The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
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Friday, June 1, 2018
Art & Entertainment ... History ... Music ...

It’s interesting how we humans respond to music. What’s the difference between music and noise? Not a lot, really. Is there something mathematical about it, something that can be put into a formula, something having to do with level of organization and complexity? Maybe it’s related to entropy (in an inverted fashion — noise has a high entropy, music has a lower entropy)?

Music is a matter of sound waves, fairly smooth sound waves, that change and interact in rather complex ways. Not all sound wave arrangements affect the brain in the same way, even when they seem like music (and not all people are affected in the same way or to the same degree). Some songs just seem to resonate with whatever is going on in the brain, with all of its complex electro-chemical patterns. When that happens, somehow you know it. (Perhaps the conscious brain itself operates something like an orchestra; when its many electro-chemical patterns are harmonious, life is good; when there is discord, you don’t have a happy audience). Other songs and noise patterns just don’t get this result.

The folk song “Ashokan Farewell” is an interesting example of a song that did a lot more than originally intended. “Farewell” was written in 1982 by folk musician Jay Ungar, intended as a closing ceremony song for the music festivals that Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, run every summer in New York State. Unless you were a patron of their Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps, you probably would never have heard the song.

But in 1990, filmmaker Ken Burns, who somehow came across Ashokan Farewell, decided to use the tune as the theme song for his 11 hour PBS documentary on the Civil War. Burns’ Civil War series became extremely popular, and as a result, Ashokan Farewell also became well known. And no longer as a closing waltz for a fiddle festival in the Adirondacks, but instead as the theme song for the American Civil War. Even though Jay Ungar was not thinking about Bull Run and Antietam and Gettysburg and Appomattox when composing the Farewell, the brain of Ken Burns made the mental connection between whatever it is that Ungar’s song does to our minds, and the sorrow, confusion, irony and sense of loss that a careful study of the Civil War brings upon the soul.

Just to nail down the dissonance here between what Ungar originally intended and what Burns later recognized within Ashokan Farewell, here are some of the lyrics that Ungar intended to be sung when the Farewell was performed:

The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan.
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken,
And a love that will always remain in my heart.

My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one,
And a time we’ll remember long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done.

Now, this is a fitting tribute to a wonderful week of making music in the green hills of Upstate New York in mid-summer, but it’s not on the same level as a quote from Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman or Fredrick Douglas. Somehow, the music of Ashokan Farewell goes way beyond the intention of its lyrics, which today are seldom heard.

I would imagine that when Ungar and Mason first performed Farewell at their festivals, it must have taken on a lively tone. But now, in the post Ken Burns era, their performances are much more solemn and serious. This video of Ungar and Mason performing Ashokan Farewell (with the accompaniment of Jay’s daughter and her husband) shows just how aware they have become of the national purpose that their little dance ditty has taken on. Notice the expressions on every musician’s face here — almost like people at the funeral of a fallen leader, or a memorial service following a disaster (all of the terrible school shootings in the past decade come to mind).

So, thanks to Ken Burns, we have a tune that helps our nation to ponder the bittersweet but still confounding reality of the Civil War. And actually, it even goes beyond that. If you read the comments to the video cited above, you will notice that some people talk about using this tune at the funeral of a friend or family member (or perhaps even at their own funeral — see this comment and the responses to it, on a YouTube rendition by the Royal British Marine Band). In a way, the complexity and confusion that a close-up examination of the Civil War reveals can be scaled down to the circumstances of our own individual lives.

Going back to how songs affect the brain — for the most part, any particular “sound wave pattern” that is recognized as music will have different effects on different people. Some people like a tune, others don’t. When a song comes along that a lot of people seem to like, then it may become popular. For some people, an emotion is triggered by a popular song — but not always the same emotion in every person. But for Ashokan Farewell, its particular sound wave pattern seemed to affect a whole lot of people in a very similar way, and in a way that Jay Ungar did not suspect when he wrote the song. It took Ken Burns to “discover” the song and recognize that it would be a “hit” when paired to the complex and tragic story of the American Civil War.

