The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

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

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

~ John F. Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

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

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

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

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

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

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

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

 

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

 

Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:

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@ Frances Livings
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:

 

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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.

 

Or, why not 

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:

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

 

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

The Huntington Desert Gardens

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

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

Listen to Pebbles in my Hand here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles’ National Parks

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

Native Oak Trees in Griffith Park, CA

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

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

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

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

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

King’s Road Park in West Hollywood, CA

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

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

Historical Parks and Gardens

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

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

The Arboretum in Arcadia, CA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Frances Livings 2011. All Rights Reserved.

 

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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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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: