Travelling mindfully is like making a violin

Do you approach travel with excitement or trepidation? How do you find calm amidst the excitement? And importantly, how do you balance these to get the most out of travel, and out of life more generally? It seems to me, that to get the most out of our travel, we need to be:

  • responsive to our environment,
  • aware of our surroundings, and
  • calm within ourselves.

How we achieve a balance between these aspects can influence how we experience our travel.

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As a musician and luthier, I find that these aspects can easily be applied to violin making. For a violin to have good tone, it must be responsive, both to the inputs from the strings but also to the environment. And at the same time, in order to produce a good well-rounded tone, there must be a harmony between the responsive parts and the calm parts of each plate of the sound box. Examining this is a bit like reading the Chladni patterns on a violin plate, showing how harmoniously it vibrates in response to excitement.

violin purfling

Between travels, I have been making a violin – my second – and some people have asked me what I do to make a violin have a good sound. As with my first, I have tried to take time to tune each plate so that it is responsive across a range of frequencies. Every piece of wood is different, after all, it is an organic material that has grown in its own environment and has been subject to unique weather patterns, and cycles between winter and summer, resulting in unique growth patterns (the same applies to people too!). For that reason, you can’t just measure a Stradivarius violin and machine the timbers of a new one to exactly the same thickness across each plate and expect a Stradivarius violin to emerge. I think there is both an art and a science to it.

violin shaping

It is possible to measure the responsiveness of a violin plate at different frequencies, but perhaps more importantly, we need to be able to see where the plate is responsive, and where it is not. Any block of wood can be tuned like a xylophone block to ring to a particular note, but it is the pattern of vibration that provides the tone.

I use a fairly crude means to do this, but it seems to work. I suspend the plate I’m working on over an amplifier/speaker – in this case, a 15W Roland Cube amp placed so that the speaker faces upward. I set the plate on a couple of pieces of foam polystyrene over the speaker. I then use a tone generator on my phone (yes there’s an app for that!) and play tones smoothly rising from 10 beats per second (10 Hertz) up to 1000 Hertz.

So how do I see the vibration patterns? I take a tea bag – actually, any lightweight powder will do – you could use poppy seeds or dark sawdust too – and sprinkle a random pattern evenly over the plate. Then I play tones gradually rising in frequency. At different frequencies, the tea leaves will bounce and move where the plate is responsive, and they will stay still where the plate is not responding. In this case, the plate responds to its resonant frequency, which is 190 Hertz – which falls between F# and G. This is good because it means it won’t ring out suddenly when a properly tuned note is played.

violin chladni1

Initially, the patterns are thick and often unbalanced. I then take a photo, and draw with chalk lightly around where the tea leaves are settled, and gently remove shavings of wood, a little at a time, with a scraper from within the chalked area. Then I re-sprinkle the tea leaves and repeat the process until I have a nice pattern – like a frown and moustache – that are well balanced and have a nice form. Every plate is different and varies in density, but the patterns shouldn’t have gaps or wild inconsistencies. The technical term for these patterns is Chladni patterns, named for Ernst Chladni, who first visualised the patterns. The tea leaves collect where there is no vibration – these areas are called ‘nodes’. Where the vibration is greatest, these are called ‘anti-nodes’.

violin chladni2

Just as when we travel we seek a balance between periods of excitement and periods of calm, so too we need a nice balance between the nodes and the anti-nodes. There will be changes, of course, to these vibration patterns when the violin is assembled as against being a free plate, but I work on the basis that if each part is tuned well, then it will also work well collectively when it is assembled.

Again, the same is true of people – if each member of a group is well attuned, the group itself will perform well. This is why emotional intelligence is so important to good group dynamics. Conversely, if one part of the group is not emotionally aware, the whole tone of the group, or the tour, or the holiday can be dampened. I hope your ‘Chladni’ patterns are nicely formed too!

Okay, I drew a long bow here, but while this post tells you something about violin making, it also shows how different aspects of our lives can be seen metaphorically to apply to one’s whole philosophical approach to life. All things are connected in their way, and find resonance in unexpected places.

 

 

Melbourne – Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition

The view through the water wall at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia is reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. The light refracts in strange ways and distorts the image of the people and the traffic outside. I was here to see the exhibition: Van Gogh and the Seasons, so the image I captured as I entered the gallery was remarkably appropriate.

Water wall NGV

Life often seems to run in cycles or circles, just as the seasons return in sequence year after year. This exhibition links Van Gogh’s life’s work to the seasons. Nature was something of a preoccupation since the Romantic movement, and the exhibition begins with etchings and prints from other artists showing how they were representing the seasons, nature and farm workers. Then we encounter a series of Japanese prints which seem to be echoed in Van Gogh’s style where he painted with heavy outlines and filled in the forms.

Autumn/Fall

In October 1884, Van Gogh painted Avenue of Poplars in Autumn at Nuenen in the Netherlands. The sombre mood of the autumn trees is reflected by the lone woman walking the otherwise deserted road, dressed in mourning clothes. The shadows of the trees seem to reach for her as she seems about to cross a threshold marking her exit from the farm or village.

Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June/July of that year describing his approach to painting the different light of the seasons:

“…I think Summer is not easy to express; generally, at least often, a summer effect is either impossible or ugly, at least I think so, but then, as opposition, there is twilight…

Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.”

Avenue of poplars in Autumn

His Autumn Landscape at Dusk painted a year later is more nuanced in his treatment of light. He wrote to his brother of his admiration for those who can paint darkness while observing that even in the lowest light there are still hints of things going on to maintain interest in the mystery:

“…it’s perhaps not superfluous to point out how one of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century has been the painting of darkness that is still colour.” – Van Gogh letters 21 Apr 1885

I found myself drawn into this painting, led by the path and the leading lines of the trees into the pool of orange and yellow that indicated the last fading light of sunset, following the footsteps of the woman returning to the village. I have learned a lot about photographic composition by noting the devices used by painters through the centuries. Here the horizon is placed about one-third from the bottom, and the path one-third from the left. The subject woman is backlit, providing an outline of her form which helps to draw us on in her direction.

Autumn Landscape at Dusk

These two paintings of Autumn – each with a path through the trees and a lone woman – illustrate that, on revisiting the subject, Van Gogh had developed further in his style, and produced arguably a stronger painting as a result. Here, in the second painting, he tantalises us with hints of things happening in the darkness – darkness that is still colour. And in Van Gogh’s life, even at his darkest hours, there was still some light, some colour.

But the cycles of life, like the seasons, never quite return the same. It is less a like a circle; more like a spiral. Some call this the hermeneutic spiral, in which we seem to return, yet we have moved on in our lives; we are older, we know more, we have more experience. It is one reason that people often return to a place they have travelled to, and in that return, the place is subtly different, or our approach to it is different. And we notice different things from the last time.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus talks about this process when he says that we cannot step into the same river twice – time, like the waters of a river, moves on. Our experience of a place is altered by the very fact of seeing it again – we see it with fresh eyes.

Winter

The 1880s were a time of transition for art, and the growing fashion in the Netherlands – notably the Hague School – was focussed on outdoor painting and capturing a mood rather than bright colour. I loved the simplicity captured in this sketch of a woman digging in the snow. A few lines were sufficient to convey the back-breaking work and the stoic determination to maintain a meagre living in the depths of winter.

Woman with a fork in a Winter landscape

The sketch below is called: Sketch of miners in the snow: Winter and was one of a couple of “small rough sketches” he sent to Theo. It certainly didn’t look too rough to me!

Sketch of miners in the snow

Spring

I loved Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of the View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer as it depicts a town quite similar to several towns we passed through on our Camino in Spain. The town here is about 50kms from Arles in the south of France – and in those days it was a five-hour horse coach ride to reach it. The town is in the Carmargue region, famous for its marshes and particular breed of horses. The town is on the Mediterranean. This visit served to cement his decision to stay in the south of France. I found the painting interesting for four reasons: Firstly, the bold use of monolithic blocks of colour – and the towns in that area actually do strike you like that. Secondly, the composition with the horizon on the Golden mean. Thirdly the cool-warm contrast between the rooflines and the sky and between the town and the blue-purple of the rows of flax plants and possibly grape vines in the foreground. Fourthly, I looked closely at the brush strokes and found that it appears that Van Gogh was left-handed – although there are no direct references to that, and Cezanne himself depicted Van Gogh with a brush in his right hand. But if you look closely at the brush strokes on the flax rows, they appear to be flicking up from right to left, rather than the other way round. I saw similar right-to-left markings in the way he cross-hatched his trees in other drawings.

View of Saintes Maries de la mer

Summer

In the summer of 1888, when Van Gogh had moved to Arles for one of his most productive periods, he painted a series on wheatfields and haystacks. This Farmhouse in Provence shows something of the intensity of light that he was able to capture. In this period he often mixed the colours straight on the canvas, giving the paint a vibrancy as the pigments are mostly unmixed, so they almost shine with their own light.

Farmhouse in Provence

And yes the local stone actually does have a pinkish hue – it is a volcanic rock used in many of the local buildings in that area. I am constantly amazed by the accuracy of Van Gogh’s eye for light and for accurate drafting. In many cases you can go to the same spot and easily identify the same buildings today – I did a series of ‘then and now’ photos in Arles that I’ll discuss in a later post. Of the flowers, Van Gogh wrote:

“I know very well that not a single flower was drawn, that they’re just little licks of colour, red, yellow, orange, green. blue, violet, but the impression of those colours against one another is nonetheless there in the painting as it is in nature.” – letter Van Gogh to his sister Willemien 31 Jul 1888

One of the most striking paintings is A Wheatfield with Cypresses which contrasts the golden wheat with the deep green of the cypress trees – planted as a wind break against the strong dry Mistral wind that blows off the mountains – and then the blue of the distant hills. This one was painted in September 1889 at Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh stayed at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. This painting, so full of life and vigour, was painted just a year before his suicide. Somehow, in the turbulence of the clouds and waving cypress trees he depicts something of the turbulence and violence of the Mistral wind and perhaps reflects something of the turbulence in his mind at that time.

A Wheatfield with Cypresses

So Van Gogh’s life, like our own can be seen like the cycle of the seasons. Travel too, can be seen in this light – and like Heraclitus says – we never truly return to the same place.

The same is also true of our return home after we have travelled. Suddenly, we see our own place in a new light, we notice new things about it, and perhaps question or seek to change things in light of our travel. There may be no place like home, but there is especially no place like home when we have informed our experience of it through mindful travel.

I travelled to Melbourne quite specifically to see this exhibition – and was not disappointed – even having seen the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and several of his works in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Many of the paintings displayed were from private collections and this would be one of the very few public showings. With around 60 works it is well worth seeing. The Van Gogh and the Seasons exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, runs until 9 July this year.

[NB: I was fortunate that since most of the paintings had come from French museums, hand-held non-commercial photography was permitted – so the photos I’ve included here are ones I’ve taken at the exhibition.]

 

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Reflection in an age of mass distraction

We are marinating in information and distractive technologies. I noticed recently that I check my phone quite regularly from the time I wake up until the moment my head hits the pillow – just after I’ve plugged the phone into the charger. I do occasionally make actual phone calls, but mostly, the phone functions as a universal information device. It is the camera I have with me – as well as the computer on which I process some images. It enables me to upload those images to social media.

Sunlight through trees

The phone is my instrument tuner – whether at practice or concerts. It also generates tones for tuning the plates when making instruments, and it is a decibel meter for loud places, and a recording device to improve my music practice and to record soundscapes – an image of another kind.

The phone gives me a data-rich means to monitor my fitness and provides feedback on progress towards my health goals. It is the GPS to guide me from place to place. It is the universal translator for travel overseas, and helps me reach my language learning goals.

Its library catalogue helps me avoid buying duplicates in bookshops (it wasn’t always the case) and it is a universal look-up and research tool – particularly when in wifi range. It is a travel blogging tool (with a small bluetooth keyboard), and it keeps my ebooks handy for a good read over coffee.

I watch a little TV in the evenings, but spend more time on the internet. I enjoy social media – it keeps me in touch with real friends and family near and far, and they – with the members of photo interest groups – provide (mostly) constructive feedback on my photos, and a reading list (blogs/zines/static sites) to help me follow my interests.

So I have a data-rich life, but how does that affect my ability to reflect? I thought to reflect on this when I read an article – encountered via social media – in the New York Times, titled “The End of Reflection” in which Teddy Wayne makes the following observation:

“There are many moments throughout my average day that, lacking print reading material in a previous era, were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings: walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up.

Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone to check a notification, browse and read the internet, text, use an app or listen to audio (or, on rare occasions, engage in an old-fashioned “telephone call”). The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower.”

For me, that ‘last place’ is probably on my morning photowalks that masquerade as a fitness regime – walking 5-10km per day in the near countryside among the trees and kangaroos and birdlife around our national arboretum (yes we have a tree museum in Canberra(!)). The phone accompanies me on these walks, but is rarely used other than to monitor my distance travelled. I do stop to smell the lavender, and I observe the wildlife as it observes me.

kangaroo

kangaroo

For many, the device is all-absorbing, and part of a culture of instant gratification – indeed I still see a disturbing number of drivers texting while driving, or at least while stopped at traffic lights (haven’t they heard of Siri/hands-free?). I take a perverse delight when I see someone texting in the car behind at the lights, in taking off smartly when the lights change, leaving the hapless texter exposed with a queue of cars behind them waiting for him or her to notice the lights have changed.

As I contemplate undertaking the pilgrimage walk of the Camino de Santiago, I see people advising others to ‘leave the phone and camera at home’ as though they worry that somehow they won’t experience the Camino, but instead will have their noses in their devices all the way. But of course, it is more complex than that. I understand that it is important to ‘disconnect’ from the day-to-day world of the office or the hurley-burley of modern life… but… like it or not, we are a technological society.

Walking in solitude

Walking in solitude

I would have missed much of what I observe today if not for a camera. The camera has taught me to observe, to consider the nature of form, of contrasts light/dark, cool/warm, how light plays on the water. Am I not observing nature when I consider how best to take a photo of frost on red and green leaves? Am I not observing nature in marvelling at the texture of light at dawn and play of rays through the morning mist.  I don’t look at life through a camera lens, but I do set out to capture for later recollection those wonders I see with my own eyes.

Leaves with frost

Leaves with frost

For those who think that carrying a device means being less authentic, consider that the early travellers and pilgrims carried books for reading and sketchbooks for capturing those scenes that caused them to stop at the dew on a branch, or a sudden view of a lake or ruined castle.

By all means take the device, but I think it is important to keep it in perspective – the device is secondary to the experience, but it can enrich that experience enormously.