January 2008

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The lead article in today’s New York Times, House & Home section, above the fold: The Slow Life Picks up Speed, by Penelope Green. Of course I love reading that the concept of Slow is viral and infectious in the best sense, extending beyond just food, cities and design into other areas of our lives. The creation credo of this blog is a memorable quote from art historian Robert Hughes (you can read it by going to the About page on this blog) and I continue to be inspired by what slow art can mean.

Here’s a few excerpts from Green’s article if you are new to this way of thinking:

The Slow Food movement…essentially challenges one to use local ingredients harvested and put together in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Above all it emphasizes slowness in the creation and consumption of products as a corrective to the frenetic pace of 21st-century life. “Good, clean and fair” is the Slow Food credo, and it has — rather slowly — begun to make its way out of the kitchen and into the rest of the house…Slow Food is now in its third decade, an established global movement with an official manifesto and about 85,000 members in over 100 countries…

Slow, as Carl Honoré, a Canadian journalist living in London, pointed out, is sometimes just a state of mind. His 2005 book, “In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed” (HarperOne), collected all manner of slow movements, from tantric sex to Slow Food to the Society for the Deceleration of Time, a civic group based Austria that once called on Olympics organizers to award gold medals to athletes who had the slowest times.

“Sometimes it’s more of a click in attitude than anything else,” said Mr. Honoré, who once got a speeding ticket on his way to a Slow Food meal in Italy, where the movement was born.

Slow is also an idea, it seems, whose time has come. “When I was researching the book,” he continued, “if you Googled slow movement, there wasn’t anything. As a growing cultural quake it just wasn’t there. Now, of course, there are hundreds of sites, and every week I get an e-mail from a student wanting to write his or her thesis on slow cities or slow design.” As a result, traffic and queries at inpraiseofslow.com, Mr. Honoré’s blog, are overwhelming him, and he’s handing off his slow duties to Slowplanet, a Web site that he and Mr. Berthelsen are setting up together. “The time is now ripe for trying to formalize this slow revolution,” Mr. Berthelsen, the founder of the World Institute of Slowness, an advocacy group based in Kristiansand, Norway, said…In his lectures to corporate Europe, Mr. Berthelsen, urges workers to work smarter, not faster or harder, and to become more aware of the process than the product. “I always lived under the mantra that the fast will beat the big … but the slow will beat the fast.”
In a world on hyperdrive, science is proving him to be right. A 2005 study sponsored by Hewlett-Packard showed that the I.Q.s of workers who responded quickly to the constant barrage of e-mails they received during the day fell 10 points, more than double the I.Q. drop of someone smoking marijuana.

“Fast isn’t turning us into Masters of the Universe,” Mr. Honoré said. “It’s turning us into Cheech and Chong”…

“Slow is just a new word to understand old problems,” Mr. Honoré said. “It’s a re-freshening of ideas that have been there since time immemorial. But there’s a new appeal about the word slow. It’s pithy, it’s countercultural.”

But it may not be American. Mr. Honoré’s publisher in the United States couldn’t get a handle on the word. “They thought it was ungrammatical or something,” he said. Which is why in this country his book is titled, “In Praise of Slowness,” much to Mr. Honoré’s amusement. “Slow is the word that’s escaped from the Anglosphere and attached itself to everything going,” he said, listing a few examples, like Italy’s Slow Cities and Japan’s Slow Life movement, “whereas Slowness hasn’t.”

In any case, evangelists for the movement are coming to New York, America’s fastest city, on Feb. 25. On that day, members of the Art of Slow Living, an Italian civic group, will be handing out symbolic speeding tickets to frantic pedestrians, said its organizer, Bruno Contigiani — that is, if he can get a permit from the Parks Department to organize in Union Square. Feb. 25 falls on a Monday, which, as Mr. Contigiani pointed out in an e-mail message, is a hard day to slow down.

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Alfred Kazin (Arnold Newman/Getty Images)

I’ve only read a few essays by the heralded critic Alfred Kazin, but what I have read I found brilliant. A new biography of Alfred Kazin (by Richard M. Cook) was reviewed by Brian Morton in the Sunday New York Times. Some memorable gems are worth highlighting:

A representative essay by a New York intellectual (Philip Rahv, say, or Irving Howe) is a nimble and intricate blending of literary and political analysis. A representative Kazin essay is something else. His essays often start in the same place — he could tease out the delicate ties between art and politics as deftly as anyone — but then he’ll take a sharp turn, striking off for a territory of reverence and rapture, of awestruck contemplation of the sheer mystery of being alive. In an essay on Thoreau’s journals, seeking to capture Thoreau’s uniqueness as an observer of the natural world, he quotes Simone Weil’s remark that “attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” In an essay on Emily Dickinson, after examining the poem that begins with the line “Because I could not stop for Death,” he comments: “To write of death with this wonder, this openness, this overwhelming communication of its strangeness — this is to show respect for the lords of life and death. This respect is what true poetry lives with, not with the armed fist of the perpetual rebel.”

“Attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” Simone in one of her moments of genius.

Morton knew Kazin personally and isn’t altogether convinced that Cook “gets” who Kazin was. I love the following passage in that regard:

The biographer attributes the critical indifference that met the 1984 publication of “An American Procession,” Kazin’s account of the literary scene from Emerson to Fitzgerald, to “the risks incurred when a critic relies wholly on his own personal impressions and reflections,” rather than on the work of other critics. The book, Cook continues, “is a very personal work. Kazin keeps other critics out to get more of himself in. He insists on being alone with his writers — one-on-one, writer-to-writer, taking their measure according to his lights, his experiences, his prejudices.”

Coming upon this passage, the reader may be tempted to deface the margin with a comment like “What the hell should he be doing?” Being alone with writers is what any good critic does, what any good reader does. It was precisely through his deeply singular, deeply personal relationships with “his writers” — Melville and Thoreau and Emerson and Dickinson — that Kazin produced such indelible criticism.

In his essay “The Writer and the University,” Kazin himself made this point as well as anyone ever has: “Above all, the writer does not work with anyone; he is not a collaborator, he is not cooperative; and it can be to his very peril as a writer if he sacrifices the excruciating precision of his vision.” It’s hard to understand why a biographer who does not instinctively rejoice at the example of a critic who “insists on being alone with his writers” should have wanted to take Alfred Kazin for his subject. For Kazin, you could say, being alone with his writers was “prayer in its supreme form.” At times, one almost gets the sense Cook is embarrassed by Kazin. If this is so, it’s easy to see why. Kazin was passionately “personal,” passionately excessive; he was a virtuoso of the art of going too far. You can see it even in the titles of some of his books. The volume of excerpts from his journals, for example, is called “A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.”

Excess. A “virtuoso of the art of going too far.” Now that’s an approach I can relate to.

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The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned campsites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

–Stanley Kunitz

Thank you to friend and photographer Barbara Gates for sending this poem my way.

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Tarus Mateen, Nasheet Waits, Jason Moran (Bandwagon)

In the “Earth stood still for a minute. Seriously dude, it did” category: My son Bryce came with me on a 2 hour pilgrimage from Boston to Hanover, New Hampshire–Dartmouth College–on Thursday night to hear and see Jason Moran perform with The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and guest artist Marvin Sewell on guitar.) I’ve written about Jason on this blog before, but in case you didn’t catch it I can say it again and again: He is one of the greats. If you ever get a chance to hear him, take it.

Jason has been exploring the deeper connections between jazz and the visual arts for several years. Earlier albums pay homage to the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Egon Schiele and Robert Rauschenberg. Recently he has collaborated with and explored the works of visual artists including Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper.

In the fall I went to Washington DC to hear In My Mind, a multi-media performance that is a tribute to jazz piano god Theolonious Monk. Jason’s latest undertaking, Milestone, continues to explore the boundaries of jazz performance, the audience/performer interface and how the personal and the public sides of an artist weave in and out. The players move around the stage, sit facing the audience at times, just listening to previously taped conversations along with the audience. Jason is moving outside the armature of a typical jazz performance and looking to create a different kind of experience for anyone who is there, including the musicians. And even though Jason’s wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, was not present at the concert, she was very much there in spirit. Her singing and spoken voice are accessed repeatedly, giving the sense that her ambient presence is hovering over everything happening on stage and in the hall.

As Jason describes his approach with Milestone: “We made a full-length theater piece out of an ordinary jazz concert, and Tarus, Nasheet, Marvin and I didn’t really know too much about stagecraft so we got a crash course from Alicia. She was the director and my collaborator as a writer. In Milestone I wanted us to play the part of ourselves almost, and bring the audience inside the heads of this band; show that while we’re up on stage and you’re looking at us, we’re involved in our own examination of you.”

Jason, Marvin, Tarus and Nasheet stayed afterwards to talk about the music. What righteous, thoughtful, soulful men each of them is. When I asked a question about that fuzzy line between the personal and the work of art itself, Jason made a very provocative comment. He said that he cared about content, and it was something difficult for his kind of jazz to provide. Without lyrics, he said, the content is harder to access. With Monk’s music for example it is vital to understand that Monk’s grandparents were slaves, that faith healings were part of his heritage, that the music he made came from his experiences, and that the story of where it came from matters. Jason talked about how he wants to make his own music more content-rich (my phrase) by including and exploring the personal dimension as well as new forms of experiential delivery.

Ah, content. It’s an ongoing question for me as a non-representational artist who values mystery, the unresolved, the uncertain, the unspoken. Jason is extending the frame in which his music sits, exploring new and bold ways to bridge the gap between maker and listener/observer. All the way home, driving in moonlight off the snow covered fields of New Hampshire, I kept thinking of the Seamus Heaney comment about the wiresculpture qualities of Eastern European poetry: “The density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Like the universe, my only answer to all of this is, Yes.

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I’m still sitting in the fragrance of the excerpted passages from the Francis Clines article that I posted earlier this week. This visual image for example has a powerful persistence for me:

For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

So, from a volume of poems by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, here’s a journey into the wiresculptured view.

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My Aunts

Always caught up in what they called
the practical side of life
(theory was for Plato),
up to their elbows in furniture, in bedding,
in cupboards and kitchen gardens,
they never neglected the lavender sachets
that turned a linen closet to a meadow.

The practical side of life,
like the Moon’s unlighted face,
didn’t lack for mysteries;
when Christmastime drew near,
life became pure praxis
and resided temporarily in hallways,
took refuge in suitcases and satchels.

And when somebody died–it happened
even in our family, alas–
my aunts, preoccupied
with death’s practical side,
forgot at last about the lavender,
whose frantic scent bloomed selflessly
beneath a heavy snow of sheets.
Don’t just do something, sit there.
And so I have, so I have,
the seasons curling around me like smoke,
Gone to the end of the earth and back without sound.

(Translated by Clare Cavanagh)

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Like an old friend who drops in and ends up staying a few days, Seamus Heaney has been on my mind ever since I read those few lines I posted yesterday.

Here’s a short poem by him that delights, enchants, creates longing (the good kind.)

Song

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

–Seamus Heaney

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I found a passage from a poem by Seamus Heaney, quite by chance. It stopped me in my tracks:

”The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”

Just coming out of a long period of living life beneath the surface of things, those words cut through to the bone. So I went in search of the poem in its entirety. In the process of looking, I found an article about Heaney in the New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines in 1983. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and this article was full of such insightful gems that I can’t help but share a few.

Heaney is wary of the puff power of words and of the poet’s surface calling, which he senses as especially threatening in America, to offer tidy comforts. At times suspicious of the beauty of his own verse, Heaney, these days, can watch the laurels come. He fights to keep things basic, to re-mind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ”Elegy,” dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself, ”The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”

**
He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: ”What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

”That’s a wonderfully resonant idea,” Heaney says, talking with some of the awe of the postulant himself. ”If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do.”

**
As a poet, Heaney holds with the lesson laid down by Yeats: ”If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”

In his conversation and classes, Heaney particularly cherishes and quotes Wordsworth and Yeats, and prizes their habit of composing aloud. ”Poetry as a revelation of the self to the self,” is one thing he finds in Wordsworth. In Yeats, he says, it’s the relation between the process and the finished poem: ”From the beginning things had to be well made, the soul had to be compelled to study, the images had to be masterful.”

He seems to find advice everywhere, agreeing with Robert Graves’s ”Dance on Words” – ”To make them move/you should start from lightning.” And with Whitman: ”Make the works. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all. Make full blooded, rich, natural works.” From his earliest layman-reader’s enthusiasm with Gerard Manley Hopkins, through Lowell’s critical blessing, then friendship, extended during the American poet’s visits to Ireland, Heaney seems to relish whatever place he holds, promising or small, in the poetic tradition. He hardly pleases everyone. Some critics sensed an early failing – ”a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and the psychological sources of his fear,” as one put it. But others feel Heaney’s later sonnet writings deal well with this. The critic Donald Hall wrote in The Nation of a range of Heaney themes and attributes – love, violence, desire, memory, intelligence -but then he added: ”For all the qualities I list, the most important is song.”

**
Heaney wants to be purged of poets’ tricks and perhaps for that reason he is willing to try to let a layman know how a poem is made. ”Of course, the reward of finishing the thing is pre-eminent still, perhaps,” he explains. ”But it’s much challenged by the actual pleasure of feeling something under your hand and growing.”

Heaney is a poet mindful of what he calls the ”amphibious” nature of Yeats. ”He lived the amphibious inner and outer life so well,” says Heaney. He smiles and summarizes the trick of the poet as if it were in mechanics, not magic: ”Being in two places at once is, of course, the only way.”

The statement is less casual than it seems, for Heaney’s poetry is marked by the amphibious, by the narrative lyric rooted in the outer life of place but nourished from his inner life. What he feels was his first real poem, ”Digging,” may still be, 19 years after its composition, the best introduction to Heaney’s voice.

**
”The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. ”You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”

For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Francis X. Clines
New York Times

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Here’s a midwinter diversion for you. From Slow Muse friend and frequent commenter, Elatia Harris:

3 Quarks Daily is known as one of the blogosphere’s more cerebral haunts, and it occurred to me that habitues of 3QDistan might know a great deal about being broken-hearted by a poem, a song, a building, or most of all an idea. People are okay, too — but are they less interesting and compelling? I’m asking you. I was inspired in this challenge by the Museum of Broken Relationships, a traveling repository of love’s artifacts now in Skopje, Macedonia. The MBR received lots of media attention last fall, but passed us by on 3QD — I hope to remedy that. For some visual inspiration to take the challenge, here’s the link.

3 Quarks Daily

I am compelled by the idea that the enormous cultural thrust usually associated with romantic love has its equivalencies in other domains. I can openly confess to thinking of something other than another person when I hear a love song. For me the object is more typically a particular landscape or the longing for that altered state that happens in a creative fervor. Or of course the total body ecstasy of being with a painting or a building that lands right at the center of me. Maybe true for you as well? (Send your votes to Elatia at elatiaharris AT gmail DOT com.)

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I’m a huge fan of Stephin Merritt, inspiration behind the Magnetic Fields and a slew of other collaborations. He has that Elliott Smith-like proclivity to combine unexpected lyrics with a wide range of hummable music. (I like this description: “bitterly smart lyricism and a musical-survey style.”) The results don’t feel forced or manipulative, just delightfully paradoxical. Like fried ice cream.

And then there is this, a riff on Merritt’s wardrobe strategies, from a recent piece about him in the New York Times:

“I have a strange relationship to variety,” the singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt said recently, as he sat at a West Village cafe meticulously tearing a croissant into little bits. He was discussing his wardrobe — absolutely all of his clothing is in a white-to-brown color palette — but also his career. In music, at least, “I like variety,” Mr. Merritt said…

He started dressing in brown about five years ago. “It’s going really well,” he said. “I had a green shirt that looked brown when I bought it, but I recently got rid of it.” All his pants are khakis. His homes — he has an apartment in New York and house and studio in Los Angeles — are decorated in brown and bright red. “If I didn’t make these decisions ahead of time, because my tastes tend to be sort of eclectic, I would have disasters,” Mr. Merritt said. “This is not an O.C.D. thing. This is a way of warding off what other people regard as horrendous, egregious errors in taste.”

Apparently, he’s right. “I knew him during the all-black phase, I knew him during the Hawaiian-shirt phase, I knew him when he wore, I think it was a 20-foot-long braid up on his head,” Mr. Handler [fellow musician and author of Lemony Snicket] said. “I admire the all-brown.”

This is not as fanciful or trivial an issue as it may seem. The All Brown approach sounds very sensible to those of us who have serious “everything is interesting” proclivities. I love to look. There’s no color combination that does not interest me, no symbol that does not intrigue, no panorama I can ignore. Things have a power all their own, and my susceptibility is legend. While a hierarchy of better and best clearly drives my art making decisions, I can be hypnotized by anything. The minute the light hits the retina, I’m a goner. Going All Brown feels like a reset, like finding a safety zone.

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It is an easy seduction for an artist–any artist–to complain about being misunderstood and unappreciated. But according to Oliver Sachs (by way of Trevor Hunter’s excellent blog, New Music Box,) musicians may have a neurological right to that claim:

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

Of course, this has only come to be socially relevant over time. In smaller, pre-industrial societies, the low level of specialization meant that everyone participated in the culture’s music, and thus the differentiation between the brains of musicians and non-musicians was rendered moot by the fact that there were no non-musicians. Even in the much more specialized Classical and Romantic eras in Europe, whose composers commanded a vast repertory of arcane knowledge, both the patrons and the audiences were overwhelmingly indoctrinated into musical thinking. Only in a society like that would it have been so profitable for Liszt to make piano transcriptions of other composers’ works, since it was more likely that intended listeners would be able play through a piece themselves than hear another group perform it in concert.

But now, composers absorb more techniques and sounds than at any other time in history—the continuing specialization has led to a knowledge base that’s fully comprehendible to only those who are closest to it. Yet, on the other side is the startling fact that it is now possible and even common for a member of society to be non-congenitally unmusical. If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. But it can also feel artistically hollow, since we’re not using our full expressive capacity out of fear of alienation. More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.

This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.

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