As I left the house and stepped into the balmy air that was tingling with the announcement of rain, I felt at that moment that I wanted to live always outdoors.
To be forever in the presence of that mysterious creature, Nature.
She who is the source and the sum of all life.
I want to be there when she changes, especially in the evening.
I want to hear her music and her racket.
I want to see her wrath and her calm.
I want to be aware of her chaos morphing silently.
In her mystery I feel at home.
I was thinking the other day about the meaning of words. I’m in the middle of reading a rather old tale: the English version of The Count of Monte Cristo published in 1844. Because the book is old, and certain words are preserved in their native French or Italian, I have to look up the definitions of words now and then. I realized that words and their meanings are malleable, inconcrete things.
When you look up a word in the dictionary, a lot of times there is more than one definition listed, and these are listed for you (1, 2, 3…) so you can quickly find the meaning that applies to your situation. So words can have various shades of meaning. Through time and use, the meaning of certain words gets nudged in different directions depending on how people choose to use them. So words change as people change. They are not, as I have often thought of them, inscribed in stone since the beginning of time, with definite definitions. I guess my brain tends to think of them that way because I like categorizing things. I like languages because they adhere to a grammar; because they follow ordered systems that can be learned and memorized. My left brain adores this dependable structure of language, and I’ve always absorbed the definitions of words easily into my memory. Yet words are far from being concrete. Words are nothing more than empty symbols until people prescribe meaning to them, and these meanings can be as nuanced as people’s feelings. Words are our imperfect attempt to describe sensations that defy categorization.
And this brings me to the topic of genres in music. I’m not alone in my love of categorizing things. As people we like to categorize our art into so-called genres, and these genres are really just words we use to refer to an artificial grouping of things. When we talk about rock or jazz music, for example, we are using a simple four-letter word to contain what is really a vast history too complex to fit into such an absurdly small box. When we talk about rock, we’re referring to a roughly century-long tradition in music history that involves, well, a guitar. But a guitar is pretty much the only thing that rock musicians share in common. Every other aspect about their music can be widely different. What we try to do with music genres is take every individual musician that pertains to a particular style, at least to some degree, and shove them in a box and put a one-word label on it. But if we open the box and take a good look at the artists inside, we discover a world of differences between them.
In my last post I reviewed Seth Chapla’s music, which is a kind of instrumental rock. His style reminded me of Steve Vai, and Steve Vai was taught by Joe Satriani. There is a clear connection between the three musicians as you travel backward in time. But the connection is only clear because their style is singular and hasn’t been copied a thousand times by other musicians. And they are all fairly contemporary. One night I went even further down that path of music history. I found that Joe Satriani (born 1956) was influenced by Jeff Beck, the English guitarist who played with The Yardbirds (born 1944), and he in turn cited Les Paul as an influence (born 1915 in America), and from there I landed on Rosetta Tharpe, a black gospel singer from Alabama who played an electric guitar like nobody’s business, and who clearly made an impact on Elvis and probably a whole generation of musicians who picked up an electric guitar in the 50’s and 60’s and created what we now think of when we say “rock music.” I watched a great documentary about Rosetta, and it was great because she has a sensational biography. I highly recommend it. She blew me away because I had never heard of her. And I’m American and listen to a lot of rock music! Check out this great video of her playing “Didn’t It Rain” at a train station.
What’s also interesting is that she was never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How can the curators of rock history not recognize that this rockin’ gal deserves a place in its annals?
Take any of the guitarists I mentioned above, and you will find that all of them play a different style of music. And you’ll find that they were influenced by not one musician, who was also unique in his/her own way, but many. So we can forget about the term “rock.” How can we really come up with a word that sums up a musician’s style when they are expressing themselves from the heart? I endeavored to learn about the history of rock music, but when I dug into it, I found that there was simply music. Genres are not particularly useful except to give a vague gesture toward a trend in music history, but in reality there are just people making music. We can’t create a word for what they create. But we can talk about how we feel when we hear it, and if we talk from the heart, then we are saying words that have meaning.
Sunrise in Victoria, British Columbia. June, 2014.
One morning I saw a ship burning in the sky. I looked up and there it was. Crimson flames engulfing it, black smoke billowing out around its sides. The ship was still sailing, slow and smooth, a dying monstrosity. It looked like it was moving in slow motion, like a giant crashing to earth after receiving a fatal blow. It was a sight that caught my breath.
