Are You Smelling the Roses?

 

Like almost every morning, I took the dogs to the park for a good, over an hour walk. While they were enthusiastically hunting and chasing squirrels, I discovered this beautiful clean and completely intact pine cone. I thought of a brief chat I had had with a very friendly Korean woman, a few weeks ago, who, in her broken English, had shown me how she uses simple objects from nature, like pine cones, or the rough bark of a tree to massage parts of the body. The principle being that of traditional acupressure.

So I picked the cone up and carried it with me, alternatively clenching it in each hand for a few minutes, the opened, flexible scales giving way in the process, massaging the palm of my hand and strengthening my fingers. I am very much a practical, hands-on person who loves writing and playing the piano. So I like to keep my hands and fingers strong and nimble. I also believe, that being in touch, so actually touching something from nature is per se healing. My favourite yoga teacher mentioned the other day that walking barefoot, also known as “earthing”, is actually a scientifically-researched practice with a number of remarkable health advantages that stem from the relationship between our bodies and the electrons in the earth. The planet has its own natural charge, and we seem to benefit greatly when we’re in direct contact with it.

img_8539Walking my rounds with the dogs, pine cone in hand, I passed one of the homeless people who occupies the same park bench every morning at around 8am. My best guess is that he is schizophrenic because sometimes you can hear him angrily shouting obscenities from the other side of the park. But then, when he has his “lucid” moments, he is a very chatty, well educated and friendly gentleman who always has his belongings stacked very neatly and tidily next to him and a handkerchief on his lap when eating his breakfast.

In passing, I greeted him and he immediately asked, “What’s that? A pine cone?” I said, “Yes, I’m massaging my hands with it and later, I’ll take it home…” He interrupted and said, yes, you can decorate the table with them at Thanksgiving.” We immediately struck up a conversation about all of the things you can do with pinecones, smell them, eat the pine seeds, burn them (the sap ignites fires very well) and I mentioned how beautiful they are in their perfect symmetry, and he added, “like everything God creates”. I replied that sadly, many people don’t see these beautiful things that surround them anymore. No, he said, “They don’t stop to smell the roses, they’re too busy cutting them”.

I thought his point was well taken. I think that today, most people are fixated on “owning” things, as in having a collection to show off to others that is as vast as possible. This collection of images serves to then quasi adorn a virtual online persona for others to admire. Objects are taken into possession via photographs on Facebook and Instagram but only hastily and superfluously consumed and accessorized but not emotionally absorbed. Historically, a photo acted as a substitute, a token, a memento. Now it seems to have replaced the actual experience. When the image is then shared there’s no authentic contact with the actual object, the full experience is kept out of range, not only visually but also tactually. It’s a way of distancing oneself from an authentic experience in quite a detached and guarded but also very possessive way.

And you, have you stopped to smell the roses today? Or are you too busy cutting them?

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Creative Influences ~ Poetry. Sun at Midnight

BLOOD Moon

I had first come across the sonnet Midnight Sun a few years ago. It was around the time of the first studio recording of my song Mr. Moon, a jazz tune, which is centred around the various characteristics of the moon with its magical and comforting but also seductive elements. I had been singing it a lot live but on one tranquil Sunday afternoon, I started doing some research; curious to see what poets had written about the moon. That’s when I came across Joseph Mary Plunkett’s Sun at Midnight, which is known as a deep meditation on the love of God.

Sun at Midnight                             

by Joseph Mary Plunkett and Frances Livings

I saw the sun at midnight, rising red,
Deep-hued yet glowing, heavy with the stain
Of blood-compassion, and I saw it gain
Swiftly in size and growing till It spread
Over the stars; the heavens bowed their head
As from its heart slow dripped a crimson rain,
Then a great tremor shook it, as of pain—
The night fell, moaning, as It hung there dead. [1]

Before the day could claim me
I had awoken from this dream
limbs heavy from humidity, languid from this scene
as pearls of sweat, trickled like raindrops from my brow
the earth creaked and ached, again the heavens bowed
and from my heart slow dripped a crimson rain
A great tremor shook me – in agony, in pain—
from my sun at midnight bled the last drop of you.

