Arts and Crafts

If you want to make your process seem “magical” or “other-directed” describe it as art, right? The “Art” of the Deal, a bullshit “artist”, The Art of War, The Art of Living. But that implies that “art” (a mystical convergence of talent and inspiration) is somehow separate from “craft” (a common integration of technique and practice), and is in fact not really a matter of technique and practice, that it is elevated above everyday workmanship to a semi-Divine state of production.

I call bullshit.

As an artist myself – a poet and musician, principally – I COULD say that what I can do and produce is NOT the direct product of endless repetitious hours of practice, physical endurance enforcing physical memory, and learning how to interpret the work of artists in a different way from the way that “non-artists” do (in my case, listening for different specific things in a musical performance or composition that correspond to techniques and practices I have studied and personally used). But no matter how I present it, it is still more science than magic. As far as I’m concerned, art IS a craft; and by that same token, if we consider Buckminster Fuller’s assertion that while he didn’t consider the beauty of a thing while it was being built or constructed, if it was not beautiful when it was completed, he knew it was wrong, any MASTERY of a craft is in fact art.

We consider the “arts” as “arty” as a way to imagine that we lack something necessary to likewise produce beautiful or eternal art, music, dance, sculpture, architecture – or to negotiate the perfect deal, turn the greatest profit, know which battles are key to winning a war, most effectively (and seemingly effortlessly) complete the most complex and convoluted projects on time, in scope and under budget. But the truth is what we lack, with the exception of perhaps imagination, is the propensity and willingness for hard work. Because ask any dancer: you must be willing to sacrifice a LOT of physical comfort to become a prima ballerina. You have to put in extra hours, behind the scenes, to make “art” seem effortless. Otherwise, what you portray is an “artless” incomplete mastery of craft.

Some would be offended by suggesting there is an “art” of medicine, of law, as opposed to a solid, craftsman-like “practice”. Because although practice IS a critical component of any artist’s training and maintenance, we imply a different kind of “practice” when we practice medicine or law. Or do we? Of course, calling these “arts” makes them seem too arbitrary, too subjective – because as the saying goes, we may not know what good art is, but “we know it when we see it”. And we know medicine, or the law? Again, I call bullshit.

An artist, then, must be considered among other things, a Master Craftsman; in the same way, a Master Craftsman is an artist.

Science v Philosophy

I assume that one of the underlying purposes of psychoanalysis, of psychiatric treatment, is to get to a point where further psychoanalysis is unnecessary, that the neuroses in the patient have been identified, assessed, treated, and successfully mitigated or eliminated. In other words, the goal of therapy is to stop the need for therapy. To no longer be a recovering neurotic, so to speak, but instead to be a non-neurotic.

As someone who eight years ago stopped smoking cigarettes, I can relate. But for me, the key to quitting was to stop referring to myself as a ex-smoker, as a “recovering nicotine addict”. The only way I could stop, cold turkey, and never think of picking up another cigarette was to think of myself as a non-smoker. A non-smoker would never need a cigarette, whereas an ex-smoker might be tempted to fall back in the habit, you see.

There are a lot of atheists and agnostics out there who might, if you asked them to think on it, consider themselves “recovering” Christians. There certainly are a lot of neo-pagans who do so; and I suspect that a great many Westerners who have drifted to Eastern or other “exotic” spiritual paths consider themselves struggling and in recovery from their Western cultural roots. Even modern Satanists are either simply anti-Christians, or in the LaVey tradition, mere worshippers of Self as God. Likewise, those pagans who see an ideal world of myriad gods and goddesses, with temples on every corner are trying to replace their childhood Christianity with the illusion of something different. The Greeks, at some point, had it right, when they made their gods just a little more than human, and by doing, elevated man as the ultimate ideal – but they muddled it up with “divine” intention as well. As Richard Dawkins says in “The Magic of Reality” the wonders of science are diverse, fascinating, and “magical” enough, without interjecting some kind of supernatural into them.

