Saxophonist Zane Musa Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Poet

Songs of the Soul ~ In Memory of Zane Musa

 

Zane Musa – the first time I saw him play saxophone 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 into 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 the 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, spiraling into almost delirious solos – my jaw hit the floor. Zane Musa was the most brilliant, moving saxophonist I had ever heard live.

BANNER_Songs-of-the-Soul-Zane-Musa-saxophone-death

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 Musa 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.

 

Recording Songs of the Soul with Zane Musa

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 a spontaneous reaction from him.

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 Musa as inventive and daring. He would blend Middle-Eastern quarter notes with American jazz. I was impressed by his ability to delve into the music like into the depths of an indigo coloured lake that lay within him.

 

Back 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: at the same time, I was also grateful. Because 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 Musa will know the look. I will never know to date whether he had sensed this any way 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 pianist 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 Musa’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 tempted 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.

 

Zane Musa and his “Elusive Creative Genius”

I would rather more like to end this excursion, honouring Zane Musa 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, in 2005, 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. That’s what I ultimately saw that very first evening with such intuition I suppose because it mirrored in a way some of my own. But did I have the same amount of courage?

Rest peacefully, Zane.

 

DOWNLOAD Songs of the Soul here:

Listen to this Playlist with Other Spoken Word Pieces:

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Other Sources:

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.

 

The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

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

Pomegranates are an ancient food, a globular-shaped fruit filled with juicy red seeds inside a hard shell, which appears in the mythologies and artifacts of several ancient Near Eastern cultures. Pomegranates are mentioned at least 25 times in the Old Testament. As a motif, it appears in embroidered form on the ephods of Israeli priests as well as in temple architecture, like in bronze on the pillars of Solomon’s temple. It is regarded as a sensuous fruit and appears in – amongst other poems – the flowery prose of the love poem, The Song of Solomon: “Let us get up early to the vineyard; let us see if the vines flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth. . .”  (Song of Solomon 7:12)

Studia Antiqua, The Pomegranate

 

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 the 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”.

Poetry as an Elevating Medium

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

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

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails, and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our workspace 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. This is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but in 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 academic writing, which served exhibition catalogues 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. This 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.” Czeslaw 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 – 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

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

 

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

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

I was browsing through The New York Times when one article really grabbed my attention. It was on the American photographer, Francesca Woodman, whose work I had only recently discovered. Her oeuvre consists mainly of quite unusual self-portraits and one of her pictures, titled Vanishing Act had inspired me a while ago. It had actually helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness that I recorded for my first solo album. I learned that over 120 of her works were being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York, which felt really exciting – because, in a way, it was actually quite personal.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the Internet, searching for interesting pictures and inspiration. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists. A lot of them were 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.

 

Collecting Inspiration From Other Artists

It was the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who stated, in the context of creating his video collage The Clock:

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

Not only is Marclay a collector of images himself, but for his acclaimed installation, which is 24-hours long, he collected thousands of film and television images of clocks film clips depicting time. He created a montage of, edited together so they show the actual time.

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

These collections of images often trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic – a topic that has most likely already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. Images act for me 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, for instance, 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.

 

Conveying Feelings in Song Lyrics

In this particular situation, images, thoughts, and feelings must have all run together: I was both deeply touched and inspired by that photograph of Woodman. It not only helped me to get unstuck emotionally but ended up delivering a line for my song, Eating the Darkness.

I had been playing around on the piano – which is what my usual songwriting process looks like – and working on the song 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 a room. These are the first verses of the song:

 

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. Some songs practically write themselves but with others its like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you finally 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, the idea dies.

 

How to Convey  Feeling Invisible?

I just felt that in the chorus there was still a strong image missing, which is why 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. It had emerged very out of the depth of my guts like from a deep-sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in the isolation of a room. How could I convey that gnawing and devastating emotion of not feeling 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.

The photograph, Vanishing Act from 1976, partially shows the torso of a nude standing on broken, wooden floorboards, in front of the wall of an obviously derelict building. The anonymous, faceless woman is half-covering her body with large sections of the peeling wallpaper – with which she seems to be almost merging. 

“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 the song lyrics that I suddenly wondered, where and in which stage of her life would I find her? I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to thank her for the inspiration but I also wanted to share my work once the song was recorded…

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was staring at the ugly word – suicide.

Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

Suicide is usually the result of deep and dark depression, of being in a place of utter hopelessness. Maybe my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that very picture. Was that why ultimately, my writing had become fluent again? At the same time, 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 able to channel these feelings so well, because she also suffered in such an intense way? 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?

No. I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close, almost intrusive upon her life, like a voyeur. So I refocused on my song and recorded it.

 

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

I didn’t go back to look at more of Woodman’s work until weeks later. A lot of it I still hadn’t seen and I was still very curious about it. What I really appreciate about her photographs is her self-expression, the use of textural elements, and her sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism may be “girlish” as some critics say, but it is also very self-exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. To think that, at 22, she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind is admirable.

For decades, photography was still thought to fall below painting in the hierarchy of mediums in art. It wasn’t accepted as fine art until the 1940s in the United States and the 1960s worldwide. But especially for women artists, it was an important medium because it granted a mode that was relatively free from the heavy, male-dominated history of the painted canvas.

There’s an anecdote that Woodman was asked by a friend, why she obsessively photographed herself. Her friend may have found it oddly narcissistic and simply still unusual. Because we mustn’t forget that Woodman created all of these self-portraits in the mid and late seventies – so long before the selfie developed as a medium of self-reflection and self-representation. Woodman replied, simply saying:

I am always available.

Woodman exclusively used herself as a model, which made me think of other female photographers, especially of another American photographer and filmmaker: Cindy Sherman. Sherman’s work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, in many different settings, with wigs, make-up, and props to create various imagined female characters. Another famous self-portraitist is Vivian Maier, considered the queen of street photography, who created many iconic pictures of her reflection in shop windows. There are many more of course, like Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) who focused on an exceptionally singular demographic – the marginalized. She captured the images of dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and many other surreal personas that captured her attention. She is often considered the Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) of photography because of her work as well as her early suicide.

 

© Diane Arbus, Untitled 1970-71
© Vivian Maier, Self-Portrait, 1954
© Vivian Maier, Untitled, undated

The British art historian, Frances Borzello, who specializes in the social history of art, wrote a book on female self-portraits and female nudes. It is titled Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self Portraits. I found it most relevant, that she notes: The singular importance of this particular genre, the self-portrait is for women a “way to present a story about herself for public consumption,” a rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by the male artist.

 

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

What strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. Frequently, the interiors are empty, decaying rooms, with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster, broken floorboards, and flaking paintwork. In their roughness, they are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. On the other hand, in many of her photographs, she seems to merge with her environment, which gives them a haunting quality.

The photographer, Victoria O’Rourke had similar thoughts about Woodman’s integration and depiction of wallpaper:

 

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

 

Losing my mind, losing my mind…

“Losing my mind…” maybe we are all afraid of that sometimes, which is exactly why I had distanced myself from the artist after the initial encounter. I had peeped in but knew I had to protect myself and very quickly slam the book shut again. After learning about her suicide, it was painful to see her pale and vulnerable body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover, it was a fearless easiness and eagerness; revealing a form of self-exploration, that stood out against the derelict environment.

But another sensation that arose much later was gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture – and ultimately, with another creative force through my own art. The connection wasn’t formed through a biographical prism – or even the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. Because it can sometimes be difficult to push past layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice, a sense of sensationalism even… especially in an era of information overload, or fake news, 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. – Frances Livings

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. And I am fighting not to either…

 

Thank you for reading!

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

– Frances Livings

 

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

white coffee cup café au lait chocolate cake
© Frances Livings

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

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

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

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

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

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