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Tarus Mateen, Nasheet Waits, Jason Moran (Bandwagon)

In the “Earth stood still for a minute. Seriously dude, it did” category: My son Bryce came with me on a 2 hour pilgrimage from Boston to Hanover, New Hampshire–Dartmouth College–on Thursday night to hear and see Jason Moran perform with The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and guest artist Marvin Sewell on guitar.) I’ve written about Jason on this blog before, but in case you didn’t catch it I can say it again and again: He is one of the greats. If you ever get a chance to hear him, take it.

Jason has been exploring the deeper connections between jazz and the visual arts for several years. Earlier albums pay homage to the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Egon Schiele and Robert Rauschenberg. Recently he has collaborated with and explored the works of visual artists including Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper.

In the fall I went to Washington DC to hear In My Mind, a multi-media performance that is a tribute to jazz piano god Theolonious Monk. Jason’s latest undertaking, Milestone, continues to explore the boundaries of jazz performance, the audience/performer interface and how the personal and the public sides of an artist weave in and out. The players move around the stage, sit facing the audience at times, just listening to previously taped conversations along with the audience. Jason is moving outside the armature of a typical jazz performance and looking to create a different kind of experience for anyone who is there, including the musicians. And even though Jason’s wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, was not present at the concert, she was very much there in spirit. Her singing and spoken voice are accessed repeatedly, giving the sense that her ambient presence is hovering over everything happening on stage and in the hall.

As Jason describes his approach with Milestone: “We made a full-length theater piece out of an ordinary jazz concert, and Tarus, Nasheet, Marvin and I didn’t really know too much about stagecraft so we got a crash course from Alicia. She was the director and my collaborator as a writer. In Milestone I wanted us to play the part of ourselves almost, and bring the audience inside the heads of this band; show that while we’re up on stage and you’re looking at us, we’re involved in our own examination of you.”

Jason, Marvin, Tarus and Nasheet stayed afterwards to talk about the music. What righteous, thoughtful, soulful men each of them is. When I asked a question about that fuzzy line between the personal and the work of art itself, Jason made a very provocative comment. He said that he cared about content, and it was something difficult for his kind of jazz to provide. Without lyrics, he said, the content is harder to access. With Monk’s music for example it is vital to understand that Monk’s grandparents were slaves, that faith healings were part of his heritage, that the music he made came from his experiences, and that the story of where it came from matters. Jason talked about how he wants to make his own music more content-rich (my phrase) by including and exploring the personal dimension as well as new forms of experiential delivery.

Ah, content. It’s an ongoing question for me as a non-representational artist who values mystery, the unresolved, the uncertain, the unspoken. Jason is extending the frame in which his music sits, exploring new and bold ways to bridge the gap between maker and listener/observer. All the way home, driving in moonlight off the snow covered fields of New Hampshire, I kept thinking of the Seamus Heaney comment about the wiresculpture qualities of Eastern European poetry: “The density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Like the universe, my only answer to all of this is, Yes.

I’m a huge fan of Stephin Merritt, inspiration behind the Magnetic Fields and a slew of other collaborations. He has that Elliott Smith-like proclivity to combine unexpected lyrics with a wide range of hummable music. (I like this description: “bitterly smart lyricism and a musical-survey style.”) The results don’t feel forced or manipulative, just delightfully paradoxical. Like fried ice cream.

And then there is this, a riff on Merritt’s wardrobe strategies, from a recent piece about him in the New York Times:

“I have a strange relationship to variety,” the singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt said recently, as he sat at a West Village cafe meticulously tearing a croissant into little bits. He was discussing his wardrobe — absolutely all of his clothing is in a white-to-brown color palette — but also his career. In music, at least, “I like variety,” Mr. Merritt said…

He started dressing in brown about five years ago. “It’s going really well,” he said. “I had a green shirt that looked brown when I bought it, but I recently got rid of it.” All his pants are khakis. His homes — he has an apartment in New York and house and studio in Los Angeles — are decorated in brown and bright red. “If I didn’t make these decisions ahead of time, because my tastes tend to be sort of eclectic, I would have disasters,” Mr. Merritt said. “This is not an O.C.D. thing. This is a way of warding off what other people regard as horrendous, egregious errors in taste.”

Apparently, he’s right. “I knew him during the all-black phase, I knew him during the Hawaiian-shirt phase, I knew him when he wore, I think it was a 20-foot-long braid up on his head,” Mr. Handler [fellow musician and author of Lemony Snicket] said. “I admire the all-brown.”

This is not as fanciful or trivial an issue as it may seem. The All Brown approach sounds very sensible to those of us who have serious “everything is interesting” proclivities. I love to look. There’s no color combination that does not interest me, no symbol that does not intrigue, no panorama I can ignore. Things have a power all their own, and my susceptibility is legend. While a hierarchy of better and best clearly drives my art making decisions, I can be hypnotized by anything. The minute the light hits the retina, I’m a goner. Going All Brown feels like a reset, like finding a safety zone.

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It is an easy seduction for an artist–any artist–to complain about being misunderstood and unappreciated. But according to Oliver Sachs (by way of Trevor Hunter’s excellent blog, New Music Box,) musicians may have a neurological right to that claim:

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

Of course, this has only come to be socially relevant over time. In smaller, pre-industrial societies, the low level of specialization meant that everyone participated in the culture’s music, and thus the differentiation between the brains of musicians and non-musicians was rendered moot by the fact that there were no non-musicians. Even in the much more specialized Classical and Romantic eras in Europe, whose composers commanded a vast repertory of arcane knowledge, both the patrons and the audiences were overwhelmingly indoctrinated into musical thinking. Only in a society like that would it have been so profitable for Liszt to make piano transcriptions of other composers’ works, since it was more likely that intended listeners would be able play through a piece themselves than hear another group perform it in concert.

But now, composers absorb more techniques and sounds than at any other time in history—the continuing specialization has led to a knowledge base that’s fully comprehendible to only those who are closest to it. Yet, on the other side is the startling fact that it is now possible and even common for a member of society to be non-congenitally unmusical. If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. But it can also feel artistically hollow, since we’re not using our full expressive capacity out of fear of alienation. More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.

This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.

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I love this guy.

Alex Ross writes about music for The New Yorker. He is so reliably brilliant, and my musician sister Rebecca and I both turn to his articles first when the magazine arrives at our respective homes. Then we call and talk about the nuance he captured or yet another poignant insight. His writing is fluid, seductive and informed. After a long year of waiting, his new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is finally out and worthy of a hard cover purchase.

Under Ross’ expert hand, the extraordinary evolution of music over the last 100 years is delivered up as comprehensible, a kind of ordered chaos. There’s nothing canonical about his approach, but the journey from the fin de siecle in Vienna to Stalin’s Russia to modern minimalism is engaging, lively, highly textured.

Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:

Berg was right: music unfolds along an unbroken continuum, however dissimilar the sounds on the surface. Music is always migrating from its point of origin to its destiny in someone’s fleeting moment of experience–last night’s concert, tomorrow’s solitary jog.

The “Rest is Noise” is written not just for those well versed in classical music but also–especially–for those who feel passing curiosity about this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture. I approach the subject from multiple angles: biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, firsthand accounts by the participants themselves.

Many of his descriptions of music during this period apply to the visual arts as well. For example:

In the twentieth century…musical life disintegrated into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon. Some genres have attained more popularity that others; none has true mass appeal…beauty may catch us in unexpected places.

And this great passage, quoted at the beginning of the book:

It seems to me…that despite the logical, moral rigor music may appear to display, it belongs to a world of spirits, for whose absolute reliability in matters of human reason and dignity I would not exactly want to put my hand in the fire. That I am nevertheless devoted to it with all my heart is one of those contradictions which, whether a cause for joy or regret, are inseparable from human nature.

–Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

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Osvaldo Golijov’s music speaks to me. Ever since the performance in Boston of his glorious La Pasión según San Marcos in 2000, I have followed his eclectic, unexpected and, for me, ever redemptive work. Recent favorites include his opera about Federico García Lorca, Ainadamar, and Ayre, his hauntingly beautiful work featuring his personal muse, the singer Dawn Upshaw.

This July he released a recording of a piece that premiered over ten years ago. Oceana is based on an excerpt from Pablo Neruda’s Cantos Ceremoniales. Here is Golijob’s statement about the work, from his website:

My aim in Oceana was the transmutation of passion into geometry. This is, in my mind, the clue to both Bach’s and Neruda’s work. …[One hopes that the emotion evoked by the work] is the emotion of hearing order, inevitable and full of light: every note in its place, as in Bach, every word in its place, as in Neruda.

Giants such as Bach are fated to be used as mirrors by composers and performers of every era, who will see their own image reflected there. …In their own ways they were all correct in their fruitful misreadings of Bach’s music, and I feel that Oceana is my own misreading.

Neruda is our Latin American Bach. Like Bach, he is Midas, able as if by magic to transform everything on this Earth into poetry. …I think I have discovered the clue [to setting his poems to music]: Neruda’s voice is a chorus, too powerful for a single voice to handle…

I do hope that water and longing, light and hope, the immensity of South America’s nature and pain, are here transmuted into pure musical symbols, which nevertheless should be more liquid than the sea and deeper than the yearning that they represent. And if I have misunderstood Bach, then so be it.

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Yet another reason to be in New York sometime in the next week, more specifically Miller’s Launch, a forgotten corner of Staten Island. Mabou Mines, a theatre company that has been thrilling my sensibilities for 30 years, has done it again and stepped way outside the expected. This time it is a new production from a barge. Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting, is the company’s seaborne celebration of New York in music and verse, and is their first site-specific production.

From the New York Times:

“Song for New York” came together over several years. Ms. Maleczech [a founder of Mabou Mines] first conceived of it in 2002, partly as a response to Sept. 11. By 2003, she had chosen five women to write the five poems, one for each borough, that form the basis of the work.

“It’s a response to Walt Whitman’s great New York poems, and Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge poem,” she said. “Those poems are old now, and I thought it would be good for women to speak for the city.”

The new verses are sung by five of them to a mishmash of musical styles, from jazz ballads to tarantellas. They’re connected by a historical narrative — a yarn, in Mabou’s parlance.

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My exposure to this remarkable troupe (a better word to describe the assemblage of people who have orbited around founder Lee Breuer) began when they breezed through University of California at Santa Cruz my last year of college in the mid-70’s. Several of my friends were so compelled by their encounter with intense and charismatic Lee that they moved to New York to continue working with him. Alison Yerxa, a woman of consummate talents, stayed with me in my loft in the Lower East Side before she found a place of her own. My memory of that time is highlighted by her assignment to build a 10 foot high transistor radio for Shaggy Dog Animations. (Alison went on to design the spectacular backdrop for the initial–and now legendary–production of Gospel at Colonus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is presently a special effects guru in Los Angeles.)

Recent MM productions continue a history of boundary busting. Red Beads featured Breuer and Maleczech’s daughter Clove suspended above the stage, and the 2003 production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was performed by male midgets and very tall women. The children’s furniture on stage was painfully undersized for these statuesque women, and the men were carried in the arms of the women like toddlers. I will never experience that play the same again.

What I have always loved about Mabou Mines is the way visual imagery is treated as a character. It isn’t a secondary concern or just a back drop to the theatrical vision. This is similar to what I find most provocative about Matthew Barney’s Cremaster as well. Both speak to the visual imagination in a manner that is intuitive, poetic, nonlinear and subconscious. In a word, delicious.