The ship was, in fact, a cloud that I glimpsed at sunrise over the bay. I had climbed the ridge at dawn, inspired by the first light in the east where the sky was ablaze with fierce pinks and purples. Upon the ridge, I sat on a bench where there is a 360° view of the bay. I felt like I was at the center of an unfolding drama. A breeze carried dark clouds off the hills at my back and into the sea, and the clouds hid the sun as it rose over the wild and rugged Eastbourne slopes in the distance. For over an hour I sat there, shivering in my t-shirt despite the unusual warmth at that early hour, hoping to catch sight of the sun through the clouds and all the while guessing at its position. That was when I saw it. The clouds parted for an instant to make a window in the middle of the sky, and through that window I saw a cloud on fire, its edges glowing fiercely as they were touched by an unseen sun. Those glowing edges shone so brightly in comparison to the dull grey light in the bay. A few seconds later, the window closed. The sky would be cloudy for the rest of the morning. I realized I was the only person to have seen a magnificent sight: what looked like a burning ship in its final hour. read more
I was slightly reluctant to stop at No. 8 Recyclers on my way home from dropping Florian off at work that morning, but as I saw it approaching on my right, I resigned myself to forge ahead with the plan, and pulled over across the street. It was an overcast day, which gave me pause. I’m always conscious of the weather when I’m contemplating a bold move. If the weather is favorable, it gives me a feeling of good luck. Good weather makes people more agreeable, too. Maybe the weather wasn’t quite right today. Or maybe I was just trying to use it as an excuse.
I went inside. I didn’t see the old man at the desk when I entered, so in order to justify my arrival to no one in particular, I turned to browse a rack of terracotta pots on my right. Well, if the old man wasn’t there, I might as well poke around and see if I could find something to make my visit worthwhile. Some might call this secondhand warehouse a junkyard; others might call it a treasure trove. It made me feel like I was inside the hull of a big wooden ship that had washed ashore in Lyall Bay. It was bigger than a barn, and full of undiscovered gems. Sure, everything was covered in a thick layer of grime and grease and dust, but that didn’t deter the true treasure hunter.
The more I went there, the more intrigued I became. I lost myself in those tall aisles, rummaging through containers of assorted nails, screws, bolts, buckets of hinges, doorknobs, rusty handsaws missing teeth, shelves of candelabras and rotary phones, a bin of dusty burlap bags next to a stack of old picture frames. Opposite this mess, the other side of the building was carefully lined with beautiful old French doors and windows of every style. There were big back doors that opened onto a timber yard, allowing a breeze to waft through the dusty high-ceilinged cave. read more
It’s a sunny morning and I’m seated outside as usual with a cup of tea, a boule of bread baking in the oven. I had enough wine last night to give me a very slight hangover, and now I’m nursing it with the tea, a banana, and sunshine. It was a Bordeaux; a birthday Bordeaux. Florian had looked up the best French chef in Wellington, winner of competitions, and found his little restaurant called Jano.
Jano Bistro in Wellington, New Zealand
As we approached by night, it barely looked like a place of business. It was a petite little cottage with a pointed roof and warm yellow light spilling out its windows onto a covered front porch. The signage was understated.
“Florian?” The hostess glanced up from the reservation and welcomed us with a warm smile. She took our coats, then led us up a narrow set of stairs to the second floor. There we found wooden floors and private booths. The room was well lit, but the light was gentle, and so were the colors it caressed. A brick chimney added a rustic feeling. read more
Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.
Erik Larson’s prologue well captures the spirit of this tale. His words are a better introduction than I could hope to write in order to inspire any would-be readers. Though it reads like a novel, this is a book of history that immerses the reader in a time and place long forgotten. It tells in parallel the biography of two fascinating, ambitious, and clever men: the architect Daniel Burnham and a psychopathic killer who went by the alias H. H. Holmes, among many others.
The author clarifies straight away that this is not a book of fiction. Anything appearing between quotation marks comes from an original letter or document. The bibliography is extensive, indicating that this book probably required years of research. He goes into some detail in the epilogue about his in-depth search for original sources. It’s worthwhile to acknowledge Larson’s devotion to the facts, because the story told is one that amazes and confounds. read more