World Listening Day, July 18

You are invited to participate in World Listening Day 2016, an annual global event held on July 18.

The purposes of World Listening Day are to:

  • Celebrate the listening practices of the world and the ecology of its acoustic environments;
  • Raise awareness about the growing number of individual and group efforts that creatively explore Acoustic Ecology based on the pioneering efforts of the World Soundscape Project, World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, La Semaine du Son, Deep Listening Institute, among many others;
  • Design and implement educational initiatives that explore these concepts and practices.

This year’s theme for World Listening Day is “Sounds Lost and Found.”

More World Listening Day info

Emily’s Flowers

When Roses Cease to Bloom, Dear

Emily Dickinson

WHEN roses cease to bloom, dear,
And violets are done,
When bumble-bees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the sun,

The hand that paused to gather
Upon this summer’s day
Will idle lie, in Auburn,—
Then take my flower, pray!

As a teenager, the poet Emily Dickinson, as many girls did in the mid-19th century, made an herbarium, a popular pastime for young women of a certain class. By the time she was done, she had pressed and arranged several hundred botanical specimens into her book.

I included the poem that begins this post because I think it describes the ability of art to take what is transient and make it immortal, to press images permanently into a book (or score, or canvas).

When rose bushes lose their blooms and violets are withered, neither continue to be part of the cycle of life. Since they offer no pollen for necessary food, bees mourn the flowers’ passing in “solemn flight.” Inevitably, with a primary food source gone, the bees will soon share the same fate, “passing beyond the sun” into death. Since it is earth’s constantly changing relationship to the sun that determines the yearly cycle of birth (spring) and death (winter), to be beyond the sun is to quite literally no longer be a player in this cycle.

The artist’s “hand” captures (gathers) the beauty of the the once thriving roses and violets through words or images. The artist, being human, is part of this cycle of life, and will too wither and die (“Will idle lie, in Auburn“). But while the actual roses or violets are no longer available to us, the artist’s “flower”–which could be a poem, a painting, or a song–is still very much in bloom and will always be so. The artist, although mortal, gives immortality to things that have long passed away.

And you thought art had no purpose, right?

In Emily Dickinson’s case, she has preserved the flowers of her summer figuratively through her words. But she also preserved them much more literally through her books of pressed flowers, some of the pages of which are here.

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Circle of Filth

A mutant combination of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and a 42nd street peep-show reel, the 1980s films of Richard Kern are part of the reason that I know very little about pop culture from about 1986-1989. It’s a good reminder that underneath all of that bad hair metal and insipid electronic pop, there was something really, really foul and rotten.

The thing is the world is always like that–there is no bad time for creativity. It’s just that sometimes you have to dig for it a little deeper for it than at other times. Or, like today, with people creating and posting art and music in mass quantities, you may need a sieve instead of a shovel.

The Butthole Surfers’ amazing soundtrack is the cherry on this nasty thing. No band has ever emitted the level of bad vibes they did. Or, more likely, that other band is out there and I haven’t found them yet. Get to work!

Submit To Me (1986) by Richard Kern

Banjo diversion

I am getting my banjo chops together for a musical I’m playing later this summer so I’m doing a lot of listening and practicing and reading.

This first video is really nice. You get a nice contrast between Scruggs-style playing (Bela) and clawhammer style (Abigail). One thing that always impresses me about bluegrass is the sense of timing required to play it. There’s no drummer, so everyone is responsible for maintaining the time and the groove. Keep in mind that banjo parts tend to be mostly a stream of nonstop eighth or 16th notes, which means that time and groove have almost everything to do with the picking hand emphasizing certain notes by altering tone or volume.

I know I am late for the party, but I just heard about Noam Pikelny the other day, who is a well-regarded younger player. Note how Noam makes slight shifts in his right hand position to change his tone. From what I can tell so far, little shifts make a stronger impact on the banjo’s tone than on an acoustic guitar.

Exploring, I found another amazing musician, the fiddle player Michael Cleveland, who I expect that everyone has heard about but me. That’s not surprising since I don’t get out much and I still can’t stop listening to those Led Zeppelin records. This video is neat because it is from Czech television (in English, though), and it is fun to hear the interviewer fluently discuss bluegrass music with a thick Eastern European accent. Mike plays so naturally and effortlessly, which no doubt means that he has spent a ridiculous amount of time jamming and practicing obsessively.

