Friday, December 29, 2006

sublime

Catherine and I were telling niece Hannah about a friend of ours who has Asperger's Syndrome. I'd been trying to get Catherine to understand that person a bit better by having her imagine being in a group where everyone relates everything to a color — This is so delicious and blue-green! -Really? It seems more green-blue to me... President Bush's Iraq policy is so orange since the last election.... — you understand the words that everyone's saying, but it seems they're talking nonsense much of the time. You don't attach emotions to things others do. You know that a melody is beautiful, no doubting that; but it seems to make everyone else feel some way about it that you don't feel. You recognize its beauty — why should it make you cry? That's what it's like to have Asperger's.

Hannah said, catching on, that therefore this friend would never understand, say, why she would get tears in her eyes during the prelude of Julie Taymor's Broadway staging of The Lion King.

I said, "Exactly. And I know exactly which part made you well up in tears, and get a lump in your throat: it was right when they swing into the second chorus and the giraffes come out."

Hannah was amazed: "That's it! How on earth did you know that?"

"Because Edmund Burke was writing all about it in 1757."



I was talking about a central work of criticism, by the statesman, parliamentarian, writer, and all-round great guy Edmund Burke, called "A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful." It laid the groundwork for Gothic literature from Mary Shelley to Bram Stoker to Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast. It explained why those old Roman ruins are so romantic-looking to us, and it kicked off a trend of actually building fake ruins on private estates. It explained why roller-coaster rides are so attractive, and why Titanic was a blockbuster.



It's been a huge presence in my life and work. I thank Steven Kellman, one of those remarkable professors one brags about having had, for introducing it to me. Read it in its entirety.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

don't fly away

I've been listening to Seals & Crofts. They had an enormous influence on me at a young age. When I was a kid, we had free access to the entire collection, from Toscanini and Sir Thomas Beecham to Rodgers and Hammerstein to the Kingston Trio and the Four Lads to Crosby, Stills, & Nash and Simon & Garfunkel to Herb Alpert, and on and on. They were all together, roughly categorized, and bursting with strange resemblances to each other.

Moments of sheer musical pleasure abounded: Toscanini's breathless intro to Traviata, the Kingston Trio's haunting guitar-and-bongos rendition of They Call the Wind Mariah, Richard Rodgers's sparkling, no-words-needed entrance of the King's children in The King and I — my ears were tuned to music. I listened obsessively to the way that the pans were assigned on all the Partridge Family albums: bass and kick in the center, toms absurdly panned left to right, backup singers gathered round, acoustic guitar on left, electric on right, keyboards somewhere in back, and David Cassidy just a little to the right of center, every single time. I tried to figure out why Benny Goodman's group almost always stuck a sixth into any chord, minor or major. I wondered over the single 5/4 measure in Bei Mir, from his Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert: was it an accident? an editing thing? a real, intentional 5/4 measure?



And I listened to Seals & Crofts. Their faces looked out from the album covers, out into the distance, radiating health and integrity and grooviness and wisdom. The hair was long but neat; the beard was trimmed; the music spoke of things important in the late sixties and early seventies, but didn't yell. No doubt drugs were involved, but they weren't trumpeted or celebrated. The lyrics were literate, and often referred to the Baha'i Faith. A line (from East of Ginger Trees) that quoted from their scripture is never far from my mind: "Be lions roaring in the forest of knowledge, whales swimming in the oceans of life." That struck me, because they seemed to be such masters at everything they touched. Listening to them, I wanted to be remarkable. That very song ends with an insistent, simple rhythm that has threaded its way through my own compositions; I use it whenever I want to symbolize God's calling of us to a new place.

That potent combination of hippie freshness with adult mastery reminds me now of my parents. Looking back on it, how could I have missed this? They reacted to Seals & Crofts because that's who they were. They were a little old, and treasured civilization too much, to have been hippies, but they were hippie sympathizers. I have an image of my dad with long (but neat!) hair, a full (trimmed!) beard, a jacket and turtleneck with a peace symbol prominently hung on leather, standing next to my mom, whose long hair echoed the dramatic drip of green paisley flared pants she was wearing.

I guess most people's knowledge of the duo starts and ends with Summer Breeze, Diamond Girl, and Hummingbird, which I just heard in the supermarket 2 different times last week. That may be what kicked this whole thing off. Just the two words "Summer Breeze" say it all. You hear about 12 different voices, perfectly limning a minor-11 chord, with a druggily fuzzy guitar line in the background, surrounded by an orchestra. It sounds summery, breezy, effortless, and relaxed, and yet much more sophisticated than, say, anything Frank Sinatra was doing in 1971.



The Seals & Crofts modus is to take an extremely catchy hook, some insightful but not groundbreaking lyrics (the lyrics to Summer Breeze are, after all, as close as you're going to get to a hippie tribute to Mirabel Morgan), and a pleasing, roaming melody. They then sing with gentle voices that interlock perfectly: Jim Seals with that odd edge, Dash Crofts with a smoother, boyish voice. After the verses and choruses have lodged themselves, they then embark into new harmonic territory, progressing to a point where the original key is almost lost, and then they deposit you on new harmonic ground that you'd never have expected. You feel as if you've been taken for a delightful ride. It's that harmonic adventure that gives the bridge of Summer Breeze its breezy lift, and gives Hummingbird its soaring joy, and Ginger Trees its groovy telos. "Where on earth is this going to land?" you think. "Ahhhhh! there."

What wonders can be created, with a horde of superb studio musicians, with two really great leaders holding the baton!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

more daily archives

check out my previous journals going back to 2004.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

unorthodox

...for casual holiday parties? the closeness and comfort of family and dear friends?


Barukh Atta Adonay Eloheynu Melekh Ha-olam She-hekheyanu Ve-kiymanu Ve-higgi'anu La-zzman Ha-zze

Sunday, December 3, 2006

musician's december

We're gearing up for Musician's December, a time when husbands and wives don't get to spend as much time together as they like (balanced out by Musician's Spring, when they get to go to, say, Panama, or Vienna, or Thailand, for a month at a time).

This time through, though, things are a bit easier because of Catherine's job. She quit her office and its poisonous atmosphere, and now will be doing field work for them, researching in courthouses across the state. So we get to be together much much more now, and, after a two-and-a-half year period of jet lag — going to bed at eleven and waking up at seven — we now have a more sane schedule that allows us to play gigs ungroggy.

Catherine and I hosted our first Thanksgiving dinner (in a house where it looks like we'll be staying for at least several more months, in keeping with the original plan). Our goal was to do all the traditional Thanksgiving stuff, but with a twist. Dressing, but with wine and cranberries and cashews; potatoes, but coated by lavender; carrots, but with apricots and onions; Green beans, but with ginger and orange butter; salad, but with whole wildflowers and mint. 'Twasn't perfect, but we had a wonderful time with a huge crew of family and friends.

I marvel that Catherine and I found each other: feeling the same way about how to spend money and time, and about the moral value of having one's own version of everything.