Vote For Number 6

An election day screening of The Prisoner: Free For All

As an artist (or at least an artistic type), I prefer not to reduce the world to simple binaries. Still, in the current political landscape many choices come down to whether we want to be kind and loving, or mean and selfish:

Both major parties tend to act out stereotypes of themselves, and neither party is perfect (greed being a nearly universal constant — something we learn at our mother’s knee, so to speak). Still, there’s a difference between bad and worse. Politics in general is a cutthroat business, but there’s more kindness and compassion among the democrats. Whatever their faults, they recognize that affordable health care, an inclusive society, and concern for the environment are ideals worth fighting for. That’s why I personally tend to support democratic candidates.

Of course, the political world can look rather surreal, and one can reasonably question the extent to which our votes make a difference. They do make a difference, though perhaps not as much as good government types would lead us to believe. All that said, get out and vote!

Sidebar: Doctor Who – The Beast Below

In the annals of televisual speculative fiction, perhaps ranking equally with The Prisoner: Free For All is Doctor Who: The Beast Below:

It’s arguably about the exploitation of labour, or exploitation of Third World resources by First World powers. It’s also about repressive tolerance. You are free to protest, but those hitting the “protest” button are quickly whisked to Starship UK’s dank lower extremities. For those who care to see it, there’s even a spiritual lesson at the end about those who would torture the boatman who is carrying them in his spiritual vessel. Someone so old, so kind (and the very last of his kind) that he could not bear to hear the children crying.

One of the best New Who’s, with a fine balance between political commentary, emotional intensity, a great sense of style, and splendid dashes of humour.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Survival, Friday The 13th, Doctor Who, and Black Cats
The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant
Donald Trump vs. Ferris Fremont
Will The Real Mr. Magoo Please Stand Up?
Scott Pruitt: Of Mattresses and Moisturizer

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Joan Baez – All My Trials – Tree of Life

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See Also

Trump’s America: Teachers With Guns
Why we need gun control – an alternative spiritual view
Joan Baez: The Cherry Tree Carol

Happy 87th Birthday, Sri Chinmoy!

Remembering the beloved spiritual teacher, musician and artist with a joyful music mix and slideshow

Sri Chinmoy’s birthday was always a joyful occasion, a perfect opportunity to celebrate. The celebrations continue, although he passed away in 2007. He lit a bright torch, carried it for many years, and taught others to hold it aloft. So many people around the world are celebrating on August 27, 2018, the day when Sri Chinmoy would have turned 87.

My way of celebrating was to make this video as an introduction to Sri Chinmoy’s music world:

I say “music world” because Sri Chinmoy is a world unto himself, and his music is best understood by listening with an open heart, rather than theorizing with a critical mind. Listening brings its own rewards and leads to understanding.

I say “music world” because inside Sri Chinmoy’s music is his art — his painting and drawing. All his creations emanate from a deep spiritual well, and one can approach that well from many directions, like a circular fountain which has a myriad of little footpaths leading up to it.

Music, art, concert posters, and photographs are all ways of making inroads to reach that centre of consciousness from which Sri Chinmoy always acted. But the divine secret is that this centre of consciousness does not belong to any individual, but is our collective consciousness, to be realized. It is the Supreme’s consciousness of Light and Delight.

It is fitting, then, that the music mix begins with “Supreme Chant” — a melody which Sri Chinmoy composed to the word “Supreme” — and that it ends with Sri Chinmoy chanting the word “Supreme.”

In between, we can begin to glean something of the vastness of Sri Chinmoy’s musical oeuvre from the main selection, which is a medley of his songs performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra, culminating in a magnificent counterpoint. Truly, his music is “vaster than the sky,” and a thunderous pipe organ improvisation from Riverside Church punctuates this point.

There are many facets to Sri Chinmoy’s musical manifestation — so many that we can only catch a fleeting glimpse in the 38 minutes of this video. I hope to create other videos which bring out different aspects. A great wealth of Sri Chinmoy’s music is available online at Radio Sri Chinmoy. Special thanks to them, and to the musicians, photographers and videographers who made this non-commercial production possible.

A very happy birthday to Sri Chinmoy! Wishing peace and joy to everyone around the world who is celebrating this day!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

The Gospel Truth About Congress

Celebrating POETS day with an ode to our underworked legislators, and blues, gospel, and jazz. Musings about art, media collage, and the nature of reality.

For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Congress managed to shut down the government late Thursday night, by failing to fund it. Then, by about 5:30 a.m. both the House and Senate had passed the necessary funding bill for Donald Trump to sign when he woke up — in between defoliating his eyebrows and sticking new pins in his Katy Tur doll. (What that mean, what that mean?)