To wrap, one of my favorite bluegrass records, which has been long unavailable, just showed up on YouTube, The Puritan Sessions by Kenny Baker and Josh Graves. Kenny, for fans of bluegrass, know him more as a fiddle player (and not as the guy who plays R2D2), but he’s fingerpicking some beautiful guitar here. Josh Graves, of course, is usually recognized as ground zero for bluegrass dobro. Again, I’m amazed at the ability of two musicians to establish a groove without a bassist or a drummer. This playing is just so sensitive and musical and controlled, I can’t believe it. I’ve also ripped off Kenny’s picking on this particular song so often it’s not funny. I plan on doing so again many more times in the future.

Practice!

Until the Sky Takes Us

“Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”

Matthew 24:28

“There they lay, sprawled across the field,
craved far more by the vultures than by wives.”

Homer, The Iliad, Book 11

When my daughter was very small, she attended a Waldorf preschool. Much of the program consisted of presenting classic fairy tales for the deeper mythological lessons they reveal about the human condition. A key part of this activity was that these myths were told in their original unedited form because it is in their original forms that these stories reveal their deeper meanings.

Take the story of the Three Little Pigs. You know the plot–or do you?

As we commonly hear it, the three pigs each build a house: one of straw, one of sticks, and one of bricks. The pigs are menaced by a wolf who, as we would suspect, makes short work of the flimsy straw and stick houses. The occupants of the destroyed houses take up refuge with the third pig, who was sensible enough to build a sturdy house of bricks which the wolf is unable to blow down. In desperation, the wolf changes tactics and decides to enter the brick house through the chimney. Unfortunately for the wolf, there is a boiling cauldron in the fireplace. He falls in, gets scalded, and runs away in defeat.

In its original form, the story plays out much differently. What happens after the first two pigs have their houses blown down by the wolf?  They get eaten,of course! What happens when the wolf falls down the chimney of the brick house into the cauldron? He gets cooked and eaten! Now the story teaches us some real life lessons. Fortify yourself. Make yourself strong. Be wise, and respect the specter of death that lurks outside of your door.

In the story of Snow White, the wicked stepmother gets her comeuppance by being forced to wear a pair of red-hot iron shoes until she dances herself to death. This was the version of the story presented in my daughter’s class.  As caring parents, we asked the teacher how children were able to deal with something so medieval. Her response was very wise. When told a story that contains such violence, children simply conceive of the story in terms that they can understand. Their minds adjust their imagery to a level that they can cope with.

This option is available in literature. But we can lose this advantage to when the same story is told in film. Although often criticized for sanitizing their plots, I can’t really blame the Disney folks for skipping the stepmother’s fiery dance of death. Even horror fans would not necessarily want to see something so cruel, even if it is punishment for wrongdoing.

A lot of great literature is about pretty nasty stuff like incest, rape, and murder. But,for whatever reason, morally questionable stuff ruffles fewer feathers in print than in images. For example, Genesis 19:31-38 tells how Lot’s daughters, having fled from Zoar with their father, now live in a cave in the wilderness. With no good husband material available, the two desperate young women decide that preserving their family line is worth a highly morally questionable cost: get old Lot drunk enough so they can have sex with him without him knowing. Both become pregnant and give birth.

As text, this story exists in millions of homes, houses of worship, and schools without seeming to bother most people too much. However, if this story were recast as a movie, few people could abide a film that made the action of this story so literal.

Recently, I read an article online about jhator. Jhator is the Tibetan ritual of sky burial, or giving alms to birds, in which corpses are carried by family or friends to an area where they can be consumed by vultures, animals which they consider sacred. In some communities, there exist burial masters who ritually prepare the dead to facilitate theirbeing consumed. In addition, juniper is burned to attract scavenger birds.

In a place like Tibet, where the rocky or frozen ground can make traditional burial difficult, such a practice makes great sense. Also, since so many Tibetan communities exist in places where wood is scarce, cremation isn’t a good option either.

