+amor, poblenou, barcelona

Some graffiti are just dirty walls, the result of a mislead anxiety about leaving an imprint behind. But often we can find graffiti that are quite remarkable (an example, those of Besós cathedral), and when I stumble upon one of them I take a picture of it. In my neighborhood in Barcelona, el Poblenou, some years ago, in a plot of a demolished building leaving the naked interior walls visible, a line crossed all the missing rooms connecting two messages that said “+amor”. There was also a big heart. I was like contemplating some strange Pompeii frescoes from a neighborhood archeological site.

I wondered whether actually there was a love connection between some neighbors, living in that place, time passing, and the line depicted exactly that connection.

Later I discovered more graffiti that could be attributed to the same author, or project, simple messages that, despite their obviousness were not perceived as too “sugary” but as an appeal or invitation to take into account. Big letters at Pujades/Llacuna:

Love … your partner, children, parents, friends, coworkers, aubergines, primary colors, clouds, rain pools … Some human figures at Taulat-Bilbao seem to say “Stop! +amor!”:

And more at Pere IV and a window at Dr. Trueta, 142.
At Panoramio the locations are plotted. Some of them do not exist anymore.

In some TV series, such as Heroes or Misfits, we find supernatural powers in marginal neighborhoods. I like the idea of these graffiti as frescoes with special powers. Perhaps the locations where there were situations with a lot of love involved, emit a kind of energy that can be perceived by the artist and compels him to paint something. Perhaps later, when someone passes by and takes a glimpse of it, undergoes a transformation that enables him to recover the lost ability to love, at least for some time. I can envisage a scene where a character wanders through the streets, looking in vain for that graffiti that changed his life, missing that ability to feel, or to care for. He starts meeting graffitists, trying to discover who was the author of “+amor”. Never mind … speculations for a script of an inexistent TV episode.

Back to reality, goggling for +amor uncovers who stands behind those graffiti, a Brazilian artist, tom14, democraciaurbana who explains his projects in an interview.

Thank you, Tom14.

Feldman, Rothko, Miró, Mompou, void, silence, the spiritual

I “discovered” Morton Feldman when reading Alex Ross book “The rest is noise” about the music in the last century. I listened, fascinated, the sounds suspended in time of Triadic Memories or Palais de Mari. It is a music of stillness, a music that doesn’t want to reach a destination; in the sense that usually, musical phrases, by melody, rhythm, harmonic progression, seem to move from one place to another. This strange music, full of silences, barely moves, it seems like it is synchronized with our inspirations and expirations, accompanying a meditation.

Quoting Ross:  “In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. 

In 1971 Morton Feldman wrote “Rothko Chapel”, basically a dialog between a viol and a choir with some percussion, dedicated to his friend, Marc Rothko, who committed suicide a year before, when still working on the murals for this project, a meditation space, a commission by John and Dominique de Menil, open to all religions without adhering to one in particular. I haven’t seen before those fourteen big murals almost monochrome that took six years of work, applying patiently stroke after stroke in order to create “an impenetrable color fortress”. In the opening, Dominique de Menil said that “We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine”.

When looking at the pictures, I was reminded instantly of Joan Miró’s  triptych “Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse” (in the sense of solitary), one of my favorite works and the main reason to keep returning to Fundació Miró. If I am lucky and there is no one else around I can seat in front of the three big canvasses and it is like being in a cell, meditating.

Rothko Chapel, Miro’s space, both have a particular quality that I would dare to call secular spirituality –it’s not the same as atheist-, unbound to any concrete religious aesthetics.  We may wonder whether  this quality is related to the experience of vastness and void, a big space or surface without anything, but with something that makes it different from nothingness. In Rothko’s case it is layers of monochrome color; in Miró’s triptych, the line walking the canvas (In the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid there is a beautiful similar work, “Pájaro en el espacio” -bird in the sky- and whenever I see swallows crossing the sky, I think of them as sketching lines).

