Tag Archives: music

Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Current Resident

radioWe are rocketing up the highway, driving as fast as our voices are loud, singing at the top of our lungs. (Why does no one ever sing at the bottom of their lungs? Don’t they contain air, too?) The songs we are singing are, maybe, ten years old (although, the way time and our minds are racing from us, like a tsunami down a steep slope, the songs might actually be 20 years old … or older), yet we know all the words, or most of the words, or, more accurately, all the vowel sounds – within the span of three minutes, the words “my pledge of love” come out different each time we warble them. We hit the high-note ending, pointing our fingers at whatever audience we think we are performing for (they adore us, they are undressing us with their ears), and then it is over, satisfyingly throat-ravaging, invigorating and youth-ifying.

The deejay intrudes, makes sure to tell us his patently fabricated name, and the call letters of the station, and the information that this obviously Podunk, 4-watt operation emanating from somewhere near a mountain and a swamp is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.” What follows, then, is what begins to turn into about 8 minutes of strung-together 20-second spots, so we hit the scan button – no, no, maybe … no, absolutely not … and then yes, something we know, and we’re off again, howling to the adult-contemporary moon. Then another deejay with the same voice as the previous one, maybe even the same name, and the same speech-pattern and shtick, time, weather, the kind of call-letters that start with B or Q and end in numbers … and he informs us that where he is broadcasting from is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.”  And we wonder: Rock ‘n’ roll has two homes, and in this flyover mudsplat corner of the world?

Over the course of the next hour, and several dozen impatient and severely judgmental excursions up and down the radio dial (it’s actually digital, but, come on, we still “dial” the phone, don’t we?) we receive signals from no less than three other homes of rock ‘n’ roll. We are puzzled: Just how many homes does rock ‘n’ roll have? How many does it need? I mean, OK, one in New York, another in Los Angeles, maybe a place in Nashville, a pad in London and, of course, one in the Caymans to hide the money and be close enough to Turks and Caicos to party with Keith. (And, sorry, Cleveland but, hall of fame or no, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t consider you home. Ever.) But, really: Seven homes within 60 miles in the middle of nowhere? Isn’t that just a little bit strange … and piggy? And whatever happened to rock ‘n’ roll’s tradition? Crashing in other people’s pads, or in the back of cars after a gig where it didn’t get paid, or in a corner of a bus station – when did rock ‘n‘ roll get to be Donald Trump?

All those homes – consider the mortgages. The utility bills (rock ‘n‘ roll tends to leave the lights on at night, because it passes out before it has a chance to flick them off). The  lawn-mowing. The pizza deliveries – you could go broke on the tips alone. Trying to remember all the ZIP codes. Imagine the key ring rock ‘n’ roll has to carry around – you’d need a roadie just to lift it. And when rock ‘n’ roll sings “home, where my love lies waiting silently for me” – well, which home? Which love? Although, if there’s a love lying waiting for rock ‘n’ roll at every one of its homes, one can begin to understand the attraction of getting into that business.

And what does rock ‘n’ roll’s home look like? Split level? A nice two-story Cape? And what do rock ‘n’ roll’s rooms look like? Shag rugs? Posters on the wall? Black light? Is it something cool and clean and classy – someplace with museum-quality furniture that Sting might lay his lute on? Or did Keith Moon get to it, and that cool air we feel on our necks is coming from the broken windows and the punched hole in the wall? We can imagine the bedroom (there’s a love lying silently there … on sheets that haven’t been changed since who knows when), but let‘s not try to picture the bathroom, if you don’t mind. Or the kitchen. Maybe rock ‘n‘ roll’s homes have gardens, and one need not stretch to envision what is growing in it. Or, now that rock ‘n‘ roll has attained the level of filthy rich respectability, maybe some of the homes have a cool Mitt Romney-ish Republican reserve to them, or a Downton Abbey-like elitism that befits an art form approaching its reminiscence-filled dotage.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a lousy host, though. We have invited it into our home for years, but have we once gotten an invitation over to its place? We would be happy to come over to any of the homes, at any time, thrilled to lie waiting for it … but, since we know all the words, or at least the vowel sounds, it wouldn’t be silently.

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Singing to the Sun

Since about a hundred years ago, with the formation of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the offshoot Maverick Art Colony’s performance festivals, the eastern Catskills have been resounding with art and music. In the 1960s, the folk and rock scene gathered for Sound-Outs, concerts presented on a farmer’s land situated between Saugerties and Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. This musical staging style built to a crescendo in 1969 when the Woodstock Festival’s organizers decided to put together a blowout musical happening that echoed throughout the land. It still does, decades later. But it never happened in Woodstock. What did happen, though, was that it drew musicians to this place, to share and play in a nurturing environment, surrounded by sensuous natural beauty. Many of those early musicians stayed and made their homes in the Catskills. The history of this place is rich in the arts, as rich as in its soil, water resources and contoured mountains.


