Removing the Blindfold

Though I don’t necessarily agree with everything G.K. Chesterton ever said, I recently ran across this poignant quote that was posted on his curated Twitter feed:

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

I have seen many people recently investing a great deal of time in doing a variety of things that I can only believe and describe as self-sabotage. (I say recently, but it may be safe to say only my perception of it has increased).  What are just a few of these things:

  • Complaining (about anything, particularly about “1st world” problems).
  • Feeling the world or members of the world have wronged us in some way.
  • Falling prey to traps that we ourselves have laid in our own minds.
  • Assuming we are owed something because we are unnaturally entitled.
  • Jealousy
  • Being arrogant.
  • Entering into silly sadnesses that come from things like a favorite team losing a game.
  • etc.

I’m sure you get the idea here, though the list could be quite long.  This is by no means a condemnation of any particular person …except perhaps myself.  There also is not an assumption here that true, life-changing and devastating events do not happen to people. What I am pronouncing is that I have succumbed to all the dismal things just listed and more… too many times to count.  Have you as well?  In quieter and more honest times, I begin to understand my many errors and I see what surrendering to these things does to me.  What does it really do?  Why do I call these things self-sabotage?

With each unfortunate and ungrateful act, I put a blindfold over my eyes.

0114_blindfold-800x480I am convinced the concept of seeing and sight is an important one and the metaphor here is quite simple.  A blindfold causes one not to see.  All of the listed issues above are ideas that cause one’s sight to stop at the self or to be bent back inward towards the self.  How far or how much can one see when this is the case?  About as far as a blindfold will allow.  It is painful to imagine how much I’ve missed because of my complaining, my arrogant behavior, my entitlements, or my self-aggrandizements.  I know for sure I have missed little joys, beauties, kindnesses from others, sacrifices, and smiles from others.

Even more importantly, I also know I have missed opportunities.  Opportunities have come along life’s way to give instead of expect, to open instead of close, to bow instead of glare, to stop instead of walk away, to be quiet and listen instead of talk, and to smile instead of frown.  I missed opportunities to see what is real.  Though I find it increasingly difficult to maintain a relationship with true reality, I know that taking the time to remove my blindfold would have helped me to do so more frequently.

Often I find myself advising my students to get in a proverbial helicopter and to imagine flying high above when faced with particular day-to-day difficulties.  This idea is very similar to removing one’s blindfold.  What happens the higher you go?  You can ‘see’ farther.  This ‘seeing’ leads one’s mind to a quiet (though slightly still-cloudy) understanding of reality.  I find, in at least a small way, this flows in the same stream as Chesterton’s quote above.  He posits that giving thanks is the ‘highest’ form of thought.  What happens in the heights — what happens when flying high above?  Wisdom, understanding, sight, peace …..and thankfulness.  I think our blindfold is removed up there.

Thanksgiving in America recently gave us a cursory opportunity to apply once a year lip-service to something that is intensely difficult to do: give thanks.  I do not mean this as hyperbole.  A true giving of thanks in your heart is hard (and is seemingly getting harder for the youth of contemporary society).  It requires us stop doing what we are really good at: thinking of ourselves.  It requires us to stop complaining and to lay down entitlement.  It requires us to stop being arrogant ‘look-at-me’ people.  I know this is hard – from experience.

It requires us to take off our blindfolds to see.

3

And perhaps if we do, we will be blinded by the bright and glorious light of thankfulness.  Maybe we will experience gratitude, which is happiness doubled by wonder.  Maybe we will find real Truth and real Grace.

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Children of Cloud and Frost

This year in Trondheim,  Tove Ramlo-Ystad and the unmistakably excellent women’s vocal ensemble Cantus are celebrating their 30th year of singing.  With recent international tours, a 2016 Grammy-nominated album (Spes), as well as an upcoming album with Decca, they are fulfilling their role as one of the very best choirs in the world.  It is here in a cold Trondheim, at the cozy Dromedar Kaffebar, that I write to you.

cantus-koret

My friendship with Tove and Cantus has developed very much recently and resulted in a collaborative opportunity this fall.  As with most situations like this, the proper poem to use appeared out of the mist and I think it turned out to be perfect for these fair children of the frosty north.

Stand here by my side and turn, I pray,
On the lake below thy gentle eyes;
The clouds hang over it, heavy and gray,
and dark and silent the water lies;
And out of that frozen mist the snow
In wavering flakes begins to flow;
Flake after flake
They sink in the dark and silent lake.

See how in a living swarm they come
From the chambers beyond the misty veil;
Some hover awhile in the air, and some
Rush prone from the sky like summer hail.
All, dropping swiftly or settling slow,
Meet and are still in the depths below;
Flake after flake
Dissolved in the dark and silent lake.

Here delicate snow-stars, out of the cloud,
Come floating downward in airy play,
Like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd
That whiten by night the milky-way;
There broader and burlier masses fall;
The sullen water buries them all —
Flake after flake
All drowned in the dark and silent lake.

And some, as on tender wings they glide
From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake
Soon sinks in the dark and silent like.

Lo! while we are gazing, in swifter haste
Stream down the snows, till the air is white,
As, myriads by myriads madly chased,
They fling themselves from their shadowy height.
The fair, frail creatures of middle sky,
What speed they make, with their grave so nigh;
Flake after flake,
To lie in the dark and silent lake!

I see in thy gentle eyes a tear;
They turn to me in sorrowful thought;
Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear,
Who were for a time and now are not;
Like these fair children of cloud and frost,
That glisten for a moment and then are lost,
Flake after flake —
All lost in the dark and silent lake.

