CD cover EP A Breath She Took

A Breath She Took ~ A new Jazzoetry Release

 

CD cover EP A Breath She Took

While sorting through material for my first full-length musical poetry, aka jazzoetry album, I came across three poems I had already recorded. Listening back to them with fresh ears, I suddenly realized that they were thematically too different from the other pieces I was writing. I thereupon decided to release these three pieces separately. These poems – now jazzoems – will be available in January 2019 as a three-track EP in all digital music stores titled A Breath She Tookwhich is also the name of the first jazzoetry piece.

All three are of autobiographical nature. This is exactly why these three pieces stood out from the other pieces, which are about other women. In these still unreleased poems I have been exploring an array of unusual, often imagined stories about women from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I have focussed on their unique struggles – but not my own. Although, maybe I did in a metaphorical and symbolical way, now thinking of them.

Jazzoetry. The Principle

The principle that unites all of these poems musically is that they follow the same approach of poetry in combination with jazz improvisation [= jazzoetry]. I developed this concept in 2009 when I first released my piece Gold & Frankincense as a single. It was followed by the EP During the Hours, which includes my favourite piece, Songs of the Soul, initially inspired by the saxophonist Zane Musa. You can read about the development of this story here.

Once I have completed a poem, the recording process follows the same method for each one but is of course at the same time, very individual: According to the sentiment and temperament of the piece, I search for a jazz musician with great improvisational talent. Atmospherically, I want her or his instrument and playing to feel and sound most suitable in the interpretation and illustration and communication of that specific poem.

Jazzoetry. The Recording Process

My goal is always to capture complete performances. Unlike the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks, I don’t want any overdubbing or editing to take place. This would spoil the principle of a live improvisation and any spontaneity involved. That’s why I ask each musical soloist –who has never read the poems prior to their studio arrival– to respond to my reading as if they were at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot.

Each piece is recorded live in two separate recording booths in dialogue: with my recital of the poem and the individual instrumentalist’s interpretation. For my reading and performance, the atmosphere of being in the moment, just like on stage is often just as inspiring and electric as it is for the musician. Invariably, my concept is usually achieved within two to three takes.

Jazzoetry Recording of A Breath She Took

For the poem A Breath She Took, which is track number one on the EP, I chose the cello for its warm and resonant sound and its associated features: the softly swung curvatures of a female body. Albeit loving the piano, I have a very close relationship with the cello. It was my first instrument as a child. I was extremely proud that our music teacher chose me to be trained for the school orchestra. When we moved to Germany, however, I was completely heartbroken: the cello was a school instrument and I consequently had to give it up.

Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) Artist/Maker: Man Ray (American, 1890 - 1976) Culture: American Place: Paris, France (Place Created) Date: 1924 Medium: Gelatin silver print Object Number: 86.XM.626.10 Dimensions: 29.6 × 22.7 cm (11 5/8 × 8 15/16 in.) Copyright:
Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’s Violin) Paris 1924 © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP

Ironically, later, my mother bought herself one and started taking lessons, which obviously brought up a lot of feelings. The cello therefore mirrors perfectly not only my longing for that instrument and the close relationship I was developing with it, but my longing for an empathetic, nurturing and loving mother.

I asked the cellist Matthew Cooker to provide his improvisational talents. He is one of Los Angeles most prolific cellists and has played in many orchestras and for diverse live artists (like Barbra Streisand and Luis Miguel). I first met him on a studio session for a few tracks on my fist solo album The World I am Livings In, which consists of very sparsely instrumented songs, surrounding themes of loss. Matthew’s playing has, in equal parts, the right amount of tenderness, fierceness and edginess a cellist. He moreover, possesses a sheer endless inventory of resin, ego, musicality, creativity and elbow grease.

When we were recording A Breath She Took live in the studio, I felt that that he was translating the contents of that piece and complimenting my reading so fittingly that I spontaneously decided to ask him to also improvise over my reading of another piece: Goldfish Bowl. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]

 

Jazzoetry Recording of Goldfish Bowl

So once again we were recording live, in a dialogue between voice and instrument and Goldfish Bowl, became the second poem on the EP. This piece is about the taxing and highly confusing effects of being psychologically abused. It’s about feeling trapped – even if only in one’s own head. And how a state of feeling crazy, slowly takes hold, destroying self-confidence and self-trust. Goldfish Bowl is about utter helplessness dwindling into hopelessness being that the abuse is already taking a severe toll. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]

 

Jazzoetry Recording of Ink on Silk


The third and last piece on the EP, Ink on Silk is similar to Goldfish Bowl because it’s about feeling highly frustrated and crazy-made. In Goldfish Bowl there’s a permanent state of lingering, total confusion and powerlessness. Whereby in Ink on Silk it is about trying to solve things but not having any impact, thus getting more and more infuriated and frustrated. This is why a percussive instrument with clanging metal bars seemed so suitable.

I had heard the vibraphonist, Nick Mancini, a couple of times live and was always impressed by his eagerness and fearlessness to improvise both rhythmically and melodically on his instrument. Some soloists carefully plan their improvisations. But Nick lets his instrument lead him, moreover, seduce him into stepping out onto stormy expeditions. During the recording of Ink on Silk, he was also able to create some quite unusual sounds by almost bending the aluminium sound bars with his felt mallets and giving the piece its perfect colourings. [Read the lyrics by clicking here]

 

Future Jazzoetry Projects

My next jazzoetry project will be to complete writing, and then to record and produce a full-length Jazzoetry album. It will comprise around 15 poems featuring a similar number of outstanding jazz soloists. The poems I am writing for this album explore an array of typical female topics. They are based on women from very diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

Being a woman myself, I have always been interested in my own and equally intrigued by other women’s paths. Being that per society and biology, we still face completely different challenges than men. There are so many stories and dreams of other women that ultimately seem to interweave with one another’s. Many stem from the sad truth that culturally, socially and politically (thus, economically) we are still confined and suppressed by expectations.

 

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© Herbert List, Goldfish Bowl, Santorini Greece, 1937
lonesome figure horizon sun set blue landscape solitude tree

Livings In Los Angeles – Ma Solitude

lonesome figure horizon sun set blue landscape solitude tree
Alphonse Osbert, Solitude du Christ, 1897

Los Angeles, December 24, 2017

Dear Visitor, dear Readers and Listeners,

I am writing this blog post shortly after the release of my new single, the French chanson Ma Solitude. I have known and loved this song since I was in junior art college, where I also studied French (read more about those influences in my post French Chansons). Ma Solitude was written in the 1960’s by the singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki (1934-2013), who became famed in France for his repertoire of simple romantic ballads, one of them being Édith Piaf’s hit song “Milord”.

Although it’s been in my repertoire for quite a while now, I only recently decided to make a recording. My motivation was on the one hand, that my connection with this beautiful tune had deepened naturally after having performed it so many times. On the other hand, it was almost as if I had to learn what the song really meant before recording it. Ma Solitude came to mark the end of a very painful journey both emotionally and geographically. It stands for a time during which I felt utterly alone but somehow transitioned into a state of solitude, which in contrast to loneliness, offers a special value to those who learn to cherish their own inner worlds. This is after all, exactly what the songs describes. It has therefore been emotionally very cathartic to sing.

Ma Solitude is such a beautifully crafted melancholic song but it is not sad. While you listen to my new recording you can read the French lyrics and an English translation by clicking here.

Available for streaming and downloading:

 

2016 – A Year of Many Losses

The years 2016/17 were for me personally completely traumatic. After months of stressful arguments, debates, break-ups and reconciliations, my husband moved out in May. It was so hard to adjust to being on my own again and the challenge of trying to be survive as an artist in one of the world’s most expensive cities seemed almost impossible. I somehow managed. But then, in the autumn, I was given notice on the house we had been living in for over eight years – a house that had been our home and that, in midst of all of the change, at least was a familiar staple. Unsettling for me, as was for many, was then the shocking outcome of the US election in November. It became apparent that more people in America – more than most had ever imagined –, had voted for a misogynistic, narcissistic, reality-TV creator, simply an autocrat: for Donald Trump.

It verified for me a complete decline of society, which ironically felt like an epitome of my life.

I was “hanging in” as they say, until completely out of the blue, on December 16, my beloved dog Ginji died. I surrendered to a paralyzed state of utter grief and shock. Ginji was a beautiful, mischievous Whippet-Basenji mix who I had named after one of my favourite jazz tunes Dindi. I have since then been unable to sing that song live. My other dog, a small rescue called Leonora, was similarly shocked and visibly grief stricken. For weeks she would run out of the door into the garden and then stop, look behind her and – wait, wait for Ginji to join her.

Meanwhile, I still had to face the task of packing up a decade’s worth of married life, of hopes and dreams – many, that never came to be. I had no clue where I would move to or what I would do. My small family had diminished within a few months from four to three, and then suddenly to two members. And although “It Never Rains in Southern California”, those were the months with the most rainfall in years. So last year I spent Christmas in utter loneliness, grieving. It was the first year of not creating a warm and festive family Christmas – for us, his sons, their partners, and random orphan friends.

 

Months of Restless and Relentless Moving…

I was so distraught by January from all of the losses, that I felt more than paralyzed by all of the decisions I had to make. Would I even stay in Los Angeles? Would it be better to move back to Europe? Maybe I needed to get away from the political climate, away from all the heartbreak? Do a “geographical” as they say. I felt too heartbroken to think clearly. In addition, the housing market in Los Angeles was, and still is, in a total crisis. So to find an affordable, clean and dog-friendly apartment anywhere, was more than daunting.

The packing of endless boxes, the wrapping of furniture in old blankets and discarded sheets felt sheer overwhelming. What would I keep, what would I even need in the future? Where and what was my future? I managed to cram everything into a mobile storage container that was picked up by a huge truck and hauled off to Compton. What followed was quite an odyssey. I spent five fairly unhappy and cold but also eye-opening weeks in Berlin but then returned to L.A. in April. I was determined to find an apartment and refocus on my music and writing. While apartment hunting however, I had to couch-surf here and there, constantly looking for new places to stay for as little money as possible. It was distressing for both my little dog and I.

But a few weeks later, in May, I finally  found a new home! So I thought. My luck didn’t last. After two days I started to get throbbing headaches and flu-like symptoms. But I had no fever. It dawned on me that I was having a severe allergic reaction. That something was wrong with the apartment. It had smelled musty when I moved in but I thought it was just lack of being aired out properly. After talking to the neighbours and doing some research it became apparent that it was toxic! There had been water damage, which had never been properly tended to and behind the walls the building was full of hidden mold!

 

Not Being Able To Function on Many Levels

Feeling absolutely awful, desperate, heartbroken and sick, I knew that if I didn’t move out again, I would never be able to function again, let alone sing. So in June, I was forced to pack everything up again and put it into storage. After that second move I basically collapsed and fell incredibly ill for six weeks. I had such a painful and hacking cough, that I had to use an asthma inhaler. An ex-ray of my lungs showed that at least it wasn’t anything like the valley fever, a fungal pneumonia that can lead to hospitalizations. But I was unable to earn much money, so yet again, I bunked with friends. Some of these “friends” I had never met before. I learned very quickly who stepped up and who couldn’t be bothered. On August 6, still searching and in full-on crisis mode, I was taking a break, sitting on a park bench, poking around in some greasy, store-bought salad in a plastic container, and wrote in my journal,

“I watch the homeless thinking, I feel you – I’m one favour away…”

During that time I definitely gained empathy for people whose lives, sometimes through a simple turn of fate, unravel. The sight of hundreds of homeless encampments thereafter, has become more and more unbearable.

