NIght of the Jaguar- Enticing Read

I just finished listening to “The NIght of the Jaguar” by Michael Gruber. Books on CD is my favorite way to pass the long hours driving to and from my family home 7 hours away.

NIght of the JaguarThis novel has it all; murder mystery, philosophy, psychology, contemporary geo-political ideas, clash of ancient and modern culture, you name it.

The top few characters develop nicely, learning from and integrating their experiences to grow from them.

The gist surrounds mysterious murders by a giant jaguar, which we know from the beginning is a little Columbian Indian who transforms into this god like beast, his own god, in fact. All this seems too implauseable, and we hear that from several characters, including the main character, Jimmy Paz, who retired as a cop after solving some bizarre voodoo killings years before. But over time, he begins to piece events together, all of which lead him to re-constitute some of his heritage, expressed in the character of his shamanistic Cuban mother.

In my favorite parts, the various characters discuss the scientific plausibility of spirits, their powers, their effects on the real world. It sound like Gruber did his homework, since the conversations seem well researched and make sense.

Gruber broaches tricky territory trying to convince us that spirits can take shapes not scientifically possible. But with all those philosophy of science and psychology discussions in the book, he set the leap up fairly well.

During Jimmy Paz’s defining moment, he realizes that it is simply not possible to be able to understand all workings of the universe, and that believing so hampers one’s ability so sense and respect the unknowable, the mysterious aspects of the workings of mind and matter which we may never fully grasp, no matter how much research is done. His wife, a psychiatric MD, and friend, a brilliant scientist, are not convinced. Much like the world we live in, there are the believers and the skeptics. But Jimmy brings us along with him in his transformation into a believer, at least in Jaguar spirits who take real form to kill.

All in all, a great read, or listen, in my case. This book on CD was read by Jonathan Davis, who does a fantastic job of rendering all the different characters voices and accents, from Brit to American to Florida Cuban.

Photos of decorations from my recital

I gave a recital of two great Mozart works at my home last Sunday, May 4th. Several good friends and colleagues joined me to play the Clarinet Trio and the Clarinet Quintet, both masterworks.

I decided to decorate my home with flowers, some cut from neighbors bushes and some from the store. Below are the photos. I love the way the scene with the white lilacs holds together with all the curly patterns in the Chinese art and the sculptures on the wall and on the table. The smaller bouquet of purple flowers is Wisteria cut from my own yard. The scent of lilacs and wisteria filled the house.

The sunflowers were on sale at the grocery store, and I think they look FAB in the cobalt vase on the mantle, like something out of a Georgia Okeefe painting.
White Lilacs, Wisteria with Art
Sunflowers in Cobalt Vase

Unbearable Lightness

Some of you may have noticed that I altered my blog header photo. I added the words “Unbearable Lightness” in script across the middle of the mystical looking woodland scene. (That photo is from Hocking Hills, Ohio, an area 40 miles south of flat Columbus. The region is hilly, unusual for Ohio. Th natural limestone hollows in the area, resembling caves, have been a tourist attraction since the mid 1800’s. Those beautiful natural formations exudes a magical feel. American Indians used many of the caves as meeting places for their enhanced acoustics.)

I read Milan Kundera’s book Unbearable Lightness of Being in the 1980’s. I’ve always loved the title and the book itself was a revelation for me. It’s message, that life’s mysterious existence and our even more inexplicable awareness of it, reminded me of Buddhist awareness of the power of the present moment. Yet Kundera embellishes the emotionality of being in the present, how excruciatingly poignant life can be both in its sadness and joy.

It all passes, the joy and the pain, as do we ourselves. How better to describe that terrifying and beautiful feeling, the emotional openness of being in the present moment no matter how desperately we my wish to get away from it, than with the phrase “unbearable lightness”? The irony of the phrase delivers the appropriate impact of such a powerful sense of aliveness.

So my blog is now un-officialy titled “Unbearable Lightness“.

Why I Am a Classical Musician

I carve a tiny piece of wood off the base of the reed. The shaving isn’t much larger than one or two hairs of daily growth on a man’s face. Almost nothing. I put the reed back on the mouthpiece and fasten it with the ligature. I form an embouchure and play the scale I repeat hundreds of times a day to check reeds. The raspiness has gone from the reed’s vibrations. The difference is huge. Now it has a bell-like ring as it pings through the instrument. Ahh!

After 2 hours of working on reeds, I am tired. Add five hours of rehearsals today and that’s a full day. But I haven’t finished. I still need to review specific sections of this weekend’s music. And the reed I just fixed might not make it through five minutes of playing, with the time spent on it lost after that.

Why do I do this? I smile as I ask myself. “Because I love it” might be one answer. But that’s not quite it. It’s more like an itch I have to scratch. From age 12 on I had the “ring” of the clarinet’s tone in my head, an ideal to strive for. Such a goal is elusive; it shifts and hides moments after being within your grasp.

Reeds are part of the problem, but so is being human. I am not a machine. I have to eat and sleep. I get tired. I have good days and bad. Yet the goal is always there; to outdo myself. Like an athlete wishing to win the Olympics, I strive for perfection with an all too human body and life. I may not always achieve it. But the striving tenures me to strong and tenacious character.

