25 years ago today I released my first CD recording of original music. The inspiration that motivated its creation was my college friend, Ken Borowski, who died of cancer in 1988, a few months before his 23rd birthday. Writing about this here is just part of the process of revisiting the CD in all aspects: the music is a seed for an alchemy experiment by which I am producing new music of a more experimental nature. The new release will be available for download at no cost (although donations will be gladly and humbly accepted) on my web site by the end of the month.
I met Ken when we were freshmen at Clarkson University in 1984. He lived directly across the hall from me on the third floor in one of the freshman dorms. That year he was my best friend in college. We shared much in common: a love for classical music, playing chess, mathematics and computer programming. Although I was an electrical & computer engineering major and Ken was a computer science major, we shared some basic courses together that first year. Occasionally we played early morning racquetball and had breakfast before our 8 AM classes. Ken even loaned me his car so that I could drive across the New York border to visit Montreal just for the fun of it.
The inspiration for one of the three compositions on Gate of Men which were dedicated to Ken emerged in that year. Having studied Russian as a senior in high school, the language was still fresh on my mind. Ken showed interest in learning Russian and one of the words I taught him was станок (pronounced stanok) which means machine tool in English. We often greeted each other saying ‘stanok’ instead of ‘hello‘. I don’t remember exactly how it started – likely Ken, who seemed to like the word, said it to me with a military-style salute in the hall. (Ken was in the Air Force ROTC, so, that wouldn’t be to far from the norm). For this reason I composed a piece of music with a machine tool in mind, and it even has a reverberating hammering anvil sound.
The next three years as an undergraduate, Ken and I were distanced physically because we lived on opposite sides of Potsdam, NY, attending classes on our respective parts of campus. The engineering school was downtown across the street from my dorm. The Computer Science classes were on the main campus nearby where Ken lived. We still remained friends, occasionally attending a classical concert at the Crane School of Music only walking distance away from downtown. The last time I saw Ken was when he came to my dorm downtown the day before my Commencement ceremony to collect some tickets for graduation which he requested. While cancer treatments kept him away from his courses senior year, he had already had a job offer for his mathematical and programming skills – something having to do with fractals, unless I’m mistaken. I saw Ken as someone who might have worked with Ray Kurzweil then, or Elon Musk now.
Later that year after Ken died, I committed myself to creating a few tracks and (in the vernacular of the music biz) shopping a demo around. I wanted three compositions and those three were CTAHOK, Twilight and the title track, Gate of Men.
Gate of Men is a rather obscure reference. According to Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning by Richard H. Allen, Platonist philosophers believed the souls of men descended into human form by way of the constellation of Cancer. Intuitively I felt compelled in choosing this name for the track and the entire album. Rich in complex instrumentation and counterpoint, this composition was composed in memory of Ken for his love of classical music, particularly his love of Bach, and his intellectual endeavors into complex systems.
In 1991, I created a music publishing and recording company, Antiquus Et Modernus Music. (It was named thus because I loved the idea of blending ancient modalities and modern technology, best exemplified by the music of Dead Can Dance or Enigma’s CD, MCMXC a.D., which was popular at the time.) Digital audio tape was the preferred format and, with another person acting as a manager/agent, I did get several major record labels to listen to the demo tapes. I admit the music was a bit esoteric for them. But, I was proud of getting my feet in the door and it was quite an accomplishment, irrelevant though a learning experience.. As many of my musicians friends were doing, I decided to start my own record label, another branch of Antiquus Et Modernus Music that I would eventually abbreviate as AEM Music.
CD Cover Artwork
It was in the next year when I decided that a crab would be appropriate on the CD cover, as the Constellation Cancer would resonate as a symbolize Ken’s death due to Cancer. But I had no vision as to exactly how that would manifest. Then, a series of synchronous events occurred to lock in my choice, as if I had a choice. No. I believe the cosmos just called my name and held my eyelids open until I saw it. Certainly, Patience and Persistence had a hand in it, as did Serendipity and Synchronicity. These are my four artistic Muses and they deserve to be capitalized..
While at a doctor’s office, I was flipping through a copy of New York magazine issued on April 20, 1992 when I came across an article about an artist whose name looked familiar, Walter Anderson. I didn’t quite know why at first. A beautiful image of a crab which was oddly painted on two separate sheets of paper had distracted me. So, I began to read the article. Lo and behold, the very obscure artist was the same Walter Anderson (1903-1965) that I studied in 9th grade. My school in Pass Christian, Mississippi, was not far from his home in Ocean Springs.