At one time in the hoary past, Congress harboured the quaint notion that it was their duty to pass carefully crafted budgets. More recently, they’ve taken to making do by passing a series of stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions or CR’s. These are hard to fathom, stuffed with pork, and no one reads them anyway. The whole process has become farcical (thus steering it into my natural territory!).

Since they were up all night having adventures, I guess congresspeople were glad to finally adjourn and beat it out of town for the weekend. They are legendary celebrants of nothing if not POETS day, i.e. “Push off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” While celebrants in Britain and Australia consider it proper to depart by 3:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Congress leaves nothing to chance. A Friday train disaster or invasion of midgets might derail their plans for the weekend, so best leave on Thursday and not come back till Tuesday next. Their departure reminds me of this bit of doggerel I penned a few years back:

The moving finger writes O Lord,
And having writ takes five;
So as this Congress now adjourns,
We thank God we’re alive.
We’re glad you didn’t strike us dead
Or cleave our tongues in two;
So many things you could have done,
But kindly didn’t do.
But most of all, O Gracious Lord
We thank you for the pork
Which thanks to CR feeding time
Now drips from every fork.
The rumours reach us now and then
Of hunger in the streets;
But we’re content to roam these halls
And milk the public teats.

I think it would best be recited in a deep, serious basso profundo like that possessed by Senate Chaplain extraordinaire Dr. Barry Black:

Here’s another good basso profundo:

And while we’re on the subject of politicans, scandalizing, and backbiting, here’s one from Bessie Smith:

Moving forward a few decades, how about John Coltrane: “Spiritual”

There’s a Church of John Coltrane which has survived for nigh on fifty years, but is threatened by gentrification. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their goal was to pray ceaselessly, to make praying as natural as breathing. This brings us full circle, back to Dr. Barry Black:

Another basso profundo with a slow and steady delivery was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen. In an unusual cultural inversion, he was so square that he actually become hip:

Well, we’ve wandered a bit, but wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t it fun?

These different connections create what’s sometimes called a “tangled hierarchy.” Sen. Dirksen praising The Monitors in a sci-fi flick from 1969 is an inflection point where we can stop and ask ourselves what the topic-at-hand is. The answer is that there really isn’t one. The fun is in the connections or kaleidoscopic movement of different elements hitting off each other, creating some kind of multidimensional pattern that’s too vast to describe or explain. We can only experience it.

Populist media often use framing to manipulate us and force us down a narrow pathway. Buy this! Vote for that! But when we connect media sources more freely, they begin to act as frames for each other. Reality begins to look like a rich, multi-layered tapestry woven of many kinds of fabric, in which we can yet perceive certain shared themes.

The truth that can be told simply and easily in a 30-second cable news segment is a dumbed-down truth — hardly a truth at all. In their richness, the arts have the potential to reveal more profound truths.

The 1960s comprised a new phase in the history of civilization in which many cultures, many views of reality, collided. It’s no coincidence that this gave rise, in the arts, to collage forms where it was up to the viewer or listener to respond to the sum total of what was being presented — not necessarily with a logical conclusion, but perhaps simply by giving himself/herself over to the experience of it.

This is related to a field of study which I’ve tried in my way to comprehend: hermeneutics. At its simplest, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics implies that we each see reality through our own horizon, but that we can collide with other realities, other horizons, other frames, and so become more deeply aware. This stepping out of ourselves to become the whole universe and all of history is at once an aesthetic and a spiritual experience.

To express this in art is not always easy, and may result in dense, difficult works which require some effort to understand, such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Back in the early 1970s, I remember hearing composer Eric Saltzman’s avant-garde work The Nude Paper Sermon — a multi-layered sound collage (he disputes this term) in which different kinds of music and texts are superimposed. In its way, it’s like a modern multi-track version of Finnegan’s Wake. In the original liner notes for the Nonesuch recording, Saltzman writes:

The Nude Paper Sermon is about the end of the Renaissance — the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Therefore it is about old and new means of communication, about verbal and non-verbal sound, about the familiar and the unknown, about human activity and the new technologies. It is not a “neo-classic” work nor is it a collage; rather it is “post-modern-music, post-modern art, post-style,” a multi-layer sound drama that is itself an example of the kinds of experience which it interprets and expresses: the transformation of values and tradition through the impact of the new technologies.

Recording technology makes all possible musical and sonic experiences of the external world raw material and even, increasingly, part of a common culture. Multi-track, multi-layer experience becomes the norm: Ravi Shankar, John Cage, the Beatles, Gregorian chant, electronic music, Renaissance madrigals and motets, Bob Dylan, German Lieder, soul, J. S. Bach, jazz, Ives, Balinese gamelan, Boulez, African drumming, Mahler, gagaku, Frank Zappa, Tchaikovsky, Varèse . . . all become part of the common shared experience. Recording technology also transforms that which it communicates: it makes all music part of the present and in so doing changes it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; technology can liberate and it can oppress. But there is no running away any more; we must master what can oppress us, learn how to use it to create and liberate.

