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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Formative lessons in world fusion music: a musical biography of sorts

I grew up surrounded by popular music and, like every red blooded American boy in the throes of hormone overdrive, I was bent on being a rock & roll star. I was also good with electronics and had a dubious fascination with stripping down and reconstructing anything I could get my hands on, including the family entertainment console which was about the size of an old Volvo. In Junior High I had a paper route and earned enough money to buy a cheap amp and an imitation Gibson SG solid body guitar, which I ran through an old Webcor tube reel to reel and into the entertainment console. It sounded something like Jimi Hendrix's freak albino mutant twin- shrieking, distorted polyphonic sonic booms which left the neighborhood windowless for months. Later on I had a band in High School but no one ever showed up for practice unless there was beer, so we did the sensible thing and retired after having our farewell tour of the lower desert.

Around the same time I discovered "world music" through buying foreign records from thrift store bins, which gradually began to dethrone American rock and heavy metal- actually, nearly everything western- from being the main point of my life. I regularly scoured the bins of local stores and came home with my arms full of foreign music. Groups like Kraftwork, Focus and Golden Earring were already growing in popularity and I soon found other bands which were seminal in the growing new wave of art rock, synth and world music- Amon Düül II, Tangerine Dream, Nectar, early Genesis with Peter Gabriel, Can, and a slew of others. My mother found it incomprehensible that I preferred to listen to music that I don't understand what they are singing about, but to me that was the beauty of it: it was pure, simple and practical, it wasn't American and there were no stupid, meaningless lyrics to get in the way. My all time favorite discovery was a recording of Middle Eastern music titled "The Devil's Anvil: Hard Rock From The Middle East".

My best friend, Richard Anderson, and I shared a love for strange bands that played unusual songs with curious subject matter in odd and experimental tempos. For me it was Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention (which my oldest sister introduced me to) and City Boy, a band from England. For him it was BeBop Deluxe, also from England, and Crack The Sky, from Ohio. We hit it off socially and musically and, fresh out of high school, formed a musical collaboration/ band and wrote our own music and lyrics, following the model of Fagen and Becker of Steely Dan. The band fell somewhere off-center of punk, power pop, and new wave, with a delight for montage-like experimentation with differing styles (I ask you- have you ever heard a Calypso-Punk version of Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance before?). Through the next several years- and several name changes, from Little Baby Strangers, A Soft Zoo, and Freaks Amor- we worked and played with some interesting and talented musicians in the area- The Reactors, The Neophonics, The Avatars, Pagan Myth, Montage, Cabazon Dinosaurs, The Unforgiven and some folks who would later form Camper Van Beethoven. Our home quickly turned into an artist commune, first with Casa de Cara in San Bernardino and then the Mellow Manor in Riverside, which was also home to Spike & Mike's Animated Film Festival. We recorded a couple records of original material and remained largely unnoticed except by local artists and party goers. We did get to open twice for Suburban Lawns, a punk band from Los Angeles who we mysteriously got hooked up with and who seemed to enjoy our music.

The most influential person I met during this time was Jack Johnson. He was brought in to play bass for us and quickly became our artistic mentor and creative muse. Jack was the sort of person who could do anything and was suspicious of formal education. Mostly self taught in everything he did, he studied dance when he was in college and then taught himself music so that he could understand dance better. He often showed up at our house with an instrument he'd never played before that he'd just picked up at a pawn shop and would have it figured out in a few minutes, or with raw materials, like hollow bars of iron which he cut into varying lengths to build a make-shift gamelan with. Through him I discovered another world of sound which was only hinted at in my attraction to foreign music, and he introduced me to microtonal and serial composition, atonality, foreign and experimental tunings, and through him I discovered the composers John Cage, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. If we accomplished anything of note in our music it was all due to his inspiration, encouragement and guidance. My waning interest for playing contemporary music continued to grow. I eventually decided that it wouldn't benefit anyone, particularly myself, to pursue something that I didn't enjoy, and I eventually left the world of music to concentrate on writing.

