Our solar system is not a perfect clock. There have been 16 ice ages in the past million years.
“Small variations in the tilt of the Earth on its axis and variations in the planet’s elliptical path around the sun are all that is necessary to plunge the planet in and out of the freezer. ” Tim Flannery.
Some 120,000 years ago, modern humans migrated out of Africa, and we kept going, first into the middle east, then on to southeast Asia, with a detour down into Australia, then up the eastern Pacific to the Bering Strait, and finally into North America. By 15,000 year ago, we reached the tip of South America.
We evolved in Africa, from a hairy, tree climbing, social primate ancestor. Somehow, over time, we lost most of our hair, gained a lining of body fat, developed upright walking, a descended larynx that enabled speech, special sweat glands for thermal regulation, and a diving reflex for swimming. We became like sea mammals, more suited for water than the forest or savannah. Dolphins are our close cousins in intelligence and communication, the whale is the only other mammal to have menopause. Where and when this happened is a mystery. The Afar Triangle of northeast Africa, on the way out of Africa, may have been a vast, flooded wetlands. We may have had to swim our way out of Africa.
We followed the coastlines, along the beaches and up rivers, as sea gatherers and fishermen. Food was plentiful, rich in value, and easy to harvest. The travel and protection were easier. We love the beach to this day.
Our journey was during a perilous geologic time. A warming earth was melting ice, rising sea levels, lifting and shifting tectonic plates, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. Released by the loss of the weight of the great ice sheets as they melted, continental plates heaved up, and the moon pulled stronger on the increasing tidal waters. The Pacific tectonic plate, being the largest and the thinnest – only 2.5 miles thick – moved and cracked the most, aggravating the ‘ring of fire’ of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunami’s that pound all the coasts of the Pacific Ocean.
As modern humans arrived along the South East Asian coast, some 70,000 years ago, the shallow, continental Pacific Sundra shelf waters were flooding, and a great volcano – perhaps the greatest ever volcano – Toba – in Indonesia on the island of Sumatra, erupted. The massive blast of volcanic dust blackened the sky, creating a volcanic winter and mass extinction. Human life all the way back to northern Africa was nearly extinguished.
The surviving humans were pushed inland and north, and eventually into the New World. Floods, tidal waves, receding waters, and exploding volcanoes filled their prehistoric consciousness. This has carried on to our day, in the creation stories of the world, told by their descendants.
The myths are not myths, they are history.
In the beginning the world was in water, and there was darkness. And then light came to the sky, and then the sun appeared and separated the earth from the sky.
Alberto Giacometti lived most of his sculptor life in a Paris apartment/studio, without hot water or a bathroom. Brother Diego was his foundry assistant. He chain-smoked 4 packs a day, and wore the same grey, herring bone suit, 24 hours a day. He would buy a new one – same color, same style – once a year. He went to restaurants for his meals, bistros and clubs for drinks and conversation, and brothels now and then. He was very upset when prostitution was made illegal. He worked in his studio all night, and slept most of the day. He married late, reluctantly, and enjoyed mistresses. He had no children.
To Giacometti, life was magical. He saw wonder in everything. He believed in the intense significance of his feelings, and in the possibilities of the mysterious. He savored primary sensation. Attracted to the surrealists, he at first painted and sculpted as they wanted, from the psychological, the philosophical, and the political. But it really didn’t take him where he wanted to go. Existential angst, he realized, was not political, or philosophical, or, for that matter, anything new in human history. And it wasn’t artistic. He moved on. Andre Breton, their commandant, wanted a discussion. Giacometti escaped. “No, that won’t be necessary”.
He discovered an obsession “to represent what I see”. Not what his eyes see, but what he sees.
For years he tried and failed. Constantly studying people on the street, and in conversations, he was drawn to the misfits and histrionic types, people who played out their selves, up front, unaffected. He would pose his models for hours and days on end. All night he would attempt sculpture, only to destroy it in the morning, unsatisfied.
