From Arapahos through Moondog, to Reich, Glass, Eno and Byrne

Last post, I wrote about Moondog and how he had started drumming at an early age. He was heavily affected when his father took him to an Arapaho Sundance at a powwow in Wyoming when he was little more than a toddler. The powwow took place near the Wind River, and apparently, it still goes on as the first video on the left shows. To the right is Moondog’s tribute to the powwow, however, you can find many drumming works by Moondog that sound like the Indian drumming if you search youtube (hint, hint).

Windriver Powwow – Wyoming
Moondog: Wind River Powwow

Steven Reich Supposedly turned Philip Glass onto Moondog. This is a comparison of Moondog and Reich. In the Reich, you have a visual representation of how he builds the piece from layers of rhythms and how it keep changing by incremental changes after every cycle.

Moondog: Marimba Mambo 2
Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood

Minimalism is what they call Philip Glass’ music, which I often feel is repetitive and static, hence boring. I’m putting the following pieces side by side, to focus on the repetition, but I feel Moondog is much more pleasant to listen to, and not just because of the instruments. It does feel, though, that Philip Glass is paying a tribute to Moondog’s marimbas in this piece.

Moondog: Fujiyama 1
Philip Glass: Opening from Glassworks

I stumbled across this piece by Moondog, called Cosmic Meditation, written in 1956. What surprised me is how much it sounds like Brian Eno ripped it off (I guess he would say, paid homage to) Moondog with the piece on the right from 1978.

Moondog: Cosmic Meditation
Brian Eno: Ambient 1, Music for airports: 2/2

Before the final piece I post here, I want to make one more comparison that shows the influences of Moondog on Reich, Eno, and David Byrne. Moondog spent much of his time hanging out, wearing a Viking costume on Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) in Midtown Manhattan. As is usually the case, when one becomes blind, a person’s sense of hearing develops greater capacity and acumen to compensate for the lost visual sensory input. The “found sounds” of the city–cars, buses, ships, foghorns, street vendors–found their way into Moondog’s music. Check out pieces like “Fog on the Hudson” or “Westward Ho! for example. Moondog was also fascinated by the rhythm and music of language, and his vocal pieces often have repetitive chants, canons or rounds (go listen to his “Be a Hobo”).

Steven Reich took the concept of “found sounds,” on the radio, especially gospel preachers, looped them, and came up with the piece on the left, called “It’s Gonna Rain.” Again, Reich influenced Eno, who worked with David Byrne and the Talking Heads to shape their unique sound. A collaboration of theirs, was “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1981), and they used the found sounds of religious expressions, over which they layered multiple tracks of guitars, drums, gamelan, in funk, soul, world, and other heavy rhythms.

Steve Reich: It’s Gonna Rain
Brian Eno & David Byrne: Help Me Somebody

I’ll finish with one of my favorite pieces that comes out of this lineage of composers. It’s Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” I’ll just let it speak for itself.


Moondog: Bird’s Lament

Having recently read Oliver Sack’s “Musiciophilia,” I am even more amazed by the human brain’s capacity to create something overwhelmingly amazing and which serves no readily apparent evolutionary purpose. Such is music. The ability to perceive music requires different parts of the brain to process its distinct components–rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, timbre, dynamics, etc.

Sacks fills his book with amazing stories of people lacking in the ability to perceive one or more of these elements; others who lose the ability to understand music at all; still others who suddenly start hearing music playing in their head constantly; people who are not musical and suddenly start composing music in their head and have to learn music in order to transcribe or play it; people with and without perfect pitch; synesthetes who see musical keys and notes in colors; people who lose sight and develop increased powers of music; and composers for whom color and music are so inextricably linked that it directs the form their compositions take.

I am reminded of Moondog, a who wrote today’s piece.

Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916 in Kansas but grew up in Wyoming, where at an early age he started drumming on cardboard boxes. At some point, his father took him to an Arapaho sun dance, where he ended up on the lap of a chief named Yellow Calf, playing along on a buffalo skin drum. He continued playing drums in high school after his family moved to Missouri, where he was blinded in a blasting cap accident farm accident. His family sent him to a number of schools for the blind where he studied the principles of music and taught himself composition and trained his ear. He wound up with a scholarship at the age of 26 to study in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942. After that he moved to New York where he flourished–in a most unusual way.

