Ever since Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, gave the wax tablet to mortals,
memory, writing and technology have been interconnected.
—Carolyn Guertin

The ghost in the machine was doing a clever bit of DJing this morning. Kate Bush’s “An Architect’s Dream” was followed by The Books’ “Venice”. Why clever? Both songs are about making art outside, en plein air.

The Books found a gem of a vocal sample on an old LP, then laid a loop of bass and plucked kalimba tongs beneath for just the right touch of whimsy and intrigue. In the sample, an American reporter narrates as Salvador Dali paints outside on a Venetian plaza. There is crowd noise and reaction in the background—this is all happening in the middle of pigeons and tourists. Over the kalimba loop, the reporter begins in a formal, bygone, Walter Cronkite tone:

Reporter: Maestro, as you paint this picture would you tell me what…what’s going on in your mind?

Dali: Now the cross, the mystical vertical cross.

Reporter [for his audience]: Out of black paint, a cross comes down from the top left hand side of the canvas.

But the objective description loosens as he is drawn in, child-like, by the unfolding suspense of Dali’s brush. Before long, he’s yanked in to the act of painting itself—no longer a spectator, but a participant.

Reporter: [Dali] has just thrown a bunch of gold paint which has not only hit me in the face, but has gone across the canvas to the applause of the crowd below…The canvas and the photographers are covered with paint. I might add, its black paint and gold paint on a white canvas…That was a big splash of paint!

The maestro has more surprises in store for our reporter and the crowd, but I don’t want to ruin your fun in hearing this track for the first time…so go pick up a copy of The Books’ Lost and Safe!

In “An Architect’s Dream,” Kate Bush sings of watching a sidewalk painter. She’s drawn to the flow of entwining lines—the limbs of two lovers.

Curving and sweeping

Rising and reaching

I could feel what he was feeling

But when the artist laments, “It’s raining…what has become of my painting?” as his work is rearranged by a storm, the music moves seamlessly into “The Painter’s Link”, in which Bush joyfully extols the wash of colors, as beautiful as any formalized art.

The juxtaposition of these two songs got me thinking: There’s something akin to walking a tightrope in doing art outside, exposing yourself to whims of nature and the judgment of any passer-by. A balance must be struck between the private dream and its public display. While it’s not performance art, the act of art becomes an art in itself .

Then there are the physical hazards: wind, sunburn, bug bites, downpours. A muralist friend, Kim Polomka, said he was pelted with fruit while working on his latest installment in Colorado Springs. I’m sure this was a prank and not a comment on the excellent quality of the work, but, ironically, the subject of the mural is food.

We writers sit in the dark corners of wireless saturated cafes, typing and scribbling, looking out the window with our soft daydream gazes. I suppose that’s a sort of display. But the immediate results of these doings are not public. There’s always the safety net waiting below. We can rework, revise, or simply recycle.

And, yes, there’s the improvisational nature of poetry slams, jams, and jazz.

But none of these is quite as enthralling, quite as suspenseful, as watching a visual artist conjure something to life before our eyes. Why? I think it’s because our own observation becomes part of the process of creation. We participate in the movement of chalk, the splashes of paint, the running of colors.

This is reality-bending, daring, on-the-edge art. You’re walking along, minding your own business, then whoosh!, you’re confronted with a gaping hole where terra firma should be. You’re sucked in by a riptide of energy, pulled along by its inexorable current—the same current the artist is riding.

Rafting by Julian Beever

"Rafting"--sidewalk art by Julian Beever

Art en plein air is a reminder: Stop being a spectator all the time. Occasionally make yourself vulnerable to the opinions of strangers, to the elements, to free fall. Like Icarus, defy the everyday with brazen, waxen wings.

Recommended listening:

  • Kate Bush—“An Architect’s Dream,” from Sky of Honey, off the double album Aerial

Today, Antonio Vivaldi would have been 332 years old. Google is marking the occasion by giving the composer of The Four Seasons his very own doodle.

Vivaldi Googe doodle

Vivaldi Google doodle

Quite a change in fortune for a man once consigned to the dust-heap of history.

In life, the musician-priest was known for his head of red hair, his virtuosity on the violin, and his frenzied output of music, both secular & sacred. In death, he was remembered briefly as a passé composer–then forgotten.

Forgotten until the 1920s. That’s when an Italian monk found a large collection of his hand-written scores, hidden in a cabinet in a mountain monastery. This discovery initiated a Vivaldi renaissance that has culminated in The Four Seasons being appropriated by tinny hold-music and turned in to classical Muzak.

For me, Vivaldi is a figure my imagination returns to again and again. My first novel centers around him. When I began my research, the priest seemed familiar and benign on the surface, like the bucolic theme he gives the violin in the Spring movement of his most famous piece.

But dig a little deeper, wait a little longer, and what is there? Turbulence. Defiance. Melancholy. Poetry.

The nod given by the world’s most popular search engine to the Red Priest is a tad ironic: Do a Google search on him. There are millions of hits, but scant information about the man himself. From birth to death, the circumstances of Vivaldi’s life remain mysterious.

