Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros*

In Creativity, Death, Happiness, Life, Music, The Examined Life on February 1, 2014 at 11:00 am

It is late in the evening and I am especially missing my youth. This is probably why I don’t stay up late. Why subject yourself to such a thing? It isn’t so much missing the days of youth as it is creeping closer to the remove of those day altogether, the permanent remove of everything, frankly. What else would explain why, after so many months absent, I write these notes. It is late at night when we need one another most.

I haven’t been here, …the house, for some time and looking at the statistics I see that a couple days ago I had a spike in site visitors. Yes, even with endless months of no participation there is still a struggling readership. A few days past was the one-year mark of my friend Michael Dingle’s death and maybe that explains the spike. I wrote about Michael a few times. Perhaps friends visited to refresh his memory. A year later I still miss him and miss more the magic potential of not growing old that he somehow represented. We would run our ropes and I would belay him, or him me, and we would climb strong as if there were nothing else. Such is the course of climbing–and the course of friendship. Those moments were singular, or at least seem so, presented by that old trickster, memory. But eventually his luck ran out. And, now on a lonely evening, I think on that and wonder at it all.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” wrote Fitzgerald. Despite training and wishful thinking I lose grip on the present and drift away, receding from the present. Agreeing with Sandburg, there are too many of me and they all are incomprehensible tonight, all of them in the past tense seemingly, waving goodbye.

But that is the stuff of navel gazing and that never really gets a person anyplace but thinking of their belly and that is never good. Fat or skinny, belly pondering is a dead-end, I suspect. Instead, tonight I listen to music for joy, Edward Sharpe and the merry band of music makers. I am grinning to this music like an idiot and perhaps that is the key. Good music and a smile on one’s face. It is enough to be satisfied with that. But it is late and I get silly in the late hours. “Come dance with me,” sing the band, “over heartache and rage.” Okay then. Tonight I will dance on, over heartache and rage, to the sunny fields of morning. Thank you for listening. Good night.

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*  Yes, I lifted the title. Sort of. For a real writer-thinker, you’d be well served to read Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts On Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. 141634

Since we’re on the subject: there comes along occasionally a personality that fills my heart with joy and aspiration, such are the emotions when I watch Alexander Michael Tahquitz “Alex” Ebert, lead-man for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I can understand why he is held in almost cult-like status by his fans. Here, listen to the band’s best known tune. Turn up the volume and decide for yourself.

(I’m sorry if you’ve received multiple copies of this post. My tools are rusty and I sent things out before they were ready.)

In the Beginning was the Word

In Books, Creativity, Music, Writers, Writing on January 8, 2013 at 6:00 am

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Since we seem to be leaning toward the literary of late, I thought I would share a piece I wrote a very long time ago, twenty-one years to be precise. It was published in the Baltimore Sun, March 25, 1992. (Hey, it’s my blog, as I auto-plagiarize as I see fit.)

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Words are all we have ~ Samuel Beckett

The mechanics of reading follow roughly along these lines: The cones and rods of the eye are struck by photons of light reflected off the words on the page. This activity, transmitted by way of the optic nerve, is received as a hail of electrical blips somewhere in the lobes of the brain. A neural string of cells explodes, registering and triggering a response. Somehow, understanding, or cognition, results.

That, of course, is an approximate rendering of the process. Very little about it is actually understood.

The event that set me thinking along these lines occurred over a leisurely breakfast recently. It was one of those rare mornings when the children were quietly occupied elsewhere and the coffee in my cup was still warm. My wife sat reading across from me. I heard a sniffle, and, not moving my head, I looked up to see a tear rolling down her cheek. In a moment she was up and searching for a tissue, while I sat pondering the silent triggering of a tear duct.

My wife was reading the popular autobiography of Lewis Puller, Jr., “Fortunate Son.” Puller returned home from Vietnam without his legs, his buttocks, and parts of both hands. That’s enough to make one cry. But his account does more than simply rouse the reader to sympathy. It is artistic beyond imagery. Puller’s voice is both lyrical and humane, a voice speaking to what is best in us all, and to what is not best. That is why my wife cried. That is one of the things good writing does; it affects us.

