Friday, June 13, 2008

Zoukfest 08 05: at the Center

Zoukfest 2008 Day 05.

Sitting here on the floor of the Benildus Center, listening to Steve Smith (mandolin virtuoso) and Doug Goodhart (fiddle--and everything else--virtuoso) teaching each other Appalachian tunes, I can hear the friendship that musical conversation is forging. Dale Kennedy just went by and said to me "do you realize you're typing in time to the music? It sounds like you're typing out the notes." Not really--although, considering what those guys are capable of producing, if I could type that fast my books would already be written. I'm not even frantically recording their impromptu recital, obsessing on "capturing" the tunes so I can learn them myself--though I sure do like 'em. Sometimes it's better to just sit inside the center of the universe that the music creates, be thankful for its presence and engage with its beautiful ephemerality, and let it end.

Because that's where we find ourselves. Here: where altitude, emotions, input, exertion all flutter like flags in the wind. Where we enter a liminal space of beauty, intensity, community (and a few meltdowns), right outside the known universe, brick by brick build a shared experience, and then--if we're smart and addressing the world as it is rather than the world as we imagine it to be--we acknowledge, and perhaps even celebrate, the fact that it will end.

Dharmonia and I were invited to sit in on Don Richmond's Getting Your Music Past the Fear (a/k/a, "the 'Fear' class), based upon his book of the same name; Roger joked that he--a legendary hard-ass--should be the one "teaching fear." Or maybe that he and Coyote (a/k/a, Shite Bheag agus Shite Mohr, a play on the Carolan tune Sheebeg and Sheemore) should teach it together--like a team ("we could wear Mexican wrestlers' masks! And tell people there's 'no crying in Irish music!'").

Don's version is a small, intimate, and remarkably open environment, in which students engage, via wrestling with issues like performance anxiety and expectations, with some very deep psychological and even spiritual elements. They spend time talking about visualization, and attachment: attachment to an idea of how the song should go, or how great we should play it, or how impressed the listeners will be, or how cool or sensitive or smart or worthwhile our playing will make listeners think we are. None of which actually exist. None of these exist: they are all purely imaginary, the unreal world of Maya that we think we inhabit, but which in fact blinds us to the reality of the perfection that is already around us and within us.

Yesterday was one of those transcending events, one of those events that Zoukfest has been building toward for the past ten years: Andy Irvine's solo recital in the intimate and unamplified space of O'Shaughnessy performance hall. We've been hearing fantastic music all week long and certainly every night in the staff performances. But this was even bigger, in the Zoukfest imagination, than the great music previously played. This was about meeting someone who you might have idolized for nearly your entire musical life, the sense of overwhelming excitement at the prospect, and, in a small unspoken place, the fear that perhaps this person might not live up to your anticipation--because who could?

And then to meet the man, and hear him play, and watch the students responding, and to realize that--as I've said about the Planxty reunion--this was a case when you said to yourself "Goddamn. I wasn't wrong at age 18 when I hoped I could grow up to be like Andy Irvine. He really is as great a man and musician as I hoped he'd be."

There was so much to thank him for: the way he built an entire life in the original songs he played, the greatest autobiographical oral history we could ever have asked for. The focus with which he plays and the generosity with which he offers his music. The astonishing orchestral virtuosity of his solo arrangements. His storytelling, which you knew would have to be beyond brilliant, just because of the stories within the songs: the particularly hilarious story about stalking Rambling Jack Elliott in London in the late 1950s, trying to get as close to the Woody Guthrie wellspring as a kid actor across the ocean from East Orange could get.

There as also the sense that this week Andy has also been discovering something he'd not previously encountered. Surely he's encountered awestruck ("gobsmacked") fans around the world for many years. But he's maybe not encountered an entire community of avocational musicians whose desire to abandon the role of passive listener, and to become active players, was so directly catalyzed by his inspiring example: as bouzouki/mandolin player, surely; but also as singer, songwriter, and social activist. I certainly know that he (along with a few others) has been a role model for me, since at least 1979, for how to be a musician, a man, and a human being--and I know there were many others in the room who feel the same.

But I'm not quite sure that Andy realized, until arriving in Santa Fe, just how tangible his inspiration has been. That someone like Luke Plumb would go through the massive effort to friggin' transcribe the Planxty Black album, writing out the parts in score the way that friends of mine in Indiana were tasked with transcribing the parts for the early Ellington pieces whose scores had been lost, or perhaps never existed. Because my mentor David Baker realized that, Ellington was our classical music, our canonic repertoire, the cornerstone for how we jazz musicians conceived music to function. Likewise, in the world of Irish music, with Planxty: they literally, and indirectly, taught us what our music could be and could do. Luke gets that, and has the focus, chops, and dedication to sweat the work of hearing and writing out those parts. To treat our canon with the meticulous (loaded word) scholarship its genius deserves.

The author and Zen student Natalie Goldberg, a Santa Fe resident and occasional Zoukfest concert attendee, has observed (in her masterpiece Long Quiet Highway, a eulogy for her beloved teacher Dainen Katagiri Roshi), that "gratitude is the final gift given to the student by the teacher." The really great teachers will give you everything they can, without expectation of recompense. Because the music and the life wisdom is bigger than any kind of mercantile exchange could reflect. And the really greatest teachers are able to, as Natalie said, "pull that kind of love out of you."

In experiencing gratitude, the student's attachment to worry, intimidation, anxiety, ego and specific results is broken. Those are all manifestations of the self, or the imagined self, or the self that we project outward and see reflected back from Maya. That self is not real (the Zen master says "show me this Self who is talking!"), but we can become deeply, delusionally attached to it: a mirror of a mirror of a mirror of a cloud passing.

But gratitude is real. It forgets the self and embraces the teacher and the priceless jewels of irreplaceable experience that the teacher gives. As Natalie says "the heart opens, and gratitude pours out. 'Thank you. Thank you. I know what I have been given.'"

At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien's magnum opus The Lord of the Rings, the two central characters, who have slogged thousands of miles (and tens of thousands of words--Tolkien had a very leisurely sense of pacing) to destroy a weapon so deadly it can't be allowed to continue to exist, find themselves marooned, near death, in the middle of a volcanic eruption at what they believe to be the apocalyptic end of creation. And one says to the other, "I am glad to be here with you. Here at the end of all things."

All things end. Letting go of Maya requires accepting the impermanence of everything: events, places, experiences, joy, sorrow, people, and life itself. And when you do, you begin to experience gratitude, and you begin to say "Thank you." And when you surrender to that, as the students in the "Fear" class, and Andy's classes, and all the classes, and the lessons, and the impromptu recitals of magnificent, generous music that break out all over campus, and most transcendently in Andy's concert last night, you get a little glimpse past the curtain of Maya and you experience gratitude. And union.

Kate Bush put it this way:

Well, if it's so deep you don't think
that you can speak about it,
Just remember to reach out and touch
the past and the future.
Well, if it's so deep you don't
think you can speak about it,
Don't ever think that you can't
change the past and the future.
You might not, not think so now,
But just you wait and see--someone will come to help you.
Andy articulated gratitude this way:
Willie Clancy and the County Clare
I'm ever in your debt
For the sights and sounds of yesterday
Are shining memories yet.
We are too, Andy.

Forever in your debt.

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