I used to write a blog on the Whole 9 website, but blogs there have now been offline for a few weeks, and the whole site is about to be permanently taken down. I wish I’d ported these posts earlier, but only a couple were backed up as WordPress posts. This is a list of my posts on that site; I’m in the midst of reconstructing the more informative ones from the original drafts.
Periodically, non-Angelenos come to visit LA, and inevitably they want to visit Joshua Tree, thinking it’s nearby, although it’s 100 miles away on another desert plateau. The attraction has always puzzled me, until I got to know some of the locals there.
My initial thinking: Palmdale and Pearblossom Highway offer plentiful more accessible Joshua Trees (without a park admission fee) than the National Park does;
the northwest Lee Flats region of Death Valley National Park also has even more Joshua Trees than Joshua Tree National Park itself,
AND you can visit Death Valley in the same trip, perhaps even swinging up to the spectacular Saline Valley Hot Springs. (But that’s another blog post in itself.)
However, any urban dweller is likely to inexplicably find themselves at a frustration saturation point. Whether it’s the endless traffic jams or aggressive idiocy of those people packed into overpriced residential closets around you, you may find yourself ready to dive off the Hollywood Sign. That’s when it’s time to get away. It might sneak up on you before you even know it.
Let’s face it; from LA, Death Valley is too far a drive for most people, and Pearblossom Highway is sort of bleak. Joshua Tree is only a couple hours away, and after you pass through the endless surreal fields of windmills near Palm Springs and ascend the steep climb to Morongo Valley, there’s something magical about the whole stretch of desert along Highway 62.
During one of my first excursions to the area, my friend and I stopped for gas in Twenty-nine Palms, and while we were fueling up, a jeep pulled up to the next pump, and an attractive gal jumped out, tossed her hair, smiled, waved at my friend and I, and ran inside the gas station. Her disheveled bug-eyed boyfriend then jumped out of the jeep, ran over and nearly shouted, “she’s my girlfriend, just so you know…” as he agitatedly eyed us defensively. We cautiously eyed him, bracing ourselves for an attack.
Then something unexpected happened. He said, “Hey, wait…” and looked at me closely. “I’ve seen you somewhere… on TV… you’re…” he paused, “Richard Simmons!”
We all burst out laughing.
I’m no stranger to mistaken doppleganger recognition assumptions, of course. But it was the first time one seemed to dissuade an attack.
But my friend had visited from Vancouver, and during the short winter months, we arrived at the park as it got dark, only able to view it from the car headlights, during the long windy drive through the park. It was like a long uneventful and disappointing sequel to “The Blair Witch Project;” eerie Joshua trees appeared and receded as the headlights illuminated them, yet nothing notable ever happened. We finally reached the other highway and returned to LA. My friend seemed content, having visited the park, but I felt disappointed.
Joshua Tree is a puzzling and inhospitable environment. I’ve often had the feeling that people moved there because they wanted to get away from LA, not because they were drawn to something there. But I’ve learned that seems more true with Barstow than Joshua Tree. The desert plateau is littered with abandoned cabins, gradually deteriorating under the relentless abuse of the sun and winds, but often still showing the remains of their residents 30 or more years ago; record players and old TVs often sit next to old mattresses or couches with springs popping through any remnants of upholstery, like the chestburster scene in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movie.
While exploring an abandoned cabin, a flash photo revealed a pair of eyes in the dark corner of the ceiling; closer investigation revealed a dodo-like bird that looked like a winged porcupine. Locals later told me this was a “desert puffin,” creatures that reportedly have a knack for creeping into people’s cars unnoticed. However, I had revealed myself as a tourist, and they were just having a little fun with me. Google still didn’t have any listings for “desert puffins” and the closest look-alike I could find was the roadrunner, which reportedly nests about ten to twelve feet off the ground, often in cacti. I didn’t know that they’re also capable of killing or warding off a rattlesnake’s attack, but fortunately, I didn’t have to watch it take one on.
During my excursions to the area, I’ve also seen rare desert tortoises and burrowing owls.
Burrowing Owl Video:
Yet the most unusual wildlife are the people living there.
Despite the inhospitable climate, the region holds an unmistakable draw for artists and creative types. Perhaps it’s because light has a beautific surreal quality there; the “golden hour” before sunset seems to last all day long. But artists, even those craving solitude, also thrive amidst creative communities, and there seems to be a vast network on the plateau. This network, thankfully, also seems to lack the pretense of LA’s westside art scene. The residents are just doing what they love there, and some of them are exceptional.
The region has long attracted both the eccentric (if not insane) and exceptionally creative. Somehow these “creatives” live back-to-back with the expansive Marine Training Base, which is puzzlingly located far from any trace of water. The artists I’ve met speak with mystical acceptance and curiosity about what goes on there; such as the night-time “balloon flares” that shoot up into the sky, hover, and illuminate the desert below like weird Skynet searchlight UFOs from Terminator movies.
The Marine Base is off-limits to civilians, but it’s un-fenced, unlike many hundreds of miles of California ranches. Surrounded by miles of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, the desert roads lure dune buggy ORV drivers onto the outskirts of the base, but Marine deputies then nail the drivers, as well as every passenger, with expensive trespassing tickets.
One dune buggy driver told me how he had driven out across a desert field to a small shed, which had an armed guard standing next to it. He greeted the impassive guard, inquiring, “I guess I shouldn’t be here, huh?” The guard replied simply, “nope,” and then the shed door burst open and a whole platoon of soldiers emerged from the underground tunnel, surrounding him with drawn rifles, and escorting him off the base. Yet this impertinent driver seemed determined to push the limits, seeing how many times he could tread over the base boundaries; he unravelled tale after tale of taking friends over the hills and dunes, all of them eventually having to pay trespassing tickets.
This unusual encounter occurred near “Giant Rock,” north of Landers, NW of Joshua Tree itself. Slightly further out this desert road, literally in the middle of nowhere, was an apparently abandoned Western Movie film stage. (This turns out to have been the still active White Horse Ranch )
The nearest paved road was lined with deteriorating shacks adorned with “for sale” signs, like some bizarre real estate joke.
The Integatron was built by George Van Tassel, a UFO enthusiast, who believed he’d been gifted with a vision for a structure that would rejuvenate a person’s cells and extend their life. This vision was channeled through him, rooted in his regular meditation sessions, and drawn from information aliens had bestowed upon him during one of their visits. The domed building was supposed to have a spinning disk around the exterior, but it never turned, and birds found that it offered a great spot to build their nests. There is actually an airstrip between the Integratron and Giant Rock, which welcomed UFOs and participants in his popular “Spacecraft Conventions,” which drew 11,000 participants in 1959. George Van Tassel was an aeronautical engineer who worked for Lockheed, Douglas Aircraft, and as a test pilot for Howard Hughes at Hughes Aviation. His shared interest in spruce led him to get Howard Hughes to contribute some of the funds for the Integratron’s construction. The circle of concrete crowning the dome is said to weigh two tons.
Today, the Integratron offers yoga classes and sound baths with Tibetan Bowls and Gongs, but any aspirations for offering eternal life seem to have fallen by the wayside.
“Van Tassel had learned of Giant Rock from Frank Critzer, a gold prospector and desert dweller, who had excavated under the massive boulder to construct a dwelling of several small rooms protected from the fierce sun.” Van Tassel’s father had fixed Critzer’s car in Santa Monica in exchange for a claim in any gold mine he might start. There was gold nearby too; decades earlier, in the mountains just west of Landers, gold fever-stricken miners had been killed by bandits near Big Bear while some large mines like those on Big Bear’s “Gold Mountain” were in full swing. Following the first World War, Critzer had immigrated from Germany and served in the US Merchant Marine, but had been instructed to leave his sea life for the this desert plateau to help his lungs.
