Friday, September 23, 2016

What is art?

Via della Luca Robbia, Torino, September 24, 2016— 
A CERTAIN AMOUNT of reflection on that thorny and unrewarding question lately, ever since a friend stopped by with a painting he'd made while on retreat among the redwoods at the former home of Morris Graves, near Eureka, California. He'd been enormously impressed with the house, built of local redwood by Japanese carpenters for the enigmatic maverick painter, and by the setting.

I asked how the house was furnished. Were there things Grave had made? Well, yes, paintings of course; the furnishings and cabinetry were wood and local…

But were there little objects he might have made, or did he leave primarily paintings? And what were the paintings like?

The conversation was so long ago (though in fact only two or three weeks) and we've covered so much ground since that I no longer recall the details. I have the impression the Graves presence was largely through the architecture and perhaps the feel that he had lived and worked there, that one was seeing his environment, and thus a good part of his "inspiration," through his sensibility. 

But had Graves whittled any of the door handles, or decorated anything, or was there only his art to be seen?

Ah, my friend replied, but what is art?

Oh, Henry, you don't ask easy questions, do you? I've been thinking about that one for decades. What is art? Well, it begins with attentiveness, and ends with devotion…

I was just riffing, of course, but Henry took me seriously. He takes everything seriously. Just look at the portrair he made of me several years ago, working in pencil on paper — a drawing hardly bigger than a postage stamp, enlarged above.

Art is not a noun, I think; art is a verb. Artist is a nount: an artist is a person for whom life is art. He makes things: they are objects, what the French call objets d'art. Often they are madee with crafft, and then art and craft become confused. 

While thinking about these things, before leaving home on our present trip, I came u[pon three things I've made over the years, in moments of art. I don't pretend to be an artist, but I have moments, I think, as do most of us, of art. Here they are:
The silver earrings I made (after Duchamp) for Lindsey back in the '60s
A painting I found at Deb's house in Flagstaff, maybe in the '80s
A little fake Brancusi whittled from a scrap of pine in the '90s

The earrings are kept in one of Lindsey's secret places, of course, and come out on special occasions. The painting hangs casually from a paper-clip hook at the end of a bookcase. (It's really a vertical, on a longer scrap of board; I've cropped it here as a sort of experiment. I like it better in the original format.)

The Brancusi lives on a windowsill over the kitchen sink, where it must annoy Clemencia who comes every couple of weeks to clean things up. So much clutter in the house! But they all contribute to Art…

At best, I think, art is what we live with. We've just spent three days with a friend in Amsterdam. Cynthia is herself an artist, but it's not easy for me to describe what it is she does: she works with organization, administration, the social or communitarian transformation of visual awareness and uncerstanding. Currently, for example, focussing on milk and wool, on seeing them more clearly both for what they are and for what they represent as products: things produced, distributed, consumed. Tough to verbalize.

Cynthia lives in art and I made a dozen photos or so quickly as we were preparing to say goodbye. Ultimately I'll do something with them, after I'm home; meanwhile I leave just one here:


Friday, September 02, 2016

Sonata 1: Bachelor Machine

Eastside Road, September 1, 2016—

MY FIRST PIANO SONATA was completed November 10 1989 but composed mostly in 1983 and 1984 while working on (in fact, as part of) the opera La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même after Marcel Duchamp’s painting of that name.

A long ballet dominating the middle of the second act, the center of the opera, was conceived as representing the mechanical workings of the Bride and her Bachelors, with solo material given, respectively, to violin and piano. This sonata is the piano material, lacking all other music (solo and choral singing and orchestral accompaniment) but fleshed out slightly with additional notes.

There are two intentions: to make an extended, somewhat virtuosic piece of music for solo piano, and to retain the arbitrary, quirky, stiff characteristic of Duchamp’s conception. The part of the bachelor apparatus that is most present is the “chariot” or “glider,” a contraption that comes and goes in a reciprocating movement, sounding its “litanies (slow life: everyday junk: onanism: buffer of life”) and actuating an elaborate train of machinery which ultimately fails to strip bare the bride.