Yet look again, for the clouds divide;
A gleam of blue on the water lies;
And far away, on the mountain-side,
A sunbeam falls from the opening skies.
But the hurrying host that flew between
The cloud and the water, no more is seen;
Flake after flake,
At rest in the dark and silent lake.

— William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

brooklyn_museum_-_william_cullen_bryant_-_wyatt_eaton_-_overallThe words penned here fit in quite well with Bryant’s natural and spiritual milieu, most vividly seen in his landmark poem “Thanatopsis.”  His poetry is permeated with melancholy, tenderness, and a love of wilderness and nature.  The deep nostalgia that almost drips from the words as you read them to some critics has come across as sappy, yet to others appear as very wise and filled with meaning and heart.  Mary Mapes Dodge wrote in Schoolroom Poets, “You will admire more and more, as you grow older, the noble poems of this great and good man.”

In “The Snow Shower,” like his other poetry, he looks closely at an aspect of nature — in this case, the falling snow.  It is nearly impossible, I think, not to get entranced by the image he portrays, which really is like the entrancing character of looking at falling snow.  Can you picture it?  Do you remember that moment, when staring into the falling snow, where your mind and heart slowed and you felt a deeper…something?  Time slows and a panoply of memories race as the ‘fair, frail creatures of middle sky’ ‘come floating downward in airy play, like spangles dropped from the glistening crowd.’ I know this feeling well, and the result is captured excellently by Edgar Allen Poe, who said about Bryant’s poetry, “The impression left is one of a pleasurable sadness.”  Exactly.

One truly is moved when Bryant transitions to the last two stanzas.  In only two stanzas he takes a great sadness and points to something that can only be described as ‘hope.’  We understand why he took time to say things such as:

“…From their chilly birth-cloud, dim and gray,
Are joined in their fall, and, side by side,
Come clinging along their unsteady way;
As friend with friend, or husband with wife,
Makes hand in hand the passage of life;
Each mated flake…”

These snow flakes, when your eye looks beyond the transportive snow and focuses on the ‘other’ that is beyond, become people and memories.  There is both a great joy in this thought and great sadness.  “Thou thinkest of friends, the good and dear, Who were for a time and now are not; Like these fair children of cloud and frost, That glisten for a moment and then are lost…” Regret… Love… Joy… Pain… Faith… Sorrow… Birth… Family… etc. all encompassed by a white dot flying and floating across the sky.

Yet.

Yet look again and what do you see?  It is very distant but it is there…. a sunbeam falls on the mountainside.  How beautiful!  How enrapturing that ray of light against the dark!  Oh what hope and joy the clouds divided to share with us (even if for only a moment) the light that is ever present that we currently cannot see.  It is there.  Night will assuredly soon be over.  Nox praecessit.

This is Life.

Cantus has had a very trying time as of late.  Their conductor of 30 years, Tove Ramlo-Ystad, lost her husband Tor Ystad this summer.  He was a very beloved man, and it was an absolutely devastating loss to all who knew him, and still has a palpable effect on their tender hearts — yet Cantus banded together and supported their conductor and her family with care, sympathy, and deep love.

When asked to compose a piece this year, I wanted to speak into this tragic pain with my piece in some way, and this poem became a deep and poignant way.  Tor became a ‘delicate, snow-star,’ one we behold and marvel, and in such haste it is gone – gone too soon.  I dearly wanted this piece to be the light on the mountainside, not just for my dear friend Tove and her family, but also for these strong women of Cantus.

______________________

I was 7 years old when Cantus sang their first notes together.  What a marvel to imagine that little boy in Minnesota and the great joy he would feel when he finally would meet those fair children of cloud and frost.  For that is what the beautiful singers of Cantus are to me.

Happy 30th Birthday,

Eric

Other(s)

I recently ran across a poignant and beautiful poem by John Vance Cheney (1848-1922) during one of my frequent poetry deep-dives.

frases-de-john-vance-cheney

Not only did Mr. Cheney have an epic and wondrous beard-mustache combo platter, he also had a wide-ranging and meandering career path — starting with practicing law in New York, then moving to California to teach music, then to postal work, and finally to the library sciences where he seemed to have found some solidarity.  Along the way, he wrote extensively.  He composed essays for major magazines of the time as well as poetry, which was later compiled and published in 1906.  Several of his poems were found to be of substantial quality and included in collected volumes, such as 1904’s “The World’s Best Poetry,” edited by Bliss Carmen. (which is where I stumbled across it)

— The Happiest Heart
Who drives the horses of the sun
Shall lord it but a day;
Better the lowly deed were done,
And kept the humble way.

The rust will find the sword of fame,
The dust will hide the crown;
Ay, none shall nail so high his name
Time will not tear it down.

The happiest heart that ever beat
Was in some quiet breast
That found the common daylight sweet,
And left to Heaven the rest.

A relatively common notion is illuminated here, perhaps described more luxuriously by Shelley in his famous work “Ozymandias” first published in 1818.

— Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These poems describe how time is the great equalizer of men.  No tower built by men will stand.  No name so great it will be remembered, except for whispers,misconceptions, and most probably misrepresentations.  I don’t think this idea is particularly groundbreaking. Even Woody Allen used the term “Ozymandias meloncholia,” which he defined as “the realisation that your works of art will not save you and will mean nothing down the line.”  There is no confusion or lack of understanding in what this cosmic idea is relaying.  Right?

Why then are we doing what we are doing?  If we knew that all self-elevations or self-aggrandizements were futile, why are we incessantly and aggressively advocating for them (perhaps more than ever before in history)?  Why are we worried about how we are seen or what accolades we receive?  Self, self worth, self image, selfie, me, my, I, mine… perhaps it is has been this way for a long time (or forever), but with the further implementation of social media on our broken culture, is it safe to say most things are now particularly ‘self’ driven?

