Friday, January 25, 2013

Musical effects, Part 1: Intro and leitmotifs

To me, music is the language of emotion, and Wagner was the master of that language. Other composers make me feel deeply, of course, but neither to the extent nor the degree that Wagner does. When I am one with his music—that is, really listening and feeling, and not worrying about anything but the moment—I regularly experience the deepest and most intimate emotions that I am capable of feeling, from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of seemingly unbearable pain.

I am certainly not the only one to feel intense emotions when listening to Wagner.

For instance, Baudelaire, in writing a fan letter to Wagner, said his music was "rapt and enthralling, something aspiring to mount higher, something excessive and superlative... the supreme utterance of a soul at its highest paroxysm."  (By the way, open that last link for a head scratcher.  I have no idea what bluegrass music has to do with that letter.  Speaking of links, I don't have some for things I quote here, but I can get you to the source material if anyone ever wants something.)

Galina Gorchavova, a current soprano, says this in Diva, the Next Generation: "I am besotted.... there's something heavenly in that music. When I listen to it I feel as if transformed, uplifted. I fly somewhere with it. And the experience is very difficult for me describe in words." 

Hugo Wolf upon hearing Parsifal said "my whole being reels in the perfect world of this wonderful work, as if some blissful ecstasy, becoming ever more enraptured and blessed."

Thomas Mann describes the effects of Wagner's music as: "delicious, sensual-pernicious, sensual-consuming, heavily intoxicating, hypnotically caressing."

Bryan Magee, in his excellent short book, Aspects of Wagner, has a chapter devoted to why Wagner has such a devoted following (and, equally, why some are repelled by the music). He sums up his thesis this way:

My central contention, then, is that Wagner's music expresses, as does no other art, repressed and highly charged contents of the psyche, and that this is the reason for its uniquely disturbing effect. To make a Freudian pun, it gets past the Censor. Some people are made to feel by it that they are in touch with the depths of their own personalities for the first time. The feeling of a wholeness yet unboundedness—hence, I suppose, its frequent comparison with mystical or religious experience. 

Others think listening to his music is like a drug experience. Susan Sontag in her essay "Wagner's Fluids" writes: “It was observed from the beginning that listening to Wagner had an effect similar to consuming psychotropic drug: opium, said Baudelaire; alcohol [ed note: and hashish] said Nietzsche.”

David Bullard, a former columnist for the Sunday Times of South Africa, put it this way: “the incredible power of [his] music to replicate some of the more pleasant effects of drugs or alcohol, but none of the side effects, is only really appreciated by those who have experienced it...Rather as some might pop a mood-enhancing pill, I am now able to select a piece [of Wagner's music] knowing it will have the desired effect, which is probably why I appear to be on a permanent high to many people.” [From his column, "Out to Lunch,"May 18, 2003.]

And, according to one well-known acidhead, Christian Rätsch, “Listening to the Der Ring des Niebelungen is the closest thing to being on acid when you are not on acid, but Richard Wagner is the greatest on acid.” 

Magee also notes that it is therapeutic to some:

This music does for some people what psychoanalysis claims to do for others; it releases radioactive material from the depths of the personality and confronts them with it and makes them feel it and live it through. It also relates all this inner feeling harmoniously to an outer reality. It can thus help people be at one with both their inner selves and the external world: so in a sense it the most whole-making, the most therapeutic art. 

So just what is it about Wagner's music?

Normally, operas were written to highlight the singers via their arias and other set-pieces like duets, trios, etc. In between these pieces, in earlier days, a harpsichord accompanied what is called recitative (which is sung, but patterned after every day speech). The set-pieces had the emotion and the beautiful singing; the recitative carried the plot.  By Wagner's day, orchestras had generally replaced the harpsichord, and there was more emphasis on the dramatic content throughout, but the focus on show-stopping "numbers" was still at the heart of opera. Wagner upended this relationship as he felt that the music must be in service to the drama and not that the drama existed for these numbers. To underscore that he was doing something very different, he termed his work "music drama." (Sorry, Richard, but I will refer to them interchangeably as operas or music dramas.)

Of his ten operas that are in the repertoire,  Wagner set all but one in a mythical context. Bryan Magee summarizes what he was attempting to do with his music drama:

It would be about the insides of the characters. It would be concerned with their emotions, not their motives. It would explore and articulate the ultimate reality of experience, what goes on in heart and soul... In this kind of drama the externals of plot and social relationships would be reduced to a minimum... Myth was ideal for this, because it dealt with archetypical situations and because its universal validity, regardless of time and place, meant that the dramatist could almost dispense with the social and political context and present, as it were 'pure', the inner drama. 

To achieve this, instead of music frequently interrupted by time-stopping arias or other set-pieces like duets, trios, and chorus numbers, Wagner generally wrote continuous, ever-changing and developing music with the aim to express the deep emotions of the characters. The voice served as the characters' conscious thoughts; the orchestra provided the deeper emotional underpinnings, the unconscious or the repressed. 

The music has no conventional structure, which made it quite revolutionary in its time. One of the leading critics of the day, Eduard Hanslick, said, “Wagner's most recent reform does not represent an is, on the contrary, a distortion, a perversion... One could say of this tone poetry: there is music in it, but it is not music.” [Quoted from the Wagner Companion, at 199.] To Hector Berlioz, it was “raucous noise, the abolition of melody, arias, duets, simple harmony, singable roles and so forth.”

There was a huge debate during his time, and it remains to this day, about Wagner's musical structure. Now, I don't give a damn about this debate:  If it is bad structure but I love it, then structure be damned. If there truly is a marvelous structure that just hasn't been appreciated by some musicologists, that's fine too. These sorts of academic debates seem very silly to me.

Anyway, Wagner defenders have landed principally on one of the key aspects of his “endless music,” the leitmotif, to explain the structure. This is, in essence, a short phrase of music associated with something. It could be a person, a thing, a concept or a feeling. Audiences from my generation likely know it at its most simple form from Peter and the Wolf, where each animal has a tune on an instrument. But people now know of leitmotifs in the Wagnerian mode principally from movie music, such as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings soundtracks.

Wagner himself didn't like the term and called them “motifs of memory,” which works well. One of leading expert of Wagner's system, Derek Cooke, called them “melodic moments of feeling,” which also works.  Cooke put together this analysis (originally for the BBC) with musical examples on the principal motifs and their development. It is  both easy to listen to and yet extraordinarily complex if you are interested in Wagner's system. And here is a fun video from the '90s with Hugh Downs as the host that is a simple primer on Wagner's use of leitmotifs.  If you want to explore the motifs of The Ring, this is a good site. While they existed before Wagner, he certainly used them in a unprecedented, and much more thoroughgoing, way than anyone before him.

Generally, I pay no conscious attention to leitmotifs when I listen to his music (or, for that matter, when I watch Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings). I prefer to let the music wash over me and merely feel, and that works just fine. Wagner's intent, in fact, was that the music work on a non-conscious level, and indeed it does. While I now “know” several of his leitmotifs, they were just absorbed via listening in a emotional, not intellectual, way.  In a 1903 essay by Camille Saint-Saens on Wagner's music, “The Composer as Psychologist,” he describes Wagner's system like this:

Music takes up where speech leaves off, it utters the ineffable, makes us discover in ourselves depths we had not suspected, conveys impressions and states of beings that no words can render. With his ingenious system of leitmotivs (ugly word!), Wagner has extended still farther the reach of musical expressiveness by making clear the secret thoughts of his characters beneath and beyond the words they speak. Take a very simple example, chosen from among a thousand: Tristan asks, “Where are we?” Isolde replies, “Near the goal,” but the music is that which previously accompanied the words, “head destined for death,” which she whispered while gazing at Tristan. The listener understand at once what “goal” she has in mind.

If you read any primer on Wagner's music, you will note that people like Cooke have named his leitmotifs, principally so they can analyze and comment upon them.  Wagner didn't like the leitmotif labeling and refused to do it—his wife Cosima quotes him as saying it was “nonsense” (on 8/1/81).  Indeed, labeling does cause a problem. It tends to reify the music in a very unhelpful way. If you are actually trying to recognize them, or even more so trying to figure out why the one called, for example, "sword of manhood" is being played at a particular moment, that process removes your attention from feeling the music.  Since Wagner considered that the essence of drama was “knowing through feeling,” anything that detracted from that was a negative to him. 

It is very true that there is a Pavlovian dog quality to listening to Wagner's music repetitively, which is why people keep coming back for their treat. Listening to the “motifs of memory” that now have deep resonance to both the story and to my life is a short-cut to activating those intense emotions. Talk about mood music! If I want to feel euphoric or have a good cry or feel deep compassion, I know just which pieces would give me those rewards.

Just because a composer writes leitmotifs doesn't mean, of course, that they work as intended. But Wagner was extraordinarily good at writing music that created the emotions that he wanted his audience to feel.  As noted in the Saint-Saens example above, when that incident happens, the music—whether you remember it consciously or not—does tell you Isolde wants death. The motif itself is dark and ominous. You know immediately the "goal," not through intellect, but through emotional reaction to the music. Whether you consciously recognize it or not, the feeling will be there. The listener might feel more resonance if it—the earlier use of the motif—has already lodged in memory, whether conscious or not. Certainly, if a piece of music is particularly emotional to you and it is later woven into the score, that feeling does reemerge, and often very strongly. The emotional reaction to Wagner's music tends to increase over time as repeated listening reveal ever greater depths of feelings as you relive the musical memories and make seemingly endless connections, both within the story and, reaching out of the story, to your own life.

To continue the Pavlov analogy, here (at 4:48-5:30ish) is one of my favorite musical treats, which always affects me whenever the motif shows up through the rest of the Ring Cycle. It is the initial leitmotif of the music associated with the love of Sieglende (our dog Ziggy's namesake) and Siegmund, from the first act of Die Walküre

I have more to say about how Wagner achieves his musical effect, but right now I have to get back to building my roof. So let me just give a brief preview of the next post:

What is extraordinary to me about Wagner's music is that he really takes you inside a person's head emotionally for an extended length of time. I will write about how he achieves this, with an example from his opera Tristan and Islolde.

And, finally, just a note for those who have never listened to Wagner. It's an extraordinary gift he has, but it does require putting in the time to really listen to his music with attention and, to really get much out of it, listening several times to the same opera. For many people, this isn't what they want from music. They might want beautiful music to relax to or fun music to sing along with or rhythmic music to dance to, and on and on.  Wagner's operas are not a casual listening experience. (I have tried to put the operas on in the background but I find myself yelling to the CD:  "Would you just shut the hell up, Brunhilde!" Or the like...)  However, he did write beautiful orchestral music, and it is quite possible to listen much more casually to his music. For those people who are interested in hearing Wagner but really don't want the opera experience (at least yet), try an excerpt album, like this one.  For actually getting a feel for the full opera to see if it might be to your taste, there is a series by the Dutch conductor Edo de Waart, who essentially creates orchestra “suites” from four of Wagner's operas: The Ring, Parsifal, Meistersinger and, my favorite of the four "suites," Tristan and Isolde. (You must ignore the cover art on the CDs!) These are ways you can put on some Wagner in the background and get a sense of the music without commiting to a four or five hour opera.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Opera and LSD

A note about musical links: I will try to find a version with English subtitles for all my opera links. There may be versions I like better musically, but for someone new to opera, I think the words are very helpful. 

Brief personal history of how opera came into my life:

Niether my parents nor my peers listened to classical music or opera so I never really got a taste for it, until recently. The closest I got to opera is that my parents liked musicals and would take us kids to see them on occasion. I listened to rock n' roll and folk music, and that was pretty much it into my thirties, after which my partner Leslie added Frank, Ella and the like to broaden my tastes.

When our friend Lisa asked us if we wanted some tickets to the SF Opera, we said yes, but not with high expectations. Just for the experience of “going to the opera.” This was 1989, soon after our big earthquake. (A huge net that was strung from the ceiling at the opera house protected us from concrete dropping on our heads. And, yes, there were several chunks in the net.) The tickets were for Madame Butterfly, Puccini's tragic opera about—and this is my take, not the normal encapsulation—a delusional Japanese geisha who thinks that her married-her-only-for-sex American military husband, gone three years, will return for her. When she learns the truth, she kills herself. This is the most famous (and beautiful) song from the opera, centered on her delusion. 

 I had suspected that I would be bored during the opera, as I often was listening to classical music. And, in some parts, I was. Plus I couldn't really hear the soprano. But at the end, I cried. I like to cry, so that was a big plus. I wouldn't say I had become a big fan, but I was willing to do it again. 

Two years later, Lisa offered us tickets to Carmen. (Thanks, Lisa!!) It's the story of a passionate Gypsy woman who makes clear to men—like here—that she is both a free agent in love and not a good bet for long-term commitment. Because he can't keep her, one lover, Don Jose, kills her. (Yes, many operas end with deaths. "It's not over until the fat lady dies singing" should really be the saying.)

I truly enjoyed the opera, finding Carmen's fatalistic tragedy moving. Many of the arias were familiar—mostly because of their frequent use in commercials like this or in movies like thisand that was a plus, but I also liked the whole production, the story, and was never bored. (The date was October 20, 1991, which I can remember because, from the balcony at intermission we saw a far more devastating and real tragedy developing across the bay: the Oakland firestorm, which claimed the lives of 25 people.)

Leslie happened to have a excerpt album of Carmen, so I began to listen to it, a lot. I wasn't up for listening to the full opera, but I certainly liked listening to the “hits,” such as the Seguidille (this is a concert version with my favorite opera singer, Tatiana Troyanos. That said, she isn't exactly the ideal Carmen, but it does have the subtitles). Or the always fun Toreador song (here performed in a flashmob—there are no subtitles, but the singer is bragging about his skills as a matador. Bizet, the composer, made up the term toreador, because it scanned better with the music than the word matador).

