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Joe and Brianna

JOE’S VIOLIN is a documentary short I saw screened at the 2016 Montclair Film Festival. It was produced and directed by two Montclair women, Raphaela Neihausen and Kahane Corn Cooperman, and began with a Kickstarter campaign.

It was nominated for an Oscar this morning for Documentary Short Subject.

At the screening, we met Joseph Feingold, a 91-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor who donated his violin of 70 years to a local instrument drive, and we met student Brianna Perez who was the recipient of Joe’s violin.

The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation (MHOF) selected The Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (BGLIG) for the violin donation. The screening in Montclair featured a musical performance and extended Q&A with the filmmakers and subjects.

Hurrah for independent films, local artists and the Montclair Film Festival.

For more information on the film, go to http://www.joesviolin.com/

You can also watch the film online at http://www.joesviolin.com/watch-now

I was never comfortable with the expression “passed away” to mean that someone had died.

I know that many people consider “passed away” as gentler and less cold than “died.” It feels too politically correct, and more of the general problem many people have with facing up to hard facts and difficult situations and delaying as long as possible.

This was a week of upheaval in the United States with the Presidential election finally occurring and the selection of Donald Trump.

And Leonard Cohen died.

leonard_cohen_2103

I was reading articles about him last night and it most said he passed away quietly at home. He was 82 and had suffered from cancer and knew he was close to death. His son said that he was writing until the end.

I knew Leonard Cohen first as a poet back in the late 1960s. I have a very strong memory of him coming up in a discussion in a English class at Rutgers College. One of my fellow English majors in an honors literature class said that Cohen was his favorite poet. The professor said that Cohen was a songwriter, not a poet. Most of the class did not agree with the professor.

That kind of divide came up recently again when Bob Dylan was given the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is he a poet, or a songwriter? Can you be both? Does it matter?

Leonard Cohen was a poet, a songwriter, a performer and a novelist. At the time of his death,he was certainly best known for his music.  Whether it was his “Hallelujah,” ”Suzanne” or “Bird on a Wire,” his songs really have attached themselves to people.

Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.

I discovered that he was an aspiring Zen monk, though he downplayed his own success on that path.

He was painfully shy and did not like being on stage. I read that he quit halfway through his first public performance, and that fear continued until the end. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol unsuccessfully. Perhaps, Zen was an alternative.

Listening to a special edition of The New Yorker Radio podcast that is the last interview with him, they speak of him as “a poet in the vein of Allen Ginsberg or Frank O’Hara,” especially before he released his first album in 1967. In this last gentle interview with David Remnick from this past summer at his home in Los Angeles, Cohen said “I’m ready to die.”

It connected with me that Cohen said “I like to tie up the strings. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order is, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities and the benefits of it are incalculable.”

If you read some of Stranger Music, his selected poems and songs, I would be curious to know if you saw a real difference between the poems and the songs there.

I liked his earliest songs best. They are mostly sad, simple, acoustic songs. I confess that in college I listened to that first album as both a way to deal with depression and as a way to go deeper into depression. Like drinking booze, it didn’t help with depression and, in some way that I still don’t understand, I sometimes wanted to go deeper. Maybe as an English major who wanted to be a writer, I saw depression, booze and drugs as some kind of Romantic, artistic path. It was part of the biographies of many of my favorite writers and artists. In Cohen’s words, “You want to go darker.”

Listening to that podcast, I’m still not sure that Cohen would tell me that attitude was right or wrong.

His words about setting your house in order and being ready to die make me think that in his case he did pass away. Perhaps that is the correct usage of that phrase. When someone dies a violent death, no one says that she “passed away.” I suppose that some people are “deceased,” “expired,” “have departed this life,” or just plain dead. I hope that you and I have the chance to put our house in order before we pass away.

One of the “haiku” from his old poetry collection The Spice-Box of Earth is:

Silence
and a deeper silence
when the crickets
hesitate

Leonard Cohen has passed away.