The words of the piece are taken from John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (texts for soloists and chorus) and The Nude Paper Sermon by Steven Wade (texts for actor). The latter, produced especially for this work, is written to suggest the contemporary verbal barrage, that endless language stream of all those who use words to manipulate others: preacher, politician, TV personality, professor, newscaster, even poet. The actor’s part is a kind of scoring imposed by composer and performer on fragments of text that are used emotively and as a kind of symbology. At times words dominate, at times they are submerged, at times a precarious balance, interaction, or interweaving is maintained.

By and large, printed texts would be beside the point; spoken language — heard and overheard, comprehensible and incomprehensible, clear, elusive, simple, complex, logical, mystifying — is the subject matter here. Perhaps one printed text is in order, however: that part of one of Ashbery’s madrigals which has a traditional structure but is made out of a series of word images and verbal snapshots. It occurs near the very beginning of the work and is set as a kind of Renaissance ruin — real fake Renaissance music (“why don’t composers write like that any more?”) overlaid with electronic graffiti:

Not even time shall efface
The bent disk
And the wicked shores snore
Far from the divining knell!

Read the full liner notes here: The Nude Paper Sermon and Wiretap – Booklet for the CD reissue (PDF)

Parts of the John Ashbery poem stuck in my mind forever: And the wicked shores snore/ Far from the divining knell! So true, but what does it mean?

Forgive the tangent, but people tend to assume there is either sense or nonsense. Yet, beyond what makes logical prose sense, there are infinite gradations and colorations of abstraction. This is easier to understand in the visual arts than in language arts. A painting is, by its very nature, an abstract representation of something; though admittedly, some painters tried to do little more than capture their subjects with lifelike realism.

Still, it’s easy to imagine how painters, in a new era of photography where they no longer needed to be slaves to realism, could gradually relax their grip and drift by degrees toward abstraction. But because we use language almost entirely for practical purposes, we may be quick to dismiss any impractical formulation of words as simply “nonsense.”

John Ashbery’s poems are not nonsense. They often contain exquisitely crafted passages which verge on meaning, and tend to create pictures in the mind, but ultimately defy logic. That is their charm.

In dreams we visit many places, many states of consciousness. Some dreams are like parodies of reality itself, from which we wake up laughing. It’s so much like those wicked shores to snore, being as they are, far from the divining knell…

By the late 1960s, not all sound collages and abstract poetic constructions were confined to an audience of avowed avant-gardists. As Robert Worby points out in this Guardian article, borrowed texts and sounds from short or long-wave radio became part of the new language explored by the Beatles and their producer George Martin. A classic example is the song “I Am The Walrus,” which owes some of its expressiveness to a closing collage with bits of King Lear nicked from an AM radio tuned to the BBC.

Musicians are fascinated by sound, influenced by sound, view the world in terms of sound, and (according to David Amram) symphony artists often have voices which resemble the instruments they play.

Eric Saltzman passed away in 2017, and his New York Times obit included this passage:

Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.

“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”

To the mystic, everything is God; to the composer, everything is music; to the painter, all reality a collection of shapes and colours. That is as it should be. And to the collage artist (or maker of home brew mashups), each media source has greater meaning when it collides and refracts with other media sources. The ultimate meaning is supplied by the viewer or listener.

This post isn’t really about Congress, or gospel music. It’s more a survey of reality, reflecting on different media sources which may have something in common. Seeing the connections between things is often more interesting and satisfying than trying to wring out of them some trite prose conclusion about which one can say: lesson learned. How much more enjoyable to say: experience noted!

Backtracking to planet earth and the prosaic meaning of this post, I admit that my poem takes a rather bleak and sardonic view of Congress. In truth, there are some good people there — people of integrity without whom things would be far worse than they are. In between Congressional baseball games and Congressional turkey shoots (the two are sometimes combined for efficiency’s sake), Congress does occasionally turn its attention to doing the people’s business. (Some committees specialise in minding other people’s business. Trey Gowdy, do not ask for whom the bell tolls! What’s that committee called? The House Overbite Committee? “There’s been some backbiting goin’ on.” Meanings refract and collide!)

I’m trying really hard to close by saying some good things about Congress, but am not in the proper mood. Okay, when push came to shove, they actually did manage to nearly impeach Richard Nixon. (Hint, hint.)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

The Gospel Truth – Video Annex

Michael Stanley: “Poet’s Day” (lyrics here)

Van Morrison: “Summertime In England” (lyrics here)

The Church of Saint Coltrane:

Gandharva Loka Orchestra: “Ai, Ai, Ai Chandra Taraka” (lyrics here)

Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 1 (YouTube)
Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 2 (YouTube)

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The Best of Leonard Cohen

I was so sad to learn that singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen passed away on Thursday at the age of 82. He was best known for bittersweet lyrics that put together images in a way not quite like anyone else. Of those who rose to prominence writing folksongs in the late 60s/early 70s, only a handful could be considered excellent poets, and he was certainly one.

