Archive for the ‘On Beauty’ Category

I first met Pauline Oliveros over 35 years ago in the Main Gallery at CalArts in Valencia, California. The occasion was a performance of her piece “El Relecario de los Animals”. I was in undergraduate composition students in the school of music; she was an iconic, accordion playing, deep listening, female icon of new music.

I never became a huge fan of Pauline’s music. But, with respect to Pauline as a human being, I am a great admirer. 

First of all, as to her musicianship, Pauline was a consummate musician of the highest order. She was simply a fantastic accordionist. The thing, though, is not so much about her playing but about her listening. Pauline’s deep reverence for the simple act of listening was breathtaking. Her “Deep Listening” workshops change the lives of men and women around the world. Her tiny little book on that subject is full of exercises and practices that have tremendously enhanced my ability, not only to hear music but, to hear the world around me. I am profoundly grateful to Pauline for teaching me to listen. Although my wife, some of my friends, and my boss may well not understand that because I have a tendency to speak before listening, when it comes to hearing subtly I am extremly adept and I owe it all to Pauline. To the, now bygone, spirit of Pauline Oliveros I want to express my gratitude and thanks.

Pauline’s will to help others did not stop with listening. Her project to use computer technology for the betterment of human beings led to the creation of the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI). AUMI uses sound generation tools and a webcam to allowing users with very limited mobility to create music both alone and in groups. This project was not about ego, not about listening, and not about Financial gain. It was purely a selfless project to make better the lives of disabled people. It was, quite simply, a beautiful deeply moving humanitarian gesture. So, to the, now bygone, spirit of Pauline Oliveros I also want to express my admiration for your selfless love of people.

Pauline was born in 1932. She was a performer and composer as well as an accomplished philosopher. In the ‘60s, Pauline was among many of the most innovative musicians, like my mentor Mort Subotnick, at  San Francisco Tape Music Center. In the  ‘80s, she began her “Deep Listening” practice to which I am so indebted. 

Pauline was a constant collaborator with Stuart Dempster and many other amazing musicians. We sometimes think of Brian Eno as the guy who created ambient music.  But Pauline and Stuart are really the ones to create the first landmark recordings. 

Pauline has most recently been a Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was the Milhaud Artist-in-Residence at Mills College. In my time, her work at UCSD and her visits to CalArts gave me a remarkable exposure to a remarkable woman. So, to the, now bygone, spirit of Pauline Oliveros I finally want to express my thanks for your willingness to share your aesthetic with all of us whose lives you touched.

It’s funny, you know, that I never really got to know Pauline well when I was actively involved in the  new music composition community. My real “friendship” with her came later in my life, believe it or not, through Facebook. Pauline took time from her busy schedule to actually interact with me about my listening practice, to discuss AUMI, and to teach me much, probably, without even knowing it. 

That’s the way Pauline was. She gave so much to other people, even me. She will always have my gratitude and she will always be in my heart. I will miss her joy, her selfless devotion to humanity, and, her generosity in teaching us all the art of listening to the subtle beauty of our world.

Rest In Peace o’deepest of listeners.

Advertisements

Not another person in the world expresses love more beautifully that Newberry. Michael, I love you, man!

Today I have every reason to be thankful for a wide array of wonderful doctors, technologies, friends, and, of course the blessing of being married to Patt Bilow.

If you are one of the regular readers of my blog then you know that I am among the least intellectually consistent people you will find. Although I don’t take the Bible literally, I am very active in my synagogue. Although I tend to be skeptical about most things spiritual, I spent many years as a disciple of Paramshansa Yogananda and the Self Realization Fellowship. Although I am really bad at it, I tend to be as much of a rationalist as my love for Judaism, my love of Kriya Yoga, and my love of all of the amazingly wonderful religious friends that I have in my life allows.

The whole point of writing this blog is that I do struggle with my rationalism in relationship to my interest in, and openness to accepting, other people’s viewpoints. This blog is all about my struggle and my skepticism. It’s intended to allow me to share my wavering thinking with all of you, in the hope that if even one of my posts helps someone else I will have done a good thing. So, once again, as I struggle with rationalism and religiosity, I wanted to talk about Thanksgiving and the ability to build a life of gratitude whether or not one is religious.

