Music is More Feeling than Sound

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Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

From “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens.

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound
And thus it is that what I feel
Here in this room, desiring you

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Is music.

Time and again, I’ve found that something I’ve felt and have tried to articulate has already been beautifully captured in one of Stevens’ poems. My last blog post on music touched upon this, the sense that music is more feeling than sound–the way you feel as you play and the music moves through you,  and the way you feel as you listen to and are played upon by the music.

This poem is more about desire than music or feeling, however, or perhaps more about how desire plays out on a palette of color and sounds and rhythms. Stevens has been called a “musical imagist,” but he also notes the close correspondence between poetry and painting. In particular he’s known for his idea of the “Supreme Fiction”–how the mind/imagination “creates” reality.

When you read the poem posted in full below, you may not fully understand or appreciate all it implies as it references Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream and relates the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders). But the feeling of the images–the sounds of the words and the colors and shapes of the images as they sweep through your mind–is dreamlike and moving in a way that speaks to some truth that lies just below consciousness. As dreams often do.

Music is like that too. We feel its “truth” although we may not be able to articulate it.

There’s a new book out called “The Jazz of Physics” by Dr. Stephon Alexander. He writes about how the structure of the universe is like a musical composition, both arising from a “pattern of vibration.” I haven’t read the book yet but a review in the New York Times by Dan Tepfer concludes with this quote: “[T]he reason why music has the ability to move us so deeply is that it is an auditory allusion to our basic connection to the universe.” Tepfer sums up: “This not only feels true; it is what musicians live for.”

Dr. Alexander may be on to something. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible refers to the creation of the universe as “when the morning stars first sang together.”

We humans have been alluding to a powerful connection between music and the universe for a long, long time. Is it any wonder we feel music more deeply than sound?

Stevens’ poem in full.

Peter Quince at the Clavier
I
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

II
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned–
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.

III
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines,
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

IV
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives,
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of Winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scrapings.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

 

Primary Wonder, Age Three

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Primary Wonder, Age Three

Walking with our granddaughter
Whispering and waving
Our wings
Sniffing for bats.

What do you smell grandma?
Trees
What do you smell grandpa?
Clouds

by Deborah J. Brasket

Inspired from a backyard outing with our granddaughter after re-reading this poem by Denise Levertov.

Primary Wonder

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

by Denise Levertov

Learning to Play (Again)

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piano-801707_960_720I played piano as a girl and always regretted giving it up. Lately the thought that I may never play again, never again experience the pure pleasure of music playing out through my finger tips onto the keys–to lose that forever– seemed too sad to bear. So I bought myself an electronic piano, something I could set out on my dining room table to play.

Nothing so romantic as a baby grand–but it has the touch and feel of the real thing. I can close my eyes and listen and imagine that heavy-breathing instrument bowing beneath my body as I play it.

The music I want to play is the kind that sweeps you away–Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven . . . . What I yearn for, and seem to remember, is the kind of playing where body and music meld, where the notes sway through my body and spill out on the keyboard, like some lover I’m caressing. A musical love-making.

Of course, it’s a fantasy. I never played so well as a child, and I can’t imagine that the clumsy relearning I’m now experiencing will ever evolve into that. And yet I seem to “remember” something like this happening as a child when I played, perhaps at some rare moment when it all came together immensely well.

How my fingers, my whole body, knew where to go without thinking, without reading the notes. How it was almost as if the music was playing me, and I’m as much its instrument as is the piano. Or even more, as if we were playing each other–the score, my body, the piano–all playing together in unison, to create this “thing” we’ve become.

I don’t know if concert pianists feel this way about their music-making, if this is a memory of how it can be, or just some intense pleasure-making I’ve imagined when listening to some music that moves me, when I feel it flowing through me as if I were part of it, or it part of me.

And so I’m learning to play again, in this very painful, clumsy, halting way that all beginners experience, even those who once played before. Yet it’s still a thrill, touching fingers to keys, hearing the sound it makes vibrate through me.  I know I may never play so well in reality as I play in my mind/memory/imagination, but then I don’t have to. I already have it. That experience. I’m already “it.”

This patient, clumsy practice is just the homage I pay to what could be, and to the tremendous hard work needed to reach that point of perfection. Playing well is a rigorous undertaking. And the outcome of all that practice is not guaranteed.

But this thing I’ve heard and experienced when listening to the music of those who have reached this pinnacle, makes me want to at least attempt to master some measure of that kind of music-making. I want to practice enough to feel at some point the table turn, and my fingers become the mute instrument of the music at play.

Do you play a musical instrument? Does it play you?

Nothing Is Holier than a Beautiful, Strong Tree

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Recently a woman sent me a message on Facebook, commenting on my cover photo of the “glorious” tree roots intricately woven around rocks. She wondered where I found the photo. I told her I came upon the tree when hiking along a river in the mountains above Big Sur. Something about the tree and its rootedness arrested me, and inspired me so much I use it on several of my online sites. It’s gratifying that others are inspired by it as I have been. But trees have been an inspiration for artists and philosophers throughout the ages.

Recently I came across this quote from Hermann Hesse, the author of Siddhartha, on Zen Flash.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone.

They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree…

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

~Hermann Hesse

The line I love most is how “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.” And that is “exemplary” as Hesse notes and denotes a kind of holiness, to  remind us all of the need to be true to ourselves, to find our singular purpose in being and struggle with all the force of our lives to fulfill it, regardless of whether anyone takes note of it or us at all.

That tree found growing along the bank of that creek may have gone unseen, unappreciated by human eyes, its entire lifespan, and yet it would have fulfilled its purpose nonetheless. That is its great strength, the thing that makes it exemplary, and holy. Simply being what one was meant to be suffices. Nothing else is needed.

Having said that, here’s a paradox: The tree cannot fulfill itself alone. It is dependent upon its entire environment to fulfill its purpose. Those stones that probably felt like such an obstacle when it was striving to grow from a sapling to a mighty oak is what helped shape it and distinguish it and perhaps even strengthen it. It is what drew me to the tree.

I found in it something almost indescribably beautiful and inspiring, how it used the very stones that blocked its roots to build a firm foundations, and how it in turn become the foundation of new growth, creating a home for the ivy and moss and lichens that grow upon it, giving shelter to the small animals and insects that burrow beneath. It exemplifies that interdependence by which we all live and shows how strength and vulnerability grow hand in hand to create beautiful lives. 

Here are a few more faces of this lovely tree.

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Other posts on trees you might like:

Walking in a Green Wonderland

My Roman Oaks

Endless Emerging Forms — Fog, Mist, and Trees

Learning What’s Needed to Be Healed

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Wikipedia Commons Mother_and_Child_-_Mary_Cassatt

I found this quotation at Zen Flash, and realized it’s just what I needed to hear.

Nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. Perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. Maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now, and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.

~ Pema Chodron ~

Maybe it’s what all of us need to hear when troubling things keep popping up over and over again in our lives. They come for a reason, because we have something yet to learn.

I wrote in my blog post about major life changes how I put writing on hold to raise my children without the frustration that comes with constant interruptions. It seemed like the wise and selfless thing to do at the time, to wait until they were grown to write. Now I wonder. Especially since confronted with the same dilemma so many years later as I help raise my granddaughter.

Maybe what I need to learn is not to be “selfless” in putting aside the writing, but to examine why I feel such frustration at being interrupted, or why I feel I need uninterrupted time to write, or why I am so easily distracted? Or, contrarywise, why I feel writing is so important–some “sacred” task I must nurture in peaceful silence?

I don’t know the answer yet–what I have still to learn from this experience. But I want to examine it more closely, as Chodron advises:

Where am I separating myself from reality?

How am I pulling back instead of opening up?

How am I closing down rather than allowing myself to experience fully what I am encountering, without hesitation or retreating into myself?

What’s more, I find myself revisiting my relationship with my own children when they were young as I wrote about in my last blog post, looking at it through this new lens of raising a grandchild, as if there is something that needs re-examining? What is it I need to learn and set right? Or learn and let go?

Just yesterday a new hurt arose that echoed an old one from a year ago. This time I recognized immediately how here again was something repeating itself and challenging me to ask what I need to learn. And so I did ask, and learn. And the hurt melted away.

Why do we allow ourselves to be blindsided by these troubling repetitions, to think, oh no, here it is again, and suffer needlessly? Instead of seeing how they come to help us learn what’s needed, and be healed.

Living on the Edge of the Ghostly and Unexplained

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man in a dark forestThere’s so much in this world that surrounds us that we can hardly fathom, let alone explain. We keep bumping up against it, like looking into a mirror and seeing ghostly shapes of things all around us that are invisible in our daily lives. Are they real, or imagined, or do they dwell within the dark matter of the universe that haunts our psychic and scientific minds? Or if, as some say, all is consciousness, then are we merely peeking into the dark corners of our own inner space?

So much of what this blog is about is exploring those spaces, those ghostly, ethereal presences that lie all around us, some beautiful and serene, some dark and scary, some transcendent and awe-inspiring.

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of blogs about my experiences with some of those ghostly presences, the kinds that, if we are lucky, enter our homes only in costume on Halloween, when we make light of our darker fears. If only we could contain them there. Alas, we are not all so lucky.

Climb under the covers with me if you dare, and peek out into my own dreadful unknown. If you’ve had similar brushes with ghostly presences, I’d love to hear about them.

You can read the full series of true ghost stories at the links below.

The Face of Bliss, While Swimming

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DSCN0713Have you ever seen a more contented face? What is it about children and water that mixes together with such ease and delight?

I haven’t been posting lately,since my son and his two-year-old daughter have come to live with us. But I have spent a lot of time in our pool. When we first took our granddaughter swimming two months ago, she fell in love with the water. She was using a floatie then because she couldn’t swim. But now, two months later, she dives in head-first and swims across the pool and back all by herself (no floatie!). She does little twirling, acrobatic tricks that she makes up by herself, and she sings songs while floating on her back.

What she loves most of all is swimming under the water and diving deep to touch the bottom of the pool. She thinks she’s a mermaid–and so do we.

She’s absolutely fearless when she’s in the water, like it’s her natural element. And maybe that’s how it feels to her, so soon from the watery womb where she first swam. The look on her face when she swims is pure bliss–as I captured in the cover photo when she was still using the floatie.

I so relate to that look. I’m not the natural swimmer she is. And I’m far from being fearless in the water. But I spent a great deal of time on and under the ocean when we were sailing around the world. I spent hours every morning snorkeling with my daughter, foraging for food (rock scallops, mostly), while my husband and son went spear fishing. I felt at home in the water then, and I still do when swimming laps in our pool. There’s something about being suspended in that embracing space that feels like heaven on earth.

The passage below captures better than I can that sense of being so at home in the water:

When we swim we shed our higher consciousness, the complex, reasoning human organism, and remember, deep inside ourselves, the first oceanic living cell; we almost become our origins. Whether in lake, ocean, or pool, there comes that moment when the world of our ordinary preoccupations washes away and we sink into a meditative state where the instinctual, intuitive, subconscious mind can tell us what we need to know.

In the world of water, we become aware of our skin, of the body’s limits and definitions, while we are simultaneously wrapped in an element so familiar, so delightful, sensual that we feel we have come home.

—From Splash! Great Writing About Swimming by Laurel Blossom

I’m glad my granddaughter discovered the bliss of swimming early in life. I hope she never loses it.

Other water and swimming-related posts you might enjoy:

The Wildness of Water

Swimming Among the Stars

Water Holes in the Wild and Backyard

Peace in the Midst of Chaos

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11011995_10207524310489835_6784827811432251936_oIs it possible to find peace in the midst of chaos? An early Chinese poet asks and answers this question.

To build a house in the world of man

And not to hear the noise of horse and carriage,

How can this be done?

When the mind is detached, the place is quiet.

