Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Steve Irwin and Nietzsche: Life as Art

A couple of nights ago the Animal Planet channel aired the last Steve Irwin episode and a special on his life. The special was not very special, though it was amusing to hear his daughter Bindi popping out phrases worthy of a professional commentator; also a bit eerie that she displayed so little negative emotion talking about her deceased father. Makes you wonder how and when she was coached for these interviews. But what I really want to say is about Steve Irwin himself. What the whole show made me think of is this Nietzschian idea that you should make your life a work of art. I consider this in general an extremely dangerous idea from an ethical point of view, since it encourages people to base their actions on some "aesthetic" decision about the shape of their own lives rather than on any standard of moral responsibility toward others. For most people, living by rational moral principles is enough of a challenge that we don't need to throw our aesthetic sensibilities into the mix.

But if one were to make one's life an artwork, I suppose Irwin's life would be a positive example of how to do it. That is, one can see the relish with which Irwin approached his work with extremely dangerous wild animals, as well as the ingenuity of his methods of dealing with them. And much of it was in the service of human interests as well. When you see him with his children you get the sense that they too form part of his Animal Planet. So you have this kind of rounded life where everything fits into place, a bit like an artwork: the relationship betwen the parts grows out of a conception of what one wants to say, and this infuses each action with meaning. Each part has a beauty of its own as well as a purpose in the larger system. And rather than speaking to the audience as an outside entity it draws you into it until you too become part of the living sculpture.

This is why his approaching deadly animals appears almost casual, a fact that at times drew some criticism, as it can give the wrong impression. You should teach people to treat these things with respect, indeed fear, one wants to say; not an enthusiasm for contact bordering on a sort of libido. A year ago my girlfriend and I went to the Everglades. An alligator was resting on a bank along a walk, and we decided to each pose for a picture next to it. It was over in a few seconds, but afterward I couldn't help feeling that we had both done something extremely stupid. We knew nothing about these creatures; it was not so unthinkable that it could have turned around in a flash and taken off one of our hands, or worse. But Irwin seems to have had an almost aesthetic relationship with such creatures, fondling horribly poisonous fish and "apex predators" as if he were somehow in tune with their psyches. It was this gift that let him make his life a tableau of man's relationship to life forms that appear alien. This is more than a metaphor for our relationship to "alien" human forms as well.

I don't want to get too carried away with this, but I think it is about as close as one can come to life as art without completely losing one's moral bearings. "Don't try this at home", I'd like to say; for most of us, it is sufficient that we live according to some set of straightforward principles, be it "respect all living creatures" or "treat others as you would like to be treated by them" or whatever. But those who are motivated by a kind of love of life and contact with nature as Irwin was might well be able to cross the line into an aesthetic life without getting into a morally dubious self-centered ethic. A few weeks ago I wrote about surfers and skiers who cling to a kind of right to commune with nature. Irwin, you might say, represented the apotheosis of such sentiments, where the "right" is raised to the highest level of spiritual union and pervades every aspect of what one does.

Let that stingray remind us that a life of devotion comes with risks. Better yet, let it remind us that what is a risk to the rational observer is just another part of the tableau once that separateness from nature is bridged by an aesthetic involvement in life. I guess this was his message.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Brice Marden at MOMA

Writing this blog is nothing if not an incentive to get to art events that I might otherwise blow off. Or not. But let's say, nothing in the past couple of years has caused me to have an appetite to spend $20 for admission to the rebuilt Museum of Modern Art. I liked Picasso's Guernica on the old wall; I figured I'd like it on the new wall too, and didn't need to spend $20 to find that out. Nor would I necessarily have ponied up that sum to see the work of Brice Marden, who was no more than one more in a jumble of art-world names whose work I could at best vaguely characterize. But the "institutional theory of art", which says that art is whatever is canonized as such by the institutions of the art world, is at least right to this extent: art that will sell for a lot of money and be talked about by critics is that which has been canonized by the art world, in particular by MOMA. So why not take this opportunity to blow my $20 and see who's being canonized? (Note: although the MOMA show is over, you can familiarize yourself with hundreds of examples of Marden's work by using Google Images.)

First off, the new museum is more impressive than I expected. The rooms, for all their rectilinear design, have a much more spacious feeling than the old MOMA. Each work seems to have it's own space. The new architecture uses light in a way that reflects the nature of the museum contents, letting it pour through in unexpected, oblique but attractive ways, cutting it up in ways that never compete with the works but rather make the space itself a work in the modernist mode. Atriums and wide corridors seem to c
onnect the spaces in a way that lets you feel the museum as a whole, rather than a mere labyrinth of rooms and floors. Okay, I'm impressed. Doesn't mean I'm going to rush out and spend $20 for this very often (have I mentioned that admission to the museum is now $20?) but I might be inclined to recommend that everyone do it at least once.

The Brice Marden show was presented on two floors; the lower floor contained the drawings, and the paintings were on an upper floor. For what it's worth (now that the show is over) I think it was a mistake to tour the drawing exhibit first. Unless perhaps you are an artist or professional critic or curator, it is very hard to appreciate what is going on in the drawings without knowing the paintings. Many of them are not mu
ch more than charcoal-gray surfaces with a narrow line of light showing through at some point. Others were broken up into rectangular forms with the regularity of brickwork. It was not the lack of recognizable figures that made them inscrutable, but rather the lack of any variation between similar geometric parts other than minor tonal changes. There were also a few in which Marden used "found art" like postcards, and some in which the lines were freer and more sinuous. I cannot say I enjoyed any of this greatly; in fact, I felt a bit stupid for having come in with a decent amount of knowledge of art, art history and modernism, and still being unable to discern much more than gray rectangles and squiggles in these works.

