Sunday, November 07, 2010

Rural; urban

OR: COUNTRY MOUSE, city mouse. For a long time it's seemed to me possible, maybe even simple — too simple, you'll object — to divide elements of human culture into those two categories.

This first occurred to me through coming to know the music of Anton Bruckner: big, easy-paced symphonies. It's true they're often characterized as monumental, even architectural, and somehow that does seem appropriate, whatever it means. I can understand those who liken his symphonies to cathedrals. It helps the fancy to recall that he was a devout man and a church organist.

But it occurred to me an even more helpful entry to these cathedrals of music was by walking. It had occurred to me even before I read somewhere of Bruckner's own walks, long ones, from home to school, from home to church, across the flat Austrian plains in the countryside south of Linz. I'd already sensed a logical connection between Bruckner and Schubert, whose late music often has a similar walking tempo. Schubert did a lot of walking too, but not in the countryside; his walks took him across Vienna, as a century later Erik Satie's walks took him across Paris.

Beethoven walked too, preferring the countryside outside Vienna; but I don't think of him as the inveterate walker that Bruckner was. Nor do I think Mozart can have been much of a walker: serene as much of his music is, it has the serenity of contemplation, not of walking; besides, he must have been in far too much a hurry most of the time. (I recently re-read his letters; you can't imagine how much activity he packed into that short life.)

Some music just seems to exhale country air through its phrases and cadences. Bruckner; Berlioz; Webern. I know the knowledge forms the impression; the music itself can't be responsible. Copland's harmonic dispositions are as wide as Berlioz's, for example, and few composers write more urban music than Aaron Copland — as far as I'm concerned, even Rodeo and Appalachian Spring reveal their Paris-New York breeding. But perhaps this country quality is expressed in purely musical terms through tempo and, especially, articulation. The even duple stresses and repetitive phrase-structure of the slow movement of Schubert's Ninth Symphony is a perfect example of this.

Of course there are Country and City painters, too, and poets, and cooks. We saw a wonderful show of landscapes by Giorgio Morandi the other day. He's known for his still lifes, of course; the idea of Morandi landscapes was particularly intriguing. He spent nearly his entire life in the city, in Bologna, but his landscapes are almost entirely rural. The Italian and French words — paisaggio; paysage — convey the open-country feel better than does "landscape," I think (though there again I'm probably completely misled by language; one's own language is so familiar that it tends to convey qualities more prosaic than do the languages one's much less adept with).

I think there was only one painting in the exhibition, though, that did not contain among its pictorial matter a building, or a road, or some mark of man's hand on the landscape. Most of the paintings contained mute Italian country houses. These tend to be cubical, probably because that's the most efficient use of material to contain space while relying on straight lines, not curved ones. (Masonry hates curves.) The windows tend to be few and small, protecting interiors from wind, cold, and blazing sun.

There are no people or animals attending these buildings, not in Morandi's world, and the feeling aroused by these landscapes is very like that associated with his still lifes. In both cases, the real subject seems to be the permanence of the evanescence of human products — houses, barns, bottles, pitchers — as they stand stolid, mute, dissociated from the humanity that made them through their obvious lack of use at the moment.

Why should Morandi's seem a country mentality to me, rather than an urban one? Perhaps because through both his palette and his geometry he so often recalls Cézanne? Perhaps because the nature of Morandi's moods resonates with my own mood, when I am lost in nature, away from noise and crowds, steeping myself in self-in-nature apart from intellectual, urbane, societal distractions?

We began our current journey with three days in noise and crowds at the Salone di Gusto in Torino, virtually every waking moment subject to insistent, urgent demands of all five senses. (The last day, in fact, we took a light-hearted test of the skills our five senses had at dealing with both subtle distinctions and imperious attacks.) Then came three days in snowy, rural Savoie; then three in the countryside and the villages of the Valsusa.

A week ago, on Sunday, we were back in a crowd of people, gazing at those wonderful Morandi paintings in an exceptionally well-installed show at the Fundazione Ferrero in Asti; but we spent the night in an isolated country hotel. The next morning we drove through the mute, Morandi-like mists of the Po Plain to Milan, as stylishly busy a city as I care to deal with, and tested our mental-emotional balance negotiating between its crowds, traffic, and trattorias and the discursive conversation we enjoy with our friends Richard and Marta the next two days.

Wednesday we flew across the unseen Alps, through the night sky and above clouds, to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, where we made the mental shift from Italian to Dutch, bought a Dutch phone-chip, took a Dutch train to this very familiar provincial city in Gelderland, my favorite province. We're staying with another couple of friends, really old and close friends. We've been relaxing, more or less, conversing, walking, shopping, reading a little.

Last night, to get back to the subject, we took the bus, the four of us, to the nearby provincial capital Arnhem, where we saw the National Ballet in three major works: Krzysztof Pastor's Moving Rooms, to music by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Gorecki; Hans van Manen's Without Words, to Hugo Wolf's Mignon songs; and Benjamin Millepied's One Thing Leads to Another, to music by Nico Muhly. (Yes, all three titles were in English; yes, that choreographer's name is really Millepied.)

The opening work didn't interest me at all, either choreographically or musically, and I dozed. The other two, though, I found both beautiful and interesting. Without Words was basically a series of pas de deux, one woman (Igone de Jongh) responding to one or another of three men (Jozef Varga, Juanjo Arques, Alexander Zhembrovskyy) flirtatiously, or seriously, or disinterestedly, to the interesting musical accompaniment of Hugo Wolf songs presented through their piano accompaniment only, the voice (and therefor the texts) missing altogether. (Reinbert de Leeuw was the pianist, onstage though well back and ill-lit, and he was marvelous.)

One Thing Leads to Another was an altogether fascinating interpretation in dance, by no fewer than twelve male and twelve female dancers, of Muhly's always interesting, always clear, sometimes surprising score for large orchestra. The music is now choppy and insistent, now long-lined and insidious; its orchestration is skilful; its architecture logical but rarely obvious. (It was played splendidly, by the Olland Symfonia, conducted by Benjamin Pope.)

Millepied's choreography was attentive to small details while building large units. I thought it clear that he's found ideas in Mark Morris, in Cunningham, in Pina Bauch, just as Muhly clearly knows his Stravinsky, his John Adams, his Louis Andriessen. But everyone associated with this piece seemed quite comfortable knowing such sources, yet turning their contributions to new, idiomatic, individualistic expressions.

I call this quality sophisticated and urbane. It can be achieved by country artists: God knows Berlioz proved that. But last night it was the product of distinctly urban mentalities, and I was in exactly the right mood to deal with their "Strong Voices," as the entire program was called.

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...


I did a blog on Morandi here--

My impression of Morandi's life and work was of a monkish dedication to a limited set of principles, realized through a limited set of possible visual aparati.

Take away his studio paraphernalia, the garden exterior, and the buildings within view of his front door, and there's almost nothing left. "Subject-matter" had almost nothing to do with his art. In fact, it would certainly have "gotten in the way" of his discipline. How could an individual face have communicated what he was after?

Morandi's early work is like de Chirico, but he soon moved away from this doctrinaire surrealism, to a personal vision. Funnels, bottles trays, cans. Garden walls. It's all quite beautiful in its way, but it has nothing to do with what's being represented. It actually looks "suburban" to me, though Italy has never had what we Americans would consider "suburb" as such. I would give an ear to own an original Morando etching.