La Belle et La Bete (1946)

There’s a tension that exists between natural and artificial order.  You can be creative by playing that tension as if it was a tuned string.  If you continue to play, you will undergo a transformation that unifies art and nature.  You merge with everything.  I don’t understand it entirely, but I’ve been trying to find ways to facilitate the process.

The Seattle Symphony came to my little town for a concert.  World-class orchestras play at a very high level of expertise.  They consist of performers who have trained and practiced for many years, and they come from all over the world to be a part of these organizations.  When a great orchestra plays, it’s as note-perfect as the best movie soundtrack you’ve ever heard in IMAX with Dolby Surround – but it’s more exciting.  It’s live.  The conductor is channeling the energy and attention of the thousand people watching and listening.  He combines it with his own feelings about the music.  The energy passes through his hands, directing and shaping the dynamics of how the orchestra plays.  A meaningful story beyond the expression of words passes back and forth between the audience and the performers.

The template for this sharing is the music itself.  The main grand work for the evening was Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, written in 1893.  It’s a very popular work in the Romantic tradition, and it continues to inspire current composers.  Here’s a bit from the fourth movement.

We sat close enough for the loud parts to make my sternum vibrate in resonance.  A full orchestra playing as loud as an airplane taking off still won’t damage your hearing, because the individual instruments are (except for some percussion) made of organic materials.  It’s natural frequency vibration, like the symphonies created by wild weather and oceans.

We got together on Independence Day with a group of neighbors.  One of their houses was in sight of several fireworks displays.  Fireworks on the Fourth close the circle of history.  The beginning point may be viewed as an armed revolution against a tyrannical king, but it’s also the intentional separation of all children from parents in order to establish an independent adult life.  At the end of the cycle, you get to sit together and view the explosive power of these past passionate conflicts with joy, OO-ing and AH-ing over the colors and loud noises.

After the fireworks, our host took me around the house to see his collection of tribal masks.  My favorite was a transformation mask of Raven, a key character in the teaching stories of those who have lived here longest. Raven is the original organizer, playing roles of trickster, transformer, teacher, catalyst and chief spirit. He is also a relentless schemer and practical joker, lustful, impulsive, cunning, shameless and without remorse.

Raven could transform himself into anything at any time.  He could live in the sea, ascend into the sky, and make things happen by willing them into being.  His antics were often motivated by greed and he loved to tease, cheat, woo and trick.  All too often, the tables turn on the hapless, impatient Raven.  Is any of this behavior sounding familiar?

Transformation masks are used in dances symbolizing the truth that we project our own egos onto the other animals.  Our understanding of them is limited to our own context, and encased in our concepts of motives and behavior.  When we strip away their external form, we find ourselves. The external aspect of the creature is a darkly painted raven, with nostrils and mouth outlined in bright red paint. The masked dancer swings his head from one side to the other as the Raven’s face is thrown open to reveal the mask inside, the face of a man.

Raven was always able to become me.  I’m trying to reverse-engineer that kind of transformation.  I want to break out from this slow costume of human flesh, so I can fly as freely as my thoughts and dreams.


Filed under Music, photos, symbolism

20 responses to “Shapeshifting

  1. You covered a lot of ground in this post! From symphonies to fireworks to transformation masks to your own liberation–I’m impressed. I have to go back and read this again to see how you did that. Very smooth. Wow.

  2. Hi, Mikey — seems ages since you posted. Instead of reading this with my morning tea, I got so interested in it that I forgot to pour it and so am now drinking very strong, over-brewed tea. (I’ll let you off this time.)

    This made me think: “…as the Raven’s face is thrown open to reveal the mask inside, the face of a man.”

    At first, I thought you meant that the actual person’s face was revealed (it still being a ‘mask’), then I saw the picture and realised an actual, second, mask is revealed. But still symbolic of my first understanding? Or do I just need more tea?

    Beautifully written, too.

    Btw – due to my own utter stupidity (I won’t bore you with the details), your blogroll link to my blog no longer works. This is the new URL you need:

    • Thanks, Deborah. I’ll fix the link. I’m quite fascinated by the masks myself. As you say, the whole revelation procedure continues the mystery. Is the human beneath the animal us, or the us we might become? Is it the concept of humanity as imagined by animals looking back at us? Sometimes there’s even a THIRD mask level. If I had the skill I would make a cross that opens to reveal a six-point star, that opens to reveal a lotus, that opens to reveal a mirror.

      • It’s so interesting to think about, isn’t it? Your cross/six-point star/lotus/mirror could be an artwork in the form of sculpture or some clever bod could work it up as a computer graphic. Fascinating. No need to reply – just thinking aloud.

        • I’m with Deborah on this one. Your cross/six-point star/lotus/mirror conjured up an image for me quite easily. If I thought I could do it, I would make that piece of art. For the moment, though, it can stay in my head and make me happy.

      • Thanks, Pie. Most of my art, at about a six-to-one ratio, remains on permanent display inside my head.

  3. I am a huge fan of your writing skills. Words just flow. Superb. Makes up for all the days you did not post.

    • Thank you, Sayali. I had a lot of projects to attend to that weren’t very interesting to write about, and I also believe in not doing it until it’s knocking at my brain to emerge.

      (I don’t remember if I gave sayali611 a “gift basket”, so just in case – This young woman has a unique way of employing a standard premise for her site. She’s writing reminiscences of past persona and events that furthered her process of current understanding, but she chooses beautiful images, photographically and in text, to carry us along on her journey:

      I was just plain blown away by your post about the man on the road weeping over his loved one who had died. So powerful.

  4. lifewith4cats

    In the beginning of this post it sounded as though you were describing magic. That (invisible, yet it exists) thing which occurs at a well executed concert or performance. It makes me rather envy the players for while I see it only occasionally, they get to swim and breathe in it. Does this even make sense? I think you know what I mean. 🙂

    That mask is cool, and your desire is commendable. You already are a shapeshifter.

    • Yes, it makes sense, and I’m glad you understood it because it’s not an easy energy to describe. We in the audience get to swim in and breathe the magic in some ways more than the players do. There are over 100 of them and as with a pro sports team there are stars and divas and huge egos involved, not to mention the hundreds of hours of grueling practice on each piece to be performed. The time they are getting along best and not fighting is during the actual concert.

      Thank you for the compliment! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for answering a question that has been floating in my mind with this > “A full orchestra playing as loud as an airplane taking off still won’t damage your hearing, because the individual instruments are (except for some percussion) made of organic materials. It’s natural frequency vibration, like the symphonies created by wild weather and oceans.”

    I describe it like this > “Unceasing gratitude for nature’s raucous quietude.” Nature is so loud yet it doesn’t bother me like the incessant base from acid rock played by our neighbor. Now I know why. Thank you.

    I agree with Galen, the way you moved from one realm to another in this article was seamless! I think you will be shapeshifting in no time!

    • Hi, Sandra! It was quicker to make that statement about resonance and acoustic instruments than to go into a long explanation of waveforms. All matter vibrates and has frequency. The frequencies our bodies are vibrating at are closer to the frequencies of cells in organic material like wood. Electrical amplification produces waves at a very different frequency. Combine that with high amplitude (volume) and it destroys the cells we use for hearing.

  6. Hi Mikey,
    I’m admiring your writing and “weaving” skills once again. The mythlogy and symbolism of Raven is rich and varied. You have written of the teasing trickster qualities that overlap with those of Coyote (shapeshifter) but Ravens are also humanitarians in some First Nations legends. The most common legend in thse parts is how Raven’s feathers changed from white to black when he stole the light of the sun, the moon and stars.

    Jung used Raven symbolism to represent the shadow self. By recognizing our dark side, we can communicate with both halves of ourselves, which leads to liberating balance, and facilitates wisdom.

    Love and peace,

    • Thank you for advancing my understanding of Raven (the character, and the symbol), TiTi. I love knowing better how to place myth, culture and ritual within psychological paradigms!

  7. I’ve been DYING to see a full orchestral performance live. The last thing remotely close was when I saw Yanni in concert in 2005. This sounds like it was phenomenal. Nothing like “feeling” the music eh? as for fireworks, this was actually the first year I didn’t see fireworks. Not for not trying, but we were getting eaten alive by fire ants, so we opted for a pain free night at home instead… And the masks… WOW incredible, love that description. You know what’s funny? I always thought of every person as some level of a mask wearing “chameleon” we all have so many facets of us, and accepting that brings you one step further in a progressive life. IMO anyways. 🙂 Great post, as always!


    • Yanni’s not a bad start, because he does compose for a kind of amplified chamber orchestra. The big limitation is that his group would only be playing Yanni. Symphony orchestra concerts might offer works by as many as 8 different composers, and each concert is different. The one I wrote about also presented pieces by Schubert, Phillip Glass and Seattle Symp’s composer-in-residence. Glad you enjoyed the post, K.

      • Ya Yanni is my hero. He’s the reason I started playing piano by ear. Listening to his music, One of my first pieces was a medley of some of his most famous songs. His group just speaks to my heart. I would love to hear a symphony orchestra most definitely. I LOVE Phillip Glass! There’s something about that full sound that just takes you away from the world. That’s how I like my music, to be completely immersed in it. 🙂

  8. Just looking at your top picture made me think of the Lion from the Wizard of Oz and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman.

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