Gently Unfolding Beauty: Music for 18 Musicians

 

The world needs more Steve Reich music. His compositions, particularly Music for 18 Musicians, reward listeners with a sense of serenity rarely found in contemporary art. His works are an elegant counterpoint to the headlong rush of life.

18 premiered in 1976. It is written in the style of minimalism, in which melodies are repeated for long periods of time, varying slightly with each repetition.

Minimalism is not for everyone. It repeats itself at much greater length than in most classical music. It will either madden you or gladden you. If it clicks, you will be enthralled. If not, at least you will have been exposed to something different. At its best, I find minimalism exhilarating.

Wikipedia offers this explanation of the piece:

The piece is based on a cycle of eleven chords. A small piece of music is based on each chord, and the piece returns to the original cycle at the end. The sections are named “Pulses”, and Section I-XI. This was Reich’s first attempt at writing for larger ensembles, and the extension of performers resulted in a growth of psycho-acoustic effects, which fascinated Reich, and he noted that he would like to “explore this idea further”.

A prominent factor in this work is the augmentation of the harmonies and melodies and the way that they develop this piece. Another important factor in the piece is the use of human breath, used in the clarinets and voices, which help structure and bring a pulse to the piece. The player plays the pulsing note for as long as he can hold it, while each chord is melodically deconstructed by the ensemble, along with augmentation of the notes held. The metallophone (unplugged vibraphone), is used to cue the ensemble to change patterns or sections.

A good performance on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXJWO2FQ16c

You will need to set aside an hour to enjoy it. Yes, an hour. Great art requires commitment. If you find it hard to sit to sit still that long, do something that does not require your full attention, such as housework or laundry.

 

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Chatting With the Gov

I share my downtown Raleigh neighborhood with the Governor’s Mansion. Friday morning, July 6, about seven, I was walking by, taking pictures. Looking into the grounds of the mansion, I spotted a man in shorts and T-shirt, walking his white dog and leaving the premises. Odd, I thought, and went back to my walk.

Seconds later, I saw him again as I passed the gate. After a moment of disbelief, I recognized him as Governor Roy Cooper. I said good morning, quickly adding in his title. He smiled and returned my greeting. As he crossed the street, I wished him a great day, and he replied likewise.

Wow. I chatted with the governor. A famous guy right on the street. What impressed me most, aside from his friendliness, was the lack of a security detail. For that moment, the governor of North Carolina was just another guy walking his dog.

When I got home, I found a contact form for the governor’s office. I sent him a message recounting the incident. Being a partisan, I encouraged him to fight the good fight and said I would vote for him in 2020. Maybe someone on his staff will call it to his attention. I can always hope.

It was a welcome counterpoint to the impersonality of modern politics, where we know our leaders only through sound bites. It reminds me that behind the media image are real human beings, made in the image of God and trying to get through the day like the rest of us.

Sure we disagree with politicians and call them names. It’s the American way. But, just a little, let’s ease up on them. We elect them to take care of our country, but it’s our job too. Let’s put in a little sweat equity and do our part to improve our communities. Okay?

God Points, I Shoot: A Philosophy of Photography

When I am in the zone, when I am lost in taking pictures, my breathing stops as I trigger the shutter. Something passes through me, a movement of the spirit that I hesitate to analyze. It is my version of nirvana.

I have loved photography all my life. When I was a kid, the Kodak Instamatic was all the rage. Few of the pictures I took remain, but from the beginning I wanted to be an art photographer. To make different pictures.

Over the years, I shot sporadically, mostly on vacations. It was not until my trip to Arizona and Utah in 1999 that I made a concerted effort to explore the medium. After assembling three albums of images from my trip, I purchased a Pentax SLR. At the same time I took a black and white printmaking course, taught by a fine Raleigh photographer, David Simonton.

I built a darkroom in my kitchen and experienced the ecstasy of seeing an image emerge from a blank sheet of paper as I rocked the tray containing the developer. I made prints every Saturday, accumulating enough to be exhibited at the Visual Arts Exchange. Pure joy.

The darkroom days ended when my landlord insisted on removing the plywood sheet that covered my kitchen window. The muse languished for several years, until I joined the 21st century and bought a digital Canon point and shoot. I set up a photoblog, which I will of course promote: http://larryb.shutterchance.com/

The objects in my frame have evolved over time. My Pentax led me to industrial subjects: power lines, tower cranes, backhoes. I became inordinately fond of the leftovers of construction sites: cables, plywood sheets, boxes of nails. Somehow they moved me, perhaps because I am under construction myself. To this day, I pass up the finished buildings in favor of the half-built ones.

