Sunday Salon 6-29-14

Time: 6:30 a.m. Sunday, right after my morning walk (I should have jogged this morning, but couldn’t make myself do it).

Place: At my laptop computer in the living room. In my ongoing series of computer problems, my recently-purchased desktop computer seems to have gone on strike. Repairs later this week.

Reading: Since I last visited the Salon, I finished A Man of Parts by David Lodge. I am now about 75% through Timothy Brook’s Mr. Selden’s Map of China. The same author’s unusually interesting Vermeer’s Hat used the context of items found in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer to examine just how global trade had become by the seventeenth century. Mr. Selden’s Map of China does much the same, this time using as a starting point an unusual seventeenth century map of the sea trade routes around China. I have also purchased The Mindful Way Workbook, which I am going to start on today and which I hope, in conjunction with the workshop mentioned below, will help me address some of the difficulties I’ve been having recently.

Viewing: Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to present an evening of films featuring prototypical movie tough guy Lawrence Tierney earlier this week. My favorite was one I’d never heard of before, Born to Kill (1947), an early film noir and tough little examination of anger and jealousy, directed by Robert Wise and featuring Claire Trevor and Elisha Cook Jr. Last night, I watched for the second time, and once again very much liked, The Mill and the Cross (2011), Lech Majewski’s film inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work, particularly the painting The Procession to Calvary. Despite the film’s rather static pace, its imagery, a mix of live action and scenes from Bruegel, remains stunning.

Listening: John Luther Adams’s percussion work Inuksuit got my attention this week. Designed for outdoor performance, and recorded by Canteloupe Music in the woods of Vermont, this incredibly dynamic, immersive work (especially in the surround sound mix included with the CD) leaves pretty much every other percussion-centered work I’ve encountered in the shade. I’ll be writing more about this piece soon, I hope. Surround sound also led me to listen to the recent fortieth anniversary remastering of King Crimson’s classic Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, which sounded quite amazing in Steven Wilson’s surround mix. The set also included some video, including the Crim in full improvisation mode, that lets us see that mercurial percussionist Jamie Muir in action. It’s a shame that this particular Crim lineup only made this one studio recording.

Blogging: None this week, other than last Sunday’s posting of another short piece of music by yours truly. But I am continuing to work on a long-discussed piece on Chinese calligraphy that, if I’m good, will appear this week. If I’m not good, maybe it will be next week. I was interested to note that my recent blog post on “The Hungry Ghosts” was picked up by the Paranormal Encounters blog.

Pondering: Too much of my time the last few days has been dominated by my now-missing wisdom teeth, three of which were pulled on Tuesday. Unfortunately the pain and swelling, while diminished somewhat, haven’t yet gone away. But they have made it hard to be productive in any way. And this week’s restricted eating may have put me off of yogurt and mashed potatoes permanently.

Anticipating: My friend Julie was kind enough to alert me to a workshop, “Curbing Cravings: The Mindful Way Towards Creating Positive Habits,” that is starting this week in Reno. She and I are both signed up. I’m hoping that this, in tandem with the book mentioned above, will help relieve me of the repetitive patterns of negative thinking that have so plagued me.

Gratuitous Photograph of the Week: In honor of John Luther Adams, some of the inuksuit, or stone sentinels built by the Inuit people, at Inuksuk Point (Inuksugalait) on Baffin Island, Canada. Photo by Ansgar Walk.

Blue World part 3

In lieu of the usual Sunday Salon this week, lacking much to say or update, I’m going to make available another short excerpt of my music. Unlike the last bit of music, this one tends a little more toward the acoustic, including my not especially successful attempts to play the guitar. But I still think the music is somewhat pretty. This is the first several minutes of “Blue World,” part 3.