The void in music would be the silence. Music that allows space between notes. If it’s a piano, it’s an opportunity to listen to the vibration of the string in the air, after the stroke, if the pedal makes stops the felt from interrupting the resonance. Other than Feldman, a musician that allows to listen to strings vibrating is the catalan composer Frederic Mompou, perhaps because he remembered the sound of bells manufactured  in his family foundry. It’s remarkable that one of his best known works has the title “Música callada” – Silent music. Lionel Salter described Mompou’s music as “the voice of silence … like Saint John of the Cross”. Again, the spiritual and the meditation.

In terms of picture shots, our common perspective would be, probably because of practical reasons, a medium shot. Void and silence allow to extend this in two directions. On one side we can look farther, up to the horizon, a vast extension of space and silence; and at the same time, it brings us to the detail of a close up shot, a simple stroke, a texture, a note or a chord, something that would be missed if mixed in an excess of information of forms and sounds. It is perhaps this kind of perspective that attracts mystics to the desert or solitary mountains?

We may wonder why this void, surfaces without forms in space, silence in music, can be a trait of the spiritual. May be it is because it creates a space where a different experience can take place? For some, it will be the presence or hint of the transcendent.  When setting aside the sounds, the noise, objects, forms that fill our field of experience, there is room for a kind of presence that until now could not be perceived. For others, instead of the transcendent, it will be to locate what we know in a vast nothingness, the experience of the ephemeral in an infinite void (a void glossed by Nabokov and Bellow in two enthralling texts).

If void in space, or silence in music, ease a profounder experience, then, what would be the equivalent regarding human activity? Perhaps to stop and remain immobile doing nothing? Would this be meditation? And the equivalent of elaborating color masses in Rothko, or Miró’s simple lines, could be the work in order to attend the right posture in zazen?

Ottavino Spinett

When I was a boy, I read a book about young Christiaan Huygens, who was to become an outstanding scientist. Young Huygens built a harpsichord for his sister, using pieces of glass for covering the keys. I found it fascinating, would I ever be able to build an instrument? Years later I played recorder and cornetto in an ancient music group and enjoyed the sound of harpsichords and spinetts. But building an instrument remained something far beyond my skills and budget.

So, when I saw at the Renaissance Workshop, an affordable kit for an Ottavino Spinett, based on a true 1595 Ottavino, I decided to try.

It has been a long and humbling process, committing and correcting many mistakes, overcoming frustration and clumsiness.

Base board Balance rail, framework
Jack register Soundboard, bridge
Casework Tuning
Keys Jack, plectrum, bristle
Finally, an imperfect but playable Spinett!

Street music

I haven’t heard the music of the whistles used by street knife sharpeners for a while. But there must be some of them still, as some sound hunters capture them and upload those little jewels at freesound.org, that sort of Flickr or Picasa for sounds. Quite often sound conveys an ambience better than pictures; Freesound is an excellent collection of soundscapes.

A whistle sample here, and another one here.

The interest for the sounds of the street has an illustrious precedent. Proust, in The captive speaks about the music of cries of tradesmen in the street, as “lightly orchestrating the matutinal air, with an ‘Overture for a Public Holiday. Our hearing, that delicious sense, brings us the company of the street, every line of which it traces for us, sketches all the figures that pass along it, shewing us their colours.”Proust finds traits of gregorian chant in a cloth seller, or a farmer describing his artichokes. When listening to this, Albertine wants to taste some of the food, and would like Françoise to go out and buy some, “it will be so nice to eat all these things together. It will be all the sounds that we hear, transformed into a good dinner”.

In Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Act II, Scene 3, there is another excellent piece of art inspired in the music of the street.
Simon’s Rattle version, the vendors arrive at Catfish Row in 5’10” of the clip:

Oh dey’s so fresh an’ fine
An’ dey’s jus’ off de vine
Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries

There is the honey man and another offering devil crabs:

I’m talkin’ about devil crabs
1’m talkin’ about devil crabs
I’m talkin’ about de food I sells

The voices of Louis Armstrong selling crabs and Ella Fitzgerald with strawberries are beyond description:

You can recognise its origin in a vendor shout, and at the same time, perceive the fascination of the melody as pure music. Check this in Miles Davis version (at 2’19”):

Another version, by Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, in latin rhythm.