When I got to the paintings I not only felt more in my element; I obtained a headset. (The headset, I'm happy to report, did not cost $20; it was free.) The recording consisted largely of
interviews in which Marden would talk about individual works, or his work as a whole. I will refer to it more in a bit; let me first say something about the paintings.

There were two major groups among the paintings. The first consisted of works with monochromatic blocks of color arranged in various ways, from two or three side by side panels to slightly more complex arrangements. When I say "monochromatic" I mean that they appeared at first sight to be monochromatic; but usually on closer inspection there was actually a lot of variation in tonal density and texture, albeit it within a fairly tight chromatic range and on a mostly smooth surface. The second group consisted of lines snaking around the canvas on a more or less monochromatic background. (Please note that the examples used here may not be the exact paintings displayed in the MOMA show; they are representative examples I found on the web.) The lines occasionally reminded one of Jackson Pollock in their intensity and freedom, but Marden attributes them to the influence of Chinese calligraphy. The paintings often had names denoting places, people, and events; but lest anyone think it a simple matter whether the notion of "representation" can be applied here, consider the fact that the only link between the title and the content was that the colors (and perhaps in some vague way the relationship among color blocks or lines) occurred to Marden in the course of experiencing or thinking about the subject. No one could ever tell from the three vertical blocks of paint in "Pearl" that it was "about" Janis Joplin.

As far as formal techniques, they were simple to the point of disappearance. There was an occasional symmetry, e.g., one painting consisted of two "T's" composed of various color blocks on either side of a larger "T". In the later works, one could say that the lines that weave through the painting generally fill the space in a fairly even way. That cannot be unintentional; there was certainly nothing preventing the artist from filling only a part of the canvas, or rather, of the background, since the canvases are pretty much always covered with a background color. There is, one could also say, a certain rhythm and intensity to the paintings: in the color block paintings the shades were clearly very carefully chosen, they complement or bounce off one another in a certain way. Great pains were taken to prepare the surfaces to a certain uniformity of texture, gloss, density, etc. The "calligraphy" paintings - which do not even remotely resemble actual calligraphy, as do some of the works of Franz Kline, for example, or occasionally (perhaps by mere chance) Robert Motherwell - can be variously described as sombre, joyful, frenetic, placid, and the like. The difference in emotional qualities suggests suggests both differences in content and in the formal techniques used to convey it. By analogy, an instrumental work of music has no visual content at all, but normally listeners would agree that it is either sad or happy, serious or playful, and the like. This is more or less an acknowledgment that the work, however inscrutable, has qualities that the artist (or composer) meant to convey and that he used some technical methods, not always obvious, to do so.

However, everything that can be said of the formal nature of Marden's work is highly metaphorical. And what can be said of their content is even more speculative. There is a definite point of disjunction here between the artist and the audience: there is what Brice Marden felt and thought of while creating the work, and there is what the viewer feels and thinks of while looking at it. Attempts to communicate across this gap are no more than reports by one side to the other; Marden's discussions of the works' titles and origins not only do not create meaning in the works themselves for the audience, they do not even have much impact on what the audience sees in the work. The block painting represented above is called Range. I suppose it could be about the prairie, and that the colors play off its dry, dusty palette, or the colors of horses or buffalo that roam there - the color range of the "range". But if someone told me it refers merely to a color range in the abstract or to the range in my kitchen I would feel neither more nor less guided. Such names and discussions express the artists thoughts and emotions across a gap over which at best the flimsiest bridge can exist.

This is not the case with all art. Figurative art often tells a story of sorts, and the meaning of the story is the meaning of the painting. The story may be that of The Execution of Maximillian, as in Manet's work which is the subject of another current show at MOMA; or it may be that the expression of this or that bourgeios patron refelcts her standing and certain social rules and constraints of her time. These thoughts are at least in some sense in the work itself. Given enough collateral information a sensitive viewer can make a reasonable guess as to what is expressed, or at least narrow down the range of reasonable interpretations to very few. Marden's work, like all abstract art, tells nothing like this. Or to put it another way, the collateral information needed to read into the work this meaning rather than that includes what was going on in the artist's mind at the time of creation: exactly the information that the interpreter is supposed to back out of the work in the other case.

Marden refers to this situation in one of his comments. He adopts the view that abstract painting contains greater expressive possibilities than figurative painting. Why? "When you look at it, you have nothing to go on but yourself. You're there, and it's there, and that's what you have to go on." This argument does not work for me. It says, essentially, that the great expressive possibilities of abstract art are the result of your feeling whatever it is you feel when you look at it. That is, abstract art is "expressive" in that it permits you to do some expressing. But this relegates abstract art to the value level of any found object that you can look at for a while and feel something - a brick wall, a torn poster, a cloud, a smudged apron, a dirty sidewalk. Who needs paint, canvas, or artists if this is the case? Let's just do abstract photography. I think Marden is a bit on the defensive here. Consider the monochromatic block paintings. You can read weightlessness or timelessness or spirituality or other subtle qualities into a Rothko, but that is partly due to their irregularity. The strict geometrics of Marden's monochromes makes
even this very difficult. You can admire the apparent planes and complexity of a Pollack, the frenetic activity of a late Kandinsky or Cy Twombly, the luminous motion of a Mondrian, the dreamlike quality of a Klee or Miro. With Marden's "calligraphy" paintings you can at least feel moved, in a sense, by the controlled unwinding of the form, like a spring that uncoiled within an enclosed space, an insect weaving a path or a particle tracing lines in a cloud chamber. All these are difficult calls, and the viewer who just does not get it cannot be called wrong or necessarily insensitive. But the viewer who claims to really get monochromatic color blocks must be "getting" in a way that is as self-contained as are Marden's thoughts when he creates the work.

