Monday, February 27, 2012

Music: A physical release

Isaac and I AFTER the Jazz performance (notice our relaxed smiles.)

  I've started noticing a pattern lately.  At the end of the week, by Friday afternoon, I am just frizzle-fried.  I've spent the entire week being a brave citizen--handling my work priorities, family priorities, and self priorities, and (meanwhile) accumulating stress and anxiety.  By Friday night, my body has accumulated a large amount of free-floating anxiety; I'm practically vibrating with a week's worth of stress. I need a break.

  Friday night is also the night when many musical performances are scheduled.  Oftentimes, the last thing I want to do is head back out again.  And even though I love my job and my colleagues so much, it can be a true mental challenge to come back on campus for an event.

 So last Friday was exceptionally ordinary for its type.  I was tired and so was my teenage son.  (In these instances, our usual pattern is that I'm sarcastic and he's got attitude.)  Getting to the Jazz Festival proved to be challenging.  We were both wound up tight.

  But Isaac plays the trumpet in his Jazz Band at high school, and I knew that it would be exciting for him to get to see college-age and professional musicians playing.  We called a truce and made it to Ardrey to see the NAU Jazz Ensemble and Combo perform with guest artist, Andy Martin.

  It was a fantastic concert.  The NAU Combo started with one of those avante-garde/free jazz pieces that are really challenging to listen to ("Gloria's Step," Composed by Scott LaFaro; Arranged by Thomas Willhoit.)  They are characterized by their complicated, arrhythmic improvisation and aren't my favorite jazz style.  But they do really get my attention, because they are new and present a musical novelty to me.

  I really liked "Bottom End Shuffle" which featured the "bottom-end" of the band (the big brass instruments.)  "Bottom End" is just about as close as it gets to my jazz ideal.  I really like Big Band Jazz--something that has a really catchy rhythm, nice, creative solos, and a old-timey feel that makes me envision that we're watching a live performance with Cab Calloway (or some other Big Band Leader.)

 Then trombonist Andy Martin took the stage, and his showmanship and talent were really arresting.  Isaac and I were both taken with the bossa-nova ballad "Black Orpheus."  When the microphone started squawking, Martin showed his real talent and jazz improv ability by moving around and finding the space that would work.

  By that time, I was really starting to unwind.   I have a hard time sitting still and actually listening to my body--how it feels and what it needs.  I've noticed that music holds me still long enough for me to check in.  As I hear the music, I slowly begin to hear my body, and each note is corollary release for each cell's worth of anxiety.

  And so however hard it is for me to get to each concert, the reward of being there is absolutely essential to my mental health.    

  It must be the same for Isaac.  After the concert, I let a huge sigh of release on the drive home.  Isaac looked over at me and said "I love you, Mummy." 

  I love you, Music.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Happy Birthday Arizona!

Bruce Aiken, artist and chair of BPAC with Redwing Nez, artist of the Centennial Wall Mural.
Happy Birthday, Arizona!

I've been talking for so long about all the things I love about you, Flagstaff, Arizona, but with all this general hubbub over your statehood, I'm seeing you with fresh eyes!  Let me just list a few more things that I noticed (again) this week...

The San Francisco Peaks just look so pretty wearing their storm clouds, then waking up with a cozy white comforter of snow on top of them.  Need I say more?!

If you haven't been by the Flagstaff Visitor's Center since this summer, you're missing out on the Flagstaff Centennial Mural that Redwing Nez finished this year.  (You can watch a great time-lapse video on the process here.)  The mural, commissioned by Flagstaff's Beautification and Public Art Commission (BPAC,) was part of the City's Centennial Celebration last Tuesday.  I got to meet with Redwing before the festivities, and talk about the mural process and his creative inspirations.  Redwing is a great storyteller, and we got to hear a lot anecdotes about his memories of Flagstaff as a youngster.  I came away with a great sense of how important the past is.

The Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra had a another great performance last Friday, with "Polish Inspirations," featuring the artist-in-residence, (and Flagstaff native) Jeffrey Swann on piano.  It was pretty amazing to watch his chubby, yet nimble fingers skip across the keyboard.  It's amazing the manual dexterity that musician-ship calls for.  By the way, classical music--and the symphony--are a big part of Flagstaff's culture.  FSO has been around for over 50 years, you know!

Craig Yarbrough has been inviting me to Grand Canyon Guitar Society performances for awhile now, but I've never made it before.  I finally decided that I was going to overcome my Saturday night laziness and get to the Coconino Center for the Arts.  Maximo Diego Pujol, Argentinian guitarist, played traditional guitar pieces and those of his own creation.  Regional guitar students played his pieces beforehand, combining percussive knocks and quick progressions to their tapestry of sounds.  They were charmingly impressed that their Maestro was in the audience, making the rest of usrealize his importance. It was wonderful.  What a secret jewel the guitar series is!

I'm not traveling much this year, and I won't get a chance to go to New York to see the Shrine of the Ages and Flagstaff Master Chorale perform at Carnegie Hall.  But just because I'm in Flagstaff, doesn't mean that I can't see and hear beauty.  It may not have the grandiose context of big performance halls, or cultural cities, but Flagstaff has a lot going for it.