(The night fell, moaning, and life claimed me back again)

© Frances Livings

[1] by Joseph Mary Plunkett circa 1900

I felt inspired by what I perceived as a very beautiful and mystical poem and had freely swapped out his last verse[2] with mine, changing the whole direction from God to a loved one. I was going through a very difficult separation at the time so I took the blood red moon as a metaphor for deep but very intense, painful and sometimes inexplicable feelings. Besides, love to me, whether towards a mortal being or a heavenly figure, like a God, will always stay a quite mystical phenomenon.

The mysterious allure of the moon goes back to the beginning of human history. And despite man having now even set foot on it, it still has that effect on us. Like many, I am always fascinated by the moon. Most of all I find its transitions wondrous. It can change so vastly in size and shape, growing from the slightest sliver of a crescent moon – with as little as 1% of its surface illuminated – to a full round globe.

Depending on the light, its colour and texture can also dramatically vary: A low hanging, fat harvest moon will look welcoming and generous when in October, it takes on a golden, orangey-yellow glow. In the winter, a small bluish-silvery moon can seem like a distant reminder of magical, outer worldly spheres, unknown and intangible, so far away in the sky.

So this past Monday, on April 14 2014, just two days after my birthday, I was sitting out in the garden, letting the pictures of a wonderful weekend glide by, sipping some wine and simply enjoying the mild night. I was mindlessly gazing into the sky when I spotted the full moon. I suddenly remembered that we were approaching a total lunar eclipse which made it even more special.

Later I learnt, that it was the first in more than three years to be visible and uninterrupted by sunrise. I also didn’t know that when a total lunar eclipse occurs, dispersed light from all the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets falls on the face of the moon at mid-eclipse which gives it a reddish hue and has coined the name “blood moon”. So a few nights ago, the moon had yet again undergone a transformation when after midnight it turned into an amazing, coppery red blood moon.

The moon will glow red three more times in the next 18 months, scientists say. It’s part of a lunar eclipse “tetrad”; a series of four consecutive total lunar eclipses that happen at about six-month intervals. The moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, and will begin to appear bright orange or red because of the way sunlight bends through the Earth’s atmosphere. The sunset hue can last up to an hour. According to the NASA, the next one is due October 8, 2014, followed by blood moons April 4, 2015 and September 28, 2015.

I hadn’t though about Plunkett’s poem in a long time but the next morning I searched in my files and retrieved it again and posted it here in my blog. I am now sure that if I found a moon calendar of the late 19th or early 20th century, Plunkett’s night of inspiration, his sighting of a blood moon could be pin pointed. I find that quite amazing and symbolic: The cosmos – all elements of nature – will autonomously and relentlessly pursue their cycles. Which shows yet again in a very beautiful and haunting way that on earth we are all just visitors. On the other hand, for thousands of years, man- and womenfolk have made these very same experiences, have been in awe or threatened by nature’s moods and spectacles, gazed at the same moon, sun and stars. This means we are all connected which makes the poem and that night indeed a very spiritual one.

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[1] Comprising 390 poems by 162 authors, this unique anthology strings together “such poems as contain intimations of a consciousness wider and deeper than the normal.” Spanning five centuries, every era of the great spiritualists is represented: from the Metaphysical Poets, like Donne and Traherne, to the Romantics, including Tennyson and Browning, to the Moderns, such as Yeats and Noyes. The Irish poet, journalist and author of Sun At Midnight, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1879-1916) was born in Dublin and educated at Catholic University School, Belvedere College and Stonyhurst College. His study of the mystics, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and Francis de Sales was discernible in his poetry. However, as one of the signers of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, he was imprisoned by the English army and executed in 1916 at the age of only 28.