Music can be just as potent. It is said the young Beethoven could easily discern what it would take to reduce his parlor audience to tears and then proceed to do just that. Afterward, he would mock those in the audience, calling them spoiled children and fools. I suspect he found their response to his music superficial, working as he did at a level of unfathomable artistic understanding.

Later, the Romantics exploited music’s emotive quality. One critic stopped calling it music altogether. It is all emotion now, he claimed.

The written word, however, is more directly related to the intellectual process of the human species than is music. Most of us do not think in musical terms. We think in words. (Fine musicians do both, I am told.) Most of us think in a type of linear verbal progression, almost from left to right. Stop reading this now and try to think in any other way.

It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.

Historically, civilizations arose when organized knowledge encountered adequate methods of writing. This first occurred in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, where business transactions required documentation. Archaeology has discovered the records of ancient traders, but it not the stuff that stirs the emotions or provokes the intellect. I have heard it debated among reasonable and educated adults that civilization, by definition, is not civilization until the poets arrive.

In the beginning was the Word. Scholars debate the intent of the gospel writer in this passage and wonder over the influences at work here. But I venture that the poets understand the meaning. Any of us alive enough as to be provoked by the written word knows the wonderful and mysterious tapestry that is one human spirit alighting on another. That is the core of the artistic experience and is the beginning of everything we value about ourselves as humans. It is rejuvenating to think that with the word we ceased being beasts and became human.

Ernest Hemingway, in a cogent moment, observed that long after the temples have decayed, the written word will survive, even flourish. This is not the word of the daily transaction. He was referring to the word that sparks the neural cells and makes one rise in search of a tissue, the word that sends the telltale tingle down the spine, as Vladimir Nabokov noted.

It would be a shame if the biologists were ever to explain the process.

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Thanks for reading and take care,

D

Leaning in to wisdom.

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom, Writing on February 25, 2012 at 11:12 am

I’m writing an interview with the photographer Thatcher Cook . He just published his first book, Black Apple.  We’re wrapping it up and in a couple of weeks the interview will be published at Obscura Press.  I’ll let you know when it goes up. Thatcher is a thoughtful and reflective individual. Those interested in the creative life will, I think, appreciate the interview.

I mention this because one of the questions I asked him–Who are your influences?–got me thinking. An artistic or intellectual influence is a profound thing. There is that quote by Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” An influence is a connection to a tradition, like the old-world apprenticeship but perhaps without the hands-on mentoring. I think about the artistic and intellectual influences in my life this way. It seems a fashion of constructing meaning in an otherwise (potentially) vacuous arena. The writing life, the wanderings of the documentary photographer, the hours of studio work the artist puts in, or the musician alone in her room practicing. These are painfully lonely pursuits. If for nothing else, reaching back affords a sense of community.

If you’ve been following these dispatches you know there are a handful writers and thinkers who have left their mark on me, inspired me, who have taught and guided me–and continue to do so.  I think it is good to reflect deeply toward those who have traveled the path before us. I say “reflect deeply toward” and not “reflect deeply upon” for a purpose. It’s only a turn of phrase, but when I think about, say, Henry David Thoreau, or E.B. White, I picture myself leaning into them, listening to them. It is an image that links us, like Plato leaning into the circle as he listens to Socrates at the Agora. This is my teacher. What is he saying? Last summer I spent some time in the north woods of Maine. I was on the trail of Thoreau. I camped at Lilly Bay, a spot he mentions in The Maine Woods. He was my guide and inspiration and it seemed his voice clearer while in his footsteps, as I leaned in.