I gather chrysanthemums under the eastern hedgerow

And silently gaze at the southern mountains.

The mountain air is beautiful in the sunset,

And the birds flocking together return home.

In all these things there is a real meaning,

Yet when I want to express it, I become lost in no-words.

By T’ao Ch’ien from Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry by Chang Chung-yuan

“When the mind is detached”–how do we do that? How can I let go of wanting things to be the way I want them, of striving to make things the way I feel they should be instead of the way they are? And let go of all the frustration and upset that accompanies that struggle?

Yet underneath all that turmoil, when I let go and become lost in the “no-words” of “what is”, I experience that peace.

A deep calm underlies the surface struggle.

Just reading this poem brings me a measure of relief and the assurance that I too can find peace in the midst of chaos.

Where else is it to be sought or found?

Into the Flow, Bringing the Mountain Top into Market Place

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IMG_0308Have you ever felt being in the flow of things? That optimum experience that many athletes and artists feel when time disappears and everything you are doing just seems to click effortlessly into place?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has written extensively on flow, calls it “an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness” in which you “become, at least temporarily, part of a larger entity” or even “at one with the harmony of the cosmos.”

I’ve experienced this a few times for extended periods, but most often only for brief moments. The type of flow usually comes after long periods of meditation, usually when I’m outside, immersed in nature, when thoughts cease and sights and sounds flow through me. “Mountain-top” moments you might call them. But occasionally, more rarely, they happen in the “market place,” unexpectedly, in the middle of a busy day. I love it when that happens.

Anchored in MooreaThe first extended period of this came when we were sailing in the South Pacific. We were anchored in a cove off Tahiti and I went ashore to do some shopping.

I felt unusually light-headed, as if walking on air, or as if some filter called “me” had disappeared, and all that was left was this crystal clear awareness taking in everything and everyone I met—that “not-two” feeling I mentioned at the end of my last post on ‘Lightness of Being.” That sense stayed with me during the bus ride to Papeete and slowly dissipated as I went about my shopping.

I wrote a poem about the experience when I returned home, focusing on the bus ride. When sitting in the open-sided bus looking out at the passing landscape that sense of “flow” was especially intense.

On a Bus to Papeete

Wind through the window
Streaming through my hair

I in my stillness
Hurtling through the air

Trees and grasses and roads bending
Faces with flowers and houses blending

Objects like petals on a dark stream,
streaming through me, leave me

Clean and empty as a hollow reed, still
faintly tingling with the rhapsody of being.

It happened another time when we had returned home from our voyage and I was working as a manager of a small popular family restaurant. It was Sunday morning and we were slammed. Folks were lined up out the door waiting to be seated. The hostess was going crazy trying to keep up with the demand, scribbling down names and crossing them off, leading couples and families to tables, bringing out highchairs and crayons and coloring books, taking out trays of water.

The waitresses were buzzing around the room taking orders, pouring drinks, balancing up to six plates at a time in their arms. The poor busboys were clearing tables as fast as they could, wiping them down, hauling cartloads of dishes back to the kitchen. Things were at a fever high pitch of frantic in the back of the house too, as cooks called out orders, slapped slabs of bacon and sausage on the griddle, flipped pancakes, whisked eggs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I was everywhere at once, making the rounds, helping out as I moved along, taking around coffee, refilling cups, chatting up the guests, helping to clear tables and seat people, checking up on missing orders, lending a hand to the stack of avocados that needed peeling to make up a new batch of guacamole.

Everywhere at once, acutely attuned to what was needed in the moment and filling in the gap, just streaming along, light-headed, calm, exuberant, being all things at once and nothing at all, just letting the ebb and flow of activity move me along, marveling even while in the midst of it, at how natural, spontaneous, hyper-aware, hyper-alive I felt.

It lasted all morning and well into the early afternoon. Then as the stream of guests faded, and the restaurant began to empty, so did the “high,” that sense of flow, and I was gently landed back on the ground again, normal me, but not a bit tired and still very happy.