If all Marden can say about the work is that it gives the viewer a platform for self-expression, I am not convinced that there is much inherent value in it. (Financial value's another matter; after this sort of canonization by MOMA, I suppose six figures would be a bargain price for one of his major works.) But I am not sure this is all he can say. He tells us to look at them from far away, then up close, then move back... which suggests that there is, for him, a particular way of viewing that should guide our expressive relationship to the work. (Rothko, who seems to be an obvious influence, allegedly suggested that people view his large, so-called "multiform" paintings from 18 inches away - a bit like sitting in the front row at the movie theatre.) He tends to leave paint marks along a narrow strip at the bottom of the canvas, or on the sides, and calls this a "history" of the creation of the work. So there is a narrative here, however obscure. Perhaps obscuring the history of creation is part of the meaning.

The most elaborate work in the show was also Marden's newest and largest work, one he suggests is not necessarily finished, entitled The Propitious Garden. This consists in two sets of six panels each, arranged on facing walls. The background in each of the panels in each of the sets represents one color of the rainbow, arranged in VIBGYOR order - except, hold the "I", Marden says he "didn't understand indigo" so that one was dropped. (I couldn't find any evidence that leaving out "I" was some sort of comment on personal identity or Wittgenstein's Tractatus, so I won't go there. What self-control...) On each of the backgrounds were painted the interlocking, snaking lines of Marden's recent work, each one a different color. Now here's the formal kicker: in each panel, the "top" line was the color of the background of the previous panel. And the difference between the two sets of panels is that they go in reverse order, or to put in another way, in the second set, the color of the top line becomes the color of the background in the next panel.

Kendall Walton points out in Mimesis As Make-Believe that all art is "representational" in at least the sense that this line or shape or color is represented as being "in front of" or "to the left of" that other one. If a blue line crosses any other line without breaking but no line crosses blue without breaking then blue is represented as being the "top" line. The Propitious Garden demonstrates this succinctly: not only is there a "top" line/color, but it is "generated" in some sense by the previous panel, and the line crossings are carefully controlled while giving a sense of freedom as in his other later paintings. That formal technique made me feel some connection with this piece that I did not feel with the monochromes, and made the other later works more approachable, as if they were somehow leading to something like this. Moreover I felt a certain sympathy for the desire to motivate lines and colors in this way. Perhaps this shows how little it really takes to go from hermetic work, where the artist's face is completely hidden, to work that genuinely expresses something across the gap I referred to earlier. I wanted to linger and be with this work, whereas the earlier rectangles made me want to move along until there was something to hold on to. Of course, not everyone would feel as I did: some might find the formal means artificial and harmful to the freedom expressed in the earlier paintings. To which I say, absolute freedom is no freedom at all; freedom without constraint is a barrier to creativity. IMHO. And I doubt that the apparent Pollock-like freedom in the other later works is really free in this sense. Marden even mentions self-imposed constraints drawn from the art of calligraphy. There may be many others as well. The space, as I said, is surely not filled randomly.

Finally, let's talk about one of Marden's lengthier and more interesting comments. He says that "the history of modern art is tightening the relationship of the image to the plane." According to Marden, they become united in Cezanne. In abstract art, "you try to keep the plane and the image locked together". He invokes the following analogy: "If you imagine a sheet of glass that's invisible, you put that over the surface of the painting, you reduce it down to nothing, that becomes the plane. The image in a painting is projected from that plane." The ideas of the image being "locked together" with the plane and being "projected" from it tend to clash a bit. But at any rate the concept seems to be that the linear perspective of the Renaissance, with it's vanishing points and chiaroscuro, is slowly compressed until it disappears in Cezanne. At that point art is free to use the surface itself, rather than hide the fact that there is a surface. This thought does go a long way toward helping us understand some developments in the 20th century, like Jackson Pollack, who laid his canvases flat and squeezed paint onto them, and Morris Louis, who held them at an angle and dripped paint down them. These artists really used the surface without apology! Yet I wonder if this really characterizes all abstract art. The art of Yves Tanguy is abstract but maximally perspectival. Luc Sonnet, whose work I mentioned in a previous post, employs abstraction within the context of a kind of galactic depth of field. I don't know that I think Cezanne's work is exactly locked into the plane. I agree that perspective diminishes in importance, but if Cezanne folds everything into the plane, what to make of Picasso's Three Musicians? It seems even closer to the plane than Cezanne, but yet does not lack perspective entirely. In Marden's later work, one has to imagine depth and perspective, but he seems to be willing to license us to find what expression we can in the painting, so it's hard to see how plane and picture are "locked together". But if this is the way Marden wants us to imagine things in his work, that is a clue that can help one appreciate it in the absence of identifiable references.

Here are some analogies to think about. First: several years ago I saw a video work (can't remember the artist or where I saw it) which consisted in a man washing a facade of floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. The windows would be all covered with (soapy?) water and he would squeegee the water off with a rubber blade attached to a long pole. I can't recall the details exactly (was the washer inside or outside? which side was the camera on? was it projected from opposite perspectives on either side of the screen?) but the important point is this: as he cleared the water from the window the window washer slowly revealed the content behind it. In this work you could easily think of the window itself as the plane of the canvas and the window washer as the artist creating content. Second: I have used the following analogy for certain philosophical theories of photography (from which I demur) in which the photograph is said to be "transparent". Imagine that you are looking through a plate glass window, say, in some country house, and that you have the ability at any point to freeze the scene behind the window, then remove the window, image intact, frame it and hang it in a gallery in New York. This is how some philosophers conceive of photographs. In this sense I guess photography would be the perfect realization of Marden's unity of plane and picture. (And it is well known that photography had a significant impact on the art world in the 19th century, so his location of the collapse of picture into plane in Cezanne would be roughly compatible with this.)