Now my Nikon leads me to flowers. I take field trips to the Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh and Duke Gardens. Placing an exotic bloom in the viewfinder brings peace. There are so many varieties, and unless the wind is blowing, they stand still while I compose. People like flower pictures, and I enjoy pleasing them.

I work quickly. I have a knack for composition and good angles appear naturally.

Here are some pointers if you want to follow the light:

Get close. Standing a mile away from your subject brings all sorts of junk into the frame. Lose your shyness and move right in.

Move your feet. Good photographers circle their subjects and crouch to get the best angle. It’s a dance. Soreness in the ankles and knees is a small price to pay for a compelling image.

Flood your SD card. Take scads of pictures. The technical word for this is practice. Go home and savor your pictures. You can always delete the ones you don’t like.

Learn from the masters. Start with Ansel Adams and keep going. Inspiration is essential. The library is chock full of photo books.

Beware of chasing money. There are only three ways to make money in photography: weddings, portraits, and advertising. There are many fine practitioners in these fields, but don’t lose sight of the sheer enjoyment of making pictures.

The most important tool is your eye. The greats can make a compelling image with any camera. Ansel Adams took interesting shots with his Brownie. Smartphones are associated with goofiness, but they can also facilitate striking images.

If you see an old guy in downtown Raleigh, bobbing and weaving and ignoring the rest of the world, it will be me. Have fun out there.

 

I am guided by the great French photographer Henri Carter-Bresson: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/henri-cartier-bresson/

More pictures: https://qz.com/1145191/henri-cartier-bressons-historic-photos-of-india-are-to-be-auctioned-in-new-york/

Words from Cartier-Bresson:

To take photographs is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy. To take photographs means to recognize—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.

It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.

A Falsely Modest Appraisal of the Author

My bestie suggested I write a brief autobio. Far be it from me to ignore her advice.

Larry was born in Chapel Hill and moved at a tender age to Greensboro. His parents say he was a well-behaved child, though he once tore down a dilapidated doghouse for the sheer hell of it. He ate well, commencing a lifelong habit. Larry demonstrated an early aptitude for reading, which has served him well.

He enjoyed construction toys (bonus points if you have heard of American Skyline) and invited neighbor kids to have building parties. His lifelong admiration of the opposite gender began with a crush on a little Jewish girl named Sheila.

His early academic career was better than average. It peaked in the second grade when he earned all A’s the whole year. His secret? Looking attentive while daydreaming of rocket ships. Larry’s heroes were, and still are, astronauts.

In 1963, he trekked with his family to Raleigh, where he thrived on a diet of concerts at N. C. State and free admission to football games, courtesy of his Dad. He lived near a creek and upset a neighbor when a homemade dam backed water into his yard. Secretly Larry was proud.

He took part in Boy Scouts (reaching Second Class!), catechetical classes, and misadventures with his best friend Mike. He learned the virtues of noncomformity in middle and high school, and was once threatened with suspension for having “long” hair. He flirted briefly with athleticism on the Faculty Club swim team, but it didn’t take. Following his Dad’s footsteps, Larry learned to play the flute, um, adequately.

Encouraged by his family, he appeared in several plays in area theaters. Somewhere along the line he discovered girls (or as Dad called them, round boys). To protect the reputation of the innocent, we shall draw a discreet curtain over these pursuits.

Larry excelled in English literature, geometry, creative writing, and French. As the layout editor of the high school literary magazine, he snuck in a short poem that caused controversy among the other editors. It espoused the then-radical notion that some white boys dug black chicks.

He earned enough money as a copyboy at The News and Observer to buy an expensive stereo system. (Hey, he was still living at home.) At N. C. State, Larry made a name for himself as the author of a satirical column in the student newspaper. He failed to parlay his mild fame into sex. Yes, he regrets this.

Graduating with honors in Speech Communication, Larry embarked on a series of jobs without assuming the burden of an actual career. Stops along the way included advertising writing, graphic design, research telephone interviewing, tutoring, and magazine and publicity writing.

In college, he took up marijuana, a decision that proved to be, shall we say, sub-optimal. Weed consumed sixteen years, until God kicked him in the ass and forced him to seek help. The Twelve Steps cleaned him up, cleared most of the mental detritus, and generally made his life immeasurably better.

