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The Chinese fortune cookie promised me….

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I recently opened a Chinese fortune cookie and read: “You will succeed someday.”

Everyone at the table chuckled.

“After all, she’s almost 75 years old. If she hasn’t made it by now…”

or

“Well, that’s a nebulous promise, isn’t it? When? And at what?”

I kind of liked the message myself. After all, how many Chinese fortune cookies today contain more than vague platitudes?

Besides, there are more and more of us who keep trying to succeed at a very advanced age. What about the 105 year old woman who recently threw out the first pitch at a Marlins baseball game? What about Harry Bernstein, the fellow I mentioned in a recent post who wrote and published four really good books after the age of 96? Or composer Elliott Carter who was still composing and conducting until his death at the age of 103?

Before I go on, I guess I should try to define success. For a writer, it seems obvious that it has to mean at least some positive criticism, some significant impact on some one else who has actually read the book(s). In other words, it is made up at least partly by being known. By fame.

At least in its aspect as fame, success today has become more and more desirable. Ironically, it has also become more and more common. I mean Wikipedia alone must contain hundreds of thousands of entries. People kill for it and die for it. Most often, they reveal all for it. To be famous today is to be one of a mob.

And then, when you consider the universe Neil de Grasse Tyson has been talking about, the Cosmos seen only vaguely by science, and almost not at all by the rest of us, well, does it matter at all?

Still, the Chinese fortune cookie promised me success. And that’s kind of cool.

 

 

The Silence of God

The music soars to a climax, and ends. The audience sits breathless, silent. The silence is entire, beautiful in and of itself, and very, very short–just before the applause begins.

Karen Armstrong, a British author and commentator known for her books on comparative religion, writes in “Louder Than Words,” (Literary Review) about the power of silence from a theological point of view. The article is a review of Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

The silence of God is about the Divine as utterly incomprehensible. There is nothing we can say. All our language about God is meaningless because the Divine is beyond all our language–all our understanding.

But what about that pause when the symphony ends? Does art participate in a holy silence, the silence that is God? Almost certainly, I think, silence is present and central to art, literature, music.

Said William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

In the meantime, most of us must rely on art.

Spanish Revelations scan

Paying attention

Like many people, I’ve been caught up over the last week in the Boston marathon explosions and all the emotions they inspire. So many people have written eloquently about what happened, about the marathon and Boston. I have nothing of consequence to add, except perhaps to mention a couple of links that have meant a lot to me: “Messing with the Wrong City” by Dennis Lehane in the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/opinion/messing-with-the-wrong-city.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0, and runner Dan Mungerrun’s post at http://mungerruns.blogspot.com/2013/04/in-praise-of-boston.html.

There is one small yet not at small all thing I’d like to examine briefly. It hasn’t anything directly to do with Boston.

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Watching the interfaith service on television today, I was struck by Yo Yo Ma playing in that intense concentrated way he has. It doesn’t matter whether the music is complex or simple, whether the concert is a celebration or an occasion for grief. He is always there entirely, paying attention. It reminded me of a recent post by painter Deborah Barlow in her wonderful blog, Slow Muse. Her starting place was a quotation from Susan Sontag.

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.

That’s what Yo Yo Ma always does. I’ve never been a runner, but I suspect it’s what runners do too.

Maybe it has everything to do with Boston. Maybe it’s what Boston is doing.

Bach, like life, is so many things

WQXR in New York City is doing Bach 360 from now ‘til Easter. That means all Bach every day. It’s all wonderful and amazing. Bach is always so many more kinds of music and experience than I remember.

At the same time, I discovered two very different experiences of the composer’s music. The one is recounted on the WQXR website. At Stalin’s funeral in 1953, Sviatoslav Richter, one of the century’s greatest pianists, was asked to play the piano. He chose the longest and densest prelude and fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The authorities tried again and again to interrupt him to make way for another pianist, but Richter, involved in the music, could not be distracted. He was finally removed bodily by armed soldiers, certain he would be shot.

Then I ran into the very different experience of another very different musician:

“For the past eight years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning to me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, and a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.”

-  Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows, at the age of 93

 

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A fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier

Small things: like socks

It’s always been fascinating to me when something very small makes a big difference – when a note is held  just a beat longer and the song is changed.

A week or more ago, on National Public Radio’s “The Story” — which I only hear when I happen to be driving between two and three in the afternoon–an ex-con related how his life was changed by one of those small things. Ray Materson had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison for drug-related thievery. He was deeply depressed and angry at everyone, especially himself. The small thing was a pair of striped socks in the colors of the University of Michigan.