In 1900 Proust complained already that he was going to miss the cries of street vendors if he had to move from his aristocratic quartier to another more modern.

In the 1980’s I remember listening, in a corner next to my home, a fruit vendor that shouted gaiely:

Hay sandia meLOne!!  [watermelons, melons]
meLOne! MeLOne!,
melo CO TO NEEE !!  [peaches]

with a crescendo in the “meloCOTO ne” that sounded as an explosive expansion of the “melone”

A Watermelon vendor song could have been the inspiration for the famous Watermelon man by Herbie Hancock and a popular latin version by Mongo Santamaria:

Probably, the happy Calypso Coconut Woman by Harry Belafonte, has a similar origin:

And we can’t forget the “peanuts” of Antonio Machín,  “El Manisero”:

What sounds are left to us? Perhaps the metallic percussion of gas cylinders distributors. May be there not coconuts anymore in the beaches, but while sunbathing we can listen to the resigned melody of refreshments vendors “selvesa, cola, agua, bier …”. Some inspired musician could use this in chillout remix.

Burton (3). Love melancholy, religious melancholy

The third book is about love and religious melancholy, or unhappiness related to love or religion.

The first section is about love in general, its definition in terms of desire , beauty as a cause, the possible objects of love according Augustine (God, the neighbor and the world); different kinds of love according the Aristotelian view on the soul, vegetative (in plants or stones), sensible love among beasts  (each one for those of the same kind (sus sui, canis canis), and rational love , proper to men, angels and God.

There can be many kinds of love, women, the pleasures of fine foods, idols. Would it be possible that we loved virtues, wisdom, honesty, compassion? The observation of human nature turns Burton into a pessimistic, “ but this we cannot do “, man seems to have been born to hate, he says in an excellent piece of rhetoric: Where is charity ?

The second section deals with romantic love, or “heroical love”, a disease of the soul, according Avicenna and Arnau de Vilanova . It can affect the heart, liver, testicles, brain. (We have now research trying to find what happens in brains of people in love . )

What are the causes of love melancholy? How does it work? Visus, Colloquium, Convictus, Oscula, Tactus , sight, conversation, companionship, kissing, touch. We haven’t changed that much, it’s just that some modes of visus, colloquium and convictus can be carried out through facebook and twitter. We fall in love with “a little soft hand” or “ a small foot, a well proportioned leg ” or we fall under the effect of a sight. There is some ground in the many metaphors of sights that trespass ( Theory of the effect upon the soul by the eye ).

Love can benefit from artificial allurements , gifts, dance, voice, love potions. We can assert the existence of love from kissing, or when we can’t stop watching the beloved (as Frankie Vallie said Can’t take my eyes off you ). Burton avows that in those matters he is a novice and relies on readings and observation.

The cure. How can love melancholy be cured? While acknowledging his little experience, Burton tries to dissuade us from falling into the trap of love with a funny argument, suppose she is pretty, then she will be a fool, or anyway, old age will turn a venus into an Erynnia. Examine all parts of body and mind and some defect will be found. Finally, the advantages of being single: if you are young then match not yet , are you old, match not at all.

It doesn’t seem to take the issue very seriously because after having argued against love and marriage, he says that the last and best cure of Love-Melancholy,”is to let them have their Desires”, there is no joy like that of a good wife . An exercise in scepticism finds the same reasons for and against love.

_1. Res est? habes quae tucatur et augeat.–2. Non est? habes quae quaerat.–3. Secundae res sunt? felicitas duplicatur.–4. Adversae sunt? Consolatur, adsidet, onus participat ut tolerabile fiat.–5. Domi es? solitudinis taedium pellit.–6. Foras? Discendentem visu prosequitur, absentem desiderat, redeuntem laeta excipit.–7. Nihil jucundum absque societate? Nulla societas matrimonio suavior.–8. Vinculum conjugalis charitatis adamentinum.–9. Accrescit dulcis affinium turba, duplicatur numerus parentum, fratrum, sororum, nepotum.–10. Pulchra sis prole parens.–11. Lex Mosis sterilitatem matrimonii execratur, quanto amplius coelibatum?–12. Si natura poenam non effugit, ne voluntas quidem effugiet_.