This year, I want to do this by sharing my personal set of gratitudes.

One of the most interesting things I’m grateful for is that someone invented a medical technology called MRI. What kind of guy would even think about hitting a human body with a magnetic pulse to get all your atoms to line up and then to image that body by measuring how long it takes them to go back to the way they were! The guy must be a genius. What completely blew me away though was to realize that the genius who invented this technique has almost diametrically opposite beliefs to mine.

You have seen me write here, several times before, that I typically don’t care much for beliefs in creationism or those who deny evolution. What blew me away was to find that Dr. Raymond Damadian the “father of MRI” converted to Born Again Christianity with Billy Graham in the 1950s. Now, if you think I have conflicting thoughts and feelings and views, this guy makes mine look like nothing.

I really don’t understand how a guy with this level of brilliance could be an advocate for creationism; even having written about it in his book. That said, he is clearly a genius, has done more for the medical profession than almost anyone, and has now done more for me than most other people in the world have done for me because, only through his invention, were they able to find my tumor.

One would expect that I would be a fan of a guy who started his college career as a violinist at Juilliard and ended it as one of the most important inventors of a medical device ever. But you certainly wouldn’t expect me to be that much of a fan of a creationist. So the first thing that I want to say is that I am thankful for this guy, and the second thing I have to say is that my respect for him shows once again that I should not make value judgments about a person because of their religious beliefs. I am thankful that I’ve had another opportunity to come to realize this. Dr. Damadian has given me two new things for my collection of gratitude.

  • One, I am grateful for MRI.
  • Two, I am grateful for yet another lesson in religious tolerance.

I’m also indebted to the guys who invented Stereotactic Radiosurgery. Swedish neurosurgeon Lars Leksell first described it in a seminal paper in 1951. His work led to the Gamma Knife. But Dr. Barcia-Salorio in Madrid is the first guy to use something similar to what I just had done. He used a fixed cobalt device rotating around the patient’s head, not for tumors but for blood system malformations. Then Osvaldo Betti in Buenos Aires developed a machine, where you sit in a rotating chair and a linear accelerator (linac) moves in non-coplanar coronal arcs around the isocenter, which is the math wiz way of saying “the thingy ya wanna hit“. I layed on a flat bed which I think came from Federico Colombo in Vincenza who described a multiple non-coplanar arc concept that moved the linac around a couch in 1984. So, gratitude comes again. This time for:

  • Three, I’m grateful for the noble, honorable, ethical, life-affirming uses of radiation that stand in opposition to all the negative results of nuclear science.

But these folks are all people of the past. The present is full of blessings as well. My Neurosurgeon Dr. Burchiel, my Radiation Oncologist Dr. Kubicky, and their entire staffs are medical blessings of the present. The dosimitrist and medical physicist are mathematical blessings of the present. Even my overly expensive American medical insurance system is a blessing in its own way. These are gratitudes 4, 5, and 6

  • Four: I’m grateful that I live in a city where I can drive for 20 minutes to OHSU, a world-class teaching hospital with great doctors and a budget that allows them to own world-class instruments.
  • Five: I’m grateful that mathematics, medical science, and physics have merged in ways that can save, rather than destroy, lives.
  • Six: I’m grateful that I get to work for a company that gives me acceptable medical coverage, despite the costs.

But, clearly, the present has many more blessings than the doctors and scientists. More important than anything else is the people who I call friends and colleagues who have been so supportive:

  • Seven: I’m grateful for the myriad friends of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Mormon, Unitarian Universalist,  and other traditions, who offered their prayers for me.
  • Eight: I’m grateful for my Objectivist, athiest, and other non-religious friends who offered such encouragement over the past few months.
  • Nine: I’m grateful to live in a community, here in Portland, that offers me the extraordinary friendships of people like Traci, Cindy and Tom, LeeAnn, Jon and Mair, Julie, Ann and Robin, Peter and Yukiko, Michele and David, Mike, and many, many more.
  • Ten: I’m grateful for WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter which have given me connections to my family, friends, and colleagues near and far; and which have allowed me to reconnect with my past in a profound way.
  • Eleven: I’m grateful for my own psychological makeup which gave me a sense of humor, the strength to be powerfully brave in the face of fear, the willingness to work through my feelings publicly, the ability to remain lighthearted amidst darkness, and the ability to turn everything into humor.
  • Twelve: More than anything, I’m grateful to have Patt Bilow by my side, no matter what.