In my field of choral conducting and choral composition it is certainly obvious.  An easy example is now instead of pictures of the choir one is working with, we see pictures of a large “me” face in front of the choir, selfie style.  I understand the unsavory nature and pressure of self-promotion in this field, maybe more than most, but adding oneself to a picture in that circumstance is elevating self and grasping more for celebrity than service, isn’t it?  Are we concerned people wouldn’t recognize the fact that we were there?  There are a plethora of other types of “look at me” posts, that slyly mimic “I’m just keeping my close friends and family up-to-date” posts, but aren’t.  Lets get real.

clipartbest-com-5br0a2-clipartI think many of us live these secret lives of thumbs-up watchmen and women.  Are we getting the proper due we think we deserve?  Disappointment looms when we get 25 thumb responses on Facebook, while someone else gets 250, …or 1000!  Someone has enough followers on Twitter to be ‘verified’ and we don’t.  Someone got published by so-and-so and I didn’t.  Who are they and how did this happen?  I’d do anything to get that!  They are obviously more important than I am…  but look at who I just worked with!  Everyone looked as happy as possible to work with me in my selfie (that doubled as a photo of the choir) where 1/4 of it is my face!
….and we are left disappointed.

I speak to this, because I know this feeling.  I know it very well unfortunately, and wish I didn’t.  I know it and have participated in it.  I wish I fully embraced the poem above (and will continue to try).  I find that I have been, for nearly two decades, sucked into a ‘self-importance arms race,’ which happens to be a lie.  How many pieces do I have published?  Which publishing house am I with?  Do I have important friends?  Do I have a CD?  How many copies did the CD sell?  How many make believe Facebook friends do I have?  Did I conduct here or there, and for this group or that? Did I get this award or that?  Why are people lined up for another Eric’s autograph and not mine?  Did I get selected for this award or that?  How many people are telling me they love me or my stuff?

…I’m tired of me and I.  I get tired of thinking about myself, or being prodded by our society to relate everything to myself.  I have been for a long time.  Aren’t you?

I’m finding more evidently, with each passing year, that it will never be enough.  This “it” can be any earthly thing, and it will never be enough.  I hope you see this truth in your own life and career.  No matter how high we nail our name, time will tear it down.  Its so fast paced today, that people will see your name on high, laud you, and then forget about it immediately because they are worried how high their name is nailed.  So if self and seeking self goes, what can take its place?….  how about:  Other(s).

What if I stopped wondering if people were taking notice of me simply because I didn’t have the time to care?  I was too busy doing something for someone else.  What if when I worked with a choir, I didn’t take a picture of myself with them, because I cared about… well… them.  Maybe I’d kindly and graciously take pictures with individuals if they asked or I’d simply reach out and speak encouragements to them.

Maybe I wouldn’t even take a picture…


Image Sean Penn, instead of doing what he did here, awkwardly getting in front of his camera to take a picture of himself in front of the snow leopard…   Though a bit exaggerated and little non-sequitur, it captures my point a bit. (and from perhaps my very favorite movie!)  One of my favorite lines of the movie is “Right here.”  When we are worried about self promotion and what accolades we are receiving, the last thing we are concerned about is ‘right here.’ We are, in that case, concerned with the eternal ‘somewhere else’ that always seems better than ‘right here.’

Again, what if we stopped wondering if people were taking notice of us simply because we didn’t have the time to care?  What if we were just too busy serving those in front of us, and left to Heaven the rest?

I need to retire my crown and sword of fame, put them in the attic, to be lost and forgotten.

Worth Remembering: Eric Ericson

Eric Ericson

I’ve been thinking for some time about composing a few odes to particular people who have passed on under the blog title “Worth Remembering.” These people will generally not be those heralded by the masses or famous. They will probably be even easily forgotten. But they shouldn’t be. They should be remembered, because they were unique for the right reasons and not the wrong. I suppose the simplest way of saying it is that they should be remembered because they are “worth” being remembered. Don’t fret now, of course everyone is worth being remembered, but there are indeed souls that have a found a resonance with purpose and have become something innately special.

Eric Ericson is truly one of these people. It is a bit of a tragedy that many American choral musicians do not recognize his impact on choral music. Born in 1918, Eric became the famed director of the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir and acclaimed Swedish Radio Choir. He also conducted the men’s ensemble, Orphei Dränger.

I yield to the expertise of Dr. Richard Sparks on the ‘why’ of Eric Ericson’s special place in the world. He was intimately aware of Eric’s place in choral music and the world. He has written much on the subject, including:

Dr. Richard Sparks

Eric Ericson Birthday Tribute

Eric Ericson passes at 94

More on Eric Ericson

Specifically in Sparks’ blog post “More on Eric Ericson”, he states:

Overall, Eric’s career has been extraordinary. He built ensembles (now nearly 65 years with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir) with a technical quality unmatched by others in their era, made recordings that still hold up as models many years later, stimulated numerous composers to write for the a cappella idiom, taught four decades worth of choral conductors in Sweden and many abroad, and has inspired choral conductors throughout the world.

Is it silly to say even I, an early-30s Minnesota boy feels connected in some way to Eric’s work in Sweden? I’m not so sure it is silly.

I remember having a wonderful and intimate dinner with Gunilla Luboff in Seattle several years ago at a restaurant called Purple. The primary conversation was about my relationship with Walton Music, but as we often do because of our friendship, we opined about Sweden. I mentioned that there was an almost indescribable connection to a country I had yet to visit – yet was somehow fulfilled in the music of composers such as Lindbergh or Olssen as sung by the Swedish choirs. She opened up in special ways about Norman Luboff’s visits to Sweden, her interactions with Eric and Gary Graden over the years. It feels like a special world that I could only dream about being a part of.