Currently, there is a decadelong tradition of some of these young upstart musicians, now gray of beard, getting together annually to jam and entertain themselves and the crowd, for the purpose of coaxing or welcoming the sun at the winter solstice. If I were the sun, I would be readily recalled by these true artists-in-residence. The quantity of talent that gathers on the stage each year is a bit of a crowd, and you can’t help but wonder how they will avoid stomping on each other’s musical toes. Happy Traum & Friends: Happy, once part of a folk duo with his brother Artie, is the dynamo who puts this event together; John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful – who performed at the 1969 concert and is as fresh today; Larry Campbell, a musical machine (just hand him any instrument and watch him make it sing) with a track record that reads like a Who’s Who of rock, country and pop music;  Amy Helm, daughter of Woodstock’s own Levon, but a musician in her own right as co-founder of Ollabelle; Teresa Williams, a powerful country singer; and guests Paul Rishell & Annie Raines – two musical blues magicians, he on guitar, she on harmonica.

Rishell & Raines

The performers are so comfortable in the venue and in their abilities that there is a special casual give and take that occurs, and we the audience are privy to it. There is no fourth wall here. Just some neighbors, gathered together to be amazed and amused. The sounds are beautiful. The musicians are pros, but there are no airs, no pretense of them being there as paid pipers playing. Their faces tell us that they are enjoying this annual event as much as we are, and relishing the interaction with each other. It is a thing to behold. And the music, always at a high level, can overwhelm you with its emotional content and real feeling, like shockwaves bouncing through the auditorium. You are completely in the moment and the music fills you as you disappear into the sound. Arslocii.

The night and the performances are intertwined, just as are the multitude of guitars and voices. These musicians breathe music, it exudes from their pores. There is nothing contrived, no trickery. Just music, flowing in through your ears, hovering like a puffy cloud around your brain, teasing and fleeing, diving down into your toes, then soaring back up into your lungs and filling them to the point of gasping, and settling around your heart – the place where the sound will reside forever … or at least until the next year’s concert. This special musical event is the return of the light just at the darkest moment, when you need it the most. It is the alchemy of turning sound into light.

Solstice Concert

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Nesters, Empty and Otherwise

Consider the robin.

It is, at least in these parts, common, ubiquitous and typical, except for that famous red underbelly. It is small, and it weighs only a few ounces, except, maybe, for those chunky, bulbous redbreasts you see every now and then who look like they’ve traded in their diet of invertebrates for a Krispy Kremes binge.


It is not awe-inspiring to view a robin, the way it is to spy an eagle or a hawk, but it is always nice to see one on your lawn – it means that spring must be near, or that summer’s still with us, and that the ground must be nicely worm-aerated. More snazzy than a sparrow, less showy than a cardinal, it’s a fine avian neighbor, and an urban pleasure.

But, now, consider the robin’s nest.

We’ve had the opportunity to do so recently. Here’s a photo of one of them:

Beyond its surface beauty, it is perfect, not only as an object but for its function; a human craftsperson would kill to be able to blend together all the disparate twigs and string and mud and end up with a gorgeous basket of such lovely proportions of width to length to depth while creating the illusion of smoothness and motion. And robins do it without hands – you go and try making one of these with just a beak and a couple of three-toed feet. And then, once the raison d’etre for the whole shebang – little robins – are hatched and all have flown away, this awe-inspiring bit of work is abandoned, left only for us to admire, and for the elements to ultimately disassemble. Place created, place appreciated, place left for discovery, place left to mutate and disappear. Arslocii.

But – and here begins the questions-without-answers portion of today’s sermon – is it art? If the robin has not entered into this project with the thought of creating a work of art – and, to complicate matters, we don’t know that it hasn’t, but let’s say it hasn’t – can it be classified as a work of art, as much as it seems to us to be art? Is intention a necessary element of art? Or is the determination up to the perceiver alone? Is a spider’s web art? If not art, then “artful”? Or does there have to be intent for something to be “artful”? (And, then again, of course, we can’t know that the spider isn’t loaded with intent, and even artistic analysis.)

Then, we have to ask: Does it matter? Does it really matter to anyone but an artist who needs identification and validation and aggrandizement, that what has been created is art? Does the robin make its nest for ego strokes, or to attain the title of “artist”? Unlikely. So, then, another question: Why does the robin do what it does? Making a nest is certainly hardwired into its massively interesting and complex little brain, but making such a perfect one, and one so beauteous? What is gained if it is perfect? What is lost if it is not? Does the robin even know that its nest has beauty; did it even have the desire to make it so? Does “art” and “art-making” play any part in the life of a robin, or a bee, or a cat? And, of course, that submerges us into the definitional discussion of “art.” Let’s not forget: To 99.9 percent of the creatures who live on this planet, the Mona Lisa is something to crawl over or chew on – it is only to us humans, one of whom painted it, that it is something called “art,” and something called “representational,” and something we hold in a value known as “esteem.” History is always written by the winners, and “art” is defined by the dominant species.

So, let’s agree: the robin does what it has to do, and we look at it and say it is beautiful and art. But: Is there anything we humans have to do – not want to do, or like to do, but need to do – that we call “art”? On first glance, the answer would be “no.” Most of us go through life doing nothing that could be seen as art-making; for most of us, art is something we perceive, not conceive, if indeed we even perceive. Most of us don’t seem to have the time, or the inclination, to make art, or even to go to look at it, or to know it when we see it; art isn’t what we’re after, but rather distraction. As someone once said, “Anything will make us look, but art will make us see.” Truth is, most people just look, and don’t care to or want to or know how to or even know that they have the capacity to see.

On second glance, though, it seems clear that we humans are just as hardwired to create as are the other creatures on this planet, of whom we are a small part. From the start, it has been a need to draw. The cave paintings are evidence of that. And, after recently seeing the wonderful documentary “Playing for Change,” it seems clear to us that making musical sound is something that we are meant to do; we hum, we manipulate objects to produce tones and rhythms and subsonic vibrations – some will say that that is the most basic hardwired “art-making” we do, and maybe they are right: babies sing, after all. But performance seems something strong within us – go to just about any part of this country, perhaps the world, and wherever there is a settlement of moderate size or larger, the people there will have established a theater group, so that they can combine all those other arts – painting sets, singing show tunes – and also find themselves by pretending to be somebody else.

But maybe all these urges are simply subsets of what seems to be a human narrative imperative. That what it all is, really, is the need to tell our story, personal and cultural, through whatever natural or near-natural means we can. To produce something that says we were here, see what we are, and who we are, and what we can do. And, now that we’ve put it out there, and left it behind, it’s yours to do with what you want – live in it and with it, or appreciate it, or let it be. What’s hatched has flown away, leaving behind shards of our inspiration, and placeness, and magic.


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The Harmonious Breath

We all have experienced moments, in locations, at events that have happily converged, leaving a profound effect on our consciousness. These aren’t usually the predictable sorts, such as rote observances; the calendar-year celebrations that are repeated rituals, touchstones that reinforce who we are and who we connect with. What I am talking about are the more unexpected happenings that surprise us, sometimes rendering us breathless. And leaving us desirous of them happening again.

These confluences, these special combinations of space and time – a place, a state of mind, the weather, nature and, sometimes, dollops of human-generated creativity – are brought together as momentary and ephemeral circumstances that can cause us to glimpse something out of the ordinary, pressing our noses to the glass between us and another realm of well-being. That’s what makes them so special. Really unduplicatable. And perfect. Instances like these can come out of nowhere or can occur within the context of a planned circumstance, but are still unpredictable things – “aha” moments that are surprising in their impact, unforeseen. We do not control these occurrences. We yearn for them but can’t generate them. We are lucky if we recognize them. And they can’t be recreated because, mostly, they are not of our making.

In this blog, we try to describe such instances of awareness, openness, being in the moment; e.g., sunlight glancing off wind-borne glitter, the meaningful placement of art in nature, magical discoveries of abandoned places, the interaction of architecture and its site, sounds that transport us to another place or keep us stupefied in this one. Our attempt is to be in tune with all that surrounds us. Open to the possibilities. Looking for the moments.

So, when the potential for such a convergence presents itself, we try to be there so that we are in a place of possibility. This time it was in a place that is full of seekers – Kripalu, a center for yoga and integrative health, nestled into a majestic site within the Berkshires. The workshop that spoke to us was “Zen and the Art of Harmonica Yoga,” and it proved to be an exhilarating mix of mindfulness, breath work and music. Imagining that this could be a recipe for placeness, we were hopeful.

Most of us don’t breathe – not well anyway – either because of vanity (holding in those abs), or fear, or hesitation, or the inhibitory power of stress. And, anyway, why would we want to breathe deeply in most of the environments we inhabit? It can be counter-productive. The mindfulness was meant to be used as a coping strategy, learning to be aware of our indicator lights that trigger anger and stress, and being able to control them, mostly with our breathing and, ultimately, by creating sound and music.

So, these elements of breathing and mindfulness can be coalesced into the act of  playing the harmonica – a seemingly small creation in the pantheon of musical instruments: the mouth harp. The breaths can be a little heady, the sounds can be soft and soothing, or bluesy-raspy. You can find your inner rhythm and clear your mind. Oxygenation and notes produced. Sometimes you become aware of your own voice. Other times you feel the combined energy of playing with others, a cacophony of breaths made resounding. In, out, in, out, in, out, in. I hear the beats in my head, the sounds in my ears, a quickening pulse, beautiful noise. Long in-breath, I feel dizzy. I am not used to this quantity of oxygen in my lungs. The other time I felt this way was when I went with a few people to an oxygen bar – I left floating. But that was delivered via a plastic tube; this is self-generated. Headier stuff.

I am not even all that good at harmonica playing, but I am getting better at breathing. I am in the moment, thinking about a moment past, of my first breath – the one that brought me consciousness. But this time it is different because I am aware of it and I can savor it. This time, this breath is not just reflex or survival instinct; it is spiritual, cosmic, poetic. In this setting, it is communal, contemplative, soulful … and necessary. It is experiential. That’s me floating overhead, playing notes, making sounds that come from my diaphragm. The harmonious place of life and sound. The zen and art of harmonica yoga. Arslocii.

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Sound Tracks

Every once in a while, here at arslocii, we have to check in with our original definition of placeness. The eve of our first anniversary is upon us, and so, perhaps, this reassessment has even more meaning, as we cross the threshold into the first annual revisit. Or, maybe not. It is odd, though, how perspectives and definitions alter over time. Our original vision was likely more rigid – to explore the nature of a site, a real place that has a far more meaningful experience beyond its physicality. (See our sites arslocii and Sculpturehead.) What we have discovered in the past year is that it isn’t always so clear-cut or tangible, that it can be anything that possesses this quality of placeness, or even a confluence of multiple things. And it also can have no substance or location at all.

We have realized, too, that placeness as art is still a valid and welcome concept, and is probably much more difficult to define than we previously thought. It has appeared in likely as well as unlikely places: it can be found in the public realm and in our innermost thoughts, in a book, in art and architecture, in sad moments or ones of extraordinary exuberance. As we move forward with these writings, we hope that we have produced or will soon create some moments of placeness for you, our readers.

One thing that we have not mentioned thus far is music. We have talked about sound but not music. Music was a huge presence in my life: my mother sang when she was happy, but usually sad songs: “Yellow Days,” “Que Sera Sera,” “Girl From Ipanema.” My father played piano and sang a little, in German mostly; his mother, too – “Black Hawk Waltz,” over and over on her spinet – and she was a great hummer, as well, almost as if it were a nervous habit, humming songs of her day: “What’ll I Do?” “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Always.”

My brother and I had record players as far back as I can remember and we nearly wore out the grooves of the Nutcracker Suite and movie themes from the mid-fifties to mid-sixties: “Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape,” “Exodus.” We also listened to some of our parents’ favorite dance records, like Arthur Lyman’s “Taboo” and “Bahia.” We both played autoharp, and then piano, and vocally performed in school choruses. But my brother kept with it, becoming a bit of a classically-trained piano virtuoso. I was steered into dance, which happily always involved music and movement.

Once when I was a teen traveling on the West Coast with my parents, we had been out and about for several days and stopped into a university cafeteria to eat lunch. There was music playing on loud speakers, and I realized that I had been without any music for all that time. I was so happy to hear it that tears came into my eyes, and I’m not sure I knew why at first. There had been a lack, and now music filled the hall, giving me a sense of place in an otherwise unknown territory.

Apparently, I never forgot that moment of rediscovery of the familiar soundtracks of my life and how comforting they were. Now I see, too, that music can create space as well as emotion, and an absence of it can create a void. And there you go, an ephemeral collection of sounds generating placeness: no thing, no site necessary, just music filling the space around me and the space inside my mind, drawing pictures, making pleasant tones, conjuring memories – making an archive of time and place based on music, and carrying those feelings into the present while carrying you back to those places.

Of course, with the advent of iPods, one never has to be without music again. There was a time, though, when driving across country could involve vast tracts of music-less-ness, being out of range of radio antennas. It’s frightening to ponder now, when there is so much connectivity, that we don’t know what to do with it, and because of that fact, no one again will experience the eureka moment I did that summer. But lack of music seems to me a kind of deprivation of one of the keen senses, one that can activate all the others. It is the kind of placeness you can have on a moment’s notice, with the push of a button. Instant placeness. Or you can sing.


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