Friday, June 15, 2007

Zoukfest, Day 05

Morning of the last "full" (class) day.

Zoukfest, like any music camp (and also like the Buddhist retreats, backpacking trips, or other emotion-packed "out of the world" experiences referenced in previous posts), is many things to different people. And that makes sense: every individual (students, teachers, staff, visitors) comes to ZF with a different background, a different set of experiences, and hence a different sense of expectations. But, overwhelmingly, it's about learning: learning about music, learning about the world, learning about others, learning about oneself.

And that means that ZF is about teaching, great teaching, teaching that operates from Right Intentions and seeks to realize Right Goals (I joked in the Celtic Backup class that accompanists ought to have a version of the Hippocratic Oath: "first, Do No Harm"). One of Roger Landes's great talents, one of the many things that make ZF the extraordinary experience that it is, is his ability to recruit staff members who are not only great players but Great Teachers, who operate from right intentions and seek to realize right goals--and help students to do the same.

But of course the teaching and learning are not one-directional: the teachers give to the students, but the students give back to the teachers, the students to one another, and certainly the teachers to one another (it's no coincidence that many, many ZF staff members have been faithful and regular attendees at one another's classes and one another's evening showcases). In this kind of total experience, where the possibilities for new, mind-expanding experiences and immersive learning come thick and fast, why wouldn't you take in all you could?

Well, there are some things that get in the way: expectations about what we should be deriving from the experience, about the value we should be receiving in return for the (financial or personal) price we've invested, about the style of teaching in which we should be receiving that value. But those "shoulds" get in the way: quoting Dainen Katagiri Roshi, again in class, I said "sitting back and looking at how you're getting the insights and whether you're getting enough insights in the fashion you anticipate is like putting a saddle on top of a saddle on top of a horse--it's impossible to just ride."

Fortunately, all the staff and many of the students understand this about learning--that it will come in unexpected forms, at unexpected times, in unexpected ways. We can welcome it or not, but that is a choice. Last night I was honored to be asked to inscribe a student's copy of my book, and, without really thinking about it, "To _____...Always in service to the music." I believe this student--all ZF students--at some level understand this: with the modeling of our great teachers, we can understand that the experience is about the music, and that the "selves" we inhabit are mutable, impermanent, and (here, this place, this week) are here to serve the music. Egos can stay home, at least for a few days.

At last night's concert, Doug Goodhart put it well. Doug is a fantastic musician and teacher, but part of what makes his particular fantastic-ness is his insistence that, to play a particular music with the insight and clarity that made us love that music in the first place, we need to be rigorous with ourselves. Are we playing in the fashion in which we are playing in order to realize all the unique expressive beauty that a given music can provide? If so, why wouldn't we be rigorous, conscientious, and selfless in learning to play the music right? There really are ways to make West Virginia fiddle music, or Eastern Mediterranean vocal music, or African percussion music, or Irish dance music, or every other music that came from unique human experiences, "right".

Doug, who's both a true scholar of the music and a true virtuoso, spoke about being recruited by his old friend Roger Landes to teach at ZF 2007, for the first time. He spoke about the uniqueness of the experience, about the intensity and quality of the music, and about the extraordinary emotional environment which ZF creates. Doug said "I believe it's what you people call love." People laughed, but, in my own heart and, I suspect, a lot of hearts around the room, there was what Robert Graves called "the spear of poetic insight." If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit (to ourselves, more than anyone else), that what we experienced at ZF, what made the experience so intense, so overwhelming, so "over-amped," so productive of breakdowns to quote Kaila Flexer, was love.

Doug and Mason Brown played a fantastic set focusing on Doug's West Virginia fiddle repertoire: beautiful, subtle music; seemingly simple and repetitive on the surface, but, in Doug's fiddle and Mason's masterful accompanying guitar and banjo, deeply expressive music. The focus, precision, and selfless passion with which they played brought us to a place which was rooted, as Doug said, in a "much older time"--and helped us understand the brevity and transience of our own time here.

They also manifested a little bit of that carnivalesque unpredictability that great music should manifest--that sense of "Oh my God, we're going someplace I (in the audience) can't control." That's why we have to trust great musicians, and why great musicians in many cultures have been seen as potentially dangerous tricksters. Because when they are up there weaving that spell, we in the audience are not in control. We have to trust those musicians to take us someplace we could not take ourselves. And that takes Big Trust.

One such moment came in Mason's brilliant rendition of a medicine show "pitch", the sort of thing formerly used for selling snake oil and liniment, but in the delivery Mason learned touring in a medicine show in Japan, used to sell Doug's CD. It was absolutely hilarious, cataloging the long list of physical, emotional, and mental complaints (including "female weakness"), and it took us to another, older, carnivalesque place--that place that Greil Marcus called "old weird America." It reminds us of the place that's faintly captured on the scratchy 78's and aluminum discs from which Doug and Mason learned a lot of their music, and to which (if we let them) they can take us.

The poet, teacher, and Zen student Natalie Goldberg, a long-time Taos and Santa Fe resident and author of the wonderful spiritual biography Long Quiet Highway, which details both her personal history and the history of her encounters with great Buddhist teachers Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Dainen Katagiri Roshi, closes her book with a realization, which she reached while sitting zazen on the plaza at Santa Fe less than a mile from where I'm sitting. Bereft at the death of Katagiri, for too young from cancer, heartsick at the stupidity and suffering of Gulf War I, she resolves to do what Katagiri taught her to do, to "sit down and do no harm." So she begins a daily practice of sitting zazen in the Plaza for 30 minutes, under a sign that says "Sitting for Peace." As Natalie says, "No one could argue with peace."

And on a rainy midday in the Santa Fe plaza, with pigeons walking around her and rain dripping off her nose, she comes to accept the truth that all things--even the lives of and her contact with her beloved teachers--end. And she says

It was so simple. He was there. He was there with me. In my heart and my ribs and my lungs and my chest and my hands.

It was so simple.
On today, last full day of Zoukfest, it is so very simple:

We are part of each other.

And we are grateful.

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