These twelve gratitudes certainly have a spiritual component. Arguably, they may have a religious one. But, I think it’s fair to say that it is not necessary to have a specific view of God in order to maintain these 12 senses of gratitude. Certainly it does not require one to be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or atheist, or anything else. It doesn’t require one to meditate. It doesn’t require one to pray. It doesn’t require one to forsake anything. It doesn’t require one to embrace anything. At least, in all of those cases, it doesn’t require any particular religion or belief system.

All it really requires is to look around, to seek blessings in everything around you, to embrace yourself for who you are, to refuse to give into negativity  (which I am too oft prone to do), and to appreciate your life for what it is, what you can accomplish, and who is surrounding you to support you along the journey.

So this Thanksgiving I want to once again remind us that it is not necessary to have a specific Godhead in order to feel thanks. If you are religious, that is great.  But please don’t think that your religion, or any religion, or any individual believe system is the only path to grace. You don’t need anything supernatural or mystical to feel a sense of gratefulness and thanksgiving, you need only look around and appreciate.

Happy Thanksgiving!

image1

In a world daily ripped apart by violence, hatred, and pain; a world where religious zealotry and irrational dogma routinely takes precedence over love and respect; a world where individual achievement is routinely sacrificed on the altar of conformity; Newberry and his art shine like a spotlight on the all too often ignored values of individual human existence and the power of striving for personal greatness.

Every day, I live in the presence of an array of pastels, prints, and paintings that help me remember how beautiful and noble it is to strive to be one’s best. These are “Our Newberrys”. These are our inspiration.

I remember how touched Patt and I were when, as a show of compassion and concern following Patt’s breast cancer surgeries, Michael called to tell Patt he was naming one of his female nudes in her honor. That was not about money or publicity or the “trader principle” of his Objectivist ethics.  That was simply an expression of love from one individual human soul to another. We remember that to this very day.

I love the non-representational works, the Judaica, the sculpture, and, really, every piece in my collection. I even love my own glasswork and photographs. But, only Newberry reminds me, every day, that my individual human life has intrinsic value. For that I will always cherish his art and his friendship!

.

.

It is always wonderful to find something beautiful that we thing we have destroyed still lives!

.

Why Evolution Is True

Reader Lou Jost told me that a very rare hummingbird, the Blue-Bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus), thought to be extinct since 1946, has just been rediscovered in its very restricted habitat—the páramo in the Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia. It’s a beautiful creature, and the authors who discovered and described the finding (reference below, no link), took the first ever picture of this bird alive (all other photos are apparently of dead specimens).

According to Wikipedia, the bird is known from only 62 museum specimens and was last seen alive 69 years ago; but I noted that the entry has been quickly updated to reflect the rediscovery (despite Greg’s beefing, Wikipedia is good for some things!):

Surveys during 1999-2003 failed to detect the species. A brief survey in February 2007 and December 2011 failed to detect the species but survey efforts have not yet been sufficient to list this species as…

View original post 495 more words

Last night Patt and I had the rare opportunity to see Michelangelo Antononi’s film “L’Avventura” as a 35mm film print at the Northwest Film Center. It was shown as part of the Italian Style exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. A few years ago, I wrote of my love for Antonioni and his first color film “Red Desert“. Today, I’d like to tell you why L’Avventura is one of my favorite films of all time.

Antonioni seems, to me, to be the opposite of many earlier Italian filmmakers. Before Antonioni and his generation were the Italian neo-realists like Visconti and Rosselini. Neo-realist filmmakers share some common production traits such as using amateur actors, on-site cinematography, outlines instead of formal storyboards and scripts, socialist themes about the working class and their struggles, and the physical effects of historical events. As one would expect from the name  “neo-realism” these films were almost a form of interpretive historiography.