I returned to music composition several years ago while I was adapting the book of Tobit for theatre. It seemed particularly suited for opera so I began studying music of the Middle East, Judaism and Islam. Oh, and opera, too- just in case it might prove handy. Something about non-western music has always appealed to me more than contemporary American music, and I discovered a vast world of musical creation outside our boundaries that never seemed to be part of the country's melting pot. From there it branched out and blossomed, and I felt like I had returned to the thrift stores of my youth, bristling with excitement at the discovery of new worlds. Composing and orchestrating music, experimenting and exploring it's possibilities continues to provide that same spark of wonder and elation.

© emburke/ emberarts 2004

Making Spirits Bright: Ways We Can Renew the Christmas Season.

I almost blew it last Christmas. Locked away and tucked tight in my velvet canopied bed, futilely trying to sleep through the spiritual affliction of holiday pickled herring and organic egg nog, I was barraged by a parade of ominous specters. The past was easy enough to ignore and I tried to feign indifference toward the present as I rallied for another round of sleeplessness. 3 A.M. arrived way too soon, and with it came the ghost of Christmas future, decked out as Martha Stewart from a production of “Beach Blanket Babylon”. (How they found their way to South Hadley I’m still at a loss about, but I’m curious how their receipts fared. But I digress.) The spirit plied me with port cheese, savory crackers and crème de menthe aperitifs as she spoke frankly of my industrious shortcomings in seasonal cheer. Despite my protests and attempt to return to sleep, she gave me some pointers for the coming year and commanded me to share them with the rest of the world.
“Think shiny!”she bubbled effluviously. I rolled my eyes and she repeated the word. “Shiny! And stop being such a grump. It’s Christmas, after all.” And with that she departed in a flurry of tinsel and synthetic snow.
I pass on to you here some suggestions, in no particular order, how we all can make help to renew the Christmas Spirit and make it a little bit brighter.

Initiate a New Celebration Ritual

Whether it is returning to the richness of traditional observances or beginning a new spin off of it yourself, the Christmas season is made much more meaningful by rituals. Perhaps we need a new perspective to help bring some freshness to the holiday. Simple things, like trying a new recipe in place of an old standard, attending a Christmas mass or service, attending a play or choral performance, or just prolonging the day instead of rushing through it can make it a richer experience. I grew up in the Southern California desert, which is surprisingly free of familiar Currier and Ives images of New England Christmas. No chimney stoked clapboard houses with chestnuts roasting on the hearth, no horse drawn carriages crossing frozen rivers by the safety of a quaint covered bridge. No snow. But we did have customs from Mexico like enactments of the “Pidiendo Posada” by local residents and eating tamales for Christmas breakfast.
Years ago, while I was shopping downtown, I heard some interesting traditional Christmas music being played and went to inquire about it. It was from an annual theatre production called the Christmas Revels. Rich in tradition and ritual, each year Revels features material from a different country and is set somewhere in the 1880’s. They perform hymns and carols accompanied by dancing, stories, games and a traditional mummer’s play, and the community of participants are warm, inclusive and inspiring. I grew up without such history but was quick to make the Revels part of my Christmas seasonal celebration

Procrastinate a Little

I’m usually busy through the Christmas season. In the past I was working on the Christmas Revels show in Cambridge, which has eighteen performances (plus rehearsals) spread out over the four weeks of December, and I often worked a full time job during the day. I had very little time to go shopping before Christmas and it always worked out in my favor. I would go shopping immediately after the 25th, when all of the stores resemble ghost towns and the bulk of their merchandise suddenly drops in price. I could get twice as much for my spending dollar after the holiday than I could before, and I didn’t have to fence with flanks of surly sales clerks and battalions of disgruntled masses yearning to be free. There were no long lines at the post office either. Just imagine the drop in your holiday stress level. I became enlightened to an obvious fact of the Christmas observance: the birth and celebration of Jesus doesn’t end on the 25th; it is only just beginning. Who cares if you are a few days late in your giving to others? I have learned to trust that my lateness may serve as a blessing and a reminder of what the celebration is all about.

Buy Local

One of the fun things about New England living is the availability of arts and crafts we have. I know many of you are already aware of this, but it bears retelling as a reminder to others and advice to even more that we have options beyond what is flickered statically before us on television and thrust at us from store windows. Check out some of the many local, independent artists who work at their craft with love and dedication. Support their art and share it with others. Be inspired to try your hand at it as well.