I’ve always thought “Suzanne” to be his most beautiful song, and I like the Judy Collins version of it best:

But his own rendition of the same song brings out more of his characteristic melancholy:

He was one of many folk artists I listened to religiously when I was about 16, and collectively they opened up a whole new world for me. No one taught me much of anything when I was growing up, so digesting the rich experiences contained in poetry set to music was a way for me to expand my world and empathize with people far distant in time and space. It was my education in feeling, and as I joke elsewhere, along with the work of visual artists like Picasso it helped prepare me for a lifetime of unemployment. I became quite old for my age listening to songs like “The Partisan”:


“Ah, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing…”

But I hope Leonard Cohen will find shelter from the cold, wearing his famous blue raincoat.

Michael Howard

John McLaughlin & Carlos Santana: 1975 Parade & Concert

  with Sri Chinmoy…

YouTube description:

From a friend of a friend of a friend I got this rare 1975 footage of Mahavishnu John McLaughlin & Devadip Carlos Santana performing at a parade & concert. The events celebrate Sri Chinmoy’s 10,000th Jharna-Kala painting. This is fan footage providing a snapshot of a legendary period that many speak of, but few have seen firsthand. As a snapshot in time, it says something significant about who these people were, what they believed, what they did, and what it all looked like — an important historical document which I’m posting as a 40th anniversary tribute.

On the crisp winter day of March 8th 1975, the parade wound its way up Madison Avenue, leading to a free concert at the Central Park Bandshell. There was a palpable sense of joy that’s difficult to capture in words, but does shine through in the film. Of the crowds of people appearing here, I’m sure some have moved on to other things, while others continue to believe and practice as they did. Nothing in this video is meant to imply promotion or sponsorship.

One reason I felt inspired to post is that I feared historical revisionism would graffiti over the reality. This clip provides a spiritual and cultural context for understanding the music of the period and the driving force behind it. It shows a kind of spiritual freedom which some people find impossible to understand unless they look directly at the reality.

My focus was on finding one clip that’s a must-see and is emblematic of the period. I wanted it to be a public clip, and something that I feel the musicians would be proud of and happy with. To respect the musicians is very important to me. Enjoy!

Bach’s St. John Passion: Crucifixion (video)

A 3-minute look into the heart of this thrilling work often performed at Easter. One remembers the crowd scenes in particular…

I fondly recall making a study of Bach’s St. John Passion. It’s well worth the study, but here no study is required. In less time than it takes to make a cup of coffee, you can check out this short compilation of crowd scenes:

The selections are:

1. “If he were not a criminal, we would not have brought him to you.”
2. “Away with him! Crucify him!”
3. “We have no king but Caesar.”

The music is quite striking and moving, with some of Bach’s most distinctive counterpoint in a chromatic style. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir.

If you liked the trailer, you’ll love the movie (for as long as it stays on YouTube):
Bach: St. John Passion full (Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir)
[Alas, gone!]

I highly recommend the 1986 CD done by Gardiner/Monteverdi: CD Set of Bach’s St. John Passion

It’s a beautiful recording that you can get to know little by little, and the music is so glorious you would ideally want to hear it with the best possible fidelity.

If you’re a Bach lover, you might even want to contemplate this work at length until you grasp the essence of it; then make a compilation with your favourite choruses, arias, and chorales. I tend to cut out a lot of the narrative, which is written in a somewhat formulaic recitative style. Finding your own personal pathway through Bach’s St. John Passion is an experience that will last you a lifetime! So stop binge-watching The Sopranos and discover (ahem)… a higher tenor of entertainment. 😉

See also: “Easter Thoughts on Mercy” (includes selections from Bach’s B Minor Mass)

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Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 2

Chyi Yu, Nana Mouskouri, Vincent Van Gogh, San Mao, and Buddhism

I had begun talking about Chinese vocalist Chyi Yu here, lamenting that I didn’t have time to cover more facets of her varied career. (See Part 1 for discussion of Chyi Yu, Li Tai-Hsiang, and the meaning of the song “The Olive Tree.”)