My music, an update

I’m in the middle of writing and recording what is probably going to turn out to be a lengthy piece of music drawing on elements of southeast Asian music, gamelan, Celtic music, minimalism, progressive rock, classical music, electronica, and more. How all these are going to fit together, I have no idea yet. But as soon as I figure it out, I’ll post some samples on Soundcloud. In the meantime, here’s a short excerpt from an older piece of mine called “sand, river, sky” — the public debut for any of the music I’ve written! As I described this on Soundcloud: “An excerpt from approximately 15-22 minutes into this 25 minute piece. After a short banjo interlude comes a pretty (Enya-esque?) ambient segment, a stomping folk dance, and other stuff.”

My Home Library, the meme

The blog The Library and Step On It has created an interesting meme asking a bunch of questions about personal libraries. Here are my thoughts on my own book collection…

1. “The System” – My filing system is non-existent, based simply on where I can find space to shelve or stack my books. Getting my books in order is a project for some other decade.
2. Favorite female writer – Karen Armstrong
3. Favorite male writer – Haruki Murakami
4. Bought on location (where the writer lived, the book takes place, the movie adaptation was shot) – Chum Mey, Survivor (purchased from the author at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh where he was held and tortured for years by the Khmer Rouge)
5. The largest and the smallest book you own – Romio Shrestha, Celestial Gallery: Mandalas and Meditations (largest by height and width); The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians (largest by thickness); Alastair Brotchie, A Book of Surrealist Games (smallest)
6. Complete works of one author – Shakespeare, three times over
7. Favorite poetry collection – David Hinton (ed.), Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
8. Favorite biography – Stephen Larsen and Robin Larsen, Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind
9. Favorite cookbook – Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook
10. Favorite graphic novel – R. Crumb, David Zane Mairowitz, and Richard Appignanesi, Kafka (a graphic biography rather than novel)
11. A book you didn’t understand at all – Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (liked, but definitely had trouble with the language)
12. “One of these things is not like the others” (inconsistent editions within a series) – N/A
13. Best bargain – The Riverside Shakespeare (used, for $5)
14. Most recent purchase – Dick Davis (trans.), Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz
15. Favorite lay-out design – Thomas Christensen, 1616: The World in Motion
16. Book you bought because of the title – Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (the first book of his I purchased and read)
17. Book you bought because of the cover design – I don’t buy books because of their covers
18. Multiple translations of the same work – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (three translations)
19. Multiple copies of the same work – The complete works of Shakespeare in three different editions
20. The funniest book you own – Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
21. The most expensive book you own – Shakespeare and A.L. Rowse, The Annotated Shakespeare
22. A recurring interest/theme – History of religions
23. A book you read so many times that it fell apart – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
24. A book you think everyone should read – I can think of many, but will go with Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
25. A book that made you cry – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions (the ending in particular)
26. A book you would prescribe for an aspiring author – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
27. A cover design you hate – I don’t have feelings about cover designs, good or bad
28. A book that was a waste of your time – I’ve never read a book that was a complete waste of time
29. Favorite book from your childhood – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
30. The book with the most pages in your collection – The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians (2,610 pages)

Sunday Salon 6-8-14

Time: 5:45 a.m. Sunday. It’s been so long since I got a good night’s sleep.

Place: At my main computer, hoping that the warmth and stuffiness of the air will clear with all the windows open.

Reading: My main reading this week has been in A Man of Parts by David Lodge. This is a fictionalized biography of H.G. Wells, told largely through the prism of his romantic relationships. Oddly enough, it is exactly that aspect of the book that is unfortunately making it somewhat tiresome for me. Having liked many of Lodge’s books in the past, I admire the clarity and humor of his writing. I’m sure, too, that his research on Wells was thorough. Therefore, I don’t doubt that Wells had a large number of affairs and relationships in his life. I also don’t doubt that he was quite the specimen sexually, or that practically every woman he met between the ages of 18 and 25 was not only beautiful but also wanted desperately to sleep with him. But the parade of such women, for me at least, has become a little tedious.

