Happy 55th Anniversary, Sri Chinmoy!

Shedding new light on the contributions made by this immortal teacher and his musical oeuvre

I am so grateful today, April 13th, 2019, to write something about Sri Chinmoy, the great and good spiritual teacher, musician, poet, and artist who came to the West exactly 55 years ago today.

I am grateful because I feel that Sri Chinmoy saved my life many times over (though I hardly deserve it). I was and am a poor student, but Sri Chinmoy always reflected such an effulgence of light that even the dullest student could not fail to absorb some of it and be changed by it.

And by God’s Grace, I think I have some inkling into how much he willingly suffered in order to be of help to those who sought out his spiritual guidance. As human beings, you might say we are half-devil, half-angel. Or you can say that when we try to go one step forward and become spiritual, then we discover the destructive tiger within us that wants to keep us in its den at all cost.

By challenging humanity to change for the better, to embrace ideals of peace and divine love, Sri Chinmoy had, at times, to endure the hatred of the world. And in offering a helping hand to those who specifically asked him to help them change their nature, he had to endure hatred, at times, even from his own disciples — from the destructive tiger within them.

Human nature is fickle. Today, and for a few days (or weeks or months or years), someone wants to become spiritual. But after a time, the same person may lose interest and intensity, or may fall victim to desire. At that time, they may hate and blame the spiritual teacher for taking them away from worldly life — forgetting that it was they themselves who asked the spiritual teacher to guide them, and they who assured him that they were ready and eager for the spiritual life.

A simple truth: Those who wrong or betray a spiritual teacher may hate him because deep down they know they have wronged him. I was reminded of this simple truth by a scene from an old movie: Ice Palace (1960), based on the novel by Edna Ferber.

Sadly, it is human nature to sometimes hate those whom we have wronged. But today, April 13th, is a day of celebration. And to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Sri Chinmoy’s arrival in the West, I want to offer 5 songs by Sri Chinmoy. These are not just any songs, chosen casually. Rather, they are a gateway to understanding the richness and depth of expression found in his artistic oeuvre.

The 5 songs lay the groundwork. But in addition, there’s a sixth bonus track, and what a track it is! — a medley incorporating all 5 songs, strikingly arranged and masterfully performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra. This is a large international ensemble of singers and instrumentalists dedicated to performing Sri Chinmoy’s music on a grand scale:

As a lifelong student of music, I’m very excited about sharing these songs in this particular format. It’s so gratifying to hear the individual songs, then see how they’re combined contrapuntally and polyrhythmically in such a powerful and joyous fashion. If there’s one concept that shines brightly from this experience, it’s the idea of call and response. Whether in gospel music or jazz, call and response is the essence of communication. And in the lives of great spiritual teachers, we see that it’s also a matter of call and response. The message of one enlightened soul is so electric that it lights the way for thousands of seekers who then take up that call and lend their own voices to it in richness and harmony.

When I hear Gandharva Loka Orchestra’s striking arrangement of Sri Chinmoy’s songs echoing through the large hall, and met with thunderous applause, I feel dynamically energized, but also I feel a sense of completion. I hear over a hundred people crying out (in essence): “We have heard your call, and now we are singing back to you, with immense gratitude, the songs you have taught us.” The cycle is complete.

More About The Songs

Sri Chinmoy was a prolific composer of spiritual songs in Bengali and English. These five songs are in Bengali, with English translations for two of them given by the composer:

Sukhero Lagiya

I lead my poor vital along teeming roads
To discover happiness birthless and deathless.
I see Your Beauty’s Feet
Shining and scattering their radiance
Inside a tiny twig of my hope-world.
A perfect stranger am I now
To the tired and sleeping life.
The confines of the hope-empty Sahara
Will never be able to imprison me.

Chitta Dolai

My heart-door is completely open.
O my sweet Lord Supreme,
Come and enjoy Your Ecstasy’s Dream
On my heart-swing.
Do come driving Your Light-flooded Chariot,
On the flower-decorated purity-road.
And the moment You come,
Do make me lose my division-self
And make me one with Your
Infinity’s Immortality-Self.

