My thoughts and theories on art, music, and spirituality
I see lots of strange things behind my eyes, but I rarely take the time to draw them. This is changing now. I wouldn’t call this a drawing series as I’m going to keep doing this for the sake of inspiration, but I have a feeling most of these sketches will remain just sketches. Once a week I will look through them and see which ones are deserving of being fleshed out into complete works. For now I will be posting each day’s sketch on social media, and you are encouraged to comment with what each image evokes for you. I don’t always know what these images mean or represent, they literally just flash behind my eyes.
What I find cool about these images is that they look so different from what I consider to be my usual style and content. Many of them are abstract, and I rarely create abstract art. Some are completely mundane, like Warholian mundane, and I don’t usually draw bags of cheese and the like. I’m finding this to be a fun way to broaden my horizons, and a fun way to engage my fans. If you would like to check it out and see what stories these sketches tell you follow me on Facebook or Instagram or follow the hashtag #whatiseewheniclosemyeyes
Maybe you would like to play along. I would love to see what you see when you close your eyes too. Lots of people have a light show or a movie playing in their head throughout the day that they are barely aware of, even when they close their eyes. This is also why I meditate, to watch these images expand and listen to them divulge their meaning.
This exercise has also helped me narrow down who I am as an artist, which may sound somewhat contradictory. I am a symbolist, a designation that has nothing to do with style. I use symbolism in every art form I practice, though it’s probably the most striking in my puppetry simply because symbolist puppetry is pretty rare. I like to tell stories through my art as well, but all of these stories contain an abundance of symbolism.
A big part of my attraction to symbols has to do with my spirituality. The Universe (or God if you prefer) speaks to us through symbols, as do our spirit guides and our own subconscious. At least that’s how I see it. Some call it “dream speak,” and I love this term. I think Spirit speaks to us through symbols because it’s just so expedient. So much can be said in an instant with a symbol, and when you don’t have a body it takes a lot of effort to communicate to those who do have bodies. I hear it said that spirits experience talking to us kind of like yelling through a body of water, and we hear them in the same distorted way, so every nugget of wisdom must be delivered in the tightest package possible, hence symbolism. I also find that the best symbols my spirit guide gives me also serve as double or triple metaphors. This same economy of communication is a key component in art as well. All artists strive for the most punch with the least amount of explanation. The primary rule for art across all disciplines should be “keep it tight!”
I’ll post soon about why and how I meditate, as this question does seem to come up with some frequency. For now I’m excited to tell you what I intend to do with all these #whatiseewheniclosemyeyes sketches. I’m going to create a set of oracle cards incorporating the best of them! This could take a long time, but if I decide upon one each week to flesh out then I should have all the cards decided in one year. You may not know what oracle cards are. Essentially they are like tarot, but much easier to decipher as they don’t come with a specific tradition or with predetermined suits and symbols. The number of cards, symbolism, method of interpretation, instructions for use, and much more are all up to the creator of a deck of oracle cards. Of course the person using the cards adds their own interpretation to the cards as well and may also find their own way of using them. I’ve had a lot of mind blowing moments from the oracle cards I’ve used and would love to return the favor. My favorite deck is Healing with the Angels by Doreen Virtue in case you were wondering.
Do you use oracle decks and what’s your favorite? Let me know in the comments.
Today I saw a prompt on Facebook: “Tell me about a work of art that changed your world view.” This made me think hard, and I realized there are many! I thought I would devote this post to three of them.
Story number 1
This story is not about a specific work of art, but about one element found specifically in Buddhist art. Back in 1999 I was taking a class in Indian art at the University of Washington, and I was also brewing chai at Morning Glory Chai. In fact the whole reason I took this class was because there were so many depictions of Indian gods and goddesses around the chai house that I wanted to know more about them. In one class the teacher was talking about the ushnisha on the Buddha’s head. The ushnisha is often defined as Buddha’s topknot, and it is a representation of the wisdom that leads to enlightenment, but it is is a symbol with many other possible meanings. There’s an interesting article about the origin and meaning here. In Southeast Asia there was frequently a flame found on top of the topknot, and many old statues even have holes in the topknot where a flame, either of wood or metal, would have been attached as a separate piece. Sometimes the flame is represented by a jewel.