Opera met acid sometime in 1994. We had some tabs that a friend had given us years before though we rarely dropped at this point in our lives. But I thought it would be fun to take LSD and listen to a variety of music. I was alone that day and totally enjoyed playing DJ for myself. The highlight of the day was the excerpt album of Carmen with the Jetson's theme song a distant second. "Meet George Jetson" was great fun, but the opera was awesome.

Several years later, I bought a full version of Carmen on LP (used, for $5) with Anna Moffo as the lead, and decided to listen to the entire opera while on LSD. OMG! It was a revelation and turned my life in a new direction. I had closed my eyes while listening to most of it, and through the power of the music and the drug, I went into a sort of super-empathic state enhanced by a process of personal and historical intertwining in my imagination. It was an all-consuming experience. To say it was the most satisfying artistic experience of my life is to vastly understate. Nothing ever had come close to this before. Wow. 

I wanted more.

Well, that started me down the path to find more operas and repeat this experience with different stories and composers. But I had no idea what I might like. I started buying up second-hand operas (Tosca, La Boheme, and La Traviata were the first three).

The next time I took acid, I listened to bits of those operas and a variety of classical music Leslie had on hand: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and—the acid winner for me, by a long shot—Debussy. I immediately bought his one opera, Pelleas and Melissade, the first I purchased at retail prices. It's a great opera, but certainly not considered a “beginner's opera,” as this guy makes clear in his post on the subject of good and bad operas for newbies (he claims it is “maybe too musically involved for beginners").  But acid is a short-cut to appreciation for musical complexity, so that was certainly not the case for me.

Since this blog is called Wagner Tripping, I guess it would be best to cut to the chase. Wagner entered my life via Opera for Dummies. The book came with a CD of excerpts of various operas with annotations. Track number nine was the Leibestod, from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.  (I did not try to find a link with subtitles because I think it is far better to listen with your eyes closed, though the soprano here, Waltrud Meier, is riveting to watch.)  The first time I listened to this CD I was on acid. I had no idea what Isolde was singing about at the time, but it was clear she was becoming very aroused and then had an orgasm, and I was right there with her. My body responded involuntarily to this deeply erotic work.  And the music was simply gorgeous.  (I wrote about Wagner's Erotics here.)  

Once again, I wanted more. I rushed out to buy the full Tristan and Isolde, and planned my next opera trip around it. 

When I did listen: If Carmen was, on my personal Richter scale, a 7.5, Wagner's opera was a 9. Many say that Wagner isn't a good choice for the opera beginner, but I beg to differ.  It was love at first listen.

LSD Musical Effects (and why opera is a particularly good medium for experiencing them):

My instant infatuation with opera is similar to this psychotherapist's experience with his patients who used LSD with music as part of his therapy: 

A number of our patients, who were alcoholics and heroin addicts with poor educational background, developed such deep interest in classical music as a result of their one LSD session that they decided to use their meager financial resources for buying a stereo set and starting a record collection of their own.
I think it is quite obvious that music affects our emotions profoundly—just google “emotional response music” for ample scientific confirmation. Now add acid and, as one academic paper puts it, “the ability of music to release emotion is greatly amplified by the use of a pscychedelic drug, which allows the listener to project his personal experiences and visual fantasies into the unfolding experience.” Exactly my experience.

Further, studies (like this onehave shown that closing your eyes and listening to music provides an increased emotion experience. And, indeed, I have found that to be the case on or off acid—it helps you narrow your focus and thus concentrate and really let the music in emotionally and intellectually.

If you open your eyes while listening on acid, the visual stimulation often overwhelms the listening experience; it's a distraction. However, it doesn't mean you won't have a visual experience if you close your eyes and listen to music on acid. In fact, it will be richly visual, but just internal. And it will be your imagination with far more vivid imagery than you normally experience. It's like you create your own highly personal movie to go with the soundtrack that you have put on.

All operas aim to give expression to profound human emotions and feelings—of love, rage, jealousy, resentment, envy, compassion, and so forth—through dramatic story-telling. (Even the “comedies” do this, as the main difference between a opera comedy and drama is that no one dies at the end of a comedy.) Other forms of story-telling, such as many novels, TV shows, films, theatre and ballet, also try to do this of course. But none of those other forms work well on acid. It is difficult to read or watch any visual story-telling during a LSD peak due to visual hallucinations and distortions. It's not that it can't be a fun experience, but it doesn't tend to tap the deep emotions that music does.

Listening to any beloved music with eyes closed on acid will be an intensely emotional experience, whether it be rock n' roll, classical, jazz or hip hop. What opera allows is to wed that intense emotional experience to a concrete story with resonance in your life. For me, I greatly prefer operas in which the orchestration is continuous and the music transitions fluidly so that my emotions flow as the music does. A sung-through musical such as Les Miserables would be similar to opera, of course, though for me the rich orchestration and the exquistive vocals of my favorite operas are preferable to most musicals. While I have listened to my favorite musical, West Side Story, on acid, the abrupt beginnings and endings of the soundtrack take me out of the story – "Tonight" followed by "Officer Krumpke" just doesn't cut it. It's just too abrupt and, therefore, emotionally jarring.

Speaking of abrupt, next post: I will finally focus on Wagner and his musical effects.

Friday, January 11, 2013

LSD and me


Quite simply, I found my way to opera and, then, to Wagner through LSD.  And, through opera and Wagner, I found my way to a much greater appreciation and enjoyment of LSD.  Together and intertwined, they constitute the most profound, joyous and transcendent experiences of my life, which is why I am willing to “come out” as a user. But before I launch into the opera/Wagner/LSD experience, I want to set the scene, both about LSD in general and my use in specific. 

I remember the day I learned about acid.  I was watching General Hospital, something I did regularly in the Nurse Jesse Brewer/ Dr. Steve Hardy days, and there was a guy on who had used this drug.  This was 1965, when I was 11. I became intrigued, but I certainly wasn't precocious when it came to drugs.

When I was 16, I went to Altamont, the infamous free Rolling Stones concert in which a man was killed (and I was really near him, and Mick, for that matter—see photo below.) 
The guy circled is the guy the Hell's Angels killed; I am the first person on the right.  You know Mick.
We arrived the evening before and I spent the night snuggling in a sleeping bag with some guy I met there (no sex, really). Now that would have been a place to score LSD, but I hadn't yet had one sip of alcohol or one marijuana puff in my life, so I didn't even consider it. I went to sleep to the sounds of drug barkers roaming the crowds offering “Acid. Mescaline. Grass.”  (Gee, I wonder why mom didn't want me to go?)  

Later on in my high school years, I went to a concert at the Fillmore with a leftist airman that I was sort-of-dating who dropped the drug that night and asked me to do it with him; I declined to partake.

In college, I still wasn't a drinker—I only started drinking in my late 20s—and I hated pot then and now, but I decided to give LSD a try.  I did it stupidly, following none of the sensible guidelines that I advance here.  While it was a mixed experience—at one point, everyone I saw had drooping faces, like Dali clocks, with blood streaming from them—I was very glad I had tried it. (And, by the way, I did know those drooping, bloody faces were hallucinations and it didn't really freak me out, but I still found them unpleasant). I felt a lot like Dorothy did after her visit to Oz:  “Some of it was wasn't very nice, but most of it was beautiful.” Every once in a while over the next 20 years, I would do it when someone offered a hit and I had a day to spare, but it wasn't ever a big thing with me until acid met opera.  But that story will have to wait for a later post.

When acid first became well-known to the general populace, after being used primarily in therapeutic settings for the decades since its discovery in 1938, there was a lot of stupid fear-mongering such as  this amusing video, but also a lot of stupid people using the drug carelessly with occasional tragic results.  The result was knee-jerk anti-LSD laws that were rather draconian and stopped fruitful research for many decades. 

I have read and thought a lot about LSD and absolutely advocate that the law be changed so that it can be used therapeutically and for life-enhancement.  Some regulation would be welcome, but prohibition is depriving people who could really use the drug from its help, and preventing its use by people like me who want the self-enhancement the drug clearly can deliver.   We are lucky in Santa Cruz to be home to MAPS, whose vision is “a world where psychedelics and marijuana are safely and legally available for beneficial uses, and where research is governed by rigorous scientific evaluation of their risks and benefits.”  To this end, the institute does research and advocacy. I plan to volunteer for this organization when I return from Hilo in June.

I've always thought that most people with any sort of adventurous spirit—again, see here for exceptions— should take acid at least once in life as it gives you very heightened, and enhanced, senses and a new window to view the world.  It truly is a trip to a place you can't get otherwise—or at least easily.

Through both formal research and real-world use of LSD, the consensus is that the drug experience, and the user’s personal safety, is related to three factors:  set, setting and drug purity/dosage.  See for example—and for detailed information about creating a good set and setting—here or here

“Set” refers to factors within the user, such as expectations, personality, life history, mental stability, etc. “Setting” refers to factors outside the user, such as the place the person takes the drugs, the atmosphere, the people there, etc.  As for drug purity/dosage, generally, it is wise to get it from someone you know who can vouch for it, and then you try it in a small dose first, to test the strength.  

Historically, those who report “bad trips” tend to take the drug carelessly in uncontrolled situations with unfamiliar or, even, hostile people.   Check out this anti-LSD PSA from the ’60s.  While it is funny watching the representation of the murdered hot dog, I believe that it is a true story.  That said, the woman in the PSA was completely unprepared for the drug. Until you are familiar with LSD and yourself on it, it is very important to take all reasonable precautions.

The reason, by the way, that I put “good trip” and “bad trip” in quotes is because many trips can't be so easily categorized.  In my twenties, when I wasn't careful at all about the setting, I often had bad parts of a trip—in particular, feelings of confusion, fear, paranoia and insecurity.  I found that in interacting with people, I often couldn't judge their intent.  They would have an expression that might have been benign or might have indicated “you are such a stupid jerk.”  If I tried to voice my feelings or clarify my fears, it would lead to weird interactions that made me more paranoid. My confusion would lead to shame.  You know that feeling that one gets when caught doing something shameful?  One writer describes it thusly:  

The typical shame response is a heightened degree of arousal and self consciousness. The person in emotional pain averts his eyes and his head goes down. New information is blocked. There is intense discomfort and muscular tension. The body collapses inward to protect the self and there is a shrinking of body energy. The skin may become flushed with embarrassment. There are feelings of inadequacy and the fear of self exposure. The person wants to shrink, hide or even die to get away from the painful feelings of mortification.

Yeah, that description pretty much covers it.  Anyway,  I would get that feeling easily and frequently when I dropped acid. Not fun.

Though many relish interactions with people when high, I discovered that was very hard for me. For a long time, I decided to cut out all confusing human interaction and to just take acid by myself.  I now do take acid with trusted others, but if I ever get that feeling, I just throw on my headphones and listen to music and I am in heaven.

The effects of LSD

Why the drug does what it does hasn't been determined, though studies are now taking place on just that.

But the types of effects it has are well-known to users:

·      Our natural tendency to screen out peripheral information is greatly reduced: the sound of a car horn in the distance, a bird chirping, neighbors talking, light coming through a plant highlighting a spider web out of the corner of your eye—all demand or grab your attention in random ways. 
·      On the other hand, you can really focus if you wish.  I wasted some time playing Tetris to test this, and learned two things—I can easily surpass my high score, and playing Testris is a truly stupid way to pass the time on acid.  The most famous example of someone surpassing his previous ability at a game or sport was the no-hitter pitched by Dock Ellis on acid (and, according to this short animated documentary narrated by Dock, he had also popped bennies). 
·      Emotions are greatly heightened, which is one of the most problematic aspects of the drug if the emotion is not a good one. But, of course, it is enthralling if it is a feeling of ecstasy or even merely happiness.
·      All senses are heightened: colors seem more vivid, sounds and sight are more detailed.  When you look at anything it seems to have a greater depth of field, and patterns jump out at you.  Objects undulate, shift around slightly. (The film Waking Life, which is about lucid dreaming, captures this quality better than any other representation I have seen.  You can view the full film here.)   If you think you see things in the clouds when you are in your normal state, you will become an expert on acid.  I especially love looking at wood or stone, particularly as light plays upon them, as whole movies will play out with the changing light. Generally, when you aren't high, you can still see what you saw while high, but not as dynamically as they were before. In the book The Varieties of PsychedelicExperience (you can read the whole book at this link), one person put it this way:  “[one gets] a wonderful awareness of the almost infinite detail that objects will yield up if only one will give them one's attentions.”  (Within the same book, for a particularly good recapitulation of the LSD experience, read pages 11-12, particularly from “Along with this there were torrents of ideas.” The above quote is within those pages.)
·      The relationship to time seems to alter; our internal clock is just not the same.  For instance, a dramatic pause in music seems to last so much longer than it does when I am normally listening. On the other hand, time sometimes seems to speed by. 
·      Aurally, the sound does not distort in the way that it does visually while high, or at least, so it seems.  But in listening to a beloved piece of music, you will have an enlightening experience—the emotional impact is increased as is the ability to hear, and appreciate, complexity.  Here is a very good article on how music is enhanced by LSD and visa versa (and, in this case, for use in psychotherapy).  It is hard to put into words, but you become one with the tempo and the music and, if its an opera, the drama.

Posted (near) simultaneously: My idiosyncratic LSD rules

Next post: LSD and Opera

My Idiosyncratic LSD Rules

These are going to be very short because this is well-covered ground. If you are seriously considering trying acid for the first time, you should read more.  There are books out there such as this or ample information on the web such as this or this.

There are things you don't have to worry about at all:  LSD is not addictive and there has been no death by overdose.  If you take one hit or 500 hits, the experience will still last about 8-12 hours, with the period of strong effects tending to be from the 1st-5th hours.

Am I advocating breaking the law and actually finding and using an illegal drug?  Absolutely!  But it should be done with care.  A few guidelines (among others that you will find above) that I think you should follow:

  1. I do not recommend LSD if you hate yourself or know yourself to be prone to depression or schizoid behavior.  Nor would I recommend it to anyone who believes in a wrathful God or for anyone who is a misanthrope or who thinks taking mind-altering drugs is inherently wrong.  Basically, I am recommending to happy people who love music, and who will make the effort to experience it in a safe and controlled manner.
  2. For your first trip or trips, have a trusted friend nearby who is very familiar with the drug just in case you have a problem, or to help you implement your “calming plan” (see 4).
  3. If you would like to try it, but have fear, then just do a quarter of a hit at first.  Then, if you are saying to yourself, as you probably will, “is that all there is?” then try a half a hit next time. Once you get a sense of what the drug does and does not do, you will be ready for the full experience.
  4. If during the trip, something is making you unhappy or fearful, then change what you are doing. Have a plan for bad moments.  Some people never have them, others do. Think ahead of time what makes you feel happy and have it ready.  I tend to put on Ella if I ever get agitated, which I sometimes do.  Within a minute into a song, I barely remember what was upsetting me seconds ago.
  5. Don't answer the phone, check the internet or engage in any way with the world.  Have no obligations.  I have learned this from bad experiences.  For instance, one day when I was in about the sixth hour of the trip, which feels close to normal, I made the mistake of answering the phone.  My boss was calling to tell me the news that our chancellor had killed herself, and I became unhinged. For many days, actually.  Emotions are very powerful and close to the surface during a trip, so keeping yourself isolated from the world is a good strategy.  Oh, and never give up a litter of puppies on the day of a trip.  Really bad idea.
The main point: if you love opera and classical music, and you are a secure, happy person—you SHOULD try acid.  I promise it will be far beyond the best  “performance” you have seen in your life.

Posted (near) simultaneously: LSD and me
Next post:  LSD and Opera

Friday, January 4, 2013


I don't think you will need to know anything about Wagner to understand and, even, enjoy this blog. I can promise you that it will be different than anything written before about Wagner and very contemporary in its focus and concerns, but historical in its perspective. 

While anyone is welcome to read it in whole or part, I am writing this in large part with the “I love Wagner’s music but I hate him” folks in mind.  To my mind that is a nonsensical statement.  Wagner’s music was a window to his soul, and he was completely conjoined to his music in a way unique to opera composers. At least I will spend a year trying to make that point. (This, by the way, is some of the dissonance resolution part of the blog’s subtitle.)

I first started thinking seriously about—and writing about —Wagner on a road trip to Seattle to see my first Ring Cycle in 2001. As I was driving, my mind was dribbling out random thoughts about him, which I jotted down as I went along.  (Okay, okay, I admit this probably isn't the safest way to write, but I kept my eyes on the road at all times, which made many of my scribblings near-illegible.) Since then, I have continued thinking—and safely writing—about Wagner on long trips. (You will, perhaps, be relieved to know that I fly way more than I drive on such journeys).

However, it was not on that sort of a trip that I fell in love with opera in general, and Wagner in specific. It was on LSD. My love affair with tripping and opera will take up some blog posts (and be focused on the ecstasy in the subtitle).

While I originally became enamoured with Wagner under the influence, the love remained when I came down. Various blog posts will be focused on his musical effects on me and countless others. (Yep, more ecstasy...)

When I first encountered Wagner's music, I knew nothing about him. I assumed that anyone who could write such profound and beautiful music had to reflect those traits personally in some way. Interested to find out about the man behind these works, I began reading. Boy, what a let down! "A monster"  "a dreadful human being"  "an impossible human being"  "arrogant, dishonest, jealous, hypocritical, racist, sexist and passionately anti-Semitic." Was Wagner as bad as all that?  (This is the other part of the dissonance to be resolved.) 

After much further reading and reflection (and tripping out on it), my answer is a resounding no. I will argue that one of the things that has been lost in history is an accurate sense of Wagner as a man—only a negative caricature remains. I will try to correct that problem in a series of posts. 

A large part of the reason I wanted to write this blog is to counter some of the extremely sloppy scholarship and gratuitous bashing that is ubiquitous.  Some bashing is just mindless repetition, while others really go after him in a systematic, but rarely fair, way.  I will take on a selected few of these “scholarly” critiques in some detail.  These particular posts may not be of interest to many people but I am driven to do this because they really piss me off. Hey, then I can post them on Amazon, too, and give them one of those 1 star reviews.