[2] Plunkett’s last verse is: O Sun, O Christ, O bleeding Heart of flame! / Thou givest Thine agony as our life’s worth, / And makest it infinite, lest we have dearth / Of rights wherewith to call upon Thy Name; / Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth / And for our glory sufferest all shame. His sonnet, I Saw the Sun at Midnight, Rising Red, which is the original title, was published in Plunkett’s first poetry volume “The Circle and the Sword” in 1911. Another volume of his poetry, “Occulta” was published posthumously. A year after his death Sun at Midnight was also included in “The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse”[1], by D. H. S. Nicholson and A. H. E. Lee, The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1917. An online edition was published November 2000 by Bartleby.com.

 

Midnight Sun by Sarah Vaughan (Pablo Records 1978)

Morning Has Broken…

I came across this gorgeous picture of a dandelion at daybreak this morning. It reminded me of how, as a child I deeply connected with the song “Morning has Broken“. Most of us know the version by the British folk singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, who now calls himself Yusuf Islam and is now also an educator, philanthropist, and prominent convert to Islam. It is not unusual that songs are accredited to the artist who made them popular.

Most people don’t realize however, that the beautiful words to “Morning Has Broken” were penned by the English author Eleanor Farjeon who wrote children’s and fantasy stories and was both popular with children and adults. In 1931 she was commissioned by a local vicar who was compiling a new edition of the hymnbook “Songs of Praise. He asked Farjeon to write a poem to the melody of a traditional Gaelic tune, known as “Bunessan“composed in the Scottish Highlands. It actually shares the melody with the 19th century Christmas Carol “Child in the Manger”. The vicar wanted a hymn about creation, but not necessarily specifically Christian.

Here are her original lyrics:

Morning has Broken

Morning has broken,
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird;
Praise for the singing,
Praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the Word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall,
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall
On the first grass;
Praise for the sweetness,
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight,
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light
Eden saw play;
Praise with elation,
Praise every morning,
God’s re-creation
Of the new day.

With its rich imagery of rain, dewfall, sunlight, blackbirds, grass and “the wet garden”, the focus of the three verses is not so much the Creation as the Garden of Eden. I think that’s why so many people of different cultures connect with the song. It has a spiritual and uplifting message that is centered around gratitude that lies in praising the little things, the small wonders and beauty.

Cat Stevens recording of the song –that was included on his 1971 album Teaser and the Firecat – reached number six on the US pop chart and number one on the US easy listening chart in 1972. He has obviously always been a spiritual (and now religious person) which is perhaps why he was able to convey it emotionally so well and why the song became identified with Stevens.

Here are the lyrics to his version the song:

Morning Has Broken

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

Since I was raised Methodist and attended a Quaker nursery, I can’t remember which version I heard first – the traditional hymn that is often sung in children’s services or the interpretation by Cat Stevens. I just remember lying on my bed in London, early in the morning with the song going around in my head and wishing that one day I would be able to write a song that would touch someone in a similar way that song always touched me.

We’ll see. My album The World I Am Livings In is so close to being finished and all of the songs are very personal. I just hope, one or the other tune will move you…

© Sharon Johnstone, Macro Dew Drops

Here’s a very personal playlist inspired by Morning has Broken

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. And if you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a $3 coffee and a nice dinner. I will deeply appreciate it.

The Mystery of Unicorns

One of my latest findings on a day trip to the wildlife and holiday resort Catalina Island, California, was a long spiraling sea shell. It felt somehow magical when I weighed it in the palm of my hand. Its spiraling shape, the shimmering tones of cream, redbrown and white somehow reminded me of unicorn horns.

As a child I had been an avid reader of the Narnia Chronicles by the novelist C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), in which unicorns were characterized as both beautiful and very noble and honorable creatures.

The unicorn is a powerful symbol of good in early pagan mythology. Almost all images of unicorns depict a white horse of slender build, with a single large, pointed and spiraling horn projecting from their forehead.