Wearing a Viking helmet and long robes, he stood on the corners of 6th Avenue and the 50, sometimes standing completely still, sometimes busking for money, or selling his poetry or tracts on music. He was greatly influenced by jazz and the music of Benny Goodman and befriend Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein. He seemed to be homeless but actually had an apartment in the city and a house in upstate New York.

He took the name Moondog after hearing a dog that howled “more than any dog” he’d ever met, and developed a following. In the 50s, a disk jockey in New York, named his show after Moondog and played an excerpt from Moondog’s First Symphony until Moondog sued him. The jockey tried to blow it off but then Bernstein and Toscanini testified that he was a serious classical composer. In New York, he also became an inspiration to the minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steven Reich who studied his work and later paid him homage.

In the 1970s, Moondog moved to Germany where he met a young German student who hosted him, transcribed his work from Braille, and eventually inherited his estate when he died in 1999.

His music continues to inspire as it seems like a wonderful fusion of classical, jazz, folk, minimalist, and “found” music–he was inspired by foghorns and other sounds most of us would perceive as noise.

Bird’s Lament is one of those pieces which is like a perpetual motion machine. It’s repetitive but it sucks you in and they shifting between two chords, Gm and D, creates a tension that doesn’t ever seem to resolve and it feels like t’s sweeping you into an endless trance-like state.

Sacks tells us that the in order for the brain to integrate all the pieces of music, we have some kind of higher order organizing capability. Without that capability, music would just sound like foghorns and car crashes to us.

Which version of Bird’s Lament above does the higher order part of your brain prefer? How about your baser one?

Respighi: Six Pieces for Solo Piano (Scherbakov)

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve not paid much attention to the work of Ottorino Respighi. Oh, I know he wrote “The Pines of Rome,” and “The Fountains of Rome,” and “Festivals of Rome.” For godssake, I even lived in Rome and have seen the pines, some festivals and hundreds of fountains. But if you asked me to hum something from one of these piece, I’d be hard-pressed.
Not that I haven’t heard them like, a thousand times, since they used to get played again and again on the local classical radio channels, especially on the call-in request shows.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? If Respighi plays in the background, did I actually hear it? He was 17 years younger than Debussy, and I tend to pigeon-hole him either in the Impressionist school, or maybe as an anachronism like Rachmaninoff–poised between Romantic and Cubist or Atonal music.

He was first noted for his violin and viola virtuosity, playing in string quartets as as principle violist in St. Petersburg, with the Russian Imperial Theatre. While in Russia he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, and later, living in Germany, reportedly studied with Max Bruch.

Returning to Rome, he taught composition at the St. Cecilia Conservatory, where he managed to weather the Mussolini years trying to remain a-political though he did promote his music for nationalistic purposes. At the same time, he championed more vocal critics of fascism like Aurturo Toscanini.

Today, I’m posting something I stumbled upon while surfing youtube. It’s six pieces for solo piano. From Wikipedia, I see that he wrote operas, ballets, symphonic works, quite a few chamber pieces. His list of works does not include any works for piano, so maybe I should update the Wikipedia entry. Do any of you know anything about his piano works that you can steer me to?

Here’s a piano sonata I just found.

Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442)

Here’s a composer I never heard of before.  Born in Tblisi, Georgia in the former Soviet Union, Giya Kancheli, emigrated to Belgium in 1991.  He’s been pretty prolific, writing seven symphonies and scores for films and plays, which are not widely known outside Eastern Europe.  The Kronos Quartet, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kurt Masur, and many other conductors have championed his works.  Here’s a link to the world premiere of “Chiaroscuro” from 2010.

And here’s the Wikipedia entry on him.

A nice find on a cold winter’s night.

Source: Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442)

Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

I turned 60 this past summer. That means I was 9 when Malcolm X was shot and 10 when the former racist, Lyndon Johnson, signed the voting rights act in 1965. I was 12 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. They didn’t call Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray, “thugs” or “terrorists.” But the fear they inspired put a palpable damper on the optimism for change that had begun in the early 1960s.  The government didn’t help.  J. Edgar Hoover, tyrant obviously as mentally disturbed by his inability to reconcile his own sexuality, (like Hitler, by the way), had gone after King, the Blank Panthers, The Students for A Democratic Society with wiretaps and even blatant propaganda.  For example, I remember seeing this billboard on my way to Boy Scout camp one summer.