And there are others. There is Montaigne and Nietzsche for their thoughts, Schubert and Beethoven for their guts, Wallace Stevens for the art of the word and Audubon (and Thoreau) for a life of meaning in nature. E.B. White teaches me the art of the essay (so much to learn) and, more contemporarily, Jim Harrison shows me what a life lived large should look like. My point is, it is important to draw upon wisdom and example deeply if you wish to experience and perhaps build upon what has come before you.

I am getting preachy, and I don’t care for that. I must climb down off this box of soap. To cite one of my mentor influences: But what do I know? (Montaigne)

This Land is Your Land

In Creativity, Memoir, Music on June 21, 2010 at 2:25 pm
Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie

We saw Arlo Guthrie perform in Ogunquit last night. He was wonderful, a witty, and compelling musician. He is the traveling bard, teller of tall tales and entertainer. He is also a link to a tradition, two traditions in fact. For he is born of the Great American Hippy Tradition, for lack of more graceful prose. He performed at Woodstock in 1969. I was fourteen and at camp in Northern Michigan. Camp was remote, but we still learned of the concert that summer. The counselors, young men in their late teens and older, heard about it and passed it along. I recall sitting wide-eyed on my bunk and wishing I was part of that strange and exciting world. Guthrie related how he’d been called on stage at Woodstock a day early, and that he was in no condition to perform, citing the atmosphere at the concert: “A lot of hippies…” The audience laughed. He was sporting long locks of hair, every strand now silver-gray. We were still chuckling when he launched into Coming into Los Angles. The words came to me, to everyone, in a rush and we broke into song, “Don’t check my bags if you please, mister customs man.” Certainly I was not the only one transported to another time and place.

The other tradition Arlo represents, also on full display last night, is that of his father,

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

folk-singer and activist, Woodie Guthrie. He talked lovingly of his dad and since it was father’s day, he played many of his dad’s songs in tribute. He spoke of his father’s book, Bound for Glory, and talked poignantly about his last years battling debilitating physical infirmities. He was all the while and to the end, creative and productive. Arlo performed several songs unknown to anyone outside of  family and archivists, created during this period. Arlo is not strident, at least he was not last night. But his father’s songs, were–and still are, in the finest tradition. They are songs of race and immigration and struggle; songs about the land and what is fair and about justice. Perhaps most about justice. And tellingly, they easily could have been written today. As Arlo said, “Man, the world still sucks.”

I marveled at the rich legacy on display, these two traditions, Woodstock and Woodie Guthrie, embodied in this one man. It prompted me to reflect on the current paucity of response to today’s challenges, the lack of rational activism, the voices of reason. Where might I now find a community of idealists, let alone the visionary bard?

…the meaning of doing a thing seriously…

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Photography, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on May 16, 2010 at 5:26 am

I was considering an application to grad school last week. I’m 54 and too old (or disinterested?) for school. Maybe. I dropped out of graduate school three times. That was many years ago, when the kids were younger. I think, really, I used them–the kids–as an excuse. Actually, I’m not very good at taking direction. I like to do what I want to do. I’m spoiled that way. And I have authority issues. Graduate school was too confining. But as I was explaining to a friend recently, I’m scattered, I’m all over the place and think some focus would serve me well. He took issue with my logic. He’s a recently retired academic, so he has some perspective. He argued that there are not enough people who simply are curious and pursue their curiosities, wherever they may lead. Academia is good at giving people direction, sometimes too good, he suggested. He has a point. I am a genius at self-imposed discipline. But I am a rebel at other-imposed discipline. I am curious and want to chase my curiosities down the rabbit hole. As I confessed, I’m spoiled that way.

I was saying, I was considering an application for a graduate program and one of the questions asked that I list my influences, intellectual and scholarly influences specifically. It was a good question. It gave me pause. I read a lot and always have. But, as I said, I’m all over the place. As an essayist, I’d have to list Montaigne, E.B. White , and Guy Davenport, as influences. Thinkers include Nietzsche and Thoreau. I’m a photographer too, and in that discipline I consider Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Eugene Smith as top drawer influences. Years ago, I studied classical music and counted Villa-Lobos, Sor and Segovia as influences. No matter the activity, I’ve attempted to recognize who has gone before me and learn from them.