During WWII, rumors began to circulate that Critzer was a German Spy because he had a large radio antenna nearby. In 1942, three deputies from Riverside County came to interrogate him, despite Giant Rock being in San Bernadino County where they had no jurisdiction. He barricaded his door when he went inside to get his coat, and they threw a teargas grenade in the window, which detonated the prospecting dynamite he had inside. Critzer was killed and the deputies were injured. His residence under the rock was later filled in.
Van Tassel built and lived in buildings adjacent to Giant Rock while he was building his Integratron. They were torn down by the BLM after Van Tassel’s death in 1978. The adjacent hill is now named, “Spy Mountain,” and in more recent years, a chunk of the boulder cracked and fell away due to natural causes. Indigenous natives had long considered the boulder a sacred site.
As you depart from the eternal-life-aspiration-filled property of the Integratron, the roads, lined with small desert ranches, seem troublingly mundane. But don’t be deceived; the hills and valleys nearby are filled with other amazing gems. This is why Pioneertown is one of my favorite areas in this part of the desert.
In November, my birthday arrived again, and as I sat in
meeting that week, and a few times since, I’ve found myself thinking about my
friend Peter Baird.
Several years ago, I was loyally attending a Kundalini Yoga
class with a teacher who would loudly proclaim, “this life is a GIFT,
right? And we’re all so BLESSED to be incarnated in these bodies!”
Everybody in the class would join in agreement, and I would sit there thinking,
“Ugh, I hate my life, and this class at least makes it a little more
bearable!” However I dared not voice my depressed opinion.
Shortly afterwards at Cafe 101, a diner in Hollywood, I
began to recount my experience in the yoga class to Peter, and shared my
cynical perspective on the phenomenon of the “yogic happy people.”
Peter was one of the most jovial and funny people I’ve ever known, but he
turned serious for a second, and said, “Life is a curse, and we have to
endure it.” We laughed about our self-pitiful lives, and the conversation
turned to other subjects.
Shortly thereafter, Peter got a series of jobs that took him
around the USA and to Europe. I was sitting in the same cafe with a group of
friends, and one of them turned to me and said, “did you hear about Peter?
He’s got Esophageal cancer, and it’s spread throughout his spine. Basically
he’s a dead man.” I couldn’t believe we were talking about the same person
I’d been sitting with so recently, only two tables away, or that my friend was
speaking about Peter in such an uncaring manner. As I pressed for more
information, it became clear we were indeed talking about the same person.
Peter and I had an unusual friendship. He travelled in my circle of friends in NYC when we first met, and before we’d talked much, I had a strange dream in which I was riding his motorcycle with him, getting into a helluva lotta trouble, not unlike the film “Easy Rider.” Then I ran into him that same day! “Stay out of my dreams!” I told him, and revealed the weird subconscious encounter we’d had.
When I moved to LA, I began to run into him everywhere. Everywhere! Glendale, Silverlake, Venice, Pasadena, Valencia, Santa Monica… you name it.
Despite this, for years I didn’t realize what he did for a living. CalArts started a puppetry program, and when he found out who was directing it, he got excited and came up to see one of the performances there. Later I was talking to the director, and she said, “you know who Peter’s father is, don’t you? He’s one of the most famous puppeteers EVER. There’s a book by him in the library; go look at it.” His father was Bil Baird, who made the famous Punch and Judy puppets, and perhaps was most widely seen when he did the marionettes in “The Sound of Music.” Shortly before he came down with cancer, Peter had been a consultant on the film, “Team America,” which he was quite excited about. The film provided jobs for more accomplished puppeteers than any film in history, I’ve been told. Unfortunately I would meet them at his memorial service.
I was fortunate to be one of only two LA friends who got to visit him in NYC before he passed away. I asked if he remembered our conversation in the cafe, and he said wryly, “Sure. Funny isn’t it?”