 

One Year Later – Full Circle

Then finally, in September, I was able to move into a proper home in L.A. again. It felt as if years had gone by – around the world in 90 days – and emotionally they had. Despite still feeling all of the losses in my bones, this Christmas, I am spending my alone time reflecting in solitude but not in loneliness. And this is exactly what the lyrics of Ma Solitude illustrate so perfectly and why I wanted to record the song before the year was over, so to also mark a full circle. The chorus alone is a beautiful and clever oxymoron:

“Non, je ne suis jamais seule / avec ma solitude”

which means, in a very existentialistic way, “No, I am never alone / with my solitude”.

Being in solitude implies being on your own but Moustaki cleverly personifies this “quality time” in one of the verses as if it were time spent with a lover. And the third verse always brings a smile to my face:

“Quand elle est au creux de mon lit
Elle prend toute la place
Et nous passons de longues nuits
Tous les deux face à face”

The intimate scene of two people sleeping in a bed together makes me think of my little rescue dog Leonora. She felt the loss of Ginji, who was like a mother to her, as much as I did. Leonora now seeks solace by hopping onto my bed at night and curling up into a little fur ball – in that dip in the middle of bed, that “creux de mon lit” and indeed, “elle prend toute la place”!

To reflect this kind of intimacy of the song is why I ultimately decided to record the song with a very intimate ensemble, consisting of voice, guitar and double bass. Another meaningful factor was the release date I chose, the 16th of December, marking the anniversary of Ginji’s sudden death.

 

Solitude versus Loneliness

After sharing these very personal experiences and my motivation to record Ma Solitude I would like to bring the following to anyone reading this:

Obviously, solitude can only be productive if we don’t feel excluded, hurt or punished.[1] But in tranquil times it offers an intimate connection, a realm of solace, like with a lover. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared on a similar note: “My solitude doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of people; on the contrary, I hate he who steals my solitude without, in exchange, offering me true company.” The French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre even wrote, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”

Ma Solitude has always so poignantly illustrated the beauty one can find in alone time. It’s a deep connection with oneself. But this connection can obviously also get severed in times of deep grief and trauma when our brains are stuck in a state of terror and operate in pure survival mode. Sadly, not everyone is capable of this inner connection or willing to let go to this sometimes almost meditative state. I was quite shocked to recently read about a study at the University of Virginia in which several participants – a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men – chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts.[2]

On the other hand, it seems as if in our hyper-connected, social-media driven and extremely competitive society, alone time or solitude is more devalued than it has been in a long time. The author Ray Williams writes in an essay published in Psychology Now, “all current meanings of ‘alone’ imply a lack of something. Invariably, a desire for solitude is viewed by others as a sign there is something wrong. Even worse, people associate going it alone with antisocial pursuits and unnecessary risk taking, like jumping off cliffs. And when we see photos of people sitting alone by a lake on a mountain top, many of us might wonder if that person is lonely or even depressed.”[3]

For me solitude is about consciousness. It’s about asking the – sometimes uncomfortable – questions, how deeply am I feeling myself when I’m feeling lonely? Am I feeling disconnected and if so, where is it stemming from? Are we comparing other people’s outsides with our complicated insides? Especially social media can have that effect. On Facebook we only see glossy versions of our “friends’”. We see their feats but seldom their failures illustrated by carefully curated glamour-selfies. During this outer and inner journey I was forced to embark upon, my inner world has shifted from grief and loneliness to solitude. In the process I discovered who my real friends were – one of them being myself.

Button image to buy the single Ma Solitude by Frances Livings on Bandcamp

Click on the picture to stream the song on Spotify or download the recording from Bandcamp or from iTunes.

Click here to read the French lyrics and an English translation.

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

Also, keep an eye out for my next blog post on inspiring art depicting the topics loneliness and/or solitude.

May you also find some inspiration in the following books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] Brent Crane, “The Virtues of Isolation”, in The Atlantic, posted March 30, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/03/the-virtues-of-isolation/521100/

[2] ibid.  [see also Matthew Hutson, „People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts”, in The Atlantic, posted July 3, 2014 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/people-prefer-electric-shocks-to-being-alone-with-their-thoughts/373936/.

[3] Ray Williams, “Why Solitude Is Good and Loneliness Is Bad. Loneliness is becoming an epidemic but the value of solitude is unappreciated”, in: Psychology Today, posted Oct 31, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201710/why-solitude-is-good-and-loneliness-is-bad.

Saxophonist Zane Musa Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Poet

Songs of the Soul ~ In Memory of Zane Musa (1979 – 2015)

 

Zane Musa – the first time I saw him play was at a small, hole in the wall jazz joint. It was the summer of 2005. I was on one of my first visits to Los Angeles from Germany, where the guitarist Greg Porée and I had met. We had been working together at a small theatre in Hamburg. Drink in hand, we sat down, shortly before the show was to begin. So here we were on a date at this – dump.  Secretly, I was thinking very dismissively,

“What is all of this? This is not a proper city! This is not a proper jazz club! L.A. is so ugly. It’s like a barren, flat and never ending suburb, punctuated every now and then by strip malls, like this thing here…”

But Greg swore, these were really good players.

Whenever I had attended jazz concerts in Germany, the venues in which they were held were mostly historical theatres, lovely outdoor venues, like parks or on the waterfront. They always mirrored the anticipated beauty and specialness of the music. I therefore simply didn’t expect much walking in to that dumpy little bar.

The small stage was only dimly lit. My eyes fell on this lanky, dark haired, good-looking guy. I watched him as he just stood there, swaying almost unnoticeably to the venue’s background music – or to his own? His horn hung around his neck and cupping its bow, he lightly cradled his instrument. He seemed oddly detached and lost, clutching his saxophone.

