Saturday, May 31, 2008

modern ecstatic sufi music

modern ecstatic sufi music first came into my experience through the singing of nusrat fateh ali khan when he recorded with english musician peter gabriel. along with many other internationally renowned musicans, they collaborated on the soundtrack to martin scorsese’s film ”the last temptation of christ”. as with all music featuring the instruments and vocalization of artists from other cultures, the bridge between what i knew and accepted and what i needed to learn in order to appreciate, enjoy and understand nusrat’s music was large but very worthwhile.

nusrat’s chosen form of singing was the qawwali - a devotional form of song attributed to the sufis. there are a variety of qawalli forms ranging from songs sung specifically in praise of Allah to ghazals which are formed around extended metaphors connecting worldly with spiritual love.
the first time i heard nusrat singing i was stunned by the range he could achieve and then also, the real and deep passion he was able to bring to his singing. nusrat surrounded himself with incredibly talented musicians who could move quickly from being pensive and reflective in one moment, to ecstatically percussive driving power in the next.

the range of qawwali singers that is available to the listening ear is much broader now of course and from the tremendous wealth of music that has become available, i would like to share the following examples . .
sweet pain by vishal vaid and company

longing by vishal vaid and company
finally, here is the song “intoxicated” sung by the greatest qawwali singer of all time nusrat fateh ali khan. a translation and interpretation of the lyrics to intoxicated can be read right here thanks to amitabh iyer.

jean giono: the man who planted trees

hey it's saturday morning. the rain has been merrily bucketing down all night and doesn't look set to stop very soon so i think a movie would be just the ticket!

jean giono was born in the south of france in the beautiful town of manosque. astonishingly, he did not become a full-time writer until the age of thirty five after having worked in a bank and served time as a soldier. the man who planted trees was first published in 1953.
the story takes place in 1910 and features the narration of a twenty year-old man undertaking a hiking trip through the wilderness of provence and the alps. he eventually runs out of water at which point he meets a middle-aged shepherd named elzéard bouffier. the narrator decides to stay with bouffier and learn all that he can about his life. among the many observations he makes is the one that sustains the story and that is that as bouffier follows his sheep, he makes holes in the ground with his curling pole and drops into the holes acorns that he has collected from many miles away.
the narrator eventually leaves bouffier to fight in the first world war. he returns after the war to discover that a forest has taken root in the previously desolate valley, replete with streams, and birds and animals. and so the story unfolds of one man’s incredible gift to the world. . .

the man who planted trees part one . . .
if your interest is piqued through having seen part one, then perhaps you should nip over to google video who have very generously hosted the film in its entirety . . .

a big thanks to goldenrod for pointing out the glitch with parts two and three of the man who planted trees over at youtube . . . .

similar stories - true stories - have taken place around the world through the efforts of an organization called trees for the future. here is a promotional video made available through trees for the future . . .

if you would like to read the story, there are many many versions available in all the usual places.

while you are here, i would also recommend giono’s brilliant and lovely “joy of man’s desiring”. here’s a sample of the writing you will find inside this wonder: “it was an extraordinary night. the wind had been blowing: it had ceased, and the stars had sprouted like weeds. they were in tufts with roots of gold, full-blown sunk into the darkness and raising shining masses of night.

jourdan could not sleep. he turned and tossed.
“the night is wonderfully bright,” he said to himself.
he had never seen the like before.
the sky was vibrating like a sheet of metal. you could not tell what made it do so because all was still, even the tiniest willow twig. it was not the wind. it was simply that the sky came down and touched the earth, raked the plains, struck the mountains, and made the corridors of the forests ring. then it rose once more to the far heights.”

i managed to spread the reading of the four hundred and seventy two pages of this book over three years, reading it in spoonfuls, so rich and gorgeous was the text.

