“Rothko Chapel”


Considering that I used to go visit my dad in Houston pretty regularly when he lived there, I am saddened that we never went to the Rothko Chapel.  In my own defense, I had not yet discovered the brilliance that was Mark R0thko and his use of color block paintings to convey transcendental emotions.  In this sacred space are the final paintings Mark Rothko completed before his suicide, a series of black tones on huge canvases.  You would think they would be sorrowful and empty, but everything I’ve seen of the chapel conveys something else.

Rothko’s work brings a peace to my mind that nothing else has ever done.  It is the closest I’ve ever come to true silence in my head–no mean feat given the hamster wheel consistency of my brain.  These paintings are to me the Zen concept of nothing mind in color.  And the light, oh my stars, the light!  I will never know how he did it, but Rothko captured light in a way that I cannot describe as anything but pure.  Even his darkest paintings–and those in the chapel qualify–convey a sense of the depth and gradation of light.  The dim brightness of the sunrise, the gentle wash of the sunset.  It’s all there, and it is a miracle.

So imagine my surprise and joy when I found out there was music composed to accompany the Rothko Chapel paintings.  The chapel opened not long after Rothko’s death, and they commissioned his friend Morton Feldman to compose a piece.  It is perfect.  I don’t mean perfect as a piece of music, although I think it is very, very good.  I mean that is matches these paintings perfectly, complimenting their monochromatic atonality and diversity, creating a space for meditation and quiet while simultaneously honoring their spirituality.

I’ll get back to Houston one day and see the chapel in person.  Until then, I can listen to it.


Repost: 4′ 33″


This was originally a Freaky Friday post, but why limit freaky things to Fridays?  The October issue of Mental Floss has an article about this famous John Cage composition as part of its 101 Masterpieces series (4′ 33″ is number 47).  It got me thinking about this amazing work of art once again.


Went out to dinner with the family tonight, so I haven’t really prepared an extensive freak for today. But a notion struck me today: Why not post one of the strangest compositions of all time? So here it is, in all its glory.

No, the sound on your computer is not malfunctioning. This is John Cage at his weirdest—and that’s saying something. I’ve been thinking a lot more about experimental music since I read Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, since there is a great deal in it about composers like Meredith Monk, La Monte Young, and Phillip Glass. Cage was a bit ahead of these artists, and probably influenced all of them to some degree. In 4′ 33″, there is an artistry to the silence; the sound of the auditorium, the audience, the world, are all part of the composition. I think the purpose of this piece is to get people to think about what music really is. Just like Andy Warhol made people think about what could be considered Art.

Cage was very influenced by Eastern music and philosophy, so this Zen-like approach isn’t really surprising. It’s just taking things a bit further than most composers would. No. This isn’t music in any real sense. It’s the sound of possibility. Everything is open in these four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Anything is possible.


Freaky Friday: Two Virgins


Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins is the first recorded collaboration between John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  Lennon had become enamored with both Ono and her work after visiting one of her gallery shows.  They had not yet married, and the Beatles had not broken up.  But Two Virgins signaled a clear shift in Lennon’s artistic direction.

This is only music in the loosest sense, but it is pretty radical stuff.  Sound effects, repeated noises, screaming, and an overall feeling of chaos are jarring to people expecting the Beatles.  Two Virgins was not popular with a lot of fans.  But listening to it now, it’s easy to see how ahead of its time this work was.  This album, as well as Unfinished Music No.2:  Life with the Lions and Wedding Album were explorations in a very personal aural landscape.

On one level, the work is somewhat self-indulgent.  Lennon and Ono seemed to be doing whatever appeals to them with no real thought to listeners.  But I think that’s also part of the point.  The inward-looking nature of these sounds, the intimacy of just the two of them recording together, creates a very strange psychological landscape.  And although it is rather personal in nature, I think there’s still room for the listener to gain something from the experience.  The repetition is meditative for me.  My love of John Lennon is no secret, so I will readily concede my bias here.  But I think this is the kind of thing that could be played in a dark auditorium or art gallery as part of an installation.  It might not be for everyone, but I find the experimentation of Two Virgins mind-opening.

Freaky Repost: Laurie Anderson


Sorry I totally spaced on posting yesterday.  I’ve been running around doing stuff today, so I didn’t really prep any good new freaks.  Here’s one of my favorite old freaks for your re-enjoyment.


Laurie Anderson is an artist. Her work is a brilliant commentary on American culture, values, and mores. She is the author and creator of herself. For women, that last statement is very important, because so much of what women do in this culture is defined, at least in part, by their relationships with men. But Anderson has never been in anyone’s shadow. She got her start in New York in the 1970s, during that amazing heady period when punk and disco were born. Now Anderson was never a punk or a disco diva; her musical sensibilities were wide-ranging, but much of it could be traced back to experimental music. It’s also important to note that while Laurie Anderson uses music as a medium, she isn’t really a musician. She’s an artist.

One of her earliest installations at a gallery was a jukebox that played 45s of songs she wrote. One of these was “It’s Not the Bullet That Kills You (It’s the Hole).” These songs were never released as songs, although a few copies are still around. This particular song seems to be about misplaced values and a culture of violence, a world where the victim gets blamed for the crime (sadly, this is still familiar for some crimes).

It doesn’t hurt that Anderson’s compositions are attractively catchy. She’s clearly got a tunesmith’s ear for what works musically. Her songs are interestingly literate, with good hooks. She often creates instruments to help craft her songs and performances. One of her earliest creations was a violin with a tape recorder attached to it, which eventually evolved into her tape bow violin. It creates eerie sounds that perfectly echo the dread underlying much of her work.

