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Friday, August 5, 2011

The Mother of Invention

"I'm probably more famous for sitting on a toilet than for anything else I do."
from a July 1, 1983 interview for Nationwide, the BBC news program.

The May Co. was a chain of middle-class department stores in Southern California when I was growing up.  Since my mother didn't drive, Saturdays were spent shopping - my dad patiently plogging along, me not-so-patiently and forced into coming, to boot.  (Hey!  It was my day off!)  I wandered over to their music department where they had started selling rock posters (I believe you can get your Justin Bieber fix at Walmart today), and was leafing through the hinged wall display.  All of a sudden I came across the above Frank Zappa poster.  Then I heard a loud guffaw behind me, breaking out into laughter.  It was my dad, unbeknownst to me he had followed me.  Relief flooded through me that he wasn't mad I'd found a man on a toilet.  He thought it was funnier then I did!

Zappa in Toronto, 1977.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

I didn't buy it (didn't even ask!) but it became a buzz word between us, especially at report card times when the subject of college came up.  He did let me buy a "Beer, Breakfast of Champions" poster, after I stated that Benjamin Franklin believed in beer - showing off what you've learned in school is a good marketing ploy for a kid, even if you didn't learn it at school ;-).  However, this incident did start a predilection and preoccupation with everything Zappa.

Zappa on education, from his liner notes for Freak Out! (6/17/66):

Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure 
to our mediocre educational system.  Forget about the 
Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself 
if you have any guts.  Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic 
robots who tell you what to read.  Forget I mentioned it.  
This song has no message.  Rise for the flag salute.

Zappa was a prolific composer and songwriter.  He wrote jazz, rock, orchestral, and musique concrète, a form of electroacoustic music utilizing acousmatic sound as a compositional resource.  Developed in the early 1940s, this genre did not restrict compositions to the sounds of instruments and voices, nor the traditional elements, such as melody, harmony, etc.  Zappa developed a taste for avant-garde music while in his teens, and began writing classical music in high school while performing in rhythm and blues bands.

His father was a chemist and mathematician and worked in the defense industry.  At one point in his childhood the family lived near an arsenal where mustard gas was stored, and gas masks were kept in the home.  He suffered from many health problems as a child.  Zappa was later a strident critic of the defense industry, political and social structures, organized religion, and mainstream education.  His family moved to California for health reasons.

"Special Section on Musicology:
Popular Music from Adorno......to Zappa."

When the family moved to the high desert area of the Antelope Valley in northern L.A. county, Zappa met Don Vliet in high school.  Vliet became Captain Beefheart, and they influenced each other throughout their careers.  Zappa attended a series of community colleges but became disgusted with the field of education.  Later he took his own four children out of school at age 15, and refused to pay for their college education.

Zappa graduated from Antelope Valley High School.

After moving out on his own he became involved in advertising, a career that didn't last long but taught him much that he used in his life.  He always was concerned about the presentation of his work, often designing his own album covers and directing his own films and videos.

Zappa in 1975, courtesy of Getty Images.

In the early 60s he tried to earn a living as a composer and musician, and wrote and produced songs for other artists.  Eventually he was able to stage a concert of his orchestral music in 1963 and recorded and broadcast it.  On the Steve Allen show that year he played a bicycle as a musical instrument.  He and Vliet recorded some songs under the name The Soots, but were unable to get a record contract.

Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa.

He began working at a studio and performing with a trio called The Muthers in local bars.  At one point police began to get suspicious about what was going on at the studio, and Zappa was approached by a vice squad undercover officer and given $100 to make a porn tape for an alleged stag party.  Zappa and a female friend faked an erotic episode, and he was arrested when he handed over the tape. He was charged with "conspiracy to commit pornography", but the felony charge was reduced and he was sentenced to six months on a misdemeanor charge, reduced to all but ten days.  This experience added to his anti-authority posture.

Zappa at the (infamous) Studio Z.  Image courtesy of this site.