Walter Inglis Anderson was born in New Orleans, LA on September 29th, 1903. As a lad, he had studied in New York, New Orleans and finally completed his educational course in Philadelphia where he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Afterwards he traveled to France to embrace the art of Paris and the Gurdjieff ‘new age’ movement.
Meanwhile, his family had settled in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a place which was to become Walter’s destiny. After a quasi-settling period of marriage and a business with his brother creating figurines, Walter had bouts with mental illness which occasioned his self-admittance to mental hospitals. Afterwards he began the periodic sojourns by rowboat to the Mississippi coastal islands, primarily Horn Island, where he remained for weeks at a time, painting nature with watercolors and typewriting paper. He bore the elements and seemed content to eat rice while he captured with brilliance the mystical qualities of gulf coast flora and fauna.
I had not been to Horn Island, but when I read this I was nostalgic for the time when I visited the small nearby Ship Island with the school in which I learned about the artist.
Walter Anderson died of cancer on November 30th, 1965, the same year in which Ken was born.
Walter Anderson’s art is rich in color and delicate, yet vivid in its celebration of life. There is pronounced symmetry in his work which reminds me of Escher. Ken had an interest in Escher’s work and I think he would have appreciated Walter Anderson.
The New York article mentioned a gallery in New York City which held the estate artwork and so I called them to see if it would be possible to use this artwork as an album cover. In my initial phone call, I was told that painting was not available. I was disappointed but not surprised.
Patience & Synchronicity
Some time elapsed and, while browsing in the art section of a used bookstore on Long Island during my lunch hour, I stumbled upon a brightly colored book which turned out to be The Horn Island Logs of Walter Anderson, a journal illustrated with paintings by the author made as he sojourned to the coastal islands of Southern Mississippi. It was in this book (edited by Redding S. Sugg, Jr.) that I found not just a crab, but a Ghost Crab. Aside from being a beautiful and richly colored watercolor, the image presents ghostly symbolism as the shell of a ‘soul’. I said to myself, “how perfect is this?
The next step was to call the same gallery in New York City to see if this crab could be used as the CD cover. Sadly, I was informed that Ghost Crab was not available. However, the consultant offered to send me a color transparency of a painting called “CRAB 1949” for potential use. Curious, I agreed and on September 2, 1992 I received the transparency in the mail. What I received was the film for the first crab that appeared in the New York magazine article. While I would have accepted that when I first called, it was not the right choice now. I wanted the Ghost Crab, dammit! So, I returned the transparency of CRAB 1949, and something happened – minds changed, works appeared out of thin air – I don’t know. But, suddenly the Ghost Crab was now available and I verbally agreed to accept it. Huzzah! An invoice for the reproduction and photography fee came the next month, November. Finally, with a memo dated March 2, 1993, I received the transparency – an early birthday present for me.
Composing and Recording
All I needed at that point was to compose the seven remaining tracks for the CD. A few things slowed down the process. One was moving to the Netherlands in the spring of 1994. At that time, I was also in talks to compose music for an independent feature film being made by a film professor at Hofstra University. If I were to do that, I had to work from Europe, which I did and flew back to spot the film with the director shortly after getting settled. But, in 1995 I took a two-week vacation from my day-job as an engineer, and completed Gate of Men.
The rest is history!
I did the whole “marketing thing” with the venture a financial loss, and although at the time I was still deluded into material pursuits, it never was about the money. Two years later in 1997, I walked away from my engineering career, financial security, and an unhappy relationship to pursue a music career further, but I was still deluded. Yet, the new trajectory began my awakening. Coincidentally, The Awakening was my next big music composition project but that is beyond the scope of my writing today. Everything happens for a reason. And as I write this, I’m feeling an ineffable catharsis. So, I think this essay has helped more than I anticipated, with regards to getting more engrossed in this next music project.
Onward and upward to the ambient soundscape of Descent !
(Onward and upward? To a descent? Well, yes indeed! That is part of it. Where there’s a descent, there’s an ascent. As above, so below…)
I sometimes feel
That the shoes I’m wearing are not mine.
But your shoes are mine.
The shoes in the corner of your room,
The ones with the scuff near the pinky toe,
Made when you boarded the bus
And your toe was snagged
By the metal stripping on the last step.
The snag was made
By that crazy encyclopedia salesman with the curly hair
Who insisted on riding the bus
With his goods in tow,
Laboriously lugging his huge metal book case,
Day after day.
You knew it would lead to trouble for you.
And it did.
You remember that day well.
Watching the bus driver look
More often into the rear view mirror
Than on the road ahead.
It was the day you first noticed
He had a tattoo
And you figured the guy was in the Navy,
Because it was 1963, and your father always told you
Only hoodlums and Navy men had tattoos.
And you hated the thought of his being a hoodlum.
You were in such an irritable mood
Because you had scuffed your shoe,
When you asked him
About the “ink stains” on his arm
He told you he didn’t want to see you
On his bus again.
And he didn’t.
You must remember.
I sometimes feel
As though I am everyone,
Every single person that ever lived.
I sometimes feel
As though I am everyone else
Federzoni is a lens grinder. That’s about all Bertolt Brecht gives us in his play, “Life of Galileo” which was written in 1938. Although from the text of the play, we can surmise a few things more, notably that he is a student and assistant to Galileo Galilei, the protagonist. And unlike Galileo and other assistants, Federzoni cannot read Latin. Yet, with no formal education, he is passionate about learning. So, who is Federzoni and why is it important that we know such a trivial character?
Federzoni isn’t the easiest name to pronounce merely because it isn’t familiar. As it is all that Brecht gave us, let’s give him a first name and call him Enrico. You know what? Let’s take it a step further and give him a nickname.: Enni or Enny or perhaps Rico. I did not do this much when I played Federzoni in 2013. But, I did create a backstory, just enough to give an identity or individualization for a character whose stage presence was brief.
A lens grinder naturally grinds glass. And Galileo knew Enrico was one of the best lens grinders in all of Venice, making eyeglasses fashionable since their invention in Italy at the beginning of the 14th century. Enrico was skilled at his craft, but everyone makes mistakes. One day at the grinding wheel he was distracted and the wheel propelled fragments of glass into his right eye, blinding him. And so I wore an eye patch as a physical manifestation of the story and this gave the character a distinguishing feature. What made this skilled lens grinder lose his focus (the pun is only partially intended)?
It was his passion for knowledge and learning. He was a true philosopher – he loved (philo) wisdom (sophia). But without a formal education, the best he could do at the time was to work with Galileo and vicariously satiate his hunger for a universe revealed by Copernicus to be heliocentric. He did not read the works of Copernicus in Latin, but he had read De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds) written by Giordano Bruno in 1584, which among Bruno’s other works was the most damaging to the world view of the Catholic church.
[Bruno connected Copernicus’ heliocentric theory with the idea of other populated worlds orbiting other stars. So, not only was the earth no longer the center of the universe, ‘man’ was no longer at the center of the universe. Vatican alarms went off! You can just imagine theologians pacing: “And what of man’s God and the savior? Was Jesus Christ the savior for other people on an infinite number of worlds? Are their other saviors for these worlds? The Bible doesn’t speak of these worlds, only man and our world. And the Bible is God’s word. So, no! This heresy cannot be allowed. ” Copernicus’s works were not prohibited by the Vatican, but their teaching was. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Galileo recanted and was put under house arrest.]
Let’s now conclude as much of the backstory that I gave to Enrico. Although Bruno had written many works in Latin, he had also written a number of dialogues in Italian, his mother tongue. For he truly believed that in order to effect the religious reform which he desired, his work needed to be accessible by peasants and farmers as much as the clergy and scholars. The concepts in De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi , one of Bruno’s dialogues that was indeed written in Italian,absolutely fascinated Enrico. The day after he first read the dialogue he could not help visualizing these other worlds that Bruno suggested. Even at the grinding wheel these thoughts dominated. While his mind’s eye saw visions of world’s revolving around what had been previously thought to be the ‘fixed’ stars, his real eye saw shards of glass as his hands relaxed and slipped off the wheel. One could say (to corrupt a phrase from another brilliant man not yet born at that time) he ‘saw a universe in grains of sand.’
Creating a backstory can be a formidable instrument in an actor’s process of forging a character. No matter how large or small the role, there is infinite room for a backstory; limitations exist only in the actor’s mind. In fact, the smaller the role, the larger the backstory should be. Non-speaking characters should have the largest backstories – at least, that is what I would encourage my cast members to explore throughout the rehearsal process. Write it. Draw it. Paint it. Sculpt it. Talk about it. What results could be described as magic; with an audience having no knowledge or sensory contact to any backstory, they are still affected by it through the actor’s performance. In the alchemical process of creating a character, the backstory is the philosopher’s stone added into the alembic while the heat (energy) of an actor’s work is applied. The backstory once instilled in the actor’s imagination is transformed on stage into authenticity, belief, truth – all which can be exuded merely through a posture, a glare in the eye, a facial tic, or her gait as she exits stage left.
There’s no end to a backstory. It can be transformed into a work of art. I’ve taken one to that extreme. A backstory of a very minor character in a tense drama was flushed out into an epilogue, and finally into a short play called A Streetcar Named Napoleon.
So, who’s your character? Write your story. It doesn’t need to live on the written page or in a blog (although that could enhance the effect). A home in your imagination is all that’s required to bring magic to the stage.
Looking through my art books today in the throes of reducing my personal library by at least fifty percent (what I call “The Great Culling of 2020” which I’d like to write about later), I pulled from one box ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ illustrated by Salvador Dali. I had saved that book for decades, as well as ‘Essays’ by Michel de Montaigne (also illustrated by Salvador Dali) because the illustrations are outstanding, some of Dali’s most magnificent work! As it was highly prized by two of my favorite mentors, Giordano Bruno and William Shakespeare, Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ is on my short list to read this year and awaits my attention on a shelf in my bedroom . But as I held Cellini’s book in my hands, I wondered if I shouldn’t also consider reading it, too. Perhaps the fact that Dali illustrated both books speaks to the virtue of Cellini’s writing, as comparable to that of Montaigne. But the illustrations were the only reason that this autobiography was in my box of art books in the first place.
I decided to open the book to an arbitrary page and read a little. Here is the first sentence that caught my eye, the first sentence of the second paragraph just above the middle of the page:
I must not omit the exquisite art of enamelling, in which I have never known any one excel, save a Florentine, our countryman, called Amerigo. I did not know him, but was well acquainted with his incomparable masterpieces. Nothing in any part of the world or by any craftsman that I have seen, approached the divine beauty of their workmanship.
I then flipped pages, read an occasional sentence, and it did seem more and more intriguing as I went along. But why should I submit to reading the biography of this 16th century Italian artist? Why not another? So I set the book aside with the others I planned to keep and repacked into the box.
The next book I pulled out, one I often used as a reference from time to time, was ‘Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives’ by C.A.S. Williams. Differences in book subjects as well as their cultural disparity made this consecutive book selection from the box seem quite random to me. . . or so it would seem. I opened to an arbitrary page from which I would also begin a journey of flipping from spot to spot. I opened to page 174. Imagine my surprise when I read the section title in the middle of the page , “ENAMELWARE”, and no doubt its equivalent in Chinese characters just below. If that doesn’t put a tingle in your spine, know this: the first sentence of the second paragraph begins with the phrase, “the art of enameling.” That sentence reads as follows:
The art of enameling is said to have been introduced into China from Constantinoble by the Arabs, and the Chinese term Fa lan t’ieh, “iron of Fa-lan,” is said to be derived from Folin, a medieval name for Stamboul, though others believe that Fa lan is equivalent to Frank or France.
After the stun wore off, I set both books aside with the intention of writing about this uncanny synchronicity. So here we are. One can take a sign in many ways, especially when the path is indirect, obtuse, and protracted. So I choose to give meaning to this synchronicity and that meaning is a simple message: yes, there is something for me in this book – find it.
Did Shakespeare read Cellini’s autobiography? Did any of Cellini’s philosophy make it into Shakespeare’s works? Did Shakespeare transform any experience of Cellini’s work into his own uniVERSE? (That is intended as more of a provocative question than a pun…but it’s also punny!)
Now I will put the book of Chinese symbolism back in the box and make a new home for ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ in my bedroom, in a spot right next to Montaigne’s ‘Essays’.
In early morn when scattered light doth fall
Onto the grooved and blemished hardwood floor,
Suspended in the liquid air in dance,
In frolic, frenzy and delight, are specs
Of worlds and universes only seen
In open hearts, occulted to the eyes
And ears and other senses of the mind.
Intuit life and laughter in abundance there
Until the rising sun disturbs the spell
And charm of the enchantment suddenly.
Sublime for merely seconds and just then,
As nature’s subterfuge makes all this seem
A dream, the dream itself but fades away.
A calm and stillness lingers for awhile.