Moving, Deep Listening, and Creation

Can we listen deeply while moving?

Fingers in a city map

While jogging last week, I perceived a new quality to the album Absolution by the band Muse. It matched my movements to such a perfect degree so much of the time, that I wondered if the music was deliberately created to for exercise junkies. At times, I felt pushed by the music, and at times I felt great happiness as my participation with it.

This got me thinking. I do not argue against the value of deep listening, as advanced by On an Overgrown Path. I have had deep meditative experiences in concert halls and in other settings where mindful listening was required. Music such as Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti or John Adam’s The Dharma at Big Sur does seem to loosen the unconscious and connect us with a sense of unity, but even less experimental music (by modern standards) as Beethoven symphonies can do this to me under the right conditions.

When I picture this kind of deep listening, I think of concentrated silence and restraint of movement. I wouldn’t immediately think about music-inspired movement as “deep listening”. I associate the idea of deep listening and meditation, which lines up with what – I would guess – many people perceive meditation to be: mindfulness while sitting still and being quiet.

However, there are meditations on movement, and perhaps we can say the same about deep listening. I’ve found much music benefits from simultaneous movement. No, I can’t listen to Tosca while exercising (though I, regrettably, tried once), but some music opens like wine that’s been allowed some time to breathe when the listener moves in reaction to it. The music accents and compliments the movement, and a virtuous cycle emerges of co-creation of the moment.

Most powerfully, this happens in live settings where the “musicians” and the “listeners” engage in an energetic back and forth of giving. I’ve experienced this both as musician and audience, in commercial settings and spiritual settings.

But even recordings can do this when paired well. Last night while riding my bike in an empty street, I listened to some plainchant, and the ride was transformed from transportation to a kind of dancing flight. The music changed my perception1. I’ve had many similar experiences, and I’m sure many other people have.

When music connects like this, the line between listener and musician becomes ever more blended, and together they creatively alter experience itself. Yes, the musician creates the music, but they together make the moment. The dancer does this. The jogger does this. The driver. The dishwasher. The walker. The person sitting with their eyes closed. It’s hardly glamorous, but it is relevant to them and to anyone who wants to find new musical and life experiences and deepen their love of music.


  1. I don’t, naturally, recommend listening to headphones while biking where there’s much traffic of any kind. Just thought I’d throw that disclaimer out there. ↩

“Can Your Friends Do This?”

Robin Williams: A Personal Reflection

When I was around 9 or 10 – maybe earlier, but I’m not sure – I began singing in my room. Ours was a singing family anyway, so it’s not surprising that I would do it as well, but back then I didn’t listen to a ton of popular music besides Michael Jackson.

Instead, I listened to and sang along mostly with tapes of Disney scores. I was one of the fortunate children who were alive, very young and impressionable during Disney’s wonderful string of animated successes The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. I enjoyed them all, but Aladdin was the absolute tops. Why?

Robin Williams was Genie.

Thinking about it now, it’s not really surprising that so much of what I love about singing was inspired by a singing actor rather than a “singer”. “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” were thrilling and hilarious. Listening now, I am still impressed by just how much variety he inserts into every word, and I still laugh and marvel. Beyond that, these songs just made me happy. I fantasized about singing them for people (my elementary school, honestly), even though I knew that I couldn’t single-handedly sing every part by myself.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted to be the Genie. Singing in my room, I parsed the words and tried to sing every line (why else would a ten year old learn “genuflect”?) I never thought of it as something I would do professionally, I just wanted to bring the joy that I felt to more people for its own sake. I’m sure there were plenty of other children who wanted the same.

Fast forward. On Saturday, several days before his death, my wife and I were discussing Disney, and we considered what Aladdin would have been without Robin Williams. More than any of the other famous voice actors Disney has employed (Lion King was especially full), Robin Williams thoroughly dominated Aladdin. The lyrics seemed tailored to his strengths, and it looked like a mutually reinforcing relationship existed between him and the writers. Aladdin without Robin Williams would have been something entirely different. I just can’t imagine it.