Scenic003Now most of the time I feel I’m being carried along mid-stream, not “in the flow” at the center as I was then, but skirting it, somewhere between the flow and the swirling eddies at the edge of the stream. It’s a pleasant place to be, knowing the “flow” is right there beside me, ready to whisk me away again when I’m ready and things are just right.

But happy too that I’m avoiding for the most part those pesky eddies that try to pull me away into the shallows—-those petty, tiresome swirls, and fearful spins, and down-spouts of grief and anger that are always there, ready to pull me under and upside-down when they can. Usually I am able to scramble free easier than I have in the past, knowing that whatever trouble in the world they represent is more easily solved when I’m not tumbling around in the turmoil.

Mostly it’s a balancing act, trying to bring those mountaintop moments into the marketplace and finding myself somewhere in between. Not an unpleasant place to be.

[First posted this in May 2013 under a slightly different title. Things are rather chaotic in my life right now and I found this post a soothing reminder. Still seeking to bring those mountain-top experiences down into the market-place.]

Hot Hills in Summer Heat, Revised

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“I watch them every summer, the hot hills crouched like a lion beside the road, tawny skin pulled taut across long, lean ribs. I would take my hand and trace round ripples of male muscle, feel the hot rise and cool dip of his body. . . .”

So begins a poem I wrote years ago as a young woman driving along the Central Coast of California on my way to class at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo.  I loved the commute along highway 101, especially that stretch between Pismo and Avila with the golden rolling hills studded with oak groves towering up beside me on one side, while on the other side lay the Pacific Ocean, cool and shimmering,  far below.

My commute was a kind of communion with silent companions that lay still and passive while I moved past them, watching them fervently. I traveled with my hands stretched out, tracing the changing contours of the passing landscape with my fingers. I felt the silky coolness of the sea, the soft brush of the hot hills– physically, intimately, intensely. And I felt as if I was leaving part of myself behind as I streamed past them

It was an overwhelming feeling, permeated by a sense of longing and loss, because that sense of connection, of “oneness,” I felt so keenly, was so fleeting.  A waft of perfume, a balmy breeze, that slowly dissipates and disappeared.Photo DBrasket Fleeting Rose

Knowing this, sometimes my watching was like a spurned lover or jealous mistress. Sometimes like a distant voyeur, or persistent suitor, watching and waiting, watching and waiting.  Waiting for that moment, as my poem concludes, when the lion so still and silent beside me would “rise, stretch his sensuous body against the sky with one low moan” and “pursue me”.

Pursue and devour, was the unstated implication.  “Swallow me whole” is the metaphor that comes to mind these days—consummation.

All that waiting paid off, it appears.  My relationship with the natural world has matured over the years. How I remember so long ago watching the streaming stars passing overhead on those hot, balmy nights, and being filled with a deep sense of longing and loss.  This too must pass, I thought, and it was almost unbearable.  But no more.

Photo DBrasket Moon RisingNow when I say goodnight to the stars before going to bed–the nights hot and balmy or crystal clear and cold–there’s no sense of longing. When I turn away toward the house nothing is lost. It’s all a part of me now.  A sustaining presence.

And the passing days and nights, that sense of fleetingness that the poets have mourned over the ages, is “a dark stream streaming through me,” as I write in another poem.  It’s all one, the stream and the streaming.  It always was.

For those curious, here’s the complete poem I quoted earlier, written so long ago and recently revised.

 

Hot Hills in Summer Heat

I watch them every summer, the hot hills

Crouched like a lion beside the road,

Tawny skin pulled taut across

Long, lean ribs.

 

I would take my hand and trace

Round ripples of male muscle,

Feel the hot rise and cool dip

of his body.

 

I see the arrogance—rocky head held

High against a blazing sky, the patient

Power unmindful of the heat

that holds me.

 

One day he will rise, stretch his sensuous

Body against the sky with one, low moan.

On silent paws he will pursue me.

And so I wait.

[I first posted this in September 2012 with the original version of the poem. This post features the revised draft. It’s a work in progress, as all things are, it seems.]

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