During his early drug years, God also prodded Larry into Christianity. He was as surprised as everyone else, and the church is still recovering. Using an impressive intellect honed in graduate school, he now sets up chairs for his Lutheran church and leads the Sunday adult Bible study in questionable directions.

Now retired, Larry still holds a part-time gig for mad money. He lives in a century-old brick schoolhouse that was converted into studio apartments. He still goes to meetings, enjoys readers theatre, and wastes time on the Internet. Along the way, he has successfully avoided commercial success as a photographer and recently began authoring these dubious essays.

His (aided) vision is excellent, and he retains an active eye for women of all ages, even his own. His hearing still permits him to rock out. He can still dance for short periods with only minimal wheezing. All his diseases are treatable. Larry is generally happy when he is not stuck on himself.

He looks forward to the autumn of his life with as little Donald Trump as possible.

Cry Like a Man

I was core-angry, boiling inside. Another relationship had soured. It had been a fledgling connection, but its end was knife-sudden, sharp.

I was coping. Talking to friends, writing, a little praying. Uploading pictures to my photoblogs* and Facebook. Taking on the ordinary, soothing routines of the day. Getting by.

The one thing I had yet to do was cry.

A Facebook link sent me to a song by my favorite band, Simple Minds. It’s called Spirited Away. It starts with this:

I’m not a complicated guy
I like life as simple as can be
There’s so much I don’t understand
So much I fail to see

But we got spirited away..

I knew the song would move me. As Jim Kerr’s plaintive voice came to the third line, I broke down.

Not sniffles. Not just moist eyes or a lump in the throat. Crying. Sobs, shaking, gouts of groans, drooling, hands over face. One loud, long, flat-out weep. Anyone passing my door would have heard it. So be it.

Finally, some release. Some honesty, some plumbing the depths of my hurt. Took me a day to get there after receiving the news, which for me is a long time.

I cry easily. Field of Dreams, Close Encounters, the loss of Challenger and Columbia. “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through” (second stanza of Greensleeves), the death scene in Barry Lyndon. Stories in NA meetings of suffering and hope.

Crying is my strength, my weapon against despair. It cleanses mind and soul. It brings me close to my humanity, and sets me on the long road to acceptance and forgiveness. It builds solidarity with the suffering (which is to say, everyone). It connects me to Jesus.

Mostly I cry alone. The one time I cried while embracing a loved one soothed me in my depths. It was more intimate than sex. It was real.

Of course, crying also signals joy, the annunciation of grace. A reconciliation of enemies, a realization of a dream, a restoration of friendship. An outburst of life. Selah.

So men, go see a weepy movie, when the theater isn’t crowded. Sit in the dark and let it go. You’ll thank me.

 

 

* Links: http://larryb.shutterchance.com/

https://larrybliss.aminus3.com/

Questioning God (Not for the Faint of Heart)

This has become the central question in my spiritual life. I used to say, of course he is good—all the time. But now I wonder.

This question is not the result of some abstract theological study. It is rooted in my emotions, my recent experiences, and my hopes.

Like most men, I have wanted to be married. My life now is quite fulfilling (never better), but this one unanswered desire remains. My best years are behind me, and this state of wifelessness perplexes me and disturbs me.

In the book of Genesis (2:18), God said it is not good for man to be alone. Along came Eve. Many complications ensued, of course, but God saw a need and responded.

A year ago, I embarked on online dating. It has turned out to be quite a challenge. I have met some very nice women, a couple of not-so-nice women, and found a lifelong friend. I have endured rejection, confusion, disappointment, anger, and not a little pain. Still, I have kept on, hoping the right woman would be around the corner.

A month ago, I met a woman who seemed to have all of the attributes I seek. She was deeply religious, intelligent, creative, funny, and very interesting to talk to. We made a lunch date and met a couple of times at her church. (I strongly doubt she is reading this.) We had several intellectually stimulating conversations—that’s a turn-on for me. Rightly or wrongly, I perceived her as the closest I had yet come to my wifely ideal.

She then emailed me that because of my political views, she could not date me. We had never discussed politics and I was taken by surprise. The message was sharp in tone, and I responded accordingly. At the very least she could have thanked me for the time I spent with her.

From where I sit, God has not fulfilled his promise from Genesis. I am a good man, a Godly man, and respect women. I have much love to give. This has availed me nothing.

I don’t like God the Father any more. I feel hesitant to praise him. Would you praise someone who has given you a raw deal?

On the other hand, I deeply love his son. Throughout this hard passage, Jesus has stood beside me, consoled me… understood me. He knows what it’s like to be a human being. He wanted a wife, too.