Consider:

On this day, 332 years ago, the infant Antonio needed an emergency baptism by the midwife who delivered him. He’d been born only to be in immediate danger of dying. Whether from dire illness or the consequences of an earthquake that shook Venice that day, no one can say.

Vivaldi was a prolific writer—of music, but perhaps not of letters. Only 13 missives of his have ever been identified, and they reveal precious little detail about the composer’s life.

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Rumor has it the priest was involved with a beautiful singer, Anna Girò, who accompanied him on his travels around Europe. This mezzo-soprano was given the lead in many of Vivaldi’s operas, despite the fact that she didn’t sing very well.

Vivaldi was a violin instructor at a girl’s orphanage. He was fired from this position many times, only to be hired again weeks or months later.

The composer died in Vienna, far from his beloved Venice. Nobody quite knows why he was there.

The Viennese boarding house where he died was razed. Vivaldi, once famous throughout Europe, was buried in a pauper’s grave. A grave that no longer exists.

So despite diligent research, the Red Priest remains elusive—a remote figure off in the distance, with mysterious intentions, shrouded in crimson.

Actually, that’s not such a bad thing for a fiction writer.

Happy birthday, Antonio—whoever you are.

Late February is tough on us Northerners. Granted, most of us aren’t searching the dark corners of root cellars for sustenance, groping for that last edible tuber. We’re not foraging fields and forest for scraps of firewood. And, yes, we bask in a few more minutes of sunlight each day.

Still, we eagerly gather around those who have recently returned from warmer climes. We’re drawn to them like moths to flame. These prodigal travelers are messengers of Spring: She’s wintering down south, but she’s not gone for good.

But tonight the gloom settles thicker than usual. There is no light from moon or stars. The lamps in the house are weak and dim. I could start a fire in the hearth, but that would mean going out to the wood pile, a task too monumental to contemplate. Any spark of energy I had is snuffed out by the nihilism of the cold.

A glimmer of an idea. Going for wood requires precious effort, but I have my laptop—and I have a song in my head. A long-forgotten song. A schmaltzy, heart-on-the-sleeve song. A song my grandparents and I used to listen to in the evenings, when my grandpa was sick with lung cancer.

Their little house would be snug and cozy. We’d be working on a puzzle, comforting ourselves by making order out of chaos. Michael Crawford would be on softly in the background, singing:

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Songs From Stage and Screen

This record never made it into my own collection. So tonight, the golden sky at the end of my storm is Amazon.com. I fire up the laptop, eagerly scroll through Crawford’s extensive catalog, and after many pages, there’s the familiar cover to Songs From Stage and Screen.

I smile. Michael is elegant and debonair in his intimate black-and-white portrait. Yet he’s slightly rumpled, like your worldly favorite uncle on a Sunday afternoon. You want to pull up a chair next to him and indulge in tea and sympathy.

I click the link and hunt for the MP3 download. Usually, I prefer the tactile, physical experience of a CD, complete with liner notes and annoying tape over the jewel case. But I want this music now.

To my chagrin, the digital download is unavailable. And—horror of horrors—I discover that the album is out of print. Now nihilism truly takes hold.

I flounder, mute in the cold glare of the computer screen. The quiet closes in around me. I am going to walk alone.

But now something pierces the dark night of the soul, cutting through the gloom like a beacon. It’s tremulous and bright—like light refracting off a disco ball. But it’s not a light.

It’s a vibrato.

Ah-ah-hah-hah! Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.

Seriously, is there anything on earth like Barry Gibbs’ falsetto? It’s a sound so magnificent, so absurd, it wards off evil. I go to my music shelf and put my BeeGees on. I turn it up–loud. If I had any lamé, I would don it.

Whether you’re a brother
Or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive
Stayin’ alive

It’s been a while, and I can’t remember all the words. Before my rediscovery of the BeeGees—when it was just cheesy roller-rink music—Mr. K and I would have particular fun when we heard them on the piped-in Muzak at the supermarket. We were never sure of the lyrics then either.

Instead we sang,

Wiki wiki wiki wiki
Wiki wiki wiki wiki
Stayin’ alive
Stayin’ alive

Later we joked about the futility of trying to understand the New York Times’ effect on man.

Now I picture Barry and brothers—a trio of sunny Aussies with ‘70s medallions, fluffed-out hair, and bleached teeth—singing fervently about wikis. The night doesn’t seem so dark anymore. The cold, not so biting. I will go on. I can shoulder the brunt of winter a little longer.

Thanks, Barry. Thanks, Maurice. Thanks, Robin.  Thanks for the kindling.

And, Michael, sorry, you’ll have to walk to the wood pile alone.

***

Update #1: Michael’s not exiled after all. It turns out Songs From Stage and Screen is not out of print, but reissued with a different cover. In my haste, I overlooked this. Which leads me to wonder, was it really the song  I wanted, or just old friend to keep me company?

Update #2: The BeeGees can save your life–literally.  A friend just alerted me to this.

I never really understood the use of the word iconic to describe a voice. That word is a visual one for me. But here it will have to do—it has no parallel in sound. A new installment of the All Things Considered series 50 Great Voices aired on the radio yesterday. From the opening moment, I knew who they were featuring.

