouds” and 40 “playlists” (compilations of tracks).   SoundCloud hosts collections including parts of the Smithsonian’s massive audio archives, the Muzak archives; the archives of Killorglin, Ireland, the national archives of Georgia (the country) and hundreds more.

Like a Borgesian library of nearly infinite possibility, SoundCloud might, in fact, contain something for everyone. What effect its existence will have on the recording industry remains to be quantified, but it certainly seems to be another instance of how digital technology is changing everything about everything.

Since I started using SoundCloud, my music  purchases from Apple and Amazon have dropped significantly. SoundCloud is not only the place where I share my own music, it’s increasingly where I go to listen to music.  The fact that most of what I hear isn’t anything I could find on iTunes or  an internet radio app is telling.  Cofounder Ljung says that a relatively small group of “big artists” can no longer determine what music people listen to. While I still consider new releases by Dylan, Cohen, Simon, or the much younger Regina Spektor, noteworthy events, I no longer follow  a limited and well defined group of recording artists whose work I listen to and discuss with friends, the way we did in the last century. The distinction between “creator” and “listener” has become fluid. Everyone I know on SoundCloud is both.

I’ve been playing guitar since high school and writing songs since I was in my twenties. Until recently, my music took a back seat to my work as an actor, director and playwright. With the advent of a host of music-making apps for the iPad, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time composing music,   songs and spoken word pieces as well as venturing into new forms: remixes, mashups and beats. SoundCloud led me to an online class in songwriting and another in digital production from the Berklee School of Music. SoundCloud is now my most frequently visited site online.

At first it was simply a convenient way to share the music with friends. A number of music apps feature links for uploading directly to it. After a while, though, I began to make use of the website’s capacities for “following” the work of other members, commenting on their tracks and joining groups (“singer-songwriters,” “twelve-bar blues,” etc.).  I heard music that was as interesting to me as anything I could find on commercial venues: a guitar player from San Antonio, Tom Adams who plays traditional Chicago blues as well as anyone since BB King;

Laura Montenegro and Friends

Laura Montenegro and Friends

a woman from Buenos Aries, Laura Montenegro who sounds uncannily like Bessie Smith ; a French pianist, Laurent Guine, who improvises delicately beautiful solos; Jörn Schippera German Jazz trumpeter who now concentrates on provocative spoken-word/electronic music collages; Tony Bluestone, a singer from Detroit whose impassioned songs bring me to tears; Walter Paget, a modern Welsh bard who writes songs about his coal-miner father; Kathleen Martin, a singer/musician in Knob Knee, Indiana who records pristine versions of songs by Baez, Dylan, and other icons of the sixties; Mike McCoy, an Australian expat in Spain who plays world-class jazz guitar and sings standards in a voice that reminds me of Fats Waller.  And there are more. Sofia, A Parisian composer/singer who spins out hypnotic story-songs that at least one animator found compelling enough to base a short film around, and Iannis, a musician from Athens who plays blues and jazz on his oud.

The ever-growing wave of wonderful music from this online cornucopia has become almost overwhelming. I can spend hours browsing SoundCloud. Following a perceptive comment on one song might lead me to a new composer whose list of  “favorite” works by others will take me to the pages of still more musicians.  While all of them might not appeal, many will move, instruct or delight me.

After compiling a “playlist” (another useful SoundCloud feature) of tracks that I’d found most interesting,  I decided to contact each singer/songwriter/composer on the list. I wanted to know if their experience on SoundCloud was anything like mine. How did they use the service? Had it changed their approach to music at all? Did they share my sense of community?

I heard back from nearly all of the twenty members I queried, receiving emails from France, Germany, Australia, Great Britain (Leicester and London) and elsewhere. Americans who responded come from Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Indiana and Ohio.

Chris Okunbor

Chris Okunbor

Everyone who responded agreed that there was, indeed, a SoundCloud community.  Chris Okunbor, who lives on a mountain in Australia,   sings classic Delta blues and plays the kind slide guitar I used to hear on Folkways archival recordings from the 1930s, wrote:

“SoundCloud  is a very special community…..I’ve seen, on many occasions, when someone is struggling with a negative real-life event, all their friends and supporters hop onto a track and give them positive and kind support. I’ve had  over five thousand comments on tracks I’ve posted and only one of them was a bit strange – but I think that person was struggling with their mental health.”  Chris said that she has made “genuine friends” on SoundCloud and will be soon be visiting some of them in Europe where they’ve arranged a series of gigs for her. She hopes to do the same thing in the U.S. in 2015.