I guess they’d been recently laundered, but when I hear about socks worn by convicts in a California prison, I think of the smell of men’s feet. But Ray Materson thought of his grandmother’s embroidery and his own love of the University of Michigan. He decided to make a letter ‘’M” on his baseball cap, in lieu of not being able to go to the Rose Bowl and watch his team contend. He’d sewn on buttons so he saw no reason he couldn’t embroider.

It was the beginning of a career in art. Each emblem, most of them no larger than 2 ¼ to 2 ¾ inches and with 1200 stitches to the square inch, became more intricate and more extraordinary. Today, he has work in museums and galleries all over the country. His life has been transformed.

Small things can be very wonderful.

When I’m 97 ….

 

Every so often, when I’m driving through Vermont in the afternoon, I find myself listening to the NPR program, “The Story.” Recently, host Dick Gordon interviewed Frank Glazer, someone I knew nothing about except that I remember his name on an LP somewhere in my collection. Glazer is a pianist, and one who’s had quite an illustrious career, making his debut at New York’s Town Hall and  playing with the Boston Symphony, with an extended professional career at Eastman School of Music. For the last thirty plus years he’s been “artist in residence” at Bates College in Maine.  But that’s not why Gordon was talking to him. It seems that Mr. Glazer is 97 and still teaching and performing.

Most wonderfully, from my point of view, he’s still getting better. Last year he played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in performance. That’s an extraordinary feat for any musician, much less one of 97.

Asked why he hasn’t retired, he responds,

“The reason I’m still doing it—all my life I wanted to be able to like what I heard when I play. Now I like it. Why should I quit now when I’m hearing what I always wanted to hear, but didn’t always hear?

My technique is as good as it’s ever been. I’m still getting better. I know better how to learn a piece, how to let it speak so that I finally get it. And the audience gets it—the essence and spirit of the music.”

What about arthritis? Nearly everyone is at least a little arthritic in their old age. He says his was never so bad that he couldn’t play through it, and now it’s gone altogether. Even the wear and tear that once affected his playing has diminished.

Glazer hopes to perform all 51 of Chopin’s Mazurkas and all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in eight programs in his 100th year.

And I hope to be able to enjoy hearing myself play when I reach 97.

 

The world as soundscape

My computer has been disabled-again-this time for nearly five days–but while the digital universe was silent, there was music, and especially last Friday night at a Warebrook concert where a flautist graced the stratosphere; a tenor declared love in German—and when the German is Richard Strauss speaking of love, it is most definitely about love; and the tenor returned to reinterpret life according to Vachel Lindsay, William Butler Yeats and local composer, Sara Doncaster. This is not to discount the delightful Irish tunes arranged by John Corigliano and rendered by the flautist and a perfect soprano. As they say, and with truth, you had to be there!

 
Sounds, especially organized sounds, make life so worth living.

 
Which brings me to the review by Jeremy Denk of “The Great Animal Orchestra, Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places,” by Bernie Krause.
We’ve all heard how nature sounds, some of us from walking in a meadow or sitting quietly in the woods, listening. Others of us from playing one of those audio tranquilizers for the sleepless. But Bernie Krause has been listening for decades, making recordings and archiving wild soundscapes:

Krause offers endless odes to sonic nuances: the timbres of waves crashing on the world’s beaches, the echo effects brought on by dew, the acoustics of night and day, the dry, hot rattles of deserts, the way baboons bounce their voices off granite outcropping, to send them deep into the forest.


He’s examined the many uses of sound in nature—from mating and hunting to self-defense and the marking of territory—all those and more. He’s listened to a wooded landscape before it was logged (selectively), and after, and while its devastation was difficult to see, it wasn’t hard to hear. He’s come to a fascinating conclusion: that “the healthier the habitat, the more ‘musical’ the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.”

 
Often, sound is social. For example, he describes spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators about the location of any one individual. A jet soars overhead and the toads get out of sync. Their auditory shelter is temporarily lost and hawks swoop down, able now to locate individual singers.

 
Suddenly music, sound, has a deeper dimension and one more intimate to our earth and vital to its survival. Friday night’s concert was far more than it seemed. I already knew the lyrics contained birds and moonlight. I could hear that.  But the music and all of the earth’s soundings are kin. Listening is a far more delicate and ambitious task than I’d thought.