Third, and most interesting, I thinK: immediately after completing my tour of the Marden show I found myself in a room dominated by one of Monet's magnificent water lily panoramas. I was still thinking about Marden's remarks, and looking at the painting it suddenly struck me that in this painting, the water is the surface of the canvas itself. The water plays the primary role here, not the lilies or the footbridge or the fantastic wash of colors, all of which have tremendous visual power. What counts is the water: it is that which produces the form and generates the content of the image. The bridge, the foliage, everything else is reproduced in the water, and without this reproduction there is no scene here. And it is just because the water lilies share the plane of the water, and do not require this reproduction, and do not attempt to constitute a separate reality from the surface, that the painting is in some sense "about" them. They are, in a sense, the unity of image and plane. Here is a painting, then, which utilizes water as a metaphor for the canvas itself, and once you realize this a sort of furious drama unfolds between the real and virtual surface as they compete to constitute the plane of the image.

I still don't know if I am ready to accept Marden's view of the merging of plane and image as the key to understanding abstract art. But I know that I would never have had so deep an appreciation of Monet's water lilies if he had not put that thought in my head.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Eighth Blackbird in The Kitchen

Birds of a feather flock together, they say. Unfortunately, few birds match up to the Parrot for feathers, and p.s. the Parrot doesn't use Flock to edit his blog (couldn't get it to work with Blogger). Be that as it may, we are happy to associate with non-predatory birds of all stripes, or even those lacking stripes. We therefore headed down to The Kitchen last Friday (yes, that's how long it takes me to post these days) to rescue a few imperiled turkeys, and instead found some perfectly contented Blackbirds making a joyous racket like we haven't heard since the last cicada festival.

"What's all this about?", you unfeathered species may ask. For starters, Eighth Blackbird is an ensemble of musicians who specialize in performing music by contemporary classical composers (I am aware of the near-oxymoron there, but let it slide for now). The small ensemble sports a couple of woodwinds (flute and clarinet), violin and cello, piano, and about a many percussion instruments as you can fit on a medium-sized stage.

The Parrot likes anyone who likes Wallace Stevens, and the name of the group obviously comes from Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (even if it didn't say so on their web site), the eighth verse of which has to do with musical accents and rhythms. Does Eighth Blackbird realize that when Stevens says, "I know too that the blackbird is involved in what I know", the blackbird represents death, the end of the musical tone, at which point the music can first sound in our imagination and become a thing of beauty? The Parrot is pleased to announce that Green represents life in the imagination for Stevens, which can happen only after the death of the real; that's why you have: "The blackbird sat in the cedar-limbs. The day was green." At least on my interpretation. Anyway...

The Kitchen, it so happens, is not the place where the parrots' and blackbirds's friends turn to roasts, but rather a central institution of the so-called Downtown arts scene since the 1970's. "Downtown" here is an aesthetic term and not a location. The Kitchen is now on West 19th Street in Chelsea, center of the contemporary plastic arts scene and a whole lot less geographically Downtown than it used to be. (The Knitting Factory, on the other hand, is geographically more downtown than it used to be when it was a Downtown performance space, but it is no longer aesthetically Downtown, just a concert space for a hodge-podge of rock groups.) The Kitchen maintains its Downtown aesthetic in its home between the Chelsea Piers sports center, the art galleries where anyone who fancies themselves an art collector goes to find the Next Big Thing, and the offices of the Dia Foundation arts center, where the Next Big Thing has already been found and labelled.

Going to a concert at The Kitchen was a an experience that reminded me of a song by one of the Parrot's favorite songwriters, Eric Alter of the Sloe Guns, who writes, "Even though he's never been, he dreams of going back to Dillon". At least I don't recall ever going to a performance at The Kitchen, though browsing through my 35 years worth of collected concert programs might convince me otherwise. So why the sense of eternal return? Well, I suppose this is excuse enough for a little name-dropping. H.A. Monk, under the name he was more commonly known by before becoming the world's least-linked-to Blog Star, has made the acquaintance of some interesting personages over the years. Perhaps the first was Rhys Chatham,
with whom I sat in theory classes at the Third Street Music School many moons ago. I recall Rhys as a red-haired flutist with a large smile, but shortly thereafter he became the first music director of The Kitchen (and according to Wikipedia played the trumpet - but I swear that at that time he was running around with a flute). Our theory teacher, Tom Manoff, was a hip sort of guy who encouraged young musicians to experiment with new music. I was about 13 at the time. I used to travel with another musician friend of mine down to Sam Goody's record store and come home with a bag full of LP's. Sometimes we would bring home some contemporary (we're talking late 1960's) atonal work, which appeared to match the self-styled weirdness of our adolescent minds, and we soon started writing pieces which we thought of as tongue-in-cheek caricatures of what were had heard. But when I brought some of them to Manoff he took them very seriously, gave me some advice and encouraged me to keep writing. At one point he took the class to visit the electronic music studio of Morton Subotnik, who used an early device known as the Buchla synthesizer. This would have been roughly around 1967-8, when he was creating his famous pieces Silver Apples of the Moon and The Wild Bull. Chatham was also associated with a composer named Glen Branca. When my brother and I started a rock band in the early 1980's we rented a studio from a fellow named Jules Baptiste (no more his real name than a parrot called H.A. Monk), who was at that time performing with Branca. These are the people who created the Downtown music scene, and people you have probably heard of, like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, were some of the artists who emerged from it.