The character of these two songs is completely different. In the first, the seeker is still wandering through the desert, and only catches a glimpse of the spiritual Reality that will eventually liberate him. In the second, she is well along the path of Bhakti Yoga, and with open heart is enjoying a feeling of sweet devotion and oneness with her Lord Supreme.

These contrasting moods are strongly developed in the arrangement by Gandharva Loka Orchestra. There are elements of world music and jazz fusion: a large orchestra and chorus, tabla accompaniment, a Chinese erhu solo, and an amazing soprano sax solo by Premik Russell Tubbs, who listeners may know from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Like any great band, Gandharva Loka Orchestra combines fantastic arranging skills with tremendous freedom on the part of individual soloists. Yes, it’s spiritual music, but it also swings.

These tracks collectively comprise a half-hour odyssey into Sri Chinmoy’s music-world, and begin to get at the variety of musical expression he fostered, both in his own compositions and performances, and in the way he inspired his students to form groups reflective of their individual style and musical experience.

There is always more to discover about Sri Chinmoy’s music, and I hope this brief introduction has sparked your interest. Thank you for reading!

Michael Howard

Track List

0:00 “Sonali Jyotir” performed by Arthada and Friends
2:42 “Mishe Phulla Dale” performed by Sri Chinmoy
3:56 “Oi Akashe” performed by Akasha
7:01 “Sukhero Lagiya” performed by Sri Chinmoy
9:34 “Chitta Dolai” performed by Mountain-Silence
11:39 Medley performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra

Links

Sri Chinmoy Songs (sheet music, translations)
More Gandharva Loka Orchestra on Radio Sri Chinmoy
God, The Supreme Musician (Sri Chinmoy’s influential book on music)

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Brexit: Irish Backstop For Dummies (video)

With a little help from The Cranberries, and footage from the People’s Vote March, London, 3-23-2019

In my (literally) fevered brain, I’ve been searching for a way to make a statement about the People’s Vote March, the Irish Backstop, and the seeming lack of concern among politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg over the violence which could ensue in Northern Ireland if things aren’t handled just right. This is it:

Full screen it for best effect, and choose 720p. Any problem with the embedded video, try this Dropbox link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/96u0is2hoka9gdr/Irish%20Backstop%20For%20Dummies.mkv

I also made an animated GIF for added exposure:

During peacetime, we don’t recognize how fragile and precious peace is, and how easily the peace can be lost. To use a stupid pop analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga, where removing the United Kingdom from the European Union may cause a chain reaction which sends the Towers of Peace crumbling.

In the video, different media sources are blended to create an ironic commentary in the guise of a “for dummies” book, with British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg cast in the role of dummy (or zombie). The French version of “for dummies” is “pour les Nuls,” as was kindly explained to me 20 years ago by my then workmate Virginie Ducrot.

During the time of the “Troubles,” a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a source of constant fighting in which thousands died, including innocent children. Then the Good Friday Agreement established an open border and fighting ended. Yet, the same forces still exist in Northern Ireland today, and might easily be re-ignited by Brexit. But the Brexiteers gave no thought to the Irish border, and don’t take seriously the need to avoid a hard border at all cost. What’s in their heads?

The Cranberries’ music video “Zombie” was banned by the BBC. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s one of those pieces of art that forces you to confront difficult issues. At first, I worried that the Crucifixion theme was sacrilegious. But while some of the imagery is garish, it makes the powerful point that innocent children are being crucified, and the consciousness behind this killing is not noble or heroic — it’s more in the nature of a gnawing spirit of hatred that knows no mercy.

This January marked the one year anniversary of Dolores O’Riordan’s tragic death at the too young age of 46. Her song “Zombie” transcended the Irish Troubles and became an anthem decrying senseless violence between warring tribes wherever it occurs — from Bosnia to Rwanda. As she hailed from Limerick, I offer her this sincere tribute:

There was a young girl named Dolores,
Who echoed a powerful chorus;
She protested the killing,
And in Heaven, God willing
She’ll put in a goodly word for us.

