First, I’d like to respond to a couple of comments from readers. My friend Carolyn from Green Bay says,
You write of overcoming difficult passages musically and how it comes together for you spiritually. I will write about playing without practicing at all.
This summer I’ve been playing a variation of Zuni sunrise (or sometimes something else) on a Native flute to greet many mornings. I played to the full moon this weekend around a fire after an outdoor supper. One watched the sun set over the Bay, listened to the birds quiet as dusk fell, and then cheered the bats as they zoomed through catching mosquitoes. The moon rose in the southeast which is difficult to see through an abundance of evergreen. Finally it poked through about 9:00. The evening was a joyful grounding experience.
My spirituality does not lean toward classical music but rather more toward the earthy sounds of Native flute and recorder. The first attached piece 3 of us did the other evening and recorded it on a smart phone. It was not rehearsed. The tenor recorder played the melody, and a low toned Native flute and a concert flute played variations. Not every note is pleasing, but it was the spirit in which it was done and the cooperative playing that brought it together spiritually. Go Your Way In Peace is the chorus of a song by Jim Scott. The second attachment was recorded at Wequiock Falls which is about 2 miles from my home. A friend pointed out that one doesn’t really hear the 3 Native flutes with the waterfall, and that’s OK as it was the setting that added to the spirituality. We did not play a song but each of us simply played notes that blended with each other. The falls drops into a sort of bowl with the sides the same height as the top of the falls so there is a lot of reverberation. Our group (we’ve toyed with the idea of calling ourselves the Flute Loops), tries to get together every 2 weeks, but it is a loose group with numbers and instruments varying. Tomorrow evening we will play for a yoga class that has been meeting on Tuesday evenings this summer on the deck by the Fox River which runs through downtown Green Bay. We’ll probably mostly drum though we’re bringing flutes and recorders.
Next Monday I hope to be camping up north and will take my Native flute and recorder, and of course my journal and kayak. I long to hear loons again and cherish their music.
On Llamas I started doing a daily reading from “Living Earth” by Clea Danaan. Unlike you, I am obviously less disciplined and seldom follow a routine though I do get to work on time. 🙂 I’ve spent a good deal of time this summer working in my yard and enjoying the birds and their music.
Both songs are beautiful, though very different. The second is improvisation; the first a “cover” of another song. I have always admired those who can improvise; I have never tried, which undoubtedly says a lot about me. For the same reason I have avoided playing jazz, though jazz pieces can be just as scripted as classical. On the other hand, writing poetry is nothing if not improvisational. It does lack the communal element, however, since at least most poetry is written in solitude. In that case, I lack all self-consciousness and do not worry about making “mistakes”; in fact, revising and working with a “draft” is the best part of writing. I don’t know how much “training” is necessary to “improvise.” Were you self-taught? I have read that even birds are “taught” their songs by their parents!
Finally, I am not all that disciplined. I have been at the piano only about 25 minutes since last Sunday. As I said, life intrudes. I try not to guilt myself. When I have limited time, however, it seems that the piano “gets it” because the work is already written, already THERE. I do not have to start from scratch. Thus, writing poems, for me, does not usually come in the form of a set, daily schedule. I know many people who swear by this and for whom it works. As a matter of fact, a sign on my desk is saying pointedly to me what I often say to others: “Work sometimes comes from inspiration, but more often inspiration comes from work.” Yes. Generally, that’s true. But often I carry around words or phrases in my head or on a scratch piece of paper for days, even weeks, before I find an extended period of time to “work” with it, or as I said yesterday, “play” (such a more forgiving and pleasant word).
My friend and former piano teacher from California, Elaine, says this:
There is a particular intimacy in the playing of themes and variations. Variations are like short stories with the composer as narrator. We play as if we are inside the pages; see, hear, and feel all at once. We breathe as the variation breathes with the theme held in our minds, bodies, fingers. We practice this dance of imagination and intention. Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn –all great composers– tell these vast absorbing stories.
Thinking of the themes and variations of life can be revealing and disturbing. Themes change shape and lose identity with time, space. Then, as in a music variation, the theme emerges in surprise appearance. In life, variations can develop in such profusion of rhythms, movements, lights, speeds that the tempo and beat becomes lost. The “composer” is unknown. We carry our own theme and variations.
I love what you say. Yes, there is an intimacy in playing theme/variations. But isn’t that true of all playing/performing of another’s work? We “dance” with the composer; for me it can be quite erotic.
But I also agree that one’s own “theme”—if indeed we all have our own “story”—can get lost in the hurly-burly of life until, as you say, “the theme emerges in surprise appearance”: perhaps in a new relationship or in yet another loss. It is a mystery to me (on the whole I’m ok with leaving mysteries as mysteries) how these “themes” form. Like most other things, I suspect, it’s a combination of heredity, environment, and maybe that “soupḉon” of the unknown, perhaps what Jung called the “daimon.”
A blogger for the Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences writes, “When a person is ‘in the grip of the daimon,’ he or she is in close touch with the source of creativity. While the experience cannot be described as completely pleasant, it is exciting, illuminating, full of surprises and very gratifying, if one is open to the novel, the different, the unusual. The daimon will not bring us the “same old, same old.” Be prepared for surprises! Artists, the creative folks in advertising agencies, inventors, and others whose work depends on inspiration all rely on the daimon for their success. [. . .] trying what has been untried.”
And I agree, Elaine, that “themes” in life do change. A few days ago on this blog I posted the “theme” of a new poem about my sister, who died at an early age, and about whom I have repeatedly written throughout my life. But I was dissatisfied with the stasis of this latest poem until the thought of a set of variations occurred, based on what I am currently playing on the piano. My writing group—Louisa, Bill, and Judith—were of great help in pointing out some problems with the set and gave me the impetus I needed to revise. Since then the set of variations has undergone several revisions, but the last variation is now so different from where I started that it surprises me and yet does not, because it was where I was apparently headed all along (this reminds me of what Philip Livingston alluded to in yesterday’s entry).
I am not ready to publish it here, but can say that its essence might be summed up in this quotation from a novel I just finished by Emily Arsenault (Miss Me When I’m Gone, 2012). At the end, her character writes, “The sound of your love’s voice fades and the sad story dies with you, or with the one you told it to. Either way, it disappears. A few will wonder what your story was and then no one will at all. There is a certain beauty in that, isn’t there—in how it all disappears?”
A few years I never would have thought that my “theme” of loss and grief would change to this extent, and yet it has. Probably that “seed” was implicit in the “theme” from the very beginning: why I was so drawn to the work of Andy Goldsworthy, for instance, in his documentary Rivers and Tides (2001).
The surprising shift from loss to beauty I find tremendously liberating, though the loss (the theme) will always be there. Can beauty be a variation of loss?