Buy Eclectic

Every year there are scores of craft fairs where independent artists have gathered to sale their creations. They present a great way to find something unusual or particular for those hard to shop for people, and you can find a unique gift that you will be certain they won’t receive a duplicate of. Seek out traditional cultural gifts as well. Most areas have their own ethnic communities with gifts for sale.

Do it Yourself

Nothing says how much you care better than a gift made especially for another with your own time and hands, and there are a variety of ways to express your appreciation of others. Baked goods are always a popular annual treat. Spend some of your Christmas budget on materials to make cards for the people on your list. Offer gifts of your painting, knitting, needlecraft or bookmaking- whatever your talent is. You have a particular gift to share that others may not even know about.

Be Startlingly Generous and Kind

Last year while I was out shopping I crossed paths with a rather ornery salesclerk. I had a fresh cup of coffee with me and he abruptly yet playfully implied that it would make his day much better if he were also caffeinated. Several times during the eight minutes it took for our transaction. I went out to the nearby Starbucks and got him and his co-worker a cup of coffee, and he was stunned at the kindness of the gesture.
We are all aware of how much the simple things in life matter, and how easy it is to shrug them off as insignificant. I like to believe that such a small gesture was great enough to change his day, his attitude and his outlook on Christmas.
We all encounter those who are up front about their need while we are out shopping, and they should be given our consideration as well, but take time to look for the person who is going to be surprised and blessed by unexpected generosity.

Reconnect with Friends and Relatives

Christmas is all about getting together with family and friends and making our community and lives stronger. We might also think about those who have been separate from us over the past years. Take time to give them a call, send them a card or even better write them a letter telling them how much you miss their presence and wish you could see them. Invite them out to stay sometime and catch up on lost time.

Spend This One with the Family

My family has never been very close. Not only are we separated by miles, we are also distant in heart, soul and spirit, and we have suffered from it. Holidays are symbolic times of the year set aside for bonding with one another and with God as well as with our chosen community.
While Christmas of 2003 wasn’t an easy one for me, it will always be one of the most memorable and significant. I hadn’t spent a holiday with my family in fifteen years and returned home to be with my mother who was dying. We did the traditional stuff like exchanging gifts and having Christmas dinner, but we also did simple things together. My mother loved Tim Allen and we watched “The Santa Clause” movies, and we went to a local gallery of Thomas Kincaid, her favorite painter. Mostly we sat and visited while watching television. Her strength prevented her from doing much else. It was the last Christmas we had and I’m thankful we had the time to be together.

Spend Your Day Where You Would Least Expect To Be

It has often been said that if Jesus were to return today he wouldn’t be found in the church preaching to the choir. That might suggest that he’d be found among non-Christians eating at the only Chinese restaurant open on Christmas day. Lest we forget that he still lives among us, he also takes special care of the weakest, the least and the disenfranchised of our community. Soup kitchens will be busy, full of the hungry and needy, the lost and forgotten, and while it takes some planning ahead of time to beat the volunteer rush it is a very renewing gesture. Check into the local retirement homes and communities to see if they could use some help. Offer some of your best loved baked goods or brush up on your musical and art talents to share with others.
I read about a Jewish man who once offered to work on Christmas day for a colleague so that he could spend the celebration with his family. It was such a gratifying experience for him that he continued to do it every year for a different person.

Be Mysterious

Sometimes anonymity is the best way to go, and it’s also fun! Who doesn’t like or need to be surprised by God’s love? We encounter so many people in our day to day travels, and notice those who are feeling lonely, left out and lost. Offer them a word of encouragement and smile. Pray with them. Send them a card with words of appreciation. Go to the phone book or internet and do a random search for addresses and send the person or people you find a card for Christmas.

Remember that you are a gift to others.

We trust that this will be done in humility and deference to others. You were given to this world as a gift from God to others, and you carry within yourself the greatest gift of all- God’s love, Spirit and Presence. Share it warmly and generously by being with others. Woody Allen has said that 90 percent of life is simply showing up for it. Get out there and make it happen.