Ed McCarthy's Icon

Ed McCarthy’s Icon

Ed McCarthy, whose nom de musicien is “edro,” may not make a living from music, but, like many SoundCloud members, he’s been playing guitar for most of his life.  He noticed that his passion for music was beginning to ebb some years ago, after a close friend of his, musician Steve Rebbin, died.

Ed wrote to me:  “I really didn’t realize that I was grieving until I got back into music and that hole in my life was there. Once I started playing with other people again, I realized again that music was my center. Almost all of my close friends have some connection to music. I don’t consciously think of that when making friendships it just sort of happens.”

He has a number of friends on SoundCloud. “I consider it important to be there to help when I can. We stay in touch with each others’ new music. I like their music more than most commercial music out there these days.”

Idris Davies

Idris Davies

This last point was echoed in several responses I received. Idris Davies, a Welsh singer-songwriter living in London wrote, “Why don’t I play current music? Well – here I can, current doesn’t have to be X-Factor. It can be anything from any of the guys I’m following, whether it’s Roy’s kitchen parties or Anju’s jazzy vocals, Chris and Derek sliding me back on their dobros, Mark swinging away on his piano or Mick mixing up sweet electro-blues! Discovering and sharing their music brings me great joy!”

Walt & Vervain's Icon

Walt & Vervain’s Icon

Sofia, who lives in Paris and  records as “Walt & Vervain,”  creates wholly original “electronic pop” songs with vocals. She originally joined SoundCloud hoping it would be a way to get her music heard by record labels. It didn’t happen. But she began to receive hundreds of emails from listeners who loved what she was doing. Now, she writes, “I can’t deny the connection I feel with the people who follow me and whom I follow.”

For Chris Okunbor, this same sense of connection prompts her to give back to the community. “I enjoy supporting and promoting other musicians I feel are really good and are good people, especially some of the young ones…some are not living in the affluent West…and really struggle to be heard and recognized.”  Chris reposts dozens of tracks by other musicians on her “cloud.”  Thanks to her, I discovered Dwayne-Xtreme, a remarkable singer from Jamaica.

Barbara Browning

Barbara Browning

After I’d finished a draft of this piece I found a  voice on SoundCloud that was new to me: Barbara Browning, a novelist who teaches at NYU and has recorded and posted covers of hundreds of songs, some well known, some obscure, in her lovely, evocative voice with simple ukelele accompaniment.  I discovered that she was not only a terrific singer with impeccable taste (that closely matched my own, naturally) but also a writer of graceful and insightful prose.  (I recommend her short piece about spam and Charles Trenet, I Wish You Love.) I immediately wrote to her and asked her to have a look at the draft and comment, if she cared to. Within hours, she responded:

“SoundCloud is so utopian – people are so kind and supportive. The one thing about your article that might irk some of my friends who are professional musicians (emphatically not me!) is that you’re buying less music. Of course the music industry is changing and musicians and composers need to figure out new ways of living with the changing economy. Myself, I’m paying for more music than ever. Because I have a fabulous day job teaching, I can afford to support musicians economically as well as creatively, so I do. If somebody has a “buy it” button on SoundCloud, I often do, and I buy the originals of the music I cover. Because I post all my music with Creative Commons licenses, some of my friends still think I’m helping contribute to the increasingly bleak situation where people assume music will be free. Deep down, I’m a big fat communist, so I have doubts about ALL private property, intellectual as well as material, but we live in this complicated world… As you know, I fall on the side of wanting to stimulate the gift economy – and the feminist in me wants us to pay special attention to affective labor and sentimental value. All of these things are intertwined in my mind.”

Her phrase, “affective labor and sentimental value,” continues to echo in my mind, evoking the possibility of a shamelessly utopian economic model. When I asked Barbara about the provenance of that notion, she wrote:

“if you want more on affective labor, a good Marxist feminist theorist to start with is Sylvia Federici, but of course you can always just talk to a waitress or a nurse or a mom about labors of love.”

For many members, including this writer, the greatest value SoundCloud offers isn’t  the space it  provides  to store and share  music.  It’s the  inspiration to our creativity and the nurture of our processes that count.   Axel Weiss, a jazz guitarist, composer and painter from Bavaria, wrote that some of his musical ideas would simply never come into the world without the supportive outlet that SoundCloud provides.  Justin Valente, a blues guitarist from New Jersey maintains that his past eight months on SoundCloud have been the most productive of his twenty-five year long career.

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales

Alexa Weber Morales, an Oakland, California singer-songwriter who sang on the Grammy-nominated latin jazz album Bien! Bien!  and sings, tours and writes lyrics with Pacific Mambo Orchestra,  made an insightful connection between craft and community:

“If you believe in craft, and I strongly do, than a community like SoundCloud is inspiring. However, a lot of musicians do like I did at first: automatically post their tracks from CD Baby (you can just click a button), see zero comments/interaction, and let it lie fallow. I say forget Pinterest (tried it), LinkedIn, ReverbNation, MySpace (as if!) and FaceBook and enjoy a community purpose-built for musicians. So what if you don’t find many music fans there, half or more of the music business has to do with inspiration and collaboration with other musicians and who you know. This is a way to do all those things, without getting sucked into other time-wasters.”

Alexa, Axel and Justin, along with most of the people who emailed me,  frequently collaborate with other SoundCloud members, over considerable physical distances, sometimes without ever having met in person.  Idris Davies, in London  and Chris Okunbor in Australia created a haunting mashup of “death songs” from the black tradition, including chants, hollers and songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton and others. “musicaserj II,” a Paris-based composer-musician, remixed their work and added an electric guitar part.

telefan

telefan

Jim, a Philadelphia guitarist who goes by the name of “telefan” recorded and uploaded a traditional twelve-bar blues guitar track, “Two-Minute Blues”  and invited anyone who was interested to add a vocal track, a second guitar part or another instrument. After about three weeks, more than thirty musicians have taken him up on the offer  “It has been such an amazing success,” he writes,  “also very much a learning experience for me as a guitarist to hear other great players’ interpretations of the same piece.”

This sort of “song-swapping” reminds me of some of my earliest musical experiences when, from age eleven on, my family would spend summers in a small mountain town in Southern California where a folk-music “workshop” run by then-blacklisted Pete Seeger would take place. That was where I learned my first guitar chords and, later on, a few blues licks.  Besides Pete, folk-music virtuosos like The New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGee,  Sonny Terry and Bess Lomax Hawes would teach there, and hundreds of fans and amateur folkies would gather to learn and pass around songs, riffs and techniques.

In high school, college, and later, I stayed connected to the folk music community at  ashgrovevenues like the legendary Ash Grove in L.A., McCabe’s in Santa Monica and the Ice House in Pasadena. But, eventually, I drifted away from that world as other parts of life made greater demands.

For me, the most positive feature of the so-called “digital revolution” is the unparalleled access to music – as a listener and a musician – I now enjoy.  Until my own experience on SoundCloud, I had remained skeptical about the heralded “democratization of art,” that the internet has reportedly brought about. But the truth is that, these days, almost all the music I listen to is written, performed and recorded outside any commercial structure, mostly offered for free, by people who are, in terms of celebrity, unknown.  Could it be that – at least in this one area of life – we have stumbled our way into the gift economy that Lewis Hyde wrote about so compellingly in his classic book, The Gift?

The people I’ve gotten to know on SoundCloud – though many would not fit in any sort of “folk” category – have brought me back to a sense of participation in music as an activity that is intensely personal and, at the same time,  collective. Whether listening to music that moves me with its beauty, power, sense of history or its humor, or in giving and receiving help in songwriting or music production, or in philosophical conversations about music, and everything else, I sometimes feel that I’m taking part in a never-ending global hootenanny – the kind of spontaneous group sing- and play- along that was once a vibrant part of American culture. Maybe it still is.

What We Talk About When We Talk About SoundCloud:

I’ve found SC has been a way of getting a little of the same joy I get from gigging back into my life without the live nerves etc. I’m not saying it replaces it but I find the feedback I get has driven me and it’s just been such a joy and sense of completion to post a song and have it heard…

“The SoundCloud  community is a little eco-system of groups of individuals sharing music, ideas, advice and just life. I suppose other social platforms are ways of sharing what you ate for breakfast or what you’re watching on telly, SC is a platform for sharing music – and I don’t need to tell you how provocative, leading and rich a subject that is, do I!”