I also remember hearing stories from my mentor and friend Dr. Geoffrey Boers and his interaction with the special and uniquely effective conducting of Eric. Seeing Eric conduct is certainly special for any discerning choral conductor. Questions arise – what is he doing? Why is he doing what he is doing? I get the feeling that many don’t understand his utterly unique gesture, but all are left with the absolute power of his intent.

Even at the close of his life, he showed his genius.

And I remain humbled by a man I’ve never met.

There was a conversation a year or so I had with Gunilla where I mentioned my intention that I was going to send a hand-written letter to Eric, essentially telling him what a profound impact he had on a kid from Minnesota. I actually wrote the letter, but what a strange tragedy it is that I never ended up sending it! It laid on my desk for many months. Was there a reason I didn’t send it? I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure of, is that Eric Ericson’s impact on American choral music remains greatly understated, and I hope as years go on, at least I will be a memorial to his impact. Perhaps even the greatest compliment any colleague may give me in the future is to say that I or my gesture remind them of Eric.

The Blacksmith’s New Year

A new year dawns, and again we are thrust into the resolution predicament.  We know in our heart of hearts no resolution could be made in such a way this New Year’s eve as to be a huge success, at least not in the way we envision …or even at all.  And so it continues year after year, this cycle of desiring …something.  To get thinner, to eat better, to save more, to stop any number of bad habits, but in many ways our resolutions are shadows of desiring something more profound.

And so enters the Village Blacksmith:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp and black and long;
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,—
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge,
With a measured beat and slow,
Like a sexton ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And the children coming home from school,
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And catch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from the threshing-floor.

He goes on Sunday to the church
And sits among his boys;
He hears the parson pray and preach;
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in Paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Oh to be like the blacksmith!  I’m not sure this type of man walks our streets very often anymore.  What a noble thought to be able to look the whole world in the face… to owe not any man… to be called a worthy friend!  Surely times have changed.  The world has become more complex, more stressful, more subjective.  Or has it truly?  I’m skeptical it has.  Sometimes I think of our present age and find our way and times is a simply a smoky haze we only get lost in, never found.  Surely there are complexities never thought of in the age of man, but these complexities are once known truths melted into muddy illusions.  The noble blacksmith is something of a bygone age I fear.

So how would this man, this blacksmith enter into the new year?  I think he would continue doing those three monumentally difficult things: toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing.  Something tells me he isn’t about to try the Atkin’s diet for the 5th year running.  He has his sights on something far more rich and far more challenging, to have that “nearly” impossible virtue: integrity.

For me this upcoming year, having integrity would mean coming to grips with the fact that I need to take continual steps to become more like Kierkegaard’s “Sacrificed Man,” of whom this world, through all ages continually think is silly.  I need to be not ashamed of the fact this will sound like utter nonsense to those who don’t profess this Man to be their Creator and Friend.  Yet I would hope that they, like those children coming home from school, would love to see my flaming forge and hear my bellows roar, watching my burning sparks fly like chaff as I worked.  And I would love them regardless of how ‘out of date’ or ‘simple’ they thought I was, or whatever face they carried or humors they brought for baggage.  No condemnation from the blacksmith, no hate, just service in faith.  I need to work that faith like a heavy sledge, measured and slow, not floating through the breeze like a rainless cloud.  I need to beat at it to make it ring like the village bell tolling for all to hear: I, indeed I, rely on one name alone for my comfort and hope: Jesus Christ.

No resolutions once again this year’s twilight for me.  No wistful, yet resolute hope for a change of habit.  Nothing except perhaps to toil, to rejoice, to sorrow….and also to remember this, so wonderfully said by William Gurnall in the mid 1600s:

It distills a sweetness into all the believer hath or doth , when he finds any comfort in his bosom, any enlargement of heart in duty, any support under temptations – to consider whence came all these, what friend sends them in.  They come not from my own cistern, or any creature’s.

O it is my God that hath been here, and left his sweet perfume of comfort behind him in my bosom!

my God that hath unawares to me filled my sails with the gales of this Spirit, and brought me off the flats of my own deadness, where I lay aground.

O it is his sweet Spirit that held my head, stayed my heart in such an affliction and temptation, or else I had gone away in a fainting fit of unbelief.  How can this choose but endear God to a gracious soul.

Chesterton’s Bed

Confession:  I have guilt issues.  I seem to be saddled with a constant companion on my shoulder that whispers incessantly, “get this done….don’t forget that…don’t be so lazy…don’t do this, its a waste of time…”  I wonder how many deal with this?  I would venture to guess that if many currently do not, it will eventually become an epidemic as this post-enlightenment culture continues to evolve   I do suspect that it secretly is already an epidemic…though concealed in some faux virtues.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton was a fantastic author.  I might even say he is among my very favorites.  I’d certainly go so far as to say that he is an author that today’s Christian readers should absolutely read…but won’t (which is whole different issue).    His writings and essays encompassed a great many things besides faith.   His unique style, full of wit, wisdom, deadpan, and irony, speak to truths often hidden or muddled in societal fog.  Though I think his “Everlasting Man” was his best work and worth looking at intensely, I think his minor essays are also little gems, and here is one entitled “On Lying in Bed”:

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic apparatus on the premises. I think myself that the thing might be managed with several pails of Aspinall and a broom. Only if one worked in a really sweeping and masterly way, and laid on the color in great washes, it might drip down again on one’s face in floods of rich and mingled color like some strange fairy rain; and that would have its disadvantages. I am afraid it would be necessary to stick to black and white in this form of artistic composition. To that purpose, indeed, the white ceiling would be of the greatest possible use; in fact, it is the only use I think of a white ceiling being put to.