I asked myself how contemporary artists were exploring this topic, whether this magical creature is still associated with fairytales and the mystical landscapes of King Arthur in Britain and Cornwall…

 

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008.

Damien Hirst first shot to fame with his “shark tank”. But the image of the beloved mystical figure, the unicorn (he used a real white foal) in formaldehyde is somewhat sad.

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008

“The Dream” belonged to a highly publicized (and criticized) auction of 233 works by the contemporary artist Damien Hirst in 2008. Nearly 20,000 people visited Sotheby’s New Bond Street premises to see what looked like a polished retrospective. With the Sotheby auction called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” the artist sidestepped the traditional gallery system to sell works directly through an auction house for the second time.

Ben Hopper, Unicorn Girl (from the series Naked Girls with Masks), 2010

Ben Hopper is an Israel-born London-based commercial and fine art photographer. His work includes scenery, movement, and mood. He primarily photographs conceptual fashion, portraits of dancers, circus artists, musicians, and risqué nudes. His latest series, Naked Girls with Masks, falls squarely into the last category. Naked Girls with Masks, the series from which this photograph stems, was previewed at the underground London group art exhibition ACT ART 8 in July 2010.

Camomile Hixon, Missing Unicorn, New York 2010

 

Livings In Los Angeles. Public Parks and Gardens and their Impact on Mental Health and the Creative Mind

 

The title of my poem Evaporated may not suggest it, but I drew its imagery draws the different contrasting botanical areas at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino. It has been one of my favourite place to visit ever since I first came to Southern California in 2005. The 207 acres of space, of which 120 acres are landscaped, showcase a variety of botanical areas. One of the most fascinating ones – probably for any European or East-coaster – is the ten acre large desert garden which features more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants.

The Huntington Desert Gardens

Succulents have always fascinated me, their shapes and characteristics and their ability to survive on so little and yet be able to bloom and flourish in the most extraordinary ways. As a teenager I had a small collection of cacti: My room faced South so out of thin planks of wood I constructed swing-like benches for the large window for them to sit on and relish the sun rays. They were small and very common species but they sometimes even bloomed. But never did I expect to see such alien monstrosities or small insect-like clusters of cacti like I did at the Huntington gardens years later.

After having completed the poem I started to think about how, throughout my life, the experience of different landscapes and topographies has influenced my perception and awareness of my surroundings. Especially when living in a city, visits to gardens and urban parks have not only sometimes saved my sanity but also influenced my work as an artist and writer. The following piece for instance, which I recorded on my first solo album, I wrote after a visit to the beach in Santa Barbara. It’s short and melancholic, almost like a tone poem:

Listen to Pebbles in my Hand here:

My personal experience is that nature, even in contrived areas like in parks, can evoke emotions in us that are often not released otherwise. And it is a wide-spread and well researched fact that nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development.

It was only after I had moved to Los Angeles that I became aware of how vastly different not only cityscapes but also landscapes can be, how much the climate can hinder or support certain activities. On the whole, I realized, I had been lucky to have spent the first three decades of my life in very green, fertile and geographically non-threatening environments – no black widow spiders, earthquakes, mud slides or mountain lions. But I can also see that not everyone in this city is able to make these choices and therefore experiences.

In most parts of the city of Los Angeles there is no alternative to street culture. The city has paid little attention to small urban green spaces that should be available for all members of society, either in walking distance or at all times fully accessible by public transportation and an integral part of daily life. Some studies even show that “there is an obvious correlation between poverty, food access and lack of open space” like stated in a blog entry posing the question “Is the lack of recreational space making us fatter?”.

Having grown up in England as a child, the long history and culture of the English garden and park and my family’s interest in their natural surroundings influenced my relationship with and awareness for nature, whether in a natural or a contrived state. With my parents we visited some of the most interesting estates, strange sculpture gardens and vast parks, like the famous Hyde Park in London. My Nanna was a passionate gardener and cook, who made jam from her home-grown black currants and pies from her apples and even managed to grow some figs and tobacco on her large allotment in Suffolk.

