Stew On Art: Luxury Or Necessity?


I’ve blogged before about Stew (AKA Mark Stewart), the Tony award-winning playwright for his rock musical Passing Strange and accomplished singer-songwriter (check out his latest album, Making It), but his lecture/performance at UW Oshkosh the night before last gave me another opportunity to share him with you.


The answer he gave to the question – is art necessary? – was, as you might have expected, yes… but the reasons he gave were not the usual ones. For instance, it wasn’t that cultures require art to flourish, or that art is needed to civilize the heathen soul. Rather, Stew riffed on three main themes, and I’ll just state the gist of them here, along with some of my own elaboration I don’t think he’d object to.

First, art is what people do, as people. You simply can’t be a person unless you create art, even if the only art you create is yourself. When you step into your grandma’s house, you notice – if you have any eye for it at all – that she has carefully placed keepsakes and photos on the coffee table, the shelves, etc.. Her whole life is (or at least those aspects of it she cares to remember are) on display, if not for others, at least for herself. Then there’s the annual holiday card, letter, or now email that many of us send to our friends and family, updating them on our “true stories”. This is a creative act. It is art. Similarly, we’re all playwrights. Every day we choose our own costumes and dabble with our sets; we also write most of own lines. I would add that, unlike the days when radio ruled, we’re now our own music supervisors as well, as we carry our music libraries on our phones. But – and here I’m developing Stew’s theme in a way with which he might not entirely approve – for better or worse we’re not entirely in control of the final product. We’re not the sole producers of our art, after all. Our parents, and everyone who came before us, and for that matter the entire universe, also have that honor (or should I say dubious distinction?). Nor, even if we are self-directors, do we contractually have control over the final cut. We all wander onto each other’s stages, often in the middle of productions we have nothing – or nearly nothing – to do with. Narratively this should result in relative chaos, and sometimes it does, but usually we manage to muddle through. It is, as Stew said, what we do.

Secondly, art is necessary in the sense that, paradoxical as this might sound, it keeps life real. It always, though often unintentionally, offers a critique of the status quo: the one-dimensional, black and white, reductive Grand Narratives proffered by politicians, religious leaders, and mass media marketeers. Art does this merely by reminding us of the particular, the personal, and the idiosyncratic. Impoverished art – and here’s my somewhat more Aeolian take on Stew’s relatively Ionian melody – is little more than some permutation of the status quo that the artist has perhaps unconsciously internalized and regurgitated. Impoverished art merely reflects the status quo by being overly simplistic, stereotypical, shallow, sentimental and/or sensationalistic… Sartre would call such art “inauthentic”. When impoverished art is intentionally produced and therefore bad in addition to impoverished, there might be a temptation write it off as prostitution – it is often done just for money, and it does similarly satisfy a consumer’s need (so perhaps even bad art is “necessary”, in a sense). But artists that intentionally produce impoverished art invest less of themselves in their work than even the most jaded prostitutes, who at least have to use their own bodies. Such artists merely pretend, without taking any chances, without revealing anything about their actual selves. More “authentic” artists also pretend, but never merely. Their pretending is not deceptive; it’s not pretense.

Not that I have anything against the occasional “guilty pleasure”… For instance, I confess to regularly watching the latest version of “Hawaii 5-0”, mainly for the scenery and, since I grew up in the Islands, its nostalgic value. Sometimes, serendipitously and for purely personal, idiosyncratic reasons, even impoverished art resonates.

Finally, art provides us with at least one half of a real friendship in a world where real friends are always rare, but grow even rarer as we age. Poets, novelists, singer-songwriters, filmmakers, and others put the best of themselves into their works; they represent themselves – or at least how they see the world – as honestly as they can. What more could you ask of true friends, except perhaps that they also show some interest in you? And these friends, unlike the flesh-and-blood kind, are never far away. There they are, under a layer of dust on your bookshelf, in your rarely opened music and movie files, undemanding, patiently waiting to be discovered or re-discovered when you most need them. Of course, just like the flesh-and-blood variety, such friends might fail to live up to expectations, or lose their attractiveness over time. But to co-opt and re-purpose Matthew 7:16- By their fruits you shall know them… not to mention yourself.

