Werner Scholz. A Forgotten Artist of the Weimarer Republic

Seated at my breakfast table, I had been looking out through large windows, across the heavy and sturdy roofs of the houses opposite, into the vast, always grey-tinged Northern German skies, pen in hand. It was hard to pinpoint my feelings, bedded in a deep-rooted sense of anguish. There was still so much grief and sadness, often disguised as anger or rage mixed with isolation and loneliness. I longed for warmth, rich, warm colours, golden hues – for a simple hug, an embrace from some source of warmth and care. The gothic light and the ever-impending sense of doom was gnawing at me.

Little did I expect, a few days later, to walk into an exhibition and be greeted by those very feelings from my diary entry in the form of a painting. But there I was, in a spacious, well-lit and elegant art museum, the Ernst Barlach Haus. From the entrance area, I could already see the picture, which was displayed as the first artwork of this newly installed show, from afar and I was immediately drawn towards it. I’m in a very inquisitive and highly susceptible mood. After all, this German artist, Werner Scholz (1898–1982) is being placed amongst other world-famous artists of his time such as Rudolf Schlichter, Georg Grosz, Karl Hubbuch or even Otto Dix – but hardly anyone has ever heard of him.

A quick search on the internet before my visit had only resulted in a handful of very rudimental information on him, like from one small past exhibition and auction prices that were nowhere near those of his contemporaries. Titled, Werner Scholz. Das Gewicht der Zeit (The Weight of Time) this exhibition shows paintings that were not destroyed when Scholz’ studio in Berlin was hit by a bomb in 1944. In 1937 the Nazis had banned him as a ‘degenerate’ artist from working and exhibiting. Scholz withdrew to Tirol in 1939.

I step closer to gain a better look: It is quite a large piece in portrait format, which is unusual for a landscape painting. It is still in its original very simple, dark wooden frame, which bears a small plaque at the bottom with its title: Novembersonne (November sun). It merely depicts bare black trees and the sun. There is no depth in the picture, no foreground or middle ground, just broad, slightly erratic vertical washes of gloomy blueish-grey shades interspersed by some streaks of white, even leaving in parts, the painting’s ground visible, interrupted by stick-like trees that make me think of the German word Strichmännchen (small stick man). Its central motif, like the title indicates, is an impasto sun, executed in thick, round swirling brushstrokes; palpable and cold, its light, oily-white – foreboding of all the terrors that were yet to come?

Not only did it so acutely reflect this “gothic” light, so pre-dominant in the North, but strangely enough, it also looked a bit like a highly stylised version of the very last photo I had taken with my iPhone and posted to Instagram: Huddled in a blanket at my desk, hugging a hot water bottle – I had had this urge to document this atmosphere, I needed someone to bear witness to this strange and stark cold sun, framed by the naked branches of two tall trees, glaring at me like the spotlight of an interrogation lamp, luminously but still only feebly, pushing itself with all its might through the dense, humid and nebulous sky. Only that my snapshot was from 2024, precisely 90 years later. But with its similarly gloomy notion could well be titled “February Sun”: The world was still recovering from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and now, wars were raging in Ukraine, Gaza and Sudan causing disastrous humanitarian crises and consequences still to be feared.

Werner Scholz painted Novembersonne in 1934 – a year after the Nazis had forcefully seized power in Germany and whose dominant, aggressive and terrorising presence had been especially tangible since the 1920s in Munich and the metropolis Berlin. This is where Werner Scholz was born on October 23, 1898, to the architect Ehrenfried Scholz and the pianist Elisabeth Scholz, née Gollner – into an artistic, bourgeoise household, like one of his very early works, Wintergarten from 1919 shows. It was the second painting I walked over to, summarises. It depicts his father in an armchair, reading. Stylistically this early work shows all the prominent signs of a still-young artist experimenting with different late-impressionistic elements, trying to find his voice: There are some Matisse-like features, patterns and details, some flat, Gauguin’esque areas of colour with dark blue contour lines and some sun-dappled leaves à la Monet. It is the only painting in the exhibition executed on canvas.


The (Unexpected) Horrors of the First World War

In 1916, Scholz had begun studying art at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in Berlin, but then, in the following year, enlisted euphorically, like many other patriotic young men and women, in the army to fight in the First World War. His contemporaries included other artists: Max Ernst, Richard Dehmel, Otto Dix, Alfred Döblin, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Ernst Toller and Georg Trakl were among those who volunteered for military service. The offspring of the middle and upper classes, in particular, yearned to show Germany’s “enemies” what they were made of. Under the misapprehension – not only in Germany – the war would be a short-armed conflict and that they would return home by Christmas.

The First World War was the first industrialised war in human history and the murderous power of new weapons had been underestimated: Machine guns, heavy artillery, and tanks. The result: trench warfare, material battles, and poison gas – a regional conflict turned into a four-year world war that claimed 17 million lives.

