Hi! It’s still January, or so last week’s blizzard tells me – the month named for Janus, the Roman/Thessalonian deity of endings and beginnings, entrances and exits – lists of “have dones” and “to dos” jumbling in a cacophony of lists. I love that those sturdy Romans, often immune to the nuance that painted Greeks, reflect the ever-present dualism humanity embraces. From either-or and neither-nor, we like our world divided into chocolate and vanilla, good and bad, right or wrong.
However, I tend to prefer the complexity of the Greeks – embracing the shadows and sparkles that dapple black and white with ambiguity and magic. There’s actually a word for those departures from a newsprint world – chiaroscuro.
Chiaroscuro is one of those words, like onomatopoeia that delights both the ear and the brain. While the grass green boingy-boing of onomatopoeia explains itself rather obviously – the changing sky of chiaroscuro is a bit subtler. A book, title & author long forgotten, once described it as light kissing darkness, or darkness punctuating light. Isn’t that glorious? Often, people assume it’s the balance of black & white like the yin-yang of Eastern philosophy.
It’s more subtle than that – think of the Dutch masters and da Vinci – how light and shadow infuse their paintings with life, animating pigments and strokes into something that breathes and feels so natural you want them to speak and tell their story. Consider Tracy Chevalier’s novel centering on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. She found the woman with her shadowed cheek and sunlit lips so intriguing that she created a tale that brought the complexity to the page. I love that – I used to look for the stories in the pictures I would find in the pages of the books I loved. One of my favorites was the angel, Uriel in Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks (the London one, it’s weird, there are 2). An angel, who’s very name, means light, just look at the interplay of sun and shadow – and tell me there isn’t a story lurking behind those hooded eyes and shadowed wings.
Not confined to art, light and shadows collide in literature and life as well. Think of the tragic, yet noble Sydney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, his “far better thing” illuminates him and draws him from the shadows and self-pity that had marked his existence for much of the book.
And likewise, IRL (in real life for non-tweeters), in the midst of the amazing joy and triumph, one often looks for the shadow, the cloud, and the other shoe…. Inversely, as the shadows gather and the 3ams begin to encroach, there is a small bright light that obliterates enough of the gloom to carry on until the morning. In some ways, it’s a bit of a rejection of the whole “half full/half empty” philosophy. Living, with all its messy tangledness, can never be an either-or proposition. Light shades into dark, and dark edges the light – with all the awful and wonderful and downright wacky painting a nuanced world where we smile as the sunlight strokes us and wrap ourselves in the nights’ shadows painted pink and purple in the sky.
So, maybe January is the time to pull out the finished paintings of past years, and look to the pigments on this year’s palette – and see where light can kiss the darkness and a bit of shading can punctuate the light.
light & shadow:
- Me & my Shadow (Robbie Williams & Jonathan Wilkes) — The light patter and delighted pleasure in this duet reminds me of the Robert Louis Stevenson’s My Shadow poem, found in most children’s anthologies, you know the one that begins:”I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me”
- Light (Wendy & Lisa) –a duo that formed from the ashes of Prince & the Revolution, they are now most known for their work composing music for television shows like Nurse Jackie & Dangerous Minds. Their early albums are quite lyrical, and have a few wicked hooks — this is a little jewel of a song
- Dark Eyes (Iron & Wine with Calexico) — Sam Beam and Calexico covering Dylan — couldn’t be more intriguing.
- Shadows in the Rain (Sting) — originally a Police song, it becomes transformed on the “Dream of the Blue Turtles” album — in a loose, Brandford Marsalis “wait, wait, what key’s this in?” kind of way
- Dark Star (Grateful Dead) — one of those incredible Dead songs that if you were lucky enough to hear it at a show, you wouldn’t forget. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame actually lists it as one of the 500 most transformative songs (though I have my concerns about their reliability) —
- Shadows of the Night (Pat Benatar) –this song — back in the “olden” days people sat around and watched MTV videos the way kids binge watch Netflix or SnapChat their entire day — the mini-movies told a story, quite often bizarrely irrelevant to the song — but beautifully constructed and filmed
- Harbor Lights (Bruce Hornsby) — one of my favorite songs, shadowed by ghost stories fingering its edges.
- Deep Dark Truthful Mirror (Elvis Costello) — I’m generally assuming everyone has, or will, go through an Elvis Costello phase — and I have to say with lyrics like, “A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears, but how do you know he really needs it? ‘Cos a butterfly feeds on a dead monkey’s hand” — how could you not?
- I’m Beginning to see the Light (Kelly Rowland) –so one of the not Beyoncé’s of Destiny’s child is the fantastic Kelly Rowland. Her treatment of this standard is one of my favorite covers ever recorded. It doesn’t hut that every time I hear it I recall an evening of dancing to this laughing in the rain with my girls
- Moving in the Dark (Neon Trees) — while some says this song is quite a lot like Lady Gaga — seeing them live however infuses their music with an authenticity that transcends pop
- Lights (Ellie Goulding) — though she dismisses some of her early work as naive, “Lights” was a huge hit — Voices I play within my head/Touch my own skin and hope that I’m still breathing,’ and the lights that are home
- Tangled & Dark (Bonnie Raitt) — can you believe she’s 66?! Incredible performer, and preserver of American roots music — she’s been transforming music forever. This number has an easy blues feel and a driving rhythm that asks you to come out and play
- In the Dark (Norah Jones) — at one point, everyone had her album — and it was ubiquitous anywhere you went — one of her songs would be playing — this one, just a little smoky, a little kissy — was always a favorite
- It’s Good to be Alive (Imelda May) — as Monty Python would say, and now for something completely different….. I love this Irish performer — her songs are incredible and so well-constructed. I love this line, “But then standing at my window when/The night seems like it’s won/And everything seems brighter/With the sign of the sun”
- This Little Light (Neko Case) — This rollicking version of an old classic is quite perfect — I think if we’d done it this way in Vacation Bible School — the macaroni art and Kool-Aid would not have mattered 🙂
- Shed A Little Light (James Taylor ) — James Taylor is fantastic at recycling — making music that echoes stuff he’s done for 30 years. Sometimes, however, he transcends — and for me, this song does. On one of his “greatest hits” albums, there’s a mashup of this & “shower the people” — which I really want played at my funeral….
- Crash (You Me at Six) — sort of an English Blink-182, this is one of those “outlier” songs that doesn’t quite fit the theme — but it was playing as I was putting together the list, and it had a dark lightness about it that resonated
- Anna Sun (Walk the Moon) — getting in my Police where I can — the band’s name is from the song, “Walking on the Moon” — and despite the fact that Spin dubbed them a “poppy, art-rock quartet,” their songs are just eminently listenable…. Anna Sun just sneaks up on you
- The Theory of Relativity (Deborah Holland) — great smoky voice — I first became aware of her when she was in a trio with the incomparable Stanley Jordan, and Stewart Copeland from the Police (Animal Logic). — the song is a lovely paean to chiaroscuro as she looks at her life on a sliding scale
- Blues in the Night (Dr. John) — it’s so sexist — so, so sexiest and yet I have like 5 versions…. as much as it sounds like something that could have wandered in from the streets of New Orleans, it was composed for a Hollywood film in 1941. It’s considered a part of the “great American songbook” and a single listen will make you smile for three hours.
- How High the Moon (Jeff Beck with Imelda May) — another one of those classic American songs, this one a Les Paul/Mary Ford classic — naturally, there are many versions. Jeff Beck, guitarist extraordinaire has a fantastic cover — and the vocalist is the aforementioned Imelda May (this song was the 1st time I heard her)
- Touch of Grey (Grateful Dead) — Surprisingly, the first Dead song to crack Billboard’s top 10 — it’s I will get by ethos, and the line about “every silver lining has a touch of grey,” makes it so cleverly optimistic — and there is an amazing hook
“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.” –> Kate DiCamillo
Take care, Aly