In this follow-up I’ll usher the reader through a whirlwind tour of three periods in the life of this fascinating artist, whose best work is infused with spiritual feeling. Music videos will guide us on our journey…

I’ve written about the close artistic collaboration between Chyi Yu and composer-arranger Li Tai-Hsiang. Chyi Yu was to some extent his protégé, and they shared a belief in music without borders. Different styles of music were not separate islands, but formed a continuum. One could therefore mix styles freely and create something more meaningful. Let’s pick up the story in 1983, when after a four-year hiatus, Chyi Yu again worked with Li Tai-Hsiang in the studio. Here’s “The Sigh of Chrysanthemum” from her album You Are All My Memories:

Even today it’s hard for me to listen to this song without tears coming to my eyes. It’s such a perfect example of the synergy between Chyi Yu, Li Tai-Hsiang, and poet Hsiang Yang. As with much great art, there’s a combining of opposites: joy and sadness, innocence and experience. The style might be called light classical, the main instruments being harp, oboe, and strings, but with the addition of electric bass. As many times as one listens to this song, it’s always perfect, with not one note or inflection out of place.

User zzenzero is active on both YouTube and DailyMotion in posting a few of Chyi Yu’s early songs, often with detailed biography, lyrics translation, and helpful links — for which we heartily thank him or her. We thus gain this translation (slightly edited by me):

Chrysanthemum Sigh

All waiting, only for the golden-haired chrysanthemum
Smiling and slowly blossoming in the cold night
Gently floating down like the leaves of the forest
The greeting is as beautiful as the sound of water
But with a little anger just like the wind,
People treading through the bracken trails
Startled by the clear yellow moonlight,
And in the evening trampling on the branches
left by the woodcutter
Cold stagnation faded dark and desolate
Always passing by with head bent and hair hanging down,
pretending not to be there
Outside the forest stream, a few teardrops
clutching the grass
Now disintegrated in the wind
You ask me about the duckweed’s logic
Ah, that is it
Dew sinks into the earth, gently sighing
Chrysanthemum, golden-haired chrysanthemum
is enduring to wait.
After the cold winter, the spring will come
I’ll wait all my life for your perfection
I have a lifetime to wait for you to
show your perfect colour
I have a lifetime to wait for you to
unfurl your colour.

— Hsiang Yang

From 1987 on into the 90s, Chyi Yu recorded mostly English songs. She reminds me a little of Greek-French chanteuse Nana Mouskouri for a few reasons: Both were influenced early on by Joan Baez; both have big hearts and like to make people happy, so they sometimes surrender to the popular taste and sing English songs which everybody knows and requests, but which aren’t the best poetry (tending toward the sentimental); and because of their kind and empathetic nature, both have been selected as ambassadors of good will.

zzenzero writes of Chyi that “one of her many ventures outside music was in 1997, when she was invited to serve as the ‘World Vision’ 1997 Hunger Ambassador, on behalf of Taiwan Asia, going to Africa to visit refugees.” (I suppose that makes her a “hunger artist”!) Nana Mouskouri was likewise appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in October 1993. Here from 1967 is a très grave Nana Mouskouri singing a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” on French television:

In both France and Taiwan, a singer is… well, a singer — an entertainer. Both Nana Mouskouri and Chyi Yu have struggled to be taken seriously as artists while also cooperating with the need for people to have their pop idols imbued with a certain cosmetic glamour. In Nana’s case, her trademark thick-rimmed glasses say “I’m an intellectual — not some bar room singer!” Chyi Yu has a degree in cultural anthropology from prestigious NTU (or was it UCLA?)) and is nobody’s fool!

So how does Vincent van Gogh fit into all this? (you’ve been dying to ask). Well, one can hardly put together a slideshow of his work without using Don McLean’s song “Vincent” for the music track. See below, except that some mischievous imp has swapped in Chyi Yu’s cover version, which is a good example of her English song period:

Now brace yourself for the big change: In Part 1 of this series, I mentioned that I always felt there was something spiritual about Chyi Yu, but it proved elusive as I tracked her career over a couple of decades. Listening to her cover versions of (often syrupy) English hits, I was smacking myself in the head asking why she wasn’t doing something more meaningful. Could she ever transcend the glamour/popularity factor? Fast forward to 2012 when I stumbled upon an amazing Buddhist music video:

The voice sounded so familiar… Oh my God, that’s Chyi converted to Buddhism and singing seven-syllable Buddhist sutras in her inimitable style! Such clarity and poise, and no artificial sweeteners. It was an astounding development that knocked me for a loop. I felt personally vindicated. She had been a folk hero of mine in the early 80s, but I’d felt a bit let down during her pop star years. Now she seems to be doing what she was born to do, which is to give voice to spiritual feelings and so awaken them in others. A 2009 article in the Chinese press says in part:

Chinese pop-ballad sensation Chyi Yu is all set to take the stage for her final solo concerts, five years after she last appeared in Beijing.

Often dubbed “China’s Enya,” the 51-year-old singer met with the media dressed in her signature Bohemian style.