– Idris Davies, Singer-Songwriter, London, UK

Riny Raijmakers

Riny Raijmakers

I think there are more communities within Soundcloud. It’s like living in a small town and you just pick the ones you feel comfortable with, the ones who are on the same wavelength. It’s a microscopic world in a way.

– Riny Raijmakers, Singer-Songwriter, Eindhoven, Netherlands.

SoundCloud has replaced my old 4track.”

– Robin Thomas Martin, Singer-Songwriter

I find you can quickly see through to people’s hearts and intentions…through their music/lyrics/comments, and watching the way they treat others of all genders. SC is a very special community

– Chris Okunbor, Singer, Guitarist, Blue Mountains, Australia

Katja Tennigkeit

Katja Tennigkeit

“There’s that part of SC where people really listen to one another’s music, comment and like (or not). These people often do real collaborations, where each invests some time, someone does the mix and master etc…so yes, there’s a community with a real interest into the others. Mostly, they also make this typical handmade music, play real instruments, write songs with lyrics etc. Then there’s another world, where people just repost and comment (mostly standard blabla) and like other peoples music just in return for the same being done to them. Thus, their tracks quickly collect lots of plays and likes, but it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just a deal. maybe they think that makes their music better, that this is a career starter, but I don’t think so.”

– Katja Tennigheit, Seeheim-Jugenheim, Germany 

I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of nastiness among commenters at SC. I’ve often wondered if someone goes around and deletes anything too untoward! It presents the other problem, though, of never getting helpful feedback or 100% honesty from fellow users. Early on I actually tried being more truthful — still not unkind, but recommending minor adjustments that could be made — and I’ve had mostly very good reactions to that. OTOH, I’ve lost some followers as a result, too. My approach to every interaction in life was / is / and always will be applying the Golden Rule: Would I want to see / hear such a note in return?”

– Kathleen Martin, Singer/Musician, Knob Knee, Indiana

Tony Bluestone

Tony Bluestone

Music is a personal thing. To share that is beautiful, man!  Creating music puts me in a special place… Music pulls people together where as politics, religion seems to pull people apart.”

– Tony Pappas (Tony Bluestone), Singer, Songwriter,  Detroit, Michigan

“For me SoundCloud was a life saver when I came upon it

Phutz' Icon

Phutz’ Icon

several years ago. It opened up a whole new thing for me, and I have been quite (happily) surprised by the responses I have got from others (all unsolicited).”

– Phutz, Singer, Songwriter, Sound Artist, Western Massachusetts

Corey Fischer

Corey Fischer

Links my own music:

songs and spoken word pieces 

my Smithsonian Remix Competition entries

all instrumental compositions

From Joseph Chaikin: Notes to the cast of The Dybbuk, 1977-78

In 1977-78 I acted in Joe Chaikin’s production of The Dybbuk (in a new translation by Mira Rafalowicz) at The Public Theater in New York.  It was a life-changing, career-changing experience for me and was an important step toward co-founding Traveling Jewish Theatre not long after The Dybbuk closed in January, 1978.  Shortly before the play opened, Joe’s chronic cardiac problems caused him to be hospitalized. A case of rheumatic fever in childhood had damaged his mitral valve, which had been replaced with a prosthetic one. But that surgery was followed by recurring cardiac illness.

During the remaining days of rehearsal and for the length of the run, Joe sent a number of letters to the cast. I kept five of them. I don’t know if there were others that went astray over the years, but these five capture Joe’s “voice” as one of the last century’s most  deeply reflective theatre-makers. Many of the questions he takes up were ones he first posed in his book, The Presence of The Actor. I’ve scanned the five letters and embedded them below. They are clearly meant to be shared.