Most urban whites fled to the suburbs after the riots of 1968 and the forced busing of African Americans from poverty stricken school districts to “white,” schools increased the created animosity among whites and reversed the dream of racial harmony that had started. Today, I heard on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, that the African American Hip-Hop artist, actor, and movie producer, Ice Cube, had been bused into a white neighborhood. When asked what he thought of that, he said it was great, because it exposed him to other people, other music, other ideas, and showed that there was a different world out there. Listen to the full interview here.

The pessimistic funk that followed in the decades following was like a Sword of Damocles handing over the world’s head.  To dull the pain, the 70s turned into what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Decade.”  It should have been called “the me-coke-disco-addiction decade.”  Wolfe called this “atomized individualism.”  Political leaders invented more bogeymen–Brezhnev, Pol Pot, The Cold War, OPEC, The Yom Kippur War, Bangladesh, Idi Amin, the overthrow by the USA of a democratically elected government in Chile, the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, skyjackings, Watergate, the murder of Steve Biko, the hostage crisis.  For more fun reading, look at Wikipedia’s entry on the 1970s.  Toward the end, there was some slight hope–the Mideast Peace accord brokered by Jimmy Carter.

I would normally say, “Let’s just forget the 1980s.”  The Reagan-Bush years that started systematically disassembling the middle class to enable corporate soul-less materialism.  But then, in 1989, something miraculous happened: the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Suddenly the sword was lifted and we no longer had to live under the constant fear of nuclear annihilation.

So it took 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, almost the turn of one generation for the zeitgeist in the US, at least, start to change. The 1990s, by contrast, brought optimism back, and our Millenial Children grew up in an optimistic time.  The prosperity of the Clinton years, the advances in computers and the internet, the Oslo accord, the Convention on Bio-Diversity, WHO removing homosexuality from its list of diseases, and of course Harry Potter.

2000s–back to fear after 9/11 and the real start of another dark ages of racial hatred.  Then, amazingly, in 2008, 40 years after 1968, the US elects Barack Obama as president.  In a way, since then, it’s like the US went back in time.  The 2008 financial crisis didn’t help, which decimated the middle class, and like most countries in the midst of economic hardship, xenophobia has started to soar.  Will it take another generation, until 2028, for us to purge ourselves if this insanity.  Maybe the Millenials who grew up for the most part, without the racist attitudes of their grandparents, will save us.

The other day, I was talking to a colleague about half my age about the passionate speech that President Obama gave to try to stop gun violence that kills about 7 children per day in the US (that’s about 16,000 preventable deaths in the last seven years.)  That lead into a discussion about how crazy the political process has become and the active and coded racism that has been directed at Obama since then.  HE’S ASKING FOR COMPASSION, PEOPLE.  Instead the next day, the New York Times does a report on the Twitter-storm that the Republican candidates’ shiny boots have caused.  Is there any rational political discourse any more?  I said to her, “At sixty, it’s really disappointing having to watch this racism a second time in my lifetime.” The quote by George Santayana comes to mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So for today, I chose this shocking piece of music by Krzysztof Penderecki, composed in 1960.

Penderecki wrote it in the late 50s (around the age of 25) under the influence of composers like Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.  It uses microtones, making it sound particularly discordant, and has the performers bow behind the bridge, slap their instruments, or improvise at random points on their instruments’ scale.  Of course serial and atonal music is a type of intellectual game, but when he first heard it performed by an orchestra, Penderecki experienced such an emotional reaction, that he dedicated the piece to the victims of Hiroshima, saying “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”

According to Wikipedia, “A threnody is a song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person.

It is interesting to watch this version which scrolls along the score as the music plays:

If this music sounds somewhat familiar to you, it’s because Stanley Kubrick used it in the film, “The Shining.” It evokes horror. The horror of young children looking up into the sky at the sound of a plane and then hear bombs fall (think Syria today) followed by a hot blast that either rips them apart or melts away their flesh. That this is going on in the 21st Century is unconscionable. If you have children, or remember how beautiful life might have been as a child, just think of the horror and fear and desolation and senselessness when anyone dies from preventable violence.
I didn’t necessarily want to start the New Year on such a bleak note. In fact, every day, I meet young people who seem not to have grown up with the biases and limitations of the racism practiced by their parent or directed against their ethnic group. It is refreshing and gives me hope.

Penderecki turned hopeful too, and his later works have become more straightforward. About this he says: “The avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism. The musical world of Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young – hemmed in by the aesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country – a liberation…I was quick to realise however, that this novelty, this experimentation and formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive; I realised the Utopian quality of its Promethean tone’. Penderecki concluded that he was ‘saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition’.