For the past thirty years I have pulled out my hair. It started when I had chicken pox back when I was ten, and pulling my hair out was the only way to scratch the chicken pock on the top of my head. Trichotillomania has been a defining feature of my life as the bald spot on my head grew from being the size of a quarter to taking up most of my head now. Back in 1999 I was still able to cover it with my own hair worn in a bun. My mother, being a devotee of all things mystical, said that she thought it was a physical manifestation of overactivity in my crown chakra. I hadn’t yet dived into learning about the chakra system yet when I learned of the ushnisha, but I was fascinated that there was iconography for what I perceived on a personal level as the buzzing and itching I feel on the top of my head.
After learning about the ushnisha I went to work, thinking about it on the bus all the way there. When I was brewing chai one of the kettles boiled over and doused the flame beneath it, a common occurrence. We used gas stoves, each with a 25 gallon pot of water sitting on top. I was also a dumbass who knew nothing about gas safety, so I turned the gas on full bore and bent down to light the fire at eye level. A huge fireball exploded into my face!
I had counted death by fire as one of my biggest fears up to this point, so I was surprised by my own response to this situation. As I watched the fireball roar toward my face my thought was very nonchalant, “I’m going to die and that’s a shame. My parents will be so sad. Oh well.” That was literally it. To my amazement I didn’t die, and stood up in one piece. I wasn’t exactly overjoyed that I was still alive, and that too struck me. Apparently life and death were to me states that weren’t too different from one another. However, when I stood up my coworker who was washing bottles beside me screamed, “Your hair’s on fire!” and threw her glass of water over the top of my head. Yup, it was the very top of my head that had caught fire, right where the Buddha’s ushnisha would be found.
I was profoundly shaken by the event, though not hurt, but I also marvelled at the synchronicity and personal relevance of this. I like to say that “coincidence is the language of magic.” At the time I had no idea what this could mean. I knew that I was meant to go on living, and I felt I had gained wisdom through this experience, not only of gas safety, but that on a deep level I was not afraid of death.
Story number 2
I went to the Monet exhibit in Portland, OR around the same time. This exhibit was extra special because it included some of Monet’s biggest canvases, very rarely seen in the United States.
I stood in front of a huge painting of waterlilies around a bridge, straining my eyes to see what exactly was being depicted. The card on the wall mentioned that Monet was struggling with his eyesight at the time, so I figured I would try to see it the way he did. I stood back and took off my glasses. Without my glasses I’m so blind I can’t recognize faces two feet in front of me, but this was exactly the right point of view for these paintings! Now the waterlilies were obvious, the bridge was clearly a bridge, and the whole composition made sense. Best of all, I now felt that my nearsightedness was actually a superpower. All I had to do was take my glasses off to see the world like one of the greatest painters? I felt bad for all the people around me with perfect eyesight. Having two modes of physical sight is pretty awesome.
Monet also had cataract surgery which may have given his vision a reddish hue from then on, possibly affecting his later paintings as well.
I also remembered that Seinfeld episode where George’s dad had a theory that all the impressionists were actually just nearsighted, and I felt he was probably right.
Story number 3
This only happened a couple of years ago. I had been on a huge Schubert kick, and still am, taking the time to listen to all of his songs and organize them into playlists by subject. It’s odd, but sometimes one will just hit me out of nowhere with an emotional intensity that’s hard to bear, even if I had listened to it many times before with no emotional response at all. I had heard Nacht und Träume (that’s Night and Dreams in English) many times over the years, but my mind just seemed to not register it. I made a playlist on my Ipod of all of Schubert’s songs about the night – or the moon, stars, and constellations, so of course this song was included. Then one day I stood in the rain listening to this playlist for about the tenth time as I waited for the bus in downtown Seattle.
Nacht und Träume came on and the world became liquid. The song finally worked its magic on me as I saw every person as soluble, their edges blurring, becoming one with the rain. The only permanence anyone seemed to have in the face of this music was that of their deepest dreams and disappointments...insofar as those even have any permanence.
I got on the bus and put the song on repeat, curled up and crying in my seat hoping the person sitting next to me didn’t notice. Seriously, what the heck was wrong with me? We passed over the West Seattle Bridge. I stared through the raindrops on the window as the streetlights passed by in a gliding, continuous rhythm, perfectly matching the measures of the music. The mundane world felt heartbreakingly beautiful on this bus ride. Night and dreams, rain and tears, beauty and pain. All humanity became one with me, our pain and our hopes being the same, running and mingling into one another like raindrops on a bus window.