Section there is about jealousy and infidelity.

Religious melancholy

In the introduction Burton warned against religion “in excess”;  what ought to be love to God becomes superstition and idolatry, an infinite ocean of incredible madness and folly . We love the world too much, God too little . In the opposite, love divine “in defect” we find libertines or impious.

Where there is any religion, the devil will plant superstition. Burton offers a look at all known religions in the 17th century , Christians, Jews, Muslims; all of them, in their infinite variations, do what Machiavelli advised: use religion in order to control people. Priests manipulate believers to get privileges, superstitious pilgrimages are promoted to make advantage of ignorants. We do not know whether to laugh, with Democritus, or to weep, with Heraclitus. The Catholic Church, and their Pope are harshly criticized, for trading with relics, encouraging superstition to saints, miracles, apparitions, a whole “subterraneaous geography” just to frighten, and a lot of absurd theology (is it possible for God to be a humble bee? Can he create another God like itself?)

What is the cure for religious melancholy “in excess”? Tolerance , everyone can be saved if honest “because God is immense and infinite, and his nature cannot perfectly be known”, so different kinds of faith and religions can be accepted.

While the critics of religious melancholy “in excess”  has been harsh, religious melancholy “in defect” is milder treated. It seems as if Burton formulates its own doubts: a possible pantheism, the determinism of stars (instead of astrology now we would speak of physics determinism), the problem of Evil , si not sit Deus, unde bona? si sit Deus, unde mala?


Burton’s long book concludes with some reflections on despair. It is legitimate to wonder whether Burton’s melancholy has its roots in his religious doubts. Despair, this sickness, this murderer of the soul , is agravated when there is a disposition to melancholy , as the power of imagination becomes a curse when conscience is turmented by some sins induced by de devil who, after making us believe that they were something light, now produces an exaggerated remorse. The symptoms are terrible, sadness, fear, anger … a summary of hell. When speaking of the tendency for sinning, Burton switches to the first person, as if he really was making a bitter confession: “I persevere in sin, and to return to my lusts as a dog to his vomit, or a swine to the mire […] I daily and hourly offend in thought, word, and deed”. He accuses himself of faith doubts , not believing in God and just pretending to meet what is expected from him.

Where is comfort to be found? The mercy of God that, like a mother that tenderly takes care of her sick and weak child, instead of rejecting it or punishing him. [Christian’s have always pictured God as a masculine figure, a father, it is nice that here Burton thinks of a feminine figure, a mother.]

Be not solitary, be not idle.

Unhappy, hope, happy be cautious

Sperate miseri, cavete felices

Burton. The Anatomy of melancholy (2). The cure

How can melancholy be cured? The second book is about remedies. Divine providence is, of course a lawful mean, but saint’s relics or images are firmly rejected. Diet is thoroughly discussed, different kinds of food, drinks, the quality of water, how should constipation be addressed [now I know that suppositories were available in the 17th century!]. It feels like reading a health magazine instead of a treatise on depression.

But, as with the case of the “particular utopia”, Burton excels when he speculates and rambles; when writing about the quality of air as a remedy, he indulges in a long digression, to wander around the world with the imagination, like a hawk that flies freely where the curiosity attracts him. He envisages different lands, the species living in them, the currents of the seas. How can be explained that shells or fish bones are found in mountains far remote from all seas? What is the center of the earth like? What size should hell be in order to accommodate all condemned souls? Whence comes the variety of species? [We will have to wait to Darwin to get the right answer] Celestial spheres are challenged; is the earth a living whole (Sit terra animata?); are there infinite worlds? How does God spend his free time? Does He paint butterflies’ wings? Does He decide how many hours should it rain? How much snow? Some make maps of heaven, their offices, how many angels are in each department. Why is it are good and bad punished together? There are some pretend to be familiar with God and tell when the world will come to an end. Other wonder about what was God doing before creating the world. (Theologies, excrements of curiosity).

25 pages later, back down to earth, quality of air is discussed and comes the Section about “Exercise rectified of body and mind”. Moderate exercise is recommended, also travel to nice places (Deambulatio per amoena loca), visit gardens, climb mountains or imagine a travel in time, for example, to become an spectator of one of Cesar’s battles [I wonder when/where would I travel if I could], tourism in different cities or spend the time in some recreation, may be catching flies as Domitian the emperor, or playing with nuts.

Threre are more possibilities, games, dancing, study, collecting and, of course, books could not be omitted. What man is not attracted by maps? [Burton would have enjoyed Google maps]. Atlases, herbaria, Mathematical works, bestiaria … like King James, who would not be happy in this company? Study is good, provided we do not exceed in it, like Don Quixote. To medidate upon the Bible, to learn algebra, to inquire about the movements of the planets, to perform experiments, all is advisable to keep the mind busy … if it is a masculine mind. In the 17th century all that Burton can suggest for women is neeedlework !

In order to rectify the perturbations of the mind, we can rely on the power of music, a merry company, laughter and try to live merrily. I couldn’t agree more.

After reviewing what activities could make us happy, and before opening section IV about cures and remedies, Burton offers another excellent digression, A Consolatory Digression containing the remedies of all manner of Discontents. I wonder whether therapy in the 17thcentury would be like. Let’s comfort ourselves by considering all possible bad things.  In life, joys and sorrows are annexed, and succeed one another. If we summed the miseries and calamities that affect all men, and then divide them equally, would we share alike, or take our portion? Those who think they are unfortunate because of poverty should be reminded of all that can be enjoyed without money, and being free; maybe it’s happier the one who desires less than the one who has more. The section is completed with a list of divine precepts, truly a 17th century self help manual. Know thyself, don’t be idle, be contented with thy lot, hear much, speak little.

The drug section (the 17th century prozac) offers medicinal plants and precious stones that are carried hanged around the neck [don’t laugh, people still buy them today). One of the authorities mentioned is Arnau de Vilanova. Besides drugs, other medical actions are purging, suppositories, clysters, leeches for haemorrhoids. He does not write recipes in vernacular tongue in order to prevent self medication. Burton does not forget anything he has read about, and, for example, adds that now and then is good to be drunktobaccocoffee or strange potions that involve a ring out of a donkey’s hoof, a lamb’s brain cooked with particular species, a wolf’s dung.


Poblenou cemetery

The type of residence in the cemeteries, of course, follows the same style we had in life:

Those living in rent apartments in a normal neighborhood go to simple niches.

Those living in mansions, go to pantheons.

With a some black humor, we could say that we leave the cemetery of the living to move to the city of the dead.

cementeriodeleste.blogspot.com/ is an excellent blog about Poblenou cemetery . There are some remarkable sculptures such as the famous “Death’s kiss”.

Others are very unusual, as this homage to someone belonging to the Roman Heredia family, a natural size marble sculpture, complete with sunglasses and whiskey bottle.

The most popular tomb is that of Francesc Canals, el Santet del Poblenou (the little saint of Poblenou), about whom there is not much known other than he worked at “El siglo” store and was very kind to everyone. He died in 1899 at the age of 22 and very soon people started to believe that he helped those in need that asked for some favor. This popular devotion is still alive today. Lots of candles and images are found around his tomb. People write what they need in little pieces of paper. One day I was talking with a woman that had just lit some candles. A couple of them were for some particular favors she asked but the other ones, she brought them to the “Santet” for other people that could be in a distress. Isn’t that a generous attitude?

Another nice attitude can be found in Cassen’s tomb, Casto Sendra Barrufet, a comic actor: Quien bien te quiere te hará reir. In Spanish they say “Quien bien te quiere te hará llorar” (those who care about you will make you cry), as if education, or the way to a right life could only be taught by punishment. He changed it to “Those who care about you will make you … laugh”. I couldn’t agree more.

Near the cemetery there is a marble workshop where they can make either a kitchen countertop or a tombstone. They work for the cemetery of the living and for the city of the dead. I wonder if I could ask to transform my kitchen countertop in my own tombstone with an engraving “here was lunch and dinner prepared …”.

