Thursday May 26, 2016

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The Speaker

The speaker points out that we don’t really have
much of a grasp of things, not only the big things,
the important questions, but the small everyday
things. “How many steps up to your back yard? What
is the name of your district representative? What
did you have for breakfast? What is your wife’s
shoe size? Can you tell me the color of your
sweetheart’s eyes? Do you remember where you
parked the car?” The evidence is overwhelming.
Most of us never truly experience life. “We drift
through life in daydream, missing the true
richness and joy that life has to offer.” When the
speaker has finished we gather around to sing
a few inspirational songs. You and I stand at the
back of the group and hum along since we have
forgotten most of the words.

“The Speaker” by Louis Jenkins from Before You Know It: Prose Poems. © Will O’ Wisp Books, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Alan Hollinghurst (books by this author), born in Stroud, England (1954). He was an only child, and Stroud was a very small, rural town. He said: “I think there is a sort of mystery to being an only child in the way that you make your own unshared world when you’re very young. [...] I think being an only child was a good training for someone who takes as long to write novels as I seem to do. It requires a lot of solitude.” His father was a farming bank manager, and Alan accompanied him from farm to farm. When he was seven, his parents decided to send him off to boarding school, although neither of them had been to boarding school.

Hollinghurst loved school. He read a lot of poetry and the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien — he used to write to his friends in Dwarvish runes. He wasn’t very interested in other novels. But after he went to Oxford, he decided to try writing. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), is the story of a gay man who saves the life of an aristocrat, an older gay man. The novel is full of explicit descriptions of gay sex. He said: “For a shy person, it strikes me now that my first book was rather bold. But I think shy people often have a strange, compensatory impulse. When they do something, it’s ridiculously outspoken.” Hollinghurst had a tough time selling the paperback rights for the book. It scared off all the publishers. But then the hardcover version of The Swimming-Pool Library was extremely popular and spent months on the best-seller list, and publishers ended up in a bidding war for the paperback rights.

Hollinghurst is a meticulous writer, spending years on each novel. Some days he only writes a couple of lines; other days he doesn’t write at all. He has published just four novels since The Swimming-Pool Library. The Line of Beauty (2004), the story of a young gay man who is taken in by an upper-class British family, won the Booker Prize. His most recent novel is The Stranger’s Child (2011).

It’s the birthday of jazz musician Miles Davis, born in Alton, Illinois (1926). His father was an oral surgeon, and he grew up in a nice home in East St. Louis. The family also owned a ranch in Arkansas. He was about seven or eight years old when he started listening to a radio show called Harlem Rhythms. It was a 15-minute show, and it came on at 8:45 in the morning. And Davis started showing up late to school every day because he couldn’t bear to miss the music.

About that same time, he started paying attention to the music he heard in rural Arkansas. He said: “We’d be walking on these dark country roads at night and all of a sudden this music would seem to come out of nowhere, out of them spooky-looking trees that everybody said ghosts lived in. [...] Somebody would be playing a guitar the way B.B. King plays. And I remember a man and a woman singing and talking about getting down! [...] That music was something, especially that woman singing. But I think that kind of stuff stayed with me, you know what I mean? That kind of sound in music, that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm. I think it started getting into my blood on them spook-filled Arkansas back-roads after dark when the owls came out hooting.” A few years later, he started music lessons, playing the trumpet, and after that he didn’t stop. He was playing professionally by the age of 15. And when he was 18, he struck out for New York to find his hero, Charlie Parker. Soon they were playing together, and Davis continued to play jam sessions with other musicians, and experiment with new types of jazz. In 1959, he recorded Kind of Blue, one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.

It’s the birthday of photographer and author Dorothea Lange, born in Hoboken, New Jersey (1895). A bout with polio at the age of seven left Lange with a noticeable limp — and a hatred for school, where she was teased and alienated. She cut classes and wandered around New York City, carefully observing the life around her. She soon decided she wanted to become a photographer. While training to be a teacher, she apprenticed with several photographers. In 1918, she decided she could earn her way around the world taking pictures. She got as far as San Francisco, where she opened a portrait studio, and later met and married the painter Maynard Dixon. But by the late 1920s, she was too disturbed by the Depression to make photographs of rich clients.

She began to go out on the street, and took what became one of the most famous photographs of the time, called White Angel Breadline. It depicted a crowd of well-dressed, newly unemployed men waiting for food on a breadline. In 1939, she and her husband published An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, which dealt with the problems of America’s migrant farmworkers.

She said: “One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it.”

It’s the birthday of American pianist and composer William Bolcom, born in Seattle Washington (1938). Bolcom was something of a musical prodigy: by the time he was 11, he was studying composition and piano privately at the University of Washington.

Bolcom has composed over 300 symphonic works and chamber pieces. He performs often with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. They’ve recorded popular parlour and vaudeville songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bolcom has also composed several operas based on literary works, like Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, Arthur Miller’s play, A View from the Bridge, and Robert Altman’s film, A Wedding.

When he was seventeen, he began what would become a thirty-year-long process of setting poet William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to music. It became a three-hour long composition for soloists, choruses, and orchestra. Along the way, he realized he wanted to bridge the gap between “popular” and “serious” music, so he incorporated elements of jazz, folk, soul, reggae, and vaudeville. The world premiere was held at Stuttgart Opera in 1984. On Blake’s work, Bolcom said, “I’ve been looking at these texts since I fell in love with them at 17. I thought that maybe they would make more sense sung than spoken. Singing spreads them out. When I read these poems aloud, they make a weird kind of sense. But people have gotten all ‘aw, shucks’ about reading poetry aloud today. It’s like listening to a bank draft. T. S. Eliot was like that. Blake is kind of a gloss on Handel. His prophecies are the arias of their time.”

William Bolcom won the Pulitzer Prize (1988) for 12 New Etudes for Piano.

It’s the birthday of American avant-garde composer and musician Moondog (1916), known as the “Viking of 6th Avenue” because he used to busk on 6th Avenue in New York, between 52nd and 55th Streets wearing a Viking helmet, dressed in a flowing cape, and wielding a sword. When Dizzy Gillespie encountered him in the 1950s, he thought Moondog looked like Christ.

Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin in Marysville, Kansas, to missionaries. He always loved music and made his own drums from cardboard when he was five years old. He was blinded at the age of 16 in a farming accident and sent to the Iowa School for the Blind, where he learned to read music by Braille. By 1943, he was in New York City, where he became acquainted with Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and Charlie Parker. He christened himself “Moondog” in honor of a dog “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of.”

His music was a mix of Native percussion and flute, jazz, classical, and ambient sounds like babies crying and ocean waves tumbling. People who passed him on the street often thought he was homeless, but he had an apartment and recorded several records with large labels like Epic. In the 1960s, his song “All My Loneliness” became a hit for Janis Joplin. He moved to Germany and gave up the helmet and the cloak because he was getting so many offers to serve as a guest conductor for orchestras. He was a major influence on avant-garde composer Philip Glass, who brought him back to the United States (1989) to lead the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra at the New Music Festival in Brooklyn.

Moondog was a noted inventor of musical instruments, such as a small, triangular-shaped harp known as the “oo” and the trimba, a triangular, percussive instrument that is still used today. Moondog died in 1999. On what inspired his music, he said, “Mostly silence.”

And, “I deny that there is such a thing as originality. All an artist can do is bring his personality to bear. If he is true to himself, he can't help but be different, even unique, for no two persons are alike. I do not strive to be different for the sake of being different, but do not mind being different if my difference is the result of being myself.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®