MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

14 Ways of Describing the Rain

Here, the experimental film from 1929 by Joris Ivens to which Hanns Eisler wrote his Op. 70 variations-score in 1941 (Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben, in homage to his mentor on Schoenberg’s 70th birthday), using a Pierrot lunaire ensemble. This is what Daniel Barenboim selected to open the Boulez Saal’s first-anniversary concert on Sunday (alongside Schubert’s Introduktion und Variationen über Trockne Blumen and Pierrot lunaire itself).

The project inspired Theodor Adorno to collaborate with Eisler during their American exile in the 1940s on the short but potent book that first appeared in English as Composing for the Films (sic).

Eisler remarks:

What has brought about this research project is the question raised in recent years by musicians everywhere–is it really necessary to continue the current Hollywood practice of rehashing “original” scores with crumbs picked from the table of Tchaikowsky, Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky? Is a new musical material possible? May it not even be more useful and effective?

Not hard to transpose that into our situation today…

Filed under: aesthetics, film music, Hanns Eisler, Uncategorized

All the World’s a Reflected Dot

IMG_6658Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors is this year’s big blockbuster exhibit at Seattle Museum of Art. (Kusama moved to Seattle in 1957 for a year before heading to New York. In Seattle she had her first important American show at the legendary Zoë Dusanne Gallery.)

I’m still processing my contradictory reactions to Infinity Mirrors. Here, the usual inflated hype is actually more germane than usual, since it ironically underscores aspects of Kusama’s aesthetic.

T.S. Flock gets it in this piece for the Seattle Weekly, one of the most incisive critiques I’ve seen so far of the show.

This notion is what ties the Infinity Room format to Kusama’s other calling card: dots. The earth itself is a dot. Everything is a dot. In Kusama’s worldview, everything is atomized into dots in an incomprehensibly large universe, and the sense of a singular continuity (i.e., ego, monument, institution) is “obliterated” by her dots. …

After all, the Infinity Rooms are simultaneously self-negating and self-centering, just as Kusama’s dot motif sees a unified whole among discrete particles. Isn’t that a fine definition of love between humans?

Margo Vansynghel offers another insightful take:

 Framing the story as the “artist-in-mental-hospital-who-makes-art-as-therapy” robs her of nuance and due credit. …

Maybe Kusama, intentionally or not, has been mirroring back to us what we created, a world of endless reflections of the same thing. She plays the leading role in this society of the spectacle. In November, wax museum Madame Tussauds Hong Kong opened up a polka-dotted “artistic themed” Kusama “zone.” One wonders where the art ends and her life, and the spectacle, begins. Critics have argued that she turned her mental illness into a spectacle, too. I don’t agree. The more interesting question though: If your antidote is turned into an art-world or Instagram commodity, how effective is it? And if you place the visitor in front of the mirror and it spins out of control, who’s to blame? In this uncertainty the show becomes truly interesting.



Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, Uncategorized

Snowblinded by Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin: Happy Holiday, 1999; acrylic and graphite on canvas

Agnes Martin: Happy Holiday, 1999; acrylic and graphite on canvas

What a joy to spend an afternoon at Tate Modern’s major retrospective of Agnes Martin. Of particular fascination are the parallels with yet stark deviations from Minimalism, the tension between form and medium and expressive yearning.

Martin’s approach to color reinforces her formal restraint, yet paradoxically opens up a vast new dimension of sensual intensity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cycle of twelve paintings, The Islands.

These variants on Martin’s signature grids, in white, create an unsurpassably beautiful experience. Their contemplative serenity left me almost snow blind, dizzy, visually drunk. Readjusting to the “normal” white of the walls, the everyday noises of shoes echoing, becomes a challenge. How to decompress?

Martin on her art:

My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.

Without awareness of beauty, innocence and happiness,one cannot make works of art.

Filed under: aesthetics, art, painting

The Isle of the Dead

I was recently studying Rachmaninoff’s famous tone poem for a project. This interpretation by Evgeny Svetlanov and the BBC Symphony I rather enjoy — especially how they bring off the brooding opening.

Here’s one of the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin’s several color paintings of the famous image that inspired Rachmaninoff. (The composer said he preferred the black and white reproduction that gave him his first impression of the painting, claiming he may not have composed the tone poem had he seen the original first.)


Regarding extramusical inspirations, Rachmaninoff once remarked:

When composing, I find it is of great help to have in mind a book just recently read, or a beautiful picture, or a poem. Sometimes a definite story is kept in mind, which I try to convert into tones without disclosing the source of my inspiration.

As for The Isle of the Dead, which he composed while in Dresden in 1909 Rachmaninoff specifically stated: “When it came how it began — how can I say? It all came up within me, was entertained, written down.”

Filed under: aesthetics, painting, Rachmaninoff

Joshua Sofaer’s Rubbish Collection

As a foretaste of the upcoming Seattle Art Fair, Seattle Art Museum is currently hosting a series of talks by contemporary artists about their practice. The first one took place this week.

In it Joshua Sofaer, who focuses on projects involving collaboration and participation, talked about his recent effort at the Science Museum in London: The Rubbish Collection.

During the first phase, visitors to the Science Museum last summer were invited to participate by “sorting and documenting of one month’s worth of rubbish generated by the Science Museum’s visitors, staff, contractors, and exhibition projects to create a growing visual archive of the things we throw away from day to day… With a focus on sustainability and reuse, The Rubbish Collection confronts the materiality of rubbish and highlights that the things we throw away do not disappear but are transformed.”

Says the versatile British artist Sofaer: “Museums generally display items that have some special status, that are rare, or valuable. But in this project, I want to give the ‘museum treatment’ to the stuff it would normally throw away.”

I was intrigued to learn that Sofaer had also recently directed a staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Folkoperan in Stockholm:

In this production the recitative which carries the biblical text has been replaced by filmed interviews that are projected on a screen which covers the wall behind the stage. In the interviews, singers and musicians share personal stories which concern the big themes of the passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, fear, loneliness, and love.

The staging is kept simple, with the ensemble, including the orchestra, on stage all the time. As one body of people, they act as collective witnesses, with soloists emerging from the amongst them in a series of tableaux.

At the start of his talk, Sofaer quoted this famous statement by French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou as his own “rallying cry”: “‘Art is what makes life more interesting than art.”

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art exhibition

Déjà Vu

Two Women by Marco Tutino

Two Women by Marco Tutino

San Francisco Opera’s world premiere last night of Two Women by the Italian composer Marco Tutino raises interesting and important issues about making opera today. I intend to get into this more substantially after dealing with some crushing deadlines….

Joshua Kosman’s extensive review expertly nails the key problems with this opera, as well as its larger aesthetic implications:

But Tutino — along with General Director David Gockley, who commissioned the work from him on the recommendation of Music Director Nicola Luisotti — has also taken this opportunity to mount a rather forceful esthetic argument. In its strongest form, the claim is that the history of 20th century music has been a nightmare that we need to wake up from, and that the path to redemption lies in a wholesale return to the ancient traditions.
Ultimately, such pleasures as “Two Women” can provide are the comfortable pleasures of familiarity. The piece is nominally new, yet it feels like a long-lost and not as successful cousin to “Tosca” or “Cavalleria rusticana.”

Anne Midgette dissects the failings of Two Women in her insightful Washington Post review:

Two Women” maintains a near-constant level of melodramatic musical intensity….But the opera neglects to flesh out any of these characters, and this robs the surging score of much of the effect it’s trying so earnestly to convey. When the figures are one-dimensional, it’s hard to get involved.
It’ s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture in the case of “Two Women,” as well. This opera may be a dud, but it is much better to try new opera than stick to the overly familiar.

UPDATE [19 June 2015]
Some more thoughts on Two Women. Having the opportunity to see SF Opera’s current production of Berlioz’s The Trojans probably intensified my negative reaction to Tutino’s new opera, since the plight of women under the stress of wartime is a theme shared by both. The magnificent Berlioz production, featuring a first-rate cast, a compelling vision from stage director David McVicar, and some of the best work I’ve ever heard from Donald Runnicles and the SFO orchestra, was a genuine privilege to experience.

The multiple rape scenes in Two Women, by contrast, come across essentially as part of “the plot”: moments that crudely intend to push buttons and elicit reactions without the libretto or the music doing the work needed to make them effective. The result is something closer to tabloid journalism.

Much of the attention has been focused on the shortcomings of Tutino’s score, but I think the poorly crafted libretto is even weaker, betraying signs of decision-by-committee. It’s easy to see how the intention was to elicit emotional reactions similar to Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” or “Addio fiorito asil.” Yet the libretto treats these like a paint-by-numbers project rather than allow them to emerge organically from the dramatic moment: so much so that, for example, the “flame-flower” image symbolizing the fragile love blossoming in winter between Michele and Cesira becomes risibly manipulative. (At one point I found myself playing the “Let’s spot the Tosca game as if I were watching an operatic a Where’s Waldo.)

There’s even a scene of uneasy humor at the start of the second act — you can imagine the meeting where someone said, “We need some comic relief!” — which draws clumsily on Puccini’s scherzando, satirical moments (think of the Sacristan in Tosca). As the weasely informant Sciortino betrays Michele, his mother scurries nervously about, promising to satisfy her guests with a tasty home-cooked meal. And as with quite a few other passages of the score, the music just vamps away, trying to tell us how we should react to the clumsy dramaturgy.

I’ve only rarely experienced a world premiere where the critical near-consensus seemed so obvious and immediately apparent. Two Women doesn’t express or elucidate the emotions meant to be triggered by the drama: it tells the audience what those emotions should be by mimicking over-familiar parallel moments from Puccini and other verismo classics, with a dash of generalized film score vocabulary and other bits and pieces from the repertoire.

When I was first seriously discovering music as a teenager, I had the temerity to claim I could be a composer because I was able to produce music in the style of composers I admired. Thankfully the scales fell from my eyes pretty soon and I realized the arrogance of this mistake. Which isn’t to say all music should be “original.” I don’t buy into the modernist fallacy of radical originality either. But I believe there is a fundamental difference between shameless imitation to manipulate an audience’s comfort zone and genuine creativity.

I additionally want to make clear that this is NOT about the choice of a “conservative” style. Samuel Barber long since proved that writing in a conservative tonal idiom is hardly incompatible both with original musical ideas and having something genuine and honest to say. So any attempt to champion Two Women as an embrace of the audience forsaken by 20th-century composers is, frankly, a red herring and overlooks the fatal shortcomings of a manipulative, derivative opera.

Despite the failure of both libretto and score, SF Opera has gone out of its way to present Two Women with excellent production values, assembling an impressive cast. Anna Caterina Antonacci (who also sings Cassandra in The Trojans on her “free” nights) is the linchpin as the courageous, spirited Cesira – a dynamo of acting and vocal passion.

If only the opera actually delineated any of its characters in depth! And given Tutino’s failure to explore the relationship between the actual two women in question – mother Cesira and her daughter Rosetta – the considerable talents of Sarah Shafer in the latter role are lamentably underused. Still, Shafer movingly conveys the final stages of Rosetta’s transformation following the violence and trauma she has endured.

Dmitri Pittas brings his ardent tenor to the pedestrian music he is given as the fearless idealist Michele. Mark Delavan has to play a cardboard baddie as the rapist/collaborator/fascist/betrayer/liar etc. etc. Giovanni. He does sing well. (Another critique: Tutino’s libretto, which was co-written with Fabio Ceresa and “adapted from a script by Luca Rossi,” absurdly whitewashes the historical role of the Italians and their relationship to Hitler’s Germany in WWII. Characters like Giovanni and Sciortino are presented as the “bad apples” among an otherwise terrified and subjugated populace in this turning-point year of the war of 1943. Yeah, right….)

Nicola Luisotti conducts with a palpable belief in the score, somehow rendering its gestures with an actual sense of passion. (Tutino turns out to be a skilled orchestrator, even if he leans too heavily in one scene on xylophone-drum sonorities.) The production gains a lot from director Francesca Zambello’s attentive eye and sense for pacing. She makes the most of what she can from this predictable dramaturgy, and Peter Davison’s sets work beautifully, integrating film projections of scenery and historical footage. Is it any surprise that these documentary images of people uprooted, refugees fleeing the bombing of their cities, are far more moving than the “new” opera in which they’re embedded?

Filed under: aesthetics, music criticism, new opera, San Francisco Opera

“Time’s Friction”


The last day of the year, the eve of a new start. Not a bad moment to recall a key passage from The Hamlet, the first novel of William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy: the passage in which Mink Snopes, having murdered the landowner Jack Houston, is searching by night for the corpse he had hidden. Writes Faulkner:

So he [Mink] held himself still for the space of a hundred, trying to orient himself by looking back up the slope… Then he went back … trying to recognize by its shape and position the tree where eh had left the axe, standing in the roar not of silence now but of time’s friction. He thought of starting from some point which he knew was below the tree he sought and searching each tree as he came to it, but the sound of time was too loud.