You just don't get credit for writing a fair and balanced book about Wagner. (By the way, I wrote that phrase “fair and balanced" way before obnoxious Fox claimed it, but hell if I am going to let them have sole claim to it.) Any book that attempts a reasonable perspective is immediately dismissed as an "an apology."  As if perspective isn't important!  Well, that is utter nonsense, which is why I feel forced to write a few posts just to establish some historical perspective.  I hope I will thus be able to show what a rotten deal Wagner has been given, particularly in the last several decades.

The last blog post of the year will bring it all together to reclaim and celebrate him as a full, and quite remarkable, human being.  I am, for one, very glad he was born 200 years ago.

Anyway, that is the plan.  How much I end up doing of it, who knows?  But I will give it my best. My plan is to try to write a post about once a week.  Next post up: there will be very little Wagner, but lots of Tripping

End note

I am going to back-edit this whenever I feel like the need, usually without noting it unless I think the change is particularly significant.  The truth is that, while I have points I want to make to the ambivalent Wagner crowd, I am really writing this for me.  My aim is that the blog will be what I always wanted to read about Wagner but never found.  I’m just fantasizing about the time in 10 or 20 years when I reread it and I say, "Damn, I am glad someone said that!"  

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Happy New Year's Day! And much more importantly to me, Happy Wagner's bicentennial year!

To celebrate this occasion, I am commencing, for one year only, my latest blog: Wagner Tripping. (More about the blog and the title—and subtitle—in the next blog, but tripping does mean that, among other things.)

Now this probably isn't of great moment for most people—either the bicentennial or my blog. Many people—in the United States, I would say the vast majority of people—have little knowledge about him and virtually no knowledge about his music (except for this and that exception, the latter aka kill the wabbit). In any case, these folks couldn't care less one way or the other. He's not their cup of tea, they presume (for some, certainly wrongly). Others are more aggressively hostile and would rather Wagner sank into the cesspool of history, usually with almost no real knowledge about Wagner or his music, which I find most irritating.

I love Wagner's music. He is certainly the musical love of my life, and that came as a thunderbolt to me. (Thanks, Donner.) But I am not in the “love the music, hate the man” camp. I actually like Wagner the man, warts and all. But how can I love someone often described as a monster? Well, that's one of the many reasons I want to write a blog, actually. There is no quick but meaningful response to that question, at least none that have come to my mind.

I have been planning to write about Wagner since 2001. Originally, I had thought about it as a book, but that was before blogging was a thing. Plus, it works better as a blog because of links to the actual music or other material. I had originally planned to start the book upon my retirement in 2007 and finish it in 2013 to coincide with the bicentennial of Wagner's birth. But life, and laziness, got in the way. You know, there was Obama's election in 2008, work on the Miramar house, the Hilo house, a lot of travel, helping a friend with a mental illness from 2010 on, the cancer in 2011 and so forth. I kept pushing it back and now here we are in 2013. So I decided to just put out what I could in a year and that would be that.

My intent in this blog is not to censor myself, much.  Christopher Hitches once wrote: "a serious person should try to write should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate."  That's my aim, as embarrassing as it going to be when I talk about sex and Wagner, and even though I feel quite ambivalent about revealing—hell, reveling in—felonious behavior.  But I will be.  Sorry, mom—and don't worry!

Now, I want to say at this point that I'm obviously not a scholar. (I did work at a university, but as a maintenance person—I plunged scholars' toilets.)  And I don't read music.  I can't tell a sharp from a flat.  Or play an instrument.  I can't sing.  And I grew up hating classical music. (Actually, I am exactly who Wagner was writing for as a later blog post will no doubt cover.)

Because this isn't a blog with academic pretensions, I will tend towards plain speaking.  I don't plan to mince words.  There will be the occasional—regular?—vulgarity because, frankly, so much stuff surrounding Wagner can only be called bullshit.  No other word would work.

The above should not be taken to mean that this blog will be less reliable than a scholarly article.  I care deeply about truth and fairness.  I believe any analysis should be based on clearly established facts. My feeling is if you can't—or don't—back up something controversial that is presented as a fact, you shouldn't say it.  I'm not from Missouri, but I should be.  If you believe I haven't adequately supported a statement, please let me know and I will track it down like a pig after truffles (or retract it if I can't support it.) That said, I am at a bit of a disadvantage as most of my Wagner books are in Santa Cruz and I am here in Hilo until June. I did bring about 50 lbs. of Wagner material with me, but I will be writing without the sources at hand from time to time.  I will use links as my footnotes.

So let my personal little celebration of and reflections on Wagner begin!