12 October 2008

piano at Frogs' Leap

The Togdens enjoy music – greatly. We appreciate a broad range of music – and we all both listen and play. Caroline is rather more classically oriented. She’s especially fond of Bach and Minimalist pieces for piano – and takes piano lessons along with Robert and Ræchel.

Doc also plays on the piano – that is to say, he ‘plays on it’ rather than playing it. Doc has always enjoyed bumbling around on piano and improvising in a faux Keith Jarrett style. He can sound impressive if you know nothing of piano or Keith Jarrett.

Caroline, Robert and Ræchel are learning to play properly.

Robert recently went to London with Doc to be part of a performance at the St Johns’ Church – Smith Square.

It was the National Graduation Concert for Level 1 Piano.

He wore his evening tails—procured from eBay—and really looked the part – as did his piano student friend Robin.

He got his first piano certificate last year.

Robert prepared for the concert in earnest for some weeks and gave us a final dress rehearsal the evening before the great day.

He enjoys wearing his evening tails and gets the chance to wear them whenever we have performances on the final evenings of our Buddhist Retreats.

We will tell you more about that when we write something about the ‘Strings at Frogs’ Leap’.

Doc moves in phases in relation to music. He’s been an aficionado of Blues since the age of eight and although he’s moved through many other areas – Blues is perennial. He’s also keen on ‘Classical’ – although he’s not keen on having to use the word. The ‘Classical’ period ran from the mid 1700s to the early 1800s – but the term ‘Classical Music’ is now often employed as an umbrella term which includes everything from Early Music to Minimalism. The Classical period lies between Baroque and Romantic. The best known Classical composers are Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn (also Boccherini, Emanuel Bach, Muzio Clementi, Johann Dussek, Carl Gluck, and Christoph Gluck). Beethoven is also sometimes regarded as a composer of the Romantic period because he straddles the divide between Classical and Romantic. Other transitional composers are Franz Schubert, Luigi Cherubini, Carl Maria von Weber, and Johann Hummel. We imagine our friends are really keen to know all that . . .

Our apologies – but hey, you all know we’re obsessed with this kind of thing. It’s worth looking these composers up – as they wrote amazing music. We often feel that if people spent more time listening to music and playing music – there would be fewer problems in the world. We encourage all our students to take up a musical instrument – or at least to appreciate music as part of their Buddhist practice.

Both Caroline and Doc love the Bach ’cello suites and his Well Tempered Clavier. Bach is a Baroque composer. Doc—in some respects—sees JS Bach as 18th century Jazz – and if you listen to Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts you might be surprised by the similarities.

There’s a programme on British Broadcasting Corporation Radio 4 (that’s been running for decades) called Desert Island Discs. Different celebrities are invited weekly to choose 10 pieces of music and explain why they are the pieces they chose. We’ll give you our ‘Desert Island Discs’ at the end of this . . . write-up. We still can’t quite bring ourselves to use the term ‘blog’.

JS Bach would figure prominently in Doc and Caroline’s Desert Island collection – although Doc would have to have Blues in the mix. It is of course almost possible to combine Bach and Blues by listening to Cream play ‘Spoonful’ – because Jack Bruce plays counterpoint to Eric Clapton. No one seems to have played Blues anything like it since.

Ræchel would choose the Beatles.

So would Robert – but he’d add Blues – chiefly Cream and Jimi Hendrix. His father’s influence is showing. It was a proud moment for Doc when both Robert and Ræchel hummed the bass line for ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ for nearly 20 minutes in the car on the way back from a holiday in Cornwall. There can’t be many 12-year-old boys or 5-year-old girls outside Chicago who can sing that line perfectly. Robert also likes Chopin and Minimalist piano music, particularly Philip Glass, and Ræchel enjoys Mozart and Vivaldi.

Mozart is often the genius of choice – but we prefer Bach. Why Bach? Well Jack Bruce probably summed it up best when he remarked “Bach is my most important bass teacher.” Doc plays bass – a 1966 Gibson EB3 through a Marshall valve amplifier. He also plays National Resophonic guitars: Resolectric and Tricone – both 12-string models. Caroline chiefly plays piano at the moment – but has also played ’cello, and violin. We shall tell you about this at some point in the future when we tell you (more than you want to know) about our stringed instruments.