As to myself — yes, I did and still do feel what Ken Burns anticipated when he chose Ashokan Farewell as his theme song for The Civil War. I have watched all of the series, and have done some additional readings on that war. And even though no war is as simple as might be explained by the political and military leaders involved, the Civil War is especially complicated. There was so much senseless suffering and loss, imposed by Americans against Americans. And yet . . . the cancer of slavery had grown and metastasized to such an extent within the American social and economic stratum that there was no way to end it without terrible bloodshed. Then there was the matter of preserving the union, which of course was used as the primary justification for the war as it was happening — freeing the slaves was not the main selling point justifying the great sacrifice that the Union made to pursue the war.

And the evils of slavery were not cited for the most part to condemn the renegade Confederate states and justify the great suffering that they encountered. It was as though this was a war “fought in denial” of its true cause and ultimate purpose. From a century and a half later, we could look at the bright side of the War — in the end, slavery was defeated and the Union was preserved. But there are so many dark sides too — for me, its the notion that this war was NOT preventable, that humans are just players in a bigger tragedy which cannot be avoided despite their best efforts. In fact, too often their best efforts help to feed the tragic outcome all the more. Is our species truly in control of its fate? A close consideration of the American Civil War tends to cast some doubt upon that notion (and feeds the growing pessimism that American will get through the Trump years without some form of costly civil conflict). And don’t forget the Roman Empire, which despite its incredible greatness, strength and accomplishment was brought low by endless civil battle and strife.

And yet — despite all the evidence that would lead one to a hopeless fatalism, life still seems worth living. And the Askokan Farewell captures that. The Civil War came to an end, much was lost; and yet, the nation, still imperfect but hopefully a little bit wiser, went on. It took an Abraham Lincoln to try to make some sense out of an awful tragedy and convince the nation to go on. So in a way, Ungar’s “Farewell” reflects the voice of Lincoln, and echos it even into the seemingly meaningless corners of our own lives. The desire by people to have Ashokan Farewell played at their funeral perhaps reflects a wish to express their reason for being, the meaning behind what their lives, even though life, especially in old age, often becomes a bundle of chaos and decay.

At the moment, I am not anticipating my approaching death; knock on wood, I think I have a few more years left. However, I am coming closer to the day when I will end my working career, when I will retire. For years, that seemed as though it would be a joyous occasion, something akin to a granting of freedom from slavery (not to make light of true oppressive slavery). And yet, as the time grows nearer, the more bittersweet it becomes. What did I accomplish with my productive years? What could I have accomplished but didn’t? I may never find the answers to those questions; whatever did or did not happen during my prime may never make absolute sense. But I do have a song to fit the mood — I hope to hear the Ashokan Farewell being played at some point during my last day of work. (Whenever that is.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:43 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, December 23, 2017
Art & Entertainment ... Religion ...

I’m at a point in life where I have almost nothing to do with television anymore. That’s quite a journey for a kid whose life revolved around the 7:30 – 10 PM TV prime time period 7 nights a week. I don’t remember spending a whole lot of time on homework in those days, because I had to get in my TV! Obviously I wasn’t the best of students (until the last 2 years of high school, when TV started losing some of its charm). About the only time I see any TV these days is when I’m visiting my brother on Friday nights. We go out to dinner, and then we hang out at his house for a while, usually with the TV on. But most of the time, nothing much of interest is on, it’s just sort of a background noise generator.

However, a few months ago, we decided to explore an interesting looking program icon for an HBO series entitled “The Young Pope”. The little blurb that popped up from the icon indicated that this was a fictional story about an American being elected Pope by the Roman Catholic Church. Given that my brother is still a fairly devout practicing Catholic and given that I am still a God-centric spiritualist who takes Jesus and his heritage (both Christian and Jewish) very seriously, we both gave the TV a lot more attention than usual on Friday nights.