I'm trying really hard to see the regular sights from a different perspective. It's easy to have fresh eyes (and ears) when you are in a new place.  But it's more precious when you realize that the beauty has been in front of you all along.  Thanks Flagstaff!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Metropolitan Klezmer: Listening and Visualizing

Photo by Steven Toya.
Photo by Steven Toya.

  I went with a few friends to the Horizons Concert Series "Metropolitan Klezmer" last Wednesday night.  I really didn't know what to expect, but I knew that I liked klezmer music, after a friend introduced it to me last year.  Klezmer is culturally Jewish, and, for me, has an association with Jewish wedding music.  But it's so much more than that.  It really taps into a strange place of both hope and suffering.

  The band included an accordionist, a trumpet player, clarinet/sax player, pianist, bassist, percussionist, a violist (who actually studied at the Curry Summer Music Camp when she was a high school student at Tempe High School) and a vocalist.  I found each instrument fascinating to listen to--but then the wholistic presence of them as a band was fascinating as well.  They played a variety of tunes, described as "vibrant versions of lesser-known gems from wedding dance, trance, folk, swing and tango styles, as well as soundtrack material from vintage Yiddish films."

  My friend Laura and her husband, Mike, thought the musicianship of each individual was very impressive.  Mike was happy to learn that the trumpet player had played with Government Mule, one of his favorite rock and roll bands.  "I had assumed that the first song would sound like the second song would sound like the third song…," said Laura.  "But each song was very different, and the bandleader shared some interesting insight and history, too."

  The talent was extreme, and the music was truly haunting and wonderful.  But here's the strange thing:  it was so moving, that it moved some of us right into another sensory mode!  It made us feel a sense of synesthesia!  "Synesthesia is a neurologically based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway."  During the first set, I had a very real fantasy that I was in some kind of strange film, where certain members of the audience would spontaneously start dancing, turning the performance into a celebration (much like Jewish weddings, I have to admit.)  It was very hard for me to keep still.  I could see exactly who would be dancing, and how.

  My friend admitted to me that the music also evoked visuals for him too--but his tended towards the incongruous Western scenarios.  During the second set, I found myself visualizing Westerns too, with  saloons, open plains, and galloping horses.  Somehow, they translated well to the same sense of hope, suffering and freedom that the music was conveying.

  Laura even had a sense of visual place..."At one time it felt like you were in a European club in the 1930s, then at another point down in Brazil, then so on.  I think my son liked the music, but he is 7 so he also liked watching the reflections of light from the instruments tracking across the ceiling of Ashurst!"

I had no idea that I would start seeing movies in my mind's eye while listening to klezmer.  But that's what my experience was--very sensory-oriented.  I went to Metropolitan Klezmer expecting to hear good tunes, but instead I experienced Synesthesia.  How delightful!

(If you haven't gone to any Horizons Concert Series, you have to try them out.  They are all unique.  Check it out here.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

"Love, in public, looks like justice": Cornel West on Education

Dr. Cornel West visits with an NAU student before his lecture Thursday.

  It's a good feeling to be surrounded by people that you admire.  I'm so proud of my colleagues in the College of Arts and Letters, who have been advocating for a well-rounded education, believing that the arts and sciences are both equally important to creating a self-actualized human.  I admire that, because it raises the tide for all of us.  It encourages our society to be more interesting, more creative.

  I've taken to persuading my son that working hard at school is essential--not only because it will help him get a good job making more money, doing something he loves, but because it will make him an interesting person with many talents and hobbies, able to attract interesting friends and a life-long partner.  It will help him make better, more creative decisions.  It will create a life that is more meaningful and interconnected for him.  He will have a tough time getting bored, because his knowledge will be quicker. 

  In the spirit of wholistic education, the Martin-Springer Institute invited Dr. Cornel West to speak to a packed audience last Thursday night at Ardrey Auditorium on "Education as a Human Right."  Dr. West very quickly explained to the crowd that he viewed "education" in the classical Greek way, "paedeia." Paedeia was a system of instruction in ancient Athens in which students were given a well-rounded cultural education.

  West took the definition of paedeia further and challenged us to examine ourselves and our prejudices.  "The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being," said Socrates.  West wanted us to examine our prejudices and our addictions to money, titles and prestige, leading us to ignore others without power.  "Death of your prejudice is essential for rebirth," West said.  It takes more courage to face your own prejudices and darkness than to fight on a battlefield.

  But the government finds money to fund war, not education.  "Education is an issue of national security!" Brother West shouted out.  If we don't advocate for the youth, those without power, then we are not being just.

  "Love, in public, looks like justice.  Love, in private, looks like tenderness," he continued. We should embark on a quest for unapologetic truth, a quest for love, a quest for sweetness.  "Instead of body stimulation we should look to the soul-stirring."  Instead of the "thin stuff" we should strive to be original, not conformist. "Justice, not vengeance," he encouraged.

  Laughing at oneself, having strength, style, moral fortification, and bearing witness against injustices of those in less powerful positions--this is what the examined life should lead us to.  This is what paedeia should inform.  This is why education is a human right--it leads to universal human rights.

  This is why it's important to do more than learn how to make money--we must also learn how to examine ourselves.