Aside from the list making, the question gives one a chance to think about the meaning of doing a thing seriously–to write, or read, compete, compose, study, invent, discover–and how to measure that activity. If history is a progressive continuum, we are all subject to being measured against it. Has history made itself known personally? If you’re a photographer, whether you realize it or not, you take pictures with an established image-making knowledge. You’re a landscape photographer: Ansel Adams. A journalist: Cartier-Bresson, And so forth for all the disciplines. The application made me take notice of the voices whispering through the fog of the past.

For me, books are the most visual reminder of history’s influences. When I look at my shelves, the names and titles comfort me, like a friend’s hand on my shoulder. Above I used the phrase,  if history is a progressive continuum. When I see books on a shelf, or listen to a Beethoven sonata, history becomes the present, the wafer becomes the body and the wine the blood. If history is a continuum, I am, in these moments, one with it, one with the river in which I am wading. That is the nature of art. That is what makes a thing lasting and the opposite of the ephemeral. The influences of history, when we recognize and manifest them, cease to be passed. They become present. When we embody them, they are the end of history.

Persephone returns!

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Mythology, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on May 2, 2010 at 5:49 am
Persephone, the abduction.

Persephone, the abduction.

Spring settles on me with an irrational anxiousness. Maybe, to think about it, it’s not all that irrational. The symbolism of Spring is a big deal. For instance, in ancient myth, the onset of Spring is due to the return of Persephone, Zeus’s daughter, to the earth. She has been abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld. (She was a babe.) Zeus demands her return, a demand Hades obeys, knowing it best to keep Zeus off his back. But first Hades tricks Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds, which ensures her return. Before her abduction, Persephone tended her garden, planting seeds and generally being a goddess of nature, the original Earth Mother. When she escapes the Underworld and wicked Hades, she returns with flowers. Spring arrives. But alas, she was tricked into eating those seeds and so, sadly, she will eventually return to Hades. And the Earth will grow cold. Again.

I said Spring makes me anxious. Its arrival seems a big deal in some fashion. And as a big deal, I feel beholding to do right by it, by the season and what it symbolizes. That’s why I said it is irrational: I’ve laden Spring with a good deal of portentous heaviness. Or maybe not–maybe I’m not being irrational. Maybe being serious about rebirth and escaping winter and living to see another season should be taken seriously. The ancients thought so. Persephone escapes to return to her aggrieved mother, Demeter. She escapes Hades and his unmentionable Underworld demands. Most of all, she returns to Mother Earth with renewed life–things of a serious nature all.

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It was in this context that I took a magic marker and drew a line about four feet long, horizontal, on the wall of my office-man-cave. To the far left  of the line I wrote Antiquity. To the far right: Death. The end of the line for me. Then I started to make some notes along the line, left to right. Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, moving right, through the dark ages with the Black Plague death of William of Ockham, to the happier days of the Renaissance, Alberti, , Erasmus, Michelangelo and my personal favorite, Montaigne, fast-forward to the Romantics, Beethoven, Brahms and the bunch, to Goethe, Liszt, rushing to the moderns, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Stravinsky, faster now, Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, Cage, Nabokov, and so on until the line stops. Game over. Under all this I put big labels, Iron Age, Dark Ages, Industrial Revolution, Age of Flight and so on. Lastly, I made note of the major things: the Gutenberg Bible, Columbus, Landing on the moon, the atom bomb, the silicon chip.

Spring. The time-line. A life and a context. The more I think on it, Spring is a big deal. It is a reminder, a connecting thread to the tapestry of our humanness, the time-line to which we all subscribe. Spring ushers in fresh growth, a return to life and the overarching scheme of things.  On my small and personal scale, I am simply curious about where I fit in, about the history of the species and how I am delivered to this place, here in the sun, observing Persephone tend her garden.