Friday, May 30, 2008

the discovery at nag hammadi

if you journey up the nile past cairo, past beni suef and almost as far as luxor, you will come to a city named nag hammadi. nag hammadi is known primarily as a producer of sugar and aluminum and is called home by approximately thirty thousand people.

what is most extraordinary about nag hammadi though is the discovery over sixty years ago of what are now famously and collectively referred to as the nag hammadi codices or the nag hammadi library. the books were discovered in a large jar by farmers in december of 1945. originally there were thirteen books but unfortunately, the farmers actually used some of the books as fire starter. thus, there are now twelve books including one that is missing its cover.
this immensely important discovery includes a large number of primary gnostic scriptures -- texts once thought to have been entirely destroyed during the early christian struggle to define "orthodoxy" -- scriptures such as the gospel of thomas, the gospel of philip, and the gospel of truth. it is entirely conceivable that the course of history would have been changed, were these to have been included in the bible, but the picture that is painted of jesus and his followers as people and as theologians, and most especially of the church and its intended form and function, runs almost entirely contrary to what has been delivered and accepted by the mainstream churches.

the writings in these codices date back to approximately the second century and are believed to be a library hidden by monks from the nearby monastery of st. pachomius after possession of these items was declared heresy.

most famous of the texts is the gospel of thomas which i first read twenty two years ago. it is believed that the gospel of thomas was written between 60 a.d. and 140 a.d. making it an incredibly close-to-the-source document in terms of its chronological relation to christ’s life. the author of the book is named christ’s twin but this is intended in a spiritual sense and not in a genetic sense.
my reading of the gnostic gospels has always been a spiritual and enlightening experience. the thinking more closely parallels my knowledge and understanding of this world in its theological and cosmological presuppositions. i think too that it succeeds by not being saddled with the weight of the preceeding two millenia of interpretation.

consider the following writings that mark the beginning of the gospel of thomas:

“these are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which didymos judas thomas wrote down.

(1) and he said, "whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death."
(2) Jesus said, "let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. when he finds, he will become troubled. when he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all."
(3) Jesus said, "if those who lead you say to you, 'see, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. if they say to you, 'it is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. when you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. but if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."

laced with metaphor and challenging the metaphors that must have already emerged in the orthodox church, the text also contains such beautiful words attributed to jesus as “recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you . for there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest."

if you would like to read more (and it isn’t a massive text at all) there are three translations of the gospel of thomas. the version i have in my collection is known as the lambdin translation and can be read online here. if you would like to take a deeper walk inside this writing, then a detailed analysis of the thomas text with rich audio, visual, and textual links (including much of thomas’ other writings) is available here.

the gnostic society library from which most things gnostic can be accessed is right here.

steve mulligan and john benham's black and white worlds

there is something indescribably romantic about black and white images. this somewhat blurry, slightly overexposed image of a train on the isle of wight is a perfect example. it is primarily for that reason that i have always loved black and white photography.

in my own experience it is much more challenging and usually more interesting to produce a really good black and white image. aside from its aesthetic attraction there are the technical considerations of texture, lighting, composition, subject and so on that i know are also omnipresent in colour photography but they seem to be more pertinent in the construction of a good black and white image.

a couple of contemporary photographers whose black and white work i have admired for some time now are steve mulligan, who specializes in large format landscapes and john benham who takes images ranging from the stellar (literally of stars) to images from his travels. in my view john’s strongest work is in his black and white pictures where he places the extraordinary range of contrast inherent in the grey scale squarely in the mix of a series of powerful images.

steve mulligan’s work is spread over seven galleries, each focussing on a geographic region or in one instance where there is “evidence of man”.

here are two of steve’s black and white images: delta pool . . . ice pool . . .
here are two of john’s images: snowdunes . . . miner's cabin . . .

if you would like to view more beautiful photography then john benham’s site includes a wide-range of subjects. you should allow for plenty of time to wander around and appreciate his fine work .