In the late 60s he took over as guitarist in a group called The Soul Giants.  He convinced them to play his music and they renamed themselves The Mothers. When they signed with Verve Records the band's name was changed to The Mothers of Invention at Verve's insistence, as "Mother" had slang derogatory connotations.  "Freak Out!" was released in 1966, the second rock double album ever released (following Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde").  This established them as a radical new voice.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1967 they moved to New York and performed for two years at the Garrick Theater, where they developed a show that showcased all the band members as well as Zappa's music.  In 1968, they released "We're Only in It For the Money" which was hailed as having some of the most creative audio editing and production ever heard in pop music.  While in New York, Zappa began using tape editing as a compositional tool more and more.  Later he combined recordings of different compositions into new pieces, dubbing this process "xenochrony", reflecting the Greek words for strange and time.  He also established a compositional approach he called "conceptual continuity", which meant any album or project was part of a larger project, so musical themes and lyrics reappeared in later albums.

Zappa broke up The Mothers of Invention in 1969, in part because his music was becoming more instrumental jazz and classical oriented.  He began releasing solo albums, playing extended guitar solos.  In 1970 he formed a new version of The Mothers (dropping the "of Invention"), and this band was featured on the double-album soundtrack to the movie 200 Motels (1971).

In the early 70s the group experienced some events that put them in limbo for a while.  In 1971, while performing in Switzerland, an audience member started a fire that burned down the place and destroyed their equipment.  A week later they played in London with rented gear.  An audience member pushed Zappa off the stage, about ten feet onto concrete. resulting in serious fractures, head trauma, and injuries to his back, leg, and neck, and a crushed larynx, which dropped his voice a third after he healed.   He was still plugged into his amp which came crashing down on him.  The band set out on their own while Zappa recuperated.

When Zappa was pushed off stage, the band
thought at first that he was dead.

Zappa went through a lot of business breakups and set-backs in the 70s, at times losing control of his own material.  By the end of the decade he was performing as a solo artist, and released some songs with controversial lyrics.  He also developed his career in film and television.

The 80s were a time of much productivity for him.  Unfortunately, most people remember him for his satirical lyrics and think of him as a writer and performer of novelty songs.  "Valley Girl", with lyrics improvised by his daughter Moon Unit, added to this reputation, and the rest of the album was ignored.  Because of this, Zappa never played the song live.  One of the compositional techniques Zappa experimented with in the 80s was sprechstimme (speaking voice), which showcased some of the most accomplished musicians he ever played with. (Schoenberg and Berg had used the technique.)

Moon Unit and Frank Zappa.

In 1985, Zappa testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee about censorship.  The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) had been founded to address the issue of songs with sexual or satanic content, headed by Tipper Gore and including many politician's wives.  Zappa stated that since First Amendment rights are decided for the least restrictive preference, that the PMRC's demands were "the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation".

Testifying before the Senate.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the late 80s he began a re-release program of all his earlier vinyl recordings from the 60s, 70s, and early 80s on CDs.  Some fans complained that these weren't faithful to the original.  Zappa had a proposal to sell direct digital-to-digital transfer via phone or cable TV, with automatic billing built in to the software, predating online music stores by about 20 years.  When it didn't take off, he considered his idea a flop.

Caricature by Zach Bellissimo.  Check out his tattoos
of this and a caricature of Tom Waits!  (Zappa was a
heavy cigarette smoker, but eschewed marijuana and drugs.)

Many of Zappa's projects came to a halt in 1990 when he was diagnosed with an advanced case of inoperable prostate cancer.  Three years later he died, but in that time he devoted his energy to modern orchestral and Synclavier works.

Oddly enough, scientists have honored Zappa by naming their discoveries after him:   Amaurotoma zappa (an extinct mollusc); Zappa confluentus (a genus of gobiid fishes from New Guinea); Phialella zappai (a California jellyfish); Pachygnatha zappa (a Cameroonese spider); zapA (a gene of a bacterium); and Spygori zappania (a metazoan fossil).  There is also an asteroid named for him - 3834 Zappafrank.  All to honor his challenge of convention and traditional beliefs.

Zappa today is considered one of the most original composers and guitarists of his era, and has been a major influence on composers and musicians.  Another one of those rare individuals who lived according to his beliefs and pursued life on his own terms.
Here is Wikipedia's Frank Zappa discography.
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of www.zappa.com.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Legislating Paternity in Japan

Painting of the haibutsu kishaku from 1907 showing temple bells being
smelted for the bronze.

The feudal era of Japan ended abruptly when the Tokugawa shogunate was usurped by the Meiji Restoration around 1867.  Thus began a haibutsu kishaku, which literally means "abolish Buddhism and destroy Shākyamuni", an anti-Buddhist movement where Buddhist temples, images, and texts were destroyed, and monks were defrocked and forced to return to a secular life.  This occurred with the rise of industrialization and westernization, and any valuable objects that evaded destruction were exported.

Detail of an eleven-faced Buddha (ekadaza mukha) image from the Heian period (9th century)
made of wood from a temple in Fujidera, Osaka, Japan, now a National Treasure.

In 1871, a decree was issued to protect Japanese antiquities, called the Plan for the Preservation of Ancient Artifacts, instigated by the universities.  Prefectures, and the temples and shrines left, were ordered to make lists of important buildings and arts.  This had little effect, but nine years later the government allotted funds for the preservation of ancient shrines and temples.  Fortunately, Japan was a quick learner, and in the wake of westernization perceived the idea of paternity.  Soon the first Japanese books on architecture and art were published.

Himiji Castle, Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.  Made a National Treasure in 1931.

The Ancient Temples and Shrines Preservation Law was passed in June of 1897, calling for the preservation of historic art and architecture.  A second law was passed in December of 1897 designating works of art as "National Treasures", and religious architecture to be designated as "Specially Protected Buildings".  The categories at first included paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, books, and handicrafts, but later swords were added.  This law only protected items held in religious institutions; those in private hands were unprotected.  Private collections were required to be registered with the newly created museums, who had first option in future sales.

Circa 1330 document with Priest Mongaku's 45 article rules and regulations.

This was the foundation for the preservations laws of today.  When first enacted only England, France, Greece, and a few other European nations had done something similar.  Prominent men lobbied for conservation efforts, which resulted in the Historical Sites, Places of Scenic Beauty, and Natural Monuments Preservation Law of 1919, offering these properties the same protection as architecture and artifacts.

Akasaka Palace, the former imperial residence, is today the "State Guesthouse" for
visiting dignitaries.  It is the first 20th century building made a National Treasure.

In 1929 the National Treasures Preservation Law was passed, replacing the 1897 laws, and extending protection to items owned by private hands and public institutions, and widening the scope to secular buildings.  The designation of "National Treasure" was to be applied to these historical buildings and art, and permission was required for any alterations.  By 1933, facing the Great Depression and in an effort to protect objects not designated  National Treasures, a new law was passed - the Law Regarding the Preservation of Important Works of Fine Arts. This offered temporary protection, but more importantly prevented objects from exportation.

Pigeon on a peach branch, color on silk mounted on a hanging scroll,
by Emperor Huizong of Song Northern Dynasty, circa 1108. 

During WWII, 206 designated buildings were destroyed.  When the kon-dō of Hōroyū-ji, one of the oldest wood structures, dated circa 700, caught fire 7th century wall paintings were damaged.  This resulted in the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties of 1950.  This combined all the previous laws and expanded coverage to "intangible cultural properties" such as performing arts, as well as folk arts, widely broadening what properties were covered.

Kon-dō and the five-storied pagoda at Hōryū-ji are two of the world's oldest
wooden structures, circa 700.  Located in Ikaruga, Nara prefecture.

Two standards were established:  Important Cultural Property and National Treasure.  Something becomes a National Treasure only if it is outstanding or has a high value in world culture.  Previous National Treasures were demoted to Important Cultural Property, although some were returned to National Treasure status.  Any property nominated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO is required to be protected.

The Yomikaki Power Station in Nagano Prefecture is an Important Cultural Property.

While the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties is still in force, there have been supplements.  The Law for the Preservation of Ancient Capitals was added in 1966, restricted to areas where there are a large number of National Treasures.  In 1975 the law was amended to include groups of historic buildings not in capitals. This law also protected conservation techniques, necessary due to the lack of skilled craftsmen in traditional techniques.

Buddhist ritual gong stand with bronze gilt from Nara.
Placed in 734 CE in the Western Golden Hall.  Lost and
reproduced in the late 12th/early 13th century.

An additional standard was added in 1996 for items in need of preservation called Registered Cultural Property.  This is sort of a waiting list for Important Cultural Properties.  This gives owners less responsibilities.  Owners are typically provided with advice on restoration and on public display.

Pair of two folded screens made of paper covered with gold leaves, drawings of
colors and ink of the Wind God and the Thunder God, 17th c. in Kyoto National Museum.

Although it is not mentioned by law, there is an informal reference to individuals who are certified as Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties, or Living National Treasure.  These are people who have certain artistic skills and have attained a high level of mastery in those skills.  The Japanese government provides an annual grant (roughly $26,000 at this time).  In the case of groups with this designation, the government helps with the costs of public exhibitions and activities.  There are two basic categories:  performing arts - Gagku, Noh, Bunraku, Kabuki, Kumi Odori, Music, Dance, and Drama; and crafts - ceramics, textiles, lacquerware, metalworking, dollmaking, woodworking, papermaking, and miscellaneous crafts.

"A Fat Young Sparrow" woodcarving with kirikane decoration by Living
National Treasure Nichide Daizo, 1988.  Image courtesy of this site.

Other countries have a Living National Treasure designation for people or groups, following Japan including Australia, France, the Phillipines, Romania, South Korea, and Thailand.  UNESCO set forth some guidelines for supporting these programs.

Feminist writer Germaine Greer is one of Australia's Living Treasures.

Notice that the U.S. is not one of them.  The protection of cultural property should be attended to by all nations.  People who have a mastery of traditional skills should be honored and treasured.  History belongs to us all, and extant artifacts and buildings should be valued and made available to all interested parties, regardless of nationality.  Kudos to Japan for such a comprehensive program!

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Three Hares

Modern watercolor painting by Jackie Morris, 2006.

The three hares is a circular motif that appears in sacred sites from the Far East to the British isles, although it is most frequently found in Europe.  One of its mysteries is why it exists in such diverse locations and contexts.  Even though it is most certainly religious, it is also non-denominational.

"Window of the Three Hares" at Paderborn Cathedral, Germany.
Image courtesy of Zefram/Wikipedia.

The symbol consists of three hares chasing each other.  Only three ears are shown, as each ear is shared by two of the hares.  This threefold rotational symmetry has some kind of mystical multi-cultural association shared by other types like the triskelion and the triqueta.

From Tresbeare Farm, Devon, England.

The triskelion is a motif of three interlocked spirals, sometimes depicted as human legs.  This motif has appeared since ancient times from Mycenaean vessels, ancient coins, to Celtic art.

Silver stater from Pamphylia (ancient Asia Minor) circa 400 BCE,
with a triskelion to the right.  Image courtesy Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.

Celtic triskelion, originally a pagan design but co-opted by the
Christians to denote the holy trinity.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The triquetra is a similar symbol of threefold things, once used to refer to three-cornered shapes.  It was found on rune stones and early Germanic coins.  It is also a common symbol in Celtic art.

Image of a triquetra courtesy of Wikipedia.

The origins of the Three Hares and its original significance is uncertain, as are the reasons it appears in such diverse locations.  The earliest examples are in cave temples from China from the 6th to 7th centuries.  The iconography is thought to have spread through the Silk Road, and was associated with Buddhism.  In China hares were auspicious symbols of peace and tranquility.

A map of the sites where the symbol is found 600-1500 CE.

As the symbol spread, and it has been found in Mongol sites - Mongols having controlled the Silk Road at its height, it no doubt took on different meanings as it was shared with other cultures.  So the search for a general meaning is difficult, as at each site the motifs must be taken in context, and it must be determined what meaning(s) they were appropriated for.

An Iranian tray with the motif.

Some scholars believe that the Three Hares developed independently in England and northern Germany, since the majority of extant images come from there.  In southwest England it is referred to as the "Tinners' Rabbits", which is the name of a dance involving the rotation of three, six, or nine dancers.  The tin miners of this area may have adopted the symbol to use as a signature for their group, and thus it appears in local churches.

Example from South Tawton, Devon, Enland.

In Europe, the motif appears in wood and stone carvings, window traceries, and stained glass in churches.  In England it is usually in a prominent place.  One reason that Christianity may have adopted the motif is that it was believed by many that hares were hermaphrodite and capable of reproducing without loss of virginity, thus hares could be associated with the Virgin Mary.

A woodcut by Albrecht Dürer of the holy family with
three hares playing at Mary's feet, 1498.  Image
courtesy Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlruhe, Germany.

In Judaism, even though rabbits are non-kosher according to the Bible, they have positive symbolic connotations.  Some Jewish scholars saw rabbits as a symbol of the diaspora, and three is an important number in Kabbalistic context.

Detail from a casket from Trier, Germany.

Hares and rabbits are manifestations of deities in many cultures, hence this symbol would be appealing.  It also just may be that people were taken with the puzzle of the ears - think how much people today like M.C. Escher.  Contour rivalry, the artistic technique used to create multiple visual interpretations of an image, can make an image captivating.

From Castle Inn, Lydford, England.

Whatever the context, wherever, the Three Hares was revered.  If there is an archetypal explanation for it, it is still to be found.  Perhaps the hare, considered worldwide to be a magical creature, has saved its most powerful magic for its own obscurity.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dunking, Spinning, and Sharing Goodwill

My husband seems to be lacking in some of the "guy" genes - fishing, hunting, cars, motorcycles, beer, and any tools other than a fork.  (Except the "remote control domination" gene, which he has in spades.)  I was relieved when we first met that I wouldn't be forced to watch sports on TV, but that changed some years ago when the Lakers bug hit him.  Hit him hard.  Then it hit me.  For years I said Pau Gasol was the one to watch.  (After all, what more could be said about Kobe?) But this past season, well, no comment.

Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant.  Image courtesy of www.isportsweb.com.

So I tried to remember if I was ever interested in basketball.  While I can get into live sports, televised ones don't really do it for me.  (Except for ballroom dancing and ice skating, which count as sports in my book.) Then I remembered the Harlem Globetrotters.

Although they are not a professional team, but considered an exhibition team, they exhibit a high degree of athleticism.  Initially, however, they were a serious competitive team, only resorting to showing off when they were safely in the lead. Basketball was segregated until 1950, when the NBA drafted the first black players.  After this the Globetrotters suffered in recruiting top players.

The original 1926 team, with Abe Saperstein on the left.

I was surprised to learn they were formed back in 1926 and in Chicago by Abe Saperstein.  "Harlem" was chosen because it was the Mecca of black culture, therefore having serious street cred, and "Globetrotters" to make people think they had traveled the world.  Although they didn't play in Harlem until 1968, since their formation they have traveled to over 110 countries, playing more than 25,000 exhibition games.  Their trademark song is "Sweet Georgia Brown", recorded by Brother Bones and His Shadows in the late 1940s.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

They came under attack in the Civil Rights era, and were accused of "Tomming for Abe" - a reference to Uncle Tom and their white owner.  Jesse Jackson, then a prominent activist and later an honorary Globetrotter, defended them, opining that they were a positive influence, showing blacks as superior and not stupid.

In China in 2009.

In time they became known for their entertainment, exhibiting incredible skills and coordination, making difficult shots and spinning balls on their fingertips. Members have set world records for a number of skills, in particular the vertical dunk, currently held by Globetrotter Michael "Wild Thing" Wilson at 12 feet. There are multiple teams to allow for a greater number of exhibitions, which is why they are able to play more than one game a day.  They have an approximate 98.4% win record.

Wilt Chamberlain was the first to have his
number retired on March 9, 2000.

There have been five retired numbers so far:  Wilt Chamberlain, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon, Reece "Goose" Tatum, and Fred "Curly" Neal.  Eight people have been named as honorary members:  Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Pope John Paul II, and Jesse Jackson.  Bill Cosby and Magic Johnson were signed to a $1 a year lifetime contract (Cosby's was upped to $1.05).

Pope John Paul II was made an honorary Globetrotter on November 19, 2000
in a special ceremony in Saint Peter's Square before a crown of 50,000.

Many film and TV shows have been made about them, from 1951's film The Harlem Globetrotters to a Sunday morning cartoon show.  They've appeared on The Price is Right and last year raised money for charity on Are you Smarter Than a 5th Grader?  As their trademark alias, "The Ambassadors of Good Will", they have entertained and interacted with the public in positive ways.

A Make-A-Wish event in Sacramento, California.

They have become synonymous with basketball, becoming the sport's most famous and arguably the best spokesmen.  Traveling the world and entertaining thousands, they are indeed ambassadors of goodwill.

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of the official site.