Iconic. Unmistakable. Inimitable. I attach all these descriptors to the late Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Nusrat, as he is affectionately known in my household, passed away in 1997. I was fortunate enough to see him perform live, shortly before he died. But my fascination with him and the music of mystic Islam began earlier, when I picked up a CD on a whim–eons ago, when one still visited the record store.

The HMV store in Harvard Square was a haven for music. Upon entering, you passed busy check-out lines and walked through a hum of noise and commerce. You skirted the ephemera of the moment: promotional displays and cardboard cut-outs of the latest top-40 stars. Slowly, you made your way through the crowds in the Pop, Rock-and-Roll, Easy Listening, and Broadway aisles, until you got to the back of the store. There, in a quiet corner, was a door. Behind it was a room. Not just a room—a world. And not just one world, but many. You passed through that door not knowing where you would arrive. Kenya? Thailand? Argentina? Norway?

For me, one particular Saturday afternoon, it happened to be Pakistan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Devotional and Love Songs was playing over the sound system. I had just started getting into the poetry of Rumi and was drawn to anything with the exotic whiff of Sufism, so this recording was particularly au courant. But there was nothing exotic or what I once thought of as “mystic” in my first experience of those sounds. The music had a physical, even visceral, joy with its sloppy hand-claps, the buoyant ringing pongs of the tabla, Nusrat’s stirring call, and his Party’s group response. It sounded like a spontaneous, down-home, backyard jam. It grabbed me by the collar and dragged me all the way to the check-out counter.

(Nusrat later released Night Song, a collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brook. This record also holds a place of honor in my music collection, and it’s this music that wafts of complicated, exotic, “Oriental” spice.)

That initial foot-stomping response was all but forgotten a few months later when I saw Nusrat and Party at Symphony Hall in Boston–perhaps because of what I witnessed as I arrived for the concert. Near the venue’s side entrance, there was Nusrat, being helped out of a mini-van and hobbling to the door. He was morbidly obese and needed assistance walking. Seeing this great musician in a moment of vulnerability felt like stumbling upon a god in the midst of dressing.

photo by Gentlemanldn

I was still trying to get over the emotional dissonance of the mini-van scene when Nusrat took the stage. Here, he seemed comfortable. He sat on the carpet like a happy Buddha, his crossed legs making a base for his rotund chest and belly. His Party (a ragtag of younger brothers, nephews, and cousins) settled around him in a semi-circle. The lights dimmed. Nusrat’s face was serene. Someone initiated a drone on the harmonium and Nusrat opened his mouth to sing. As the notes rose, so did his hand. It hovered around his head like a fluttering bird. The Party clapped along and sang their group response. I sank back into my chair, ready to get lost in the mysticism of the music.

The people around me had other ideas. They leaped to their feet and began to participate. They clapped and sang along with the Party. I looked at them indignant. I disapproved. I seethed. I didn’t come to hear them. Where was their concert etiquette?

More people joined in the raucous display. A processional line formed and snaked through the aisles of the restrained and elegant home of the BSO. Men whirled. Women waved bright scarves in a blur of color. Spectators on the balconies stomped in unison to the beat of the tabla. Nusrat was entranced by the music, while the Party sweated to keep up with his heightening pace. I remained seated, inert, bewildered by the unfolding scene.

The Hall began to shake. I watched the chandelier rattle above my head and thought the ceiling was going to collapse. So did a little man in a suit, who came onstage to tell Nusrat to tone it down. But the music was a runaway train. It propelled onward—ever faster and with more fervored pitch.

Then, the uniforms arrived. There were protests from the audience as the Boston Police lined the perimeter of the Hall, but Nusrat kept singing. The cops held back at the edges, wary of taking the tail of the tiger. They simply watched, as bewildered as I was. In the middle of a song, the little man returned to stage, now with three officials. He bent low to speak in the singer’s ear, breaking his trance and disrupting the music. There was a collective gasp as Nusrat was “helped” to his feet and escorted off stage. As he was leaving, he seemed to tell us that everything was all right; the faraway look in his eyes was betrayed by a small mischievous wink. Or was that my imagination?

I can’t recall if this incident made the local news back in 1995. Post-9/11, it would certainly be a headline: PAKISTANI SINGER’S CONCERT SHUT DOWN BY BOSTON POLICE.

Yesterday, I was reminded of that night. I found myself wishing I’d had the presence of mind, of body, of spirit, to have shaken the chandelier at Symphony Hall, too.  We tend to think of mysticism as a pristine and silent affair of the soul. But such moments of spiritual rapture can also happen in public, with the full participation of tingling hands, hoarse voice, and a sweat-drenched body. My younger self knew this for a moment at the record store, then forgot it: Some music simply requires you to move, even if—especially if—it is made for, and with, the divine. (Eddie Izzard hits this particular nail on the head in his bit on the Anglican Church and singing in Dressed to Kill.)

So yesterday, when I heard the opening of Devotional and Love Songs on the radio, I sang “Allah Hoo” right along with Nusrat and Party. I slapped the steering wheel in time with the tabla. I danced in my seat, even while stuck in traffic on a mundane late winter afternoon.