In the mid-1980s, while undergoing a surgery to replace the mitral valve a second time, Joe suffered a devastating stroke which left him with aphasia and other deficits. He overcame the aphasia to a remarkable degree and returned to the theatre, acting, directing and creating new works, including a collaboration with TJT and Mira Rafalowicz in 1987. (See an article from American Theatre by Misha Berson)

Joseph Chaikin

Joseph Chaikin died in 2003, at age 67, of heart failure. His last words  “I don’t know,” were spoken, according to his sister, Shami (who is an incredible actor in her own right and was also in The Dybbuk),  “…questioningly, almost analytically, as if trying to understand his role.” (as quoted in Joe’s NY Times obituary)

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.01

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.02

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.03

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.04

Dybbuk.notes.1977-78.05

The Gift. A Pebble. A Shirt.

Years ago, my wife told me to read The Gift by Lewis Hyde. When I did, I felt that Hyde was telling me about the world in an entirely new way, the way of the gift. It has been years since I’ve picked the book up and I’m sure there is much I misremember. But Hyde’s central vision of a “gift economy” in which art has a particular role has never left me. I visited Hyde’s website and found out that his current work in progress is a book on the Creative Commons, which is a notion I’ve been pondering myself [See a previous post here: Originality is Overrated].

The associative path that led me to Lewis just now was an idea that has visited me several times over the last few years. I was hardly the first to have had it. I found versions of it in the writings of ecologist and entomologist E. O. Wilson and the visionary Thomas Berry, among others. But it’s Nobel laureate in medicine, George Wald, who articulates it most clearly:

Surely this is a great part of our dignity…that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight–all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be.

Forget for a moment any claims of uniqueness attributed to the human species. I’m talking about humans only because I’ve been one for 63 years and thus can claim, at least theoretically, some knowledge of human experience. And in my experience, when I give the gift of my attention to the sky or the ocean, to a tree, flower or fish, to another human or a red-tailed hawk or a cat, I am soon aware of an impulse to praise.

Could the evolution of this capacity to attend to and praise the natural world be a strategy of life itself, used to balance all the aggression against life that humans are so capable of?

Attention. Gift. Praise. Love. Give attention. Give praise, Give love. Praise the gift. Praise the world. Praise love. Love the gift of attention and praise. I have noticed that often, for me, the most affecting expression of these human activities is a form called the object poem. It has been practiced by Neruda, Bly, Hirschfield, among many others. Here is one by the Polish master, Zbigniew Herbert.

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardor and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Now here’s another associative leap. A few weeks ago, I took a workshop given by the choreographer, teacher and – I would add – philosopher, Mary Overlie. Mary’s best known contribution to the fields of dance and theatre practice and training is often attributed to someone else. I mean The Six Viewpoints. Known as, simply, Viewpoints, it is often assumed to be the invention of Anne Bogart, well-known avant-garde director. Viewpoints has overtaken Stanislavski’s and Grotowski’s methods of training for the actor in some quarters. I was introduced to some exercises third hand that I was told were Viewpoints. But in Mary’s workshop I discovered that, in her original formulation, The Six Viewpoints are not exercises, though many exercises and experiments have been and will continue to be developed as ways to explore them. Bogart and Overlie worked together at some point, though I know none of the details, and would welcome a comment from anyone who knows the story. Bogart altered Mary’s six Viewpoints and presented them in well-attended training sessions that she and members of her Siti Company taught. I sense some tension around the complex issues of ownership and intellectual property though Mary said very little about it.

Mary’s Six Viewpoints are: Space, Shape, Time, Movement (the flow of impulses within the body) Emotion (presence rather than illustrations of feeling sad, glad, mad …) and Story (also thought of as logic). She spoke of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as one of her conceptual influences, particularly his idea of Qualities. For Mary, the Viewpoints are the performer’s materials and she led us through a series of explorations of each one. In these exercises I began to understand where the forms that I had been told were Viewpoints had come from. Perhaps the one most commonly used is what Mary calls Stopping and Walking. A group of any size begins walking in the space. They are instructed to simply walk – adding nothing, no attempts to “express” or “invent” anything – and to stop and to walk again on their own timing – while noticing, paying attention to the particular viewpoint that is being explored. If it’s Space, then you notice the constant changes to the nature of the space created by the group as it moves or is still. Bogart, as I understand it, added more Viewpoints such as topography (the patterns of movement on the floor).

But here’s the connection I want to make. Mary sees her work as being informed by Post Modernism and its primary tool of deconstruction. As she spoke, it became obvious to me that I had been using these terms for a long time without knowing their real meanings.