Thursday, May 29, 2008

steve roach live at grace cathedral

following up on the holst post comes this beautiful late twentieth century "space music". steve roach has been crafting improbably beautiful music for over three decades now. i have been listening to his work for half that time and have in my collection less than one quarter of his prodigious output - at last count roach has released over eighty albums.

hardly a household name and unlikely to ever crack (or even wish to crack) that vaunted realm, roach creates expansive sonic spaces that allow the listener to travel in almost any direction they wish - outward or inward.

roach performed live at the grace cathedral in san francisco on september 26, 2007 and it is from that concert that this stunning video is excerpted.

to listen to more of steve’s music, to buy his music, and to learn more about steve roach, please visit his amazing website.

gustav holst: saturn and neptune

a cool late-spring afternoon. the sun is shining. trees that can blossom are blossoming. the wind is gusting around a lot blowing the dust off everything in its path. at the moment, i am happily ensconsed on the inside of my home. gustav holst’s planet suite is playing in my headphones . . . . echoing in part the current excitement around the recent landing of the phoenix mission that i wrote about a few days ago . . .

holst, despite his germanic name was actually born in england with the surname von holst which he wisely dropped during world war 1 in response to the anti-german sentiment which was undoubtedly prevalent during that time.

music flowed throughout the family making it a certainty that gustav would at the very least be immersed in its presence. his grandfather was a composer, while his parents were players of music. gustav holst is most widely known for his composition the planets. the planets stretched the rules of composition as well as the use of instrumentation for its time and yet incredibly was originally scored for two pianos except for neptune which was to have been played by a solo organ.

holst reportedly hated the popularity of the planets and its attendant bringing of fame to himself. when people would ask for his autograph, he gave them a typed sheet of paper that stated that he didn't give out autographs. the planets was first performed in a private concert in 1918 with adrian boult conducting as a gift from henry balfour gardiner. the first complete performance of the piece was under albert coates in 1920.
i wish i could recall the first time i heard the planet suite but it’s been a part of my life for as long as i can remember and colours so many periods and moments that i can’t distinguish one from the other. the first time i truly heard the planets i was drawn into the piece entitled “saturn“ . . . rendered here in a very subtle and delicate manner . . . which brought me to what has become my favourite piece of the planets - neptune. i particularly love the recurring theme and most especially, the choral ending which is echoed in elements of vaughan william’s soundtrack for the film “scott of the antarctic” which was written into a larger piece of music later released as symphony no. 7 or sinfonia antarctica.

three cool gadgets

this week’s cool gadgets post sees three products with that undefinable cool quotient. the first is a solar-powered flashlight manufactured by solcool, a company that is more widely known for distributing hybrid ac units that can be hooked up to solar cells, making them part of the solution and not part of the problem.

the flashlight looks very attractive but for many people it will not represent a replacement for the convenience of a battery-powered flashlight. to recharge the battery, a 0.1w or 2v feeds into a 1.2v / 800m ah ni mh battery. recharging takes a day of sunshine and in return you get 1-2 hours of light from the flashlight. judging by the specs, it’s going to be a bright light given that it has six leds and one red led. i just want to know that if i’m making a midnight trip to the biffy when the power grid goes kerthunk, that i won’t be stumbling over an errant toy or pair of shoes and taking an early trip to the great source code in the sky! in my view a worthy replacement for battery-powered flashlights but don’t plan on using it to read a long novel by or as a nightlight while camping! $24.95 from the manufacturer.

next up is a really intriguing product that utilzes active fresh blue technology to help keep food fresh. in this case fruit. created by the design team of ahmet bektes, koray gelmez and eda kose, what they have come up with is a very stylish solution to the simple fact that generally speaking, fruit is not truly fresh anymore, if fresh is understood to mean - no more than a few days old. the bacteria that aid in the decomposition of all plant life quickly get to work with the resultant waste of the fruit.
this on the heels of a recently released report from britain that indicates that 3.3 million tonnes of food are wasted every year in that part of the world alone is a compelling reason to look at methods for preventing unnecessary waste.

i can’t pretend to understand how the blue led light works, but apparently the blue wavelength of the spectrum discourages the growth of, and kills bacteria. the “blue” technology is also being used in the halo vacuum and in arcelik refridgerators. a very pretty salad bowl to be sure.

the last item i’ll mention here came out of the greener design competition held in 2007. designed by canadian sarah hay, dubbed the “evo”, it’s a very simple, almost magical device that addresses the need for people to create stories about their travels. here is what the designer says about evo: “evo is a personal recording device which can be worn as a pendant or pocket watch. an intuitive interface provides contextual information: location, direction, time, atmospheric pressure. It also captures still and moving pictures with audio and is designed to take with you on your travels. a gps receiver enables the recorded files to be referenced with geographic information so, not only is the information valuable at the time of experience, but opens up wonderful possibilities for re-experiencing the personal media in a dynamic map based software environment upon return.“
its technical features are as follows:

- formed anodized aluminium casing was chosen for its light weight, protective and scratch resistant qualities
- a series of 'o' rings seals the two shells together ensuring water resistance and offering soft tactile qualities
- a cmos photosensor combines the image quality of ccd technology with compact size, adaptability and energy efficiency
- a polyled (polymer light emitting diode) display offers high brightness, high contrast, and a fast response time suitable for displaying video
- minimal moving parts for longevity and durability
and most amazing of all, it is powered by a pull-string energy harvester taking this item off the grid and off the battery-dependence cycle.

what an incredible idea!! somebody hurry up and make it!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

dandelions: the teeth of the lion

the town i live in has banned herbicides and pesticides as part of an effort to try and turn back the tide of illness (both to humans and to the land and other living things exposed to it) resulting from their indiscriminate use over the past however many years. i stopped using both just over four years ago. my lawn was not as thick and lush as some of my neighbours’ lawns but i had the satisfaction of knowing that when their children came to play with my children, they were not coating themselves with a variety of chemicals that have been connected to a lengthy list of mental and physical ailments. then too there was, and still is, the satisfaction in our knowing that the property that we are borrowing from nature while we live on it is not being left with too much residual damage from our stay.

one side effect of the ban has been the proliferation of what are termed generically “weeds”. it’s a funny thing but “weeds” have never carried the negative connotation for me that is ascribed to them by so many people. i love their leaves for the variety of shapes and i especially love the flowers that they so often grow. people have become accustomed for example to consider the dandelion a weed. decried by gardeners, cursed by herbicide manufacturers, the dandelion was almost entirely eradicated from england through a concerted effort to remove it from the landscape. as a result, the dandelion had to be placed on the protected species list in order to prevent its extinction! oops!

happily, it is back in abundance! in defence of people who find the proliferation of dandelions to be a nuisance - yes, i can share your frustration with any plant that takes over a property. many plants possess this capacity. bluebells, are a classic example:
just near me is some municipal property. nominally “a park” it is an open space that adjoins a small woods. in the spring of the last two years it has become a nursery for tens of thousands of dandelions. in mid-spring, a carpet of yellow fills the park and for a brief while the field literally glows. here's a path i take into the nearby woods.
as you can see, the yellow flower dandelions have been quickly replaced by the infamous “puffballs” or “clocks” as they are called, at which time the air is filled with little fairy-like pieces of long-legged fluff, winging its way towards its new home. here is one little flower that has not undergone "the conversion" just yet!
closer . . . closer still . . .
just yesterday, i watched a rabbit in my backyard as it carefully bit away the base of the stem of a dandelion and then ate the stem right to the clock and amazingly, puffed hard enough at the critical moment to cause the clock to blow away. true story!!

dandelions evolved about thirty million years ago, making them relative newcomers but establishing them as substantially older than human beings as we know them. their name “dandelion” comes from the french “dent de lion” meaning lion's tooth, which is in reference to its coarsely-toothed leaves. dandelions can be made into dandelion wine which as well as being a very famous, very excellent ray bradbury novel, is a potable drink with some complex and intoxicating flavours. there are several recipes, some of which are available here. dandelions also constitute food for a variety of organisms including butterflies and moths, the aformentioned rabbits, as well as human beings.

the bottom line for me is that the approach to what are effectively wild flowers as something to be eradicated needs to change. there is no sustainable or supportable argument i have heard that explains the incredible efforts and resultant damage to nature accruing to the presence of dandelions and other wild plants on our planet.

santiago calatrava: beautiful bridges

there are a few ways to cross a river, but the most visually inspiring has to be the bridge. that it also keeps you dry is an added bonus of course. bridge design has undergone an exciting renaissance in the past ten years with the resultant spans being visually stunning structures that often become emblematic of the community or region they stand in.

santiago calatrava has designed several exquisite spans. calatrava (who is also a sculptor and painter) suggests that the practice of architecture melds all the arts into one. certainly his buildings and bridges would serve as proof that he is correct. early visitors to this blog may recall a couple of images that i took of one of his structures - the interior of bce place in toronto . . .

in my view, it is his bridges though that carry the heart of his statement into practice.

the alamillo bridge in seville, spain is one such structure, spanning the canal de alfonso xiii. begun in 1989 and completed in 1992, the bridge was one of the many improvements made to seville in preparation for expo 1992.
here is the bridge by day . . .
and even more spectacularly by night . . .
the bridge was designed thematically around the “soaring aspirations of the city of seville.” to my eyes it resembles a recumbent harp which makes me wonder if in a high wind there are harmonics created by the passage of the wind over the cables.

the sundial bridge at turtle bay shares a similar aesthetic. a much larger structure than the alamillo bridge, the sundial bridge consists of a 213 m pedestrian bridge topped by a single 66 metre mast that serves as the gnomon of the world’s largest sundial. amazingly, the bridge’s deck is surfaced with translucent structural glass that is illuminated at night. i bet that crossing that bridge at night would be a beautiful never-to-be-forgotten experience. the design of the bridge is really only possible because it is not subject to the terrific stresses brought about by motorized traffic.

the chords bridge at the entrance to jerusalem is designed to solve a traffic congestion problem. that it is strikingly beautiful is an added bonus! set to open sometime in the summer of 2008, the bridge is 360 metres long and boasts a 118 metre high mast that is the tallest structure in jerusalem.

the calatrava bridge in petah tikva is a very similar design to the chords bridge but on a much smaller scale. its beauty is very apparent in these two images . . .

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

denise levertov: sojourns in the parallel world

there are many features of photography that i enjoy, but it is the effortless acquiescence to the compulsion to get close and to feel and to listen and to watch nature that i find the most compelling and that tells me i am in the right place. the poet denise levertov articulated this most clearly in her poem “sojourns in the parallel world” . . .

sojourns in the parallel world
we live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension--though affected,
certainly, by our actions. a world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
we call it "nature"; only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be "nature" too.
whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal--then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
no one discovers
just where we've been, when we're caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
--but we have changed, a little.
here are a few recent pictures of the sky . . .
blossoms in front of my home . . .
and the wonders growing out of the ground . . .
and here’s a beautiful video accompanying steve roach’s music . . . clouds in motion . . .

basho: narrow road to the deep north

"the days and months are wanderers of a hundred generations, the years that come and go are also travellers. those who spend their lives floating on a boat, or people who get old leading a horse by the bit, spend day after day traveling and inhabit travel. there are also a great number of ancients who died while travelling. i, too, from a certain year have been enticed by the wind like a single cloud and could not stop the desire to wander..."

matsuo basho’s haiku has been featured several times on the golden fish blog so it seems only fitting that his masterpiece, the “narrow road to the deep north” should also appear on these pages. ”basho wrote this incredible travelogue in 1689 after travelling 2400 kilometres in 150 days. in narrow road to the deep north, basho fulfills the dream of many people, to address their passge through this life metaphorically by wandering seemingly aimlessly across a sometimes hostile landscape, all the while recording their observations, sensations, and thoughts.

but there’s more to it than the journey itself. originally titled oku no hosomichi, or “narrow road to the interior” basho suggests that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” this is echoed in the introductory sentences of narrow road which opens with the following words: “many of the men of old died on their travels, and i, too, for years past have been stirred by the sigh of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
last year i spent wandering along the seacoast.
in autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs.
gradually, the year drew to a close.
when spring came and there was mist in the air, i thought of crossing the barrier of shirakawa into oku.
everything about me was bewitched by the travel gods, and my thoughts were no longer mine to control. the spirits of the road beckoned, and i could do no work at all.”

the journey is as much inside the person as it is outside the home. the urge to know what is beyond the known, to gather experiences and to reflect on their import and merit, to stretch away from the present moment is also about the process of becoming. to read nine translations of this opening paragraph then venture over here.

a good overview of the writings of basho has been put together over at intense city.

a lovingly assembled translation can be read here read here. assembled in 44 sections, may i recommend that you bookmark the link, and read one section per day for fourty four days. this will allow you to more fully reflect on the experiences as described and then also on those of your own as you reflect on the reading.

Monday, May 26, 2008

mars phoenix lander mission

it is clear that the human race is outstripping the ability of the planet earth to support us for very much longer. very much longer is a relative term to the history of the earth but in terms of the history of mankind it is imperative that we establish the possibility of extending our place in the universe beyond our home planet.

to this end, n.a.s.a. has a four step plan that is driving its efforts towards mars:

1. determine whether life ever arose on mars

2. characterize the climate of mars

3. characterize the geology of mars

4. prepare for human exploration

on saturday, august 4, 2007, the mars phoenix project - a joint effort of nasa and the university of arizona took off from cape canaveral on its journey to the red planet.

here is a beautiful photograph of the noctilucent cloud created by the exhaust gas from the delta II 7925 rocket used to launch phoenix.
what’s cool about this cloud is that it not only took on the appearance of the mythical phoenix bird, but that it also took on the red and blue colors of the phoenix mars lander logo.

the mission is innovative in many ways firstly being a collaborative project between nasa and a public university and also because it is the first of the new “scout” program. the scout program is characterized by the fact that they are led by a scientist, known as a principal investigator (p.i.). peter smith of the university of arizona's lunar and planetary laboratory is phoenix's p.i. and is responsible for all aspects of the mission.

phoenix’s objectives to support nasa’s goals, are to (1) study the history of water in the martian arctic and (2) search for evidence of a habitable zone and assess the biological potential of the ice-soil boundary. specifically, phoenix intends to visit the martian northern arctic plain, where discoveries made in 2002 by the mars odyssey orbiter indicated that there are large quantities of subsurface water ice water ice lurks just below ground level. the phoenix lander is going to use a robotic arm to dig through the protective top soil layer to the water ice below and ultimately, bring both soil and water ice to the lander platform for analysis.

here’s a map of mars centered on its north pole. regions of high ice content are shown in violet and blue and lower concentrations are shown in red.
there is a canadian element to this mission as well. after phoenix touches down on mars, its canadian weather station will begin to study the arctic region of mars. the instruments will measure pressure and temperature, assessing local climate patterns as well as dust, clouds, and fog in the lower atmosphere.
here’s an animation of the phoenix lander’s entry into the martian atmosphere . . . .

here’s a video produced by the university of arizona . . .

and some more video footage . . .

the first possible confirmation of the spacecraft's landing on may 25 was at 4:53 p.m. pacific daylight time. after the event happened, it took 15 minutes and 20 seconds for the radio signals traveling at the speed of light to cross the distance from mars to earth. here are the first images - the mars arctic plain . . . a closer look at the surface . .
more information can be found at the discovery channel site. nasa’s main mission site is also an excellent resource.