While most expected to learn the details of her upcoming concerts, Chyi shocked reporters with the announcement that her November performances would be her last solo concerts ever. Then she burst into tears.

“The reason is simple: singers hold solo concerts because they have the ambition to propel their career to a higher level. I’m living a peaceful life now, devoting my time to Buddhism. I think this concert will draw a perfect conclusion to my career,” Chyi explained.

Billed as The Voice – No Boundaries, her concert will focus solely on her music, without dancing or visual effects. Artistic director Jin Zhaojun said that many concerts these days tend to be over-enhanced by technology, with the music itself marginalized.

“Because of my religion and my major in anthropology, I dislike boundaries,” Chyi added. “There are no boundaries in music, from Chinese songs to English, from classical to pop and from past to present. Therefore the title No Boundaries perfectly summarizes the content of this show.”

The music diva will present 20 timeless classics in both English and Chinese, including Amazing Grace and Vincent, the Broadway hit Memory, as well as her smash hit The Olive Tree and Swan Lake, a reprise of her collaboration with [the] Russian National Orchestra.

By her own admission, she has never been a prolific performer. The past three decades of her career only saw seven Chinese albums and seven English releases, with a number of chart-topping singles… “God gave me a good voice, but I’m not active enough. I am not a planner and I sing as I like. Singing has always been my hobby, not a means of living,” Chyi explained.

She added that the decline of China’s pop music industry, the prevalence of piracy and the change in listening trends also impacted her music.

In 2002, Chyi converted to Buddhism. She then released four albums featuring Buddhist chants.

“I got a chance to know Buddhism on a trip to Tibet and I discovered the religious music can benefit common people as well,” Chyi said. “If pop music can sooth people’s moods, then spiritual music can comfort our souls.”

Source: “Chyi Yu announces final farewell” by Xing Daiqi

Like former New York Yankees sportscaster Phil Rizzuto, Chyi Yu has come out of retirement a couple of times, but her concerts remain rare. She recently said that the changing moods and emotions of pop music tease the senses, while soulful music precipitates quiet and encourages self-cultivation — purposes well-suited to her later years.

Not every Buddhist recording she releases is of equal quality. Some are more distinctive, while others sound more “generic.” I look at it in terms of genotype and phenotype. Much Chinese Buddhist music that’s meant to please the general public shares a common genotype or familiar sound created through traditional elements, but particular examples of the genre manage to break out of the genotype and show their own distinctive traits, their phenotype. The artist brings something of his or her own personality and life experiences to the music. This is what I look for.

An amusing side note is that Chyi is often described as a “Bohemian” — a term which may strike the Western ear as slightly archaic for someone who discovered the sixties in the late seventies. 😉 Perhaps the most famous Chinese Bohemian of the last half-century was writer San Mao, who went backpacking, married a Spaniard, wrote romantic novels and poems, and tragically committed suicide in 1991. In 1985, she collaborated with Chyi Yu and Pan Yue Yun on the album Echo.

The story goes that San Mao was looking for someone to record her poems in song form, and felt that Chyi Yu and Pan Yue Yun were Taiwan’s only true Bohemians (outside herself, of course). Evidence of Chyi’s legendary “Bohemian style of dress” is hard to come by, because she was usually pretty well dolled up and coiffed for album covers and publicity shots. But the music video for San Mao’s song “Meng Tian” (“Dream Field”) captures something of the informal Chyi (who’s on the left):

In a roughly-translated interview with the Yangcheng Evening News, Chyi talked about the purity of the burgeoning campus folk scene in the late 70s, and of reading San Mao’s work in high school. She told San Mao it may have been God arranging their fate when they later came to work together. As she and Michelle Pan were recording “Dream Field,” San Mao began sobbing because it reminded her of her husband José (who had drowned six years earlier).

Thanks to windcglider’s blog, we know the lyrics to this song say that In each person’s heart there is a field where the seeds of dreams are sown. What should I plant? What should I plant? Plant peaches, plums, and spring’s breezes… If the lyrics are upbeat and idealistic, the melody and video speak poignantly of the distance between everyday life and that special place inside our hearts.

San Mao (1943-1991). May she find release from suffering.

San Mao (1943-1991). May she find release from suffering.

Chyi Yu’s music is available from iTunes, Rock Records (Asia), and other distributors. You may also find imports for sale at Chinese music outlets in Western countries.

Joyce Hatto and Ethics

I began this blog by pondering whether ethics is masculine and spirituality feminine. If compassion and forgiveness are significant aspects of spirituality, they’re also qualities we tend to associate more with women than men. It’s not surprising, then, that the most compassionate rendering of the back story behind the Joyce Hatto scandal comes from Victoria Wood in her BBC treatment Loving Miss Hatto.

I’m working on spec on an article about Hatto and her husband William Barrington-Coupe (known as “Barry”). There are some new factual developments concerning the U.S. side of what was a distinctly British scandal; but in this post I’m less interested in going over the facts than examining the ethics of loving (or hating?) Miss Hatto.

Wood’s treatment is based (very loosely) on “Fantasia For Piano” — Mark Singer’s definitive piece in The New Yorker. If you’re unfamiliar with the matter, that would quickly get you up to speed. The essence is that about a hundred classical piano recordings released under Hatto’s name turned out to be plagiarized in whole or in part from other artists. Head leper is William Barrington-Coupe, who had a dodgy past and is generally considered something of a con man.

Opinion about Hatto herself is more mixed, with those who knew her personally hoping against hope that she was unaware of the nature or magnitude of the fraud committed by her husband. Yet, by most accounts it was more than simple fraud; it was also a hoax (which has a somewhat different complexion than a fraud, implying an artistic playing with reality). And beyond either hoax or fraud, there remains the very real question of whether Hatto and hubby became potty in their senior years. Was the illusion that cancer-ridden septuagenarian Joyce nonetheless had a prolific recording career a form of folie à deux?

In real life, there are baffling, enigmatic, and pathological elements to the story; but sadly, to make a winning film for the Beeb, Victoria Wood had to simplify the characters and iron out many of their real world contradictions. What we get, then, is a sentimental love story in which both Hatto and hubby emerge as flawed but likeable characters. It’s them against the world, and we’re on their side:

The first of two trailers ends with Barrington-Coupe being arrested for failing to pay the purchase tax on radios he imported from Hong Kong. It’s portrayed as less of a crime and more of a typical Barry “muddle.” Joyce and Barry are middle-class folk up against a classical music establishment filled with “dessicated old shirt-lifters” (as Barry calls them). All’s fair in love and marketing, and Barry’s early mission is to “sell” Joyce as an international concert artiste to the great British public, despite her crippling stage fright and bouts with nerves:

Ethics 101 tells us that lying, cheating, and stealing from other artists is execrable behaviour; but Wood is not so much an ethicist as a romantic. In her research for the film, she plainly came to identify with Hatto and to find something heroic in her struggles. The very title “Loving Miss Hatto” may well be a defiant retort to the hatred hurled at the couple once their fraud, hoax, or call-it-what-you-will was unmasked.

Even in a country with socialized medicine, a multi-year bout with cancer must be an inconvenient and impoverishing thing. Wood depicts the couple as leading a modest lifestyle, but occasionally being able to afford cake due to the income from pirated CDs. She makes Joyce and Barry eminently real to us in the tradition of inversionist outlaw flicks like Bonnie and Clyde (to which she makes explicit reference) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The people victimized by the couple — conned, lied to, and cheated — are little seen and not given the same warm treatment.

Still, notwithstanding its upside-down ethics and inversionist outlook, Loving Miss Hatto is an enjoyable and sympathetic portrayal (though it would have been better at an hour than an hour-forty). I can’t help liking the film characters despite knowing that the reality was somewhat darker. If you don’t care to put your ethics in your back pocket, you can always watch The Great Piano Scam for a tougher appraisal:

 Michael Howard

Interesting Joyce Hatto Links

The Hatto-Howell letters:

Promotion of Joyce Hatto — 2006 archived page:

Jed Distler Reviews the Lost René Köhler BBC Recordings:

Letter published on Overgrown Path blog:

Charles Ives — “The Cage” and “Walking”

My little aside about the hamster in the cage not having learned to play the calliope reminded me of this 1906 song by Charles Ives:

The Cage

A leopard went around his cage
from one side back to the other side;
he stopped only when the keeper came around with meat;
A boy who had been there three hours
began to wonder, “Is life anything like that?”

Not a spiritual realization, but maybe an atonal precursor, since discovering how much life is like that — how much time we spend pacing our cages waiting to be thrown meat — may ultimately spur us on to seek a better way…

Charles Ives could write better (and more life-affirming) songs. Here’s a good one:


A big October morning,
the village church-bells,
the road along the ridge,
the chestnut burr and sumach,
the hills above the bridge
with autumn colors glow.
Now we strike a steady gait,
walking towards the future,
letting past and present wait,
we push on in the sun,
Now hark! Something bids us pause…
(down the valley, a church, a funeral going on.)
(up the valley, a roadhouse, a dance going on.)
But we keep on a-walking,
’tis yet not noon-day,
the road still calls us onward,
today we do not choose to die
or to dance, but to live and walk.

As a teen, I borrowed the music from the Donnell or Lincoln Center library and taped it (shhh!). I always loved the part “today we do not choose to die or to dance, but to live and walk.” Without knowing it, I was being led toward the middle path.

Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence 1

UPDATED! I first heard the music of Chyi Yu around 1986 or so. I had gotten interested in music from Taiwan and China thanks to Sounds of China, a radio show put on by Chinese students at Columbia University. That show still airs on WKCR-FM as part of its In All Languages lineup.

Music nourishes us with many qualities that we need or long for, and not all qualities are available from a purely Western diet of sounds. I felt thrilled that my aural and cultural palate was being expanded by listening to Sounds of China. I made friends with some Chinese students and learned more about the music they were playing.

From the moment I first heard her singing, I felt that Chyi Yu was a very special artist. There was a quality of purity and joy in her voice which suggested something spiritual. That quality proved elusive as I tracked her career over a couple of decades. Out of many albums she released, around seven from her early and late periods stand out in my memory. There’s a middle period not quite as interesting to me, but I’ll get to that…

Chyi Yu rose to prominence as a beloved figure in the “campus folk” movement that emerged in Taiwan in the late 70s and early 80s, coming out of schools like NTU (National Taiwan University). Campus folk was strongly influenced by the American folk music revival of the sixties, and indeed, one of Chyi Yu’s early triumphs was winning a folk-singing contest with her Joan Baez-like rendition of “Diamonds and Rust.” But most campus folk was sung in Mandarin, and Chyi Yu famously sang in that language with a clarity and purity reminiscent of Baez, but a voice uniquely her own. She still does.

Though it’s a hackneyed cliché to refer to a female vocalist as a “songbird,” Chyi Yu seems like one of those people put on earth to sing and to delight others with her voice. The naturalness of it all brings to mind these lines from Tagore:

“To the birds you gave songs, the birds gave you songs in return.
You gave me only voice, yet asked for more, and I sing.”

But how dull to listen to my praises without hearing the artist herself! Without further ado, here’s Chyi Yu singing her 1979 hit “The Olive Tree,” which became her signature song, performed around the world and known to most Mandarin speakers:

Even not knowing the meaning (as I certainly did not at the outset), one is struck by the beauty and sadness of this song. Chyi Yu had the good fortune to work with a very gifted composer/arranger named Li Tai-Hsiang. I learned only tonight that he died in January 2014 of multiple ailments. A great loss to the music world!

It was their work together which distinguished Chyi Yu’s early career; for while her voice was filled with youthful innocence and joy, there was often something venerable and tragic in the music of Li Tai-Hsiang, as if he personally had suffered through a hundred years of Chinese history filled with war, famine, and bereavement. When I first heard this 1984 example of his singing, I was completely blown away:

It was this combining of opposites which brought a depth of experience to their shared musical collaborations. Li Tai-Hsiang wrote large symphonic works, but also sensitive folk arrangements. In “The Olive Tree,” listen carefully to the oboe part and observe how he leaves a non-harmonic tone hanging for a long time so that it sounds almost dissonant. As for the meaning, here’s one translation:

The Olive Tree

Don’t ask me from where I have come,
My home is far, far away.
Why do you wander so far?
Wander so far, wander so far?
For the little bird flying in the sky,
For the blue brook running in the mountain,
For the broad meadow green and wide,
I wander, wander so far.
Then, is there more?
Yes, for the Olive Tree of my dream.
Don’t ask me from where I have come,
My home is far, far away.
Why do you wander?
Why do you wander so far?
Far, far away?
For the Olive Tree of my dream.
Don’t ask me from where I have come,
My home is far, far away.
Why do you wander so far?
Wander so far, wander so far?

It’s easy to see why this song became a virtual anthem among the Chinese diaspora. “Don’t ask me from where I have come” is another way of saying “Don’t ask me about the horrors I have seen and been through.” But the song is popular in both Taiwan and the Mainland, perhaps because it skirts politics and evokes an archetype of the wanderer far from home pursuing an unattainable dream. In this sense, the olive tree is a symbol of an unformed longing that drives us onward without fully knowing why. It’s not explicitly spiritual, but perhaps it will be when it ripens.

So far, only one song from Chyi Yu and we’ve barely scratched the surface! Her evolution as an artist has taken many turns. I hope to pen Part 2 soon, and talk about her explicitly spiritual phase (which she’s still in). I’ll leave you with another of her folk songs — this time a duet with Pan Yue Yun. It’s called “Dream Field,” and like “The Olive Tree” the lyrics are by San Mao, who was a passionate and tragic character in her own right.

The song says that in each person’s heart there is a field where the seeds of dreams are sown. What should I plant? What should I plant? Plant peaches, plums, and spring’s breezes… For a fuller translation, see windcglider’s blog here.

Chyi Yu’s music is available from iTunes, Rock Records (Asia), and other distributors. You may also find imports for sale at Chinese music outlets in Western countries.

Read Part 2 of “Chyi Yu, Voice of Innocence” here.