The Saxophone in Jazz

The saxophone is obviously a staple in jazz music. I personally however, associated the sound of this instrument with the sickly sweet and whiney notes of players like Kenny G. dwindling annoyingly from supermarket and car radios. Having gained most of my listening experiences in the eighties and the nineties, a saxophone was the epitome of elevator jazz. But then the band started and this disinterested seeming guy started hitting his first notes; delving deeper and deeper into the music, spiralling into almost delirious solos – my jaw hit the floor. Zane Musa was the most brilliant, moving saxophonist I had ever heard live.

BANNER_Songs-of-the-Soul-Zane-Musa-without words

After the performance, on the way out, I grabbed some of these square, flimsy paper napkins from the bar and in the car I just dotted down every thought, rushing through my head. In the following weeks the poem Songs of the Soul evolved. I only told my husband that Zane inspired the piece. Nobody else. I was somewhat embarrassed by the impact he had made on me –

I had a musical crush on him.

Once the poem was completed, I felt as if I needed to deepen its intensity. I had only just started a new project recording some of my poetry. Nervously I contemplated asking Zane to play on “his” poem. I wouldn’t tell him of course that it was about him. My goal was to recite the piece and ask him to respond in a duet, as if he was at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot. I wanted to capture a complete performance –also of my reading– rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for overdubbing and editing.

The Recording Session of Songs of the Soul

A few weeks later, I arranged a session with Nolan Shaheed at his studio in Pasadena, an environment that has now, over the years, grown into a very “safe” place to record. There I stood, in the vocal booth, Zane opposite to me in another one. We were connected by sight, large earphones and the piece and separated by the thick studio glass of the individual chambers. I didn’t read the poem out to him before we were ready to record. I wanted his reaction to be spontaneous.

So in dialogue with my recital of the poem, Zane played his musical interpretation of Songs of the Soul. The atmosphere was electric and invariably I achieved my concept in only two magical takes. The first recording was wonderful, very soft, sensitive and flowing but the second take had a lot of passion. That was the one we then mixed and mastered. Even in the somewhat disconnected and sterile environment of a recording studio, I experienced Zane as inventive and daring. He would blend Middle Eastern quarter notes with American jazz. I was impressed by his ability of delving into the music like into the depths of an indigo coloured lake that lied within him.

In the Recording Studio again…

A few years later in 2013, I was recording my first solo album, The World I Am Livings In, with eleven of my original songs. I couldn’t resist asking him to play a solo on my song Only Time Will Tell. It’s a very sad piece about fearing your loved-one will one day emotionally leave your once passionate relationship. So I needed some melancholic magic. I booked a session at Nolan’s studio and Zane played a short but very moving solo on soprano saxophone. While he was still in the recording booth, Nolan whispered to me that his older brother, the tap dancer Chance Taylor had only just committed suicide – the day before. Songs-of-the-Soul-Cover-tree-with-lightening-Frances-Livings-Musical-Poetry

My feelings shifted like waves. I went from being very moved by Zane’s playing over incredible empathy for such a loss to total disbelief that he had even showed up for the session. It seemed like too much! How was that possible, despite the pain, the shock and the anguish? At the same time I knew that sometimes that’s the very thing you have to do.

You show up and play, you sing, you write your heart out in order to not collapse. You keep going.

It was such an emotional situation because at the same time, I was also grateful for the fact that sometimes, when playing music, it’s like being handed a piece of that other person’s soul. It’s a very delicate and precious moment and I wanted to thank Zane and give him a piece in return. Greg and Nolan knew it but I had never made it public that Zane had inspired me to write Songs of the Soul.

So ever so slightly bashful, I told him that morning. His head was bent down, his eyes cast to the ground. Slowly, he lifted his gaze and through those tinted glasses he often wore, he looked at me almost with the eyes of a child, his heavy eyelids framed by dark eyelashes, batting slowly two, three times. Everyone who knows Zane will know the look. I will never know to date whether he had sensed this anyway that the poem was basically about him. I didn’t know what he thought at all – he wasn’t exactly an open book when it came to words.

What I do know is that Zane didn’t care about compliments; you couldn’t charm, bribe or seduce him into niceties. He poured himself into his music because he wanted to, rather, had to. So I didn’t judge or ask. But I had wanted to give him something back after he had given me these two heart-wrenching improvisations on his instrument and after the devastating loss of his brother. I wanted to simply say – I care.

That Night When Others Played Their Hearts Out…

And ironically, sadly and magically, that’s exactly what his fellow musicians did for him almost exactly two years later: They played their hearts out, hoping to give Zane back a piece of their souls:

On Monday, February 2nd, 2015 the jazz community received the incomprehensible and devastating news that Zane Musa had passed away. He had been on tour in Florida with the trumpeter Arturo Sandoval who himself had been a protégée of no one less than Dizzy Gilesby. At first the whole incident was perceived as a freak accident. But later we learned that tragically, Zane had taken his own life by jumping from the top of a park deck. He was only 36.

Two weeks later, on Monday, February 16, 2015, we celebrated Zane’s life: Organized by his family and three of his closest friends, the keyboarder Dennis Hamm, the bassist Ryan Cross and the drummer Tony Austin. I was asked if the recording of “Songs of the Soul” could be played and whether I could say a few words about how it developed. Of course I was more than honoured that I could contribute something.

For years, the Sofitel Hotel on Beverly Boulevard has been a slightly more glamorous venue for Monday night jazz sessions that Zane had often attended. Generously, the management once again supplied their venue, this time for Zane’s memorial service.

The large conference room was packed. Some of the guests had to stand in the back. I can only guess that there were at least five hundred people attending. Zane’s sister, his mentors and close friends shared very personal stories. Pictures of him growing up, tap dancing and playing his instrument were shown, and Zane’s peers and close friends played live music. Zane’s brother Chance, an award winning tap dancer was also commemorated. A slide show that Dennis had compiled, with pictures of Zane playing, illustrated Songs of the Soul. It marked the end of the well over three hour memorial. Finally, a brass band led the attendees downstairs to the piano bar. A lively jam session started to take place until closing out at 2 am in the morning.

