Monday, September 9, 2013

It's All Revelation

The following is from a talk I gave in church yesterday:

It's All Revelation
Christian Asplund, September 2013

In April, 1829, during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Olivery Cowdery, who was serving as scribe asked Joseph Smith if they could switch roles.  In D&C 8, the Lord approved this experiment instructing Oliver, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.  Now, behod, this is the spirit of revelation.”  After unsuccessful attempts at translating, Joseph Smith received a revelation directed at Oliver that became section 9 of the D&C, in which the Lord explains why Oliver was not able to translate: “You have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.  But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.  But if it be not right you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.”

This scripture rightly has a very special place among the Latter-day Saints.  I dare say it, and others like it, sets us clearly apart, certainly from our modern Euro-American  culture.  This is the culture that has described and harnessed the physical world in such spectacular ways but is equally distinguished in its inability to describe and harness the spiritual world or, indeed, even acknowledge its existence.  This scripture goes far beyond attesting to the existence of a spiritual realm.  It gives instructive and specific details as to how to access information from divine sources while living in the physical world.

I don’t believe Oliver was being told that he should have figured it out all on his own.  I don’t believe anyone has to figure anything out without any divine aid, and in fact, I don’t think it’s possible.  Oliver’s situation, moreover, was an extreme one, as he was faced with the task of translating a language the knowledge of which had been completely lost to the world.  Oliver couldn’t translate by himself.  Nonetheless, the Lord gave the instruction to study “it” out in his mind.  What exactly was Oliver to study out as he looked at an unfamiliar script?  I believe that God was directing Oliver to a different, perhaps more subtle kind of revelation, the revelation that comes from reflection, listening, mental exertion applied to a problem or a paradox.  I think it points to the idea that revelation comes in many forms, tailored to the needs at hand.  I think it also illustrates a microcosm of our pursuit of truth, or really anything of value.  We have to work, to apply ourselves actively.  Certainly we need to apply the powers of our senses and of our brain’s ability to reason, to make associations, and to interpret sense data.  In fact, scientists attempting to map it suggest that the human brain is by far the most complex thing in the universe, perhaps more complex than the universe itself.  But ultimately everything we have, including our knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, is a gift.  The Lord said at the end of this lesson to Oliver that “you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.”   As Hugh Nibley said, “Work we must, but the lunch is free”. 
Through Oliver’s experience and instruction, the Lord is telling us that intelligence, or light and truth, is all around us and in us.  It has already been placed in our minds, in fact, it’s been there eternally.  It is also available to any person who is willing to study, to meditate, to ponder and to take advantage of the myriad means of accessing light and truth.

We need a much more expansive view of revelation.  We are divine beings.  That part of us that is spiritual has existed for much longer than that part of us which is physical.  Our physicality is a fairly new addition.  We think of the spiritual realm as the anomaly, when, in fact, the physical is more new and anomalous, an add-on, an appendage, an accessory to our eternal spiritual existence. 

Brigham Young had a lot to say on this subject.   For instance, he said, posing a question often addressed to him:

Have you had revelations 7 " Yes, I have them  all the time, I live constantly by the principle of revelation.

To Brigham Young, revelation was a natural part of everyday thought and action.  He also said that:

The Spirit of the Lord enlightens every man that comes into the world.

at another time he said

I do not believe for one moment that there has been a man or woman upon the face of the earth, from the days of Adam to this day, who has not been enlightened, instructed, and taught by the revelations of Jesus Christ.

As a composer, I am lucky or unlucky depending on how you look at it, in that I depend on what I believe is divine inspiration to be able to compose.  I believe that anybody involved in creation or discovery depends on divine inspiration, whether they are aware of it or not.  To quote Brigham Young again:

There are men [and women] of talent, of thought, of reflection, and  knowledge in all cunning mechanism, they are expert…, though they do not know from whence they receive their intelligence… it reveals unto them, instructs them, teaches them, and guides them even in… how to construct rail-roads and all manner of machinery, they understand cun-ning workmanship, etc. ; but that is all revealed to them by the Spirit of the Lord, though they know it not

The flash of inspiration, the sense that something is right or whole, these are essential to mathematicians, scientists, scholars and artists.  I believe they are also a kind of revelation and come from a divine source. 