Where Classicism and Modernism both assume a vertical hierarchy of values, Post Modernism lies the vertical down on the ground and looks at the world horizontally. On the horizontal, there is no hierarchy. Nothing is more worthy of attention than anything else. I take this as another way of articulating what the Buddhists call Beginners’ Mind.

It’s a state of not knowing and it requires courage to enter. You’re not given a map though maybe you get a compass, or the tools with which to make a compass.

Deconstruction then, is a way of exploring on the horizontal. It has nothing to do with destruction. Mary said: “To deconstruct a shirt, you use a very sharp razor to carefully take the seams apart. You don’t just rip it up. You take it apart to see how it was made and you put it back together.”

So here’s another poem, one by Robert Pinsky, close in form to an object poem and a perfect embodiment of deconstruction.

The Shirt

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes–

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers–

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

I’ll leave off without trying to wrap these associations up. Any attempt at suggesting I know what this all adds up to would be a pose.

Please share any thoughts this give rise to by clicking the comments button below. I’ll be teaching two workshops soon, a three hour, “The Creative Moment” and a weekend intensive on theatre-making. Click here for more.

Pay Attention

Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer prize winning story from the April 8, 2007 issue of the Washington Post tells about an experiment they conducted that involved the young virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, performing in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station during the morning rush. If you haven’t heard about this or read the article, I suggest that after you’re done here, you take a look. The Post asked Bell to dress as a street musician in jeans and baseball cap and play with an open violin case at his feet to see what would happen. When they asked Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony, to imagine what would occur, he predicted that at minimum, a hundred people or so would gather to listen. A pretty humble prediction considering that Bell is arguably the greatest violinist on the planet and that he would be playing a Stradivarius valued at 3.5 million dollars in a place with great acoustics. The article goes on:

Bell decided to begin with ‘Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it ‘not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.’

Bell didn’t say it, but Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It’s exhaustingly long — 14 minutes — and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.”

On the Post’s website (link above) you can watch a couple of minutes of video and listen to the entire audio recording of the 45 minutes that Bell played. In spite of the background train and human noise, I find the music passionate and soulful.

As you might guess by now, a lot fewer than 100 people stopped to listen.

“Seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.”

Reading this catapulted me back to Paris, 1965, when I was seeking maybe not my fortune, but at least a few francs for a meal and a bed by playing traditional blues and fingerpicking folk songs like “Railroad Bill” and “Freight Train.” Before I learned the ropes, I was thoroughly ignored. Like the Bell experiment showed, context is all important. No one paid attention a solitary guy with a guitar on a Left Bank street corner at one in the afternoon no matter how well he played the blues (medium OK, I’d humbly submit). But, find an attractive young woman to pass the hat, work a crowded café at dusk when everyone’s having their apéritif, et voilà, the five franc notes would fall like lovely autumn leaves into the hat. Later, when I hooked up with a Yemenite-Israeli Gospel singer between her bookings with “Big Jones and his Little Sisters,” an American quartet she fronted, passing as African-American, real crowds would gather until a squad of gendarmes would break the party up.

I also thought of the Native American blessing that one may walk in beauty. Years after my street-singing days, when I was going off on a long and arduous tour of Europe with TJT, someone advised me to always look for experiences of beauty as I traveled. It was wonderful advice because it opened my attention to the possibilities that are part of every moment.

In relation to the “Muse,” attention is paramount. Inspiration lurks everywhere, whether it comes in the form of angelic music offered up freely in the unlikeliest of venues, or the faint call of a bird at the edge of morning or an overheard story.

In some forms of Buddhist meditation, the only instruction is to pay attention.You can start with the breath, but you’re told that your mind will, of course, wander, so pay attention to its very wandering. If thoughts start pouring or zooming through your mind, pay attention to the thoughts. Don’t believe them or take them seriously, just pay attention, notice that thoughts are moving through your field of awareness. Or bodily sensations, sounds, memories, emotions.

That same kind of attention, the kind that doesn’t judge or choose or try to change anything is also essential to any kind of improvisation, which is to say, essential to the creative act.

Check my latest newsletter for some related books and some experiments, exercises and games to help wake up your own muse.

photos c corey fischer

"…like chords of deep music"

I met a man named Karl Knobler at Deb Fink’s party for the closing of Dead Mother, the recent TJT production I was in. Karl’s a psychologist, about my age, and we immediately began the kind of allusive conversation full of digressions and surprising sudden turns that feels very similar to Jazz. The kind of conversation I take delight in.