Continuing, we moved on to his standup and discussed how it was brilliant, but there was a sad and worrisome edge at times. It was like he was combatting invisible monsters with humor, and if he stopped they’d catch him. Or maybe he was afraid that everyone would stop loving him. Rebekah said she sometimes just wanted to stop him and say, “It’s ok, we like you,” but we knew that would have likely had little effect.

I’m sure the loving people in his life said just that and more, but sometimes it’s not enough. He probably knew that we all loved him and wanted the best for him, but that’s not a cure for depression and addiction. It is painful to think that someone who gave people so much joy – such immense influential profound joy – suffered so much inside, and we on the outside are so impotent in trying to help. It is one of the great unsettling ironies of life and should give us pause in many of our assumptions about the nature of success.

I was and am a fan, but I’m not going to go into the rest of his considerable work, because others can do it better. I’ll leave it at this: Robin Williams is one of the reasons I even pursued performing. If a performer could make an audience feel as good as he made me feel when I listened to Aladdin, then that’s what I wanted to do. Yes, there are valuable lessons to learn from his death, but I’d prefer that he were still here. He was such a gift to all of us, and I wish we could have returned that gift and filled him with the amount of collective joy that he gave us.

Thank you and farewell.

Eric Whitacre Singers in Koblenz

The  Rhein in Koblenz
My wife and I took the train down to Koblenz, Germany on Sunday to catch the Eric Whitacre Singers concert with Eric Whitacre conducting. My thoughts?

Totally cool. Totally totally cool.

Somehow in my choral studies at the University of Arizona I never had the chance to sing his works, even though his work was very much present in the minds of choral enthusiasts. Nevertheless, I’ve always enjoyed listening to it, and I’ve always appreciated his apparent efforts to blend concepts like dissonance with a certain amount of accessibility. You don’t need to be a theory expert to enjoy Eric Whitacre’s music, but musicians versed in theory enjoy it as well.

On Saturday, I saw this Tweet:

I asked my wife if we should go, and voilà. Off we went the next morning.

I’m not going to write a whole review of the concert, but I will call out a couple things. First, I appreciate the casual atmosphere but nevertheless meticulous nature of the concert. Besides the Eric Whitacre Singers themselves were a chorus of 200 amateurs who’d rehearsed the day before and were joining for a few numbers at the beginning and ending of the concert. They were totally solid. In addition, Mr. Whitacre always had enough interesting backstory to provide compelling illustrations for every piece and keep us entertained while the larger choir entered and exited.

Second, I love his arrangements of others’ pieces. Seriously; love is not too strong a verb. The Bach, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails arrangements manage to remain true to the sources while adding new dimensions to them. I’ve purchased and have been listening to his “Enjoy The Silence”
recording continuously since the concert. It’s haunting. Additionally, his description of the Bach sounding like a smeared painting was dead-on.

I’ll take any chance I can get to hear his “Hurt” arrangement. I’d heard bits of it online before, but it’s a special experience to hear it live. Being familiar with the NIN original and the Johnny Cash cover lends further context to this piece, which has always hit me in the gut. I’ve always loved the song, and Whitacre’s arrangement deepens that. Again: the arrangements don’t replace the originals but deepen them.

Third; what a terrific group of singers. It’s just wonderful watching such a well-oiled machine at work, especially when they’re singing music that requires such precision. Lots of colors, interesting phrasing, great dynamic range and whatever special sauce is required to make those ideas more than just musical concepts but emotional realities for an audience.

Besides the concert, Koblenz is a really cool town. Seeing two great rivers come together is humbling and inspiring and simply beautiful, and I snapped up photos greedily.

Great trip. As I’ve said, I still feel very “abroad”, and getting to visit places like this with my wife still feels lucky. Especially since we also got to see the Eric Whitacre Singers.

End of Season at Theater Dortmund

We’ve now reached the final performance of the 2013/14 season at Theater Dortmund. Tonight is Carmen, and then we’ll have about a month and a half to rest and catch up with the rest of our lives.