Then he changed the subject, and struggled to choke down some soft cooked eggs. As I was about to leave him and his girlfriend, he said, “Oh, one more thing. Notice anything different about me?” I couldn’t come up with anything. Then he coyly stood behind the door, wrapping his fingers in front of it and wiggled his ring finger, which was bearing a wedding band. His girlfriend – nay, fiancé, laughed nervously. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a mixture of happiness for somebody and sadness at the same time.
Peter died shortly afterwards, in the same terminal cancer
hospital my father passed away in, on the same floor. His widow visited LA
several times over the following year, arranging memorial services and visiting
with me and other friends. One Thanksgiving, I showed up at a potluck dinner,
having gotten the time wrong, and everyone was leaving. She offered to make
Thanksgiving dinner for me, and we travelled throughout Hollywood and Koreatown
looking for an open place to get food, in vain. Finally we bought a Turkey TV
dinner and went to Peter’s apartment to eat it. I don’t think a TV dinner ever
tasted so good. She claims now that I also took her out for Thanksgiving dinner
the year before or afterwards, but I don’t remember that now. We touch base
When I tell the story of Peter’s conversation with me to
people, I usually am told, “Well, no wonder he came down with cancer with
an attitude like that!” Yet I shared that perspective at the time, and I’m
still kicking. Fortunately, my attitude has changed, but I live now with the
attitude, “I guess God isn’t done with me yet; I wonder what’s in store
In NYC, I once heard a woman recount her succession of
failed suicide attempts to the audience, and the litany of failures made the
film “Harold and Maude” seem like child’s play. Her final attempt was
a dive from the Brooklyn Bridge, and she was fished out of the East River
alive, although she claimed she now has a steel plate in her head. As I left
the room, I remember thinking, “I guess it isn’t up to me to choose when I
When I was in a Musical Theater Writing workshop in
Glendale, one of the composers was a church organist, and she’d missed quite a
few sessions. She revealed that she’d been busy playing several funerals.
“It’s funeral season,” she said, “Most people die during the
holidays.” I was rather shocked by that perspective, and I’d like to think
New Years is an odd concept, if you really think about it;
the death of one year and the birth of another. In reality, it’s part of one
continuum of orbits around the sun. Perhaps life is like that as well.
There’s a yoga teacher named Gurmukh who teaches in
Hollywood (and all over the world, for that matter.) She was with Yogi Bhajan,
a Kundalini Yoga master from India, and this Indian saint came and visited Yogi
Bhajan. The saint was very old, but he asked Yogi Bhajan to teach him Kundalini
Yoga. Yogi Bhajan gave it a good effort, but then he stopped and told the man,
“It’s no use, you’re too old to learn it now, sorry.” So the saint
humbly thanked him. Shortly thereafter he died.
A few months later, Gurmukh and Yogi Bhajan were at a
christening for a baby, and Yogi Bhajan turned to Gurmukh with slight surprise
and told her, “It’s the saint! He’s come back as that child.” As the
child grew up it had all the same mannerisms as the saint had. He went on to
become a master of Kundalini Yoga. Gurmukh claims it’s the only time she’s met
the same person in two different bodies. I’ve often wondered who the saint is
and where he is now.
I think that story gave me a little different perspective on
death as my father was dying and as Peter’s illness progressed. Losing friends
and loved ones is never easy, but hearing of evidence that they might turn up
in our lives again in different forms can offer a little hope, I think.
They say the more spiritually adept can choose the next life
that they will return in, and it’s simply a matter of the soul needing a new
body to continue its journey in. Sikhs chant, “Akaal” three times
when a person dies, and it’s supposed to help the soul cross over into its next
life. Akaal means undying.