Here’s an example of his later work: “Violin Concerto No.2 ‘Metamorphosen'”


Edo Lullaby

If you could flip a switch (or take a pill) to be happy, would you? And would it really work?

The other day, I heard a Radiolab story that said for at least 20 years, drugs have been developed that can cure alcoholism. The reason they are not widely taken is because since the early 20th Century, 1) Alcoholics Anonymous has been very influential, and 2) very few medical schools give courses on how to treat addiction. The podcast went on to day that AA only has about a 5% success rate. AA’s philosophy, even though they say alcoholism is a disease, basically has the message that it’s a moral failing to become addicted and only by surrendering to a higher power can one overcome it. So if you could take a drug to cure your alcoholism, you wouldn’t have done the moral work needed to be accountable for your life (and the damage you did to others while drunk).

Radiolab interviewed a guy who was really successful while a drunk, but who then eventually realized it was killing him. So he tried the drug therapy. It worked perfectly. He no longer wanted to drink. However, he felt life was not as interesting and also, the drug did nothing to address any psychological issues he might have had. The piece ended with him consciously quitting the meds and becoming an alcoholic again. The researcher interviewed said we are hardwired to find things — especially chemicals — that give us a jolt of dopamine, or relax us, or make us more socially competent or attractive. In fact, we evolved this way because people who act that way get to pass their genes on through mating.

Another researcher said these drugs are at the point now where Prozac was 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, there was stigma tied to taking drugs to alleviate depression and the dominant schools of psychology often treated it through psychoanalytical, group, behavioral, or cognitive therapy. However, now it’s much more accepted and in 10–15 year’s time, anyone with an addiction will not have to feel guilty taking a pill to cure their addiction.

Having been besieged by depression on a number of occasions, mostly triggered by major life events, I have tried the various types of talk or behavioral therapies including EMDR and EFT. Alone, they only have gotten me so far, or perhaps were successful for a while. But what’s been more effective is a combination of talk therapy and medicine. And last year, after going through another episode, I finally tried to be less passive in the journey and work hard to try to beat it.

By chance, I happened to receive a notice for a 8-week, online course on Happiness, offered for free by Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. Until Martin Seligman came along, most mental-health therapy was designed to cure the “illness.” Psychologists didn’t really study peak performance, optimism, or what’s now known as positive psychology. That is, what tools and strategies have humans evolved that lead to happiness. Happy people tend to be more successful, live longer, and be healthier. By tools I mean psychological tools like emotions, empathy, social connectedness, altruism, gratitude and forgiveness, etc. The course presented studies and research that basically, just as we developed “flight, fight, or freeze,” as a strategy to deal with danger (think sabertooth tigers), we developed the positive emotions and behaviors to make us help one another, thereby ensuring that a group will survive. Biologically, no man can really be an island.

At the same time I was taking this course, I had also started to study Buddhism, especially through the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. In addition, I found the website of Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist who lives near my town. Both these writers and lecturers comment on what are the four rooms, or the four bramavaharas, of Buddhism — Love, Joy, Compassion, and Equanimity. Oddly enough, in its own way, the 8 week psychology course was demonstrating that there are biological and evolutionary bases for these ways of living and interacting with others and the world. The course actually ended on the positive effects of actively practicing Gratitude and also Mindful Meditation.

For the first time in my life I felt that I understood the world. Pain and suffering comes from anger at believing the world has dealt us a bad hand or is out to get us. When we take that to the extreme, we become insular, withdrawing from and not trusting others. To be so alienated from others is toxic. Babies, for example, in orphanages who do not get picked up and touched by human hands fail to thrive. If we filter everything through our fight, flight or flee evolutionary hard wiring we end up acting in destructive ways (this is known as amygdala hijack). If, however, we can catch ourselves, breath, slow down, think, we will have much better outcomes.

So coming back to my initial question, if I could flip a switch (i.e., take a pill) and instantly cure depression, would I? And would it be successful? The pill can stop the pain, but alone it will not be as effective as learning to have rich relationships with others and realizing that love, loss, joy, and suffering are all part of life and are constantly coming and going.

I hope your Equanimity will bring you a Joyful, Loving, Compassionate New Year!

Happy Winter Solstice!


Source: Happy Winter Solstice!


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