Looks like Kurt Weill and my dad share a birthday (along with Jon Bon Jovi and Elmer Fudd). I consider this to be an auspicious sign as I am in the beginning stages of joining my friend, Joe Mabel, in an extended Kurt Weill project. Joe Mabel is well known around Seattle as being a local historian, photographer, and software developer, but you may not know that he is also a kick ass guitar player! Heck, I didn't know either until he asked me to be a part of this project.
We got a chance to rehearse Youkali Tango together and it sounds really great on guitar, so I'm excited to hear how the rest of our set list sounds as well. It turns out that Kurt Weill's music is rarely played on guitar, at least in the classical sense. There are certainly plenty of bands that play his music, but in the classical world it is all performed on piano or with orchestra.
Our first official show isn't scheduled until February 19, 2022 (at The Chapel in Wallingford, Seattle) due to the pandemic, which we are hopeful will be much mitigated by then, but then we will be ready to invade your house party with Weill music. We have hopes for recording an album as well, and perhaps touring widely if all goes well.
I happen to be the art director for this project as well, and am deep in the process of designing a logo. We will be presenting each song with a large placard on the stage, in Epic Theater fashion, but there are far too many songs for me to design all of these - and my style doesn't exactly lend itself well to the angry tones of many of these songs. Joe is also a very talented visual artist who will be helping with this, but we also enlisted internationally known artist Yvette Endrijautzki to design several of these placards. She is perhaps best known for her Farrago Spiritum tarot card deck which she designed with Raven Zingaro, but also owns Nautilus Studio and gallery in Wuppertal, Germany.
Joe is already writing up articles on the link between John Cale and Kurt Weill, and I will likely have more to add as well. There will be a big academic side to our project, but on the whole Kurt Weill's music is pretty new to me. Mack the Knife was the official Ballard High School literary club anthem back when I and my friend, Sara Girganoff, founded it, though the anthem was her idea and I never even learned all the words. Weill is an artist whose music exists in a liminal space - not quite classical and not quite pop. This makes him the go to composer for opera singers who want to sing something poppy, and for bands who want to do something classical.
For the record, one of my biggest pet peeves is when opera singers try to sing pop. It almost always sounds stilted and laughably pretentious. I say this as an operatic pop singer myself (see me singing 99 Luftballoons with Operadisiac above), but my approach is very different. I take on pop music and exaggerate its operatic possibilities for comedic effect. I know I'll be laughed at for singing pop music anyway, so why not own that and play it up? This is making the Weill Project challenging for me since I need to find a way to sing some of his poppier stuff in a way that still sounds authentic when a comedic take is not desirable. Does that mean leaving out the vibrato? Using more chest voice? More swing? Something else? I don't think I'll be able to figure out a formula for it, because if I did I would be just as bad as all those other stilted popera singers.
At the same time, I am finding the classical, romantic even, sensibility in Weill really beautiful and moving. There is a lot there reminiscent of classical German art song and operetta, sweet dashes of Schubert and Lehár.
I'll have a lot more to say about Weill's music in the future, but for now join me in wishing him a happy 121st birthday!
Julia gawked in awe at the vaulted ceilings above her. She was both in a church and not in a church. The stairway before her wound around ancient sculptures stately in their arches, yet the room opened up into a very cozy space dominated by a nineteenth century grand piano. Julia was traveling with The Seattle Bach Choir, who had come up the stairs with her, but in this room she stood facing them all by herself. Her nerves were mounting. Julia felt her mouth dry out, her heart beat like a hummingbird. Usually choir performances felt very comfortable to her, but at this moment the performance would be all hers.
In preparation for their tour of Prague, Salzburg, and Vienna the choir’s director, Dr. Greg Vancil, had made a very special request of Julia. He had a friend near Salzburg and wanted the choir to visit, but there wasn’t enough room in his summer house for the whole choir to sing in any organized way. Greg suggested that Julia sing a solo instead, but not just any solo, a Schubert song. This friend of Dr. Vancil’s was none other than the descendant of Schubert’s best friend, Joseph Spaun. The current day Spauns continue to take their legacy of support for young musicians quite seriously. It was in this capacity that Dr. Vancil had met them, so he wanted to give back in some way, even if only musically. He handed Julia several songs to choose from, some deceptively simple, some well known, some obscure. One in particular stood out to her. It was a mock serious aria summarized by the idea “Why don’t you ever write to me anymore?” which Schubert had composed and sent to his friend in a fit of exuberant melancholy. The music was some of the most vocally complex Schubert ever wrote, serious music with a silly theme. As a soprano with her own operatic burlesque troupe this piece made perfect sense to Julia and she vowed to learn it, with hopes to strip to it on stage at some point in the future.
Julia knew very little about Franz Schubert, only that she liked the few of his songs that she had heard, and that he had written a song to suit every mood no matter how one was feeling. A few years earlier Julia had sung Gretchen am Spinnrade to express her obsessive love for a friend of hers. For her burlesque troupe she had adopted Erlkönig to a “face in a hole board” with one hole for each character; Frühlingsglaube for a sexy chicken laying eggs; and Die Forelle for a stripping trout bouncing about in a too-tight fish tail skirt. However, despite the silly text, the looming performance felt quite serious to her.
The Spaun’s summer home was a converted 15th century church, purchased by Schubert’s friend shortly after his marriage. Julia thought everyone must be able to hear her heart pounding as the choir climbed the stairs toward the living room. She attempted a deep breath, and a strange feeling cut through her nerves, a very intense one of love and gratitude and nostalgia, strange because the feeling was not her own.
“My friend has done so well for himself!”
The words stood out in her mind with a feeling of joy that brought a lump to her throat and filled her eyes with tears. Running with the only idea that made sense to her, she silently asked the voice, “Schubert, is that you?”
“Nevermind…” the voice seemed to reply shyly, popping out of her head as quickly as it had appeared. Julia’s nerves were back, and she quickly forgot that strange little interchange.
CGI Schubert, probably the most realistic rendering of him so far, by the amazing artist Hadi Karimi. See more of his work here
Julia took her place in the crook of the ornate grand piano, not one Schubert had played, but one that had been made in his time. Dr. Vancil’s wife, Nancy, sat down to accompany. Julia took a deep breath and botched her entrance. Luckily Nancy, a doctor in her own right, was able to temper her tempo to keep Julia on track. The rest of the performance went by smooth as silk in spite of only one rehearsal. Julia’s nerves kept the tone of the piece very serious, in perfect contradiction to the words, and there was great applause when they had finished. Julia’s knees threatened to give way as she bowed, an issue that had always plagued her solos. She inhaled upon rising and turned to her left where she noticed an original Schubert manuscript framed on the wall beside her. Her jaw dropped as she took out her camera.
At the moment this is how I’m beginning my novel, but it is a true story! For now I’m even keeping everyone’s real names intact. While this little story doesn’t represent the beginning of my Schubert obsession (that wouldn’t arrive until almost ten years later) it does represent the beginning of a string of bizarre Schubertian coincidences culminating in a strangely intimate relationship with Schubert’s spirit, one in which I seem to be able to feel his feelings quite independently of his music.
How does one feel feelings that aren’t their own? I really wish I could describe it. Maybe it will never really make sense. Believe me, I struggle with putting this out there. I know it makes me sound crazy, or at least a bit dissociated from my own brain, but it is my truth, and I can’t deny it because “talking with Franz” has improved my life in countless ways.
It’s a long story, and I don’t have the space to get into it here. That’s why I’m writing a novel. Actually, I already wrote the novel, what I’m doing now is expanding it. You can read what I put out there three years ago. It’s called Winter from Above: meditations on Winterreise with Franz Schubert, and it’s a collection of meditations on each song in the cycle, which I found helpful not only in creating the Winterreise puppet show with Paper Puppet Opera, but in helping me cope with loss, rejection, and feelings of unworthiness. Like I said, I’ve gained a lot talking to Franz, and I want others to benefit from our conversations too.
Here and there I will be including some of those conversations on this blog. Today is Schubert’s birthday, so I wanted to give you a little introduction to my particular brand of weirdness regarding this adorable curly-headed bespectacled composer. While I’ve always loved his music, now I love him for so many other reasons, and for none at all. Before I started reading about him he astounded me with his wisdom through our conversations, wisdom that is very much in keeping with what he wrote in his diary. Of course we talk about music too, and he has given me many an amazing insight into his compositions and his process. I plan to talk about these things in the future as well.
That’s just your warning to run now if you can’t handle it. If you are curious, you will be rewarded with Franz’s revelations, regardless of where you think the information comes from. Happy birthday, Franz, wherever you are! And to all of you Franz says, “BOO!”