Caroline, Robert, and Ræchel all take piano lessons from Sue Bird who teaches piano according to the Suzuki method.

Dr Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese violinist, believed that musical ability lies in all children. He did not believe he was imposing a skill upon a child; he was, rather, guiding them to manifest what they already possessed. Suzuki music teaching is not about breeding musicians or inculcating skills in children. It is about the amazing results that can be achieved when understanding, sensitivity and discipline are brought together in a single field of study. Caroline, Robert, and Ræchel practise every day and Doc enjoys listening to them practise. They—in turn—enjoy listening to Doc practise on bass which is why they all know the bass line to ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’. Robert joins Doc for his monthly bass lessons.

We all sing and often we sing together in the car – all kinds of songs. Ræchel’s favourite song at the moment is the old Musical Hall number ‘A Mother’s Lament’ which Doc sings in a Cockney accent (as Cream sang it). Other favourites with Robert and Ræchel in the ‘long distance drive requests of Dad’ are: Sitting On Top of the World, Sixteen Tons, In My Time of Dying, Dixie, and Oh Lord Wontcha Buy Me a Mercedes Benz.

So . . . here are our ‘Desert Island Discs’ – but we’re bumping the number up to 11, as that is one of the important numbers in the Aro gTér Tradition of Buddhism – and . . . because it’s almost impossible to select so few examples of music we love. We might all have to be castaways together in order to have 44 between us . . .

Ræchel’s ‘Desert Island Discs’: 1. Back in the USSR—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—White Album; 2. Octopus’s Garden—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—White Album; 3. Yellow Submarine—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—Revolver; 4. Piggies—George Harrison—Beatles—White Album; 5. Rocky Racoon—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—White Album; 6. Penney Lane—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles; 7. Fool on the Hill—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—Magical Mystery Tour; 8. Hello Goodbye—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles; 9. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; 10. Mozart: Piano Concerto 22 in E flat; 11. Mozart: Piano Concerto 16 in D.

Robert’sDesert Island Discs’: 1. American National Anthem—Jimi Hendrix—Isle of Wight Festival—1970; 2. The Funeral March—Frédéric Chopin—Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor—Opus 35—3rd Movement – Marche Funèbre—1839; 3. Tomorrow Never Knows—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—Revolver—1968; 4. Purple Haze—Jimi Hendrix; 5. She Said, She Said—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—Revolver—1968; 6. Taxman—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—Revolver—1968; 7. Sitting On Top of the World—Traditional Blues—performed by Doc Togden; 8. Hey Jude—Lennon-McCartney—Beatles—Revolver—1968; 9. JS Bach—Minuet Number 2; 10. Born Under a Bad Sign—Cream—Wheels of Fire—1968; 11. Canon and Gigue in D major for three Violins and Basso Continuo —Johann Pachelbel.

Caroline’s ‘Desert Island Discs’: 1. Opening from ‘Glassworks’ by Philip Glass performed by Jeroen van Veen; 2. Gavotte from ‘Clavier suite in G minor’ by JS Bach performed by William Aide; 3. Variation 1 from the Goldberg variations by JS Bach performed by Angela Hewitt; 4. Prelude No 1 in C major by JS Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier performed by Angela Hewitt; 5. Big My Secret by Michael Nyman performed by Jeroen van Veen; 6. ’cello Concerto by Elgar performed by Jaqueline Du Prés; 7. Marche Pour la Cérémonie des Tures by JB Lully performed by Le Concert des Nations; 8. ‘The Picnic’ by Patrick Doyle composed for the film ‘Much Ado About Nothing’; 9. Weep You No More Sad Fountain’ (anonymous) performed by Jane Eaglen from the film ‘Sense and Sensibility’, music arranged by Patrick Doyle; 10. Ombre Mai Fu by Handel performed by Janet Baker; 11. Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten.