Neither of us had done any research on The Young Pope, so we really didn’t know what to expect. Being an HBO show that was produced and released within the past year or so, we did not expect TYP to be another “Going My Way” (a sentimental 1944 movie about a Catholic priest played by Bing Crosby, with a follow up 1962 TV series with Gene Kelly). Actually though we were both probably hoping for something like  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:31 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, December 29, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Personal Reflections ...

Being a quintessential Baby Boomer, the 1980s were a pivotal time in my life. So much happened, so many memories that stick with me. I mostly enjoyed growing up in the 1960s, but the 1970s were kind of a drag; and as to the decades following the 1980s, I can’t say too much. They just didn’t stick in my head the way that the 80’s did. The 1980’s were in so many ways a fun time for me, and yet there was the sadness of my failed attempt at marriage (which at least came to an amicable enough-ending in a mutually agreed-upon divorce). But then again, there were so many good people around me who helped me to get through that time. And thus there was even some fun in that process. I really doubt that I’d have anything like that to help me thru another major trauma, which becomes more and more likely as I get older.

So I was saddened to hear about the deaths last week of actress Carrie Fisher and singer George Michael, both within a few days of Christmas. Those two figures played significant roles in my 1980’s memories. Ms. Fisher, of course, will always be known for her portrayal of Princess Leia in the first 3 Star Wars movies. Of course, the first Star Wars film came out in 1977, but its techno-pomposity and intoxicating entertainability helped to set the mood for the coming of the 80’s, a promise of an escape from the slow decay of the post-WW2 suburban order that the 1970’s represented. The next two were products of 1980 and 1983, and they really helped to cement the new mood for the times. To be honest, after the first 3 Star Wars films, I didn’t pay much attention to Ms. Fisher’s career. But she was a surprisingly prolific actress, with roles in the original Blues Brothers, Agnes of God, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Wedding Singer and When Harry Met Sally.

For better or worse, however, Ms. Fisher also showed up in some rather forgettable films, including Hollywood Vice Squad, an Austin Powers episode, Drop Dead Fred, Charlies Angels Full Throttle, and  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:57 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Politics ...

Way back in 2004, I posted a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog note about my infatuation with PBS newscaster Gwen Ifill. My note was a bit silly, but I really did admire Ms. Ifill and her highly-professional journalistic work, after watching her many times on PBS. She later showed up as a moderator at some of the big political debates, including the 2008 vice-presidential debate (Joe Biden versus Sarah Palin) and one of the 2016 Democratic candidate debates (Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders . . . ah, that was only a few months ago, but now it seems worlds away). And she seemed just fine this past summer covering the Democratic and GOP conventions, being fair and yet insightful as usual. So I was quite saddened to hear that Ms. Ifill passed away earlier this month (Nov. 14) after battling cancer since late 2015.

To be honest, I have not watched the PBS Newshour for several years years now, nor did I stay up with Ms. Ifill’s other show, “Washington Week”. But I did hear or see occasional references to her via radio or web-based news sources (my primary sources of news these days; I don’t look at print newspapers nor watch much TV anymore). And I did see her on PBS during the convention — same Gwen Ifill that I had so admired in the past. I now read that Ms. Ifill stayed “in the drivers seat” on these shows up thru the last full month of her life (October), despite going through chemotherapy and losing her strength. Looks like she was still Tweeting away thru October 28.

Gwen Ifill was one of the few that was given a chance at the big time in media, and she responded by putting her whole life into what she did. The quality of what Ms. Ifill gave to the public through her career was entirely apparent. Of course, David Brooks beat me to that idea  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:13 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, November 19, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Religion ...

I haven’t been posting much lately because of some personal stuff, including various on-going discussions with several thoughtful people regarding the surprise election victory earlier this month of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. I’ll no doubt have a lot to say about that before long, but for now, I’m going to avoid the amateur punditry and leave it to the professionals. Albeit, I think that every concerned American citizen ultimately has to become their own pundit and take a position on the major issues of the day.

