eyes cast down

Ambient/electronic composer, musician and writer. Using guitars, EBow, synths, samples, loops, singing bowls, percussion & more, in pursuit of... something transcendent.

Homepage: https://eyescastdown.wordpress.com

Kawabata-san: a Fleeting Glimpse

As with all the arts – and sciences too – I think, one’s tastes and allegiances can – should – evolve over time. We may fanatically adhere to one musician, writer or artist above all in our youth then, in maturity, wonder what possessed us.

I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter some of the world’s greatest writers. Victor Hugo was the lion of my youth, and I still read him occasionally. I might have one more go at Les Miserables, which I’ve read six times. His lesser-known novels Toilers of the Sea and Ninety-Three are terrific page-turners with Hugo’s signature heart-stopping personal and moral dilemmas, and I really should pick up Notre-Dame de Paris once more.

Note that latter title: Wikipedia notwithstanding, it’s not The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; it never was. Quasimodo – as great and noble a character as he is – is not the title character of the novel; the cathedral is. Reading a good unabridged translation makes that clear enough.

Hugo’s irresistible romantic drive stoked my occasionally reckless and misspent youth (or what I like to imagine was), such as when I walked away from a final aimless year at university to undertake the rock musician vision quest. I still remember sitting in a large park in small-town Southern Ontario, being moved to tears by reading of Cosette’s thought, “Perhaps he is my mother, too, this man.”

Of all the writers I’ve encountered, however, the one who resonates with me the most now is Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel Laureate.

Kawabata-san famously said that, after Japan’s defeat in the war, he would only write elegies (although that was arguably no change from his prior work). All of his novels which I’ve had the fortune to read in translation certainly fit that category.


The journey began 24 years ago, when I read The Master of Go for the first time. The elegy ethos – and the tension between the classic and modern Japanese cultures – is perhaps at its sharpest in this story, which is built upon Kawabata’s reporting of a famous 1938 match between a legendary old master and the best of the younger, modern generation of players. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Kawabata cited The Master of Go as his favorite among his works (and the only one which he regarded as finished).

Kawabata’s three novels cited by the Nobel Prize Committee are Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Old Capital. As outstanding as they all are, the last is my clear favorite.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, from the late 8th century until 1869, a year after the Meiji Imperial Restoration, when Tokyo became the capital.

Kawabata’s exquisite descriptions of natural scenes, Kyoto’s numerous religious festivals, and the city itself are sufficient to recommend The Old Capital, but what makes this gem really glow is the masterful, understated portrayal of character and relationship. Little is said; much more is left unsaid. As a molecule is mostly empty space, Kawabata’s meaning is found mostly between the written lines. I don’t claim to understand very much of what he’s getting at, so far; as with any subtle art, understanding comes with practice.


Photo by Yousuf Karsh.

Kawabata-san’s influence must inevitably drift into the music, and so it has, from the beginning of the eyes cast down project. It’s most notable in the elegy pieces Like a Riven Cloud, At This Body’s Final Hour, Transitional and Mister God, This is Taylor, as well as an album in progress about which it’s too early to speak. As I wrote in the story of the Souls Adrift, in Disrepair album:

“For me it sums up the material world, with us struggling our way through it. Fish out of water. A suitable continuation of themes ruminated upon in the Separate Ones album…” In a sense, as far as this world is concerned, I can only write elegies, too, because this temporary, chaotic ball of matter, birth and death is not our home.

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Airplay for the Souls Adrift, in Disrepair Album

Front CoverAirplay for the Souls Adrift, in Disrepair album so far is keying on two tracks: Fading Angel and Sirens of Maya. Thanks to the following for playing the music:

Steve & Chrissie at One World Music

Stefan Schulz at Syndae

Bill Fox at Galactic Travels

Chuck van Zyl at Star’s End

All of these folks have played music from at least one of my prior albums, and I greatly appreciate their support. Thank you, all!

Kalman Cat

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Souls Adrift, in Disrepair: the Album Story

Front Cover

Painting copyright (c) by Royce Deans. Used with permission of the artist.