After I was literally “deported” to Germany as a pre-teen, I felt that the flat and boring landscape, dotted with stoic, grass-munching cows, was a hard contrast to the hilly and lush countryside of East Anglia. I have tried to convey some of these emotions in a yet unfinished piece ‘Wasteland’, playing with these landscape features as synonyms for my interior landscapes. Nevertheless, nature was accessible and if it hadn’t been for the trauma of being moved away from my family, it would have been a theoretically non-threatening experience.

As a student I then moved to the city of Hamburg. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that Hamburg ranks as one of the top ten greenest cities in Germany and was awarded The by the European commission in 2011. But I truly enjoyed the fact that even although it rains a lot of the time (which can be depressing on another level and obviously helps the vegetation to flourish) there are so many green spaces, rivers and canals accessible from all parts of town, mostly in walking distance.

Los Angeles’ National Parks

During my time here in Los Angeles I have therefore sought out many of the parks the County has to offer, like Griffith Park, situated in the Eastern Santa Monica Mountain range, in the north-eastern part of the city.

Native Oak Trees in Griffith Park, CA

With over 4,210 acres of both natural Chaparral-covered terrain and landscaped parkland and picnic areas, it is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States. Two famous landmarks are the recently restored observatory, opened to the public in 1935 and the Greek theatre, the famous music venue.

Represented in Griffith Park – in a similar way to Topanga State Park in Pacific Palisades – are California native plants and in small quantities even some threatened species.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had already seen the health benefits of national parks and became an energetic supporter as president. He wrote:

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.

He obviously also had a strong nationalistic agenda: Even in the midst of the Depression, national parks were being dramatically improved by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and highly publicized and therefore politicized. I doubt whether the city of Los Angeles is currently really interested in designing and financing green urban spaces in low income zones.

King’s Road Park in West Hollywood, CA

In middle-class neighbourhoods, like West Hollywood public parks, if existent, are tiny and still rare – like a small oasis nearby out home on King’s Road (very much the opposite of King’s Road in London…).

It features a beautiful small waterfall (I doubt whether from a natural water source), a Gingko tree and tropical shrubbery, like banana plants and Bird of Paradise. It would, at the most, hold 50 people, tightly seated attending a one-woman flute concert. But on my almost daily dog walks it is a small oasis where I often sit down on one of the park benches, switch my iPod off and can find tranquility.

Historical Parks and Gardens

Other communities that have long histories of parks surround Pasadena, a small college city about twenty miles north-west of Los Angeles that is famous for the annual Rose Parade, its craftsman houses, like the Gamble house by the architects Greene and Greene and the Millard house by Frank Lloyd Wright from 1923.

Nearby, in La Canada Flintridge are the Descanso Gardens which are well worth a visit throughout the year, but especially in January and February when the Camellias are in bloom.

The Arboretum in Arcadia, CA

Located in the city of Arcadia, the Arboretum is home to plant collections from all over the world, including many rare and endangered species. The Arboretum also houses some interesting outdoor historical landmarks, like a Victorian Queen Anne cottage, representative of the major phases of California history. And like mentioned above the Huntington in San Marino whose desert gardens I am so fascinated by.

But unless you live in San Marino, ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 63rd most expensive area to live in the United States and where the median list price of a single family home is almost 2 million US dollars you will always require private transportation to these places (unless you can afford a taxi).

These national parks and historical gardens are exclusive and excluding suburban oasis. There is no train and hardly any busses. The entrance fee per adult (without an annual membership) is at the Huntington’s a staggering $20. So especially with a family these trips involve a steep budget, planning well ahead and/or making reservations for the one free day of the week.