Thus, on his 19th birthday, Werner Scholz was seriously wounded in action in Northern France and lost his left forearm. After convalescence and the ending of the war, Scholz resumed his studies in Berlin in 1919. But thereupon, was no longer able to stretch a canvas over a frame with only one arm, so he used, from then on, hardboard. He also started to reduce his colour palette drastically and developed fairly quickly, over the course of less than ten years a unique and highly recognisable style.

Berlin’s Nollendorfplatz: Entertainment Hub and Stage for Nazi Terror

In 1920, after having resumed his studies and then graduating from art college, he rented a studio on the famous Nollendorfplatz, a large and busy square in the central Berlin district Schöneberg. For anyone who has ever visited Berlin or is familiar with other artists of the Weimar Republic and its culture, the name, colloquially also called Nolle or Nolli, will ring a bell.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Nollendorfplatz, 1912

In the “roaring” 1920s, many artists congregated in the district. The era between the wars was explosive and was later dubbed, “Der Tanz auf dem Vulkan” after a 1938 film (Dance on the Volcano). The cinemas and clubs served as popular hangouts and sources of inspiration for artists, writers and musicians. One of the most famous clubs was the Eldorado, which was, like the Nollendorfplatz, immortalised in multiple artworks: There’s a watercolour by Otto Dix Eldorado (1927) depicting three “women” in a very vibrant setting drenched in red, purple and gold or Ernst Fritsch’s slightly more demure triptych, Erinnerung an Eldorado (1929–32).

The “objective view” of the Neue Sachlichkeit shows these flamboyant characters unhindered, like in Christian Schad’s portrait, Count St. Genois d’Anneaucourt (1927), which depicts a Hungarian count fallen from grace, a virile baroness and a notorious transvestite form a glacial ménage-à-trois on the right side of the painting, who was a well-known transsexual, and a regular at the club Eldorado. Writers, like the English memoirist, Christopher Isherwood, who lived just around the corner in an apartment at Nollendorfstrasse 17, and was part of the vibrant gay scene, found much inspiration for his works. His building was full of eccentrics who inspired his novels “The Last of Mr. Norris” and “Goodbye to Berlin” – and, most famously his Tony Award-winning Broadway musical ‘Cabaret’. 

Werner Scholz. Junge Frau (Young Woman), 1932. Pastel

Christian Schad’s portraits have been described as “highly stylized […] their subjects’ overlarge, expressionless eyes and static poses, [which] tend to glamorize but rarely to flatter the sitters, and the frequent note of ambiguous sexuality stops short of eroticism.” As recognisable as Scholz’s figures are as characters of the Weimarer Republic, his figures are never sexually-charged, extravagant or flamboyant. He hints subtly at the period with fashionable accessories from the 1920s that many of his figures are depicted wearing: a woman with a blonde bob and finely pencilled eyebrows, plumed hats, fur coats, short dance dresses and children in uniforms, pigtails and striped socks, which contemporary film footage from Berlin in 1927 can attest to at the end of this post.


Isolated Marionettes with Angular, Wooden Movements

Werner Scholz. Widwen (Widows), 1931. Oil on hardboard

In Scholz’ early paintings from 1927 (the exhibition focusses solely on his works from 1927 to 1937) his figures are cartoon-like marionettes with stiff and angular, wooden movements. Influences from the Dada movement are apparent. Some have animal-like heads, some have puppet faces, are beady-eyed or even one-eyed, and many have pursed lips. He may add an individual prop, an occasional park bench or a café table. But none of them are especially inviting. They add moreover, like his non-specified backgrounds, to a great sense of isolation.

Specific motifs like desperation, grief, isolation and the imbalance of power start to become apparent in his early works from around 1927 and culminate in the late 1930s.

These details appear almost bizarre in contrast to the anguish of the actual figures – mostly expressed in the faces and postures of increasingly block-like figures. In the late 1920s and early 30s, Scholz turned to these more picture-filling and compact figures compiled of trapezoids, squares and other angular shapes. These paintings’ backgrounds become very ominous and vague, staging the bizarre and whimsical theatre performances of his figures in barely defined, monochromatic pictorial spaces.

Although the area around Nollendorfplatz was a flamboyant entertainment hub, it was where, on the other side of the coin, its residents and frequent visitors witnessed the so-called “Terroraktionen” of the up-and-rising National socialists. Even before the Nazis seized power in 1933, Berlin, like Munich, was a fierce political arena and on numerous occasions, the SA provoked violent street battles, in which its members tried to shatter its opponents: members of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Many other insidious tactics were utilised to cause uproar and panic in public spaces, like on Friday, December 5, 1930, at a movie première:

Also located on Nollendorfplatz, opposite the other large cinema UFA-Palast, was the Mozartsaal cinema, built in 1905/6, and now called Metropolis. That said Friday in 1930, members of the SA released white mice into the audience. Screaming women caused the film to be interrupted while the SA men roared with laughter. Goebbels himself was sitting in the audience. Two days before the “event”, on December 3, 1930, he had briefly noted in his diary:

On Friday, we’ll be attending the film “Im Westen nichts Neues” (All Quiet on the Western Front) – to teach those eunuchs some manners. I’m looking forward to it.