 

albums

This past week I was spring cleaning and getting rid of (via charities, the local library, a few friends) things piling up in the basement and garage. Besides all the usual garage sale merchandise, I had to clear out some books and movie videotapes. There are also shelves full of my vinyl record albums that go back to the 1960s which I look and but still can’t bear to “get rid of.”

Flipping through those is always a musical journey through my discovery of music and the development of my tastes in music. That journey came up yesterday when I was listening to the FT Arts podcast that did an episode about how music streaming is changing the experience of listeners. Somewhat frighteningly but not surprisingly those services use algorithms to guide us new music.

Once upon my youth, that task was done by friends, DJs, critics I read in places like Rolling Stone, and flipping through albums at record shops. I still get some suggestions from friends (often via social media), less often from critics, almost never from “the radio” even though I occasionally still listen, and never from stores that sell physical music.

On that podcast, they discuss the movement in taste development with Spotify’s Will Page and FT pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney.  The segment that caught my ear was the idea of the “hairstyle hypothesis” of musical taste. The Spotify data encourages the theory that in our teenage years there is maximum experimentation (hairstyles, music etc.). At age 23, that openness seems to close. We have found our taste and we listen to the same genres, artists, songs a lot more. Like all things that we become very comfortable with, this can also become a rut.

Maybe this is true for reading the same favorite authors, watching the same TV shows, eating at the same restaurants and ordering the some food etc.

Spotify, Pandora and any streaming music services are a way to discover new music. I also think some of that discovery include “rediscovering” music from our past that has been buried under the pile.

Technological music fans say the digital marketplace enhances choice and that it actually encourages niche artists a chance to flourish in this immense marketplace with fewer mass-produced brands.

The podcasters reference Chris Anderson’s idea from 2006 that he laid out in his book The Long Tail. (Sidebar: There is a graphic novel/comic version that book. Odd.) Anderson used the music industry for much of his argument. This is when the iTunes music store and software was more dominant. His premise is that the time of paying the most attention and getting the most profit from the top of the demand curve – the big hits and most visible artists – is over. The other items, which might be considered misses rather than hits, creates the long tail of that same graphical curve.

I have seen that curve in operation with my blogs all the time. Rather than paying attention to the hit counter numbers on my newest posts, the big numbers come from old posts that continue to be found. If I ever made money from posts (Hah!) the big money would be from posts from the past. Look at the sidebar section on this page of “Top Ten Posts Today” and you will usually find a majority of older posts.  Things that I wrote in 2008 have a long tail.

We don’t all listen to the same music in the way we did when Am radio ruled. We don’t we all watch the same TV shows as we did when there were limited channels. Growing up, I had 3 major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), a few local channels that fed me reruns of older shows and old movies and a PBS station. The many choices and vectors we have now have killed the smash hits. The numbers for shows, songs and book sales are small compared to an earlier time. Don’t interpret those lower numbers as meaning that people don’t read, watch or listen as much. It’s all about the number of options. The attention deficit disorder of media.

In the area of discovery and rediscovery, one personal musical example is the album Salty Dog. I bought that album when it was released in 1969 while I was deep into my hairstyle experimentation phase.

I loved Procol Harum.  I loved that cover. I bought Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes because that was the inspiration for the album art. (Sidebar: They are unfiltered powerful cigs). I liked the title track on that album, but my favorite track was and still is “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I liked the allusion to literature and I loved the music, Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ, and the lyrics by the band’s lyricist, Keith Reed, which in those days was serious poetry to me.

I downloaded the digital album years ago and in doing so rediscovered some of other tracks, adding to one of my blues playlists “Juicy John Pink.” Just today, researching for this post, I rediscovered the acoustic track  “Too Much Between Us” which I probably haven’t heard in several decades. That’s because I don’t listen to “albums” anymore. I listen to tracks.

In my vinyl record-listening days, I would put on an album and let it play. Sure, I could (and sometimes would) lift the needle and skip a track, but not that often. Then audio cassettes came and I could (and did) make my own “albums” and mix tapes. I made my version of a band’s “greatest hits.” I programmed my own hour of “radio.” to listen to in the car. My listening narrowed to a comfortable rut.