Burton. The Anatomy of melancholy (1)

Sperate miseri Unhappy hope
Cavete felices Happy be cautious

“Be not solitary, be not idle.”

Those are the last sentences of the formidable “The Anatomy of melancholy” by Robert Burton (1576 – 1640), vicar at St. Thomas, Oxford, a mind of unlimited curiosity that could be satisfied with free access to the Bodleian library. I do recommend buying the book and reading it.  Here it is available online.  In several posts I’m going to present an abstract with links pointing to a selection of quotes.

The work goes beyond what would be a treatise on melancholy, what perhaps today would be cataloged as a depression disorder. In around 1.400 pages, besides discussing its causes and considering its possible cure, Burton, this tireless reader, presents the show of human fortunes and misfortunes, offers a lucid analysis of our follies, looking at us as if we were an ants’s nest and sometimes reminds us of Erasmus.

Who among us is not a fool ? We don’t know whether to weep, with Heraclitus, or laugh with Democritus. Burton says that Democritus would go on laughing in his era, in the 17th century; and I dare to say that he would amuse himself in our times; we get our souls repaired through different therapies, we apply diy solutions consulting self-help books, we long for the “authentic” experiences in prefabricated adventures to exotic destinations, we undergo plastic surgery to appear more attractive, we take stimulants to be more alert and sleeping pills to go to sleep, antidepressants …

It is a long reading, not always easy but most often fascinating. Burton writes about melancholy to escape from it, a trip along the diverse landscapes of human condition, with bitter critics towards religion and superstition,  and laments for bloody wars. Burton is to admire when he renders and filters his vast readings and when he observes the behavior of the humans around him. But he is irresistible when he writes what he likes and speculates wildly. So he asks, what would be Hercules agenda on the 17th century?  [what are the most important tasks?]   He does not stop here but formulates his “particular utopy”, 25 pages in length, detailing how cities would be planned, rivers, houses, schools, universities or roads.

The first book describes melancholy in general and its causes. No one would be free of it; the expression “melancholy, the character of mortality” is devastating. [It is really inherent to human condition? An unavoidable consequence of the ability to imagine? To be able to imagine a life without death, decrepitude, or the possibility of imagining a life without so many errors committed, without having caused pain, or may be just a life with a bit of luck …]. It agrees with the famous Aristotle/Theophrastus Problema XXX.1 that states  all men of genius have been melancholics and that they have a powerful imagination.

An introduction reviews anatomy and general diseases, offers a definition of  melancholy and then Burton proceeds to discuss the causes. Our avid reader will list all of them, from life circumstances such as poverty or being in prison, or the fact of getting old and suffer physical decadence and death.
There are also divine causes and our scholar does not omit any kind of demon, actually we have almost a complete study on them and, by the way, a particular one located in Barcino is mentioned. Another curious case involves a possession case that reminds of the vomit scene in the “Exorcist”.

As natural causes, attention must be paid  to what is eaten, gluttony, eat too much, or on the contrary, eat too little; evacuation, constipation, hemorrhoids, the quality of the air inhaled, exercise and several kind of activities ad last but not least, sleep.
Probably Burton speaks out of its own experience when he warns about the risks of study and solitary contemplation. Passions of mind, joy, desire, sorrow, fear are also a source of melancholy. We are never satisfied with what we have. We can become obsessed with hunting, eating or spending our wealth in mad buildings.

He can speak about the miseries of scholars out of his own experience and does not miss the opportunity to criticize ferociously the university, an institution that admits whoever has money and graduates fools that only learn some things by the heart after spending some years chopping logic.
When Burton reprobates the excess of curiosity, the time spent in researching superfluous matters, I can’t help thinking that he is not sincere, for it’s obvious that he enjoys it immensely. Other causes discussed are education, slander, imprisonment, poverty; blame on money that seems to have the power of buying anything.

The last part of this book deals with symptoms. Prudently, he advises potential hypocondriacs affected of melancholy to skip it because its reading could worse their condition. There are interesting references to Dürer’s engraving (see the post about Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl book about Saturn and melancholy), Saturn and Aristotle’s Problema XXX.1 where the hypothesis relating genius, madness and melancholy is formulated.