Viewing: This week was a slow one for films. Continuing to make my way through the Criterion set Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, I watched Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer, a quite beautifully photographed black-and-white film from 1964 that deals with a farmer that, during the season of the title, decides to shut off the water supply from the spring on his land, on which his fellow farmers have long relied. It was a rather dark tale that escalated into violence in an unsurprising way. Liked, but didn’t love. Also on the schedule was a second viewing of Samsara, Ron Fricke’s follow-up to Baraka, a particular favorite of mine. Samsara is much more somber in tone, perhaps not as likeable as Baraka, but still quite a journey, with the stunning photography that marked the earlier film.

Listening: I’ve quite liked the anthology Cold Blue Two, a collection of shorter pieces by composers and artists from the Cold Blue Records catalog. A few of the composers – Daniel Lentz, Ingram Marshall, John Luther Adams – were familiar to me, but many were not. The collection showed remarkable unity despite the variety of musical styles represented. A full review will probably find its way onto this blog before very long. I am also continuing some tentative work on my own music writing, accumulating bits and pieces that may become something larger someday.

Blogging: I was actually pleased with my blogging this week, as I completed two fairly substantial pieces. “Looking at Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert,” the second installment of my “Looking At” series on famous artworks, was a long time in the making but turned out pretty well. On the other hand, the post on “The Hungry Ghosts” was an idea that I had this past Wednesday night, and had finished by Friday morning. It came quickly and easily, perhaps because it seemed quite relevant to my life right now.

Pondering: I am in the midst of a weeks-long period of extreme sadness, bordering on depression. The recent breakup that I’ve mentioned in past Salons is part of the cause, but it extends much further than that. This sadness has caused me to behave in a number of unaccustomed ways. My writing in this Salon, in my blog more generally, and on my Facebook page has gotten more personal, and emotional, than it had been in the past (a couple of pieces I’ve written for the blog but decided not to make public have been even more personal). I’ve picked up the pace of my gym visits, started jogging again after many years, started writing music again after even more years, and have been reaching out (mostly unsuccessfully, but not entirely so) to people for companionship. All of these ring somewhat of futility with me, but at least I’m trying. What I’m pondering is whether I should seek out professional help for my problem from a counselor or psychologist or something. The answer, I believe, is yes.

Anticipating: Seeing the documentary film Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World this afternoon at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Gratuitous Poem of the Week: By Hafez of Shiraz (1325–1389)…

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.

The Hungry Ghosts

PretaHungry Ghosts (in Sanskrit, preta, literally “departed” or “dead person”) were jealous, greedy, self-absorbed people during their lives on earth. As a result of their karma, they were reborn as shadowy spirit figures consumed by unsatisfied greed and desire. Hungry Ghosts are usually teardrop-shaped, with dry, ashen skin, thin arms and legs, distended stomachs, necks too thin for food to pass through, “mouths the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.”

Chökyi Drakpa has written, “The preta realm is destitute of food and drink, creating hunger and thirst. It is a grim place of rocks and charred tree stumps, where the words ‘food,’ ‘drink’ or ‘comfort’ have never even been heard … Since these pretas do not find anything to eat or drink for months and years on end, their bodies are emaciated like skeletons and they lack even the strength to stand.” Pretas tend to dwell in wastelands, deserts, or even garbage dumps and cemeteries on earth, moving freely between our world and their hell. They sometimes feed on human corpses, human waste, or flakes of skin. Unlike the ghosts and demons of other cultures, however, pretas are generally pitied rather than feared, and Buddhist monks often leave them offerings of food or money.

Bhavacakra pretaHungry Ghosts can be divided into several categories. Those who were moderately wealthy in life are in three groups: the flaming mouths (food and drink become fire), the needle mouths (their throats are so small that food can’t pass through), and the vile mouths (whose mouths are so decomposed that they can’t eat anything). Those who were very rich also have three groups: the ghosts of sacrifices (they live off the sacrifices of the living), the ghosts of losses (who live off of lost objects from the human realm), and the ghosts of great powers (the rulers of these ghosts). And those who had no wealth are able to eat just tiny portions.