I was raised non-religious, by an engineer and a biologist. One might suppose our holy trinity was Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and Henry Ford. I was exposed to religion, but never took part except voluntarily and as an absolute outsider/non-believer. In my late teens, I spent a lot of time looking for spiritual paths that seemed to tie the whole together; had I been born 20 or 30 years later, the ideas of quantum science and chaos might have drawn me deeply into the sciences. As it was, at least in my high school view, each of the sciences (i.e., physics, chemistry, biology) seemed their own separate fiefdoms, each requiring the share language of mathematics to progress to any degree. And mathematics, perhaps because of my father’s aptitude for it, was something that did not directly arouse my interest. I did better in geometry than algebra, if only because it seemed so much less abstract – although later in life, abstraction became quite a fascination for me.

As a result, I was never exposed to the idea that we are all “star-stuff”, that me and every other thing in the universe was in fact a product of the same source material. But maybe during the 1980s that idea was not yet so prevalent as it is today, and the need to try to connect everything through a single omnipresent divinity was more likely the idea. I don’t know.

It makes so much sense to me now, of course, except I still don’t grasp all the mathematics. They say that musicians often use math as a hobby, and that mathematicians use music in the same way, both having an affinity for what on the surface seems a diametrically opposed discipline. But they are ultimately both math, of course – music is horizontal and vertical intervals; matter and wave moving through time. It is physics; the only science subject I successfully navigated in high school.

Philosophy, they say, is supposed to the the science that imagines, and then verifies (although the methods for verification here are somewhat nebulous) the truth of that imagining, a single underlying (or overarching, or connecting, or unifying) principle that connects all knowledge (and by that is meant scientific knowledge from both the “hard” and “soft” sciences). What I wonder is if there has been any serious current collaboration between philosophers (a great many of whom were originally mathematicians, or in their early stages, “natural” philosophers, who contemplated the nature of the physical world around them and in the process, invented the other sciences) and scientists (e.g., physicists, biologists, chemists) to more deeply and completely understand our world and our place in it – particularly given recent advances in science toward unified theories of existence.

One great obstacle in that cooperation seems to be philosophy’s current focus on the theoretical for its own sake, to prove or make points with or against another philosopher, not to advance humanity’s knowledge, but to smugly poke holes in the net we’re all using to catch that knowledge, without really repairing it and making it more useful. I see “theorizing”, like theoretical physics which seems to advance theories as a way of proceeding to practical demonstration of that theory’s usefulness, in a more positive, forward-seeking way. That could just be my perception, of course. I recently quipped that philosophers primarily seemed interested in diluting, diffusing, deconstructing, or discrediting the work of other philosophers. Of course, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and behind true science is always the idea of finding and correcting the flaw in a predecessor’s proof so as to go beyond it – perhaps in a completely different and unexpected direction.

But I wonder, of those scientists and philosophers who may be working together right now – how many of them are “recovering” Christians, or Hindus, or Buddhists? How many still try to reconcile the idea of Divine intervention with the seemingly obvious natural magic that is reality? How many still fight against the urge to defer to an unseen entity as the prime mover?

Can one trace, as Huxley did in The Perennial Philosophy, the journey on the road to find out, where a set of single underlying, non-supernatural principles is universally (i.e., across many earth cultures) understood to be the basis of human reality, without relying like Huxley on non-scientific input from faith-based mystics, gurus and saints?

Inquiring, skeptical minds wanna know.

30 JAN 2017

The Oxymoron of Social Media

Social media: the name implies communication (defined by me as an exchange of ideas only possible between individuals who consider themselves equals) yet most of us seem to use it exclusively to sell ourselves – our products, our services, our ideas. There is neither space (i.e., post limits) or time (i.e., lifespan of the average post) to conduct in-depth meaningful exchange, and the medium itself gives us the illusion but not reality of personal interaction, if only due to its inability to effectively transmit sarcasm, irony, humor, or any other subtlety. It is as a result the drink that temporarily sates, but does not satisfy. If it refills our “social” meter (to use a concept from the SIMS), it does so only vaguely, like a sugar or caffeine high that leaves us more tired and alone than before we indulged.