There is something very beautiful about this–the cycle of life and death made manifest, the grand forces of nature played out on an human scale. I think the photos of this ritual are quite beautiful. I wanted to share them here, but, as you would imagine, seeing the preparing of human remains to feed the “holy eagles” can potentially make a lot of folks physically ill.

Like the violent fairy tales, in written form, hearing about this ritual allows you to create your own imagery, to contextualize this practice in a way that you are personally able to tolerate. Pictures and film, while revealing the whole truth, rob us of this ability to filter artistic imagery. If someone is too shocked or disturbed , they will miss the greater truth, which is really about respecting nature, acknowledging our kinship with all creatures, and of seeing the interconnectedness of life and death.

It seems contradictory, but there can be a point where art so explicitly reveals its truth that does the opposite and obscures it. For example, if a director wanted to convince an audience of the horrors of child abuse, a film depicting the violent act in graphic and explicit detail would likely not have the intended goal. Even some of your most sympathetic viewers will buckle under the weight of such horrific imagery and shut down.

If you purport to be a socially-conscious artist, who want to incite your audience to action. It is hard for people to feel spurned to action when puking up their lunches in a visceral revulsion of the truth.

So, with that in mind, I present to you images that I think capture the truth of jhator as a life-affirming, deeply compassionate, and moral practice. If you want to complete the picture for yourself, the whole truth is always just a quick Google search away.

Photos are by Bo Løvschall at GlobeSpots.com

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Napalm Death, 1988

Napalm Death in 1988–a furious beast indeed. Ground zero for blast beats. So much for the idea that the music we listened to was really music and what kids listen today is noise. But in defense of younger musicians, these guys didn’t leave the next generation a heck of a lot of room to make music harder, heavier, or faster. Few artists have so well captured the impossibly fast, anti-human speed at which digitally-obsessed industrialized societies now move. Blast beats are the human brain’s heroic struggle to keep up with the furious speed of current events and technological change. It’s what human life sounds like now.

 

Photoshop Follies

Every once in a while I go crazy with the Photoshop and post the results on my Facebook page. But since I have a blog now, I didn’t want my readers to feel left out. You’re welcome!

Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally In Greenville, South Carolina

GREENVILLE, SC – FEBRUARY 21: People cheer as they attend a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena on February 21, 2016 in Greenville, South Carolina. Sanders and Hillary Clinton continue to battle for the votes of primary voters as South Carolina holds their Democratic primary on February 27th. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Wolves in Creeps’ Clothing

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I’m old enough to have lived through the later part of the Cold War. Although it may seem a bit funny to younger folks, the fear of being nuked and paranoia about Soviet hijinks was an emotional reality for kids my age. I’m glad you didn’t have to experience it.

Of course, we now know that the Soviet threat was never really as much of a threat as we were told. However, just because our government may have misrepresented the true scope of Soviet military power to its citizens, it cannot be denied that the Soviets, along with the Eastern Bloc countries in their orbit like East Germany, committed some real evils towards its own citizens. Under Stalin alone, official Soviet records report about 800,000 executions, 1.7 million deaths in the Gulag, and about 400,000 deaths due to forced resettlement. And these are just the official government records: most scholars suspect that there were many, many more.

It seems wrong to cheapen such horror with laughter.

But humor serves an important function for humans– it allows us to consider events that would otherwise be too tragic, too painful, or too horrific to effectively consider. When confronted with a big serving of actual unfiltered horror, the human brain, probably for very sensible evolutionary reasons, has some pretty effective mechanisms to protect our mental and physical well-being. Without humor, the human psyche copes with excessive human tragedy by becoming apathetic, hardened, indifferent, or, at the very worst, self-deceptive, dishonest, or delusional.

A very good example of this defense mechanism can be seen in the unfortunate notion of Holocaust denial. In many cases, I agree that the desire to mitigate the methods, extent, and results of Nazi anti-Jewish policies indicates a deliberately racist or anti-semitic agenda. Racism and anti-semitism are evils that should be condemned in all cases and always tenaciously resisted.