As we jumped between a few dozen topics, Karl mentioned the idea of “Affective regulation” (see the work of Dr. Allan Schore, www.allanschore.com) To explain the concept, Karl told me how women, whether they have had children or not, will exhibit dilation of the pupils when hearing a baby cry. Men’s pupils do not dilate under those circumstances unless they have already become fathers.

Reflecting on this later, I was reminded of some lines from a poem by Rilke: “…that harsh hand / that kneaded him as if to change his shape.” (Robert Bly, Tr.) and thought about the ways we are worked upon by the aggregate of experience, time, the natural world, the stories we live until we become utterly transformed.

I remember a moment in Australia, thirteen years ago. I had just come out of the ocean. I’d been swimming for a long time at Bondi Beach, even body surfing a little. When I got out of the water I could still feel the energy of the waves surging inside my body. And I imagined myself as having been reshaped by the water. Could this be the “purpose” of a life: to be transformed – cooked, in a sense, ripened – into something nourishing for some larger being?

Usually, when I think about creativity, I’m the creator. But these notions of being changed on a neuro-cellular level by life, reverse the field. I’m the raw matter, we all are – being sculpted, carved, tuned, plucked, dissolved and reconstituted in new forms.

I welcome another path away from seeing the “Artist” as some isolated, unique, solitary, almost hermetic figure; a controlling, masterful, domineering archetype which the world can maybe do without for a while. Perhaps it was in recognition of being altered by powerful forces that the first “art” emerged in the world. In expressing our creativity we are continuing a dance with Big Life, simultaneously tasting our power and our humility, harmonizing our unique voice with the great chorale.

One more memory. 1987. The Cevennes, hill country of Southern France. My wife has just departed for Poland, where she will join nearly a million Poles on a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna at Czestochowa, the patron of Poland and symbol of the Solidarity movement. I’m staying on in the Cevennes to continue a very arduous kind of voice work led by a members of the Roy Hart Theatre, a compelling and eccentric theatre company based in a chateau in the region. I spend 5-6 mornings each week in a studio there and, after lunch, ramble around the rivers, streams and gullies of the Cevennes, seeking rumored swimming holes and stumbling over vestiges of old dry stone walls that had been assembled with precision and love in another time. One hot, bright afternoon after finding a perfect swimming hole, big enough to stoke across, deep enough to kick down into numbingly cold water, after hours in and out of the sweet clear water, after drying myself for the last time on a granite slab, I walked back to the village where I was staying in blissful exhaustion, letting my voice roam free, wordlessly singling melodies I’d never heard before. As I walked, my voice opened in all directions and suddenly a sound clearer and richer than I’d ever heard come from my body rang out and at that very moment, a large bright-green lizard, shot into view onto the bone-white stucco wall of a house. In the logical magic of the time and place, I had no doubt the sounds that had been coming out of me had conjured or summoned the Lizard. Its color and my sound were identical.

The Man Watching

by Rainer Maria Rilke (Tr. Robert Bly)

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings
.

In the current issue of my newsletter, Musing on the Muse, I suggest the following as a response to the idea of “being created” that I explore in a much shorter version of the above writing;

Do a ten minute timed writing experiment. Alternate beginning each sentence with “Once I was….” and “Now I am…” Complete each sentence as you go, writing as quickly as you can, not allowing your hand to ever stop moving on the page until the 10 minutes is up. Let go of any need to “make sense.”

Here’s what happened when I tried it myself:

Once I was sap

Now I am crystallized honey at the bottom of the jar

Once I was heaven

Now I am a water logged plank

Once I was golden tumbling

Now I am reddened patience

Once I was hungry all day

Now I feed wolves

Once I dreamed of a blazing touch

Now I dream of maps

Once I remembered all their names, the color of their thighs and the songs they sang

Now the glue is dried out and the photos have fallen from the album

Once I ran along the shore until the sun was gone

Now I am wrapped in blankets

Once I bit cords of silk

Now I sew dishrags

Once I barked in confusion, circling the city

Now I know how to breathe

Once I slept on the moonlit roof

Now I give my body to the water.