© emburke/ emberarts 2004

Eulogy For My Mother

Betty Burke Webb

Born on Columbus Day, October 12, 1933.
Died on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004.
Delivered Upon Her Inurnment Saturday, March 6, 2004.

It is said that the relationship which you have with your parents intrinsically defines how you approach your relationship with God. It's true; after all, the care that you are given on earth by a parent greatly affects how you perceive your creator.

I can't say I really knew my mother well. I've always found the defining characteristics of our relationship evasive. We lived in vastly different worlds which I had long ago accepted yet was uncertain that she recognized. I'm sure she must have. I'm sure, like most things between us she was playing along and accepting me on my own terms while firmly reassuring me of hers. I always loved trying to make her laugh, which was my way of delving deeper into who she was. She often seemed more puzzled by my humor than anything, but she would smile and shake her head in disbelief. Just as with God I really wanted to please her but found it to be a difficult process. Maybe I was too analytical, trying to know certainties and quantifications, or too artistic, needing to see a perfect form and perspective.

I came to understand over the years that she had taught me some of the most vital and basic approaches to understanding better and deepening my relationship more fully with God, and for years I never saw it this way. Part of what made up my view of our differing worlds was a sense that I didn't quite belong or that she didn't quite know what to make of me. As a consequence I had loads of downtime by myself to chase my creative impulses, and somewhere in this luxurious freedom they were developed. I was able to show her my love through my own creative expression while trusting in and knowing her love. The other aspect of our relationship involved long periods of silence. When I came to visit I would sit, both of us saying very little, seeking to sense the deeper stirrings of her spirit. In the stillness and the silence between us I also trusted in and received her love. There is a different type of discipline I was taught by her which has become crucial to my spiritual walk with God, and I can't imagine having a peaceful life without it. It is important having long stretches of quiet time in prayer and contemplation as well as being alone to explore and express my creativity. I learned these from my mother and I wished I'd been able to share this more fully with her. In this she also taught me to trust in her constant love just as God teaches me to trust in His unfailing love. I came to realize that it really is quite simple and not a difficult process at all.

Last year we drove to Las Vegas together. Her illness was already making her weak and she apologized for her constant falling asleep. We sat in long stretches of silence as I drove and prayed, and occasionally she would wake up and we'd chat. She recalled how as a child I often saw forms and shapes hidden in the landscape or suggested by the sparse architecture of the desert. We scanned the radio and found a local Mexican station playing lively conjunto music, and she lit up as she talked of being a young woman, going to dances where this music was played. Mom danced to conjunto? It was hard to believe let alone imagine. We talked about popular music, about Elvis, her all time favorite singer, about how there are no longer singers like Frank Sinatra any more. We talked about the simple, home-spun humor of Andy Griffth. I was able to share with her about some of his earlier comedy recordings before he became well known through television, and about Harry Connick, Jr., the contemporary successor to old blue eyes. She listened intently in the stillness of the long drive. We pulled into a truck stop where I happened to find among a bargain bin of cassette recordings the early recordings of Andy Griffith and a tape of Harry Connick, Jr. I eagerly bought them both and played them for her through the rest of the drive. It was a special treat for me, being able to share this with her, seeing her smile and laugh with enjoyment, our different worlds joining together. She was more than happy; she was content. Maybe it really is simple. Maybe our worlds aren't all that different after all.

I've come to see this much more clearly through the past week as I've talked to neighbors, as I sorted through pictures and remembered events and moments. The passing of a loved one is an overwhelming force which you can't look at entirely and objectively. Your scope is limited to fuller details no matter which way you approach it, and words can hardly even begin to express who they are, your appreciation for them or the beginning of your loss. The sharing of memories of events and moments, the extended words of friends and neighbors, and photographs have to make up that other area which is in your heart and is inexpressible. She is finally through with her job here. She has put off the anxious cares of this world for good and has flown from our presence to alight at the breast of God. This is where I once again have to rely upon and take solace in the silence, to trust in the love she showed to me and others, and wait to see what arises from the heart of creativity where she will always reside and where I will always be with her.

© emburke/ emberarts 2004