In a sense art has been a space race at least since the onset of Cubism, which shattered the calm of one-point perspective and, with collage, punctured the barrier between art and reality. Art’s spaces really started multiplying in the 1960s, with the successive splinterings of Fluxus, Happenings, Pop, Minimalism, Arte Povera and Neo-Concrete and the Post-Minimalist flotilla of Conceptual Art, performance, earthworks, installation art and video. Today in art there are so many permutations and gradations of space that there could be dozens of names for them. Instead we have adjectives. Space can be pictorial, mystical, fictive, real, social, geographical, male, female, architectural, fragmented, whole, distorted, compressed and mental. Space also has become an essential commodity for making and selling art, for which we do have a name: real estate.

From Roberta Smith’s parsing of Chelsea, the “epicenter of the big-box art gallery” in the New York Times.*

Real Estate. As opposed to False Starter Home? I have a life long love/hate thing going with those two words. I have been variously seduced by great white space galleries, sublime museum spaces as as well as the out-of-the-way, quaint or picturesque. The venue does impact the perception and experience of a work of art even though the purist in me wishes that weren’t the case. But context matters.

Then there is the fascinating and now much-discussed experiment with music and context. Joshua Bell, world class violinist, is asked by the Washington Post to play in a DC metro station to see if anyone would recognize genius outside the confines of a concert hall. Answer: One person. But for 43 minutes of playing, he did garner $32.17 in donations. (Go the Post to view the hidden camera video of Bell playing.)

Real Estate doesn’t just hold me hostage when it comes to art viewing. I need it to make art too and I’ve spent my life looking for more studio space. I never have enough, as inevitably as death and taxes. Someone once described an artist as someone who is always looking for somewhere to store stuff. (Louise Bourgeois once advised her sculpture students to rent a Long Island warehouse and just put their work in there for 20 years. “Maybe by then the rest of the world will have caught up with you.”) My variation is a bit different: I’m someone always looking for more space to make the stuff in. After all, a studio–with plenty of room–is its own kind of context.

*Note: Highlights from Smith’s reviews of Chelsea shows by Walter De Maria and James Turrell can be found on Slow Painting.

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The Twins, Castor and Pollux
Dorothea Rockburne

I think the reason I paint, or that I do whatever I do, is to deal with (I don’t think of it as unconscious) subliminal knowledge. And I do think that one has knowledge about things that haven’t occured yet, and I try to work for those kinds of knowledges. For me, these are emotional truths.

[Subliminal knowledge] is what I call developed intuition. What I have found is that when I learn something–while you are using it at the moment, it’s right at the top of your brain. But, as you move on and are using newer information, the formerly learned information goes into a mental file and with time that file goes deeper into the drawer and becomes what I call sublminal information. It is trained intuition because the files begin to combine, all on their own accord.

Dorothea Rockburne, in conversation with Denise Green
Metonymy in Contemporary Art

This is one of the clearest statements I’ve ever read of what it is that compels me to paint. Rockburne’s distinction between “sublminal knowledge” and the unconscious is also a key insight. The visual material that we internalize is a bit like the bubble under the tablecloth–you know it’s there, but it is nearly impossible to nail down. It just pops up somewhere else, having morphed into yet a different shape. As Rockburne suggests, the mixing it up happens with or without conscious engagement.

Another provocative suggestion in this exchange is Rockburne’s reference to prescient information and how, as an artist, she is seeking access to those other “kinds of knowledges.” Now that is a topic for a whole other discussion.

Robert Benchley, of Algonquin Round Table fame, once claimed that there are two kinds of people in the world–those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t. In the spirit of Mr. Benchley’s dichotomous claim, here’s one from Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the Boston Symphony:

The composer Ned Rorem maintains that everything and everyone falls into either French or German aesthetic camps. The French aesthetic favors lightness, texture and surface beauty; the German is concerned with rigor, depth and structure.

This is provocative to consider this in regard to the visual arts as well. Matisse is definitely French. Jackson Pollock too. But what about Rothko? Richter? Marden?