Hungry Ghosts or their like are found in Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh, and Jain traditions as well as in Chinese traditional religion and ancestor worship (the phrase “hungry ghosts” is derived from the Chinese). They take different forms in different traditions. For instance, in Japanese Buddhism, the gaki are the spirits of greedy people that are cursed with a great hunger, and the jikininki similar spirits that feed on human corpses at night.Hungry Ghosts realm In Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, there are six realms of existence, possible states into which humans can be reborn based on their accumulated karma. As depicted on the Bhava-cakra, or Wheel of Life, they are those of the Gods (Deva-gati), Demigods (Asura-gati), Humans (Manusya-gati), Animals (Tiryagyoni-gati), Hungry Ghosts (Preta-gati), and Hell (Naraka-gati).

China’s annual Ghost, or Hungry Ghost, Festival honors the hungry ancestor ghosts, who on that one day of the year can emerge from their hell and visit the living. Incense is burned, music performed, and food and drink laid out for them. After the festival, water lanterns are lit and set afloat to help guide the ghosts back to the underworld. Similar festivals, typically held during summer and sometimes spread out over as much as a month, turn up in Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.

Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo describes the sort of person reborn as a Hungry Ghost very amusingly: “We have seen how people can wrap their whole lives around graspiness and neediness; and every time they meet with somebody it’s like you can hear the suction. You can just hear it.Hungry ghost image You feel like the blood is coming out of your pores. And that’s the kind of person you instinctively stay away from because, literally, you can feel your energy being sucked into them … Particularly, also, it is the kind of person who is against and has no compatibility with compassion and generosity. The person who is chronically, without hesitation, selfish to the bone.”

A Hungry Ghost is always looking outside of itself – for something, anything, to satisfy its cravings. Unfortunately, many of us are already living the life of the Hungry Ghosts, as we try to fulfill our ultimately illusory desires. Relentless consumerism is one manifestation of this. Possessiveness and obsession are others. Longing for that which we cannot have is another. Do we actually think that this magical something or someone – whether we actually attain it or whether it is beyond our reach – will bring us the happiness we so desperately crave?

Looking at Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert

Bellini Saint Francis in the Desert
“Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.”
– St. Francis of Assisi, from “Canticle of the Sun”

Giovanni Bellini started work on his painting St. Francis in the Desert, still sometimes known as St. Francis in Ecstasy, in 1475, completing it five years later. Once described as “the most profound and spiritual picture ever painted in the Renaissance,” the painting is currently located at the Frick Collection in New York City, hanging in what used to be Henry Clay Frick’s living room. Frick bought the painting in 1915 and placed it facing Fifth Avenue in a room that Bellini shared with the likes of Titian and El Greco. Just a few years ago, after the painting received a cleaning and microscopic analysis at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it became the subject of a special exhibition, complete with multimedia presentations, at the Frick, “In a New Light: Bellini’s ‘St. Francis in the Desert.’”

Most believe that the painting depicts St. Francis receiving the stigmata, the five wounds of the crucified Jesus (according to legend, he was the first after Jesus to do so). However, some, like Anthony F. Janson (in his article “The Meaning of the Landscape in Bellini’s ‘St. Francis in Ecstasy’”), believe that the likely subject of the painting is rather St. Francis receiving inspiration as he composed his song “Canticle of the Sun” at San Damiano. What Bellini depicts may apply to neither subject, or to both simultaneously.

Giovanni Bellini self portrait c. 1500Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516), sometimes called the father of the Venetian Renaissance, came from a family of painters. He studied with his father Jacopo, as did his brother Gentile, and his brother-in-law was Andrea Mantegna. Bellini first made his name through portraits and portrayals of Biblical events. He later became especially famous for his altarpieces, most of which feature highly detailed landscapes and renderings of animals, plants, and clothing. Albrecht Dürer described Bellini as “the best painter of them all.” Bellini remained active as a painter until his death in his late eighties, and proved a huge influence on the painters of the next generation, particularly his student Titian.

Saint Francis of Assisi by Jusepe de Ribera 1642Born in the Umbrian town of Assisi, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (c. 1181/2-1226), nicknamed Francesco and later canonized as St. Francis of Assisi, grew up in an upper middle-class household, his father a rich cloth merchant. Francis had a temperamental, emotional, poetic nature. Fearless in his faith, generous to an extreme, he was fanatically devoted to the Gospels. At one point he took Jesus’s words about giving everything away quite literally, giving up even the clothes on his back. His preaching, his compassion for the poor and the sick, and his kindness to animals became legendary. He founded the men’s Order of Friars Minor and the women’s Order of St. Clare, and in 1223 created the first recorded nativity scene. Read more

Sunday Salon 6-1-14

Time: 7:15 a.m. Sunday.

Place: At my main computer at home, surrounded by the usual clutter of books, DVDs, and music equipment.

Reading: Last night I completed Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live. As I’ve said before, the book is very helpful in steering one toward what is important and valuable in one’s life. It may simply be a matter of time, but I haven’t yet figured out how to implement the changes, or even determine what the changes are, that would take me towards that ideal life that I’ve more or less identified. Since completing that book I’ve started on A Man of Parts by David Lodge, a fictionalized biographical work on H.G. Wells. I’ve also returned to the exhibition catalog Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy. At some point in the next few weeks I’ll be blogging on this subject of Chinese calligraphy, using this book as well as notes taken at the connected exhibition as a starting point. Also sitting at the top of my to-read stack is Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands, a beautifully illustrated compendium of utopias and dystopias from throughout human history. The real world leaves much to be desired right now, and escaping to some imaginary lands has great appeal.

Viewing: I never challenge intuitions and vague attractions, and something has drawn me toward the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder this week. Several DVDs of his films have long resided on my shelf, but in some cases I’d never even taken the plastic off of them until now. In World on a Wire (1973), Fassbinder’s only science fiction film, a virtual world has been created on a computer, and one of the lead scientists on that project becomes suspicious when people associated with it start dying, disappearing, and behaving strangely. It was a fairly mind-bending three-plus hours, full of the themes and the visual cues (mirrors and other reflective surfaces, careful framing of shots, endless fascination with peoples’ gazes) typical of Fassbinder’s movies. I had also never seen one of his most famous films, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), about an older woman who falls in love with and marries a much younger Moroccan man. This portrait of loneliness really moved me, and the casual racism of the woman’s family and friends was both disturbing and seems quite germane even today, forty years after the film was made. I’m peering right now at my Criterion box of Fassbinder’s famous series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), and wondering if I might finally need to watch it.

Listening: Once again this wasn’t much of a week for music listening. I did, however, continue noodling on the Korg keyboard that sits next to my computer here, with the thought of trying to write some music. I haven’t completed a new piece of music in around a dozen years, and now, for some reason, seems like it might be the time to break that streak.

Blogging: My only post this week was a short, charming poem, “Bugs in a Bowl” by David Budbill, that characterized very nicely my feelings of undirected compassion on the day I posted it.

Pondering: The perception of time. So many stretches of weeks and months in my life have passed without my even noticing – a trend that seems to get worse as one gets older. However, there are other periods in which time seems to drag to a standstill. The last two or three weeks have felt like slogging through a muddy field. How can two weeks feel like months?

Anticipating: I have lost approximately 1/80 of a ton since the beginning of 2014. For those of you without calculators, that’s 25 pounds. Daily walking, eating carefully, and a little heartache and its associated loss of appetite have brought me within shouting distance of the weight of 175 pounds that I had wanted to reach by the end of this year. So well has this gone that I’m even thinking about dropping that goal to 170.

Gratuitous Artwork of the Week: La Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000 (Leaving the Opera in the Year 2000) by Albert Robida (1848–1926). In this lithograph from 1882, sometimes referred to as Leaving the Paris Opera, Robida, an illustrator and science fiction writer, imagines a world of air travel as fashionable Parisian society departs from a night at the opera. Click on the image below to see a larger version and enjoy the fun details. Featured in Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands.
Robida Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000