– Joseph Goebbels (NS-Propaganda Minister), 1930

The film was based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, and first published in November and December 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung, a nationally known Berlin newspaper that represented the interests of the liberal middle class. In late January 1929, it was then published in book form, which sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print. It describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental trauma during the war as well as the detachment from civilian life felt by many upon returning home from the war.

As an intuitive and sensitive observer, like many artists, Scholz was not only a witness of these terrorising propaganda activities but was well aware of the dangers that were looming on the horizon, especially for the already impoverished working-class population and noted himself, only a month later, on Saturday, January 17, 1931, in his journal:

Yes, it is high time to oppose the furious destruction of culture by the Nazis… The atrocities that the fascists are already able to commit legally must, in their irresponsibility, be pointed out to the entire general public. And … hammer into people’s brains again and again what will happen when this dangerous faction gains power.

– Werner Scholz, 1931

On May 10, 1933, at the initiative of Goebbels, Remarque’s writing was publicly declared as “unpatriotic” and banned in Germany. Copies were removed from all libraries and restricted from being sold or published anywhere in the country.

But not only the portrayal of these harrowing experiences in books and movies but the scarred and injured participants themselves were constant reminders, especially the expansion-hungry National socialists (embedded most obviously in the term the term “Third Reich”) were eager to negate. In the years following the First World War, men who had obvious and often most debilitating war wounds found themselves shunned by a society that no longer wished for visual reminders of the conflict. But artists, with a mixture of sometimes even cruel realism, expressiveness and empathy, such as Scholz, like Dix or Grosz, turned towards them.

“Brutality! Clarity that hurts! There’s enough music to fall asleep to! … Paint as fast as you can! … capture time as it races by…”

– George Grosz


Werner Scholz’s Protagonists: Those Left Behind

Werner Scholz. Trauernde (Mourners), 1930.

Many of Scholz’ contemporaries captured the decadence and hedonism of the Weimar Republic. Scholz’s work however, reflected the profound suffering and disillusionment of the era. After the horrors of his own war-experiences he turned pacifist and communist and devoted himself to the petty bourgeois, the underworld and the Berlin demimonde: People in mourning, the destitute, those fleeing and those left behind are his protagonists – dignified figures with a haunting presence*. These are the very qualities that the German art critic Kurt Kusenberg (1904–1983) also recognised in Scholz’s figurative works of that period, writing in 1932:

Scholz is essential because he (…) addresses the issues of our time and takes formal risks and presents issues of our time that concern us all.   

– Kurt Kusenberg (art critic), 1932

‌This sensitivity to the social and political climate around him was evident not only in his portrayal of human figures but also in his landscapes, like “Novembersonne,” which evoked the very same palpable sense of melancholy and foreboding. His art became a mirror of the collective angst and turmoil experienced by those who lived through the tumultuous interwar period. “Novembersonne” was a reminder, how art has the power to transcend time and evoke emotions that are universally human. The painting’s stark, almost oppressive atmosphere, with its dark, bare trees and a sun that barely manages to pierce the gloom, seemed to resonate deeply with the current state of the world. It was a reminder that while the contexts may change, the fundamental human experiences of grief, fear, and longing for connection remain constant. Scholz had the courage to put his finger on the wounds, to express these feelings, which was exactly what I was facing…

* * *


*Karsten Müller, Exhibition catalogue: Werner Scholz. 2024, p. 62

Uwe Klußmann. 2012. “Conquering the Capital: The Ruthless Rise of the Nazis in Berlin.” DER SPIEGEL. November 29, 2012.

Christian Schad. 1997. “URBANE DECADENT.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker. September 22, 1997.

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


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

Barrel cacti and Agave at The Huntington Desert Gardens, San Marino, CA

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

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

Listen to Pebbles in my Hand here:

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

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

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


Parks and Gardens in Northern Europe

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

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

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


Los Angeles’ National Parks

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

Native Oak Trees in Griffith Park, CA, photo: Donna Grayson

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

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

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

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

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

King’s Road Park in West Hollywood, CA, photo: Frances Livings

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

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


Los Angeles’ Historic Parks and Gardens

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

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

The Arboretum in Arcadia, CA, photo: Frances Livings

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

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

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


“It Never Rains in California”

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

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

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

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

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


The Problem with Urban Heat Islands

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.


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

Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Musical Poetry Zane Musa Saxophone

Songs of the Soul ~ Musical Poetry and its Inspirations


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


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

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

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

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

Songs of the Soul – by Yogananda?

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

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

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

Religious Experiences in Nature

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

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

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


Finally – In the Studio Recording Songs of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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© Frances Livings


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

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

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

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

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

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