Of course, playing the instrument alone is only part of this puzzle. I am a clarinetist because I love music. Why do I love classical music so much?

As I ponder this question, my ear wanders to a CD playing of Bach’s Goldberg Variations performed by Andras Schiff. It’s a new recording for me. I have at least four recordings of this piece by different performers. Each player creates something fresh with their interpretation. So while the music is very familiar to me, it sounds new in this pianist’s hands.

Bach’s variations are accessible, dancelike and intimate, humorous and poignant. One in particular, the 26th, breaks my heart each time I hear it. I hang on every note. Schiff’s version is surprisingly feminine and coquettish, but with amazing facility and control. The tone of the particular piano he plays is also exquisite.

This brilliant music, and the performance, seems to come from somewhere beyond human capabilities. Yet it reflects human emotions in a crystalline way. It says something to me which I cannot articulate. It tells me who I am and who I could be. It reminds me of my humanity and my frailty, my nobility and my baseness. It reaches across ages, like sculpture or painting, and shows me how history and art has formed me and the civilization I live in.

Classical music offers a place of sanity in a harsh world. It clears the haze of daily life and allows us a glimpse of the thoughts and feelings of great people and a connection to our higher selves. And of their vulnerabilities. Who wouldn’t want to be inside Einstein’s head, or Picasso’s or Martin Luther King’s, as they thought and felt their great deeds? Well, I do. My life’s commitment is to be the instrument which recreates the vision of great composers for others.

Unlike painting or literature, classical music is experienced directly in time. Though I enjoy recordings of great pianists and orchestras, I relish hearing one as it happens. A live performance reflects a unique snapshot in time, much like sports are reality in action. Just like the excitement of a supportive crowd in sports, the audience affects performers with their attention and enjoyment. In a live performance, the history of today day can cue a great performer to fresh new depths of expression and heights of emotion for those listeners.

Orchestral performances are an intersection of many parts. First you have the music itself and the history of its style, something like recreating Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Then you have the particular orchestra and conductor, the “repainters”, if you will. Each member of the orchestra brings their own ideals and experience to the table, which then has to amalgamate into one voice. Then there are the acoustics of the hall, and the audience’s interest. It comes together each time to form a unique experience. When it all gels and the energy builds towards perfection, a particular performance can become an epiphany for all concerned.

Back to my own life and career. I may fix numerous good reeds at home, but few withstand the test of playing in my hall. The acoustics are deplorable, sadly, for the orchestra and especially the audience. This is not a concert hall, but a movie theater. It is not meant for the sublte voice of great music. I need a dense, resonant tone to carry my musical intentions to the odd corners of the cavernous room and the ears of listeners. Dozens of hours of work are usually spent to find the right reed for the hall, one which responds in the weather of that day and the demands of that night’s music.

Recently, I have been experimenting with other aspects of tone production, especially mouthpieces. When I first got this job 18 years ago, I had a great combination of reed type and mouthpiece which fit perfectly with the hall. I thought it was all the practicing I had done before winning the audition. I was naive. When that mouthpiece warped, ruining it, I searched for a decade and never found one with such beauty of tone. In the process I became a better musician. But it wasn’t without its cost in tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours and stress. Somehow I wonder if it’s worth it. I warn students of the gravity of choosing a music career.

All this thought and activity is before I play a note in a concert. In a live performance, a musician is naked. No second takes. Even beyond practicing clarinet, I have worked a great deal behind the scenes to make it seem “effortless” on stage. I have studied various techniques for focus and presence in order to overcome fatigue and stress from so many hours of repetitive practicing.

In truth, much of my daily life since age 12 has been working toward the present performance. The goal may be ideal, but a human plays for it. Personally, I play better when I know I am being heard and appreciated. A great conductor helps bring my focus together, as does a great audience.

When the concert finally begins, the first note is a commitment to the rest of the piece and to my colleagues. Egos may clash on and off stage, but conflict usually disappears as the conductor raises his baton and we come together to go beyond ourselves. All my work may or may not pay off this time. Even the best athletes trip.

Is it worth it? All this for the love of great ideas!? I guess that tiny shaving of reed is worth a great deal to me.


Ratatouille ingredientsIf you love food, go see the movie. It’s a sweet, meaningful story about a rat who has a gift for cooking and who ends up in a famous French restaurant. As usual, Pixar creates a beautiful animated world. There’s lots of fun voice acting, especially by Lou Romano, Patton Oswalt (The King of Queens) and Peter O’Toole.

And I LOVE the dish ratatouille. It’s one of the first things I learned to make. What’s great about it is its flexibility. Once you have any combination of the basic ingredients you can do just about any proportions and it turns out nicely. Lots of room for creativity, which I love.

Ratatouille!The veggies are the usual Summer bumper crop: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, onions, garlic. The spices are all the basics: thyme and oregano, though the mix called “Herbes de Provence” is the traditional, colorful flavor mix. Sauté it all in wonderful olive oil and, voilá! It can be served alone or with rice or on bread or stuffed in crêpes. I like to top it with some yummy mozzarella and Parmesan cheese and broil it to bubbly perfection.

The way it’s prepared in the movie looks like art and I want to try it that way someday, with rows of thinly sliced veggies lined up and drenched in some savory sauce. Even though it’s just animation, the dish looks delicious.