The Kitchen today carries on the tradition of music that was once called "experimental". Fair to say, it no longer sounds very experimental; be it the atonality of the Vienna School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern), the adventures of the New York School (Morton Feldman, John Cage, etc.), the aleatoric compositions of Cage or Stockhausen, the droning of a Terry Riley or John Adams composition, or the various modes of electronica, it all sounds pretty standard, even historic. Once you get into exploring sound as sound, it opens up everything, but also closes off the idea of a new way or trend. Everything is experimental; so nothing is experimental. Everything is already modern; there ain't no "post-modern", because modernism already bit that one off. That's where I think we have gotten to; and why "contemporary classical" may not be such an oxymoron after all.

Nevertheless, this is far from an indictment of new music. In fact, once composers have settled into this system of sound exploration, what remains is an almost unlimited sphere for development and improvement of the ideas and techniques that once seemed to be so out on a limb that only a few gangly modernists would dare travel it. Since the more or less final, more or less complete overthrow of traditional Western classical tonality in the 1950's (to fix an arbitrary but not inaccurate date), composers have been free to build on one another, taking off many times from the same place but exploring the territory in a less naive way. It may still be hard to love some of this music, but it should not longer be hard to hear beauty, at least in bits and pieces, or to recognize mastery of the form.

Of the four pieces performed by Eighth Blackbird, the one I was most looking forward to was Jennifer Higdon's Zaka (2003). Why? Well, she was born in Brooklyn, for one, though she didn't grow up here but in Atlanta. But more importantly, I was floored by a 2004 recording of her Cityscape and Concerto for Orchestra (by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra) and wanted to hear more. As it turned out, it was not my favorite piece on the program; rather more strident than I expected, whereas the orchestral pieces are well endowed with appealing sonorities. Nevertheless, it had some luxurious moments and exhibited what each of these pieces did: a maturity of sonority and texture that goes deeper than experimentation. I think back to pieces for similar ensembles from an earlier period - pieces by Luciano Berio, Edgar Varèse, Lukas Foss, and others, and what I hear now that I did not hear then is a kind of compositional comfort zone, where unusual sonorities are offered not in the mode of, "What about this?", but rather "Let's develop things this way". To put it another way: once composers relied on classical techniques (canon, fugure, inversion, prolongation, etc.) to give formal unity to these new and odd sounds. Now, if I am hearing things correctly, we are comfortable enough with the idea of these textures that the sonorities themselves can figure among the formal elements of the piece.

Sound itself was surely one of the central elements of Gordon Fitzell's haunting electro-acoustic piece evanescence (no relation to the goth-rock group by that name - or at least, none that I'm aware of). The range of sonority here can be gleaned from two of the most significant elements in the piece: one, electronically generated, resembles the sound of a stereo cartridge that is either past its prime or hosting too much static, producing a zitzitzitzitzit until you run over to remove the needle from the record; the other, the ghostly whir of continuously rubbed wineglasses. Between these two lay an extraordinary range of moods and textures. Often the electronics consisted of modifications of the recently produced sounds of the instruments; using echo effects and other techniques there seemed to be, again, something much more serious than experimentation going on, something again reaching for serious formal development by means of these techniques. To say this is not to diminish the early electro-acoustic work of people like Mario Davidovsky; only to indicate that there seems to have been a kind of social maturation process within the field, with Berio and Stockhausen and Davidovsky and many others brilliantly setting the stage, and others taking up the call to deepen the drama.

Despite the sonic variety of the first two pieces, Steven Mackey managed to cull yet more new sounds from the players in his 1989 piece indigenous instruments (also presented in a recording as strange imaginary remix (2006)), through techniques such as downtuning the violin G string; as did David M. Gordon, who used quarter tone harmonies in
Friction Systems (2002, rev.2005). Gordon's piece began, ended and frequently returned to a regular rhythmic tutti - or to put it in English, he had everyone banging on their instruments at the same time in eighth notes. This seemed most effective where it was most aggressive, perhaps because it reminded me of certain moments at a Cecil Taylor concert; but I can't say I found it very compelling otherwise. In general the piece seemed to harp on dissonance for its own sake - a characteristic I find less than satisfying. Even if it is a little bit pedantic to say so, it bears keeping in mind that music can have a direct effect on the body, and that this effect can be quite unpleasant.

The musicians who comprise Eighth Blackbird are clearly not only competent but very dedicated to the music they present, sometimes going to the length of performing this difficult material from memory. This leads into the last observation I want to make: it is a unique characteristic of contemporary classical music that it is largely nourished by small ensembles dedicated to performing it. The early Downtown composers actually formed their own ensembles to perform their music, touring like rock groups; today we also have groups like the Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird to carry the torch. Not that the New York Philharmonic and other mainstream ensembles don't play contemporary music. But to gather an audience predisposed to appreciate new music you must specialize in that sort of thing; and be prepared to face some empty seats if you play a large venue.