What was accomplished this season? Le nozze di FigaroDon CarloAnatevka, Tannhäuser, CarmenDer Graf von LuxemburgDie JahreszeitenCenerentolaAlexander Nevsky, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and several other concerts. Not to mention all of the other productions that the other departments do (theater, dance, orchestra, children’s theater). Not bad!

Many of my colleagues will travel abroad, but for this break I’m staying in Germany with my wife. After all: as an American, I still feel very much “abroad”. There are still plenty of interesting places near to us, which we haven’t yet explored.

It’s been a tremendous year, and I am so happy to have been a part of it. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Organ Mountains

Photo of Organ Mountains at sunset

Organ Mountains at sunset. Photo by Amy Bowman

The first time I drove to Las Cruces, I drove east out of Tucson on I-10. Anyone who’s made this trip knows that once you’re about an hour outside of Tucson past Texas Canyon, the ground levels out, and you are in a wide expanse of desert with very little in the way of human civilization.

Short mountain ranges speckle the horizon. The Sonoran Desert transitions into the Chihuahua Desert. The altitude gradually climbs. The empty physical space allows an empty mental space, and it can be incredibly relaxing if you’re not in a rush.

For a stressed and tired driver though, the desert between Lordsburg and Las Cruces can be maddeningly vast and repetitive. Yellow brown stretches in every direction for miles, and the distance to the various mountains masks the driver’s speed.

Nevertheless when I reached Las Cruces the first time, I knew it. The road dipped, the highway embankments rose upward, and then — boom —  there it was.

Las Cruces sits in a valley caused by the Rio Grande rift, and coming from the west, a driver descends into the city. If he arrives at night, he will be treated to the city twinkling under the desert sky. There’s farmland on the west beside the river, which gives the impression of an oasis, and then the city sits beyond that.

Organ Mountains in background, with Charlotte the dog

Organ Mountains in background, with Charlotte the dog. Photo by Ian Sidden.

Beyond the city are the Organ Mountains, and in that first glimpse, they shaped so much of what Las Cruces means to me. They tower over both the city and even the western side of the valley to such a degree that an approaching driver doesn’t realize the presence of the valley at all since the Organs are visible from a great distance. Their actual height is only apparent once in the valley.

The Organs are such a dominant feature, that they appear in many of my outdoor photos of Las Cruces quite by accident. The peaks rise out of the east in Las Cruces in what appear to be narrow bands as if some giant had drug its fingers through the rock at their creation. This feature makes their appearance unlike nearly any other of the so-called “sky island” mountain ranges of the American southwest and is a reason for the range’s name (resembling a pipe organ and all).

With their proximity to the city, the Organs are also a beloved recreation spot. My wife and I have been on numerous hikes within and in the vicinity of the Organs. We’ve listened to the coyotes howl in the foothills. We had some of our wedding photos taken with the Organs as the backdrop. Besides their stunning beauty, there are little bits of history tucked away against the rocks. Old settlements that have been abandoned are now places to visit and learn about the history of the area.

Soledad Canyon in Organ Mountain foothills

Soledad Canyon in Organ Mountain foothills. Photo by Ian Sidden

The Organs have recently been in the news due to President Obama’s declaration of them as a national monument. This will offer the area new protections to preserve its natural beauty and rich historical and scientific resources. Citing some of those resources:

The area is home to a high diversity of animal life, including deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, peregrine falcons and other raptors as well as rare plants, some found nowhere else in the world, such as the Organ Mountains pincushion cactus. Hundreds of  archeologically and culturally significant sites are found within the new monument, including some limited Paleo-Indian artifacts, extensive rock art sites and the ruins of a ten room pueblo, among other ancient dwellings. More recent history is memorialized with Geronimo’s Cave, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, and sites related to early Spanish explorers. The Organ and Doña Ana Mountains are popular recreation areas, with multiple hiking trails, a popular campground, and opportunities for hunting, mountain biking, rock climbing, and other recreation.

Congratulations, Las Cruces and southern New Mexico. The Organs are a fundamental and wonderful part of the experience there, and I’m so happy that they’re getting national attention and protection they deserve.