“It Never Rains in California”. The Problem with Urban Heat Islands

Most people tend to perceive the Southern Californian climate as extremely friendly. They think of the beaches, of blonde and bronzed surfer dudes, of a place where it never rains. How often do you see tourists in an open tour bus without sunscreen and a hat – we all know that they’ll be close to a sunstroke by the time they’ve passed the 28th villa in Beverly Hills in which Barbara Streisand is supposed to have lived.

‘Sun Screen’ (c) Mark Boster printed in the L.A. Times, Sep. 9, 2011

Being here all year round has made me realize that the sun can be very cruel and relentless. In August and September I find it almost impossible to walk anywhere – it is desert sun.

Unlike residential areas close to places like Griffith Park or the Huntington Gardens, the poorer parts of the city, like Compton or Torrance, offer hardly any escape from the desert-hot sun or relief from every day problems and anxieties in a rejuvenating environment.

Not only green areas are missing but a large part of the Los Angeles’ inner cityscape doesn’t even deliver much shade. Partly because a lot of areas lack trees with foliage (palm trees grow best) and, because of earthquake danger, the buildings are mainly low-rise complexes and strip-malls. The wide streets are barren and dry, dusty and often excruciatingly un-embracing, uninspiring and insular.

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

When the sun most violently smacks down on the dark asphalt and heats up its environment up to four degrees Fahrenheit more than in green areas, so-called urban heat islands are created.

Urban heat islands not only decrease the air quality but have an impact on nearby water bodies. But not only does Los Angeles lack public green areas that could be integrated into our daily lives and routines, but sources of water.

The only  canals I know of are in Venice beach, surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate. The L.A. river is less picturesque with its concrete beds which act as water basins for melting snow gushing down the mountains in the spring. In the hot summer months they are mostly dry.

Unlike in places like London with the river Thames or Paris with the romantic Seine, these areas are also not offered as spaces of contemplation or restoration in the middle of the city, mainly because they completely lack natural vegetation or wildlife.

It is a known fact that enclosing shrubbery and foliage of trees in parks can foster crime which is why some city planners have argued against them. The Central Park in New York has (perhaps falsely) become a synonym for heinous acts of crime, like often depicted on TV. But studies have also proven the opposite: Next to the urban study departments of many Universities, the APA, the American Planning Association, an independent, educational non-profit organization has conducted research programmes that show:

Time spent in natural surroundings relieves mental fatigue, which in turn relieves inattentiveness, irritability, and impulsivity, recognized by psychologists as precursors to violence. Green spaces also support frequent, casual contact among neighbors. This leads to the formation of neighborhood social ties, the building blocks of strong, secure neighborhoods where people tend to support, care about, and protect one another.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

 

Did you enjoy reading this post? If so, why not…

Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Musical Poetry Zane Musa Saxophone

Songs of the Soul ~ Musical Poetry and its Inspirations

 

Saxophone player writer tree struck by lightning grey clouds songs of the soul

 

One Sunday, on one of my searches to find a retreat, I paid the Self Realization Center in Los Angeles a visit. I had been working for some days on poetry and needed to relax and quieten my monkey mind. Besides that, I was slightly stuck and needed some inspiration. The Self Realization Center was dedicated in the 1950’s to the Indian Yogi and meditation guru Paramahansa Yogananda. It is an outdoor oasis with a large lake and a shrine that welcomes visitors of all religious denominations.

Tucked away from the famous Sunset Boulevard, the ten-acre site is only a quarter of a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The natural spring-fed lake is home to a variety of flora and fauna. There are swans, ducks and a vast amount of large, colourful Koi fish and trees and flowers from around the world.

Like many landmarks in Los Angeles, its origins can be traced back to the movie industry. Like in the early 1920s, when the famous film studio Inceville shot silent movies on site of the Lake Shrine Temple. A few years later, the real-estate magnate Alphonzo Bell, Sr. bought the land. The surrounding hillsides were hydraulically graded to fill the canyon and make it level for future development. When these activities were stopped short, a large basin was left in the can­yon. It soon filled with water from nearby springs creating Lake Santa Ynez — the only natural spring-fed lake within the city limits of Los Angeles.

The grounds include a Court of Religions honouring the five principal religions of the world. A very special relic, a portion of Mahatma Ghandhi’s ashes, can also be found here. They are entombed in a small stone memorial on the north side of the lake. I could definitely detect a slight whiff of esoteric haughtiness in the air and it was obvious that a lot of money was sunk into the upkeep of the grounds. That said, I highly appreciated that this oasis was open to the general public. Unlike many areas of lush and precious green you see when driving around in Los Angeles – like the Veteran’s park in West L.A., the country clubs in Bel Air or Hancock Park. They are all gated and completely restricted to the members of those elite clubs or organisations.

Songs of the Soul – by Yogananda?

After walking in the gardens, I had a look in the small gift shop. To my surprise, displayed in one of the glass cabinets was a small publication of poems by the founder, Paramahansa Yogananda  titled Songs of the Soul. I lifted it carefully from the case, I flicked through it and learnt, that it had been first published in 1923. Book cover Songs of the Soul

It had exactly the same title as one of the first pieces I had written shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2005 and that I had been editing. I had no idea that this publication existed. Yogananda had also written most of these approximately 200 short poems during his early years in the United States, which I thought was interesting. But perhaps impressions come more easily to paper when we are in foreign situations. We are then especially vulnerable and therefore receptive for new experiences. Many artists in exile – which is exactly how I experienced Los Angeles – have found comfort and support in expressing their inner emotions in a creative way.

But unlike this book, presented in its showcase, my poem Songs of the Soul was unpublished. Perhaps because I somehow sensed that something was still missing. I just didn’t quite know what. Moved by this coincidence, and surrounded by so much beauty and spirituality, I decided to revisit the piece at home, where I discovered some other interesting similarities.

Religious Experiences in Nature

Yogananda describes in his poems, his deep and religious experiences in nature. Some of them depict his memories of his motherland India and profound impressions new friends and acquaintances had made on him. But most of all, his pieces are of spiritual nature, praising God. My poem, Songs of the Soul isn’t of religious nature at all, and at the very least about worshipping any kind of God. But it is, in a similar way, about encountering a form of deep spirituality – namely in music.

grey sky, dark clouds, tree being struck by lightning songs of the soulThus, I could translate Yogananda’s short foreword, “Love is the song of the soul, singing to God” into the sentiment “Music is the song of the soul, singing to its listener”. Inspiring the first drafts of my poem had been two very intense musical experiences that I had virtually channeled. From very pure and real impressions the piece had basically written itself. But suddenly I felt that words weren’t enough and wanted to make the translation of these experiences more viable.

That is when I decided to make live recordings of three poems; of Songs of the Soul, ‘The Maliciousness of Words’ and ‘During the Hours’ and release them as an EP. To support and interpret the atmosphere of each unique piece, I chose three of Los Angeles’ finest jazz musicians. I had seen and heard them many times and felt that not only their instruments but even their personalities suited each individual poem. You can read about that here in my post, My goal was to capture complete performances, of both the reading and the solo instrument, rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for endless overdubbing and editing.

 

Finally – In the Studio Recording Songs of the Soul

The recording sessions took place in November 2009 at the studio of Nolan Shaheed in Pasadena. The musicians had not heard or read the poems prior to their studio arrival. I wanted them to respond as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot which was exactly where I saw their greatness. Each piece was recorded live, with the individual instrument in dialogue with my recital of the poem: The atmosphere was electric and invariably my concept was achieved within two to three takes.

The Maliciousness of Words is a fun piece which deals with the characteristics and moods of individual words. I chose the jazz pianist Brandon Coleman because of his humour and his ability to convey such easiness which enabled him to fully compliment the poem.