While my father was dying, my friend Chris offered me a bed
in his NYC apartment to sleep in. He told me the Buddhists believe the spirit
doesn’t leave the body for a few minutes after the body dies. When his
grandmother died, he shouted at her, “What’s it like on the other
side!??” So after my dad took his last breath, as I held his hand, I woke
up my mom, and she went to get the priest to say the last rites. I shouted the
same thing to him, and then chanted “Akaal” three times. I never got
an answer. Then the Catholic priest came, said the last rites to the confirmed
Methodist, and told us we had to be out of the room within two hours. What a
bizarre melange of conflicting religious rituals we bring to the one thing that
we least understand and fear most!
Shortly thereafter, my visiting aunt wanted to see Walt
Whitman’s birthplace near my parent’s home. We chose the one day it was closed
to visit, and sat chatting on the lawn. An enormous bumblebee sat listening
throughout, and finally lighted on mom’s lapel. “Maybe it’s Dick and he’s
come back as a bee!” offered my aunt. “I hate bees! Make it go
away!” my mom countered. In a lazy aimless flight, it floated away, and
that was the last I saw of my dad.
The holidays offer more challenges than most of the year for
many people, causing some to characterize them as “the threefold disease
of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years.” Family pushes the buttons
they’ve put there, and everyone reacts. It’s been said that after three days with
parents, no matter how much inner work you’ve done, you revert to your
childhood relationship with them. People who’ve travelled across the country to
get away from their family feel neglected and miss them. To say nothing of the
savage shoppers that must be endured to navigate your way through the Christmas
So in the spirit of loving community, I hope we can hold
each other in the light throughout this holiday, and appreciate the love we
offer each other. I was delighted with last year’s Christmas Meeting, and am
looking forward to this year’s as well. Happy Holidays!
For starters, let me clarify one thing. I’m not an art historian, I don’t play one on TV — I don’t even play one on YouTube.
Simon Schama spoof
Simon Schama the Big Budget Flop:
I sometimes harbor disdain for them too — well, the arrogant ones anyway. I find nothing as offensive as the art snob who responds to a curious inquiry about an artist with attempts to instill shame for not knowing the artist’s work. Of course this isn’t unique to the art world; many a music major has attempted to wield intellectual superiority in a similar fashion. A recent visit to a literary benefit sent me scuttling out the door with my tail between my legs. Yes, it’s true; I don’t know the majority of the writers on the shelves these days, and they let me know it.
In the realm of modern music, the problem is compounded by the fact that many modern composer’s works can only be found on compilations, so it’s quite a feat to compile a discography of their works. But in any of these realms, it’s a wonderful encounter with another person who simply loves to share their creative discoveries.
My musical and artistic quests, then, are simply an obsessive labor of passionate curiousity. My parents claim I’ve had this tendency since childhood. Apparently there’s no cure.
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art had its NYC O’Keefe exhibition, although I had ignored her works as cliched tourist illustrations while living in New Mexico, I was soon to be found trying to locate Steiglitz’s old studio to see what had become of it (a rug shop), trying to locate the buildings O’Keefe lived in and painted while in NYC, and eventually even visiting Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu. What I discovered when I arrived at her NM ranch was that the Mars-like landscape had been realistically painted by her, a discovery that shocked me.
And I got a few nice pictures of my own.
Small surprise, then, to find me sitting silently for an hour in a Quaker Meeting House in Pasadena.
Synchronicity has led me here, and ironically, as Quakers are notorious pacifists, later in the day the death of Bin Laden would be announced nation-wide.
This was the space where I found peace during grad school when I felt my world was un-ravelling, and the threads gradually wove themselves back together. What drew me back again was the discovery that this must’ve been the room where, 70+ years earlier, the child James Turrell was encouraged by his grandmother to “go inside and greet the light.” Today the light outside is spectacular, heralding Spring’s arrival with trees in full bloom, and there is light within those around me as well.