Where does this leave me? I belong to a very small church. It is not egotism to say that my departure would cause harm. So I will stay there.

But… I will be less enthusiastic about worshiping the Father. I will revere and serve his son, as I always have. I have no idea if this is a permanent state of affairs or a crisis of faith that will pass.

Worshiping two-thirds of the Trinity runs counter to church doctrine. I don’t care. The way I feel right now, I will be willing to worship the Father again when he makes good on his promise. If he ever does, or if he even can.

Are You listening?

This was written several weeks ago. I am calmer now and less anxious about dating. Still, I think the question of God’s goodness is essential to developing a living faith.

How to Drive, in Two Easy Lessons

I haven’t had an accident in nearly 30 years. Here’s why:

Drive for distance, not for speed. This is the best advice I ever got. Maintain ample distance between you and the car ahead. If this means going slightly below the prevailing speed, do so. Are you really in that much of a hurry?

This goes double on the Interstate. You have lots of room on the road. Use it whenever possible. Let the pack pass around you.

This is of course difficult in heavy traffic. Flex time is your friend.

Leave your emotions at home. A friend once told me that your car is a projectile. Remain calm and focused as much as possible. I find that listening to classical music or smooth jazz helps. Rock ‘n’ roll makes me nudge the accelerator.

Maintain your perspective. Your friends won’t disown you and your boss (probably) won’t fire you for being five or ten minutes late. Leave early.

Finally, google “motorists prayer”. Couldn’t hurt.

Happy motoring and Fahrvergnügen to you all!

Pleasures (Part One)

Walking around in my PJs at 8:00 pm. Nuzzling cats under their chin. The chamber music of Franz Schubert. The first slug of Diet Dr. Pepper in the morning. Talking to my friend Nancy. Eating Swiss cheese. Rubbing the gook out of my eyes. Rolling up my car windows in advance of my parking spot. Taking pictures of rotting wood. The surge of acceleration when the airplane takes off. Watching men and women float in space. The pressure relief when I take off my shoes. Dark-skinned women wearing pink tank-tops. The text chime on my Android. Direct deposit. Hearing learned professors fling theory. Cold reading. The sound of my own voice. Monsieur Hulot. The phrase “horse’s ass”. Surprise phone calls from my brother. My Dad’s love of vocabulary. Wincing while a cat makes biscuits on my chest. A jazzy rendition of This Is the Feast of Victory for Our God. Hearing old friends in prayer. Women with shapely calves. Dogs sticking their heads out of car windows. A steak at the Farm House restaurant in Chapel Hill. The phrase “And not for the first time,” even though no one has laughed at it yet. Looking at a Studebaker Avanti. The opening and closing door shots in The Searchers. The song The Statue Made Me High by They Might Be Giants. The way cats stick one arm out when they rest. My friend Jaye’s banana bread. Beating Jaye at gin rummy. Seeing a basketball get stuck on the hoop support. The phrase “Jeez Louise”. Finishing work. Frau Blucher. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Singing karaoke. Making the light at Person and South Street in Raleigh. The American flag. The atonal chaos of orchestras tuning up. Getting up at 3:30 am to write. Making this list. Our family tradition sugary food on Christmas morning. Finding a parking space that lets me drive right out. Slow French kissing. Passionate French kissing. Indifferent French kissing. The nape of a brunette woman’s neck. Floating in the pool and pretending to be a spacewalker. Freckles on a girl’s shoulder. Girls’ shoulder in general. Other parts I shouldn’t dwell on. Scratching my ankles when they itch. Hydrox cookies (not Oreos—Hydrox). The day I saw I was taller than Mom. Sitting in the dark at one of Mom’s plays. Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel R. Delany. Hearing my old English teacher Norwood Smith recite The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Distant thunder. Cleavage. Turning the page each month on my Ansel Adams and Edward Hopper calendars. Turning off the vacuum cleaner. Urination (admit it—this is on your list too). Frank Sinatra. Talking to my old sponsor after too many years. Typing on a new keyboard, with letters that haven’t rubbed off. The egg, cheese and bacon biscuit from Bojangles. The country ham biscuit from Hardee’s. Cleaning the dirt from between my toes. Witnessing epiphanies at my Sunday school bible class. Driving my car home from the shop. The music of Arvo Pärt. Making a list of chores and adding a few minor ones, just to cross them off. Watching my lover fall asleep. Sex in the morning. Sex anytime. Watching Fawlty Towers. Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch. Not getting a rent increase this year. Blueberries. The feeling of release and wonderment when you finish a great book. Going real fast for the first time on the highway in driver’s ed. How people remember the bass line of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring as the main melody. Smiling with my eyes. Rolling my eyes in gentle self-deprecation. The bass playing of Derek Forbes (Simple Minds). Seeing the French skater Surya Bonaly do a backflip on ice. Barack and Michelle Obama.

