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.

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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.

 

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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[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”.

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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.

Wonderful Review of “The World I Am Livings In”

The World I am Livings In

Frances Livings

Moontraxx Records – MXFL2013-014

Available from Frances Livings’s Bandcamp page.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker
(progdawg@hotmail.com)

Following the release of a half-dozen singles and EPs, Frances Livings has published her first long-form CD, The World I am Livings In (clever title!), and her voice is mindful of Martha Velez, Carole King, and Helen Reddy with a bit of Rita Coolidge and Elkie Brooks thrown in, but her milieu is much closer to Lisa Kirchner’s Umbrellas in Mint (here) in that it’s an unusual blend of the cabaretic, folk moderne, surreal (the earthy lyrics in Eating the Darkness alone are on par with Dory Previn), classically oriented jazz, and then that odd twilight world that in recent generations has spelled a whole new landscape of sonic delights I firmly aver presages an onrushing era unlike any antecedents.

What first really caught my brainworks in the disc was I’ll be Leaving Soon, a dark-ish pensée executed in semi-stream-of-consciousness illuminated by beautifully understated chamber strains (arranged by Livings’ husband Greg Poree) exalting a weary soul encanting verses of departure and hopeful renewal. Think of William Lyall or the Penguin Cafe Orchestra sitting in, but it’s really Livings’ writing that’s entrancing, and she penned almost everything on the CD, then chose some really good sessioneers, including Jeff Colella, whose piano work is a central aural motif, along with several superb strings-raspers.

More than anything, The World comes across as a half-lit stage presentation for post-Beat hipsters grown weary of all the blare and squall of an overdriven mainstream, looking for literate but unorthodox fare and a chance to once again think while immersing in moody atmospherics. Not coincidentally, then, the smirking satire of comedienne Sara Bernhard finds its way into the mix here and there, beefing up the outside-the-box metier all the more. Poree jumps into the mix again, this time with a well blended guitar, and scenes miasmically shift and flow as the twisting narrative wends its path, but the inclusion of the 1:19Pebbles in my Hand was a piece of brilliance, and I’m damned if I can quite figure out why—though it’s probably the track’s status as a rarely found act of interscript between movements. Ya just can’t locate that in music any more, y’all. In sum, this is actually more a piece of art than it is music, but of an ilk belonging with Carla Bley, Annette Peacock, and of course the aforementioned Kirchner, among others, including Janis Ian at her best; thus, don’t do anything else once you’ve tossed the disc on, or you’ll miss more than you ever guessed was there.

Track List:

  • Don’t Ask Me If I Miss You
  • When Love Falls Apart (Greg Poree)
  • It Will Never Be the Same
  • I’ll Be Leaving Soon
  • Eating and Darkness
  • Pebbles in My Hand
  • White Angel’s Café
  • True Colors (Steinberg / Kelly)
  • Candy’s Caravan
  • Lonely in the Night
  • Only Time Will Tell
  • Please Close Your Eyes
All songs written by Frances Livings except as noted.

Edited by: David N. Pyles
(dnpyles@acousticmusic.com)

Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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.

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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:

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Coffe cup laptop tablecloth with leaf pattern darkness
@ Frances Livings

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.

 

songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

When Love Falls Apart ~ The Beauty of Melancholy

 

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”  ― Percy Bysshe Shelley

Songwriting about something painful can be cathartic but it also means revisiting pain. After the initial spark for the song When Love Falls Apart, it felt odd, even paradoxical, to want to write something beautiful about something so sad. Which is however, ultimately, what melancholy is all about and that was the core emotion I wanted to express. After all, When Love Falls apart is about a break up, which was very difficult and painful at the time. To this date, the song is still very emotional for me to sing. It can be like being transported back in time. So writing the song became quite a process.

How Co-writing Became A Way To Unburdening Pain

I had almost completed the lyrics. I had a hook and was pleased with my melody for the chorus. But the verses were still incomplete. I was obviously procrastinating, trying to avoid getting in too deep. That’s exactly why I needed some support, some structure to build on. I needed to unburden myself from some of the pain. So I asked the classical guitarist and jazz composer Greg Porée for help.

Greg came up with some lovely additional chords. So using them as a base to lean upon, I wrote the rest of the melody. Rather, it then just wrote itself. Suddenly, the song was finished. Ironically, however, the song marked both an end and a beginning: “When Love Falls Apart” was the very first song Greg and I wrote together.

