bnewman: (explorer)
[personal profile] bnewman
I'm way, way behind on getting songs put up in the lyrics and music directories on my website, linking to them from my songs index page, and announcing and discussing them here. How far behind? Maybe a year and a half? Songs have been paused at various points in that pipeline — written and uploaded but not linked from the index or mentioned here, for example. Slowly but surely, I am catching up, and many songs are now linked from the song index page that weren't before, including some that actually are relatively new. I will endeavor to post commentary on at least the more interesting ones at some point.

This newest song, however, I want to tell you about right now. I started writing it yesterday at MASSFILC and finished it today.

Remember the Hymn for a Festival of Sandcastles? That song was inspired by the ritual of a Tibetan Buddhist sand-painting which was created and then ceremonially destroyed at Swarthmore College as part of a cultural festival. From the first inspiration I intended (and still do — Cape Cod is right over there...) to actually host a Festival of Sandcastles, where we go down to the beach and build the most beautiful sand-castles we can, and then contemplatively watch as the tide rises and washes them away, meditating on impermanence and on the meanings of our actions and lives in light of that truth. It would be like the High Holy Days and a picnic at the beach, all in one!

"Hymn" presents the festival as a meditation on impermanence as a truth that humans must wrestle with. It doesn't imply a cosmology beyond the simple fact that things end, certainly it doesn't introduce a fantastic setting. I always imagined it as a holiday belonging to our world that simply hadn't been done yet in that particular form. But then the idea of the festival came into contact with the idea of recursion, or of seeing small terrain features (like moss-covered rocks, or tidepools) as miniatures of larger landscapes, or scale-independent fractals, or At the Mountains of Madness, or something by Borges, or whatever, and the shape of the world from which the festival ultimately comes became clear to me.

The liturgy of the public event known as the Festival of Sandcastles makes no mention of any of the disturbing cosmological musings which follow. Little children learn nothing of them. Adults will not discuss them, even though they all know of them. It is teens who initiate their younger peers into the mystery, at the edge of adolescence where the playful life of a child meets with the capacity to take life's big questions seriously. In surreptitious retreats, they organize their own, secret Festivals of Sandcastles. Different stories are told, different songs sung, secrets taught that may only be spoken by firelight, on the beach, in the evening, when the tide has begun to come in and wash the sandcastles away, and even then only in whispers.

So, if you wish to learn, imagine yourself there. See the twilight, hear the breakers crashing, smell the wood smoke, feel the sand between your toes, taste the roasted marshmallows. Today you created a world with your hands. It was good fun, and good exercise, and you feel exhausted but refreshed in both body and mind. You created a world— and now, you realize, you are watching it die. At last you are ready to learn "The Secret of the Festival of Sand-castles" (mp3)

When we build sand-castles, we create a tiny world, bounded by the sea on one side, and on the other by an uninhabitable desert (the dry sand at the top of the beach that won't hold together to form good castles), beyond that a range of impossibly high mountains (sand dunes), and beyond that our world, which is vastly larger and vastly slower than that of the sand-castles, for the sandcastle world is created and destroyed in what we call a day. Could this relationship between two worlds, a larger and longer-enduring world whose children, as a form of play, create and then witness the destruction of a smaller and shorter-lived world, be extended yet further down? How about up? (That's where At the Mountains of Madness comes in.)

Should we live in awe and fear of the titanic powers beyond the impassable mountains, for whom our world is a sandcastle and for whom the cataclysmic deluge that will destroy our world is the daily tide, trembling at the immensity of an uncaring universe? Or should we take heart in the fact that, since the entire arrangement is scale-free, they are really just like us? Knowing that the powers that shape our world are children at play, should we not teach our children to play nice, to act with compassion towards each other and towards the worlds that they shape with their hands and in their imaginations? The first principle of magic is, as above, so below. And, after all, maybe the universe is not an endless succession of larger and smaller worlds, but a loop — perhaps the titans who shape our world are our very own children...

Coming into being at this moment in the history of our own world, this song is dedicated to the people of Japan, for whom the image of human civilization being swept out to sea like so many sandcastles is not a fairy tale. If it touches your heart, consider making a donation to support the ongoing relief effort.
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