But right now, I’m going to ponder a new rock song that I’ve been hearing lately on the local hard rock radio station (WDHA-FM). It’s called “Prayers for the Damned” by Sixx AM, from their recently released album “Prayers for the Damned”. Sixx AM did a bit of a double-play with regard to naming there, although not quite a triple play like Bad Company’s Bad Company, from the album Bad Company. Political footnote — “Prayers for the Damned” might not be a bad theme right now for those who dread the idea of a Trump Presidency!

Nonetheless, for those of you who still follow hard rock, Sixx AM is a side-project band formed in 2007 by Nikki Sixx, the former base guitarist and songwriter for Motley Crue. Ah yes, “the Crue”. Now there was a rough-edged band, all about all the excesses and depravity of the rock-n-roll scene back when rock was still the king of the music scene. They were kind-of a Neanderthal version of Kiss. Sixx provided or contributed to some of the Crue’s more memorable tunes, including “Girls Girls Girls”,”Doctor Feelgood”, “Wild Side”, and “Slice of Your Pie”.

Like a fair number of rock stars, Nikki Sixx got hooked on heroin but somehow kept going via raw ego, youthful energy, and luck. But now Motley Crue is gone and Sixx is 58 years old, and rock life from the “big-hair” 1980’s just doesn’t work anymore. A lot of old rockers clean up, slow down, fade away from the public eye, do some occasional music projects mostly for fun, maybe write a book or buy a winery, and make an occasional appearance before a small audience of aging people who remember a band from its glory years. Well, give Sixx credit — his current work is still  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Economics/Business ... Society ...

Today is the big day for American politics, the Presidential Election. There will be thousands if not millions of articles written over the next 48 hours about it. I will probably chip in my 2 cents at some point. But for now, in the early afternoon calm before the evening storm when the results start coming in, I’m going to zoom back a week or two and think about the World Series.

As you probably know, the 2016 World Series was quite dramatic, pitting two Cinderella teams that haven’t won a World Series for a long time; since 1948 for the American League Cleveland Indians, and since 1908 for the National League Chicago Cubs. Cleveland jumped off to a 3 win / 1 loss start, and it looked like the Series could finish up in game 5, surely by game 6. But no, the Cubs clawed their way back to an exciting extra-inning win in game 7.

After the fourth game, my friend Mary wrote to me with her theory that the Cubs would come back and the Series would go thru to a game 7. This no doubt reflected her faith in the Cubs, given that Mary is a life-long Chicago-lander. But Mary also thought that the financial powers behind Big Baseball would encourage teams to play as many World Series games as possible, to avoid 4 or 5 game routs so as to maximize the profits from tickets, media revenues, and memorabilia sales. Well, obviously her forecast that the Cubs would force a 7th game was on the money. But what about the overall theory that the World Series games are rigged  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:28 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, October 8, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Photo ...

Here’s a shot that I took back in the summer of 1969. It was taken with a crummy instamatic camera in a setting with not-so-good lighting, but the subject is perhaps interesting (to urbanologists anyway). It’s a shot of the Myrtle Avenue “L” train somewhere in Brooklyn (near Myrtle Avenue, no doubt; L here means “elevated”; the actual subway route for this line was the “MJ” line). I’m a boy from the Jersey suburbs, but as a kid I would sometimes make an urban venture across the Hudson River, often with my cousin Mike. On this day, Mike and I were exploring the Myrtle Avenue subway line, which the New York MTA was about to abandon. You can see why, it was kind-of old and creaky, and there were other subway lines and bus routes in that neighborhood.

Since my teen years, I have learned a little bit about fine art, and I came to appreciate the works of the “Ash Can School“, especially painter John Sloan. The Ash Can School was active and prominent in the decades leading up to World War 2, and focused on every-day urban scenes using something of an impressionist style. I thought it might be interesting to take my Myrtle Avenue L shot and run it through the Photoshop “artistic” conversions, to see what a Sloan or a Glackens might have made of the Myrtle Avenue L. Here’s what I came up with, for better or for worse:

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:52 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, June 5, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Spirituality ...

Being something of a Zen practitioner (i.e., I’ve been sitting weekly with a sangha in Montclair), I’ve heard a bit about bodhisattavas. I’m not an expert, but my basic understanding is that a bodhisattava is someone who really takes all the Buddhist stuff seriously and has gone through many re-incarnations and is now living a life that could be the last . . . i.e., they have realized full enlightenment and Buddahood, and are now ready to pass on into the realm of nirvana, whatever that is. Basically it means that you ain’t coming back again, you’re involvement with this world and universe are done, you have transcended suffering and have no need to come back for additional doses of it.

This is what the Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about, a set of rituals and prayers for those who have just died, that they won’t be re-incarnated (or if they are, they will be ready to go the next time). I.e., that they will be taken up from the bardo (which is something like a holding pattern, a temporary place to wait where your post-death fate is determined) directly to nirvana. Roughly speaking, nirvana is a mysterious, undefined state of non-being, that “beyond, beyond, totally beyond” situation. (You really can’t define nirvana, the whole thing is just a Buddhist word game — actually, just about everything in Buddhism is a word game; if you enjoy having your head spin, try to logically nail down most any Buddhist teaching or written / verbal expression; it must be fun being a “teacher”, as you can always escape the bounds of logic by telling a challenging skeptic that “you don’t fully understand”).

However, there are some people who don’t have to come back, but do so anyway! Over the centuries, some Buddhists realized that their whole tradition came across as being a bit cold and me-focused, and thus had to do some verbal / conceptual backfilling so as to integrate a bit of compassion into the situation. And thus the myth of the bodhisattava evolved, the story of those who had gained enlightenment but wanted to share it  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:45 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, April 8, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Spirituality ...

I’ve been a reader of The Atlantic Magazine for many years now. The Atlantic provides a nice overview of current social and political trends, and offers a lot of interesting “backgrounder” articles on a wide variety of people, places and happenings. But it’s also a “culture” magazine. As such, it has a required amount of material regarding literature and the fine arts. I am not at all a literature and arts aficionado, so I often skip or just skim through the material on fiction, poetry, performing art, etc. (Although, the Atlantic also keeps up on popular culture, which I sometimes find useful given that in my old age I don’t stay up with every hot new actress or hip new singer breaking onto the scene).

Despite my disinterest in fine culture, the past two issues of the Atlantic have had book reviews regarding two modern American writers (one an author of prose, the other a poet) who captured my interest after a quick perusal. One is Annie Dillard, a writer of prose, who was featured in the March 2016 issue. The other is the poet Wallace Stevens, subject of a book review in the April issue.

What interested me about both artists was their attitude about God. Let’s start with Stevens first. Wallace Stevens was born in 1879, and did most of his writing work between 1923 and his death in 1955. His poetry is considered “modernist”, rather cutting-edge and avant garde for the time. Not being much of a poetry reader, I can’t say much about it, other than  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:33 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Art & Entertainment ... History ...

I read a short article in the NY Times the other day about an auction of various artwork painted by Adolph Hitler, from his earlier years. Turns out that there are quite a few extant paintings from Hitler (he might have created over 2,000 drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings), and there is an active market for them. You’d think that no one outside of a government archival office or an historical institution would have any interest in artwork by Hitler. But to the contrary, art investors from around the globe shell out upwards of $100,000 or more per painting.

At first this seems like nothing more than a morbid fascination on the part of certain people who have more money on their hands then they know what to do with. But given my own historical and semi-morbid interests, I decided to take a look at some of Hitler’s artistic expressions. Here is a site, and another site, and another, where you too can see what I’m talking about.

OK, first impression: this is actually credible artwork; certainly not genius level, but better than what the average amateur could do. It reminded me of two American styles — first off, much of Hitler’s subject matter and painting techniques have a lot in common with the works of the “painter of light”, the late Thomas Kinnade. There is a certain sentimentality that both Hitler and Kinnade try to capture, a dream-like quality, an emphasis on  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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