Does this mean that after all this time and effort, modern music has failed, and classical music is really just a short list of increasingly distant tonal museum pieces? This, I submit, is not a well-formed question. "Classical music" is not a unity that has a unified history. There is no period of more than 100 years in the entire history of Western civilization in which the music was of consistent nature and purpose or the audience was consistent in size or class composition. There was a period from mid-19th century to some time in the 20th when classical music was written for large middle-class and bourgeois audiences and succeeded in attracting them. During this time a cannon of works from the early 18th century to the early 20th was developed, and this cannon continued to generate ticket sales until quite recently. Put on a concert of pieces from the last 200 years, all of which are well ouside this cannon, and the audience will be about the same size as it would be for a program of new, atonal music, though the bodies attending may be different. New, non-tonal music has consistently attracted audiences for nearly 100 years now. When Pierre Boulez was music director of the Philharmonic he presented a series of very well attended "rug concerts" (you sat on the floor) in Avery Fisher Hall. The Museum of Modern Art presents outdoor concerts of new music every summer - last time I was there it was hard to find an empty space to sit. Back in October I attended a concert of atonal 20th-21st century music at a concert space in the Juilliard School; the program included works by Davidovsky, Donald Martino and Fred Lerdahl, as well as an impressive piano piece by my co-worker Sheree Clement. Empty seats were sparse in this small venue. Two weeks later I heard a program of less challenging 20th century vocal music by composers like Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein, sung by the group Cantori. This was a larger hall (the magnificent auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture), and it was not exactly full, but again, there was a substantial audience. I think we should just give up on the idea that if people don't come in the same numbers to hear a concert of music by Schoenberg or John Cage or the young composers presented by Eighth Blackbird, that this music has "failed" or been shunted aside by rock, jazz and other popular idioms. The shape of classical audiences will continue to grow, contract, and redefine itself over the course of history. That's all you can really say about it. And for a parrot that's already saying a lot.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Folk Seen: WIlly Mason

I know what you're thinking: the Parrot has been busy storing seeds for the winter that never happened, and hasn't been getting out much. Actually, the Parrot has lit on a lamppost or three the last couple of weeks and has been too busy to write about it. Actually there is a furious snowfall going on at this very moment, making me wish I'd left for work at a decent hour today. So here's one tidbit before my memory gets as cold as the weather finally is; maybe I'll come up with a few more shorties until I finish some of the longer posts I'm working on.

Last Thursday I was dutifully browsing the Village Voice in search of some very hot alternative musical act. (Alternative to what? Er, Christina Aguilera, maybe?) The closest thing I could find to this description was a group (I guess) that I had never heard of (so much the better) at the Mercury Lounge. So I get off the F train at Second Avenue, and, being a New Yorker for most of my 50 years, start walking in the wrong direction. (Not merely opposite, but at right angles, which takes much more effort.) That lasts about a block or two until I figure out this is not getting me any closer to the Mercury Lounge. So I turn around. About to round the corner, I encounter a crowd outside a small club. Here's a question for you: how do you locate a very hot countercultural property in New York City: (a) read the Village Voice listings; (b) go to the East Village around 8:00 p.m. and see where there's a crowd; (c) ask H.A. Monk? Okay, (c), like flattery, will get you everywhere, but (b) is probably the better answer.

I was in front of the Rockwood Music Hall, a name that was undoubtedly chosen in the spirit that one might, say, name a punk rock trio "The Secaucus Symphony Orchestra". (Secaucus is on the tip of every New Yorker's tongue this week, having provided us with an olfactory reminder of why we go to New Jersey to fill up on gas: there's just more of it there.) The crowd outside was indeed attempting to file in sideways to the tiny club, whose few tables occupied about as much space as the tightly packed bodies standing around them. So I asked one of these hopeful patrons outside who was playing and he told me it was Willy Mason. This name meant nothing to me, but since I could see a lone acoustic guitarist on stage I asked if that was him. Indeed it is, he answered, surprised himself to find that the 8:00 performance had actually begun by 8:10. I mentioned the Mercury Lounge show I was heading for and he told me, with the authority of a true East Village resident, "this is better". Done deal, in I go - sideways, of course.

Willy Mason (could this be a stage name adapted from Mason Williams, composer of "Classical Gas"?) is a young folk singer who is, what can you say, getting around, and obviously has a bit of a following. He croons the sort of semi-alienated folk material that is popular in a day when there is nothing quite as horrible as the Vietnam War, double-digit inflation and crumbling, neglected inner cities to excite the kind of emotions of the folk music scene of the 1960's. Okay, there is the Iraq War; see Jon Pareles excellent recent piece in the Times on how attitudes towards it are obliquely reflected in conteporary music. There are still plenty of inner cities, but they are more being eyed as targets for gentrification than neglected. Double digit inflation has been replaced by 6-digit bonuses for investment analysts and fund managers. It's not time for dancin' in the street (hey wait a minute, that was the 1960's, wasn't it?) but it's not time for songs like "Masters of War" or "Southern Man" either. I guess. So Mason sings about people with various degrees of separation from one another, adding
vaguely philosophical sentiments to spice the mix. To someone he addresses as "my brother", whose girlfriend he has apparently absconded with, he asks, "Will you hold on to what is gone? Will you cling to the rock when the river moves on?" In another tune he ponders the depressing question, "If we're all dying what makes us distinct?" Nothing wrong with this sort of musing. In fact, I think he's a very talented songwriter; it takes a certain kind of sensibility to just hit that edge of alienation without going over the top. What's the alternative: dragging your aduience through the mire without connecting to them? Complacency in the face of a society that let's people steal elections and then pretends to promote democracy by force of arms? Nonsense. A middle road is all that's open. Mason strides it with confidence.

As for his music, I liked that too. Not breaking any new ground here, just solid tunes, backed by guitar work that is occasionally impressive while avoiding flashy technical tricks. (If I see one more acoustic guitarist stopping harmonics with their right hand while doing pull-offs and hammer-ons with the left I'm going to lock them in a room for a week and pipe in Stanley Jordan and Van Halen records - been there, done that, get over it...) I don't particularly like the quasi-soulful songwriting of people like Lyle Lovett and John Mayer; if I want white soul I'm going to listen to the Righteous Brothers, who were both whiter and more soulful than these guys. Folk music and blues have common backgrounds but I find that mixing them haphazardly creates a half-baked product in which one side detracts from the other. Maybe that's also why I don't like rock musicians like Bob Seger and Meatloaf (see my previous post on "1043 Greatest Rock Songs"). Imagine a blend of gospel and English traditional music, in which the rhythmic flow that carries gospel and the best Motown soul to great heights is undermined by the regularity of a folk tune, and the beauty of the folk melody is cut off by the inflections of gospel: that's how I hear a great deal of the popular music that leaves me cold. Anyway, Willy Mason for the most part avoids this and writes basic tunes, simply sung with sincerity and understated emotion.