An octagenarian woman who bears an astonishing resemblence to an Edward Gorey illustration is celebrating her birthday today. Despite her somewhat severe posture, I know that she’s one of the sweeter members of the meeting. Over coffee and birthday cake, I’m tempted to ask if she knew the Turrells, but decide against it. Or rather, the choice was made for me by the visitor zealously informing me of the Quaker history of feminist and homosexual tolerance. Some day I may bring the subject up with the birthday girl. Time will tell.
Light is a familiar metaphor for spiritual realization in many religions, of course. We discuss enlightenment without giving this much thought. For the Quakers, there is a long-held understanding that every person has a divine personal intimate connection to this “light,” and sitting quietly becomes the first step in becoming aware of this presence. Then it becomes possible to let it illuminate the actions taken throughout the day. Early on, Quakers thought of this as the light of Jesus, but over time, the broader inter-denominational influences have included the teachings of many other faiths.
Turrell understood early on that going into the light was both a literal and metaphorical inspiration for his work. As his work has evolved, I believe it becomes less possible to just “look” at one of his works; you experience it. You become engulfed by it. You are changed by it. He has confessed a fondness for the liminal light of dawn and dusk. He told the New York Times, “My spaces are dim because low light opens the pupil and then feeling comes out of the eye as touch, a sensuous act. Sure, you surrender. You surrender when you go to the doctor. A doctor’s office is a body shop. We’re talking about healing the soul.” This points to a deeper aspiration within his art, and might give a clue as to the direction his life’s work has taken.
Turrell went to Pomona College, not far from Pasadena. Although the school’s alumni included many famous artists, including John Cage, Turrell enrolled in the perceptual psychology program, and that choice has unmistakably shaped his work. Optical illusions, implied planes and geometric shapes are often a major component of his installations. He was the subject of a lawsuit when a visitor fell and injured himself trying to lean against a wall “that wasn’t there,” leading to the first time that the “effect of a piece of art” had been the subject of a courtroom case. Time and time again, he has tried – and often, in my opinion, succeeded, in creating works that bring the sky into a room, transporting you into it.
After he graduated from Pomona, as the Woodstock Festival was happening on the other side of the country, as man was landing on the moon for the first time, he moved into a building known as the Mendota Hotel, at the corner of Hill and Main Streets in Santa Monica.
The building still stands and it’s my next destination.
I park a few blocks from Hill and Main, and make my way down the hill.
As I pass the church a block away, a film crew runs after me, begging me to play the part of “Doc” in their music video adaptation of “Back to the Future.” The irony of my historical search isn’t lost on me, so I don a lab coat and run down the street after a Bricklin as the camera begins rolling.
I’m in the very last scene.
When my 30 seconds of fame have elapsed, I proceed back to the future myself, snapping a few “Hill Street Views” exterior shots of the Mendota Hotel building.
The tree has gotten a little bigger!
This is where the foundation of much of his work first began to be realized.
Turrell painted over the windows in his studio here, and experimented with techniques to create apertures for light to enter his studio.
During this time, he became intimately familiar with the tungsten street lamps, the stop lights on the corner, the passing bus lights, and of course, the sun and moonlight. He also collaborated with a film lighting designer, experimenting with projected light.
He often had showings of his aperture experiments, and attracted quite a bit of attention.
Mere blocks from here, above the Santa Monica Pier, is the Camera Obscura, a landmark that has been bringing the light inside for over a hundred years.
One can’t help but wonder if it helped inspire Turrell to try turning his own studio into a camera obscura as well, as that was one of his many projects.
I stay for a couple of hours until they close at 8PM.
The buses still run down Hill Street, the tree has gotten enormous, many more lights surround the building.
I become enamoured by the play of the light around the room as sunset approaches.
Light reflects off the walls of the room, and I see the figures of cars reflected across the room by their windshields. As the sun sets, the street lights come on, and the character of the light changes completely.
As last caffeine call is announced, I show a barista a 1969 image of the building. Fascinated, he informs me that the building is now owned by Bill Cosby. Then he kicks me out.