Sonata: Bachelor Machine was first played by Eliane Lust, July 25, 1990, in San Francisco, on a wonderful program also including Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau, Bartók’s Sonata, 1926, and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. What a night!

Parts of the sonata were later used by the choreographer-stage director Margaret Fisher for mixed-media productions of her own: for these, Eliane returned to the piece, even performing it in costume while being towed, with her piano, from one side of the stage to the other.

The three movements are called Cadre, Desires and Frustrations, and Action and Inaction. I wouldn’t mind finding an English word for the title of the first movement, but nothing quite does what the French cadre does: framework, context, grouping...

The music of the Sonata can also make a fairly substantial Piano Concerto, a Big Concerto to complement the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, but it hasn’t yet been notated, except as part of the Duchamp opera. Perhaps one day.

Meantime, you can see the score here and listen to a synthesized recording here. It'll take about sixteen minutes.

Wind music



Eastside Road, August 31, 2016—

I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED to write a piece for woodwind quintet. I played bassoon in high school, and a little clarinet and French horn then and in my early college days, and playing chamber music for winds was a lot of fun.

I'm not sure I've ever heard a piece for winds that didn't please me. Especially the Czechs, of course: Janáček's Mladi has been a favorite since I found a ten-inch LP in a used record store in San Francisco back in the 1950s. But all the others: Reicha, Mozart, Haydn. Even Schoenberg, whose Wind Quintet I think is one of his masterpieces.

Here's how close I've come to writing for wind quintet:

1965 Ces désirs du quatuor, for any four musicians
1970: Bachelor Apparatus, for pairs of winds
1974: Parergon to woodwind quintet: trio, for English horn, bass clarinet, and bassoon
as you can see, not very close. There's another Parergon, for unaccompanied flute; and there's Rose, for unaccompanied clarinet. They were meant to go into a sort of kit for wind quintet, the idea being that any of the independent pieces can be pulled out of the box and played alone, or in sequence, or superimposed on one another if the performing space allows the scattering of the performers. I may get back to this one day.

In the meantime, as a self-imposed penalty for moving further into the ninth decade, I've been trolling the files, sorting out gems from dross. Precious few gems, but some intriguing relics: and among them a few tiny essays for recorder ensemble, written in early 1960, while approaching my 25th birthday.

I was working as a clerk at the post office in Berkeley, where I fell in with a serious, intelligent, good-humored fellow named Charles Watson. Like me, he played the recorder, and before long we’d put together a little recorder ensemble — three or four of us playing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorders.

Charles was an engaging man with connections in the community, ranging from the African Methodist Episcopal Church to a louche bar called The Chicken Box, and before long he suggested our ensemble should work up a little concert. He got us into the AME Church somehow, and we played a short program of mostly arrangements from Baroque masters.

I had not yet studied composition — only a couple of rudimentary college courses in harmony and modal counterpoint, in which I fared not so well, finding them tedious and, I thought in the heady flush of Modernism, irrelevant. The twelve-tone method attracted me, but I hardly knew what it was. I had come by the four-LP set of Anton Webern recordings put out by Columbia and was fascinated by the master's short, glittering pieces for instruments; no doubt they lay behind these juvenile recorder pieces.

I'm preparing scores of them in the original instrumentation, for soprano, alto, and bass recorders. In the course of doing that it occurred to me to arrange them for a more conventional ensemble, and here's the result. The upper two voices, for soprano and alto recorders, were left at the original pitch location and given to flute and oboe: the lower two, for alto and bass recorders, were transposed down an octave for clarinet and bassoon. A few other notes had to be transposed an octave one way or another to suit my new orchestra, and I got rid of a few fluttertongues that would have been too brash on double-reed instruments; otherwise the thing's the way it was, fifty-six years ago.

One reason for doing all this, perhaps: play with the fossil and see if it can lead to something. I might add some notes for French horn, and then I'd finally have addressed that old desire. Or I might insert silences along the way — I've come to like them more and more — or cut up the pieces and reconfigure the scraps, to get rid of that stuffy four-movement tempo layout. Don't know. We'll see.

Meantime, you can see the score here and listen to a synthesized recording here. It won't take much of your time. Three minutes.