I don’t want to speculate at this point why Zane ultimately made the decision to end his own life. It seems so much like such a contradiction of his brilliance and success. Moreover, he wasn’t some unpopular nerd, shunned and bullied. His family, friends and peers loved, respected and revered him. Couldn’t he get professional help, one may be temped to ask. But we know of others, whose idea of suicide has risen to loom over them like a black sun. We know of others, whose yearning to cease corporal existence will more often than not, lead them to their final definite act.

Your Elusive Creative Genius

I would rather more like to end this excursion on honouring Zane with someone else’s words. This is an excerpt from a talk in February 2009 by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your elusive creative genius”:

Centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific […] But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. […] time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn’t doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.

[…] And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God.” That’s God, you know. […] Incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.

But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

When I first came to Los Angeles –which is now almost ten years ago– the experience of such incredible talent and level of musicianship moved me profoundly. I knew, there was likely no return. To that date, I had only heard on recordings by the very best, the amount of brilliance as I then did and continue to hear live. I felt in awe, and as an artist myself inspired, challenged and frightened. In some way, Zane epitomized a lot of these feelings and conflicts. I have always highly respected his talent, passion and hard work. When he played, he invested everything – including his torment, which was what I saw that very first evening with such intuition I suppose, because it mirrored in a way some of my own. But did I have that courage?

Rest peacefully, Zane.

L. A. Jazz Scene Reels from Untimely Death of Zane Musa, by Tom Meek in LA Weekly, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Zane Musa Memorial and Celebration of Life, event page with many comments and eulogies on Facebook

An interesting, older article praising the talent of a young Zane Musa appeared in 1996 in The Los Angeles Times: “They’re Young, Gifted and Gigging: Zane Musa, a Name to Remember, Opens New Jazz Talent Series” by Don Heckman in The L.A. Times, April 4, 1996.

 

DOWNLOAD Songs of the Soul here:

 

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Creative Influences ~ Sneezles by A. A. Milne on Record-A-Poem

When a couple of weeks ago, I was asked to pick a children’s piece to record as a segment for a voice-over demo, a cute little poem came to mind – something with sneezing. Via Dr. Google it was quickly retrieved on the internet. Here are the first lines:

Christopher Robinsneezles_1
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him
Into
His bed.
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head…

Sneezles is from The Complete Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh. It is such a quirky, melodically rhyming get-well-soon poem by the English author and poet A. A. Milne. The poem captures some of the advantages of being a sick child, which is (for some) being the center of attention. Especially the last line is in that sense very amusing. You can listen to my reading of the poem down below.

Milne was best known for his books about the teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh and for various other children’s poems. He wrote Sneezles as a children’s poem for and about his son, Christopher Robin Milne, whose name – abbreviated to Christopher Robin – was the basis for the character in all of the Pooh books and poems. The character Winnie-the-Pooh was named after a teddy bear owned by Christopher, whose toys actually lent their names to most of the other characters in the Pooh books, except for Owl and Rabbit.

Above is an illustration for Sneezles by E. H. Shepard, the English artist and book illustrator who coined the appearances of all of Milne’s characters and which were equally popular to Milne’s writings.

EH Shepard's ink drawing of Winnie the Pooh playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin.
E. H. Shepard, ink drawing of Winnie the Pooh playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin. Photo: AFP / SOTHEBY’S LONDON

One of E. H. Shephard’s most famous images of Winnie the Pooh actually just sold for £314,500 at auction, at three times its estimate. It formed part of Sotheby’s sale of children’s books: An ink drawing of the bear playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin, published in 1928. The illustration was featured in A. A. Milne’s second book, The House At Pooh Corner, and had been in a private collection since the 1970s.

All of Shephard’s illustrations are very quiet and intimate. They depict scenes of introverted characters, ones that are thoughtful and philosophical. They reflect the subtlety of Milne’s writings, which are amongst adults as quotes still hugely popular. One of my personal favourites is:

People who don’t think probably don’t have brains; rather, they have grey fluff that’s blown into their heads by mistake. ― Winnie the Pooh

Sadly, Disney adapted the Pooh stories into a series of features that became one of its most successful franchises. I personally, like these ink drawings so much better than the popularized Disney animations which have turned the airy, vulnerable and whimsically sketched characters into teletub-like, plump and one-dimentional, in-your-face characters. It actually pains me to think that some children will never get to see the original drawings.

Not that these works per se lack popularity; there’s even a annual National Awareness (or bearness?) Day for Winnie the Pooh, which was two days ago, on January 18.

So far, I haven’t gotten any work out of the demo so instead of letting it dwindle into forgottenness, I sent the recording to Record-A-Poem a poetry group initiated by the Poetry Foundation. Their poetry blog Harriet has been inviting people to post audio recordings of their favourite poems on their Soundcloud stream. The Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry magazine, defines itself as “an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.”

Happily, my reading of Sneezles was added to their collection and can now be heard in their Soundcloud stream and through the widget posted below.

 

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)

National Poetry Month, April 2014

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Rapid technological development has led to a constant flood of visual and acoustic bits and bites – emails, text messages and Facebook updates. For most of us it has become a habit to react, one that often leaves us frazzled and detached. Single-tasking has become a luxury in the 21st century. To sit down and simply read a poem, so to only focus on one individual piece of work, can feel as if we’re not doing enough, or even wasting time. Besides, especially poetry can seem very inaccessible. It is not easily consumed; it does not offer clear-cut outlines, neat bullet points or answers to your most urgent questions in life. Poetry demands from both the writer and reader attentiveness and reflection, moreover, intellectual and emotional engagement.

