The Promethean Spark of Botso Korisheli

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What Georgian sorcery is this mortal who plays the piano with talking hands that sculpt the gods and teach angels how to sing four-part harmony? Who is this maestro who traveled thousands of miles with a heavy heart and a trunk filled with sheet music and hope? Who is this Prometheus of the pines who, with courage and dignity, transmuted tragedy into joy and changed people’s lives by touching them deeply with the wand of music and wonder?

Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli, legendary Morro Bay music master, teacher, sculptor, poet, painter, mentor, husband, parent and friend has been celebrated in the local press, New Times and Tribune, and featured in the Los Angeles Times. In 2010 he saw the publication of his autobiography, Memories of a Teaching Life in Music. A recently-completed documentary, Botso: The Passion of Music, The Power of Art, has embarked on the international film festival circuit in search of distribution. On April 29, a video interview conducted between Botso in Santa Barbara and Voice of America-Georgia in Washington, D.C. for their “Washington Today” segment was broadcast throughout the Republic of Georgia, his homeland. After 50 years of teaching brilliance, thanks to technology and the lasting impression he’s made on hundreds, even thousands of students, the world is finally catching up to the shepherd boy from Georgia with the gift of passing the flame of music.

From little Morro Bay on the temperate Central Coast of California, a small town far afield of the media capitals, Botso Korisheli’s astounding and inspiring life story continues to catch a wind around the world. Even Botso expresses surprise at not knowing where it will all end, or if it even can be stopped now, this globalization of Botso; for fact is far more powerful than fiction, one man’s spirit greater than all the armies of darkness combined – and the beauty and truth in music, as he teaches it, provides hope to a world out of harmony.

So it made sense for the Voice of America to beam in Botso from Santa Barbara to send a message of hope from harmony’s ambassador to the people of Georgia. Botso was nervous. It was an important occasion. Although it was far from an interrogation as he knew as a young man back in Georgia under Stalin, he still hoped they would be satisfied with his answers.

After all, he had fled his homeland as a young man to escape a possible death sentence, and he remains opposed the historical Russian oppression of Georgia, an independent, freedom-loving country once part of the former Soviet Union. If the voices in Washington were satisfied he wasn’t too political or controversial, his interview would be broadcast throughout the Republic of Georgia.

Botso was bewildered by his Santa Barbara surroundings. It almost felt like a government plot, something the KGB might cook up to find out exactly what he knew. After what happened to him and his family, he anticipated some form of inquisition by the authorities; it was planted somewhere in the back on his mind. And he was right. They did want to know what he knew. But any nerves disappeared as soon as they asked him the first question. It was a question he knew practically everything about: teaching music. He was happy to talk about music with his people, one of the most music-loving people in the world. He could even laugh about it now, 75 years later.

“They dragged me down to Santa Barbara and they put me in this beautiful house,” Botso said. “I suspected there was once a bunker there, reinforced, beautifully, fantastically arranged. I was puzzled. It turned out to be that it was Reagan’s meeting place for state affairs and for the secret service. They had since changed it to international communications now. …

“They put me in a chair and put something in my ear. I thought, what are they doing to me?” he laughed. “But I was amazed. They sounded like they were in the same room. And the first question was, ‘What is it you do with your students that you have all these very successful people?’”

Botso’s success is impossible to deny. Many of his former students are accomplished amateurs and professionals. They are members of prestigious international orchestras, or direct them to standing ovations. Their success is living proof of his success. He doesn’t have to say a thing.

So Botso answered like a teacher to his student. “Well, I have one aphorism: ‘I am much more I when I am you.’ This is my approach. I like to get inside of my student, and the sooner I accomplish that, the sooner they get inside of me. Then we have complete communication. This communication really allows me to go 200 miles an hour…”

Practically wired up to the lie detector of history, he felt he had to tell the truth. Each question held its own perils. One cut deeply through a lifetime of sorrow as if it happened yesterday.

“They asked why my father was executed,” he said, the tone of his voice stiffening slightly to absorb the blow. “That was a hard question… I said he was a pretty well known dramatic actor. I said my father believed that the stage is a mirror of society. It is not a service to the politics, it is a service to the people…”

Why!? Botso asked himself that same question for a long time. At some point he realized that why wasn’t important anymore and he accepted the sad reality. Since that day, however, and over the next 76 years, Botso has been slowly but surely becoming his father. “They allowed me 20 minutes to be with him. Every word he was saying was for me, and they became my bible. I live by those words…

“We talked without even knowing if he would be sitting right here — he is sitting right here all, well, most of the time, you know… It became the pulse of my life.”

Just as Botso’s father, Platon, gave his son a world of advice in 20 minutes, Botso is continuing the tradition in reverse by taking 100 years to share his knowledge with the world and teach hundreds of students the art and craft of a lifetime in music. His book is enriched with the compelling phrase “the power of music.”

“That comes from my mother,” he says. “She was a pianist, too, but she was an actress mainly, a dramatic actor.”

His mother, Susana, died in 1960 before they had the opportunity to reunite. She is always with him by the piano in the music room in his home, and her portrait is displayed next to his father’s portrait in the sitting room.

As a child, some of his fondest memories are of visiting his grandparents in the town of Dimi (“my dreamland and will be all my life”), and spending the day with the shepherds. This is when he first started piano lessons.