Doc’s ‘Desert Island Discs’: 1. Bach—’cello Suite Number 1 in G—performed by Pierre Fournier; 2. Spoonful—by Willie Dixon—performed by Cream—Wheels of Fire; 3. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier—Fugue Number 18 in G sharp minor—performed by Keith Jarrett; 4. Keith Jarrett—Tokyo 14th of November 1976—Sun Bear Concerts – Piano Solo; 5. Born Under a Bad Sign—by Willie Dixon—performed by Jimi Hendrix; 6. Hootchie Coochie Man—by Willie Dixon—performed by Muddy Waters; 7. I’m Only Sleeping—Lennon-McCartney—Revolver—Beatles—1968; 8. Crossroads—by Robert Johnson—performed by Robert Johnson; 9. Bob Dylan—Blind Willie McTell—Basement Tapes; 10. Emerald Tears— Emerald Tears—Dave Holland. 11. Elevation—Pharaoh Sanders.

10 October 2008

frogs at Frogs’ Leap . . . and the minor chords of rhyming

“Why frogs?”
some people ask. The short answer is “Why not?”

The long answer is extremely long – but briefly, it goes back to the first house that Doc remembers as a child. The street was called Frognel Crescent in an old part of Aldershot called Frognel. Then Doc moved to Frogmorton Street. The die was cast. Doc has lived in a number of different places and most he has given frog names – mainly ‘Frog Hollow’ from a Frank Zappa reference to ‘Frog Hollow Day Camp’.

Robert and Ræchel love frogs. There are a fair few in the garden – being as we have a frog pond.

We gathered frogspawn from a friend’s pond every three for four years and now they have settled. With all the rain we have had this Summer—and throughout the year in Wales—the frogs have thriven. We sometimes hear the croaking which Ræchel finds delightful. Robert and Ræchel opened the front door a few weeks back and found a frog sitting on the doorstep.

We couldn’t work out how it had got there unless it had made its way through the garage from the back of the house – but it may just have been so wet that it made its way here from the park. Robert carefully took hold of the frog and took it to the pond where it sat looking around for a while before it swam away. Ræchel was extremely excited about seeing the frog and looks for them in the garden every day.

Knowing of our predilection for amphibia various friends have presented us with frogs in various forms as birthday and Yuletide gifts – and so now the house and garden boasts a variety of frogs large and small. We have ornamental plates, candle holders, and paintings.

Doc’s mother joined in the fun – as did Caroline’s mother and father and so frogs have proliferated to the point where we had to request people to desist a little for fear of becoming a theme park. Jeremy Fischer—a wood carver—made us a large wooden frog designed to sit in the garden.

It has not weathered well—in fact it cracked quite quickly—so Robert decided it would be a good idea to let plants grow through it. He spent an entire afternoon packing the crack with earth in order that he could plant ‘baby’s breath’ in the fissure. It should end up looking vaguely surreal.

The most unusual frog dates back to 1974 when Doc was at Bristol Art School. It is a bronze sculpture of two embracing frogs – and it now sits in the front downstairs window.

It is not the original statue (the three he made were sold in order to fund Doc’s second sojourn in the Himalayas) but one which was cast in Montana from the original fibreglass model. It began life as a clay statue that was plaster-cast. The second stage was the fibreglass resin model which Doc’s brother Græham owned for many years. The fibreglass model took a tumble and broke in half. We wondered for a while how we were going to fix it – but Heidi Schæfer in Montana came to our rescue. She worked for a time in a bronze foundry where she was able to produce a number of ‘Frogs in Amplexus’ statues – so now there are frog statues dotted around the world: Montana, California, Britain, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Finland.

As you will see . . . the frogs are not exactly naturalistic. Doc created them originally as an illustration for poetry which contained emblematic frogs.

The frogs of the poetry were depicted as surreal aspects of perception.

Being amphibians – they live in two worlds (the aquatic world and the other one) so this statue is supposed to depict that in terms of how human beings can also live in two worlds – the world of ordinary every day experience and . . . the other one.

Doc’s 1970s frog poetry is now lost – so it is not possible to say much more than this.

So . . . why Frogs’ Leap?

Well that is easy to explain – Frogs’ Leap is up the hill from where we used to live in Frog Hollow. There’s also a rather splendid Californian wine called Frog’s Leap – so we just moved the apostrophe to indicate that more than one frog had made the leap.

The four frogs—Caroline, Doc, Robert and Ræchel—leapt up the hill to their current domicile. As you can see – we take whimsy seriously at Frogs’ Leap.

Whimsy often takes hard work and effort if you want to make it work well. Robert enjoys making parodies of songs – and we have shown him how to approach that skill in the correct manner i.e. remembering that the lines have to scan. Robert is now quite critical of material that scans poorly.

We introduced him to assonance too. He was unsure of assonance at first. He felt that it wasn’t good not to have a ‘proper rhyme’. We explained “Assonance isn’t just the failure to find a rhyme – it’s necessary to have some assonance in any song in order to stop it sounding sugary. Robert considered that idea and said “I still prefer proper rhymes.” We tried a guitar playing angle. “You could look at assonance as the minor chords of rhyming.”

Robert was still dubious. The point that convinced him was when we said that Jimi Hendrix used assonance and showed him an example. “Ah . . .” he said “It must be alright then.” Isn’t it marvellous to live in an age where Jimi Hendrix is a major authority figure.

The painting of Jimi Hendrix was taken from a poster in 1968. It was painted in oil paint—diluted with turpentine—on photographic linen. The painting itself is lost – but this photograph remains. It was provided by Reg Clark – an old Art School friend.

15 September 2008

this is where we live

This is the front door sign on our house in Penarth. It seems to make people smile – which is part of the idea behind placing it there.

On the garage door there is an iron frog which appears to cause much delight to children. A brilliantly florally clad Grandmother—taking her granddaughter to school—accosted Caroline as she took out the recycling bags. She asked whether we would be replacing the iron frog on the garage door – because her granddaughter loved seeing it on the way to school and was a little upset that it had disappeared. The iron frog had temporarily been removed in order that Doc could give it a coating of rust converter. The poor little girl was a little tearsome – but once Caroline had told her it would be back in a day she beamed a radiant smile.

It is extraordinary how it is often the small things a person does that have an effect on others. The little girl’s reaction made us consider how important it can be simply to smile at people in the street – or to wish someone a merry ‘Good Morrow’. The garage doors hide the family bicycles and an assortment of deck chairs, seaside buckets and spades, tools, tins of paint, and an ancient double porringer. Ours is a small Georgian house built in 1849 – the year of the California Gold Rush.

There’s a house next door that may or may not have been part of our house – or ours part of theirs. We can’t quite see how the arrangement would have worked – but that’s what people say. When we first moved in, an elderly lady down the street told us that our front room was a sweet shop 80 years go. That would be 90 years ago in 2008. That is why our front downstairs window has no moulding around it. The window was enlarged and lowered so as to make it possible to sell confectionary and ice-cream through the window. It’s splendid to know these things about our house and delightful; to remember that no matter how much at home we feel here – we are simply passing through. If you look carefully you may be able to discern Caroline looking though the front window. One day—when we’re dead—someone will wonder about the previous occupiers and how various things came to be. There are a set of three cupboard doors under the stairs.

There was only one door when we moved in and it led to a darksome hole full of dust and small scale rubble. Now there are three doors with illuminated interiors. The small door nearest the floor opens up the shoe cupboard. That is where Caroline keeps her paddock boots – and her ‘Lady Balmoral’ boots.

Doc regrets that Grenson never made a ‘Lord Balmoral’ but he is happy to have pair of brown Oxfords which are dimly visible in the shoe cupboard. They are over 20 years old now – but promise to outlive him.

The large cupboard contains the vacuum cleaner (known affectionately as J Edgar) and all manner of cleaning materials. The small upper door is an act of lunacy. It came into being because the only replacement door we could find for the old broom cupboard door was two inches too short. It was a lovely little door and we didn’t want to cut down a larger (and more expensive) one. This gave us the idea of building a cupboard into the topmost section under the stairs. No one in their right mind would create a cupboard into which the stairs intruded – but that is exactly what we did.

The inside is now sanded and waxed and provides us with a shoe-polishing necessities cupboard, with a set of brass hooks for polishing brushes neatly laid out along the angle of a stair. Someone is going to wonder how that came to be – and it is pleasant to think that some future occupier might be pleased by it.

Being part of history—even an invisible insubstantial part of history—is something we can offer the world. If we care for our home—if we expend effort with ingenuity and imagination, someone else will receive the benefit of it. That is a cheering thought. A home is not merely for its temporary inhabitants. We’re happy that Robert and Ræchel like their home. Robert likes all the wood and white paint. Someone asked us—very diplomatically—whether we realised that stripped wood and white paint were démodé. We smiled. Given 100 years it’ll be de rigueur again. Who knows, it might be high fashion before we die. We enjoy being in our home. It’s full of old family heirlooms. The carpets were inherited from Gisela Kastning, Doc’s German Godmother. She had a collection of carpets from Kurdistan and Turkistan which passed down to us on her sad demise last year. Gisela Kastning was a wonderful old lady who was an ardent walker right up into her 80s. The chairs come from both sides of the family. We even have some old chairs from Doc’s German grandparents. It is pleasant to think that they could pass down the generations. They will need work from time to time – but as long as no one decides fashion is more important than history they could last into the next century.

Here is a drawing by Ræchel. It is of Robert sitting in one of the old family armchairs. His strange leg arrangement depicts Robert with his legs crossed and if you imagine him in an armchair (not shown in the drawing) his leg arrangement becomes more-or-less evident. The colours on the line drawing were added with Photoshop at Raechel’s request. She selected the colours and Doc hit the ‘paintbucket’ on the selected area.

07 March 2008

good in every thing

Before Ræchel was born we used to go to Stratford once a year to see a Shakespeare play. We are both extremely fond of Shakespeare and once Ræchel is old enough to stay with friends for the night – we shall take Robert. He has already seen Macbeth performed at Cardiff Castle and had great fun with a few of the actors during the interval who showed him how to wield a sword.

Several Lamas we have known have quoted Shakespeare – especially ‘to sleep perchance to dream’ – in the context of death and what lies beyond. Hamlet (III, i, 65-68) We are often delighted to find quotes from Shakespeare – particularly because they remain so apt. The idea of ‘good in everything’ is fundamental to being happy. We find it preferable to always see the good in everything rather than finding fault or error. To find ‘. . . tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing’ makes a pleasure of life and a pleasure in observing the lives of those we know and love. That’s as we like it and the quote is from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, hath not old custom made this life more sweet than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, the seasons’ difference; as, the icy fang and churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, which, when it bites and blows upon my body, even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors that feelingly persuade me what I am.’ Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head; and this our life exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing. I would not change it.
William Shakespeare—As You Like It (II, i, Duke Senior to Amiens and other Lords)

We look forward to Ræchel being able to ride with us when we are in Montana with our students in the Aro Valley. Getting out into the wilderness is wonderful – and since Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche indicated that the Northwest of Montana was a ‘Hidden Land of Padmasambhava’ we have spent some marvellous times there. Robert loves Montana and is always keen to return.

Montana is a place where finding ‘. . . tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing’ seems natural. These opportunities are not lacking in Britain – but the scale is different and it is not quite so easy to disappear into uncharted territory. We have a wealth of memories of Montana – especially of Robert and Ræchel and the enormous enjoyment they have experienced there engaged in the simplest of activities. Robert enjoys helping with burning the slash when weather permits fires. There is always slash to clear in the Aro Valley and a hard day’s work prepares us for pizza in the evening. Robert is now riding Captain who was Doc’s old horse. Captain is too old for adult riders – but is still keen to canter with Robert on his back. Captain is not happy being left behind when the other herd members ride out and so it is heart-warming to see how happy he is with Robert. Ræchel loves being around the horses and is always delighted to be pulled up for a short ride. She sometimes lies on top of one of the horses and goes to sleep whilst we’re grooming.

‘. . . books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing’ offers a reflection of the Dzogchen teachings of the Buddhist tradition we teach—the Aro gTér—which was the visionary revelation of Aro Lingma. The good in everything is essential to leading a happy life – and to real concern for the welfare of others. We are always encouraged by the kindness we find in others and especially those who live closer to nature. Being able to appreciate the world as it is, is the essence of our tradition and probably every other religion – and it is something that enables people to communicate across whatever divide appears to separate them. We have some good friends amongst the local folk in Montana and horses provide an almost endless subject of conversation.

The ‘. . . sermons in stones, and good in every thing’ becomes apparent when riding silently through the trees and when stopping to let the horses eat grass. Learning to be with horses and understanding their view of existence is an unspoken lesson in how to live – and we often feel that it is a pity that more people cannot spend time with animals. There is something simple and direct about animals that demands a simple direct warm-hearted approach.