Of course, Anderson is at her best when she’s performing. Her concerts aren’t really shows, but more like experiences. In 1986, she released Home of the Brave, a film version of performances at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey. Some kind soul has posted the entire film on YouTube, which I’m including here (thanks, LegeCre). It is by turns thrilling and unsettling. Enjoy.

Freaky Repost: “Door of the Cosmos”


My original plan for today’s post didn’t pan out.  Maybe next week.  Instead, enjoy this somewhat timely repost.  You know, since the rebooted Cosmos has begun airing on Fox/NatGeo with scientific rock star Neil Degrasse Tyson stepping into the late great Carl Sagan’s shoes.


I’m actually a little ashamed at how little I know about Sun Ra and his Arkestra.  He’s one of the leaders of Freak, being the composer and creator of some of the finest experimental jazz out there.  Now I admit to liking a certain amount of free and easy in my jazz, but I also like a certain amount of structure to it, which is why I’m such a late-comer to experimental jazz.  And I’ve only really dipped my toes in this fascinating subgenre.  Ornette Coleman ain’t the only bird in this musical tree.

Sun Ra is decidedly freaky as a person; some might call him insane, but I don’t think that was ever the case.  A very spiritual and religious man without a formal religion, he consciously separated himself from the life that men of his time were expected to live; he refused to follow the paths that were traditionally laid out for him.  Sun Ra claimed to have been to Saturn, and to have communicated with aliens there.  He believed he had a mission to speak to the world through music.

It’s kind of hard to decipher what the message here is supposed to be.  This is wild, chaotic stuff.  But it’s a controlled chaos, starting with a gospel-like chorus and taking off into a melange of musical notes, the tones and rhythms clashing and competing with each other while blending almost seamlessly together.  It’s like an aural Jackson Pollock painting.  The saxophone weaves in and out, the bass runs like a river current below the rest.  It’s beautiful.

Which might well be what Sun Ra was trying to tell us.  That the world is chaotic but still beautiful.  That you can be an individual and still be a part of something. That all we have to do to travel to the cosmos is to let go of whatever is weighing us down.  Gravity is just another illusion in Sun Ra’s universe.  Nothing can hold you back if you know where you’re going.

Freaky Repost: The Residents


I wasn’t up for any freaky research tonight, and I was feeling a little residential, so here’s another look at this weird little bit.

The Residents are a performance art/music group from Northern California.  They are freaky.  To say the least.  I have no other words for them.

The Residents are officially anonymous, although there are some names attached to the current lineup (see here for more info on their history and rumored members).  They retain their anonymity by wearing huge eyeball masks.

Who was that masked man?

Because of a dearth of music videos, and because The Residents have always used film/video as part of their creative modus operandi, they were an early MTV staple.  I know that’s where I saw them first.  As a teenager, I was flummoxed by them.  I still am.  While clearly interesting and creative, The Residents are also deeply unsettling.  They seem to take delight in making audiences uncomfortable.

Good art often is uncomfortable, though.  The point of art is not to mirror society, but to question it.  From the Renaissance to Pop Art, artists have made it a point to challenge convention, morality, and social norms.  My favorite artists are the ones who say something about the world they live in, for better or worse.  I don’t mean topical or political art, necessarily; that kind of work is important, to be sure, but can also seem too rooted to a particular time and place.  (One of my all-time favorite comic strips, Bloom County, is a perfect example of this.  It is still very funny, but reading it now is like looking at a time capsule of the 1980s.)  I’m always interested in art–paintings, music, television, whatever–that looks at the world and asks “Why?”  Elvis, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan are so endlessly fascinating because they changed the rules of how music was made, because they did something new that essentially upended conventional wisdom about popular music.  Picasso and Andy Warhol both challenged viewers to look at the world from a different perspective, literally.  James Joyce and Virginia Woolf both refused to be confined by traditional narrative styles and helped forge new literary frontiers.  These are just a few examples of how art and artists of all sorts influence the world.  And then there’s The Residents.

The Residents follow in the footsteps of most great creative and talented minds by questioning the world we live in, by asking why we hold the values we hold, and what kind of damage are these values doing to us.  Why is money and material wealth so important?  What is success?  Just what is it that we’re running from?

This video is long, and, frankly, disturbing.  But I think it’s worth watching.  I love how it takes an old children’s song and brings out a deeper, darker meaning.  You can have all the stuff in the world, money and power and security.  You can build empires and fortresses, but it won’t make a difference if what’s in your soul is corrupt and empty.  “Run, run as fast as you can.  You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”

Freaky Friday: Brian Eno


Although he’s best known as a producer these days, Brian Eno started out as a composer and musician.  He was originally a member of Roxy Music, but left for a solo career after their second album.  It turns out not everyone wants to be a Rock star.

Eno is considered the father of ambient music, but his creations weren’t bland, lifeless melodies pumped into elevators and malls.  He was a minimalist, but it wasn’t just random notes strung together.  Eno builds an atmosphere, a mood, with his seemingly simple songs.  The music is gorgeous, but never maudlin or sentimental.  I probably ought to meditate to this stuff because it makes me feel the way Mark Rothko paintings do.  I feel like I’m floating, and like my crazy monkey mind can finally slow down.

So here’s a little peace for you today, dear readers, in the form of Music for Airports.  Although I think maybe it should have been called Music for Air, because that’s what it feels like.