He goes on for a couple paragraphs about how wallpaper isn’t scriptural and Michaelangelo was probably lying in bed when he first imagined the incredible imagery of the Sistine Chapel.  But he then returns to the philosophy of lying in bed and its resultant reception…

The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous that the exaltation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality. If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics. Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays, for cleanliness is made essential and godliness is regarded as an offence. A playwright can attack the institution of marriage so long as he does not misrepresent the manners of society, and I have met Ibsenite pessimist who thought it wrong to take beer but right to take prussic acid. Especially this is so in matters of hygiene; notably such matters as lying in bed. Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to be regarded by many as if it were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning. It is upon the whole part of practical wisdom; but there is nothing good about it or bad about its opposite.

Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle. A man’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change. Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon. This alarming growth of good habits really means a too great emphasis on those virtues which mere custom can ensure, it means too little emphasis on those virtues which custom can never quite ensure, sudden and splendid virtues of inspired pity or of inspired candor. If ever that abrupt appeal is made to us we may fail. A man can get use to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to these possibilities of the heroic and unexpected. I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.

Some things of note here I’d like to emphasize.  Here is one: “If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.”  In my case, and the case of many others, I think this is the root cause of the guilt regarding not just lying in bed, but a whole plethora of activities that our current society would deem as indolent.  When we go for a walk, why do we do it?  These days it seems that a majority do it in response to a mandate of health or obligation to a pet, not necessarily to interact with nature or to whistfully imagine as one strolls along.  When we go for a drive, why do we do it?  Perhaps its a bit irresponsible with gas the way it is today to just “go for a drive” with no inherent reason, yet I remember hearing about the fabled “Sunday afternoon drive” that families used to take.  Why did they do it?  Certainly not to go to Walmart or “I have to” errands.  We live in an age that not only requires reasons for doing everything, but if you aren’t doing certain things or not supplying reasons for other things, you receive pressure from the society at large that you are a waste – get to work!  Produce!  …of course all this coming from a society that watches hours and hours of reality television.  (I won’t be hypocritical and label watching reality television as a waste of time, though.  You can make that fairly obvious judgement call yourself….)  Ce la vie.

Chesterton does label early risers as misers, but I’d also like to point out I know several people with the gift of being a morning person and they aren’t necessarily misers.  I may agree with Chesterton in this: because they get up early, they have a much greater chance at becoming misers.  But again, this is highlighting the idea that one doesn’t get up early simply to get up early anymore…one gets up early for a reason that may or may not be virtuous.  In doing this, some lord it over those that don’t and getting up early becomes an act of pride, not nature.

Ok, so this isn’t a rant against being productive, don’t misunderstand.  Instead, I am attempting to honor a quiet, sacred space.  Creativity lives there.  Peace lives there.  Have we as humans outgrown this?  Why do we need to remember and protect these ideas, instead of lambasting them (and in my life, feel constantly guilty whenever I approach them)?  Why…to dream.  To create.  To breathe.  To center.  To contemplate.  To make up stories.  To “paint the white ceiling” as Chesterton suggests.  How whimsically beautiful.  But alas, as I suggested at the beginning, it is difficult to free oneself from the notion that if you are not working and accomplishing, you are becoming a waste to society.  Here is a tenuous balance, and Chesterton masterfully approaches it in his last paragraph and offers a caution:

For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed (like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done in bed (as, for example, the professional harpooners of whales), it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional. But that is not the caution I mean. The caution is this: if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick. But if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man. If he does it for some secondary hygienic reason, if he has some scientific explanation, he may get up a hypochondriac.

A final confession: No I didn’t write this from my bed.  I probably should have.

Unearthing EWB – Dawn

COMPOSITIONAL CONTEXT

The summer before I moved to Seattle in 2007 I decided to send a couple pieces to several choirs in the Northwest region, including choirs like Choral Arts, Opus7, and The Esoterics.  Now as most composers may tell you this generally is a bit of a gamble and often a waste, for conductors of fine ensembles are inundated with manuscripts from composers trying to find performances.  Most often, the scores sit on the conductor’s piano, glanced at, untouched, or skimmed and filed (maybe even in file 13).  So I knew this, but I took it to be an opportunity at minimum to get my name in the ear of these fine choirs and their conductors.

At the time, Choral Arts was transitioning between two fantastic conductors, Dr. Richard Sparks (currently at University of North-Texas) and Dr. Robert Bode (conservatory at University of Missouri, Kansas City).  My scores were of secondary importance to a choir during an important transition and they could have been lost in the shuffle, but somehow they made it Robert’s box and waited patiently for his perusal.

Richard Sparks, Robert Bode, Eric Barnum

I got a call in August of 2008 from Robert, who I hadn’t met, and we hit it off immediately.  He had a proposition (he wouldn’t say it was risky, but I would! and am still grateful to this day), for me to compose a short piece for their upcoming “Mornings Like This” album, set to a poem written by him.  I instantly said yes without even pondering.  It was an honor to be asked, but to be nearly guaranteed a spot on a professional recording on a label like Gothic is truly a gift for a young composer.  But, the caveat was he needed it quick.  How quick?  Lets just say quick.  He sent the poem on a Friday.

I sent the piece to him on Sunday afternoon.

I don’t mention this to boast about how quick I can compose a piece, but to share my deep belief in the inspirational quality of Robert’s poetry.  This was our first collaboration and we have done many others over recent years i.e. Healing Heart, Carol of the Angels, Conflagration.  Each time feels as though I am transcribing music already present in the text, not necessarily adding anything special of my own.  He and Thomas Hood (1799-1845) seem to be the poets most resonant to my heart.