Antonioni’s films, however, use well-trained professional actors (Monica Vitti!!!), expensive locations, highly stylized aesthetics, upper class protagonists, and a strong focus on the psychological (versus physical) effects of events. To my mind , Antonioni is the antithesis of a neo-realist. But I love Rosselini, so, clearly being antithetical to Rosselini and Visconti isn’t what I love about L’Avventura. That is simply one among many of the things that makes Antonioni and this particular film, unique.

Honestly, L’Avventura is pretty light on plot-lines. But here is what Janus Films has to say: “A girl mysteriously disappears on a yachting trip. While her lover and her best friend search for her across Italy, they begin an affair. Antonioni’s penetrating study of the idle upper class offers stinging observations on spiritual isolation and the many meanings of love.” That’s the extent of it. The “missing girl” is “Anna”, her lover is “Sandro”, and the best friend is “Claudia”. Sounds pretty damn dull, huh? My wife sums it up even more succinctly. The Patt Bilow synopsis is this:

Anna disappears and Sandro is a scumbag“. You pretty well nailed the plot, babe. That is one reason I love you so much! 🙂

Seriously, though, the film does have a bit more structure than I’m flippantly implying. L’Avventura should be viewed more as a “composition” in the musical sense than as a traditional film. In that context, L’Avventura could be said to have five “movements”. Each movement, then, has it’s own unique mood and environmental structure. Each ends with some event that changes how we view the characters; each alters the narrative direction. This is not my own private analysis. It is widely accepted that there are 5 sections to the film.

  • 1. Anna goes to the Island
  • 2. The search of the Island, for Anna
  • 3. Claudia and Sandro follow Anna’s trail
  • 4. The new relationship between Claudia and Sandro
  • 5. The return

The film also has much more character complexity than simply to say that Sandro is a scumbag. He is. But he is also weak, more insecure than he is willing to portray, needy, and angry. Sandro cries at the end of the film and, oddly, Claudia comforts him. This implies that he is weak, lonely, and for all his money, alienated. So, frankly, is Claudia. After all, she does become Sandro’s lover much more readily than one would hope.

So, ok. Look… It’s not much of a plot. Surely, that is why it was booed at its first ever showing at Cannes in 1960. But, it does have structure and meaning; even if its greatest meaning is little more than to say that everyone suffers from post-modern alienation. There are more important aspects to the film and I’ll readily admit that it is not plot that makes L’Avventura great.

What then? Does it have a super-secret encrypted message? Well… I can’t answer that question any better than the greatest of film critics, Roger Ebert. In 1997, Ebert said this:

These people were bored by a lifestyle beyond my wildest dreams. When I taught the film in a class 15 years later, it seemed affected and contrived, a feature-length idea but not a movie. Only recently, seeing it again, did I realize how much clarity and passion Antonioni brought to the film’s silent cry of despair.

His characters were parasites whose money allowed them to clear away the distractions of work, responsibility, goals and purposes, and exposed the utter emptiness within. It is possible to be rich and happy, of course, but for that you need a mind, and interests. It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained. “L’Avventura” becomes a place in our imagination–a melancholy moral desert.

This is not all that different from the many other interpretations which say that L’Avventura is a direct shot at the Italian upper-middle class who Antonioni the socialist really does dislike. But, when it comes to wasting time and money, the upper-middle class may also be an allegorical representation of a larger problem. I propose that it is. I propose that the film forces us to ask the larger question of meaning in human life in general. How do we make a meaningful life? Antonioni does not answer that. But he does do one heck of a good job of demonstrating that idleness, inaction, lack of productiveness, complacency, and meaningless sexual promiscuity are not the constituent parts. About that, we must ponder long and hard.

I still have not explained why I love the film. Unless I simply enjoy static plot-free films about angst, there must be more. So, let’s forget about plot and meaning; let’s focus on aesthetics. There are 3 fundamental aesthetic characteristics that make this film great. I’ll share them now. Hopefully, you will see why I’m in love with this film despite the minimalist plot and slow pace of its 473 shots.

1. Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to visual detail. As a competent photographer, I think I’m adequately trained to speak to the compositional style in Antonioni’s ouerve. I propose that if you were to print of every frame in L’Avventura, the majority of those prints would contain a near-perfectly composed image. That results from Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to detail.

2. Without being overt or cheeky, Antonioni uses superbly crafted iconography and even simple visual cues in very powerful ways. We begin to see this as early as shot 2. We can tell that Anna and her father don’t have a particularly good relationship because they speak to each other’s backs, with no eye contact. That’s not really the iconography I’m talking about but it quickly demonstrates how Antonioni uses imagery to tell us more than words or action.

Much of the visual, and even verbal, language that is used (in a much more advanced way) to depict allegory in L’Avventura comes from Catholicism. Last night, the entire theater laughed when Claudia, in shot 202, hands Anna’s father Anna’s Bible. He takes it as a good sign that she would not commit suicide. He says: “I believe than anyone who reads the Bible could never do anything so rash!“.That is a sort of verbal joke. But consider the later scene where Sandro purposely spills ink on a young architect’s drawing and then escapes a fight with the young man by scrambling into line with a large group of black-clad school boys and their priests. Ahhh! Saved by the priests!

But, by no means is all the allegory Catholic. In fact, the penultimate (and not so subtle) iconography comes at the end of the film where Sandro is represented by a church tower and Claudia by the cavernous womb of a church. Sexual allegory? Naw… never! 🙂

3.Antonioni borrows an almost anti-teleological aesthetic commonly used in Japanese literature and abstract expressionistic music like that of Morton Feldman. He spends more time on character and psychological effect than enacting plot and action. His camera often stays on a shot for several seconds after the action has ended; creating a teleological version of “negative space”.Like L’Avventura, Japanese novels are often also static, and the same is true of music by an abstract expressionist composer like one of my old teachers, Morton Feldman. like Feldman’s music and Japanese novels, the lack of a temporal dynamism in L’Avventura is actually the source of its utter beauty. Instead of bouncing through quick cuts and fast-paced action, the viewer must watch the film long enough to adapt to its pace and time extension; having settled in to the pacing, we can experience the subtlety and detail almost like a meditation on perfectly composed images floating in a clear lake of temporal stasis.

I don’t just make this stuff up. Antonioni himself explains his philosophy of time, events, and images in an essay called “The Event and the Image“. He states explicitly that he wants to present an “event” and then dispense with it quickly in order to use related images to depict the EFFECT of the event. In L’Avventura the “event” is the disappearance of Anna; the “image” is the entire remainder of the film; imagery and iconography are used to to explore the effect of Anna’s disappearance on Claudia and Sandro. It make for a very beautiful experience if you let yourself have the time to immerse in it.

I’m used to watching this film on a Criterion Collection DVD. Watching the 35mm film print was both good and bad. It was good because it is historically significant and film does have a particular look. Unfortunately, I sometimes found it difficult to read the white subtitles. Also, I was a bit surprised at the lip sync issues and how much the audio synchronization problems bothered me.That is just a characteristic of the available technology. Still, there are plenty of films from long before 1960 that have well dubbed audio tracks. I do have to say, though, that even with the poorly sync’d audio track it was sure a blessing to get to see a film print of one of my all-time favorite flicks!

All-in-all it was a great thing to see L’Avventura on film. Thank you to the Northwest Film Center for showing it, to the Portland Art Museum for letting members in free, and to my lovely wife for being the only friend interested in coming to watch it with me! Now I need another 2 1/2 hours to devote to this film.  I really want to go back to my DVD and watch it with the secondary audio track; therein my old friend and video professor Gene Youngblood provides a play-by-play commentary. It might be time for some serious cinematic geekdom!

THANK YOU, THANK YOU THIRD ANGLE! The “Made in Italy” concert, in conjunction with the Portland Art Museum is one of my top 3 favorite shows you have ever done. For the record, the other two were Rothko Chapel (also with PAM), and China Music Now (with the Portland Chinese Garden). This time, though, I learned a lot as well as listening to what I already love.