During the Hours, which I also chose as the album title, is an ode to a loved one. It features the violinist Paul Cartwright whose gift in creating lyrical melodies with strong narratives complimented the romantic and scenographic notion of this piece.

Songs of the Soul Zane Musa saxophone for Frances Livings' musical poetryFor Songs of the Soul I found the perfect match in Zane Musa on tenor saxophone. Zane is unique for blending middle Eastern melodies with intricate jazz improvisation. He is an incredible live performer so I was proud that I was able to capture that side of his playing as well.

With my reading and his playing I had finally completed the piece ‘Songs of the Soul’. It mirrors musically, technically and emotionally the highs and lows of musical performance and the conflicts of creative angst I tried to capture.

I realized that during that tranquil Sunday, whilst gazing lazily at Koi fish, I hadn’t been closer to God but perhaps to myself and I was emotionally receptive for what needed to be done.

Listen to the piece and download it here:
Songs of the Soul

Exposed in the idle spotlight
awkward and unfashioned
almost uncongenial
bleak and inhospitable
transparent paper swaying
languidly waiting
lost, but no frustration
life, does it feel alien?

But then you strip down to the bone
start slashing at my flesh
emotions bluntly plundered
and torn out of my chest
as your songs of the soul
impatiently unfold
revealing dark obsessions
that violently evolve

Slave to your instrument
the bridge to each sentiment
the culprit of insanity!
or the medium of lucidity?
A lover lost in rapture
in haunting ecstasy
distilling good and evil
to disturbing melodies

That are darker than the darkest
side of a blood-shot moon
your notes a lake of indigo
spreading through the room

Longer than the longest
Arab caravan
drying my insides
winding through the desert sands

And sweeter than the sweetest
mistresses’ delight
sugar dusted lokum
in the heat of a vibrant night

Oh and softer than the softest
warm summer‘s breeze
ling’ring in the shadows
of ancient Cyprus trees

Steeper than the steepest
spiral stairway
as you climb to higher higher –
and your body folds in labour
bearing sighing melodies

Pain and passion synchronized
comprising unborn, old and wise
Songs of the soul
oh, in torment they are born.

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, why not…

white coffee cup café au lait chocolate cake
© Frances Livings

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Here are some other artists who have explored “Songs of the Soul” in a variety of ways:

This video shows the two Swiss musicians Adesh (Sitar) and his wife Ajita (Tabla) performing as part of the “Songs of the Soul” concert tour in Zurich. The concert was commemorating the musical legacy of spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy who inspired thousands of people with his mantric melodies.

Another interesting find is a trailer for the documentary “Sacred Sounds: Music of the World, Songs of the Soul”. It explores the idea of sacred music. It asks, how it is used as a communicator with and in celebration of God? Why is it shared by almost every culture and faith in the world? Through dynamic musical performances, interviews with artists and religious figures, director Carmine Cervi breaks down cultural, political, and religious barriers to bring us to an understanding of faith through music.

More than a dozen artists from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions appear. Noa is a renowned Israeli singer bringing her message of Middle East peace to the Arab world; Sheikh Yassin, an Egyptian singer of religious hymns; Avay-e-Douste, an Iranian female quartet improvising songs in the Radif system; the Aissawas of Fez, a religious brotherhood performing Sufi ceremonial music famous for its trance-inducing ability; and Liz McComb, an American gospel singer who transmits her passion in a performance of intensity and emotion.

Sacred Sounds takes place against the exotic backdrop of Fez, a millennium-old city of twisting alleys and covered bazaars, bright-tile mosques and crumbling palaces. Busy souks, bundle-laden donkeys, and the call to prayer that flows from the city’s pervasive loud speakers contribute to a sensual, mystical experience in Morocco’s centre.

Also, recently this is a groundbreaking documentary on the science of Yoga Meditation and the life of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian Swami who came to America from India in 1920 to bring Yoga to the west, was released. This is the trailer to the film: