Contemporary religious author, Karen Armstrong, writer of the recent best-selling book for Knopf Publishing, “A Case for God,” and 2009 TEDPrize winner, tells us that authentic spirituality is an embrace of the unknowable. I take this a step further, and say that living an authentic life is to strive to live up to our highest ethical potentials despite the knowledge that we will fail in this quest. I found the words to express this sentiment while watching an absolutely wonderful film, the Alexander Korda 1940 production of “The Thief of Baghdad.” You will recognize its unique color quality if you are familiar with the work of English directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger whose classic films include “The Red Shoes,” and “Black Narcissus.” Powell is one of the directors of “The Thief.” This is a great movie to watch with the kids. Though the effects are primitive, the emotional impact makes “Avatar” seem cheap. I found the words to express the sentiment I was looking for in this great scene. To truly live is to embrace of the beauty of the impossible.

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newjoeI read in the New York Times today that Joe Maneri, an experimental musician, died on Monday at the age of 82. Though I only met Joe a few times, he taught me a wonderful, enduring life lesson.

In 1979, at 24 years of age, I decided to retire for the first time. I had been working 20 hour days at A and R Recording Studios  since I was 16. I was finishing up a year-long stint working on the film, “All That Jazz.” As anybody who has worked with director/choreographer Bob Fosse would tell you, after one of his projects you needed an extended break. Besides, I wanted to take some time to “woodshed.” That is a phrase musicians use that means to return to learning. I had never studied theory in depth, and as I wanted to be a producer, I thought it best if I got my chops together. I asked Emile Charlap, a lovely man who was the premier contractor in those days – he knew everybody in town – if he could recommend a teacher. He turned me on to this cat, Alan Grigg.

Grigg was a devotee of the Arnold Schoenberg school of harmony. Though Schoenberg was notorious for having destroyed western music through his innovations in atonality and the invention of 12-tone music, he was profoundly grounded in conventional harmony. Not only was he the world’s greatest modern composer but he was also a genius theoretician and teacher. Grigg was a direct descendent of the Schoenberg didactic line. Schoenberg taught Berg, Berg taught Schmidt, Schmidt taught Maneri, and Maneri taught Grigg. Grigg taught me technique, but he told me that fundamentally the Schoenberg tradition was about love. I didn’t quite get it. When I looked at the severe pictures of that fin de siècle Viennese composer and followed his strict rules of chord progression, love was not the first word to come to mind.

When I told Grigg that I wanted to get out of town and leave the biz to study, he recommended that I visit his teacher, Joe Maneri, in Boston. I called up Joe and he generously invited me to come and sit in a class of his. He was teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. I took the bus up to Boston. In spite of the fact that I had supped with Mick Jagger and assisted Dylan when he recorded “Blood on the Tracks,” I felt somewhat intimidated walking through the Beaux Arts hallways of the Music Conservatory. Here were the hallowed halls of serious music! And I was going to get to hang out with Maneri, who had virtually hung with the genius, Schoenberg! I walked into his class and took a seat in the back. I looked at my watch. He was late.

Finally, Maneri, this short round guy with a classic Sicilian vibe, plunges into the room. Before he’s even inside, he dives into his spiel. His voice sounds like someone chewing rocks. I sit up attentively waiting to hear what he has to say about the secrets of remote modulations. Instead, he says,

“Every one of you in this class is here because you think you’re going to get into the Boston Symphony. Well, let me tell you something. Not one of you is going to make it. And that’s not what it’s about anyway. Me, I play nursing homes. One day I’m playing this nursing home and I walk up to this guy sitting in a chair, and I realize he’s deaf. Now I’m a musician. What can I do for a deaf guy? So I look up to God and pray. And I get it. I take my clarinet out of my case, that’s what I’m playing, the clarinet, and I put it together and I wet the reed, and I look into this guy’s eyes, and I open my heart, and I start to blow. And I look in the guy’s eyes and suddenly tears start to flow. He’s crying.”

Maneri stops talking for the first time since he walked in the room.

He looks at us, points, and says, “Now that is what it is all about.”

The bell rings, and the theory class is over.

Years later, back in New York, I was producing an act that featured three girl singers, all under the age of 12. Early on in the project, I got them a gig in Atlantic City that turned out to be less than what was promised. It ended up that they would be playing for no money for a small audience of mostly handicapped kids. Backstage, before we went on, I could see their disappointment at the unglamorous nature of what they were about to do. I didn’t know what to do. I looked up at the sky, and prayed. And then I remembered the love thing. We stood in a circle and I told them the story of Joe Maneri and the deaf guy. They looked at me with understanding and nodded their heads and smiled. One of those little divas said, “Let’s go, girls!” And they ran out on stage and sang their asses off.

Now that is what it’s all about.            Thanks, Joe.

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I’m a New Yorker. I’ve traveled the world and lived other places, but Manhattan is my spiritual abode. I know how to manifest taxis, groovy places to eat, and unique real estate. I think I know the place. But in a recurrent dream I turn a corner and discover a new part of the city that astounds me. Today, my dream came true. I walked up a staircase on 14th Street and 10th Avenue and found myself on the High Line. Like all great art, I suddenly saw the city in a completely transformed way. The High Line was a dilapidated elevated freight railroad bed which has been transformed into a sexy greenway that opened to the public this June. The stunning renewal appears to have emerged out of the weeds that took over the place when it was abandoned. Seeing the city from this new vantage point, every vista revealed some fascinating abstract perspective. The car garage on 20th street was suddenly a bold statement of stacked cubes. The nets at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center were massive black gossamers cutting the river views into relief. All the buildings were replaced by architecture.nils_hompage

Perhaps most exciting of all was what smashes you in the face just at the top of that 14th Street Staircase. Phillips de Pury and Company, one of the world’s foremost art auction houses, fortuitously found its global headquarters and gallery as a backdrop to the High Line between 14th and 15th streets. It’s wall of windows on two sides are a perfect spot to present contemporary art work to the 50,000 sophisticated, hip weekly visitors to this new urban wonder. The gallery chose the work of artist Nils Folke Anderson as its premiere installation to usher in its role in contributing the highest quality art to this outdoor space. Folke Anderson’s work, entitled After Before and After, are a set of 5 sculptures of reciprocally linked square frames made of white polystyrene. Though every frame is identical and pure, each set can be arranged in an endless number of positions. The piece speaks of Platonic ideality, infinite possibility and planned playfulness. They are also stunningly beautiful. Seeing this grouping of scuptures through the wall of glass is a perfect complement and comment on the High Line and the new city revealed by this fresh perspective. It embodies and reflects the place where art, public space, commerce, geometry, randomness, and massive scale meet.

If you are in New York, and you haven’t gone to the High Line yet, which currently runs from Gansevoort Street in the West Village through 20th Street along 10th Avenue, go immediately. If you plan a visit to the city, make sure to put the High Line on your itinerary. Try to go before September 6th, so you can view Anderson’s installation. Prepare to have your mind blown.

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