In his essay “Faulkner’s Augustinian Sense of Time,” Seemee Ali argues that the famously fluid temporality in Faulkner is closer to the interweaving of past, present, and future elucidated by St. Augustine than it is to “Bergsonian” metaphysics:

Beginning with “The Hamlet,” the elasticity of time in Faulkner’s corpus is not simply a matter of personal perception for his characters. Time’s manifold variety is an ontological fact that they are forced to confront. In the “Confessions” Augustine puzzles over this ontological condition….

Faulkner intuits the complexity that Augustine articulates … that the apprehension of history, the attentionto the present, and hope for the future are all the work of the mind. Calling the mind to attention, to expectation, and to remembrance is the ambitious task that Faulkner’s fiction sets for itself at the very moment Mink Snopes murders his enemy and discovers his consioucness stymied by “time’s friction.”

But what about the sounds time is making — the noise of time?

Filed under: aesthetics, American literature

A Touch of Ghosts

I can’t wait for the new production of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles coming in January at Los Angeles Opera — part of the company’s upcoming Figaro Trilogy that will include the iconic Mozart and Rossini operas based on the plays of Beaumarchais.

The composer on style, from an extensive interview with Bruce Duffie:

I don’t write in any one style. That is important. I feel I do not approach a piece thinking of any style at all, but I evolve the style when I know what I have to write for that piece. If you listen to the “Pied Piper” and the Clarinet Concerto and the Oboe Concerto — which are three woodwind concertos — you’ll see that they’re totally and completely different from each other. I use style in a different way. I tend to think of style as a variable. I do have stylistic things that come back — certain intervals, certain kinds of progressions, certain sonorities, that I use because they’re part of me. That is an unconscious style. But as far as the idea of style as it exists in music today, in which one associates a sonority or a sound or a total piece with somebody, and he writes the next piece in that style and the next piece in that style, as Brahms did, I don’t feel I’m that kind of composer.

Here’s a little teaser of costume sketches.

Filed under: aesthetics, American opera, composers, Los Angeles Opera

Absolute Literary Materialism


In his recent New Yorker profile of the Scottish writer James Kelman, James Wood contends that the no-frills, “absolute materialism” of Kelman’s prose — which he likens to Karl Ove Knausgård’s obsessive detail over daily rituals — “is rarely boring”

… partly because, like Knausgård, he simply proceeds AS IF the subject matter were interesting; and partly because, in writing as in most areas, limitation increases focus, and tends to irradiate necessity as if it were a luxury. This is the principle of prison writing, both in the literal sense (“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) and in the figurative sense (Kafka’s allegories of imprisonment.

Filed under: aesthetics, literary criticism

Pollock and Cage

Animator Léo Verrier’s new Jackson Pollock-themed short (above) leads Colin Marshall to compare this film fantasy of the birth of Pollock’s famous technique with the real thing: “Chance may have led him to discover this practice, but it hardly means he gave up control.”

Marshall quotes another filmmaker, the maverick Stan Brakhage, on Pollock, who recalls a trip to visit the painter:

But they [some New York painters] were like commenting and the used they words ‘chance operations’ which was no bother to me because I was hearing it regularly from John Cage. And the power and the wonder of it and so forth . . . but this really angered Pollock very deeply and he said ‘Don’t give me any of your “chance operations”.’ He said, ‘You see that doorknob’ and there was a doorknob that was about fifty feet from where he was sitting that was in fact the door that everyone was going to have to exit be. and drunk as he was, he just with one swirl of his brush picked up a glob of paint, hurled it and hit that doorknob smack-on with very little paint over the edges. And then he said, ‘And that’s the way out.’

Meanwhile, in If Jackson Pollock Wrote Music, Kyle Gann explores the connections between Pollock and composers John Cage and Morton Feldman:

In the middle of the 20th century, the arts exploded into a new and unsettling realm of abstraction. Paintings were no longer paintings of something; they were simply paint. Music, too, was no longer about melody; it had abandoned the grounding in tonality that had been its mainstay for centuries. For some composers, notably John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, music was now about sound the way paintings were about paint.

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art history, film, modernist composers

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