So there's a formula for contemporary urban folk; it's not anything that, say, John Gorka or Greg Brown hasn't been doing for 15 years, but it still works, and it's not as easy as it sounds to make it happen. So welcome to the club. The interesting thing, to my mind, is that Mr. Mason, a decent performer albeit one who spends about 90% of his time on stage with his eyes closed, has built enough of a reputation to have the unerringly artsy East Village crowd waiting outside until they can squeeze in sideways to hear him. A kind of unofficial funeral was held for the New York City folk scene when the Bottom Line closed last year; the folk collective at Speakeasy, and then the venue itself, had folded many years earlier, and Gerde's Folk City went under long before that. (Perhaps it was symbolic that a final attempt to save it involved a fundraising concert sponsored by the Dr. Pepper music festival, a venue where one was one typically encountered the Gang of Four or the Talking Heads rather than Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.) Folk venues were going under, no one was coming out to the concerts, Dylan went electric, blah blah blah. Well, Dylan went back to acoustic (at least occasionally), and the folk club scene long ago shifted to Alphabet City (the name we lovingly apply to Manhattan's lower east side avenues A, B, C and I think there's a D, though even folk musicians won't go that far for a gig) and Brooklyn and college coffeehouses and the like. As for the audiences, there may be as large an audience for folk music as there ever was, but it is very diversified; nobody stands in the position of the Weavers, ready to fill Carnegie Hall, and even a semi-star like David Wilcox could not always fill the Bottom Line. But people are standing in the street and squeezing through cracks to see Willy Mason. So life can't be all bad. I guess that's what his music reflects: not all bad; not good enough to get complacent about.

Then I met my girlfriend for dinner on St. Marks Place, and realized that the structure that now holds the Chinese restaurant we ate in and (egads) Chipotle
used to be the Electric Circus. You know, I can probably get over Folk City closing, but this is a bit too much.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Simple Gifts, or Colorful Squawks for Dreary Holidays

Happy Holidays, everyone. Here's a little holiday wrap-up from Santa Claws, aka the Hannukanary.

1. Ever wish you could have Christmas in July? Well, get a parrot, we're red and green all year! Better to give than to receive? So give someone a parrot; it's better than receiving a California condor, especially if you have pets or small children! Parrot-giving can be thrifty too; you get a nice little Quaker parrot for less than an iPod Nano. It can last for 25-30 years; how long before your Nano is either busted or just soooooo uncool that even your 10 year old kid doesn't want one? The Quaker also compares favorably with seven swans a-swimming ($4,200), six geese a-laying ($300), or four calling birds ($479.96; $432.00 online); though it may cost you more than three French hens ($45; $195 online - I guess you have to get them shipped from Marseilles); two turtle doves ($40; $130 online) or a partridge in a pear tree ($144.99/$211.66 - keep in mind the tree has to be big enough to hold a partridge!). Think I'm making this up? Then you're obviously not familiar with the PNC Christmas Price Index. Foresquawked is forearmed: a Macaw or Amazon is going to cost you bigtime! But no more than a 37-inch flat-screen plasma tv! And parrots won't rot your brain!

2. As I sat there on Christmas Day listening to the pitter-patter of rain on my windowsill, bits of a Christmas song for the era of global warming started to gel:

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones that used to snow
Now there's glaciers missing
And lovers kissing
By tulips instead of mistletoe

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
With every mortgage check I write
Though the heat is off every night
Still my oil bill's high as a kite.

3. My brother the converted evangelical Christian inadvertently convinced me that it was okay to get an evergreen of some sort and decorate it. Not that my Jewish family ever showed much reticence about doing so when I was growing up; and since I married a Christian woman (one who went to church about as much as I attended synagogue) there was every reason to get a tree. Now that we have separated I had to again confront the issue of The Tree. It was therefore fortuitous that my brother reiterated for me the rationale behind his refusal to celebrate Christmas in any way, shape or form: it has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, whose birthday we don't actually know but who was almost certainly not born on Christmas Day; it was adapted from pagan rituals; it has become a crass commercialization of a religious occasion. Rejoice, rejoice, Halleleujah! I can get a tree! I, after all, have no intention of celebrating the birth of Christ (nor condemning it; I just don't get all excited about anyone's 2006th birthday); pagan rituals are the basis of western civilization (even leaving aside the fact that a heap of Christian philosophy is based on the teachings of that eminent pagan, Socrates); and since religion has been the cause of much war and suffering for about 30 centuries, whereas I need some excuse to give my kids presents once in a while, all the better to turn it into an orgy of selflessness (to avoid dirty little words like 'commercialism'). So, tree it was. Now, do you think it would be alright if I hung just that one little figurine of the Vigin Mary....?

4. I lit the Hanukkah candles candles every night for eight nights, as I always do. And I ended up with extra candles in the box, as I always do. It's as simple as this: 2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9=44, that's how many you need, and that's how many you get. I've checked the math each year, and it's the same every time.
There are just eight nights, and you have to give your kids a present on each one, after you light the candles. If your kids happen to not be around some of those nights, it doesn't matter: eight nights, eight gifts. Each. Somehow I always end up with extra candles. I'll never understand it.

5. You may have gathered from previous items that the tree in my living room was to be called a "Hanukkah bush". Guess again. Two bushes are enough. We're happy to go with Kislev Conifer, Maccabee Pine, or even Shrub of Judah, but Bushes are O-U-T out!! Okay,
maybe we do need a Burning Bush. The Secret Service won't like it, though.