I read that vinyl’s sales are a way up. I’m not sure why. A reaction to “anxiety about our new age of plenty? A return to album rather than track listening? A reaction to the low-definition bit-rates of digital music (though quite acceptable to most of the world it seems) that got audiophile rock veteran Neil Young to create a new way of listening and got him to pull his songs from Spotify and Apple Music?

Maybe the time is right to put my vinyl collection on eBay… if that wasn’t such a lot of work, and if I wasn’t so damned nostalgic.

Black hole Cygnus X-1

Black hole Cygnus X-1

There were headlines this year about the discovery of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime. They propagate as waves, in the way we are used to seeing the rings propagate from the stone thrown into the water traveling outward from their source.

In the old physics of Isaac Newton, gravitational waves cannot exist – something to do with physical interactions propagating at infinite speed. But then in 1916, Mr. Einstein’s theory of general relativity said that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational radiation, a form of radiant energy similar to electromagnetic radiation.

In the book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, Janna Levin writes about them and the quest to record the soundtrack of our universe.

I like Levin’s scientific writing that a non-scientist can enjoy and understand. She is a theoretical astrophysicist and professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. I have read two of her earlier books, How the Universe Got Its Spots and, one of my favorites, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

She writes about those dark black holes that science-fiction loves to use. These holes – so odd to think of nothing as something – sometimes collide. Those unilluminated collisions produce energy more powerful than any since the origin of the universe. The energy emanates as waves.

We can’t see these events. No telescope will ever record a collision. The evidence would be the sound of spacetime ringing.

Einstein predicted gravitational waves as part of his theory of curved spacetime. It has taken us a century to begin recording the first sounds of it from space.

I think this unseen aspect is rather wonderful, as in full of wonder.  How strange to think that telescopes cannot see events earlier than about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe became transparent.

There are other theories.  One is that it the gravitational influences of other universes.

Levin writes about 50 years of searching for these spacetime waves. The original searchers, Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever – have added hundreds of others and new massive instruments sensitive enough to detect a bit of sound from space.

Levin

In a conversation on edge.org, she says that:

“The effect of these gravitational waves is to squeeze and stretch space. If you were floating near these black holes, you would literally be squeezed and stretched. If you were close enough, you would feel the difference between the squeezing and stretching on your face or your feet. We’ve even conjectured that your eardrum could ring in response, like a resonant membrane, so that you would literally hear the wave, hear it even in the absence of a medium like air. Even though we think that empty space is silent, in these circumstances you would hear the black holes collide but you wouldn’t see them; it would happen in complete darkness. The two black holes would be completely dark, and your only evidence of their collision would be to hear the spacetime ringing.”

Can you imagine two black holes colliding, curving space and time around them? They are orbiting each other, moving curves, moving black holes, maxing out that cosmic speed limit of light and sucking in time, space, even information.  I can imagine it, and yet not imagine it.

 

In both astrology and historical astronomy, the Zodiac is a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude that are centered upon the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun across the celestial sphere over the course of the year.

Although the zodiac remains the basis of the ecliptic coordinate system in use in astronomy besides the equatorial one, the term “zodiac” and the names of the twelve signs are today mostly associated with horoscopes and  astrology.

The paths of the Moon and visible planets remain close to the ecliptic, within the belt of the zodiac. They are regular divisions and do not correspond exactly to the twelve constellations after which they are named. We commonly call these twelve divisions “signs.” You can say that you were born under the sign of Libra, or take the scientific path and see the zodiac as a celestial or ecliptic coordinate system, which takes the ecliptic as the origin of latitude, and the position of the Sun at vernal equinox as the origin of longitude.

The term “zodiac” derives from Latin zōdiacus, which in its turn comes from the Greek zōdiakos kyklos, meaning “circle or pathway of animals.” Half of the signs of the classical Greek zodiac are represented as animals (plus two mythological hybrids).

You may think that you were “born under a bad sign”  (which is really a  blues song by Albert King) and that “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” but what if you were born under a forgotten sign?

The 12 signs of the Zodiac that are familiar to us from astrology and horoscope advice (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer…) does not include the 13th or “forgotten” constellation: Ophiuchus.

If there is a “bad sign” I would guess it might be Ophiuchus with its number 13 and forgotten status.  The sun moves in front of Ophiuchus from about November 30 to December 18 each year but I doubt that you have ever heard someone say they were born when the sun was in Ophiuchus.

Every year at this time, I notice a post from earthsky.org to look for this faint constellation, also known as the Serpent Bearer, as it appears in the southwest sky on late August and September evenings. It is above the bright ruddy star Antares, which is the brightest in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion.

crocuses

Spring has arrived – even if there is still snow on the ground in Paradelle.

I have been writing about the changing of the seasons for a few years now and there is only so much you can say about the spring equinox, autumn equinox and the solstices of summer and winter. I try to find a new path into them and for this season I am thinking about spring in music and in the sky.

As a quick review, “equinox” is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because the night and day are approximately equal in length on that day.  We experience an equinox in spring and fall when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun which is vertically above a point on the Equator.  An equinox actually occurs at a specific moment in time (for 2015, today, March 20 at 6:45 pm EDT), but commonly people refer to the entire day as the equinox or first day of the season.

It is very “northern” of me to say it is the Spring Equinox, because in the Southern Hemisphere this celestial observation means the start of autumn. Being that autumn is my favorite season, I have often thought that I should travel between the two hemispheres to get two autumns each year. Unfortunately, the Sun doesn’t allow me to live in a three-season world and avoid winter.


(Soundtrack to this post)

The Four Seasons (Italian: Le quattro stagioni) is a set of four violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (1720) and his best-known work. My knowledge of classical music is shallow, but I was reading about this piece and discovered a few interesting nuggets.

I like that Vivaldi provided some additional instructions with the music, such as “The barking dog” in the second movement of “Spring.”

It seems that there is some debate as to whether or not the concertos were written to accompany four poems (sonnets) or if the sonnets were written to accompany the music. It doesn’t seem to be known who wrote these sonnets,and some say that Vivaldi wrote them himself. Either by plan or coincidence, each sonnet is broken down into three sections, nicely corresponding to a movement in the concerto.

The Four Seasons is sometimes classified as “program music,” instrumental music that intends to evoke something extra-musical. For me, the four pieces, especially “Spring,” does evoke the season.

If you listen to the music tonight, I suggest that you turn your eyes to the sky and look for Arcturus. It is one of the brightest stars. Due to its northerly location on the sky’s dome, it is visible for much of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and its appearance in the evening sky heralds the coming of the spring equinox.

Like other stars, Arcturus rises four minutes earlier every day and now Arcturus will appear at dusk (instead of nightfall or early evening) which is its signal of spring in our hemisphere.

Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Boötes the Herdsman. It is not one of the best-known constellations. The name comes from the Greek Βοώτης, meaning herdsman or plowman (literally an ox-driver; from boos, related to the Latin bovis, “cow”). It is one of the 48 constellations described by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, but it was first used by Homer in his Odyssey as a celestial reference point for navigation.

Homer described it as “late-setting” or “slow to set.” It is not clear exactly whom Boötes is supposed to represent in Greek mythology is not clear. The story I will go with is that he was a son of Demeter, twin brother of Plutus, a ploughman who drove the oxen in the constellation Ursa Major. The ancient Greeks saw what we call the “Big Dipper” as a cart with oxen.

It seems a nice match with the spring that one myth associated with Boötes is that he invented the plow which certainly is associated with spring and planting. If you think of him as a “herdsman,” that works too, as those who watch over a herd of cows, sheep or other animals leads a nomadic life very much guided by the seasons. Spring is the time to move to those areas that were snow-covered and the tain and melting turns the land green again.

If staring up at the big sky makes you feel small and timeless – a good feeling, I believe – then also consider this: even the equinoxes are constantly changing. They are not fixed points but move westward along the ecliptic, passing through all the constellations of the zodiac in a period of 26,000 years. This motion is called the precession of the equinoxes. And we think that the 5000 year Mayan calendar was looking at a long period of time…

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