Weekly Photo Challenge: Winter

It’s typical for us to have Christmas weather that requires turning on the air conditioning if we want enjoy sipping eggnog in front of the fire. But on Christmas Day, 2010, snow began falling about 7 pm. Snow continued all through the night, and I awoke to winter in all its stark, textured, crystal glory.

Back yard juniper


Crystal tree

Holiday Lights in the Garden

Every year Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden fills the garden with lights and music. I’m sure that by now there are millions of lights outlining trees and creating holiday scenes.

One of my Christmas traditions is to go to the garden after Christmas and stroll the grounds on what usually turns out to be the coldest night of the year. But last night was almost balmy, so I could tolerate ungloved hands to take photos of the light displays. Here’s a few of my favorite shots. Click on a photo to enlarge it to a full-size view.

Happy Third Day of Christmas to everyone!

Listening Deep

Today at the harp I’m doing easy single-finger and unplaced scales – a slow, delicious warm-up. With each plucked string my breathing deepens, my shoulder blades relax down my back, my spine lengthens and my heart lifts until I am sitting effortlessly erect, bathed in the vibration of a C major scale, in the harp bench equivalent of Lotus pose. I’m listening to the sound of each string grow fainter as it speeds from my harp strings across the room, through the window, past the garden and the owls’ cedar tree, across the road, the city, the state – traveling ever outward until it circles the earth with vibration. I’m reading Bridge of Waves: What Music is and How Listening to It Changes the World by W. A. Mathieu (Boston: Shambhala, 2010) and he’s totally changing my concepts of listening.

I follow the book’s suggestion and play the C major scale tones against a lower C drone. Mathieu tells me, “I’m saying (and I know it can’t be said) that there is a mandala of feeling for you to discover in the harmonies of a scale, and that its power is innately yours in your wiring and in your nature [p. 66.]” Eyes closed, listening to each sound as it drops away below audibility, feeling each scale tone’s vibration against the drone, the only feeling word I can speak is wonder. There is a kinesthetic response to each plucked string. Some tones resonate inside me, their internal echoing scribing the shape of my chest cavity. Other tones bounce off my sternum at oblique angles and then surround my head and shoulders in an audible aura of sound. The 7th scale tone shoots through me and careens around the room, bouncing off walls and ceiling before settling with the drone in an evaporating puddle of sound at the base of the harp.

My newly attentive ears wonder what sound might be born by sounding two C strings together. I pluck the two C’s below middle C, and wait. Soon the higher C strings resonate, adding their vibrations. The stave back of my harp feeds this vibration to my heart. Just before the sound fades away, I again pluck both C strings together, then alternate plucking the lower and the higher C, creating a wave of sound that dances between lower and higher registers. My fingers want to add an E, and then an A, to ride the top of this wave, and so a new rhythm of scale tones now lies atop what has become a bass ostinato of the two C strings.

I am improvising, according to any music textbook. But what I am really doing is waiting for the vibrating strings to speak their desire, their longing, for the next scale tone in this dance of sound and fingers. I am swimming in the sound ocean, rising and falling on this wave, no thinking, no choosing, just listening, and allowing my fingers to respond to the pull of this tide as it aches for the next tone.

The bass pattern slows of its own accord. The last of the scale tones drift into the atoms of the room, and there remains the last vibrations of the lowest C string becoming a whisper, becoming smoke, becoming an emptiness that shimmers silver in the aftermath.

Was this music from my core? Or was this sound erupting from the very core of music, responding to the invitation of my open and willing ears? Are these two places one and the same, two vibrating hearts, infinitely resonating one with the other? Call it improvisation, or call it a song from God – it doesn’t matter, once the listening begins.

A Thank You To Carol

I’ve wanted to have a photo of my hands on my harp, so I could use it as the picture at the top of my blog, for the longest time. Carol Trull, who creates beautiful cards with her photographs, was kind enough to take lots of photos when I played at Catherine Anderson’s studio open house. So thank you, Carol, for Heart To Harp’s new header image.

Music Is In Our Genes

I finally saw Werner Herzog’s movie, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams. It’s a beautiful, haunting film, even in the non-3-D version I watched on my home television.

Herzog received exclusive access to film inside southern France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caves, which contain the world’s oldest known cave art. These paintings are 30,000 years old, and are twice as old as the more well-known cave art at Lascaux.

Thirty-thousand years ago human beings were creating images of the animals around them, images that so captured the spirit and essence of the animals that they seem to leap off of the cave walls. Perhaps that was their purpose – to call the animals to the hunters, or to revere the spirits of the animals whose life they had taken. Either way, we’ve been painting for at least 30,000 years.

As part of the film’s exploration of the role of art in the evolution of modern humans, Herzog also shares the 2008 discovery of a nearly complete bone flute and several pieces of ivory flutes in the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany. The flutes are 35,000 to 40,000 years old. Dated to the time when modern humans were arriving and spreading throughout Europe, these are the oldest musical instruments ever found.

Towards the end of this movie trailer you can see a shot of a replica of one of these early flutes being played.

The flute is tuned in a pentatonic scale. It is hard for me to comprehend that the pentatonic scale has been in the mind of human beings for nearly 40, 000 years. We’ve been making music for a very long time.

I am awed by this notion, awed that we have been creating art and music since pre-history, awed that the symbolic language of art and music has been so long a part of who we are. Art and music are major chapters in the story of how we became modern humans. It seems that we are hard-wired to create. Perhaps art and music both are encoded into our DNA as part of what defines us as Homo sapiens.

Given our evolutionary history, our long relationship with music, how can any one of us keep from singing, or playing our instruments? How can any one of us believe that we’re “not musical?” Listen to the track I’m Not Musical from The Listening Book Audio by W.A. Mathieu, in case you need further convincing. Then, sing . . . dance . . . chant . . . play . . . fly . . . and claim your music!

Has There Ever Been A Time?

Our recorder ensemble concert was last Tuesday evening. My yoga class has heard about my rehearsals and concerts since I started yoga last January, and three women from my yoga class came to the concert. I can rarely coerce anyone to come listen to an hour of Renaissance recorder music, so it was a big thrill to have people I know in the audience.

This year the recorder ensemble co-director (who also plays in the harp ensemble) suggested that we play our harp solos during the recorder concert. In a moment of temporary insanity I agreed. So midway through the concert I played my arrangement of The Grenadier and The Lady, and lived to play the second half of the recorder concert.

After the concert, as my friends were telling me how much they enjoyed the music and the playing, Suzy took a step backwards, looked at me, and asked, “Has there ever been a time when you didn’t love music?”

The summer I started this blog, I was completely muddled about why I was taking harp lessons. I still couldn’t sit down at my harp and play anything, and I seemed to make no discernible progress towards ever successfully playing a tune for anyone. But I found an answer to why I persisted with lessons, with practice, with learning to sight-read, and with trying to teach my fingers how to move. I knew I was still plugging away so that someday, I could play music I love in a way that expressed the beauty, soul and feeling of the music, as well as my love for the music and the harp. That summer, someday felt very far away, more like a mirage flickering in the distance than a goal I would ever attain.

As I was answering Suzy I realized that somehow, a piece of that distant someday had come to life on this rainy November evening. Somehow, my love for the music we played, my love for the harp and the recorder, shone through. Somehow, the joy I feel when I am playing and when I am making music with others could be seen, despite shaking harp hands and mis-timed recorder entrances.  And although her question had already been answered, I joyfully told her, “No, there has never been a time that I did not love music.”