Birdsong Variations

The collaborative process of creative evolution.

I need a new form for this thing I am making. I haven’t found it yet, so here I am watching birds.

The songs of sparrows, apparently, vary broadly in the structure of their final notes, and some will introduce subtle variations with each performance. The songs evolve.

But researchers are quick to point out: it’s not like these bird-composers are free to evolve their songs willy-nilly, in any direction at any time. There are certain constraints, and the evolution of song works within these.

Consider how fledgling birds learn what song is, through imitation. Drift happens primarily during the initial stages of dialect formation, and during the colonization of an island. As songs evolve, so do birds’ preferences when it comes to how they perceive and learn.

I probably don’t need a new form. There is an array of viable traditions. There are possibilities for learning through imitation. But the early birds, before the songs are known and integrated, can’t help themselves. They throw their notes around in every direction. This is how they learn they have voices, and how they might use them. But a voice is not a song. Song is voice in motion, in choreographed patterns, learned in community. We are never as alone as we think we are in what we are making.  

So maybe I don’t need a new form, just more practice in call and response.

Old Man at the Twilight Hour

For the artist.

Listen. The invisible harp plays

on the west side of the Isle of

the Dead

Eat. Here is a fried egg on a 

plate without the plate, served

at a coffee house scene in Madrid.

Wait. I knew I knew you when 

you cared to emphasize that 

honey is sweeter than blood.

Rest. Soft monster, rest.

***

On this day in 1989, Salvador Dali died. He was eighty-four. 

Lyric Suite

Room for discovery.

Sometime during the initial COVID lockdown, I came across The Artist Project series of videos by The Met, in which artists reflect on a work that inspires them. Each one I’ve watched has moved me to look at a work in a new way. It’s been a while since I visited, and this morning, a series of clicks beginning with an error brought me serendipitously back to Wenda Gu’s reflection on Robert Motherwell’s Lyric Suite, a series of one-thousand works of ink on rice paper, compositions that Wenda Gu describes as “lyric, bleeding ink” hauntingly suggestive of living forms: here a branch, here a horizon, here a suggestion of a person in silhouette, here a protozoa. The idea to use ink on rice paper happened when the artist was stopping by a Japanese store in search of a birthday gift. The paper he saw was called “Dragons and Clouds.” He bought a thousand sheets and decided to try painting without conscious thought. This was April 1965 and by the end of May, Motherwell had done six-hundred of these small paintings on the floor of his studio, all while listening to Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925). Then he lost his best friend, artist David Smith. Motherwell was devastated. He boxed up the rice paper paintings and they stayed in the box for over twenty years. In 1986, Motherwell resumed the series, explaining “I half painted them and they half painted themselves.” Speaking of the harmony of seemingly accidental discovery moving through these paintings, Wenda Gu is quick to observe, “that’s the daily practice.” Here’s to keeping the door open.

Inspiration

Wenda Gu on Robert Motherwell’s Lyric Suite

Keeping Quiet

Protecting space for the still, small voice.

I want to protect this tiny plot of quiet I’ve been keeping, hoping that some seeds might take. The only problem is, it’s Monday. So, things are about to get real loud, real fast. Out there, anyway, which is where I have to be going. Of course, this is just what we do. We leave the quiet here with the cat and whatever’s defrosting on the counter, and we come back in the evening and try to enjoy. 

But I don’t think that’s going to work. I need to know that when I get back, it’s still here, this shaded plot with these seeds still underground. I need to know that it hasn’t been torn up by coyote packs and air traffic, by the alarms and bells and bustlings of the day, these noises and movements which have a way of seeping in, even at a distance––along with the nagging to-dos, and mostly I want to know that it will be okay when I leave it here. I am not going to be able to take any extra time tending it over coffee. There will be no mid-morning feedings, no midday walks, no rocking meditations over midafternoon chores done at an easy pace. I am going to be out there––

There, where there’s no telling what’s waiting for me to leave this quiet alone for two minutes so it can ravage all my tending. 

That is just not going to work. I can’t just leave this quiet here alone all day. It could choke on something it picks up off the floor or eat junk food all day or get a mind to start probing electrical outlets with forks. That won’t do. I am going to swaddle it carefully, wrap it in soft fabric, tight and close against my chest, and I am going to take it with me. If anyone asks, ‘What’s that?’ I’ll just smile and wink and say Shhhhhhhh, as I place a reassuring open palm against the reassuring press of this tiny solid body sleeping into my heartbeat. 

For All Times

Considering the movement in these moments.

You’ve been a cane-wielding cartoon old man, white beard down to your knees; a bloody tyrant, horned and masked, coming to ravage every beloved. Then, in the next scene, a healer: white linen, salves, and herbs, sometimes in the costume of a nurse of the first influenza, the first world war. The bard posed you with a scythe, the dark reaper poised, and had his lovers profess refusal to be your fool.