Happy Mozart Week, everyone! I like to celebrate composer birthdays, and my two favorites happened to be born in the same week: Mozart on January 27 and Schubert on January 31. My half birthday falls right in between on the 29th, so this gives me many reasons to celebrate. Not to mention the week is kicked off with Burns Night on the 25th, which for me just means an excuse to drink scotch and try to read Robert Burns until I get a bit of a brogue on while still having no idea what any of the words actually mean.
This year Mozart will turn 265, and a long lost piece of his, never before heard in public, will be performed in Salzburg. Luckily it’s a solo piano piece, so social distancing shouldn’t be too big an issue. You can listen to it here at 9 AM PST on January 27, but it will be available to watch until January 29.
I could try to tell you why Mozart is my favorite composer, but it wouldn’t make sense. Sometimes it’s hard to put your taste into words. Let’s just say that for me a marvelous obsession with this music was kicked off with a vision followed by a dream the day after my 14th birthday. I don’t yet have the courage to talk about it in public, though it may become a scene in a future novel. Let’s just say I was in love with him. Weird? Yes, but it saved me from the horrible world of teen dating. Don’t worry, I eventually recovered and had some normal romantic relationships. Honestly, I probably should have stayed in love with Mozart.
I think everyone should have a marvelous obsession. Obsessions come easily to me because I have obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is often ridiculed as being about obsessive cleanliness and order, but really one of the main ways it is experienced is as “bad thoughts,” often of a religious, moral, or blasphemous nature, which is why it is sometimes called "scrupulosity." You can read more about the history of that here. I bring this up because, not only was that my main form of OCD, but OCD can also be harnessed in good ways. I suffered from it mainly during my childhood, but around the time I became obsessed with Mozart the symptoms mostly disappeared.
It was fantastic having this endless font of inspiration. I drew scenes from Mozart’s life and operas while listening to my latest find from the library, even writing and illustrating a children’s book called The Mirage of Figaro in high school. I saved money to buy complete box sets of his work bit by bit. It blows my mind that almost all of it is available on YouTube or Spotify now for free. You kids will never know the frustration of searching for an obscure piece of music followed by the joy of finding it, even if you had to shell out actual money for it.
While I taught myself to sing via Phantom of the Opera, like most young aspiring sopranos in the 1990s, it was this introduction to Mozart that really helped my voice grow. I could only barely read music at the time, so I learned all of Mozart’s soprano arias by ear with the help of a libretto from the library. Of course this meant I couldn’t tell the difference between what was written and what might be ornamentation or one singer’s unique interpretation, but I managed to learn them all (aside from La Clemenza di Tito) by age 17. The first aria I crammed into my brain and voice was Vedrai Carino from Don Giovanni. I didn’t have a high F yet for Queen of the Night, but I still learned her arias just in case I grew one. Eventually I did, and lost it after a few years, but I had fun with it while I could.
That said, I recorded myself singing several Mozart arias on cassette tape which I entitled “A Noble Attempt for a Seventeen Year Old,” and it’s really not great listening. I next attempted a similar feat in my 20s, which was much better, but there have only been random videos of me singing Mozart since then. Here is a video of me singing an aria from his one act opera "The Impresario," which I translated and staged with Operadisiac back in 2011. I think I’ll record an all Mozart concert for you guys soon with electronic backing tracks, and with a focus on his early works. Maybe three concerts of early, middle, and late Mozart! You see, the guy still gets my brain turning.
When I want to strengthen my voice in a hurry, especially if my high notes are feeling more difficult than they used to, I turn back to Mozart. When I want to focus on the technique of elegant line and expressive coloratura, I turn to Mozart. It is my hope that I will feature some of my more in depth Mozart stories and insights via this blog. For now I will leave you with just a few things.
Ten years ago I wrote this article about Catarina Cavalieri, one of the more famous sopranos in Mozart’s circle, also rumored to be Salieri’s mistress. I was attempting to write a historical fiction novel about her, but I think only certain scenes ended up being interesting, and I can just put those up on this blog.
Here you can watch the shadow puppet production I created for Mozart’s opera “The Goose of Cairo,” posted in six parts. I sing in it too:
Goose Part One
Goose Part Two
Goose Part Three
Goose Part Four
Goose Part Five
Goose Part Six
I could never overestimate the influence Mozart had on my emerging artistic interests and talents, an influence unmatched until Schubert showed up, and he literally showed up. More on that in a few days. Until then, celebrate Wolfgang’s natal date with some of his favorite foods: liver dumplings and flat English beer...though cake and champagne sounds better to me.