His friends and family lost confidence. He seemed more and more a lost eccentric.
At times, having looked so long and so hard, he would feel an entranced loss of the thoughts and identifications of what he was seeing. The work would take control. Expressive shapes and proportions would emerge.
“he found to his amazement, and to his consternation, that the sculpture grew smaller and smaller. The smaller it grew, the more troubled it became, yet he could not keep if from shrinking. The sculpture itself seemed to determine in advance its appropriate size, would accept no alternative and compelled the sculptor to comply.”
Training builds creative and perceptive skill. Practice areas of the brain become . . . swollen.
“The posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain known to be important for memory, is bigger in London cab drivers than in most people.”
Attending a play in a theatre in Paris, looking at the stage and then at the audience around him, he had this realization that he was seeing differently, in some new way, “not like a camera“, but in dimensions of space and time, . . . with a strange sense of becoming.
His work became art, sculpture with the essentials of human form, intention in posture, purpose in motion, all with an aura of being and becoming
. . . what you see with your mind.
Timing is in the brain, it is basic to how it works. Neurons prolong instantaneous stimuli, sending them down axon nerve wires, and releasing them at synapse nodes, in variable lengths requiring variable time, on to other axon network circuits. In this way, the brain creates temporal patterns out of instant sounds, and that is music. The brain is a musical instrument. It is a time machine.
And it can synchronize. The brain can do rhythm. And on top of rhythm, dancing with it, like ideas that play with words, the brain can do melody. Patterns on top of patterns create a live, unified, dynamic experience, like being alive itself. Body and mind, thought and feeling, rhythm and melody.
Jazz lives on the edge. . . having both rhythm and melody, and having neither. We like to go into, and out of, and back into, timing, and structure, and point/ counter point. That is what our lives do, and that is what our neurons do, and that is what we like our art to do. We seek order and we seek improvisation. Rhythm paces melody, and melody challenges rhythm. They swing apart, and back together, like partners on the floor. Catharsis and synthesis. It feels good. We play music and music plays us.
In the movie Whiplash, an elite music school teacher has a very skilled, musical ear. He has been thru the scores countless times, with countless students. He knows their ranges, he is primed to hear their mistakes. “This makes him a good teacher.” Don’t believe it. It gives him power, and he uses it. He uses it to humiliate them, to prey on their vulnerabilities. He makes them feel that their failures are their fault. A bully with relish.
I HURT YOU FOR YOUR OWN GOOD, AND YOU DON”T EVEN DESERVE IT!
He enjoys it. And he is good at it. Kind and considerate, in just the right doses, he keeps everyone uncertain. Good people are willing to doubt themselves.
A skilled liar, he announces that a former student, (a former victim), one who had eventually found musical success, has died. Misty-eyed, our teacher tells his class that it was an accident. He knows it was a suicide.
One student drummer, however, is very determined. He doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be the best. Go around obstacles. If necessary, plow thru them. He becomes a targeted victim, but he doesn’t relent, he runs the gauntlet. He does what you have to do with the likes of this teacher, fight back. His sympathetic father sort of wants him surrender, but he refuses.
People like this teacher are everywhere, . . . in sports, education, business, politics. And they often get far. Good people will defer, they won’t fight, they dont want to judge. People like him somehow know that.
They have to be opposed.
Our drummer does it, in the end, with a unrelenting, exillarating, commanding, and triumphant crescendo of rhythm and drumming. . . and justice.
Newton’s first law of motion: an object is either at rest or moves at a constant velocity, unless acted on by an external force.
There is no escaping this law. It is true on earth, and it is true in space. George Clooney, in the movie Gravity, knows this, as he unhooks his tether with Sandra Bullock, to give her a chance to survive. With no hope for himself, he drifts off, above the beautiful, blue-green earth. He implores her to survive, and we last hear him calling out, in astonished awe, at his view of the sunrise on the Ganges River. He is the first man to go to heaven. . . still alive.
In the magical beauty of the earth’s orbit, in the great, pervasive mystery of space, Sandra Bulloch is alone, in terror. Death could come so quickly, so indifferently, as it has for her companions. Her anxiety is a storm. Life and rescue are still possible, her destiny is all up to her. She will have to save herself. She grabs onto any hold she can.
All the while, the earth is just there, in all its splendor, the place where everything has happened, and where everyone has lived and died. There are no signs, up there, of all the human trouble and misery, down there, just an aura of innocence and peace, as if humans never were.
This silent majesty is strangely comforting. The earth and the stars are right there, and they have the answers. A great. . . truth. . . is out there. Lifeless space, the living earth, the mystery of time. One senses that there is a knowing presence, filling the emptiness. It is so close, and yet out of reach. What, really, is this earth doing here? What, really, is gravity?
This story has biology, too, a man, a woman, and a child. The man sacrifices himself for her, men do that, and she grieves, terribly, for her child, who has died down on earth, sometime ago. Does she blame herself? A mother would. She has suffered love, a force we can’t see, a force that makes humans care more about others than they do about themselves. It is an attractive force, but it’s not like gravity, it is not inversely proportional to distance. Loved ones feel part of each other, across space and time.
In this unending, eternal present, why do humans suffer? The past and the future concern them, and bother them. It is life that feels and suffers the hopes of time.
Like the first sea creature that was able to get on to land, eons ago, she gets back on to earth, to solid ground, back from death and heaven.
Existentialism: “the unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad, a free agent in a deterministic, disorienting, and seemingly meaningless universe.”
In 1800, Daniel Steibelt, a celebrated European virtuoso, came to Vienna to duel Beethoven in an ‘improvisation contest’. With great pomp, in the first round, he won. Beethoven was not much interested in trying to impress aristocrats. For the second round, Steibelt was puffed up enough to use Beethoven’s own music in his challenge. This was a. . . mistake. Incensed, Beethoven snatched up Steibelt’s own music sheet, marched to the piano, turned the music upside down, went on to mock Steibelt’s ostentatious style, and then transform Steibelt’s music into a dazzling composition. Steibelt stormed out, refused ever to oppose Beethoven again, and eventually exiled himself to St. Petersburg, . . . for the rest of his life!
Such was the great Beethoven. He came to realize that he had achieved absolute musical mastery. He knew that he could do . . all that can possibly be done . . with music. Only a master genius can know what that is like, to have no peers, and no hope of being fully realized, in your own lifetime.
In 1802, in his ‘Heiligenstadt‘ Will and Testament, found only after his death, Beethoven resolved his loneliness and melancholy, and dedicated himself to music.
“Little was lacking to make me put an end to my life. Only art held me back, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt destined to bring forth”
And so ‘bring forth’ great music he did, for the rest of his life, taking long walks, writing down the music as it would came to him, in ever present notebooks, absent minded, stubborn, and eccentric.
His music is his autobiography. Hear the pain, in the Moonlight Sonata. The love of his life told him no. Feel the anguish in Pathetique. He realizes he is going deaf. The notes in these pieces are as much like words as any sounds can be, . . .the language of a human soul.
“The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits. He has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments that he has not yet reached the point to which his genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”
On May 7, 1824, perhaps the greatest day in the history of music, at the Karntnertor Theatre, in Vienna, he performed his last symphony, unaware, in his deafness, that he had raptured the audience and brought down the house. In its beginning, this symphony is thunderous, and startling, then it is combative and retreating, then accepting and aching, and then, like his life, transcendent in catharsis and joy, culminating in a . . . song, a song with an sweet, resonating melody that anyone and everyone can keep in their heads, and sing, . . .forever. On that night, in that theatre, Beethoven gave the everyday world, crafted with the greatest possible musical genius of any human composer, a magnificent and yet wonderfully simple, everyday, popular song. And we have been writing and singing popular songs since.