I’m delighted to announce the upcoming release of my fourth album, Souls Adrift, in Disrepair, on my Kalindi Music label. It will be available by download on July 12 and on CD shortly thereafter. The album’s release page is here.

I think of the album as… three guitar symphonies, a dark drift and an elegy. Possibly an oversimplification, but close enough to be helpful.

Four of the album’s five pieces are reworked improvisations from my April 2012 multimedia jam with art painters Royce Deans & Tali Farchi.

I had met Royce & Tali a mere five days beforehand (thanks, Eve!), towards the end of their 6-week residency in downtown Chicago (part of the Pop-Up Loop series), and we just went for it.

Many thanks to Royce & Tali for making the day, and for lending me their inspiring artwork for the CD package.

Back Cover

Painting copyright (c) by Tali Farchi. Used with permission of the artist.

As always, every piece has a story…

Of the pieces which began as live improvs, Fading Angel needed the least rewriting to reach its final form. For the recording, I set aside my usual live playing approach and recorded all six guitar parts separately, playing them all the way through without looping. This approach allowed me, on each pass, to vary tempo, phrasing, and dynamics – unlike looping, where each repetition is exactly the same – and to interact with the previously-recorded parts even more closely than I can when looping.

I also did this for the other two guitar-driven pieces, and anticipate doing so for recording similar pieces going forward.

Astral Drift creates an unsettling atmosphere, using processed metallics, ocarina, voices and breath with an occasional guitar chord, and a few brush strokes of synths to keep us grounded, so we don’t go spiraling off into the void.

Sirens of Maya is built on a loop that’s all electric guitar harmonics, an approach I later ported over to acoustic guitar for Snowdance in Starlight on my album Divinations. Sirens of Maya is a three-part canon, but those parts aren’t strictly synchronized, which makes it a loose canon (someone had to do this). I had some more fun with my EBow on this piece, and I’m getting pretty good at hitting just the right amount and drawing back – before anything breaks. I also mixed up the guitars more than usual, using 6- and 12-strings as well as the fretless.

A live version of Sirens of Maya is the album’s pre-order bonus.

Transcending Memory features my Danelectro electric 12-string tuned to Alexander Scriabin‘s famous mystic chord. This piece was a lot of fun to record and should be a blast to play live. The 12-string lines carve out an eerie space, over a roaring processed singing bowl drone.

At This Body’s Final Hour closes out the album with a plaintive piano melody over a haunting synth-guitar blend, occasionally punctuated by a thumping bass drum and featuring a chorus of chanting voices (thanks to Dasi & Leyla for joining in). The instrumental track slows to half-speed over its 18 minutes.

So what’s with the album title, anyway?

Well, it goes something like this:

The album is dedicated to the memory of our longtime companions, Sandor Cat (who passed on two days after the performance with Royce & Tali), and his brother Kalman Cat, who left us two years later. Sandor’s six-week illness was a difficult time, and was hanging thick in the air when showtime rolled around.

So I wanted the album and track titles to convey something of the gravitas of the time. For me it sums up the material world, with us struggling our way through it. Fish out of water. A suitable continuation of themes ruminated upon in the Separate Ones album, this closes a circle in some ways. Other circles await.

I was also looking for something powerfully descriptive, like many of Dirk Serries‘ wonderful titles. I’m well aware of the cognitive dissonance of the word “disrepair” in this context – which is way more animé than I intend – and that it may at first be read as “despair”, which is way more “emo” than I intend, but anyway…

Sandor Cat

Track list:
1. Fading Angel   9.41
2. Astral Drift   17.17
3. Sirens of Maya   12.55
4. Transcending Memory   15.55
5. At This Body’s Final Hour   18.04

Here is a preview clip, with highlights from all five pieces:

I hope you find the album enjoyable, and worth purchasing. Many thanks for your support!

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2015 in Review: Many Seeds Got Planted

This year’s composition and recording trajectory might best be described as an ellipse. The two focal points were (1) my two live shows in June and July, and (2) an 8-day recording blitz in August. Everything gravitated around those two periods.

I usually take advantage of the statutory holidays from January to May to spend time in The Keep, and that’s when much of a year’s composition work gets done. Somehow, that didn’t happen this year – but I’ll do my best to rectify that in ’16.

This year, it took the two summer performances to get my composition mojo going, with some surprising results. I started each show with a trio of solo guitar pieces, beginning with First Day Apart, and concluding with Fading Angel (which opens the next album, and which was born as a post-First Day Apart live improv), with a new improvisation in between.

Imagine my delight when the two performances, and two rehearsals, yielded three releasable versions of this new improv piece! It was clear at once that an album of solo guitar improvisations should be compiled, which is already nearly half-done. I’ll try one on the 12-string, and one on the fretless, and one on the mandolin…

My wife Dasi, whose photography graces the Divinations and Memory Palace albums, took a bunch of great photos of an early-November sky over Lake Michigan, with the color schemes changing constantly. So, artwork for the improv album is already in hand.

Another releasable artifact from these shows is a riotous version of Rebuild From Memory, which has cemented my resolve to put together a live album someday.

Dasi went camping with friends for two weeks in August. Thus freed from any obligation to keep our apartment fit for civilized habitation, I hunkered down in The Keep and recorded four pieces (about 65 minutes’ worth of music) in eight days. Three of them are for Album 4: Souls Adrift, in Disrepair.

The fourth piece is for a singer friend of mine, and I’ll put the finishing touches on that after she sends it back. That is simply going to be amazing. She’s a terrific singer whom I’ve wanted to work with since I discovered her ten years ago.

Another piece for the Souls Adrift album was written and mostly recorded a few weeks later, so only one piece remains to finish that album. It’s written and just needs to be recorded.

So… what’s the plan for 2016? The answer was somewhat simplified when, in the past few months, I made a critical decision that was a long time coming: after the albums in progress, all new solo work will be written in Just Intonation. A liner note on a Robert Rich album opened that door for me some years back, and I’m finally stepping through.

That has really tightened my focus, which is always a good thing. Some contemplated projects have necessarily fallen away. The Concerto for Ambient Orchestra, in which nearly a dozen of my peers had expressed interest in participating, will now be a solo project – hopefully before 2040…

Another project simply ran out of gas: the covers album I had planned since 2010. Hope remains for three of those pieces, though: one is Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, though I’m still struggling with trying to arrange it for one guitar. Some of those chord changes are simply crazy. The other – and more likely – one is… big secret. It’s going to be a riot, and probably a standalone release. Luckily for me, the original music is in the public domain now. The third one is another work in progress, which I hope will make it onto the live album.

All my dreams of classical prestige have bitten the dust, although if some ambitious string quartet or choir should take a shine to me…

Of course, collaborations will be exempt from the JI Directive. Chris Russell and I knew long ago that we wanted to make a second album. It won’t be Memory Palace II. That’s just a matter of finding one more burner on the stove. Another duo with a new collaborator is still at the hopeful stage.

So, 2016 will be mostly about finishing work in progress. Barring something unforeseen, Album 5 will be the Guitar Improv album, and Album 6 will be an initiation/journey story project, inspired by a workshop I played three years ago, which could grow to a double-CD. I entertain grandiose hopes of recording at least some of that in a large church (and using their pipe organ). Album 7 includes the collaboration with the singer, and maybe another guest artist or two. Those albums, hopefully culminating in a live release, will mark the end of a phase – my solo Equal-Temperament composition phase and, hopefully, my recording apprenticeship.

Hopefully before 2040… because the JI World is beckoning, and it promises to be even more exciting than everything that’s happened so far.

2015 was also a stellar year for hearing some of my musical heroes play live, and meeting them for the first time. That would be Steve Roach (twice), Robert Rich (whom I finally met properly at my third concert of his), and long-time Americana idols Eric Tingstad & Nancy Rumbel. Much gratitude for their endless inspiration.

I also got to hear prog-rock demigod Steve Hackett for the first time, a few weeks ago, and hope to do so again. I don’t listen to much rock anymore, but he’s always been one of the cats…

Happy 2016 to all!

GM in Keep, Dec 27-15

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Summertime Drifts, 2 of 2: Under the Picasso, Once More

The second of my two live events this summer was on July 6 at Chicago’s Daley Plaza, as part of the Under the Picasso lunch-hour concert series.

Technically, the stage isn’t under Picasso’s giant nameless steelwork – it’s some yards away. Too bad – I would’ve been grateful for the shade, as the stage baked in a hot and humid high noon. Always grateful for my trusty and good-looking Tilley hat! Some brave souls sat in the hot sun to listen attentively – muchas gracias! Others listened in the shelter of umbrella-shaded tables around the plaza. Cheers to them all, to everyone at Daley Plaza for making it happen, and to Ello comrade Dennis for his support and for lending a hand.

For practical reasons, I went with the minimal rig this time: just two guitars, pedals and the computer. The second guitar was originally just for backup, but since that turned out to be the 12-string, I got some new mileage from it by using it on Sirens of Maya for the first time, which went very well. This piece continues to evolve, as these two concerts have taught me a handful of ways to improve it – after I thought it was done!

eyes cast down Live 7-6-15

Playing First Day Apart. Photo by Dasi.

The opening “farewell suite” of First Day Apart, Intervening Ages and Fading Angel continues to inspire. “Hello, I must be going…”

Rebuild From Memory continues to be a platform for layering parts and technical evolution, with no end in sight. I’m getting better at using the EBow as an airbrush, to add lighter textures (OK, at least some of the time!). It’s too easy to use the EBow like a sledgehammer, to lay the power on thick, so I’m glad to have hit upon this way of using it.

Dasi says I should release a live album, and as always she makes a good case. Thanks to the intense rendition of Rebuild From Memory on June 20, this project is underway. But I think that’s going to be a year or two in the making.

Guitar improvising is also going really well these days, so imagine my surprise at finding that an album of that is suddenly developing, too. (Steve Roach’s Streams and Currents remains an absolute high-water mark in this field.) Four pieces from these two shows and their rehearsals – almost half an album’s worth – are in there.

I’m also looking forward to compiling a live demo CD for purposes of Prospective Gig Solicitation. These two events alone have yielded almost the full CD’s worth.

Here are some highlights. That Christmas-y bit in Rebuild From Memory (starting at the 7.54 mark) is the 7/8 riff from the Rush classic Xanadu. It’s practically unrecognizable, because my attempt to turn off the Illudium Q-36 Perfect-Storm Multi-Echo Propagator was cruelly rejected by the computer. When listening, don’t max out your volume. because the whole thing peaks with a roar about a minute before the end.

This was the end of my live apprenticeship, so … I’m done with playing free concerts. It’s time to challenge the popular myth that artists should give away their work in exchange for “exposure”.

So the energy’s at a peak, and I’m taking it into the studio! That will be our next subject, in about two weeks…

Set List:
First Day Apart
Intervening Ages
Fading Angel
Sirens of Maya
Rebuild From Memory

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Summertime Drifts, 1 of 2: The Muse Rises!

My first of two live appearances for this summer was on June 20 at Chicago’s Sulzer Library Auditorium.

Short version:

Definitely the best gig yet, a clear step forward.

Long version:

This was the most well-rounded performance yet, with more keyboard parts, more layers, and some best-yet guitar zones.

eyes cast down at Sulzer Library, Chicago, 6.20.15

Ready to bring it. (Photo by Dasi)

As I did for the September 2012 events, I brought most of the gear this time: three guitars, synth controller, lots of percussion, a couple of ocarinas. I should post an studio inventory with lots of photos sometime; it’s kind of amusing, some of the weird things one can make use of.

Highlights were many. I’m especially pleased with the opening half-hour “farewell suite” of solo guitar pieces, so I expect to use this a lot in future. This is: First Day Apart, Intervening Age and Fading Angel. Both of the latter were born as improvs played immediately following First Day Apart (the first in rehearsal for this event, the second in concert in 2012), so the connection is really organic.

This day’s take on Rebuild From Memory was the best live one yet, even evoking soundscape pioneer Robert Fripp at times, and I’m working up technical ideas for ramping it up further…. inexorable evolution. This is definitely going on a future live album, unless it gets replaced by a better version.

I Am But a Fledgling… (part of the Dreamlife suite slated for an album-in-progress) was tons of fun, with ocarinas, lots of percussion, and a hair-raising synth bed. (My wife Dasi filmed most of the 19-minute piece, so we may be sharing some of that soon.) Haven, a solo synth piece which will open the same album, is a serene pleasure to play, which I hope to do many more times.

Four pieces were played live for the first time, including the massive Knife of Karma, Expanse of Heart (with Alannah’s voice clips), and Exquisite Divination of Patterns. I expect to keep playing these, hopefully take them to some new places, and release live versions if all goes well.

The increase in keyboard parts is a most pleasing development, as I’m trying to move in the direction of having a more balanced guitar-synth sound.

The “surprise cover piece” I promised was the Enya song Sumiregusa, with the two melodic lines from another song, Fallen Embers, woven in at the end. This 12-string arrangement went off really well. Too bad it’s owned by a major record label; I’m not optimistic about ever getting clearance to release it.

Here is a 24-minute highlights clip, culled from 9 pieces:

The audience was small but enthusiastic. Special thanks to our friends Lou & Sue, who really appreciate and support the music!

Next up: a report on the July 6 Daley Plaza event.

1st Set
First Day Apart
Intervening Age
Fading Angel
Exquisite Divination of Patterns
Sirens of Maya
Knife of Karma

2nd Set
Rebuild From Memory
I Am But a Fledgling…
Expanse of Heart
Sumiregusa (Enya)

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Woodland Getaway, With Hawks

Vacation time! We spent a delightful week (entirely offline and unplugged) chilling in the Boulder Lake Campground, part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, in northern Wisconsin.

After the long drive up from Chicago, the last hour was a joy, winding along hilly roads through dense woodland. We could happily live here. Maybe someday…

The camp has hiking trails, a small lakeside beach that was really pleasant (before the crowds moved in), and squillions of trees. We tented, hiked, biked, swam, rested and campfired.

We didn’t take many photos in the forest, as there weren’t any remarkable features – and how many photos of just trees does one need? We did take more photos during two splendid days at the rapids on Wolf River, which we wish we’d discovered earlier.

Wolf River, Wisconsin

Wolf River’s rapids are popular with rafters, kayakers, canoeists and inner-tube riders. We liked the scene best on its own, sitting right at the water’s edge and cooling our feet. We also enjoyed a fine hike along one section of the river, through more forest.

Wolf River Rapids

We saw lots of big birds overhead, hawks and eagles. I got an exciting bit of musical inspiration one morning at the beach, when we saw four hawks circling in overlapping orbits. (I’d never seen more than one before.) That sighting (unfortunately, we couldn’t get a good photo) immediately sparked a musical idea, which I hope to include in a top-secret collaboration project. Failing that, I’ll solo it.

The only music I listened to was that playing in my mind all week, my favorite pastoral tunes from Eric Tingstad & Nancy Rumbel (Woodlands (w/ David Lanz) and Legends) and Will Ackerman (Returning and Sound of Wind-Driven Rain).

Wolf River Eddy

As nice as Boulder Lake park is, it was still too noisy at times, due to people who brought their noise with them. It’s no secret that most people are uncomfortable with quiet. In fact they’re terrified by it, and feel the need to shout it down. (What we have here is a failure to relax…)

So… our priority next summer will be a wilderness trip to Quetico Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario, and the nearby Boundary Waters in northeastern Minnesota, both old friends of Dasi’s from her Girl Scout days. Two weeks up there will probably make us allergic to Chicago, which is becoming intolerably noisy (thanks to its 1% mayor, O’Hare and the FAA). We’ll just chalk it up as more Relocation Motivation.

Next up: reports on my two performances in June and July, each with audio highlights and a photo or two. There is some cool news to report…. stay tuned!

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