Michael Howard

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

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Brexit and the Bells of Rhymney

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and MEP Ska Keller make a persuasive case for a second referendum, and why the U.K. will always be welcome in the E.U. Theresa May and Rupa Huq take Prime Minister’s Questions to a new level. Plus, we listen to (and discuss) the Welsh mining song ‘Bells of Rhymney’. (Yes, there is a connection!)

In my previous magnum opus on Brexit, much of my focus was on how E.U. membership benefits the U.K. After all, the nature of politics at the populist level is all about self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney’.)

Yet, there’s a quite different way of exploring the Brexit question, based less on self-interest and more on the visionary aspect. In a representative democracy, one ideally tries to elect leaders who have vision, who understand the direction in which the world is headed, and who try to align their nation with the right tide of history. Despite many practical problems with E.U. membership which need ironing out, the E.U. represents a noble effort at cooperation between nations who had previously engaged in open warfare. It’s also a response to the burgeoning awareness that many pressing problems, including climate change, can only be tackled at a global level.

Aside from practical benefits, the E.U. offers each member nation an opportunity to come together with other nations and contribute its unique qualities, while not losing its individuality. This coming together of nations and peoples, which may be described as ‘oneness in diversity’, is the right tide of history, the good direction in which the world is moving post-World War II. In this visionary understanding of what the E.U. represents, Britain is a beloved member nation which has many good friends among other nations, and which has something most meaningful and special to contribute to the mix.

From this point of view, Brexit represents a retreat into the past, a rejection of the sometimes challenging, but ultimately fulfilling promise of the future, in which cooperation between nations is understood to be the highest political good, and a necessity for survival of the planet. If Remainers are sometimes tearful and angry, it’s because they love their country and know that Britain has a big heart, a heart which has the capacity to identify with broader Europe and not cordon itself off. From the point of view of Remainers, the Brexiteers have fooled the people into making a retrograde decision which is bad for Britain, bad for the E.U., and bad for the world. The result will be salt and vinegar, not any kind of cake feast or champagne breakfast.

When did Brexit (which was supposed to be such a lovely idea) take on the character of an unstoppable juggernaut to which we are all chained? As Tony Blair recently noted, “Things do not need to be like this. We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it”.

Between working and raising a family, the average citizen may not have time to ponder these deep matters. That’s why it’s so important that political leaders elected to do the job bring out the best in themselves, respond dynamically to the changing situation, and not be afraid to admit mistakes while there is still time to rectify them. When government economists considered the worst-case scenario of a no deal Brexit, even then they did not look into the future and weigh the possibility of new troubles in Northern Ireland, or a second referendum in Scotland which might result in that nation leaving the U.K. In a chess game one must look several moves ahead, but too many in government are only playing ‘Chequers’.

I admire Prime Minister May, but she has a deeply bureaucratic streak in her nature such that she will not deviate from plan. The ‘Maybot’ sobriquet has stuck because she keeps delivering the same speech over and over again, and during PMQs often gives the equivalent of ‘I am not programmed to respond in that area’. Her lack of creativity and flexibility in a time of crisis naturally causes other leaders to step in to fill the void.

It is uncharitable of her to savage Tony Blair for stating what is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some of May’s own allies: After two years of discussion in which Brexit reality has gradually come to replace Brexit fantasy, the people deserve a final say on a decision which will impact their lives for generations to come. It’s not a ‘do-over’ or mere repeat of the first referendum. History is not static, and neither is democracy. It turns out that the Brexit which can be delivered is much different than what the people were promised. Those who led them down the garden path should at least give them a final say before plunging them over the abyss.

Adding ‘Bells of Rhymney’ to the mix

Welsh miner turned poet Idris Davies penned ‘The Bells of Rhymney” in 1938. It was later revived by fellow countryman Dylan Thomas. American folksinger Pete Seeger set the words to music circa 1959, and his tune is the one used for numerous cover versions:

There’s also a version by Bob Dylan and the Band from 1967, but I’m guessing it’s pretty well locked down by copyright Nazis. 😉

As for the poem itself, it is perhaps best understood as an impassioned response to a Welsh mining disaster, with the church bells in different cities pealing out different reactions to the tragedy. These responses are variously political, legal, metaphysical, and so forth, creating a kind of geographic tableau which also reflects the poet’s inner dialogue. ‘Even God is uneasy, sang the moist bells of Swansea’.