6. I had a brief email exchange with the chief administrator of the agency where I work, regarding the meaning of Christmas. It began with a somewhat glib answer to a glib query, but my answer elicited from him the response that Christmas is "what you make it". Sometimes by not being philosophical it is possible to bring out what is philosophical in others. So - what did you make of it? Or Hanukkah for that matter? My more religious Jewish friends tell me they look forward to the Sabbath because it allows one to turn away from the tribulations of the world and maintain contact with the spiritual side - with God, if you are so inclined. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the High Holy Days in general, even more so. Hanukkah is not among the High Holy Days; it commemorates a victory and a miracle and perhaps other things, but it does not really offer you the opportunity for a more direct communion with the spiritual realm. I tend to think that for all its apparent importance - connection with the Nativity, the Immaculate Conception, the visit of the Three Kings ("you can keep the myrrh...") - Christmas is much the same. If you can indeed make of it what you wish, it cannot be a terribly important religious holiday.

7. Perhaps this is why the protectors of the Christian faith have looked the other way while the gods of Capital and Credit have turned the holiday into a phantasmagoria of playthings and ice shows and gluttony. In the city, at least, the season is certainly more conducive to a closer walk with Bing Crosby than with Jesus, Judah, or God. Between the piped-in carols, the piped-out carols, the lighting competitions, the creche competitions, the streetcorner Santas and the moose-sized menorahs, it is probably the most difficult time of year to get in touch with whatever spiritual energy Judaism or Christianity have to offer. Didn't Jesus allegedly throw the moneylenders out of the temple? But how are we going to pay for Playstation 3's without our credit cards? I've got it: put ATM's in churches, at least that's just to access your own money. Usually.

8. New Year's Day: finally, a great day to celebrate! First, the previous year was undoubtedly shitty, glad it's over. If you doubt that, tell me a single day last year when you looked at the newspaper and said, "Wow, look at the news, most of it's good." Okay, maybe Wednesday, Novemeber 8. Name another day... Second, the Christmas season is over! (See previous paragraph.) Third, Hanukkah is over! Whew, no more gifts. I did get them each eight, didn't I? I think so...

9. New Year's Resolutions:
a. Get all the books out of boxes and onto shelves.
b. Make about 20 more shelves.
c. Start getting to work on time.
d. Only make about a dozen more shelves. In my spare time.
e. Get rid of some books to make space for other things.
f. Don't try to sell them, just throw both of them out.
g. But if you do try to sell them get a good price.
h. Read all the books you already have and meant to read last year.
i. This year keep a list of all the books you want to read. No, on second thought, better not. (See h. above.)
j. Get rid of some of those old records that you never listen to anyway.
k. Which old records that I never listen to, huh? Oh, that one; well, okay, maybe that one.
l. Spend your time making music and philosophy and not writing blogs.
m. Right...
n. Stop reading Wittgenstein, you're starting to ask yourself questions.
o. What's wrong with that?

10. This New Year's Day was particularly special for me. Rain, who cares. My companion and I spent Sunday in New Hope, PA, just looking at shops and picking up little things, and then went out and spent and ate way too much for dinner. Then we came back to our bed and breakfast, on a little farm where the owners raise and train thoroughbred horses. (Five or six of these stately creatures greeted us through windows in the main office before the innkeeper showed up to check us in.) At midnight we watched the ball drop, of course. As always, I missed Guy Lombardo, who I never liked when he was around, but it was a family tradition: cheese, paté, champagne, Guy Lombardo. Nobody else missed him, as far as I could tell. Anyway, we hit the sack, still stuffed, and did not quite make breakfast at 10:00, when our very accommodating innkeepers had offered to serve it. When we finally made our way to the breakfast room, we entered a beautifully situated parlor, where the light that poured in was so much more stunning for all the gray outside. Just yards away we watched a small brook calmly overrunning its banks into the pasture, the brown water gushing past one bridge, then another, beautiful and proud for all its murkiness. Inside were two small breakfast tables set for the only two guests this morning. Occupying much of the rest of the large, strangely brilliant room were framed pictures, stacked here and there. I thought they were lithographs, but they turned out to be products of a more modern process, called "giclee prints", which are essentially very high resolution digital prints made with archival inks. The images were stunning: highly complex abstract figuration, in glorious color (the Parrot approves!) with black ink outlines. Klee, Miro, and Kandinsky came to mind, but there was no question of imitation here: as I looked through the dozens of vivid images lying framed, on floor and tables and couches, nothing could have come through more forcefully than the presence of a unique hand and an extremely serious mind. The artist, I soon learned from the prints, was named Luc Sonnet, and the owner informed me that he was in the next room. I made his acquaintance shortly thereafter, and it was an exhiliarating experience for both of us. As it turns out - and I can hardly say I was shocked given the
impression of extraordinary significance that emanated from his works - he is a philosopher by training, having studied with several illustrious pundits at MIT, Yale and elsewhere. We talked of philosophy a little, but spirituality more, as that is the nature of his work. He also described to me events in which he creates live art at musical performances; you can experience one for yourself here. I have met quite a few other philosophers who are in the plastic or musical arts; often they have something to say about art through philosophy, but I have rarely met one who has expressed so deep a feeling for the philosophical underpinning of his artwork. We did not get into detail; I am looking forward to learning more. But I already feel that being on his plane for just a few moments has helped me reconnect with the spiritual side of my own work in music, poetry, photography. (He says he is a photographer too but I have not had the opportunity to see this side of his art yet; I expect to do so soon.) This was, finally, a Hanukkah gift and New Year's resolution in one package, a bit of inspiration and motivation from a kindred spirit. So the year begins on a a high note.