President Young goes further by saying that:

No person receives knowledge only upon the principle of revelation

OPTIONAL MATERIAL:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

President Young goes yet a step further, stating that real, lasting knowledge is only obtainable through spiritual faculties:

how do you know anything? Can you be deceived by  the eye ? You can, you have proved this; you all know  that there are men who can deceive the sight of the eye,  no matter how closely you observe their movements. Can  you be deceived in hearing ? Yes; you may hear sounds but  not understand their import or whence they come. Can  you be deceived by the touch of the finger ? You can The  nervous system will not detect everything. What will?  The revelations of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of truth will detect everything, and enable all who possess it to understand truth from error, light from darkness, the things of God from the things not of God It is the only thing that will enable us to understand the Gospel of the Son of God, the will of God, and how we can be saved.

He goes even further by saying:

Instead of considering that there is nothing known and  understood, only as we know and understand things naturally, I take the other side of the question, and believe  positively that there is nothing known except by the rev-  elation of the Lord Jesus Christ, whether in theology, science, or art. 12 :207.

This is why Latter-day Saints, in a way that can be annoying to some, can bear testimony that they “know” certain things that are unprovable, or even preposterous according to conventional perceptions. 


Returning to section 9, the process the Lord describes to Olievr integrates thought and feelings in a holistic way.  The mental flash of inspiration, followed by the burning feeling of rightness are thus dual witnesses.  The Lord then tells Oliver that there were two reasons for his failure.  First that he was ignorant of this process.  Second, that he feared.  After this, he assures Oliver that he is not condemned in the least for his failure.  There is so much that we can learn from this.  We need not fear the pursuit of revelation.  We are under no condemnation for seeking guidance, truth, or confirmation from the Lord.  And we should learn from scripture and the examples of others how to obtain revelation and apply it persistently, to experiment, as Alma says.  The search for revelation can become a creative act in which all of our faculties are brought to bear.  Moreover, everything we do can become inspired or informed by revelation. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Arts R OK

The following is from a recent correspondence with a colleague:

"I think I share with you a belief in the transcendence of art and beauty, that great art is inspired by divinity and that it glorifies God.  There is precious little else to explain why any of us would sacrifice so much in these pursuits, and that includes the most "secular" or "postmodern" etc. among us.  We are all drawn to what is divine in this world where we are inexplicably separated from what we once knew yet have a dim recollection of.  I think it is a mistake to make straw men of any artists who are sincerely exploring and creating and sacrificing for their work, their vision, and their divinely gifted imagination.  Where I do see a massive problem is in the commercialization of everything, particularly the arts, and in the academy's embrace of mass-produced drivel in place of art.  This is where I think we are losing our students.  I am not opposed to the existence of Hollywood, or Madison Avenue, or Nashville, etc.  But I have watched in sadness the gradual philistinization of our culture as market values have all but extinguished the values of integrity, truth, beauty, and sharing for their own sake, not for commercial or competetive values.  

"One of the reasons for this degradation in our culture has been the end of the cold war.  The Cold War caused us to try to prove to the world that our system could produce the best and most ennobled society and culture.   I think this applies to areas other than the arts, including journalism, education, politics, etc.  Artists and institutions, whether they were aware of it or not, felt a sort of higher calling to create and produce things that would be examples of the product of our society and its values during the Cold War.  When it ended, this impetus, this support for achievement, exploration, and even excellence was replaced by pure market values, what could be quantified with money.  It seems that all of our institutions have moved in this direction.  It's all about the bottom line.

"This is why the arts are more important than ever, and more especially arts that challenge and are not defined by/beholden to the marketplace.  More important than their profoundly positive influence on people and groups of people is their fundamental value, i.e. their eternal value that is not defined by anything else but themselves.  Like love, art is valuable in itself.  I don't think it is accidental that the angels are always represented in scripture as singing or playing musical instruments.  I think they probably do that a lot.  I think we were made to sing and dance, as well as paint and write and speak, both to praise God and to simply revel in our existence.

"So I guess I'm less worried about some of these questions.  Important questions and answers are most eloquently asked and answered in sincere, sustained, mindful, inspired, and skillful work that we engage in and foster in our students."

Friday, May 24, 2013

American Music as World Music

An article from World Literature Today by esteemed musicologist speech artist, bassist, composer and humanitarian:

American Music as World Music
“World music” has become a prominent part of an advertising lexicon promising the buyer of CDs entrée into unfamiliar conventions. The operatic creations of husband and wife team Christian Asplund (composer) and Lara Candland (poet/librettist) promise listeners something similar. 
Asplund and Candland helped create Seattle Experimental Opera, a guerilla arts organization formed in the 1990s that disbands and reorganizes like a fluid artistic insurrection. Resource starved, the group compensates with conviction. By always acting as though everything going on is perfectly normal, they foster the sense that unknown conventions are at play. The results are creations akin to opera transported on covered wagons by an under-funded kinship group so far from home that their efforts to recreate their abandoned culture produce fresh conventions.

Take their work Liquid: An Epistolary Opera, which premiered in Seattle in 2000 and can now be heard on a 2007 CD. The overture features the instrumental trio of electric guitar, electric bass and drums providing a music at once familiar for the pop scoring and defamiliarized by classicized guitar licks. Midway through the overture, Asplund reveals his make-due sensibility as one of the opera’s three singers wordlessly chimes in. Asplund had a singer available, so why not make better use of his limited resources by having her perform as a musical instrument during the overture? 
Five letters from Eva Eve to two interlocutors comprise Liquid’s entire text. We join the correspondence at an advanced and intimate point. Eva Eve loves “Dearest Charles”, but careful listening reveals that Charles may be Eva Eve’s anthropomorphic fantasy of a misshapen duck residing on her walking path from home to Seattle’s Lake Washington. A love triangle, fitting for opera, emerges in the three middle letters as Eva Eve turns her attention to friend and potential rival, Catherine. In the finale, Eva Eve breaks off her romance with Charles in the aftermath of the duck’s death. 
Three singers sing the letters. Their musical lines smack of operatic singing now and then, but also resemble incantation, speech and vocalizations defying description. Listeners will find Asplund’s heterophonic treatment of vocal lines fascinating as two singers present Candland’s vivid images simultaneously in a way that calls attention to the myriad subtle differences of each singer’s interpretation. Liquid challenges listeners for being calmly sure of its own normalcy, a normalcy common in a place no GPS can find, yet refreshingly American in its speech patterns. 
Their next collaboration, Sunset with Pink Pastoral (2006), takes the conventions of a “road movie” to present audiences with likeable innocents abroad amidst the vast landscape of the American West. The visual ambition of Candland’s libretto meets the material poverty of experimental opera head on and without compromise. Milk, the opera’s male protagonist, has a chance encounter with a young Native American, and after hearing his prayer exclaims guilelessly “that’s cool, dude. I wish I had, like, a cultural heritage or whatever.” Such a naïve young man might invite meanness from another composer/writer team courting cruel laughter, but Asplund and Candland treat Milk and everyone else inhabiting their operas gently, effectively cutting themselves off from opera’s traditions of violent emotions.
Their most recent collaboration, Lalage, features Candland’s voice reading from her poetry manipulated and embellished by Asplund’s live, low-tech electronics. They might have called this collaboration an “opera” too, but they didn’t. “Opera” means something to them, but the conventions informing that meaning belong to them alone.

Thursday, May 9, 2013



Latest vid: Think of One:

I have been experimenting with alternative ways of making music for a few years now.  The principal ways of music making that I grew up with were live performance and recording.  When downloading and streaming started to take over and I moved to a place that had a paucity of venues and audience for live music, I began searching for a third way.  Thus my “ViolaBlog”, followed by my “PianoBlog”.  These were simply web pages on my WordPress site that had dated solo improvisations.  I was very interested in exploiting the intimacy of the medium, both of recording and of the personal computer and other devices.  Thus I used, in the ViolaBlog, a phalanx of very close microphones.  In the PianoBlog I placed the mics under the piano, almost touching the soundboard.  In both blogs, I set the recording levels quite high.  This meant that I could clip very easily, so I kept the playing volume low, and monitored my playing with headphones.  I was thus able to explore the very wide range of dynamic shadings that exists in lower volumes, but not so much at higher volumes.  And this made possible the recording, on both instruments, of some sounds that I don’t think are otherwise possible with any medium.  The ViolaBlog led to the CD VIOLA, for which I used a slightly different approach.  I used the same close miking with several mics, but instead of recording to digital, I recorded to a high end cassette deck, which eliminated the threat of clipping, and, instead, introduced the wonderful phenomenon of saturation and even a bit of analog distortion.  I was able to raise the recording level, and, by careful headphone monitoring, play with the unique properties of the analog medium.  I haven’t done a lot of electronic music per se, but I consider these projects to be a kind of electronic music.

These projects occurred at a time when I was “between commissions” as a composer, and when I had little composition studio time because of complex work and childcare needs.  I was also experiencing some insomnia.  I tried to incorporate all this into this project.

There were some problems with this project.  I have very little ability in the areas of web design, etc.  These “blogs” are not particularly attractive or inviting.  I came up in a kind of DIY ethic, where the concept was to get stuff out there.  The idea is that there is a mysterious virtue in simply making things available.  In the punk/new wave era, the main innovation to me was this idea that you could make music without being part of the formidable rock establishment that had arisen.  You would find: a) a place to play, b) people to play it, c) music for the people to play, and d) simple ways to inform people of the existence of this music.  That’s where fliers became a big thing (obviously long before the internet).  You wanted to distribute as many fliers as possible, put them up on as many telephone poles and bulletin boards as possible.  But you didn’t want to try “sell” yourself.  It was just to inform.  The fliers themselves because a kind of DIY art form, but again, this was to draw focus away from the fliers being manipulative or commercial.

You see, there is a fine line between the concept of DIY and the concept of the “Vanity Project.”  I don’t know if I’m ready to dissect these two concepts.  It might take several posts, but I’ll make a tentative start.  Actually, maybe I’ll put some random musings on these questions for your consideration:

The non-vanity projects (we need a name for them) are really the anomaly.  These are the projects where someone else pays us a guaranteed amount of money to create or perform something.  One can view this situation as a range of things from a positive collaboration between two or more visionary people to wage-slavism. 

Perhaps we need to query why it is we want to make and share things.  Is it to obtain affirmation that we are talented?  Is it to share objects or information that we feel we have been privileged to obtain or create?  I think it is both (and maybe a few others).  In both cases, I believe we are enacting/demonstrating/tracing/proving an encounter with the Divine, with spiritual realities, “higher energies”.  This is especially important and compelling to the secular-materialist Euro-American culture that approaches spiritual reality in a very tentative and clumsy way.  We crave and naturally want to share non-explicit encounters and accounts of encounters with the Divine.  There is a kind of Victorian cloak of shame surrounding spiritual experience.  I guess I kind of revel in spiritual pornography, if this be the case.  I don’t believe any culture or faith tradition has a monopoly on spirituality or metaphysics.  But I do believe that we are eternal beings, and that we naturally are drawn to the traces of what is eternal in this temporal realm.  Of course, I privilege music in this sense, as I believe it has the power to remove us from teleology.  But that’s another post.

Anyhoo, the desire to demonstrate talent, is, in part, a desire to share a miraculous gift from divinity.  The desire to share created objects is, in part, the desire to share that which has been inspired or revealed.  It is the sharing of a collaboration between entities from two different realms.   

Is it vanity, then to share created things, where no one has asked let alone paid for them?  I think it depends on how one approaches them. 

I say Mindy Kaling on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart the other night.  He asked her when she slept since she appeared to be so busy.  She pointed out that she, like Stewart had a show named after her, and life was so awesome because of it that she barely wanted to sleep for fear of missing something.  I was discussing this with Lara who pointed out that Mindy also produces and writes for the show.  Then she noticed that Mad Men, and a whole bunch of movies and TV shows are produced by their stars.  Are these vanity projects?  Does getting paid make something not a vanity project?

Maybe our fear of vanity (projects) is a manifestation of our fear that our own existence is itself a vanity project.  Maybe we feel sheepish about taking up space on the planet.  One is reminded of the ill-fated OK Soda ad campaign, which showed a photo of a hipstress with the copy “It’s OK if you think I’m not OK, but I am.”

I’m working on answers.  I’ll get back to you when I have them. 

In the mean time, I am starting another musical blog of sorts.  The ViolaBlog and PianoBlog suffered from a few problems.  The aforementioned drabness of their web interface.  Also, I never knew if anyone was listening and didn’t get any feedback if anyone did.  This is where social media has some real advantages (and many disadvantages), mainly the ability to see if anyone is listening.  This new blog, or perhaps sub-blog will consist of videos of solo piano versions of Thelonious Monk compositions, recorded in no particular order.   The day before yesterday I did Blue Monk.  Today it’s Think of One, which may have been the tune Thelonious was referring to when, asked why his compositions were so “complicated” he responded, “Some of my pieces have melodies a nitwit can understand. Like I've written one number staying on one note. A tone-deaf person could hum it."

The MonkBlog is sort of a continuation of a much longer term Monk project that I have been engaged in for many years, that includes the Monk Marathons I did in Provo, Seattle and New York last year.  Hope you enjoy.  Oh, but it’s OK if you don’t

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gun Crazy

Any idiot knows that the NRA is just a lobbying arm of the gun industry.  Why anyone listens to them to make any kind of policy is bizarre.  Guns in homes are many times more likely to kill the people who live in them than any "intruder".  I don't know.  It's all so insane.  We already have gun control.  RPG's are illegal. I am opposed to fundamentalism of any kind.  Gundamentalism (this frightening obsession with the 2nd amendment and imagined threats), fundamentalist economics (i.e. libertarianism), fundamentalists Christianity, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, fundamentalist secularism.