Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hawk-eyed in Quincy

            The snow is still very thick, despite a few days of thawing -- the first thaw in weeks -- so as I walk around the salt marsh by the shore the footing is laborious. You sink a little with each step and there's no pace to it, no momentum, since with every step your foot may sink through the crust and drop down a few inches. This making the act of walking work and not the dream-like rhythm of meditative gliding through open, natural spaces.

            The smell of salt in the air from the few days' melting keeps me going. But after a while I tire of the slow pace and cut into the woodsy upland where the snow is easier to traverse. I bypass a section of the marsh path where I am likely to see anything besides Canada geese, the one species that appears happy to flock among the brown marsh grass emerging from the snow. I haven't seen any wading birds around here all winter.

            After cutting through the woods, I decide to return to the tail end of my marsh path to have a look at the other side of things. My noisy, unexpected emergence causes a large bird to start from the woods and fly soundlessly over the marsh toward a thin line of trees by the roadway. It's too far away to get much of a look, but its flight is silent and decisive and a part of me thinks "hawk."

            Coincidentally or not, a pair of ducks squawk a little and fly back toward me away from the flight line of my mystery bird. Some of the Canada geese grazing in the snow honk and flutter closer to the others, as if the flock were reflexively pulling together. I try to mark the place where the bird disappeared among trees -- it lines up, from my point of view, near a parked red pickup -- and finish my circuit of the marsh trail. A few bluejays fly across my path.

            As a last gasp, I get into my car and drive slowly down the street where the large bird disappeared into the roadside trees. It's a Sunday in gray, wet February, nobody else on the road, and I'm about to give up the search. The red pickup has disappeared. I come up to a slight curve that leads shortly to an elementary school. I think 'just a few trees more' -- and then, suddenly, there it is. A very large, rounded gray-feathered presence, perched on the branch of a very thin tree.

            It's a hawk, and it's not making much of an effort to stay out of sight. I stop the car just where I am, the back end of the vehicle sticking out into the roadway, and take my simple point-and-shoot digital camera into the street with me. Then it's a matter of how close he'll let me get. I pause in the street. The motion of lifting the camera to my eye doesn't disturb him.

            The bird is aware of me and turns his head from side to side to keep one of those hawk eyes on me. But his attitude seems to say, 'oh, it's just some dude with a camera.'

            I get closer, start shooting. Get a little closer still. The light is poor; gray, dull. I'm trying to pick out markings but only those dark bands on its breast stand out. I'm not about to work my way around him, into the marsh, to shoot from behind. That strikes me as intrusive, rude.

            And I decide I'm not going to push myself literally as close as I can get to him, get in his face so to speak, and make him fly off. My presence with the camera is intrusion enough. Anything more crosses the line into disrespectful, bad manners. Besides, it's wrong to make wild creatures use up energy unnecessarily.

            From the images I find of hawks with banding across the breast, I tentatively identify it as a red-tailed hawks (tentative is as far as any of my identifications go). They're the most common hawks around here anyway.

            The next day I go back to the marsh, without seeing the hawk anywhere.

            The day after that I drive slowly down the same street and, again to my surprise, find the hawk once more in what has to be the same tree. Only this time he has his back to me, turned into the wind.

            No one else driving by stops, or even slows. Oh, well, the world seems to say. A huge old hawk perched roadside in a city of 90,000 people. No big deal.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Warm Sounds in Winter: a Master Guitar Class

I come for the concert, but stay for the master class.
            Piano teacher Ellyses Kuan tells me that her studio is hosting a master class in guitar at the Braintree public library to be taught by guitarist Zaira Meneses and invites me to attend because the master guitarist will also be performing the famous guitar concerto "Concierto de Arunjez" by Joaquin Rodrigo.

            In a master class, the teacher works one-on-one with an advanced student on improving technique or other matters of musical performance. I have caught glimpses of these in symphony halls on a few occasions and know that music lovers regard them as both entertaining and educational. You get to hear a highly accomplished musician explain a philosophy, demonstrate an approach. You learn watching someone who is very, very good at what they do share their insights with a student.

            Ellyses is a wonderful, dramatic pianist whom I heard combine with guitarist Robert Betters in a duet performance a few months back. She will accompany the guitarist in Rodrigo's concerto.

            When I enter the small auditorium, Zaira Meneses, a faculty member at New England Conservatory's continuing education school and a critically praised performer, is working with a girl of about 11. The girl has her fingers on the neck of the instrument and Zaira is telling her how to move them in an exercise that makes use of a concrete picturesque analogy. She compares the fingers of the hand to the members of a family. "This one," she says to the student, adjusting her figners, "always stays with its brother."

            Then we get to the issue of practice. "Do you like to practice?" She makes a face. "No, it gets boring?" But you don't have to do it for an hour, she says, only ten minutes at a time. "How many times do you brush your teeth each day?" "Three," replies the well-drilled youngster. 
            Zaira shares a frank look at the audience: not the answer she expected. "Sometimes I do it only twice," she confides; then follows this with a brief aside on American dining habits: "Hmm, you have the lunch in this country, and then the dinner." But whether you brush two times a day or three times the message is to do your practice before you brush your teeth.  

            It's apparent that the "master teacher" is completely at home in this role and in performing it in front of an audience. She talks easily without self-consciousness and with a freedom and candor that puts everyone at ease.

            After a short break, I get the musical treat I have come for, the performance of an old favorite. The last time I heard the Concierto, possibly the only time I've heard it live, was when one of the instrument's reigning maestros, Pepe Romero, performed it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. But I've been in love with the slow-movement melody since I first heard it decades ago "borrowed" wholesale by Gil Evans for an album he did with Miles Davis called "Sketches of Spain." You hear Miles play the piercing melody on the trumpet.

            Here, in the library's small room, sitting close to the guitarist, I am swept away from the first notes in the piece's jauntier, sunny first movement.

            The slow movement, with its stirring, dramatic Spanish darkness, goes right through me. A few measures in and I'm tearing up. Who can say why we cry over beautiful music? It's a gift, really, when it happens. You can't program it. You can't anticipate it, with maybe some exceptions (Faure's Requiem, for me). Some grinding of the earth inside relaxes; a little lava pours; the tectonic plates readjust themselves. The fault line settles down.

            This feeling persists through the second movement. And I particularly enjoyed the collaboration of Ellyses's piano and Zaira's guitar in the more formal third movement with its tight tempos.

            After this gift, I have to stay to see Zaira work with an adult student. She shares her wisdom with a man, aged 42, who has returned to the guitar after some years away from it. After he plays two "etudes" by Leo Brower, a 20th century composer, she addresses issues of tempo, fingering and relaxation, offering "a technique the Cubans have" for relaxing the fingers before performing.

            "You're good," she tells the student. "If you cannot play the note the way you want it is not because you are not good, but because you are not relaxed."

            "If you feel like trying something, do it," she says in her discussion of how to express the emotions of the piece. "There must be no repression."

            She illustrates the expressiveness she seeks by offering a sentence or two, "as we say it," in Spanish. Slowing the pace, turning on the smile, weighting certain phrases with implication.
            And then, to illustrate the emotional tone of a particular phrase in the Brower, she launches into a spontaneous story.
            "Imagine the girl, or the woman you love, and you haven't see her for a month" -- ah, I think, I know where this going; but I'm wrong -- "and you have been unable to communicate with her. The email is not working. And then you find out she is going to be married to someone else... And you have one last chance, just a passing moment, to speak her before the ceremony, to explain why you couldn't speak to her, why you were unable to propose to her -- but just at that moment, someone --the mother-in-law -- appears and takes her way --"

            She flies into scolding, warning, possessive Spanish dialogue of this Mexican mother-in-law to illustrate the full pathos of this one poignant moment in the music.
           The poor (or perhaps fortunate) student is being treated to an entire telenovela just to get the right feel for that one note. 
          And then, the remarkable thing, the student plays the etude again, this time much more expressively! It's alive.
           Some people carry this life in their art. And some, apparently, can even teach it. 
(Here's the link to Ellyses Kuan's studio:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Garden of the Gods: Mantras on My Mind

            A few years ago, my yoga teacher introduced our class to the music of Snatam Kaur. While we made bridges of our bodies for "downward-facing dog" (yoga has many graphically named postures: my favorite is "corpse pose"), Snatam Kaur's magical arrangement of traditional mantras that have enchanted for hundreds of years washed over our senses, sinews and synapses like heavenly balm.

            I had heard musical settings of the chants, or "mantras" (repeated sounds that aid meditation), before. But this time the veil slipped, the universe out there spoke to the universe in me, and her voice went straight to my cerebral cortex.

            I don't know what to call this genre -- yoga chants? mantras set to music -- but these vocal music performances affect me like the "soul music" of yore; the name given to the Motown sound of the sixties. It just digs inside of you, the repetitions of the chant blending with your own heartbeats, physical and mental processes. It's not a matter of doing the chanting, but simply listening to the musical settings the way you would press your ear to the transistor radio to hear the latest Supremes song 
            These yoga songs affect me, at least sort of, in the same way. They come from a tradition in which the devotees say unblushingly they are "in love" with "God." I don't say any of these things without blushing.

            But I'm at the point, several years into this pleasurable addiction, where I feel distinct cravings. It's easy enough to find this music (and probably all music) on the internet, so I can go and access it whenever I want. It's an addiction to a feel-good moment.
            Snatam Kaur... It's not easy to explain that name; my understanding is that all women in the Sikh religion take the surname "Kaur." According to Snatam Kaur's website (which would benefit from the attention of a professional writer), her name means "universal, nucleus, and friend to all." She was born in Colorado and was taken to India as a child while her mother studied "kirtan" (chanting mantras, often with others). She now lives in the US and tours in this country and Europe.
            These days I am most addicted to Snatam Kaur's recording of a mantra that goes by the Sanskrit title of "Aap Sahaaee Hoaa."

            According to the Kundalini yoga info website, the title translates to "Meditation for Prosperity."

            The full chant goes: "Aap Sahaaee Hoaa, Sachay Daa Sachaa Doaa, Har, Har, Har"

            And the full translation, from the same site goes:

"The Lord Himself has become my protector. The Truest of the True has taken care of me. God. God. God. The Lord Himself has become my refuge. True is the support of the True Lord."

            The looks like two ways of saying the same thing. And I must say that Snatam Kaur's musical version seems to contain many more words than the words in the Gurmukhi language cited above.

            We are also presented with the instruction: "Chant this mantra for 11 to 31 minutes every day to bring the blessings of prosperity into your life."

            I'm a little uneasy about the implication that if I pray for good stuff for me I will get it. I suppose we can take the notion of "the blessings of prosperity" in a wide, or spiritual senses.

            Another site is even blunter in spelling out the deal: According to Yogi Bhajan [we read] this mantra "...will totally eliminate enemies and block the impact of animosity forever, it can give you mental self-control..."
            Also: "Yogi Bhajan also said that if chanted for 62 minutes, the best time being between three and four AM, it can relieve unbearable financial pressure."
            And: "This mantra meditation from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib is a gift to you that will let you penetrate the unknown without fear. It will give you protection and mental balance."

            I would prefer, I think, to just listen to the beauty of the musical chant and go back to stumbling around on my own.

            I have even fewer words to work with in trying to explain the enchantment of the mantra song (or "kirtan"?) that has lately become my absolute favorite and is to die for: Deval Premal's version of  "Radhe Govinda."

             The title, "Radhe Govinda".... after lengthy research...  appears to be the citing of two names romantically linked like, say, "Archie and Veronica." The comparison is not that far off, since the name in the manta appear to refer to something like a high school romance. Govinda is yet another name for Krishna, (the "supreme god") who spent his youth as a cowherd. Radha was his favorite of the "cow-herding maidens," though he sported with a number of the other cow-herding maidens as well. If you compare Krishna to the western deity to which is often paired, Jesus Christ, you can see that Hinduism has a much more pleasant notion of what divinity has to go through.

            Radha ("Radhe" is the vocative form; Latin scholars take a bow) and Govinda are a major theme in art and stories. Again, the subject is a celebration of youthful and, I suspect, sensual love. For another Western comparison think "Romeo and Juliet," but we know how that ended. Advantage: Hinduism. To be fair, Radha -- though not in this mantra -- is also a symbol of longing because Govinda has to go away (they do that, those young men) and on the way to becoming the supreme god marries several other persons before coming back to Radha for a "final" reunion.

            None of this narrative matters for Deval Premal's version of  "Radhe Govinda."

            The song is pure bliss. It's easy to find on the web. It's included on an album titled "Deval Premal & Miten" in concert. Lots of choral background here, including voices other than her own, notably a man's voice (Miten?).

             The name Deva by the way has own long involved etymology. Why wouldn't it? One of the sites translates Deva, short story, as "angel beings."

            When it comes to Deval Premal's singing -- and Snatam Kaur's -- that works for me.

Monday, February 17, 2014

History's Garden: Towering Over the Past

            Snow makes everything look "long ago." It also makes some old things look better. 
            In the first category, we offer the top photo on the left, a view of snow falling gently on a beautiful meadow viewed from Wollaston Heights. Only it's not a meadow. It's the Furnace Brook Golf Club. With nobody on the fairway and the snow blanketing the landscape, the view looks like something out of the 19th century. 
           If only. Quincy could use a few open green spaces that are not carved up and reserved for some sporting activity.

            In the second photo, the snow restores some of the elegance of a man-made structure actually built in the 19th century. It's a water tower, also located in the Wollaston Heights, officially known as the Forbes Hill Standpipe when it was constructed, from 1899 to 1902. The stone structure surrounds steel water tank built to hold a third of a million gallons of water.

            The site, according to my internet sources, included an "adjacent reservoir" that supplied the city with its water. It's hard to imagine where that reservoir would have been since the site today consists of a gentle summit covered by a grassy park and ball field that appears to be mostly used by the neighbors as a dog park. I've never seen any baseball being played on the ball field. Plenty of dogs, however, including the two from a neighboring house that began following us up the steps to the tower. 

            Built from Quincy granite, the tower has a crenelated roof that makes it resemble a medieval fortress. It's about 65 feet high and 30 feet in diameter. It's exactly the sort of the structure you'd like to climb to see how far you can see. The Blue Hills? The granite quarries? So naturally you can't, because the spiral staircase that winds between the steel tank and the tower's inner walls has long been closed to the public.

            The reservoir and the tower standpipe were taken out of service in the 1950s, replaced by the Blue Hills Reservoir.  

            According to the Quincy parks department, the five-acre playground neighboring the tower includes children's playground equipment, a basketball court, tennis court and the little league field. I have on occasion seen a few people shooting baskets up there.

            Everything natural and beautiful on this summit (the road up to the tower/park is called Summit Avenue) and the surrounding slopes was restored by Saturday's gentle snow fall. The snow outlined the shapes of the trees, smoothed out the landscape, filled the scars.
             Snow fell softly in a steady white drizzle on Saturday from early in the afternoon until around midnight, with nothing more devastating than a few inches of accumulation. It did fill up all my footsteps in the path I'd made through previous accumulations to the compost bin; but, to repeat, once again we've been fortunate. Blizzard winds and wet snow took down power lines in the southeast part of the state while giving us a mere touch-up coating of white.

            Since the temperature was a little above freezing -- warm for this winter -- with little wind, Anne and I found the snow fall a good opportunity to walk up to the Wollaston Heights, a mere 100 feet in elevation but considerably higher than the surroundings. I'm not sure sure where the name Wollaston came from. Today it refers to a part of Quincy that includes Wollaston Beach on the east and the heights on the west. The land was once owned by the Quincy family and later passed by marriage to John Adams.

            Wollaston was put on the map, so to speak, when the Old Colony Railroad opened its Wollaston station in 1845.

            When you look at the down-sloping field (forgetting it's a golf course) from the Heights on a snowy day you could be back in a time before the trains came to Quincy, followed by the automobile, plus most of the 90,000 people who live in the city today and everything else we have brought to (and done to) this landscape. The open ground could be pasture land. The habitations on the other side of the trees could be farms, not blocks of single-family houses. The renowned Adams family, John and Abigail, might just recently have moved into their newly acquired a "great house" a short ways to the south and down hill from the summit. We could be at the beginning of things, as a country.

            Though we live only about 10 blocks from the Wollaston T station today, our neighborhood has never been on the map, so to speak, in the same way. It's the "lowlands" to some, part of an area known in earlier times (before people built on it) as Norfolk Downs. That's not Wollaston, people have told us. It's Montclair, or North Quincy.

            Maybe. But under a gentle snow fall on a day when you don't have places to go and things to do, it can be anywhere, and any time, you wish it to be.