Speaking of fruits (or, less metaphorically, works), it seems fitting to end this post with the opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Burnt Norton”, the first of his “Four Quartets” – which Stew mentioned as being a very old friend of his, but one that he’s just now really getting to know:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

Gary Burton: Learning To Listen


High on my list of “books to read if I ever have the chance to read for pleasure” is jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton’s new autobiography, “Learning To Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton“. Burton, who started playing professionally when he was just 8 years old (and who recently turned 70), revolutionized jazz vibraphone by inventing a four-mallet technique that allowed the solo instrument to play chord voicings previously available only to pianists, harpists, and, to a lesser extent, guitarists. By impeccably combining that technique with a mastery of the most advanced improvisational theory to be found in jazz, Burton managed to stay on the forefront of jazz-fusion for well over fifty years, and he’s still going strong. Here’s an example of his youthful virtuosity in what appears to be the early 1970s, when I first became aware of his playing: a solo performance of Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”)-

If you can tolerate Tom Ashbrook’s overbearing interview style, check out today’s “On Point” podcast, in which Burton discusses his long career as a performer and a teacher, as well as the challenges he faced – before coming out in the 1990s – as a closeted gay man in the relatively macho jazz community.

Happy Fourth of July


You know, I sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” countless times in elementary school, but I’m quite sure we never sang the last three verses. On this Independence Day, as many state politicians seek to sell off public property, discourage public education, and generally devalue the very notion of a public sector, here’s the whole gall-darn beautiful song-

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

Klimbim Duet


Don Ross and Jimmy Wahlsteen are, separately, extraordinary solo acoustic guitarists. Since both record for CandyRat Records, it’s not particularly surprising that they recorded this duet of Ross’s “Klimbim” back in 2010 to publicize an upcoming tour. What is amazing, however, is how tight the performance is, considering that they’re recording live on a sidewalk in Nova Scotia. At one point a fire engine comes blazing by, siren wailing; it hardly fazes them.

Really, except perhaps for the location, this is at least one way steel-string acoustic guitars were always meant to be played.

Lest We Forget…


On this synchrodipitous [adj. derived from ‘synchronic’ and ‘serendipitous’] confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President Obama’s second inauguration, let us not forget how recently the events recorded below occurred, nor how history tends to repeat itself when forgotten…

Featuring a super-funky-bluesy-gospelly version of “Eyes On The Prize” by Ms. Mavis Staples. Take it, Mavis-

(Thanks Berry)

A Prayer For The 21st Century: Come Healing (Leonard Cohen)


Dedicated to everyone I know – and anyone I don’t know – who has recently dealt with a serious health issue.

Cohen’s song and unique voice speaks for itself. In the video accompaniment, I just embedded his lyrics into photos of some of the nicest flowers I’ve ever met.

If you have the bandwidth, view this fullscreen in HD if that setting is available on your system, or else here on YouTube. (Sorry for any pop up ad you might see, on which I make no money but which Cohen’s publisher apparently requires of all videos featuring his songs.)

Happy Holidays!


Post-Election Adrenaline Rush


For Obama fans it’s been a long two years since the disastrous 2010 election, and now that the unpleasantness of the 2012 campaign is finally over, I’d say that an adrenaline rush is just what the doctor ordered… this one courtesy of Gareth Pearson, surely one of the “young guns” of finger-pickin’-to-the-max:

Ana Maria


While I’m in the mood to post some of the music I’ve been working on lately, here’s my rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Ana Maria”. I played the electric guitars on it, and programmed all the rest. The video is a capture of my iTunes Visualizer.

Quiet Now


Here’s my rendition of Denny Zeitlin’s jazz ballad, “Quiet Now”. I played electric and acoustic guitars on it, and programmed the bass. The video is just a slideshow of some quiet places I’ve been lucky enough to visit. (This is the SD version; see the HD version – if your internet connection can handle the bitrate – here).

City Of Roses


Last week in Portland Oregon I took a few photos in the Japanese Gardens and Rose Gardens. Here are the three best, followed (fittingly) by Esperanza Spalding’s song “City of Roses”, off her latest album, “Radio Music Society“-

Waterfall in the Japanese Gardens - Portland

Flower in the Japanese Gardens, Portland

The Yellow(ish) Rose of Portland


The Story of Coco and Igor


Actually, there’s not much of a story in Jan Kounen’s (2009) hypnotic romance/drama, but you hardly care as Stravinsky’s lush music and the unapologetically sumptuous images wash over you like a tidal wave of Chanel No. 5. Oh… and don’t miss the kaleidoscopic opening credit sequence, which sets the film’s impressively consistent tone and pacing from the get-go. Warning: not for those allergic to self-consciously “high art”.

Don Ross: Upright And Locked Position


I haven’t been posting lately; just been too damn busy. I’ll probably remain so for a while. But to begin to make amends, here’s a delightful little ditty from Don Ross’s new album, aptly titled “Upright And Locked Position”.