Waking up in my PJs at 5:30 am and putting on my glasses and getting my legs moving under me and opening the blinds and there in front of me is a new day.

Bam, Bam, Bam

I have been critical of the Right lately. It’s time I dished it to the Left.

Sometimes we liberals don’t know when enough is enough. Three cases in point:

The New York Times. I have read their excellent reportage through the moon landings, Watergate, 911, and a host of other epochal events. As far as I am concerned, the Times sets the gold standard for journalism. Who knows how many of my favorite books have come from the Times staff. From Russell Baker and William Safire onward, their columnists have unfailingly enlightened and entertained.

But now it’s too much. Too many op-eds with overlapping critiques of Trump. Two or three a day, it seems. Look I know the Times and Trump have a long history, but jeez Louise, show some sense of proportion.

The New Yorker. Our family was raised on their cartoons. Again, the gold standard. I devoured their tiny-type film reviews and I admire the brilliance of their cover artists. I bought my brother a gift subscription. Ain’t cheap, but it’s money well spent. Their coverage of the arts is unmatched.

But again, dial it back a notch. I get their email digests. Hand to God, every one of them leads off with a blast at Trump. Radical thought: on some days, there is important non-Trump-related news. Cover it.

Stephen Colbert. I used to follow him on YouTube. There hasn’t been a satirist with his chops in far too long.

Then, the election. Now it’s Trump, Trump, Trump every night, week after week. He has some of the best comedy writers in the business, and there is plenty of fodder for satire out there. You wouldn’t know it from watching.

Bam, bam, bam. Over and over and over. Look, I understand the animus toward the president. Have dosed out some myself. But, enough. This constant din converts no one and only strengthens the Right’s claim of leftie media bias.

Hey, it’s a free country. I revere the First Amendment. But folks, just take it a bit easier.

Please.

The Sweet Energy of the Twelve-Step Meeting

Those meetings. Those amazing, infuriating, unforgettable, comforting, harrowing, heartwarming meetings.

Monday, March 13, 1989 was the last day I got high. The details of using are irrelevant here. A drug is a drug (that goes for booze, too).

Picture me. Slumped in my chair, head on my chest, eyes blurry, legs akimbo. The television, tuned to God knows what. Alone in my attic apartment on an ironically-named New Road in Raleigh. Pale winter sunlight spills on the floor. I am old at 34.

In my mind: Desperation, loneliness, suicidality, gloom, defiance. In my spirit: Nothingness.

My first meeting: Lively and foreign. Aside from work, I was unused to company. Young, warm girls hugged me. I barely felt their contact. I sat in a chair, bolt upright, arms crossed, watching everything.

During the meeting: Stories. Stories of fear, privation, crime, degradation, and yet… identification. Empathy. At-home-ness. God alone knew how, but I belonged. These strangers felt the same things I did, did some of the same things I did, sold themselves and their families out, just to get high again. Like me.

Meetings and weeks pass. All over town, I see the same people over and over. A man picks up a red keytag: thirty days clean. Impossible. A woman picks up a glow-in-the-dark keytag: one year. Unattainable. People talk of multiple years. Eons.

I speak, full of ego and intellectuality. I share correctly but with no passion, with all the warmth of an annual report.

Years pass. I help others, work Steps, share my life story, chair meetings, empty ashtrays (this was thirty years ago, remember), give rides, hug a million people, call my sponsor… stay clean, stay clean, stay clean. Jobs fail, Mom dies, illnesses come and go. I stay clean. How did I get here? Friends overdose, relapse, claw their way back. Why did they leave, and not me?

Today: The only day there is. I slouch in my hard wooden on a thick cushion. Nod and smile, hold a hand, wave to a friend. I share, unrehearsed. Words flow and bounce around the room, unrehearsed, liberated. Ideas dance like ocean foam, vanish in digressions and wry observations, hang in mid-air. Experience, strength, and hope. Feelings.

The meeting ends. I give out keytags, nestle in the group hug, say the Serenity Prayer. I have left my burdens at the door, and my heart and mind are young and free.

Those meetings.