‘Is there hope for the future?’ This is a question oft asked in times of crisis, bringing us back to Tony Blair’s speech defining Brexit as such a time. There is always hope, and as Ska Keller said when interviewed by Channel 4:

Of course, [a second referendum] is up to the people in Great Britain to decide. But if they were to decide to change their minds, then they need to be welcomed back. There should be open doors for the people of Great Britain. Absolutely! But that is up to Great Britain to decide. If the people of Britain were to change their minds, then our doors and our hearts and arms are very welcoming, very open to them. For me, the Brexit is a real tragedy. We have so many great friends there, but also Great Britain is not going to move away. It’s very close to the rest of us, and we’re linked in a partnership, we’re linked together in geography, and for creating a better future we need each other. That’s why I think it’s such a tragedy. [If nationalism rises in Europe] I wouldn’t blame the Brits. I would still think it’s a tragedy that they have left, and I would always want them to come back.

In her comments we can see much of what’s good about the E.U. Where there is love, forgiveness, and oneness in diversity, eventually practical problems can be overcome.

This is Michael Howard ringing in the Christmas season, and hoping that the bells which ring for you are joyful ones.


Sidebar: The Bells of Rhymney – Further Reflections

When I first heard the song performed by Pete Seeger, I was about 14 years old and he was a guest artist on WBAI radio, helping them out during one of their interminable fund drives. I liked it for its poetic images — the bells of different colours sounding out different messages, and picturesque town names like Caerphilly and Swansea — but I didn’t really understand it. Or, let us say, I understood it at a surface level (which is not always bad). Some singers have beautiful voices, but don’t know the history or meaning of what they’re singing. Here are two more cover versions of ‘The Bells of Rhymney’:

The Cher version is rather insipid, but no need to dwell. The John Denver version strikes me as somewhat prettified, and his introduction fortifies misimpressions about the song: that it was written by Pete Seeger (no mention of Idris Davies), and that it’s primarily about local colour. You can easily picture him crooning ‘They were buried alive/ Said a Belgian endive…’ without batting an eyelash. Still, the bell-like guitar harmonics are a nice touch. Some fancy fingerpicking, but I wonder if it doesn’t detract from the meaning.

For me the song imparts a rare dual memory — of what it sounded like when I was 14, and what it sounds like now. Having learned more about poetry, I now know that the speech of bells can be a stand-in for the speech of men and women who might gather at churches in different towns the first Sunday after a mining disaster, and speak out in a myriad of voices. As with church bells, these voices might not exactly harmonise. Some might trail off or speak at cross-purposes, but their collective clanging would signify that some momentous event has taken place. Fire! Flood! Or Mrs Cropley putting anchovy paste in her lemon curd tartlets.

Maybe on some deep level, that’s why I thought to connect the song with Brexit. After all, Brexit is a slow motion political disaster, and is typically accompanied by a school of porpoises from the University of Wales banging on about this or that option on the BBC. “I prefer Norway Plus Plus, but without the Norwegians, and a side order of Canadian bacon gently sautéed in a litre of Glenfiddich Gran Reserva.” Ding-dong.

Like any good disaster, Brexit also has its share of junkies tuning in to the news every five minutes, hoping against hope that someone will insert a new punch card into the Maybot, and maybe she’ll say something genuinely new for a change. You can make better book on the 3:30 at Ascot, though now and then she does surprise:

As for ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, I’m convinced there’s a Gordon Lightfoot version stashed somewhere in the compilation Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written:

I’m avidly rummaging through all 379 discs, but oh wait! There’s an interview with Nyle Hogg-Filth on ITV. Apparently, he’s found a new solution to the Brexit problem which involves nuclear physics and buggery. I just have to watch…

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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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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.

Stormy Daniels Warm-Up Party

UPDATED! Listen to “Stormy” and “Daniel” songs while waiting for the CBS 60 Minutes interview to air (or after). Might be some Devo, Nancy Sinatra, and Threepenny Opera worked in just for laughs. I freely admit “Danny Boy” is a stretch, but I couldn’t resist. All real music (no stupid parodies.) Sunday will never be the same!

I started this YouTube playlist as a lark, but later got seriously into it. So aside from the obligatory nods to pop music you’ll also find some rare blues and folk gems. Includes both Joni Mitchell and Tom Rush versions of “Urge For Going” (heh-heh, Donald Trump joke), as well as Muddy Waters, the Greenbriar Boys, Joan Baez, Big Bill Broonzy, Bessie Smith, Doc Watson, Julie Andrews, John Coltrane, and lots of other great artists.

In short, the music stands on its own, so even after all the Stormy Daniels jokes have died down, and Donald Trump is just another ex-pol wearing an orange jump suit, you can still enjoy this deep dive into the flood waters of music history. A great way to spend a rainy night or ride out the storm!

Just press the play button on the embedded YouTube and all songs should play in sequence. If you prefer to look before you leap, here’s the playlist:

1 Billie Holiday – Stormy Weather (1952)
2 Stormy Monday – B.B. King
3 Stormy Love (Laura Nyro)
4 The Band – Daniel And The Sacred Harp
5 Elton John – Daniel
6 (A capella) John McDermott – Danny Boy (rare)
7 Danny Boy – Sinéad O’Connor
8 Whip it – Devo
9 Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ – 1966
10 Spanky & Our Gang – Sunday Will Never Be The Same
11 Peter Gabriel – Shock The Monkey
12 (1979) The Flying Lizards – Money (That’s What I Want)
13 Mack the Knife by Louis Armstrong
14 Jaws – Theme song
15 What Game Shall We Play Today (Chick Corea/Return to Forever)
16 Enya – Storms in Africa HD
17 Toto – Africa (Video)
18 Storm Clouds Rising – Florida Mass Choir
19 Muddy Waters – Flood
20 Greenbriar Boys – Up To My Neck In High Muddy Water
21 Joan Baez – Before the Deluge
22 Tom Rush – Rainy Day Man ’70
23 Urge For Going (1966) – Joni Mitchell
24 Big Bill Broonzy – Southern Flood Blues
25 Bessie Smith – Back Water Blues COLUMBIA 14195 D
26 Doc Watson – Deep River Blues
27 Brook Benton – Rainy Night in Georgia
28 It’s Raining Men (Weather Girls)
29 Richard Harris – MacArthur Park Original 1968
30 Tom Rush – Urge For Going
31 Ode to the Yellow River by Xian Xinghai
32 The Beatles – Rain
33 My Favorite Things – Julie Andrews
34 John Coltrane – My Favorite Things – Live At Newport
35 Rainy Night House – Joni Mitchell
36 Etta James – Stormy Monday (live)

If you’ve read my post “The Gospel Truth About Congress,” you know that I love the way different media hit off each other. So not all the songs are necessarily great music, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Sometimes I go for similarities, sometimes for extreme contrasts.

As for Stormy Daniels jokes, turns out I’m the biggest one of all. For years I’ve been pouring my heart out on all sorts of profound topics. Then I make one lousy Stormy Daniels joke, and suddenly the Googlebot thinks that’s what I’m famous for. It is to weep. 😉 (Should I don a putty nose to please my new readers?)

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Disclaimer: This is all music I found on YouTube. None of it was uploaded by me, and I don’t claim any copyright.

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!
[continues]

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)

* * *

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:
Amazon.com: CD Set of Bach’s St. John Passion
http://www.amazon.com/Bach-John-Passion-Johann-Sebastian/dp/B0000057CW

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)

*  *  *

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
Link: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-11/22/content_12518327.htm

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:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/Feb07/Hatto_Howell.htm

Promotion of Joyce Hatto — 2006 archived page:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Jan06/Hatto2_recordings.htm

Jed Distler Reviews the Lost René Köhler BBC Recordings:
http://www.classicstoday.com/review/review-13553/

Letter published on Overgrown Path blog:
http://www.overgrownpath.com/2007/03/joyce-hatto-other-story.html

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:

Walking

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.