The evening began with one of several pieces I’ve never heard, Dallapiccola’s 1951 piece for violin and piano called “Tartiniana II,”  , The piece is a tribute to Baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini. It was programmed first as a sort of bridge between the 20th century and the long history of Italian art music. Personally, this was the piece I found least interesting but I’m not sure i could have selected a better piece to bridge the centuries and I totally get why Ron chose it.

For me, the evening just got more and more interesting as the show continued.

I was most excited to hear the 3rd piece, Berio’s lovely tribute to Martin Luther King, “O King”. It seems to me that Berio is terribly under-performed since his passing in 2003. I’m biased about this piece for 2 reasons. First, it is a chamber setting of music that also serves as the second movement of Berio’s “Synphonia” which I think is one of most beautiful things to ever come out of the late 20th century. Second, Berio is one of the few 20th century composers who I deeply admire but who I was never able to meet. I came close once, when my uncle Mel and aunt Joey took me to see the LA Philharmonic perform several of his works, including my favorite Berio piece “Linea”, conducted by Berio himself. So, basically, I went into the evening expecting to grin for 5 minutes while “O King” was performed; and grin I did.

Backing up a step, I’ll also mention a really amazing piece that I’ve not heard since my college days in the B304 electronic music studio: Luigi Nono’s “La Fabbrica Illuminata,” This is a piece for tape and voice that comes out the electro-acoustic and musicque concrete movements of the 50’s and 60’s. It was realized in 1964 as a protest against Italian factory working conditions. Nono is one of the guys we got to study, moment by moment in Barry Schrader’s electronic music classes because Nono was one of the first composers to create electronic music. Before there was such a thing as 5.1 and 7.2 multichannel audio systems, we used to create music for 4 track tape. Nono’s tape was made from the sounds of factory worked workers that were electronically processed. The recorded material was played back through a very solid 4-channel sound system that reminded me exactly of the old Quad recordings that we used to make. If enough time has now passed that one can call electro-acoustic music “authentic” then this performance surely was.

Even though I was excited to again hear Berio and Nono performed live, it was the 3 final pieces that really made this an extra special evening for me. This is because I found something to adore in each of 3 works whose composers I knew noting at all about. The 3 pieces were “Ganimede”, a 1986 solo viola piece by Fausto Romitelli; Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Ultime Rose”, for voice, cello, and piano, from 1981; and a 2010 piece called “Gr…” for solo bass flute by Oscar Bianchi. Each of these compositions demonstrated the extraordinary innovation that only Third Angle has to guts to include in it’s programming. Romitelli gave Charles Noble a chance to use almost every extended string technique in existence. Bianchi did much the same for the bass flute. And, Sciarrino, surprised me with an extremely beautiful use of cello, some really well timed vocal cues from the piano, and a third reason to respect any vocalist with the guts to tackle contemporary music.

I especially want to send our some kudos with respect to my last statement. In the cases of the Nono piece, the Berio piece, and the Sciarrino piece, I was tremendously impressed by Soprano Catherine Olson. Although a soprano, not a mezzo like the genius I’m about to mention, Ms. Olson’s body language, and to some extent her vocal technique, reminded me of the great interpreter of Berio and Maderna, the wonderful Cathy Berberian. This might be my imagination since Berberian died when I was just out of college, but I could see Ms. Olson singing Berio’s “Circles” and I’d go to hear her do so in a nanosecond!

Mentioning Berio’s great muse, Cathy Berberian, brings me to one last thought. You have perhaps noticed that I have said nothing but positive things about this concert. There is really nothing bad to say. So, I’ll leave you with my one issue. Noticeably absent from this program was the music of Bruno Maderna. I always feel like Maderna is noticeably absent whenever Berio stands alone as Italy’s preeminent contemporary composer. So, if I could add anything to a nearly perfect concert, it would be one extra piece representing the work of Maderna. But, there is only so much one can handle of cool contemporary chamber music. So…. I’m letting it slide and just going to say….

Bravissimo 3A!