Then you’re a river. We build our settlements near you, travel over washing, reviving, bathing, and blessing one another by your body. Then, when the great storms come, you rinse us away––and yet, when we come to, there we are, still within and among your waters, carrying their currents in our cells. Someone suggests you are an illusion, maybe they meant elusive, but the idea adds much to our sense of the scope and reach of what we touch and then create, our tools one part memory and another part dream, and the last must be need. But for what? Is this nourishment you bring, or is it more like shelter against what we are not ready for––yet?

If you are long like a ribbon or a road, why can’t we know this about you in a moment? There’s no duration in the present, but we’ll measure rest as well as motion, our now both a beginning and an end, and in your holy geography we continue to meet, dancing in the second line with the saints, and we the once and future ancients, spinning the rhythms of your forever reception. 

Ideas Over Coffee

On fleeting visions of wondrous import.

Hey, here’s an idea. Do you think––

There it goes. 

What? 

This other thing I was noticing. Do you think if it comes back, I will recognize it, or do they change forms?

Well, did it have one when it left?

That’s not helpful. Not really. I mean, it was sort of, you know –– [stretches arms sideways, tilting. wiggles fingertips]

Well. There you go.

It was right there a minute ago. I was sitting here with this coffee, and there it was, in front of me.

On the space heater?

No, higher. Like, see? You have to look here. Come here.

Oh, through the window. Well, the cat’s there now. So you can’t see much.

Maybe the cat saw it, too?

Hmm. What now?

More coffee? Or do you want me to try to move this cat?

Beyond Optical Vision

Happy birthday, Paul Klee.

On this day in 1879, Paul Klee was born. This morning’s post is adapted from Klee’s “Ways of Studying Nature,” and uses found phrases from Klee’s writing.

How can an artist not study nature when they are part of it? The method is going to vary with changing perceptions of one’s position in space, time, and the cosmos. I don’t mean to disparage the delight of novelty, but a clear view of history should save us from seeking it at the cost of an honest view of nature. For yesterday’s naturalists, the focus was on the precision of optical appearance, but the art of seeing on other planes was neglected. Today’s artist is a creature on a star among other stars, with a sense of totality of space. To witness the appearance is to meditate on what is beneath it. Anatomy becomes physiology, but there are other ways to behold, as with contact through a cosmic bond. All ways meet in the eye to synthesize an inward vision vastly different from the original image, yet without contradiction. Those blind to nature will label such depictions degenerate, but here is a new naturalness, the image of divine work in translation. 

***

Paul Klee: The Thinking Eye. The Notebooks of Paul Klee, Vol.I, ed. Jurg Spiller, London and New York, 1961, pp.63-67.

Also featuring Paul Klee: What They Said While They Were Leaving

Matters of Transformation

Wisdom from the dung beetle.

If you are going to transform dung into treasure, it is best to act quickly and move in a straight line, away from the hordes. None of us move easily in straight lines unless we can see where we are going, but the beetles move backwards, each propelling a relatively massive ball with their hind legs, reading the shadows and the light. When the sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows, they read the wind. Nocturnal foragers take cues from the polarized light of the moon, and when the moon is not visible, they follow the Milky Way. These agents of transformation and rebirth tend to ignore cues from the ground, keeping their focus far above their grounded bodies. For their size, they are among the strongest creatures on the planet. Up here, we don’t like to touch what they treasure. We prefer to draw hopes for rebirth in soft pastel hues, and this may have something to do with the puzzlement of the researchers. Brain the size of a poppy seed, they say, but we still don’t understand.  

***

Inspired by “How Dung Beetles Steer Straight” in the Annual Review of Entomology

Sounding Branches

On phantoms, limbs, and being an instrument.

The phenomenon of the phantom limb, the doctor explained, was once regarded as a purely psychic hallucination, the sort of thing the mind does when it is grappling with loss, denial being a well-trodden pathway for managing grief. The sense of moving fingers even after the arm is gone was compared to the way that you might see a loved one in their bathrobe and slippers muddling down the hallway looking for the light switch, in the days and weeks after their death.

But it turns out there is more to it, they realized, as the tools for observation expanded what researchers were willing to see––and listen to, for that matter. A pianist long versed in playing music through the body will continue to do so even after the loss of an arm. The music runs through the musician as practiced, even as only some of it reaches the keys.

The discovery raises certain questions about the nature of what was considered phantom and suggests that the idea of limb might also deserve some expansion. I am wondering about the word instrument, too––how immediately we tend to assume that these are what the musician uses to create the art, that the point is somehow mastery of a tool and not instead the long practice of erasing the old ideas of the boundaries of a body, smoothing its distinctive forms and shaping hollow wells of space, tending it daily so as to leave it well enough and ready to be moved.

***

This post was inspired by something I heard over ten years ago on a radio interview with the late Oliver Sacks. I found a related anecdote in his chapter “Phantom Fingers: the case of the one-armed Pianist” in his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.