“When the human realm seems doomed to heaviness, I feel the need to fly like Perseus into some other space. I am not talking about escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I feel the need to change my approach, to look at the world from a different angle, with different logic, different methods of knowing and proving.” —Italo Calvino, “Lightness,” Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Tsuyu toku toku
kokoromi ni ukiyo
With clear melting dew,
I’d try to wash away the dust
of this floating world
—Matsuo Bashō, Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, trans. by Sam Hamill
The lightness album arrived in waves. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the first part to emerge was the album’s theme, when news of the pandemic started crossing the globe in early March 2020 and places began to lock down.
Anxious about the unknown times ahead, I went to see a certain ginkgo tree that’s special to me. I sat beneath the ginkgo, meditated, and asked the tree for guidance. The ginkgo replied: “Make a study of joy. Joy is active. Surrendering to what is is joy.” As I meditated, the ginkgo showed me images of sunlight, a bug crawling, a bird landing on a branch, people touching bark, wind rustling through leaves. These are joy for the ginkgo, I realized.
The ginkgo provided more guidance: “Breathe. Find the space inside. Receive and rejoice. There is a hole in this world that leads to the hole in all other worlds. The purpose is to journey. You humans are just learning.”
I asked: How can I help? The ginkgo replied: “Offer joy. Re-member the true world through joy.”
I woke the next day wondering how to live through a pandemic while contributing something positive and valuable. Years ago, the shaman Malidoma Somé told me my task is to bring beauty to the world with my voice while serving as a messenger, healer, and artist. I didn’t know how to proceed with that work during a lockdown, so I decided the best course of action was to follow the ginkgo’s guidance by studying joy. I also sought counsel from other spirit guides as I went along. Hummingbirds arrived to expand my curriculum, and as I began following their example, lightness became part of my learning, too.
I read Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, taking copious notes while following his expeditions into science, myth, poetry, literature, folk tales, and shamanic culture. Around the same time, I was doing research for an experimental piece I was composing when I ran across a mention of Matsuo Bashō’s poetic philosophy of karumi, or lightness. Bashō’s advice to his students was to give their poetry a sense of immediacy by composing lightly and gently with ordinary words, like a clear stream flowing over a sandy bed. This emphasis on fresh perspective and naturalness echoed the aesthetics of Japanese painting during that time, which focused on painting lightly and leaving “overtones” and incomplete, open space for viewers to fill with meaning and imagination. These characteristics of Bashō’s poetry and Japanese painting reminded me of the abstract experimental and ambient music I was listening to constantly.
I was fascinated by this exploration of lightness from different perspectives—Eastern and Western, Japanese and Italian, older and more modern—during the heaviest parts of 2020. As I read Bashō’s poetry and Calvino’s thoughts on lightness, I began to perceive secret gardens within the small spaces I was inhabiting during lockdown. It was as though tiny worlds and entire galaxies were revealing themselves within the ordinary confines of home. During a sudden thunderstorm on the summer solstice, mycelial music flowed through my consciousness, and I recorded myself singing the experimental, wordless compositions that streamed through me.
But the album project didn’t begin to take shape until the Independence Day holiday of 2020, when a wasp stung me out of absolute nowhere. The wasp’s sting seemed to say: Get going! Make something of what you’re learning to share with others. Do it now and with lightness!
So I did. I gave myself 108 days—a sacred number in Buddhism and Hinduism—to write and record the album. The recordings sat fallow for another 108 days as I learned how to mix audio. Then I mixed and produced lightness during a third and final cycle of 108 days, finishing in early June 2021.
Lightness is a flotation device. It’s about very light objects that are in motion. It’s about dewdrop perspectives, stones that breathe, flowers, shooting stars, beauty and deprivation, playfulness and spontaneity, ephemera and fragility, floating worlds, spiderwebs, dust particles in sunlight, tiny shells bubbling on thirsty sand, and sudden, nimble leaps out of the heaviness of the world. It’s about levitation, surrealism, and hyperrealism. It’s about owls and aliens. It’s about voyages to the moon and flights to other worlds. It’s about sadness made light with tenderness and a steady gaze. It’s about true freedom within apparent confinement. It’s about seeing yourself as a cloud.
Working with lightness has utterly transformed me. May it free you, too.
P.S. This is a headphones album, so put this music in your ears. You’ll find candy for them there.
PUBLISHING—Written and published by Angela Winter (ASCAP)
PERFORMANCES—Vocals, synths, piano, ukulele, and field recordings by Angela Winter; field recordings of the Apollo 11 launch and radio waves on “voyage to the moon” by NASA (public domain); field recording of wind on “beyond ice mountain” and “interstice” by Florian Reichelt @florianreichelt on freesound.org (CC0 license)
COVER DESIGN—Alyson Plante, Plante Creative Studio, Richmond, VA; cover photo by Dzmitry Tselabionak @tsellobenok on Unsplash
ALBUM PHOTOGRAPHY, DESIGN, AND ART DIRECTION—Photography by Chuck Cunningham, Mebane, NC, nocontextzine.com, @nocontextzine; design and art direction by Alyson Plante, Plante Creative Studio, Richmond, VA, plantecreativestudio.com
Angela Winter creates music like you might hear at a Renaissance fair during the apocalypse—minimalist synths and strings
meet otherworldly vocals, shimmering drones, and overtones. Her work has been featured on radio from Asheville to Australia. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, and in addition to her own shows and festival performances, she has opened for John Cale (The Velvet Underground)....more