Years ago, when performing with a choir called Musica Viva in NYC, we encircled the congregation and sang a work by Palestrina.
When we finished, I saw an old man sobbing. It struck me that music really does have the ability to touch a person’s heart unlike anything else, and I have long wondered if maybe that isn’t God, or some form of spirit, in action. Last night I attended an intimate concert by the fabulous cellist Maya Beiser, and was on the receiving end of that sort of transmission.
After a frenzied scramble to find the new arts complex, the Casitas Theatre in Atwater Village, which houses two theater companies and a small performing hall, I took a seat and tried to catch my breath and discard thoughts of the pressing matters on my desk at home.
Maya emerged, clad in her usual stunning low-cut black leather ensemble, and sat down to play. No sooner had she played three notes than I thought, “uh oh… she’s cracking my heart wide open…” The piece was Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel,” which has haunted me from the first hearing. I made my best effort to choke back tears, and eventually realized I wouldn’t be able to win the fight.
As she finished the Golijov work, a Mr. Nazarian, whom I
believe arrived with a stunning blonde on his arm (Kristin Cavallari?)
presented a certificate of recognition from from the City of Los Angeles to
Maya Beiser for crossing cultural boundaries and bringing cultures together.
Beiser’s work has a consistently humanitarian context, often fueled by travels
to meet and learn from musicians around the world, sometimes in troubled
countries. She was born and raised on a kibbutz in Israel, later attended Yale,
and helped found the renowned new music ensemble, “Bang on a Can All-Stars,”
which held pioneering 24 hour a day performances for ear-opening weekends in
NYC in the late 80’s.
I first stumbled upon Beiser on MySpace, when I saw her name
and thought it familiar, some sort of déjà vu connection. Transfixed by the
sounds on her page, I dug up her website, and saw she was due for a concert
that month at UC San Diego, and attempted to reserve tickets when I realized
the calendar was a year old. I periodically checked the site, and last year got
to see her at UCSD for the first time.
At that small show in a lounge at the UCSD student union, I
felt I had slipped into a dream, transported to a large gallery in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a large wall looms just above the eye of the
viewer so that you can’t see out the glass wall beyond it. I felt I had
levitated and observed the view through the window, descending back into my
seat as the music stopped, unable to recall exactly what I had seen, but
changed by the vision nonetheless.
Thursday’s LA concert accompanied the release of her new CD
“Provenance,” which features music by contemporary composers from Armenia,
Kurdish Iran, Israel, and the US. The
title means origins, referring to both Maya’s personal history and the
intertwining cultural traditions that course through this stunning disc.
It included pieces from her previous albums, among them a multitrack piece written for her by Steve Reich, “Cello Counterpoint.” Many of her works rely heavily on recordings of her playing several parts, often with electronic processing, and she acknowledged her sound engineer to be her accompanist. As she returned for an encore, she performed her wildly rousing version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” arranged by Evan Ziporyn.
Here’s a terrible quality video link, but it gives you an idea of the style of the arrangement. The album is available on iTunes or from her website.
Maya Beiser’s performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”
When I saw Maya perform Kashmir, I immediately thought of Lili Haydn, who’d actually performed with Led Zeppelin, I believe. I’d met her at Gurmukh’s Kundalini Yoga classes, and thrilled with her performances at The Viper Room on the Sunset Strip. I’d love to see Maya and Lili perform together!
Here’s another inventive arrangement of that song by The Ordinaires, whom I’d heard perform this years ago in NYC.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you hear the original again too:
Considering how much time I spend trolling art openings and
museums, it’s rather amusing that so little art actually evokes a visceral
response from me. Many pieces are intellectually interesting, of course, but
nothing really seizes my by the neck and shakes me to the bone. With a couple
One chilly dark night, years ago, I wandered through New York’s East Village, in an even darker mood. Nothing was going right in my life, it seemed, and somewhere between the avenues of self-pity and depression, I found my way into a small bookstore. On a table there, I began to page through a book of semi-psychedelic pseudo-medical illustrations, showing auric fields emanating from people, their chakras, and the typical veins and bones you’d expect to see in scientific illustrations — if the illustrations were copulating, praying, meditating, and wandering through outer space. Something began to change in my mood. I couldn’t explain it, but I began to realize there was a whole world beyond my clouded little problems. By the time I’d paged through to the end of the book, my whole attitude had been transformed. It was perhaps the first time I’d actually seen physical visualizations of the chakras and energy fields around our bodies, although I’d frequently heard them discussed. The artist was of course, Alex Grey. He’s not to some people’s liking, but I really felt an impact on my whole perspective just from reproductions in a book.
By sheer synchronicity, once I had relocated to LA, my good
friends had arranged an exhibition of his work in their gallery. By the time of
this opening, the impact of Grey’s paintings had diminished for me, but
standing amidst them in the gallery, I was awestruck. Meeting the artist, I
just found there wasn’t really anything I could say because I was so deeply
moved. But I wanted to know more about him.
Grey has written a book on his artistic process, and recorded a tape of dialogues discussing the evolution of his work, entitled, “The Visionary Artist.” He frequently gives artist’s workshops at Esalen and the Omega Institute. His work was spanned a wide gamut, from the dark photographic documentation of the decay of a dog he accidentally ran over to workshops designed to unite inner city kids in artistic collaboration. Psychedelic experiences play a large role in his life; he met his wife during an acid trip. While working as a medical illustrator in a morgue, he poured lead into the ear of a decapitated head (apparently a common procedure) and actually became haunted by the head’s spirit. This experience so deeply moved him that it opened up a whole realm of spirituality in his artwork. He’s a rather devout Buddhist.
Standing in the midst of a tryptych at the gallery, I found myself speechless in the middle of a crowd. I had felt that deeply moved only once before, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As I reached the end of the historical evolution of modern art on the second floor, before emerging into the lobby, a huge painting by Pavel Tchelitchew, entitled “Hide and Seek” loomed ominously. An enormous tree stretches into veiny arms, framing faces, and in its truck, a girl looks up into the trunk, a baby emrging between her legs. The painting is rather large, perhaps 6 feet square. Unlike Monet’s water lillies, there were no benches to sit on to try to digest the complexity of this overwhelming work. So I plopped down on the floor in front of it, transfixed, and probably stayed there a half an hour gaping. Then I returned again and again to the museum, to see it.
Hide and Seek was inspired by a tree Tchelitchew saw at an English estate during a visit in 1936, but it was nearly 6 years later that he began the painting, which took three years to complete. It is the second of a projected tryptych, following Phenomenon. The third was never completed. Phenomenon was ultimately gifted to a museum in Moscow, which apparently was rather non-plussed to receive it.
Alex Grey’s “Gaia” seems to bear more than a passing similarity to Hide and Seek:
Who was Pavel Tchelitchew? And how the heck do you pronounce his name? (I’ve been told “Chitch a’ Chef.”) A Russian painter, he emigrated to the US in the early 20th Century, and spent a good deal of time in Paris and Italy. He was friends with Gerturde Stein, who was a big supporter of his work. He was good friends with Balanchine and Diagalev, and painted portraits of them and contributed many of their stage sets. He was somewhat of an outsider to the Getrude Stein circles because of his homosexuality. The excuse given by curators for him not getting more attention, is that they don’t know how to categorize him, or where he fits in the canon of modern art. MOMA apparently no longer exhibits Hide and Seek, following their renovation. The excuse is its large size and lack of context. (update 2019: apparently it’s on display again)
Hide and Seek is hallucinogenic. But there’s no mention of
drug use in his history. But Phenomenon isn’t nearly as psychedelic; in fact,
it’s nearly a realistic montage. His other works vary enormously in style; some
seem to be pale imitations of geometric constructivist photo illustrations by