In 2010, Dawn was chosen for one of Conspirare’s fantastic Carillon concerts by Craig Hella Johnson.  Craig and I subsequently published it through his series with G. Schirmer.  You can find it to order:  (HL.50490262)

ELEMENTS OF STYLE
(…E.W.Barnum not E.B.White)

From the door’s soft opening
And the day’s first sigh,
Filling the room,
I see before me
A life of doors,
One opening on another,
Doors upon doors,
And sighs upon sighs,
Rising in a tide of mornings,
Rising, until that final sigh,
And the last morning,
And the last holy breath,
Whispering “this…”

The instant I read the poem I thought Scandanavia.  Not sure why, and I usually don’t second guess my instincts.  So I attacked the poem with composers like Alfvén and Stenhammar as my guides.  I wanted to capture both the natural daylight breaking over the horizon, but also the existential idea a new day represents.  Though the existential element is more obvious in the text, I thought I could amplify it yet further by spending most of my time focusing on the light breaking forth idea.

I tried to do this in a couple of ways.  Immediately comes the obvious technique of starting with few voices and adding parts individually to create more and more color, culminating in the rich sonority of an F major chord (which I sometimes think of as the color blue).  The idea of light gradually coming is self-evident in the text “doors upon doors, sighs upon sighs”.  I choose to use this section of text as a spring board into the climax, not only with a repeating rising vocal line transferred from part to part, but also with harmonic tensions created from some unresolved suspensions.  All this resolves in a surprising minor climax, not major.  I think this gives the glory of each dawn a sense not of just joy, but also of mystery and longing.

The end of the piece essentially is an extension of an aleatoric technique I use from time to time.  In this particular piece the word “this” is repeated over and over again, overlapping in a cluster creating the imagery of a light.  Meanwhile a wavelike repeating figure is sung in the lower voices.  In total, one should get the feeling of light reflecting off the gentle waves of a body of water as the sun rises slowly above the horizon.

BETWEEN THE NOTES – MEANING

I haven’t seen too many sunrises, to be honest.  Sunsets have been easier for a night-owl.  Sunrises are glorious things though when you do the work to get up early enough.  It always seems to be worth it ….maybe I should do it more often.  Dawn brings with it possibility.  A newness.  A cleanliness.  The return of the sun has a fresh warmth too it as we shield our eyes from the bright light.

Robert focuses particularly on the aspect of renewal and the possibilities a novel day always presents.  All things are a mystery as you look ahead, but with the rising sun, a special feeling often fills your heart:  hope.  It seems like this poem is a perfect answer to the famous Thomas Hardy poem of hope: Song of Hope.

O sweet To-morrow! –
After to-day
There will away
This sense of sorrow.
Then let us borrow
Hope, for a gleaming
Soon will be streaming,
Dimmed by no gray –
No gray!

While the winds wing us
Sighs from The Gone,
Nearer to dawn
Minute-beats bring us;
When there will sing us
Larks of a glory
Waiting our story
Further anon –
Anon!

Doff the black token,
Don the red shoon,
Right and retune
Viol-strings broken;
Null the words spoken
In speeches of rueing,
The night cloud is hueing,
To-morrow shines soon –
Shines soon!

The piece Dawn is the tomorrow Hardy speaks about.  It is today!  Today is here and with it brings something new with its unpredictable prism of possibilities.  Dawn also hints that this gift will continue if you choose it.  Hope is born anew each morning.  Mercies are new every morning, if we look to the light.  And when the light rises, it shines light on blessings all around us.

We travelers, walking toward the sun, can’t see

Ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessing now appear, risen

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

– Wendell Berry

How We See

“Paradise Gardens” (Mt. Rainier), Marc Adamus

“How we see is a very personal thing.”  Marc Adamus.

It is a funny thing to truly enjoy something, just enough to be slightly above average at it, just knowledgeable enough about it to speak bravely, and perhaps just enough to create a drive to do it on a regular basis.  Certainly I have seen music be this ‘something’ for a great many people, which is wonderful (and horrible).  But a side effect of this is people begin to develop a healthy dose of over confidence, sometimes comical, often irrational.

For me, that special ‘something’ is nature photography.  I love doing it, think I have an eye (which is up for debate), and think I know what I am doing…probably enough to be annoying to people who truly have experience and the technological knowledge.  Never all that serious or dangerous, this over confidence prevails as long as you never come in contact with someone masterful so that you have no choice but to chuckle at yourself, your naivete, your misguided notion of expertise.  I think this ‘dose of reality’ chuckle is a wonderful and healthy thing.  I personally have Marc Adamus to thank for a proverbial punch to my photo-ego.

This isn’t a completely new experience for me.  During my stint in Seattle I had the honor of hanging out with a few fantastic photographers, perhaps most notably Jim Garner, owner of J. Garner Photography and ranked as one of the top 10 wedding photographers in the world.  http://www.jgarnerphoto.com/

Jim Garner

Besides being freakishly talented at the craft of photography (especially light), he is one of the kindest and most visionary men I’ve ever been around.  I consider myself insanely lucky to have met him and spent some quality time.  If you are interested (and you should be) check out this short interview with Mark Lutz where he talks inspiration and experience: http://www.digitalweddingforum.com/blog/an-intimate-interview-with-jim-garner

So Jim’s emphasis and expertise is photographing people and their experience, although I’ve seen some nature work from him and have been astounded.  That being said, I have always thought myself poor to below poor at photographing people (maybe even awful), which is fine.  So instead, my nature photo-ego continued, especially with the help of practicing in the northwest where you could have a toy camera and get beauty.  I remember walking markets (i.e. Portland Saturday Market) and seeing vendors selling large-print nature photography and never being too impressed either.  The photos were never all that subtle and they reeked of Photoshop.  Some were good, sure, but…my nature photo-ego continued further.  I have ended up a few good ones here and there along the way though, for instance:

Hanging Lake, Eric Barnum

I can’t remember how I came across Marc Adamus’ photography, but if you were in the room when I did, you’d probably have thought you were watching a bad firework show with a bunch of 5 year olds with all the “ooo”s and “ahhh”s you would have heard.  Please visit his beautiful site here:

http://www.marcadamus.com/index.php

I thought to myself, as I think most would almost immediately… “Aha! The pungent odor of Photoshop fills the air,” followed by a wave of skepticism.  I dug in to his bio to find out if he mentioned it.  Not only does he mention it, he talks very succinctly:

Today, the most frequent question I am asked as a photographer is not whether I use Photoshop (obvious), but how I use Photoshop. There is a great misconception among the public that photography like mine is somehow “created” in Photoshop, quite possibly because of exposure to too many Hollywood graphic effects, videogames, etc. I point out that throughout the entire history of the photographic medium one’s technique in the field must be perfect. This has not changed today. The abilities that define great photographers are first and foremost how to seize the moment and make it theirs, reacting quickly and precisely to often rapidly changing situations. No amount of processing in today’s digital darkroom can ever fix a bad composition, an out of focus image, create great light or change a mid-day sky into a sunset. No matter how much processing I apply post-capture, I have to be in the field 250 days per year on average doing everything possible, everything all generations of photographers have done, honing my skills and collecting days and weeks of failures before that rare moment shows itself and the successful initial capture is made.

He continues  to develop a stance over several paragraphs of Photoshop philosophy that details the complexities of the entire process of photography, from before you click, to post-processing.  He concludes solidly:

Anyone who thinks of digital photography as a ‘crutch’ of sorts, simply does not understand these processes and the precision with which they must be executed in-camera as well as in processing.

As we’re now into the second decade of the new millenium, the debate that started 20 years ago with the introduction of Photoshop – whether or not to use it to ‘manipulate’ the initial capture is disappearing. The public perception always lags behind the state of the art, but finally most people have come to tolerate and even respect the digital art, realizing that the relationship between reality and photography does not have to die with it. Still, it’s very unfortunate if completely predictable that there are a few who still cling to the belief that the image that comes strait from the camera is the only ‘real’ photograph, and everything else is chalked up to manipulation. Those people may not have any comprehension as to the roots of photography – those who knew Ansel well would tell you he would undoubtedly be a Photoshop guru were he alive today. At the very least though, these people have yet to come to grips with one of the fundamentals of history itself that teaches us the inevitable – those who refuse to evolve and embrace new ways become themselves obsolete. No one is ever going to come along and do away with digital post-processing. It’s here to stay, so we may as well learn the facts and learn to embrace it as part of the art.

Ok ok, so I was in the group of naive photography consumers who is skeptical of major post-processing techniques.  BUT! I think it isn’t a sin to be turned off by what I’ll call “noticeable” perhaps “egregious” Photoshoping similar to ones we’ve all seen at markets and craft fairs.  In Marc’s case, it is obvious he is a master of the process – the whole process – and I think, as an art connoisseur not only wasn’t I distracted, I was drawn in to his “journey into wilderness.”  I couldn’t stop being amazed by one after another.

One special thing for me is that I have been to many of the places he has pictures of on his website.  It became comical for me to compare his photos of beautiful places to ones I had taken …photos that until I saw his, I was fairly proud of.  I wasn’t necessarily disappointed in myself, I just laughed at my amateurism.  Now give me grace everyone as I show not my best, but just two examples that show you what I saw:

1. The Oregon Coast, head to head.

Eric:

Oregon Coast, Eric Barnum

Ok, a normal “captured the day and location” sort of shot.  Not bad.

Marc:

“Fade to Black” – Oregon Coast, Marc Adamus

Uh…hmmm.  Ok, that is toooooo close to call.  We’re gonna need a tie-breaker:

2. A random stream, head to head.

Eric:

Random stream in Oregon, Eric Barnum

Classic “slightly out of focus, but believe me, I was trying to get the moving water, so it was hard” shot.  Nice.

Marc:

“Illumination Forest”, Marc Adamus

Verdict:

I think the best way to say it is thusly:  I found myself remembering the places, their magic, their intimacy, their brilliance, the smells and sounds in the air… remembering everything… better when looking at Marc’s photos than looking at ones that I had taken.  Astounding.

Several times on this blog I have highlighted what it means to be a “real” artist.  Perhaps even highlighting the difference between a “real” artist and and “ridiculous” artist.  It is truly a gift to share the air on this planet with some special people who have the innate talent, the drive, the means, and the spirit to become great, fantastic artists.  People like Jim Garner.  People like Marc Adamus.  Whether it is photography, music, theater, painting, etc…it seems to me we should not only enjoy their work but seek them out.  Find them.  Enjoy them.  See the joy of what it means to be a master and applaud the sweat and sacrifice it took for them to get there.  And secondly, we should use their work as examples for our own as we learn and stand on their shoulders.  I look forward to try and capture better photos, to see beauty clearer, to capture it and enjoy it.

“Paradise Forest”, Marc Adamus

__________

postscript:  All photos remain the copyright of the photographers.  Please visit their websites.

33

Here I sit, now 33 years of age, having today (as nearly every day) consumed approximately:

Besides being made famous by all forms of numerologists…like Scottish Rite Freemasons…and the Ku Klux Klan…and Dan Brown…and Nazis…(um…yay), 33 remains an interesting number.  Lets set the esoteric aside for a second.

Did you know that water boils at 33?  …according to the Newton scale, of course.

How about some Old Lace and element 33?  Arsenic that is.

Maybe I should finally sell my Honus Wagner cards that I’ve been stashing away…

Maybe I’ll celebrate today by watching the first Battlestar Galactica episode:  33.  No, I probably won’t.  I think I’d rather go to the dentist.

That being said, if I could, I would visit the galaxies in reality, maybe one of these two:

M33

or B33

Ah yes, when was this first seen:? 1933.

Oh, p.s., on this day in 1933, Austrofascism began.  Thanks Engelbert Dollfuss! What a guy!

And don’t forget, in 33 anno domini, “a financial crisis hits Rome, due to poorly chosen fiscal policies. Land values plummet, and credit is increased. These actions lead to a lack of cash, a crisis of confidence, and much land speculation. The primary victims are senators, knights and the wealthy. Many aristocratic families are ruined.”  (Wikipedia, how scholarly of me). Sounds like America recently, maybe more than a little.

And finally, there are of course a significant number of connections between 33 and Jesus Christ, most obviously how old he was when he was crucified and resurrected (which most likely was not in the year 33 anno domini).

____________

In the end, it is interesting and fulfilling to use special days like this to think back on faces, smiles, places, songs, hearts, home.  I want to dearly thank all who have participated in this, my story, thus far.  Each character in it is an amazingly complex individual that adds light like a prism to my life narrative.  Thanks to my dear God for these years, for being born in 1979 so I got to meet you.  Think about how special and wonderful that is to be living now with the specific people around you!

I am blessed.

We are blessed.

And, if you don’t believe it, ask Tom (because he had all the right moves).

 

Gravity is…

Gravity is…       What?

I find this to be an incredibly important question.  I think it is fascinating to have come so far with science and technology…knowledge has greatly increased… yet we still have a veil between us and that which invisibly surrounds us, which holds the universe together, which makes the stars and planets move in harmony, which keeps our feet on the ground…that which makes apples fall to the ground.  What is it?

In 2003, Dennis Overbye wrote a short essay for the New York Times titled “What is Gravity, Really?”  He began like this:

”Gravity . . . it’s not just a good idea. It’s the Law,” reads a popular bumper sticker.

Gravity is our oldest and most familiar enemy, the force we feel in our bones, the force that will eventually bury us, sagging our organs and pulling us down, but for all its intimacy, it is a mystery.

He goes on to highlight the story of gravity, from Newton to string theory, through Einstein.  He even mentions Cardassian expansion and other near-crazy theories.  In the ultimate moment of the essay, he quotes Dr. Sean Carroll who poignantly says:

…and none of our current ideas is standing up and declaring itself to be the right answer, so we have to be bold.

I will be bold and offer a unique suggestion.  It isn’t entirely something of my own devisings,  and has been hinted at a number of places in literature, most notably by our friend Dante Alighieri in the early 14th century work “Paradiso.”

Dante's 'Primum Mobile'

When Dante reaches the last (ninth) physical sphere in Canto XXVII, he finds that it is in fact moved directly by God himself.  Not only this, but more importantly this movement thus causes ALL physical spheres it encloses to move.  He says this:

This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.

As in a circle, light and love enclose it,
as it surrounds the rest and that enclosing,
only He who encloses understands.

No other heaven measures this sphere’s motion,
but it serves as the measure for the rest,
even as half and fifth determine ten;

He ascends thus further (actually ascends may be an incorrect term, what if we say transfigures further?), and reaches the very abode of God Himself.  In these final moments Dante desperately tries to put it all together…to see how the spheres work together…to see and fathom the fullness of existence.  He saw “Of the High Light appeared to me three circles, Of threefold colour and of one dimension, And by the second seemed the first reflected As Iris is by Iris, and the third Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed.”  How incredible.  I even composed a piece awhile back about this unbelievably glorious moment in literature called “the Wheel that Moves the Sun and Stars.”  Ultimately, at the close, Dante says this:

But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

So, what do we know moves stars, planets, our sun … any mass?  Gravity?  Let’s ask the question like this:  once set in motion, what is holding the movement of all things in harmony?  Gravity?  What if it was Love itself (notice it is capitalized here).  The Love that moves our hearts to love, moves our hearts to sing – could it be that is what moves the sun?  Could it be that this Love is moving everything, holding everything together, in some divine harmony?

A commission for Texas Choral Director’s Association I am finishing up is once again using the text of a favorite poet of mine, Robert Bode.  The piece is actually about a forest fire and it is called “Conflagration.”  Yet the fire is only the first half.  The last half is what happens when the landscape is covered with ash after the fire is over.  On second thought, not with ash…with nutrients… waiting to be used by green shoots bursting forth.  Robert closes his poem like this:

What is this power
That pulls the tree
From the forest floor?

…that gathers the seas
and scatters the stars?

Is it the pull of the sun?
Is it the breath of tides?
Is it the gravity of Love?

It is the pull of the sun,
It is the breath of tides,
It is the gravity of Love.

What makes the tree burst forth from the ground toward the sun?  It loves the sun.

What makes the tree cling to the earth digging roots deep?  It loves the earth.

The tree stretches and holds fast because of gravity – because of love.

We stretch forth, sing, smile, give, receive… we are moved like a wheel, all at one speed.  I feel like we can fight or participate in this great work though.  There is a bit of a choice here for participation.  Participate in what?  Let me answer by asking a final question.  Why in Dante is love suddenly capitalized to Love in the end?  Why is it capitalized in Robert’s poem?  Just a thought.

What if, really,

Gravity is…     Love.