I am writing this on April the 2nd, two days into National Poetry Month 2014. First launched in 1996 with the support of the Academy of American Poets, the month of April was declared National Poetry Month.[1] Some literati like to argue that the celebration of poetry should be a daily and not an annual event confined to a month. But this is not the discussion I want to engage in at this point. I am taking this event as an opportunity to reflect upon the role poetry can play in our lives.

Anyone who engages in poetry – or in any kind of art form – is most likely both curious and highly sensitive. Our attention is usually not drawn towards the general or the spectacular but towards the singular, with its nuances and notions, shadows and shades. Those of us who write poetry must often follow the invisible; we hunt after illusions, traces, and wisps of things. With the patience of field archaeologists we excavate vague impressions we are sometimes barely able to grasp, often agonizing over every word and phrase. Our reward is when this „tantalizing vagueness“, like Robert Frost called it, takes on forms and meanings that lie beyond our expectations, like hidden little gems waiting to be uncovered.[2] Aristotle wrote of poetry as, „a kind of thing that might be“, in contrast to history as something that was.[3]

Both reading and writing poetry demands of us opposing virtues; we have to be both intuitive and logical, heart and head strong, playful and disciplined. Poetry teaches us an awareness of the wonders of the world, of mankind and of language. Through poetry we take in others, their universe, their views, anxieties, beliefs and emotions – snapshots which can even mirror our own.

Poetry „cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint“[4]. Poetry facilitates reflection and compassion. It connects us not only with others but also to ourselves. My maternal grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It was painful so see how every day she seemed to be vanishing a little bit more into this inescapable thick fog, like a ship with once billowing sails, now deflated and torn, lost at sea. But even when she couldn’t recognize most family members anymore, she could still recite poems from her youth. The poetry she loved and had mostly learned by heart still enabled contact with her own identity, with herself.

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Twitter-page-Poets-Academy-of-American-Poets.org

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[1] The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who with the help of W. H. Auden was living in American exile, had declaimed that poetry should be available everywhere. In 1993 together with the student Andrew Carroll he founded the non-profit organization American Poetry and Literacy (APL). Three years later the movement was flourishing and over 125,000 books of poetry had been distributed for free.

[2] See my blog post “The Pomegranate – On Finding Poetry“.

[3] “The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”  ~ Aristotle, On Poetics.

[4] Czeslaw Milosz, A Book Of Luminous Things. An International Anthology of Poetry, San Diego, New York, London 1996, p. XVI.

Creative Influences ~ Poems I Read. ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann

 

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (1927)

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on September 16, 1872 to German immigrant parents. In 1894 he graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle. Later Ehrmann studied law and philosophy at Harvard University. He returned to Terre Haute where he practiced law. When he began writing, he devoted every day to his work. Ehrmann wrote many poems, but his most famous poems are ‘Desiderata’ (1927) and ‘A Prayer (1906)’.

‘Desiderata’ means in Latin: “desired things”. Largely unknown in the author’s lifetime, the text became widely known after its use in a devotional, subsequently being found at Adlai Stevenson’s deathbed in 1965, and after spoken-word recordings in 1971 and 1972.

It is not always possible to be cheerful. Life brings many unexpected fates and losses which all deserve to be digested in the quiet rooms of grief. So, “be gentle with yourself”.

Pawel- Kopczynski-photographer_migrating-cranes- Moon-with-flying-bird-silhouettes

unknown-photographer_escape

 

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. 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 coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

Pomegranates open and still closed pomegranate seeds costume woman sitting old painting

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

~ John F. Kennedy

In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey-mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of a night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.

This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.

As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experience it though his interpretation of it. I would like to add however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:

I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflexion, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.

Golden-Pomegranate-by-Illumne-gleaming-Isla-candle-square
Pomegranate candle in brass vessel by Ilume for Anthropologie, 2014

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our work space we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.

But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent much needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.

Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. Which is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but at the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of writing that served exhibitions or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable or practical thing to do. Which is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.

What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore he asks:

What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.

It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslav Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – it was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.

‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.

Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’

Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.

I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

© Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009
Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009

 

© Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006
Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006

 

Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. 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 coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

Or, if you liked this post, why not 

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@ Frances Livings
Franz Marc In the Rain 1012 Painting Lenbachhaus Waters of March

Waters of March and the Circle of Life

Zur deutschen Version hier klicken:

Franz Marc John Constable Rain Storm Score Tom Jobim

 

Waters of March is a magical, world-famous Brazilian jazz song, written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The very first time I performed it live was at a Sunday show in Los Angeles. I was nervous. It’s one of these songs you know you have to connect with as a musician. Otherwise the audience won’t stay with you. Besides, it’s such a famous song, you almost have the obligation to take listeners on a musical and emotional journey. So whether live or in the studio – and this is valid for all songs – the challenge lies in finding and interpreting the essence of that specific song. And yes, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. Interestingly, at my debut of Waters of March not only I, but the whole band connected with it.

Moreover, it took me on a journey, on a quite unexpected journey – into the deep waters of March!

I’ll go back a bit: Waters of March (in Portuguese, Águas de Março) had been a song request from a friend and jazz lover after attending a prior show of mine. Like other songs in my repertoire, it was written by the Brazilian songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim. My friend handed me a CD, so on my next early morning dog walk, I listened to the enticing version he had given me a copy of. I indulged into delightful notes by no one less than Art Garfunkel – a recording on his 1975 album Breakaway. During the course of the next few days, I dug up and listened to many others, like the original by Jobim and by contemporary female jazz artists like Cassandra Wilson. I immediately loved the flow of the song in combination with such interesting lyrics. He was right. It was a perfect fit for Ipanema Lounge, a musical band project I had founded and later the title of my 2016 album. After all, I had been originally inspired by Jobim – which is why the word Ipanema – from his biggest hit song, The Girl From Ipanema – is in the title. I decided to yet again look deeper into Jobim’s catalogue and to play with some of the songs.

Waters of March in Five Languages

Águas de Março was first released in 1972. Jobim wrote the original lyrics in Brazilian Portuguese and a second version a year later in English. Then, in 1973, another favourite songwriter of mine, the Egyptian-French troubador Georges Moustaki, released a recording. It was titled Les Eaux de Mars with French lyrics that he had penned. An Italian version, La Pioggia di Marzo followed in the same year written by Giorgio Calabrese, an Italian songwriter and frequent collaborator with French pop star Charles Aznavour. Many years later, in 2007, a further adaptation called Solen i maj was written in Swedish by Anders Lundin. The Spanish-French singer-songwriter Sole Giménez penned a version in Spanish in 2009, titled Aguas de marzo.

Waters of March – All Time Best Brazilian Song

Almost 30 years after Jobim had written Waters of March, Brazil’s leading daily newspaper, Folha de São Paulo conducted a poll including more than 200 Brazilian journalists, musicians and other artists. In 2001 Waters of March was named the all-time best Brazilian song. The lasting effects of Águas de Março is also discussed in The Atlantic, including suggestions, comments and videos from many readersListening to many of these versions I once again understood that it was a very magical and philosophical song. But the more I listened, the more impossible it seemed to memorize the lyrics for a live performance…

For Jobim Songwriting was like Psychotherapy

The words of none of the versions – whether in English, Portuguese or French – are constructed to create a logical narrative. There are no recognizable stanza patterns or traceable rhymes either. The lyrics consist of strings of free associations, of singular objects broken out of their original context and then assembled to a collage – moreover, since they are in motion, literally, figuratively and musically, it’s really a montage. It was not unusual for Jobim to write in this kind of stream of consciousness. The composer-guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves recalled that Jobim had told him, that was his version of therapy, which had saved him thousands in psychoanalysis bills. It had indeed been the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who, at the end of the 19th century, had developed the technique of “free association” as a clinical method for his patients undergoing psychoanalysis.

Waters of March et l’objects trouvés

In the song nearly every line starts in Portuguese with “É…” (“[It] is…”) and in English with “a”. “It” is a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, a scratch, a cliff, a knot in the wood, a fish, a pin, the end of the road, and many other things. This technique of listing trivial objects reminds me very much of the art movement “l’objects trouvés”, originally founded by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. As early as 1912, Picasso began to incorporate actual pieces of newspapers and other domestic items like matchboxes into his cubist collages. The word collage is derived from the French tern coller (to glue or stick together), resulting in an assemblage. Other artists like Kurt Schwitters, Georges Braque and Hannah Höch also utilized this technique, depicting wine glasses, bottles, cups and calling cards.

Pablo Picasso 1942 Bull's head bicycle seat handle bars metal wielded art
Pablo Picasso Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head) 1942, Musée Picasso, Paris

Aside from painting these objects – or even using photographs – another tendency was to make cubist constructions from various scavenged materials. Most famously introduced by Duchamp’s “Ready Mades“. These are individual objects, sometimes slightly modified and presented as art. His most well-known piece is Fountain (1917), a standard urinal purchased from a hardware store and displayed on a pedestal. Thus, by “simply choosing the object (or objects) and repositioning or joining, titling and signing it, the found object became art.” This was a technique Picasso  also used in 1942: Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head), consits of only two parts, a bicycle seat and handlebars, which were wielded together.

Found Sounds

In music, “Found Sounds” follows the same principle, whereby domestic sounds from the world around us are used. It can be anything, like a ball hitting the floor, a machine motor running or a lift door opening and closing. It was created in the 1940s, by a group of avant-garde French composers, who named it musique concrète (concrete music). In 1948 the French composer, writer, broadcaster, engineer, musicologist and acoustician Pierre Schaeffer composed the piece Etudes aux chemins de fer, which is constructed entirely from sounds found at a train station. The piece is like a musical collage, featuring train whistles and the sound of steam engines clattering along a track. With digital methods available nowadays, this technique is now called sampling as in the musician taking a sample of something else and using it in their work. 

In Waters of March it is the environment, which is dissembled by the storm and the gushing waters, delivering these fragments and debris in the form of words.

The Influence of Poetry in Jobim’s Songwriting

The song lyrics also made me think of one of the 20th century’s most prominent poems, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot from 1922. Not only is the poem’s form similarly obscure and untraditional – The Waste Land has many shifts in speaker, location and time – but especially the famous first line, “April is the cruelest month” easily conjures up Jobim’s seemingly unusual depiction of March as a destructive and cruel time. The influence of a renowned writer is not surprising, since Jobim was an avid reader of poetry by authors like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Bandeira and Eliot, many of whose poems he could recite by heart.

The Influence of Weather on Songwriting

It is not unusual for songwriters to use weather conditions in songs. Rain is an especially popular topic, whether in the song Singing in the Rain, which was also a romantic comedy, or the smash hit It’s Raining Men. In the Southern hemisphere, March is the rainiest month of the year, which was Jobim’s initial inspiration for Águas de Março. He is said to have been travelling to his family rancho in Rio de Janeiro state, when a heavy rainstorm turned the roads and landscape to mud, which is also one of the lines in the song, “It’s the mud, it’s the mud…”. In Brazil, March represents the end of summer and the beginning of the colder season. In an article titled “Brazil: Waters of March“, the author, a foreign correspondent for the Al Jazeera media network, describes the rain like in the following:

“It hasn’t been raining more than 10 minutes when streets begin to flood. Thick and murky, it falls in corrugated sheets. Water. So coarse it’s opaque. Nothing but grey. And brown. And more grey. It’s March in Rio.”

Especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the weather is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds, which cause flashfloods, violent flooding and landslides in many places around the city, sometimes killing people. The lyrics of the Portuguese version therefore also reflect this loss and destruction.