The next step was therefore to notate everything in a chart. Here’s a copy of the original:

songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

The Magic of Handwritten Charts

Handwritten charts are per se something very personal and are frequently of sentimental value for songwriters. I always keep an original, handwritten manuscript of all of my songs, whether it’s one by a co-writer or one of my own. It’s like keeping a baby picture of your child although it’s already grown up. For me, a song has “grown up” when it has been professionally recorded. Once the song is on Spotify or iTunes that kid has basically moved out and has started a life of its own.

Collections of Music Scores and Charts

If you’re interested in music notation, I found a lovely visual collection of other composer’s music scores. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York houses one of the finest collections of music manuscripts in the United States. In addition to a large collection of musicians’ letters and first editions of scores and librettos, its collection of manuscripts (by classical composers like Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss) spans six centuries and many countries.

There are many other archives and libraries with collections of original scores worldwide but also some that have been scanned digitally and are available online.

Hand-writing music has been a tradition in jazz for many, many years. With Finale, a powerful and involved music notation software, a handwritten look using special fonts can even be emulated! Have a look at this article, which explains the principle.

Recording When Love Falls Apart

But I digressed slightly. The next step was to record the track as a demo, with voice and guitar. That’s where I kind of left it. It wasn’t until playing an unplugged show at the famous singer-songwriter venue Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles, that I felt I needed to also release it. Maybe because that evening, accompanying me on classical guitar, was my co-writer. We performed the ballad for the first time live.

The way the song came to life and people connected to it, motivated me to record it as a single to just “get it out there”. Although I was already working on songs for my solo album it just felt right to release that version as a single – just with voice and classical guitar.songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

After recording it in the studio, I started designing the cover. I felt very much inspired by a very tender and touching quote by Virginia Woolf.

“The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight.” – Virginia Woolf

Melancholy is one theme that runs rampant through her writing. Her image of a singing bird amidst a moonscape depicts this pensive emotion so well. It is interwoven with both sorrow and joy, profoundness and beauty – which is exactly what I had attempted to create in the song.

My ballad “When Love Falls Apart” grew out of exactly these feelings of deep sadness, which via beauty, gave way to melancholy.

Listen to and purchase an mp3 of When Love Falls Apart here:

 

Donating = Loving

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

 

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Museums Paris, Contemporary art photography, black and white photo, clock

Funeral Blues ~ Songs & Poems about Death

 

Another friend of mine recently died. He was far too young to leave life behind. We will always miss him. Now, after a few weeks I have started working on a new song called White Angel’s Café for my new and soon to be released album The World I Am Livings In“. Writing about death is hard. It not only hurts but is one of these topics that can easily slip into worn-out clichés, which end up meaning nothing. Especially since every person, every life and therefore every death is so individual.

The stages of mourning are however, universal when losing someone and summarized by psychologists as the five stages of grief. So while doing some research on the topic, I came across this poem by the English poet, playwright, critic, and librettist W. H. Auden who exerted a major influence on the poetry of the twentieth century.

His piece Funeral Blues touched me a long time ago but it had slipped out of my mind. In my opinion, W. H. Auden deals with the despair and shock of the first phase of grieving. And like so often in his pieces, he paints versatile and inventive but also somewhat “anti-romantic” images, which have even more impact on the reader because they are closer to these everyday circumstances, these seemingly banal situations, in which we often miss loved ones the most.

 

Funeral Blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W. H. Auden

 

Another very touching short piece is by Henry Jackson van Dyke (November 10, 1852 – April 10, 1933), an American author, educator, and clergyman.

 

Time is Eternity

Time is too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grieve,
Too short for those who rejoice,
But for those who love,
Time is Eternity.

Henry Van Dyke (1852 – 1933)

 

Excerpt from the poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath.

“…These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.”

 

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Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures titled Vanishing Act, a nude half covering herself with peeling wallpaper (see below) had helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York felt really exciting. The artist is Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre mainly consists of quite unusual photographic self-portraits.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poema and songs – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated:

“If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic, which has already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.

Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics

In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness” (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair,  staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.

How to Convey the Gnawing Emotion of Feeling Invisible?

Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I convey  that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed writing the song, that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration.

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

After this initial shock I knew that my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that picture. Which is ultimately, exactly why my writing had become fluent again. But all the same, suddenly questions started rolling in. Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these feelings so well, which many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture and Sense of Composition

Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally went online to look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. After all at 22 she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.

Like the American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied:

It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.  ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969

Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. I had peeped in to then virtually slam the book shut again. It was just too painful to see her body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover fearless easiness and eagerness, revealing a form of self-exploration, stand out against the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless!

Another sensation that arose however, is gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story. Not though a biographical prism – the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. It can sometimes be difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice. Especially in an era of information overload, fake news even, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings.

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself and be literally as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper  was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

You can also watch The Documentary The Woodmans here: