Sunday, January 14, 2007

Remembering Alice Coltrane + Books Tossed + Zadie Smith on Imperfection and the Novel

I've been so bogged down in reading that I haven't had a moment to blog, but so much as always is happening in the world that I want to thank all the other bloggers out there who've been able to capture and comment on some of it.

ColtraneOne thing I heard today via email was that Alice Coltrane had passed away. The widow of one of the greatest musicians of all time, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane was a extremely talented harpist and keyboardist who became one of the important (and unfortunately still rare) major female solo instrumentalists in jazz, yet also a spiritual visionary who created a new music stream. She marked out her own musical aesthetic in a number of works from the late 1960s that often comprised lush, string-heavy, avant-garde melodies, showing a wide range of influences from indigenous African and South Asian musics to the classical European tradition, which she played on harp, organ, piano, and eventually Indian instruments, and which were increasingly underlined by an intense spiritual focus.

Born Alice McLeod in Detroit, she began her career working with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. She married Trane in 1965, replacing McCoy Tyner as the pianist in her husband's combo, and played with him until his death. Several years later, Alice Coltrane began to study under Swami Satchidananda, who became her spiritual guru, and eventually she became a spiritual teacher herself, assuming the name Swamini Turiyasangitananda and founding the Vedantic Center in Los Angeles. Aspects of Satchidananda's philosophy and her own syncretic vision can be found on most of her recordings from Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969) on, but it would be true to say that a spiritual quality suffuses her music from the beginning. Perhaps her greatest album was Journey in Satchidananda (1970), a tribute to her guru that also includes the tune "Something About John Coltrane," but many others, including A Monastic Trio (1968), Ptah the El-Daoud (1970), Universal Consciousness (1972), World Galaxy (1972), Reflection on Creation and Space (1973), Turiya Sings (1974), and Translinear Light (2004, with her son Ravi Coltrane, shown at right, from AMS Artists), show her musical range and gifts, including her singing and chanting, to great effect. She recently played with Ravi at a rare concert, held last year at Newark's New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts, to great acclaim. (What I would have given to have been back in New Jersey to catch this event!) Some of my favorite Alice Coltrane tunes are among her best known, including "Blue Nile," "Journey in Satchidanda," "Atomic Peace," "Shiva Loka," "Gospel Trane," "Turiya," "Turiya and Ramakrishna," "Galaxy around Olodumare," and her rendition of Trane's "A Love Supreme."

It's a total cliché to say she was an "original," but she was. Rest in peace, Alice Coltrane.


A few posts ago I noted that the Fairfax County Library system was culling and disposing of books that no one had taken out in at least two years in order to make space for more "popular" texts. Below is just one list of the books have been sold off or jettisoned. I think it's fair to say that there's a huge qualitative difference between most of these works and the output of Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Mitch Albom, Michael Crichton, Whitley Strieber, and John Grisham, to name just a few of the regular best-sellers--prodigious authors all of them. But the librarians have decided the people must get what they (think they) want, thus the jettisoning. I personally believe the library's (potential) readers will be the poorer for what's lost, but that's just me.

From Jon Swift's site, which includes a hilarious take on this excision:
The Works of Aristotle Aristotle (Centreville)
Sexual Politics Kate Millett (Centreville)
The Great Philosophers, Karl Jaspers (Centreville)
Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter (Centreville)
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (George Mason Regional)
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy (George Mason Regional)
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (George Mason Regional)
Desolation Angels, Jack Kerouac (George Mason Regional)
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (George Mason Regional)
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust (George Mason Regional)
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, Maya Angelou (Chantilly Regional)
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams (Chantilly Regional)
Writings, Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (Chantilly Regional)
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe (Chantilly Regional)
Great Issues in American History, Richard Hofstadter (Chantilly Regional)
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Pohick Regional)
Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Reston Regional)
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (Reston Regional)
The Aeneid, Virgil (Sherwood Regional)
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot (Fairfax City Regional)

He notes that you can contact the Fairfax County Library or email its board to let them know your thoughts on this.


Zadie Smith, the wunderkind author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and On Beauty, published a cogent essay on novel-writing and its disappointments, in yesterday's Guardian Unlimited. It's a long piece that I've only skimmed, but I'd love to hear others' thoughts on it. An excerpt:

A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own. And I don't care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks; I don't care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero, or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family; I don't care if it refuses to use the letter e or crosses five continents and two thousand pages. What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.

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