But I also suspect that there is a good deal of Holocaust denial that stems from the human brain’s inability to imagine evil writ this large. However, this is not the only arena where the human mind struggles to conceptualize an idea it finds to enormous to grasp. There are certain scientific facts, for instance, that are too large or too sublime for the human brains to contain. There a point when trying think about how large the universe really is, or how small sub-atomic particles really are, or how fast light really travels escapes our meagre brainpower.

There’s a point where we’re left sitting in our armchairs muttering “billions and billions” (a phrase often attributed to the astronomer Carl Sagan, but actually comes from a Johnny Carson skit parodying Sagan, who, although he used the word billion a lot, never actually said “billions and billions” in any of his work). Like an animal caught in the metal jaws of a trap howling in desperation at a situation it does not have the mental or physical capacity to effect, the phrase “billions and billions” is the human intellect crying out with futility because it simply does not have the ability to effectively understand or comprehend the scale of the information it is being presented.

This, I think, is not much different than the human mind’s reaction to seeing a photograph from World War II of piles and piles of white, emaciated, broken, abused, dead humans, and realizing this pile is is only the smallest percentage of the whole. Out-and-out denial in the face of clear empirical evidence is the sign of a human flaw, namely the  inability to comprehend the state of mind the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust would have required to treat people in this way.

This is precisely when humor is needed. Humor rescues human tragedy from the memory hole, preserving it in a form where we are finally able to consider it and discuss it without collapsing under the weight of all of the sheer horror. It is an unfortunate quirk of human consciousness that we can so easily remember the twenty bucks a friend borrowed 15 years ago but never repaid, but can so easily forget acts of deliberate cruelty perpetrated against millions of people much more recently.

Sorry for the long preamble. All I wanted to do is post some funny pictures from Simon Menner’s book Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archive. The Stasi were the East German secret police (from the German Staatssicherheit, or state security). Under the Stasi, East Germany’s was a society under Orwellian surveillance (One estimate is that East Germany employed as many as 300,000 spies to observe and report on its own citizens–sometimes people were informed on by their own spouses. Based on a population figure of 16 million people in 1990, that means about 1 out of every 50 people was a spy.). Of course, as you might expect, besides fostering a psychological environment of paranoia and fear, the Stasi did the usual physical stuff police states do, namely torture, murder, and otherwise injure its citizens.

Which makes it really difficult to reconcile the fact that there is unarguable empirical evidence that the Stasi were very funny–almost clowns, really.

In poking fun at Hitler, in Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part Ithe noted comedy director slipped Der Fuhrer’s feet into a pair of ice skates and had him perform in a perverse spectacle called Hitler on Ice. (As Brooks knows and has demonstrated in several of his movies, a great way to keep totalitarianism and genocide in the public dialogue is to allow us to laugh at them.)

However, the Stasi were kind enough to do the comic work for us. The philosopher Hannah Arendt famously wrote of the banality of evil. The Stasi archives, once they were opened in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrate evil’s frumpiness. Really, if someone were to make a Hogan’s Heroes-style television show about Stasi agents employing images like these, they would likely be accused of displaying very poor taste by making light of an organization known for the worst sort of human rights abuses. But, as it appears here at least, truth is way more funny than fiction. Or, it certain dresses funny.

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Yes, the Stasi, like the great Sherlock Holmes, fancied themselves Masters of Disguise.

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Und dieser Mann is dressed as an American tourist, who look totally like this.

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Of course when everyone is afraid of you, no one is going to dare tell you how terrible you really look.

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I actually like this one, although I would have to lose the hair and unbutton the collar.

Maybe the humor of these photos underscores a certain human frailty that exists in every one of us, no matter how monstrous or kind our actions. Maybe this is the fashion banality of evil. But perhaps these unfortunate fashion choices are what ultimately makes these Stasi agents so darn scary. Human nature tends to ascribe acts of evil to truly exceptional, mysterious, powerful, or supernatural beings, when in fact we are most likely to be harmed by someone we know very well. The men in these photos in contrast are unexceptional, plain, ugly, and boring, if not ultimately ridiculous.

Except they did have the power of life and death over many people–we must never forget that. How kind it was for them to leave this hilarious photographic legacy to ensure that their despicable actions continue to be recounted, discussed and, hopefully, never forgotten.