“My mother always insisted that I take a small, three-octave silent keyboard with me – I don’t know where she found it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “That keyboard, which I detested, did not have any sound and I had to practice for an hour each day. The hour was torture, but later on I found out something which has been so valuable for my teaching. That silent keyboard and one hour of torture taught me how to improvise. The sounds that I wasn’t hearing, I was actually producing inside of me. Later on, the strongest point in my musical career was improvisation, thanks to the silent keyboard.”

Added Botso recently, “First time I remember she would play one single note, and then I would listen to that note again. And then she would select another one to match and agree with that note — not disagree with it — agree with it. Immediately there was a seed in my head that now I can sit at the piano and improvise without end.”

Bosto believes the power of music isn’t fully known. What music can and cannot do has yet to find limits. “Never, never,” he says. “It’s a floating element, it can never be touched. It’s not a smell, it’s not a vision, you can’t see it. Yet it’s there, in the air, and then you never know which way it’s going to go, but it’s trying to please you. If it’s displeasing then you have to be alert for something.

“For instance,” Botso says, illustrating the ancient link between Georgian folklore and music, “during a time of war, the Assyrian king tried to invade Georgia, and he came home and said, ‘These warriors are singing before war!’ And it was harsh music, and there was all this different kind of an energy…

Botso leans in to say, “Stalin knew that… Music is one good weapon for (fighting oppression)…  He sent one of the Ministers of Heavy Industry to Georgia, and this minister played guitar. Upon his arrival he told the Georgians, ‘I’m going to bring my guitar and sing for you.’ Can you imagine that?! And he did! They received him and he was a very amiable guy. I met him. He liked my dad very much.”

Greatness of Georgia

Georgia, its history, people and culture remain uppermost in Botso’s heart. After all, he is a Georgian-American as well as American-Georgian, but he’s born Georgian and is Georgian through and through. You won’t come to know much about Botso until you learn something about Georgia. It’s not just Botso’s birthplace or a distant memory dulled by time. It remains a very active part of his everyday life. Therefore, if you can’t fathom the depth of Botso’s message then perhaps you need to look up Georgia, watch the documentary, Botso: The Passion of Music, the Power of Art, and discover a magnificent country that is one of the great ancient cradles of the wine and music civilization in the world, well known for its rich folklore, unique traditional music, theatre, cinema and art. Georgians have a strong, uplifting tradition of singing, dancing and playing music, and has produced world-class dancers, choreographers, composers, musicians, vocalists and musical performers. Georgians sing when they work, plant, harvest, make wine, eat at the Georgian table – or simply greet each other, on the street or on the phone.

In Greek mythology, one of Botso’s favorite subjects, the Caucasus was one of the pillars supporting the world. Prometheus was chained to a rock on snow-covered Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus by Zeus, to have his liver eaten daily by an eagle as punishment for giving the “secret of fire” — the spark of life — to humankind. During the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), mythical Prometheus became a symbol of strength and inspiration for Greek revolutionaries and their supporters, and over the years has evolved into a symbol of “people power” for social justice and equality in former communist countries. It is also the subject of one of Botso’s most impressive sculptures. Greek hero Jason and his Argonauts sailed to the west coast of the Caucasus in pursuit of the Golden Fleece — actually sheep fleece laid on the bottom of torrential streams pouring down from the high Caucasus that collected gold flecks. These are the same breathtaking mountains and icy streams hiked by Botso and his father and friends. Myth thrives naturally in the highlands where they were born.

Since emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union as an independent state in 1991, Georgia has again become an arena of conflicting interests, this time between the U.S. and a revivalist Russia. Tense relations with Russia have been further exacerbated by Moscow’s support for the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia’s brief interlude of independence after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia ended when it was invaded by the Soviet Red Army in 1921 and incorporated into the Soviet Union a year later. Russian oppression of Georgia is of great concern to Botso.

“The one important question they asked me was what I thought about the present situation in Georgia,” he said. “Russia is putting pressure on Georgia, not just now but historically. I told them Georgia is Georgia, Russia is Russia, and they each have their own culture, their own language, which is historically proven to be one of its kind, according to Michael Maher, the well-known language historian. So they were satisfied with the answers to their questions… I was a little bit nervous to be honest. I like to have people in front of me. I have to see their face. They could see me but I could not see them. No complaints though.”

Botso strongly believes in the power of music to change the world, and that’s is possible to tune an instrument to the human soul for direct communication. “Absolutely,” said Botso. “That is the whole formula of Schubert. Schubert happened to be my dissertation. Mozart was incredible, unbelievable, all the time causing a chain of suggestions. Schubert was very much into searching the soul. Yes, absolutely music has to touch the soul. If it doesn’t touch the soul then it’s going to be kind of an effect, but no affect.

“The power of music is unexplainable. That’s why Pythagoras said music is astronomical. It’s there, and it’s related to many things; it’s a psychology, a way of thinking, and a communication, primarily communication.”

Given more lives — he’s already lived several to the hilt — and given a choice, would Botso rather be a shepherd in Georgia, a mountain climber in Bavaria, or a concert pianist in Carnegie Hall?

“Every one of them,” says Botso without hesitation. “Why not?” Yet he stopped to defend only one with a story.