The Rite of Spring

This destructive interpretation of spring, reminds me of another groundbreaking piece: Igor Stravinski’s famous ballet and orchestral concert work from 1913, The Rite of Spring, which was so challenging at its time that it famously caused a riot at its première. It was in a similar way a piece of work with no specific plot or narrative, consisting of a succession of choreographed episodes. Stravinsky himself described The Rite of Spring as “a musical-choreographic work, [representing] pagan Russia […] unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring”.

The English Lyrics

For the English version, Jobim – whose music was already being played around the world by the early 60’s – changed a few elements. His goal was to provide a more life-affirming and universal perspective : He intentionally omitted specific references to Brazilian culture (festa da cumeeira, garrafa de cana), to its flora (peroba do campo) and folklore (Matita Pereira). So consciously holding a listener from the Northern hemisphere in mind, he depicted March as the month which marks the beginning of spring, an awakening. The waters are now instead from melting snow, from thawing, and not from the torrential rains as referred to in the Portuguese original.

Although both versions speak of “the promise of life”, the English one allows for these other, more positive interpretations with additional phrases like “the joy in your heart” and the “promise of spring”, a seasonal reference that would per se, be more relevant to most of the English-speaking world.

Both the lyrics and the music have a constant downward progression much like the water torrent from those rains flowing in the gutters, which would typically carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything. The orchestration creates the illusion of the constant descending of notes much like Shepard tones – an illusion that does in sound, what the old-fashioned barbershop pole does visually, just the other way around, that means, it seems to be rising forever.

Original, handwritten score of Waters of March by Antonio Carlos Jobim

Looking at an original score by Jobim, it becomes apparent that he was meticulous about the voicing, whereas many composers notate the chord symbols and melody, leaving the interpretation and therefore the voicing to the musician.

My Interpretation of the Song

Shortly before my first performance of the song, I was actually quite nervous. I wanted to do the song justice by being able to convey these sliding kaleidoscope images both lyrically and musically. I also wanted to be able to transport the ambivalence between tension and flow without over dramatization. Waters of March I think is a challenge for every vocalist. Who wants to sound too monotonous when listing these seemingly endless and disconnected objects? Because what matters is not so much the meaning of the individual words. According to the psychoanalyst Freud, their meaning varies in all of us anyway. It was rather, more about the sounds they create when put together in context with the music.

My musical director and guitarist, Greg Porée and I, had worked on our own arrangement of the song. So if you listen to the recording you will hear that the guitar starts with a very unique lick. Then the piano sets in. Riding on the groove of bass and percussion, I then start singing these strings of words. And that’s exactly how it was live. Very soon, I felt the emotion building up inside me. I felt in anticipation of something wonderous. I felt excited and suddenly realized, I had understood the universal meaning of the song!

Whether in Portuguese or English, streaming through me were all of these “things”, a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass. I was channeling metaphors and symbols of life flowing by in never ending new constellations, each one laden with its own history. Like in the line, “and the river bank talks of the waters of March”, that serves as a metaphor for events in the past and promises of things to come. Suddenly, to me even the English version didn’t feel like a calm stream just flowing along – but like a torrent.

In a similar way to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, even the English version wasn’t pastoral; a Beethoven or Schubert idea of spring, but an explosive one. Hence, without pain there is no joy. Without destruction there is no beginning. Whether it is the end of a cycle or the beginning of one, a cycle means life: No matter which way around, a beginning implies an end and an end implies a beginning of something new that will inevitably come. These were metaphors for events and situations that are chaotic, surprising, sometimes devastating. It made me feel very alive and that for me in that very moment was “the joy in my heart”.

Listen to my recording of Waters of March here…

*

UPDATE a few years later, on Saturday, September 10, 2016:

Since I first wrote this blog post, in 2013, I have performed Waters of March at many different venues, with different musicians and in different moods. What strikes me is that more and more, it has become this magical song that acts like a dream catcher, moreover, a poetic facilitator of a news bulletin. Like shortly after the Boston Marathon attacks happened in 2013 I almost, while singing, choked on the lines: “The foot, the ground, the flesh and the bone, the beat of the road, a sling-shot stone…” There have been and probably still will be many stories whose journeys I will be taken on and sceneries I will be enticed to visit because of this song’s associative contents and its permanent poetic state of flux, which is lastly what makes this song such a timeless classic.

For those of you who love these Brazilian jazz and Bossa Nova classics, here’s a whole playlist, including lots of different variations of Águas De Março / Waters of March:

Oil painting by John Constable, Rain storm over the sea (Seascape Study with Rain Cloud) circa 1827
John Constable Rainstorm over the Sea, circa 1824-1828
Franz Marc In the Rain 1912 Fauvism Blauer Reiter Lenbachhaus
Franz Marc, In the Rain, 1912

 

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Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word recordings, in which I hope you will find joy and inspiration. If you would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing. It will be deeply appreciated.

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May You Shine…

 

A while ago I was quite moved by the line “We are more afraid of our light than the dark”. It inspired my piece Cast In Bronze, which I have just completed and posted here on the website.

Today I did a little bit of research and found the original source. It is a paragraph from the book A Return to Love by the American best-selling author, spiritual leader, and political activist Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It’s our Light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented or fabulous?

The material bronze came to my mind because it is on the one hand so strong but so easily tarnishes and becomes dull. Like we do when we are depressed. We feel tainted – shamed – and withdraw. But how easily is bronze polished to a lustrous gleam? Sometimes we just can’t seem to let that happen.

A new year lies ahead of us. May your light shine!

Photographer-unknown_Woman-holding-flame-in-cupped-hands

Frances-Livings_Have-an-electric-New-Year-2013-Pianokeys-Sparks-Champagne

Read the poem Cast In Bronze

 

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. 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 coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.