The media is indeed the message: Keep your thoughts brief, your repartee sharp and lightning fast. Use emoticons to reduce a wide range of human emotions to a small set of easily recognized and irritatingly vague options that transcend the need to maintain (or even develop) language skills at all. Show solidarity by sharing – but not by sharing reasoned, thought-out, and well-spoken dialogue between equals (see “communication”, above), but by changing your screen icons to the same colors.

These all-too-public gatherings are not water cooler conversations (at worst) or coffee shop klatches (at best). They are sound bytes that convince us we’re watching the same movie – and each hearing excerpts of an assumed larger and shared soundtrack to our lives. This assumption gives us “brotherhood” without commitment, “sharing” without sacrifice, “community” without neighbors, “friends” without relationship.

How does that work, exactly?

Music and me

There are those who imagine “magical” places like they are scenes from the “happily ever after” part of a fairy tale: in a strange twist, they believe the hereafter, the great beyond, and the future tense of once upon a time to be like the world initially encountered by the young Siddhartha Buddha, one without care, disease, want or sorrow. But the truth is these places are just like right here, with their absence from our immediate view the only advantage given their fabulous and dazzling marketing brochures.

Music is one of those magical places. People say music is a language, a conduit, a means for connecting. Those metaphors make it seem like another world, or at least a foreign country. Extending that metaphor, people don’t really talk too much about the place whose natives speak that language as their first tongue: there’s not a lot of information on its geography, customs, and government, nor its climate, flora or fauna, be they beneficial and friendly, or poisonous and otherwise harmful.

I’ve know a lot of people who have visited, including myself, but I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who actually “lives” there year-round or calls it their original homeland.

There is no authoritative guidebook or CIA fact book about this foreign place – although to some it may seem one is necessary. A lot of people THINK they understand musicians, sometimes, but at other times must be content to shrug their shoulders, shake their heads and walk away, puzzled and confused.

Think of this as the beginning, then, of a travelogue, a descriptive narrative of these travels to the land of music. Because music, especially singing, CAN transport you to another place, where your body, mind and spirit are entirely wrapped up in a universal current. The danger is that when you come back from that place, you cannot communicate what you found there, because it does require a different language, a non-language. And getting back there is hard. It is tempting, so tempting, to fake your passport to that land, or at least grease a few officials’ palms, by artificial means. But those artificial means only make you think everyone else understands you while you’re there. And then, at some point, the artificial means can betray you, leaving you standing at the border only able to look in, but not cross over.

10 SEP 2014

Back to the Bassics

I recently acquired a Palatino VE-550 electric upright bass. Well, I’ve been playing it a bit every day since I got it (this past Tuesday) and although I have affirmed Brian Bromberg’s statement that electric and acoustic bass are almost two different instruments both requiring equal and separate attention to master, I find myself experiencing a lot of muscle, sense and touch memory. Bear in mind, I last seriously played acoustic bass about 29 years ago (circa 1983). Never actually owned one back then, just borrowed them from elementary, junior and senior high school orchestra programs – and played pretty consistently from age 11-18. In fact, the only reason I switched to electric bass in the first place was that Dennis Mack at Kenton High School? (who recruited me when I was in 8th grade to play with the high school jazz band) decided I wasn’t loud enough on the upright, and put his electric Epiphone (it was like the Jack Casady model) in my hands.

Still played some orchestral stuff after that (even successfully auditioned for the Lima Area Youth Symphony, and played on Ohio Northern University Band Camp and West Torrance High School?’s recordings (Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers Ball and Wagner’s Elsa’s Processional from Lohengrin), but my primary focus was electric bass from that time forward. It was the electric bass that got me the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award, I reckon, and bass I ended up playing in bands (along with other things, of course). When I graduated from high school, I said goodbye to the loaned bass, and rarely looked back.

Always WANTED an upright, of course, but situations never arose making it possible. Besides, there were significant other things to acquire: multi-track recording equipment, amplifiers, digital pianos, twelve string guitars, etc.

Later, when I applied to Berklee, because I didn’t really have anything that featured virtuoso bass playing, I shot for a scholarship as a voice principal, and was accepted as such. However, after the first day of placement interviews and auditions with the voice department, I realized there were (at that time, anyway) serious limitations to being a Voice principal at a school where almost every waking moment was spent looking for a jam session. So I picked up my electric bass, strolled into the bass department and asked for an audition. They threw sight reading (charts, lead sheets and notation), ear training, improvisation and other stuff at me, which I breezed through. They were anxious to have me in the bass department (and imagine how thrilled they would have been if I’d been able to double on acoustic bass!). Unfortunately, after a wee bit of research, they and I realized that changing my principal instrument from voice to bass would cancel my current scholarship, and since the award period was closed for that year, there’s no way I would have received another scholarship (on bass). So in order to stay at Berklee, I stayed a Voice principal. Not a perfect fit for me, or for Berklee, in retrospect.

Fast forward 23 years. About a year ago I broke down and bought an electric fretless bass, and I’ve been having fun with that and been pretty successfully translating fretted to fretless. But as I said before, electric bass and acoustic bass (and here I am, with a new to me equivalent of an upright bass) are the same, but really quite different, instruments. Yes, I’m experiencing muscle and sense memory of playing; but some of that memory is remembering how I had to unlearn certain things from the acoustic in order to successfully play electric. One of the biggest things, for me, is the switch between using the fourth and third fingers (pinkie and ring fingers). Because of the difference in neck length, you use different fingers, and switch positions in different places. String bending is another thing that’s different. And to be honest, in the playing I was doing back in school, there wasn’t a lot of high register work; that’s something that I learned on electric via Ray Brown’s Bass Method for upright, ironically. Plus, the electric upright width and depth are so different from a standard acoustic bass that you have to modify the traditional stance and instrument angle, etc., to accommodate that difference. So it’s like a native English speaker who became fluent in French and now has to go back to thinking in English (or really, thinking in both languages simultaneously). And I haven’t even started thinking about revisiting bowing. LOL.

It’s slow going. You need callouses in different places on your fingers, the hand and arm angle are different, the tricks and shortcuts you learn on one instrument may or may not be applicable (or even possible) on the other. Every day it gets easier to span the gap, but not being able to transparently shift from one to the other, without the aid of mirrors, so to speak, is tough.

However, it’s good to know that this experience confirms one thing for certain: I am a bass player. It’s not just what I do. It’s who I am. And that reassurance is something in this day and age, I can tell you.

Your Children, Art and Earth Day

Address to the Second Annual Day of Artists in Support of Human Rights Celebrating Earth Day
Boston, Massachusetts
April 25, 1992

The following speech was intended for delivery at the Second Annual Day of Artists in Support of Human Rights, celebrating Earth Day, April 25, 1992. The festival was intended to encourage free expression, a concern for the planet, and also to focus on children. You may think that such a wide spectrum of issues tends to dilute the effectiveness of gatherings such as this — after all, a lot of people are into free expression that don’t give a damn about the Earth — they’ll use their oil-based paints and flush them into their city’s water supply. They may have behaved irresponsibly towards children their actions have brought into this world. Perhaps in response, the earth and its attendant Weather decided not to cooperate. Therefore, the speech was not given. A loss? Perhaps. But maybe these things should be related. That’s the point of the speech, written by one of the administrative staff for the festival, who resigned his duties about a week prior to the event due to political differences with the main organizer. Something about a lack of organization, and perhaps too much focus on widening the event JUST to get sponsors. Whatever. The time is long since past. So pretend it all went smoothly. Close your eyes and picture downtown Boston, City Plaza, a warm spring day. The Hare Krishna’s and Food Not Bombs have supplied food. There are canvases, easels and water-based paints throughout the streets. There is a stage, where drummers drum, flautists flaut and every once in a while, someone gets up to remind them it’s not just a big party.

In the midst of our celebration of music, art, sculpture and artistic endeavor of all varieties, let us pause for a moment to contemplate why we are here today.

We are here today in Boston City Hall Plaza to show our solidarity, to show our common desire for art and free expression and to emphasize the importance of what Thomas Jefferson called our “inalienable” human rights. Inalienable, which means “intrinsically part of and inseparable, incapable of being donated, surrendered or transferred,” which means that even if you are not aware you have them, even if you choose not to exercise these rights, they are part of your being, part of your body and soul, as close to you as your own eyes and ears. These human rights, that could not be surrendered to another even if you wished it, the Declaration of Independence goes on to say, include among them “…Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Some would say that the wording of the Declaration of Independence leaves room for doubt as to who is the recipient of these non-transferable rights. The pure strength and beauty of the intent leaves no room for linguistic or semantic argument. Whether Jefferson intended it to be so or not, “all men” must refer to all those among us who have learned to walk after crawling, who have the skeleton and structure of homo sapiens sapiens, who were the children of other human beings, and who reproduce no other species than the human animal.

When we look at it from this level, at the HUMAN level, above the level of the other rights that we choose as surrogates, such as children’s rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, or any other label we may choose to give to less than TOTAL human rights, there can be no distinction between race, color, creed, orientation, sex or age. It is better to say, “I am asking for my rights as a human being,” than to say “my rights as a [child, woman, hyphenated American].”

Your child, the human creation spawned by your human actions, has in these human rights a birthright, just as you have a birthright, just as your grandparents, your ancestors, held these rights. We are all human beings. How could it be otherwise?

“Among which” are Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.

“Among which,” meaning there are others, too numerous to list in a hastily composed document which was written with a sense of urgency that was not to be left waiting. Indeed, without this urgent sense in mind, Jefferson might have added a few thousand more items to his list. It is unfortunate for those among us, who tend to read such documents far too literally, that he did not. But we who have lived on this planet, especially those of us in America, have had ample opportunity to increase our “Freedom vocabulary.”

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression — that’s what we’re all enjoying here today. Freedom of religion, freedom from tyranny, freedom from unlawful search and seizure. Freedom to choose the government that helps us to achieve our goals, our pursuit of happiness, and the freedom to speak when that government makes mistakes. Governments are made of human beings equal to us; no better, no worse. It is only natural for them to make mistakes. After all, none of us is free from error.

But freedom is not created by governments, nor should it be denied by them. No “government” has that right, and no people or person has the right to deny human rights to any other.

The freedom to raise families, to provide for those families at a wage which is fair for the work performed; freedom to worship as we please, to act according to our desires, freedom to achieve our goals, to love, live and thrive as we choose. We have the freedom to control our own destinies, to see our children achieve not what we have not achieve, but even more than we could even imagine.

And it is largely with concern for our children’s rights that we are here today. Children are entitled to the same human rights as we, their progenitors. Freedom from fear, from hunger, from oppression and hatred, from abuse and abandonment.

Some might say, enough about human rights, and what about Earth Day? Well, I am just coming to that. In answer to your question, I ask you this: what greater human right can belong to any of us, what greater promise, than that of a planet on which to live?

As long as the seas are polluted by humankind, as long as chemical and other toxic disasters threaten our world, as long as the resources of this planet are ravage and plundered and foolishly squandered, the human rights of every inhabitant on this earth are threatened.

As long as we continue to stand aside and let the travesties of the past continue until tomorrow, we are not completely free.

As long as human beings, you and I, those in government and those outside it, continue to let this storehouse of opportunity, this wondrous source of our every convenience, this beautiful and varied land, this Earth, suffer from the short-sided uses to which we have already put it, then we may have human rights, but nowhere to exercise or enjoy them.

This must then be our call: One Purpose, One Planet, One Human Race!

And just just for our time, but for all time. For our children have human rights to be cherished, and their children, and their descendants as well. If it were not for the future and its promise, the first child might never have been conceived. You and I, proud carriers of the torch of human rights, would not even be here to celebrate today.

But we are here today. And tomorrow, when we return to our homes, our lives, our families and friends, our children will smile when we tell them about the music, about the art, about the wonderful people we met today.

But in their eyes, behind those smiles, will be three questions for our hearts:

“What have you done for me today?”

“What have you done to protect my future?”

“What have you done to help the rest of the children, everywhere, in Boston; in New York; in Johannesburg, South Africa; in Ethiopia; in Sofia, Bulgaria; in the Russian Republics; in Nanking, China; in Los Angeles, California; in Buenos Aires, Argentina; in Atlanta, Georgia; in Shreveport, Louisiana; in Selma, Alabama; in Washington, D.C.?”

And if today you have enjoyed the music, the dancing, the artistry, the sense of community; if today you have given just five minutes of serious thought to the reasons these things were possible, you will be able to give them an answer to their questions.

Your answer will be, “Everything that must be done.”

In Defense of Pan

I wouldn’t want my son to have Pan’s attitude towards women…after all, he had quite a reputation for chasing women

I respond, not a Pan lover, but as one who has recognized his positive influence on my own life. And as I recall, Pan usually didn’t have to chase those women very far – he didn’t pursue anyone that wasn’t interested in being caught. Further, Pan paid his dues – he was the servant of Artemis, and as payment he received time to sport with the her nymphs [and as you know, it is not a spectator sport]. Besides, an interest in and appreciation of sex are both healthy and natural for men and women. It is only when the human being’s natural inclinations are sublimated by taboo, restriction and the mores of society and community that sex becomes unnatural, its participants objectified, and its purpose corrupted. When viewed in the context of a balanced and harmonious life, it is a powerful act of everyday magick, a joining together in spirit and flesh of two equals for their mutual pleasure and/or perpetuation of the species. It is a celebration of life, of our absolute interdependence upon each other as genders, and of our connectedness with all forms of being who share with us the process of creation, evolution and eternal existence.

But I think it is other factors that cause people to fear, or shy away from, the Horned God (be he known as Pan, Cernunnos, Herne, or by myriad of other faces).

Primarily, I think it is fear that recognition of the Horned One’s influence in our lives is an epiphany that there is something outside this perception of an ordered universe that we use as a crutch to connect the fabric of our lives – the feral, dark, uncharted and dangerous swampland of our unconscious selves that we try so desperately to hide away when in the company of “polite society,” that religious teachings have told us are “not spiritual”, and that the women’s liberation movement has often seen as necessary to the enlightenment of women, but improperly used and maliciously exaggerated in men.

Secondly, but no less important, is the fear that we, as men, by recognizing, nurturing and embracing our wild nature, must take full responsibility for all our actions, and must also accept the role that the Horned God assumes – that of the sacrifice. By taking Pan as a role model, we are emulating the only immortal that ever died. To accept the awesome task of “marrying the earth” and to be responsible as its nurturing father and protector is to reject machismo, bullying, pridefulness, one-upmanship and superiority. They have no place in true man’s actions or character. The God is consort to the Goddess, her servant, slave, lover, brother, father, and son. Not her master. Not the law-giver.

That is the lesson of Pan, and his model for humankind:

For men, to treat all women as your mother, sister, daughter or wife-partner;
For women, to treat all men as your father, brother, son or husband-partner;
For all, to see each other as parts of a sacred whole, and see the lines for what they are – areas to color beyond.

24 JUL 2001