“When Victor Hugo was traveling he stopped at an inn. A sheepherder came in and started to talk to him in French and he couldn’t believe it! My father portrayed Vazha Pshavela, who was also a shepherd-poet, a very, very highly loved poet – I have all his poems. Every time he would portray him people just went ‘Vazha, Vazha!’ when he appeared. … A local painter painted a big portrait of him for a postage stamp. That was the shepherd-poet and the mountaineer and everything else,” he tails off worshipfully.

Botso’s last several years have been spent documenting his life, times and teachings. With his book published (see Review following) and recently completed documentary now seeking distribution, what’s next for Botso? There have been requests to translate his autobiography into the Georgian language. “It’s a good idea. I’m going to set out and do that. I’m a busy, busy man,” he laughs. “It’s good to be, though. Absolutely.

“As long as I can contribute something to humanity, that’s fine,” he adds humbly.

Every day Botso has been measuring his life by his father’s standard, which he passed on to his son: “Have I done enough today?” Botso is still teaching in the music room and sculpting in his workshop he calls “my paradise.” When he sleeps, thousands of his musical children are stirring, their musical minds churning. Botso realizes that when he is teaching his students he is also teaching the teachers of tomorrow who will then continue the continuum of his life’s work. He also realizes that the film will spread his teachings around the world, guaranteeing he will have more students into the decades because the film will travel where he can’t go, and young people will continue to be taught the soul of music by one of the greatest American music educators of the century, Botso Korisheli, for whom continuation brings new meaning and hope to all including Botso himself.

Significantly, the documentary is also irrefutable testament to the essential nature of music education to a child’s overall education. Many of the fine musicians interviewed in the film talk about how their lives were changed by the music instruction they received from Botso when they were young, in stark contrast to those who would cut funding to the arts. Yet Botso initially didn’t want to do the film. If the film didn’t directly benefit children by providing scholarships, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to participate.

“I was not for it at first,” he says. “Why? I don’t know. Because maybe I was scared. My dad was so popular. Maybe there was something kind of holding me back, you know. But then they convinced me that I should and so I did it – I’m glad I did it. My father will be happy, too.”

Yes, Botso’s father will be happy and proud to know what a great man his son turned out to be, and his father will love the incredible story about have far he has traveled in his life, from the gates of hell to the shores of heaven. His father will also be happy to know Botso returned to Georgia where he is almost as famous now as his father was then — and fresh recognition keeps pouring in every day. Botso lights up the universe in the documentary when he walks the narrow streets of Tiblisi again, and looking back through the years he cries, “It’s so beautiful!” Who in the world will not see this light shining now?

Music cascades over his soul like torrents of water pouring down from the high Caucasus Mountains in the Republic of Georgia where Wachtang Botso Korisheli was born, the child of what today might be called a show business family.

“Music has to sing,” says Botso. “Music is not the touch, it is not the smell, it is not seen, just heard. No other discipline is like that.”

When Botso teaches, every note tells a story and tells it with feeling. One after another, notes climb off the page, rub their eyes, and grow towards the sound of the human heart. And while he teaches the technical knowledge with his own disciplined method of scales, exercises and etudes, he is always reaching for the pure emotion, the human experience – the profound — in every note.

“When my students hear one note, I’m very concerned they hear the next note coming,” he told a rapt audience while improvising on the keyboard on May 11 at an evening with Botso and the San Luis Obispo High School Chamber Ensemble at Cal Poly Pavilion to “Celebrate Music in Schools.” Botso said, “Music is not commercial, it is spiritual. That’s why I know they can’t drop music education out of schools.”

If the object of being a great teacher is that the student teaches him or herself, then Botso leads them up the staircase of self-discovery. This staircase is built into his Morro Bay music room.

“For ear-training and sight-singing,” Botso writes in his book, “I built a twelve-step staircase in my music studio to mirror the twelve chromatic tones in the scale. … It served two purposes: ear-training, and focusing pitch-orientation for where the students were, musically, in a composition… I would choose a scale and play it on the piano, but it was not visible to the student. They had to follow the sound in different directions, up and down. Sometimes I would skip a step or two…”

“I stop them and say, ‘Where are you?’” Botso recently explained. “And, if they know where they are, then I know they are absorbing it, that it’s getting into them…”

Botso knows something about “getting into” his students, and they know a thing or two about getting into Botso.

“I gave up a concert career but I can teach them how to express themselves musically,” he says. “I finish the lesson, we work hard, and then they get up and give me a hug, everyone of them. They have to give me a hug before they go and I love that! They’re my child!”

His relationship with his students, past and present, and their families, is uncanny. Few truly appreciate teachers or even understand the art and craft of teaching until they meet someone like Botso. When they finally “get” who Botso is, what he does for children, and how it does it, they’re ready to commission a statue of him and place it at the entrance to Morro Bay.

“Finally I can teach the piano and it’s just entertainment teaching. I like teaching music for music’s sake. I see students three times a week now. Sunday they come with the parents and I train their ears for an hour, free. Everything is free. I’m tired of money in everything. So they’re happy and I’m happy. What else can you ask for in this world?”

In the music room of his cozy, all-wood home in Morro Bay, Botso sits down at a valuable Steinway with “a lot of energy” in it. “I cannot use these two fingers,” he says, as a result of nerve damage many years ago. He begins to play in the pauses, “I don’t know what I can do, but if I touch… the sound… you must listen very well… If I make a sound… and it meets another one… I don’t know what I did but it comes to me… Then that sound is just asking for another friend. Yes…! Question…? Answer? There’s always something to say. Life goes on.”

It goes on for Botso, too, richly, purposefully at 90, surrounded by his family, friends and students. “I don’t concertize – these two fingers don’t work – but I can sculpt the stones,” he laughs warmly.

And sculpt he does in his workshop, with large stones in various stages of progress and a young tree growing up through a space in the roof — with his guidance, of course. On display in a tiny studio off the workshop are some of his and wife Margaret’s sculpture – her media is metal. Some of his sculptures are based on Greek mythology, one of his favorite topics.

“I was fascinated with the history that the Greeks required music and astrology, which has its source in science,” Botso explains. “Eruditio means that you don’t stop learning, you keep going all the time. That’s my formula, eruditio, all the time. I still don’t know… I still don’t know…”

Botso loved to listen to his father’s voice. He has his father’s “warm voice” and speaks in “slow, short sentences with lots of pauses in between” like his father. The deep, musical tones of his voice are as resonant as a cathedral and percolate with the vitality of a rushing mountain stream. He responds in stories from experience, aphorisms and feelings. He speaks in poetics, choosing English words that flow easily over his tongue rather than ones that perhaps are more technically correct but cold and mechanical to his trained ear. His laughter rises from the bottomless joy of having survived losing everything and then finding everything. Flashes of brilliance, of humanity and humility blind you and touch your heart and echo in your dreams.

So listen closely to Botso Korisheli when he speaks because he’s speaking to your soul and you don’t want to miss a single note.

The Story of Botso: The Book

Botso Korisheli’s 2010 autobiography, Memories of a Teaching Life in Music, could just as well have been titled How to Become An Artist, for it is both deeply moving and highly educational. For the artistic reader who knows art when he or she hears it and feels it, Botso’s book is advanced sensitivity training in the quality and value of what lies behind, within and without every musical note that strikes the human soul.

Botso states his primary reason for writing his autobiography in the first paragraph of his Introduction – “to help (my students, friends and family) to understand a person’s faith when one loses everything, literally everything, and yet does not give up having faith in humanity…”

“When one loses everything”? This is as profound as it gets. For readers it’s a weighty concept to fathom. For the writer it is deeply personal, and difficult to relive the sorrow and subsequent struggle for survival in a land torn apart by war. At the same time, the passage of years doesn’t always make it easier to reopen what might appear to be old wounds that manage to stay fresh forever just beneath the surface.

To underscore Botso’s nature not to draw attention to himself, he was well into his eighties before he “finally decided” to put his life to paper. In other words, he could have written a book years earlier if he really wanted to, but he apparently felt no great urge to do so, even though Botso is clearly a dynamic figure of historical importance not just to Morro Bay, but to the world.

The depth and breadth of Botso’s intellect, advice and observations cannot be overstated. In his Introduction he offers three overarching observations or “steps” that “convey” the “points woven into my stories.” Those points are:

1. Do not contradict or try to change the nature of Nature – I mean the elements of our existence – air, water, animals and earth.

2. Skill and imitation are part of learning, but you must grow out of imitation to create your own identity.

3. It is important to learn the demands of your body and system, your intuition, to stay well adjusted to the demands of our existence.

The book begins with the single defining moment of his life, his father’s execution by Stalin when Botso was 15 years old. He and his mother were given 20 minutes to see his father before he disappeared behind prison walls never to be seen again.

Writes Botso: “Father talked to me most of the twenty minutes and held mother’s hands. Since that day, I have lived seventy years, but I still know every word he passed to me. I catch myself repeating and reciting the conversation, trying to imitate his warm voice I loved so much.”

So will you, dear reader. So will you.

Botso was born in 1922 in Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of Georgia, in the cruel eye of war. At the close of World War I, Georgia, historically oppressed by Russia, proclaimed independence in the throes of the Russian Revolution of 1917, only to be brutally conquered again by the Russians in 1921, the year before Botso was born.

“A small number of Georgian revolutionaries adopted the (Russian) Bolshevik teachings,” writes Botso. “Among those were Joseph Jugashvili Stalin, Orjonikidse, Beria, et al. They went to Russia. There they joined their chief, Jugashvili (Stalin), and organized the Russian attack on their own land, leading the Russian troops into Caucasia.”

It was Stalin who put his arm on 12-year-old Botso’s shoulder at a private showing of his father’s play in Moscow and asked him: “Are you proud of your father?” Less than three years later, in 1936, Stalin ordered the execution of Botso’s father, Platon, as an enemy of the state. He was accused of undermining the Soviet system by supporting an independent Caucasia.

His father, a famous actor in Georgia, told him at that last meeting, “I will be with you all the time.” Writes Botso: “These last words never left me.” Since then Botso has never been spiritually separated from his father and mother; they are almost always with him.

Botso’s mother knew there was no future in Georgia for the son of an executed patriot. His future in doubt, she helped him get assigned to a Russian work crew on the Polish border where he escaped into German-occupied Poland and was held in a prisoner of war camp. There it was discovered he spoke German and Russian, which may have saved his life. He was flown to Germany and became useful to the Germans as a translator. When the tide of war turned against Germany and the allies and Russians were closing in on Berlin, Botso was awarded transport to what was to soon to become an Americanized zone of Salzburg, West Germany.

After the war, while working as a piano tuner, he attended the Mozart Festival and was transported by “the power of music.”

“The musicians seemed to be transplanted into another world, the world of Mahler,” Botso writes, enthralled. “The incredible warmth of Frau Schwarzkopf’s singing brought tears to my eyes. More than half a century later after that miraculous performance, I can close my eyes and relive the experience I had in Salzburg. The power of the music was contagious. The audience seemed to breathe with the sound…

“It was more than a concert. The dream of humanity to unite came through, thanks to the power of music. Next day I hiked back [to my apartment] with a rekindled desire to get back to music.”

Botso auditioned for the Munich Conservatory and was accepted with a scholarship from the Georgian Immigration Association in Munich. After a year of study he learned he had a relative in Los Angeles, and he decided to enroll as the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Art “for a year or two and see how much I could pick up there.” Botso was soon “sailing to the dream land” as a displaced person.

Botso had been born in the vortex of history, his family destroyed. He had been carried like a bobbing cork on a violent wave of war that swept Europe and Russia, a political refugee running from the grip of Stalin who killed his father — among millions — then running from the shadow of Hitler who killed millions trying to conquer the world. Now he was on board a transport ship with 1,500 displaced persons heading for America with questions about his unknown future “swimming in my head.”

Having survived almost every test of human endurance, Botso faced the timeless challenge of a stranger in a strange land with a new language. When he was about to sign his American citizenship papers, the judge looked at his long name and said, “There are some twenty letters there.” And his last name was changed on the spot from Chikvinidze to Korisheli – his father’s stage name derived from the name of a mountain village, Korish, in western Georgia. “Botso” means “little steer” in Georgian – it was a nickname he earned in grade school for his head-first, bull-rush fighting style, and it stuck. In 1957, at 38, life was beginning anew for Botso in almost every way.

Divine intervention seemed par for the course set by Botso in the world. All through his life he encountered “angels” at crucial crossroads and “stars” in the darkest nights that illuminated his difficult path, and, as the book recounts in his mesmerizing crystallizations of life experience, he found angels and stars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara as he followed his destiny to Morro Bay. He discovered he had come a long way “to teach and raise musicians.” And they had a long way to go to become musicians. It was a perfect match with music being the common denominator and a teacher with European dedication and discipline, along with the dramatic ability to inspire young people to achieve the amazing.

When Botso came to Morro Bay, the population was less than 5,000 and a 1,000 of them were fishermen. When he retired from public schools in 1984, the population had increased by a few thousand and Botso was teaching music to the children and grandchildren of parents he taught in Morro Bay, Los Osos and San Luis Obispo. From the first generation of talented music students Botso founded the San Luis Obispo Youth Orchestra in 1965. Other Botso graduates went on to join or lead orchestras. Those who followed different paths in life still carry with them Botso’s work ethic, passion and drive to achieve.

Bosto has returned to Georgia three times since that fateful day in 1950 when his ship of displaced persons pulled away from Bremerhaven harbor in Germany. The elegant, evocative documentary, Botso: The Passion of Music, The Power of Art captures the remarkable journey and tidal emotions of a life come full circle, from occupied Georgia to Nazi Germany, to a free America and back home again to a free but fractured homeland; of one man walking through the narrow streets of history and, after a lifetime away, finding himself standing in his childhood footsteps overflowing with memories of how it all came to be. It is one of those rare moments to share, when all he has survived to see with his eyes runs through his mind like a gushing stream.

In a timeless tribute to extended family, those friends and mentors who help replace our lost biological family members, Botso revisits his wonderful friendships with high school classmate Dzuria Djaparidze, Professor Dr. Hans Eggebrecht in Germany, Cambria teacher Dick Rush, influential fellow local Georgian, sculptor George Papashvily, and his wife Helen. It was George who taught sculpting to Botso, and Botso hasn’t put the chisel down since.

Losing his family in his youth taught him a valuable lesson not found in any school curriculum: “Tragedy is educational, according to Aristotle,” he writes. “In my opinion, by going through suffering and tragedy, you learn to face them with feelings of survival – to live with the demands and powers of nature, to go on and finish what others could not… For me, my wish is to teach my children and my students that death is part of us, part of the nature we live in.”

After an enlightening exchange with a former student that was years coming, Botso observed: “That meeting was very meaningful and educational for both of us. His playing was beautiful. It made me think: what a wonderful example for all of us to be able to sing a song, recite a poem, play and instrument with our own feelings, inflections, emotions – to use agogics (Latin musical term for using one’s interpretative feelings and imagination). In short, to be an artist.”

In his chapter “Teaching Music” Botso explains the “two concepts I developed for my performing students. The first is the word scientia (Latin), meaning learning science and knowledge that will become a mental possession. The ideal aim here is to become a master. The second: the word eruditio (also Latin, meaning a process of knowledge rather than possession of knowledge.) This way, knowledge becomes humanity-oriented.

“Both scientia and eruditio are important, but for musicians and artists, the eruditio should be above the scientia (although) it takes both to become an artist…”

For those who aspire to artistry, in music or other arts, Botso’s book should be required reading, for it will be referenced again and again for its guidance, support and inspiration. It is written by a humble man who happens to be a great storyteller. In fact, much of the wisdom in his words of experience is gleaned by the reader through his stories, aphorisms and feelings. Those seeking to find out what Botso knows about how to make a million dollars in the music business will be severely disappointed because, for Botso, music is not commercial, it is spiritual. And what comes through loudest in his book in his soaring spirit.

Reluctantly as his may have been at first to write the book and participate in the movie, he has enjoyed the results. He has now apparently changed his mind about sharing his extraordinary story Georgian style at the table of humanity: “My hope is to share all my experiences with everyone I meet.”

Memories of a Teaching Life in Music is the autobiography of a master of life and art. His book is not so much about exact dates, times and trivia. For Wachtang Botso Korisheli, shepherd, hiker, poet, dreamer, champion of humanity, life is about spirits and souls, the gods, and the music they make. And now he is one of them.

—Ed Ochs

Memories of a Teaching Life in Music: The Autobiography of Wachtang Botso Korisheli. 266 pages ($16.95). Available at Coalesce Bookstore, Morro Bay.

The Twin Worlds of Wonder at Captain Nemo/Cheap Thrills

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With only days away from Free Comic Book Day on May 5, co-owner Raymond Hanson of Captain Nemo Comics and Games is ready. He’s familiar with the beehive of activity the annual event generates. This year might see a spike.

Mr. Hanson’s love of comic books goes back to his childhood days when he would rent out comic books for a nickel every page — and he would spend the dimes he earned to buy comic books for himself. Now, he meticulously combs through seemingly countless aisles of comic books, making sure that the latest issue of each comic he supplies is front and center. When you browse through the comics, you have to smile. Several preceding issues of each comic book are conveniently placed behind the latest. Some are already packaged in clean comic bags and backing boards. This is the essence of Captain Nemo. There’s always more — and the more you find, the more rewarding the shopping experience.

Free Comic Day is on May 5

Standing between hundreds of comic books in one aisle and new/used DVDs in the other, a young man in his mid-20s slowly wandered down the wide aisles of Marvel and DC Comics. He carried at least a dozen comic books. After staring at a row of action figures above the comics, he set the books down briefly to read the latest issue of Avengers v. X-Men, a limited series comic book crossover that was released this month. The timing of the crossover series’ release was right on the beat of the street. The Avengers movie is due out May 4 — and on May 5 at 10 a.m., Captain Nemo will be celebrating Free Comic Book Day, an event celebrated by thousands of comic book stores worldwide.

“Over the years, Free Comic Book Day has been our way to show appreciation to our loyal customers and help new customers find interest in the wonderful art of comics. To coincide with Avengers: The Movie, we are giving away not one or two, but five FREE comics to all customers who visit our store,” says Mr. Hanson.

The upcoming event will mark their eleventh Free Comic Book Day. First held in 2002, the event is organized by a panel of members from the comic book industry, including retailers, publishers, suppliers and Diamond Comic Distributors. The event is meant to get people interested in reading comic books. Hailed as an original American art form, comic books provide colorful illustrations backed by comprehensive storylines. Within the past decade, comic books have revolutionized the movie industry with films like The Dark Knight (which grossed over $1 billion in revenue worldwide) and the Spider-Man trilogy. With Free Comic Book Day, attendees can buy and read the comics before they hit the big screen.

Captain Nemo will be handing out titles such as Avengers: Age of UltronStar Wars Serenity and Spider Man Season One. Kids will enjoy titles like Mega ManTransformersSmurfs and Yo Gabba Gabba!

“People love coming to Free Comic Book Day. We get hundreds of customers coming in. It gets busy in here, but we love it,” Mr. Hanson told The ROCK. “Then people start to explore everything else!”

How could they not? Captain Nemo — formerly a muffler shop — is stocked with the latest and greatest comic books, graphic novels, board games, trading cards, action figures, videos and DVDs. When they’re not packed with customers, Captain Nemo becomes a serene getaway where one could get lost in an endless sea of interactivity. As comic book and geek aficionados, the friendly, well-informed staff encourage random discovery. There is plenty of ground to cover. Captain Nemo makes it a relaxing experience for customers to freely browse the 3,000 square-foot space. Exploring the various rooms can convert shoppers to seasoned navigators like the original Captain Nemo himself as they sail through wide-open aisles of endless entertainment interrupted only by their own discovery of something else too compelling not to stop and grok.

To reach Nemo’s, you enter through the front doors of Cheap Thrills Records. Recently, Cheap Thrills celebrated Record Store Day, which took place on April 21. Many independently-owned record stores participate in this annual event. Each participating store releases event-exclusive special vinyl records and CDs and showcase special appearances. The event is meant to promote the brick-and-mortar music retailers, which event organizers say are integral to the global retail community. By introducing people to new music and artists, Record Store Day helps customers connect with independently-run retailers on a whole new level. Sure enough, Cheap Thrills keeps that spirit alive on a daily basis.

Typically, a 1970s or ’80s hard-rockin’, vinyl-quality jam is playing through store speakers. Founded in 1971, Cheap Thrills makes it plainly clear that old is new again — and age has only intensified the subtle sensations in yesterday’s grooves.

The majority of the store is dedicated to new and used music in multiple formats: CDs, cassettes, DVDs, EPs, singles, 7-inch records, 8-track and vinyl. Each of these formats is evenly distributed among multiple music genres. Their collection of vinyl is most impressive. Cheap Thrills owner Richard Ferris told The ROCK that he grades each vinyl record that passes through his store and wholesale website, Square Deal Online (

“We make sure that the quality is there,” Mr. Ferris told me. “The snap. The crackle. The high fidelity. All of it.” For a business owner to have a loft fully dedicated to vinyl indicate how passionate he is about the mostly phased-out fomat. With the rise of popularity in digital music, he makes a strong argument for vinyl superiority, even over digital. He talked about enjoying the nuances of different instruments as it was easy to tell them apart with vinyl-quality sound, unlike digital.

In today’s digital-everything world it’s surprising and refreshing to see how deeply Mr. Ferris and his employees care about music’s audio quality and physicality. “That’s where the music is,” said Mr. Ferris. He turned the conversation into a battle-hardened, philosophical musing about the state of the music industry. We talked about legendary artist Neil Young, who has repeatedly argued that the digital format should “burn out and fade away.” Echoing Young’s sentiments, Mr. Ferris complained that the emergence of digital format has forced consumers to choose between quality and convenience. Yet at Cheap Thrill’s, vinyl is conveniently in abundance, and the quality is guaranteed. Young would be proud.

Consistent with the “everything old is new” mantra, Cheap Thrills has a wide selection of retro video games — going as far back as the Atari 2600, ColecoVision and the original Nintendo — that seamlessly blend in with used and new titles from next-generation consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The walls are covered in new/used games, systems and accessories at competitive prices. At first glance, there is a strong impulse to take a title off the shelf and passionately beg your parents if you can have it — even if you’re an adult, because that feeling will never leave you. No Best Buy superstore could faithfully replicate that feeling as strongly as Cheap Thrills. There’s no reason to visit Best Buy and buy games that you could get at Cheap Thrills: these guys will match the price. Some of the retro games are even in their original packaging, still waiting for the seal to be broken and the game to start.

Customers can buy, sell or trade records and videos. On the Captain Nemo website, they offer thousands of comic books and video games for sale online. The site is part of a family owned and operated business, Square Deal Recordings & Supplies, that was established in 1972. Square Deal Recordings & Supplies boasts over 9,000 different vinyl titles, 20,000 CD titles, and a wide array of pop culture merchandise. For people who like to shop online, the website is a lo-fi treat that is easily accessible and plentiful. Record collectors, comic book fanatics and hobby enthusiasts can benefit from the deep inventory. Customers looking for a good buy will undoubtedly be impressed with a selection that seems to go on for infinity — and that’s just their online storefront.

Situated in downtown San Luis Obispo, Captain Nemo Comics and Games/Cheap Thrills constantly instills the belief that it is perfectly fine to be a geek of any variety, any age. So walk or drive down, park in their generous off-street parking lot, and stroll into one of the most innovative small businesses in the County. Walk inside and you’ll see two different worlds with a similar business philosophy: the customer always comes first. No matter what. No empty walls. No dead ends. Everywhere in the maze leads to somewhere rich in pop culture collectibles with titles that come alive when you hold them in your hand. History and the passage of time has only proven that Captain Nemo’s commitment to the value of entertainment memorabilia has made them a cultural mecca across the Central Coast.

Free Comic Book Day will be an event that reminds everyone — from the casual consumer to the hardcore fan — about the everyday deals and, indeed, the cheap thrills of exploring the seas with Captain Nemo. There is nothing better than walking into a store and feeling like you’re on a relentlessly euphoric, lifelong journey that began in childhood and has yet to find childhood’s end.

— Aaron Ochs

Captain Nemo Comics and Games/Cheap Thrills, 563 Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, California. Hours: Mon-Sat. 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Sun. 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Tel: (805) 544-6366. Website: or


The Beating Musical Heart of Coalesce Bookstore

Approaching its 40th anniversary in July 2013, Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay has taken on the rich, burnished glow of a community landmark refusing to age gracefully.

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Approaching its 40th anniversary in July 2013, Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay has taken on the rich, burnished glow of a community landmark refusing to age gracefully. In fact, Coalesce keeps evolving, and shows no signs of retreating from progressive edge on which it was founded in 1973.

Over the years, thoughtfully chosen, hard-to-find books, old and new, have been joined by well-known musicians, old and new, and a flowering contingent of local authors and poets, as Coalesce has grown into one of the most important artist venues in San Luis Obispo County.

Quiet on the outside, reserved on the inside, Coalesce has a musical heart that beats for time-tested talent. Continuing its tradition of presenting excellence in the arts – literary, musical and spiritual – Coalesce presents classic folk artist Eric Andersen on Friday, April 20, at 7 p.m., for one night turning Coalesce’s Garden Chapel into a Greenwich Village café, rekindling the thriving folk scene of the ‘60s and ’70s.

Coalesce co-founder Linna Thomas credits San Luis Obispo Folk Society for the flow of top talent through the Chapel, as well the thriving West Coast tour circuit that attracts quality musicians from around the country to play clubs up and down the coast from San Diego to Seattle.

“Most of them are touring from LA and San Francisco, particularly, and from the Nashville music scene,” Linna says. “They’re all in California doing a West Coast tour, and they love to stop on the coast.”

It makes perfect sense. Perfect weather, perfect audiences. What performer today wouldn’t want to work the California coastline?! To bring home the point, legends play Coalesce. Gordon Bok (“If the sea had a voice it would sound like Gordon Bok,” says Linna), country-rock pioneer Chris Hillman of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, and folk/blues master Geoff Muldaur are among the all-time greats that have played Coalesce and who, like the herons and egrets, continue to travel great distances to find sanctuary by the sea in Morro Bay.

Appreciative, music-savvy audiences fill the scenic 60-seat Garden Chapel behind the store, and become part of the kind of intimate performance only found in the best small clubs from New York to San Francisco. The store is ringed with posters of some of the artists that have played Coalesce through the years, and the variety and quality of the musical talent is astounding. Even when it’s empty for yoga and meditation, the textured, hand-crafted Chapel walls resonate with the harmonious sounds and strains of folk, country, Celtic, roots, blues and jazz – classic and modern – left behind in the ethers after more than 30 years of timeless music.

Interestingly, local authors and poets receive the same warm Chapel welcome as the trailblazing minstrels, pickers and troubadours. The impact of a personal appearance by an author or poet can be just as mesmerizing and emotional for book lovers as music is for music lovers – especially for those, says Linna, who “know how to work a room.” San Jose-based Julie Riera Matsushima’s recent event for her memoir, For the Love of Aimee, was just such a moving experience. Book signings and poetry readings flourish at Coalesce. “We really want to support our local authors and musicians. We welcome any events like that,” says Linna.

For writers, the journey from idea to finished book leads to the most prominent shelf space in the store, identified by the vertical strip: LOCAL AUTHORS. Erik Paul Rocklin’s The Tapestry of Spirit, Gordon Snyder’s Venice Lost, editor/contributor Sue McGinty’s Somewhere in Crime, and legendary teacher/maestro/artist Botso Korisheli’s Memories of a Teaching Life in Music – glisten in the finely filtered light of the soulful store. Tucked tightly in these nurturing shelves are intriguing titles by many locally known writers, all published with a polish and professionalism that should inspire the future writers and poets of the coast.

At the same time, in this era of the online bookseller, it’s easy to overlook what a great bookstore Coalesce really is, and the indispensible personal services it’s been providing to a large book-fed community for many years. That hasn’t diminished; it’s only gotten better. New books, used books, discounted books, hard-to-find books, out-of-print books, local books, buy-and-trade books, and a satisfying range of books on a wide variety of topics and subjects – all tailored to the needs of the community – all found under one roof. Local readers who think they are saving money by shopping online might be stunned to discover that Coalesce’s discounts on new books often beat the big guys. Plus, factoring in the savings on gas, postage and time, it means cracking open “Chapter 1” on that new book even faster.

There’s always something going on at Coalesce. Says Linna, “It would sort of be a shame not to, don’t you think? It’s a sweet space. Private. Serene. It’s got a furnace if it’s cold…” All together, the Bookstore, “Secret Garden” as Linna calls it, and Garden Chapel is a quiet, thinking, reflective place, yet the array of activities at the Coalesce complex is surprising – musical performances, book signings, lectures, presentations, yoga, meditation and healing classes, discussion groups, tasteful social gatherings, memorials and weddings in the Garden Chapel.

“There’s a lot of love in our Chapel,” says Linna, who has conducted thousands of wedding there and has now turned those duties over to associate Sherri Herford. Apparently, having met people only once is enough to be remembered forever, especially if you married them — and thousands of others. “People come in all the time, and they’ll come up to me and go, ‘Hi,’ and I go, ‘Hi,’ and I know what’s happening because they’ll say, ‘We were married here 17 years ago.’ And, of course, we’re all so different now…”

Now the winds of change are blowing through the Dutch doors of Coalesce Bookstore, and while time has stolen dear friends and family it has also delivered many unexpected, irreplaceable treasures. Linna knows Coalesce is in good hands with Sherri and loyal, longtime assistant Joanne Hand and her son Jordan. There is a continuum afoot. Every day, every week, every month, books are bought and sold, songs sung, books signed, poets heard, couples married, and all the while the garden of tender memories flourishes at Coalesce.

Linna and partner Janet Brown started Coalesce in 1973 in a different location nearby and moved to Main Street in ’81. “We used to be in a wonderful old Morro Bay cottage. We had big gardens, and I used to grow an acre of sweet peas and give them away by the armloads. So when we moved from there I was looking for a garden place. We got lucky.”

Morro Bay got lucky, too, and so did an inland ocean of musicians, writers and poets.

There is a timelessness about Coalesce that transcends the changing landscape because it’s a still a work in constant progress, reflecting the growth of music and literature on the creatively upstart Central Coast, to which there appears no end in sight. That’s why Coalesce has such a bright future. Its roots run deep in the community, and books, and thanks to the iPad, Kindle and self-publishing, are taking off all over again.

So if you’re walking down Main Street near Coalesce, stop and savor the realization that this quaint storefront is actually the gateway to the musical and literary arts in Morro Bay. You can’t see from the street what’s going on behind the store, in the lush gardens and Garden Chapel. You can’t tell from the front door what’s going on inside, and you can’t tell a book by its cover; nor the passion of its author for his or her subject; nor the passion of the owner of the store for choosing that author’s book to buy and sell, and keep the business growing.

The story of how Linna Thomas and Janet Brown followed their hearts and turned Coalesce from a bookstore by the sea into an entertainment center under the protective embrace of Morro Rock is one of the great business and culture stories in local history. As it’s turning out after almost 40 years, it is a story worth celebrating as much as any story in any book gracing the shelves or any song filling the air in the Garden Chapel.

Because when you enter Coalesce Bookstore you are walking into a page of living history.


Coalesce Bookstore, 845 Main Street, Morro Bay, California 93442. Hours: Monday –  Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m – 4 p.m. Telephone: (805) 772-2880. Email: Website: