Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Let's Talk About You

Answers will be compiled in a future post. No names will be used, unless requested. You can reply in comments or email me: artist [at] jpturnage.com

You may answer any or all, and please elaborate.

What habit do you maintain, that makes you powerful or effective or happy? When did you start? How has that changed your life?

What decision did you make that changed your life for the better? How was life different afterward?

What decision did you make that changed your life for the worse? How was life different afterward?

What did you once believe to be true, but now realize was not true? How did that change affect you?

What person, film, book or song had a big impact on you? How did you discover it [them]? How did it [they] change you?

If you had your life to live over again, what would you do differently? How would that change your life now?

What did you buy that was even better than you thought it would be? How did it change your life?

What did you buy that disappointed you? How did that experience change your approach to buying something else?

What is a useful idea you've discovered? How has that discovery changed your life?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

O Canada

My wife Misa suggested a vacation in Canada this year. I'd never been there. All I knew of Canada were the songs of Stan Rogers, which I fell in love with in the 1980s. 

We spent a week in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. In general, Victoria was peaceful and clean, rather like the United States, only improved. Max and I walked out on a long concrete pier into the inlet. If you look closely you can see the snow-capped peaks of Washington State across the water. 

Away from Victoria, we visited small coastal towns that looked like Stan's Make and Break Harbour.

On a tour boat, our captain let Max steer, brave man. Pilots note: putting the tongue out always aids navigation.

Victoria hosts a museum called Miniature World, and many of the exhibits convince the eye. Each "person" in this photo is about 1.5 inches tall.

From Victoria, we drove onto a luxurious ferry to the city of Vancouver. Our ship served fine food and drink, and I wanted to live on it.

Vancouver is another elegant city, sheltered by high mountains.

My son Max does not care about mountains or buildings, only trains. Once again, Vancouver did not disappoint. The trains in the city were clean and quiet, a vision of the future. In my experience, only Tokyo competes in train quality. Below, Max expresses his most enthusiastic "train face." Daddy is sympathetic.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Greatest Hits: The Joys of Giorgio

First posted March 29, 2009

I’ve been listening to a reading of Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, which you can sample here

Vasari relates, with earthy realism, the times and trials of artists in Renaissance Italy. For the most part, these men lived short, uncomfortable lives. Still they managed to elevate their culture to stratospheric heights. This story is told most literally in the life of Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed and supervised construction of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The significance of this building cannot be overstated. Our American culture expects the future to improve upon the past. During the Middle Ages, Europeans knew that life had been better for their ancestors. For one thousand years, Italians shivered in the shadows of great monuments like the Colosseum. They could not equal them, or even understand how they had been built. When the base of Santa Maria was designed, no one knew how the dome could be made; they simply predicted that someone would come along and figure it out. Filippo’s gave the Florentines the first modern building to rival those of the Roman Empire. 

Filippo solved enormous physical problems in his design and construction, but these were mild, compared to the Florentines, who fought him every step of the way. Filippo controlled the enemy factions by withholding information about his plans. He said only what was necessary to continue the work. Giorgio wrote:

[W]ishing to prevail, he was forced to arm himself with patience, having insight enough to know that the brains of the men of that city did not abide very firmly by any one resolution. Filippo could have shown a little model that he had in his possession, but he did not wish to show it, having recognized the small intelligence of the Consuls, the envy of the craftsmen, and the instability of the citizens, who favored now one and now another, according as it pleased each man best ; and I do not marvel at this, since every man in that city professes to know as much in these matters as the experienced masters know, although those who truly understand them are but few; and let this be said without offense to those who have the knowledge.
Before I read The Lives, I heard people asking each other, “Why is the Mona Lisa smiling?” as if it were some dark mystery. Every artist knows that Mona is smiling because the artist who painted her wanted that look. Of course, when I said this, no one believed me. Argue with me if you like, but it’s pointless to argue with Vasari. Leonardo da Vinci was still alive, during his childhood. In his life of Leonardo, Giorgio told us exactly why the Mona Lisa is smiling:

Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife; and after toiling over it for four years, he left it unfinished . . . . Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he always employed, while he was painting her portrait, persons to play or sing, and jesters, who might make her remain merry, in order to take away that melancholy which painters are often wont to give to the portraits that they paint. And in this work of Leonardo's there was a smile so pleasing, that it was a thing more divine than human to behold; and it was held to be something marvellous, since the reality was not more alive.
How can people walk around wondering about something so well-documented? It makes me wonder what other “mysteries” are empty of mystery. Maybe we really do know who shot President Kennedy—no, no, it couldn’t be that simple—sorry, I got carried away for a minute.
Giorgio’s book is a lively companion. I wish I could invite him for a long dinner, served with red wine. He was an accomplished painter and an even more accomplished architect, but he freely expressed his admiration for other artists. He also confessed the insecurity he felt after seeing Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. I saw the fresco when I was twenty-five years old, and felt the despair Giorgio described perfectly:
Behind this work, bound in chains, follow all those who believe they have mastered the art of painting: the strokes with which Michelangelo outlined his figures make every intelligent and sensitive artist wonder and tremble, no matter how strong a draughtsman he may be. When other artists study the fruits of Michelangelo’s labors, they are thrown into confusion by the mere thought of what manner of things all other pictures, past or future, would look like if placed side by side with this masterpiece. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Heroes: Dennis Pavao

I first saw Hawaii in 1992, when I took a vacation on the Big Island. I listened to the music on the local radio and didn't like it. I fell back on the Hawaiian music station, however, because it was slightly better than the others. One afternoon I drove up the east side of the Island, tracing the slope of Mauna Loa. The turquoise sea was clear as glass all the way to the horizon, and clouds mirrored its surface. The car radio played a falsetto song, Sweet Lei Mokihana, and suddenly everything came together. I was hooked.

The singer was a man named Dennis Pavao, and though only forty years old, he was already a legend around Hawaii. Dennis had been born close to that very spot, in the Big Island town of Kalapana. Dennis was left-handed and he learned to play guitar upside-down as well, giving his strumming a unique texture. In the 1970s, Dennis formed a band with two cousins, Ledward and Nedward Ka'apana. Dennis perfected the traditional Hawaiian falsetto singing style. The range of his voice and his control over it were unique.

The Hawaiians'a polynesian language was not written down until Christian missionaries published bibles there in the early nineteenth century. For a thousand years or more, this culture's principal artifact was an oral tradition. Prior to contact with the western explorers, the Hawaiians did not sing melodies, but chanted their myths to the rhythm of gourds and lava rock percussion. When missionaries taught the Hawaiians to sing hymns [Himeni], they tapped into this deep well of culture. Almost overnight, the Hawaiians mastered western musical concepts, as though they'd been training in their sleep for centuries. Their language was especially suited to the long notes and harmonies of early Christian music, because it was compact [twelve letters] and rich in vowels.

Hawaiian women were not allowed to sing in public for a long time, so the men developed falsetto to provide the high notes of the Himeni. This is the singing that Dennis specialized in and perfected. I don't know how high he could go. Once in concert I heard him take a high song five tones higher and never lost control.

When I got back to Kailua-Kona, I went to a record store and whistled the melody I'd heard to the clerk. He handed me two CDs by Dennis. He also told me Dennis would play that afternoon, down by the water. I drove on down with my traveling companion and sat on the grass. Dennis soared in his high range while the ocean breeze perfumed us. Occasionally, a wave hit the rock break and splashed our faces. It was a complete Hawaiian experience. 

A few years later I saw Dennis perform in San Francisco, at Saichi Kawahara's fundraiser for his Kapalakiko Hawaiian Band. After the show, I shook Dennis's hand and told him how much I loved his voice. He treated me like a long-lost friend. When other people in line wanted to take photos, he insisted that I stand beside him, his arm around my shoulder. I said, "Mr. Pavao, they don't want a photo of me, only of you," but he wouldn't let go. I imagined all these people going home, looking at their pictures, saying, "Who's the blonde guy?"

I saw Dennis perform just once more, on his home island of Maui. When he died from a brain aneurism in 2002, at age fifty. All Hawaii and the Hawaiian diaspora felt the loss. If you want to hear falsetto excellence today, Darren Benitez is a fine heir to that tradition.

Great energy has been spent seeking out the avant garde in culture, the edgy and dangerous. Vincent Furnier pushed his idea of dangerous when his character, Alice Cooper faked his own decapitation on stage. Currently, edgy music endlessly copies and corrupts the music of the past. People who can't play any instrument remix the work of people who could actually play instruments. 

I think sincerity is edgy.  Patriotism is provocative. Sentimentality is nuclear. Dennis Pavao began each of his performances with a song that dissolved all irony, God Bless My Daddy. I can't think of anything more refreshing, more at odds with the current cultural norms than this song. 

My favorite song from Dennis is so simple, it only has one verse. It's an appreciation of the sound of the ocean at his birthplace of Kalapana, which was destroyed by lava from Mount Kilauea in 1990.

Good-bye, Dennis. Your voice still glides high, like God in his Heaven.
`O Kalapana, kai leo nui,
Ua lono ka uka o Hölei,
He uwä lä Kalapana, ë,
Kuli wale, kuli wale i ka leo,
He leo no ke kai, ë.

It is Kalapana, the great-voiced sea,
The uplands of Hölei listened,
Roaring is Kalapana,
Deafened, deafened indeed by the voice,
It is the voice of the sea