MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Cells of Life

img_5691Charles Jencks’s incandescent mounds at Jupiter Artland.

Filed under: art, photography

The Latest “Sonic Evolution” from Seattle Symphony

Last week brought the newest installment in Seattle Symphony’s adventurous Sonic Evolution series: a collaboration with Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival.

The SSO describes Sonic Evolution, which began with Ludovic Morlot’s tenure and is now in its fifth season, as “a bridge for the Symphony to engage with Seattle’s creative community through innovative concert programs that celebrate the past, present, and future of the city’s musical legacy.”

Alack and alas, the series has managed to trigger a panic attack for the likes of Norman Lebrecht, who was moved last year to pen an absurd editorial claiming that the orchestra had “handed the pass to the enemy.”

This despite the irrelevant triviality of not having actually attended the performance in question, a part of which featured the rap legend Sir Mix-A-Lot (the object of his freak-out).

Two Sonic Evolution events rather than one have been baked into the current season. (Is that enough for Lebrecht to fret over the prospect of this unconventional concert format “replacing” the usual repertoire?) The second one, in May 2016, promises a collaboration (to which I’m especially looking forward) with the Seattle International Film Festival, Michael Gordon, William Brittelle, Fly Moon Royalty, and others.

There was much to recommend last week’s program as well, titled “Under the Influence of Jazz.” The concept of a jazz band-symphonic “fusion” of course has long roots by now, with George Gershwin among its most celebrated pioneers.

It remains a tricky proposition. And yet Derek Bermel upped the ante by pitching his multi-movement jazz concerto The Migration Series on an epic scale. (Bermel was returning to Seattle after a new commission last year from the Seattle Chamber Music Society.)

For this listener the risk paid off abundantly. Bermel originally wrote The Migration Series in 2006 on a commission from the American Composers Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis.

It wasn’t until he was already involved in the composition, Bermel said during a brief onstage interview, that the sounds he was hearing began to evoke memories of the great cycle of 60 paintings by the same title by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). The artist had a Seattle connection, having moved here later in his career, where he became a professor at the University of Washington. Bermel added that as a teenager he recalled being profoundly affected by seeing the series (which is currently split between the collections of MOMA in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.).

This cross-connection between music and visual art is another dimension of the ways Sonic Evolution is experimenting with opening up the concert format to other kinds of stimulation. As we listened to the Bermel, reproductions of paintings from Lawrence’s cycle were projected, ranging from landscapes and urban settings to chilling depictions of the violence faced by African-Americans during the Great Migration northward, along with complex crowd scenes.

Bermel says he didn’t aim to “illustrate” particular paintings but wanted “to focus on the shapes, colors, moods, and atmospheres evoked by groups of scenes within the series… In this grand American story, I gravitated toward the larger themes, those of determination, mystery, despair, and hope; Lawrence’s unique sense of perspective and distance – his generosity and universality of narrative – allowed the space for me to add music.” Apparently this was the first performance of The Migration Series to present the music in tandem with the art that inspired it.

Bermel constructs his five-movement score (with three connecting interludes) as a kind of jazz concerto grosso. The super-talented Roosevelt High School Jazz Band took on the role of the concertino, the band as hyper-soloist in dialogue with the SSO, while Bermel himself played a soulful, extended clarinet solo.

The composer aptly compares his method of construction here to a mosaic, and parts of the score tend to lure the ear like glittering shapes, while simple motifs recur as binding devices. If some stretches feel a touch overlong, what remains most striking is the quality of Bermel’s musical language: engaging, original, with something genuine to say. (You can hear a sample at the bottom of this piece from Second Inversion.)

Also on the agenda was a world premiere was by local jazz wizard Wayne Horvitz: Those Who Remain, a compact two-movement concerto for his longtime collaborator, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. In this case, I found the interest of the source of inspiration — the poetry of Seattle’s own Richard Hugo (1923-1982) — overshadowed the substance of the musical work.

Horvitz’s solo part (including room for improvisation) for Frisell seemed deliberately understated, and the orchestration was colorful and vibrant — especially the second movement’s chorale theme — but for all its charms, a first hearing left me underwhelmed, without a clear sense of musical profile.

In fact I was fortunate to have gotten a wonderful Horvitz fix earlier in the week at the Paramount Theater’s presentation of his original score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (part of the Trader Joe’s Silent Movie Mondays): Horvitz and his ensemble performed the music live. It’s a fascinating and truly inventive collaboration between jazz and silent film.

The concert’s second half brought the Seattle-born vocalist Shaprece center stage, accompanied by Morlot and the SSO in arrangements of her songs by Phillip Peterson (and by an expressive pair of dancers and a bearded backup vocalist).

The theme of visuals continued throughout the concert — less successfully for the Horvitz and then with more liveliness (and club floor slickness) for Shaprece’s numbers. She commands such a beautiful voice I’d love to hear Shaprece in a wider range of material. But anything that’s reminiscent of Björk, as several songs in her set were, is fine by me.

–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: art, jazz, review, Seattle Symphony

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

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

Not an Ima-Titian

photo by  Lucy Millson-Watkins/English Heritage

photo by Lucy Millson-Watkins/English Heritage

Titian’s Mistress, long regarded as a post-Titian imitation, turns out to be Titian’s painting, according to English Heritage conservator Alice Tate-Harte. From The Guardian:

It was a heart-stopping moment when the conservator Alice Tate-Harte gently cleaned off centuries of thick black paint and grime and uncovered square Roman letters spelling out the name TITIANUS. The reputation of the bare-breasted young woman in the painting was instantly transformed: she has turned out to be a genuine work by one of the most revered masters of European painting, not a much later imitation of his style.

[…]

The painting of a woman half-wearing a sumptuous gold braid-trimmed silk and fur robe was known as Titian’s Mistress but was believed to have been painted long after his death in 1576. It has been hiding in public view for centuries. Now cleaned of layers of overpainting covering up historic damage, including the time when it was slung into a chest of booty looted from the Spanish royal collection, it will go on display this summer for the first time as a genuine Titian at Apsley House, the palatial London home of the Duke of Wellington, now in the care of English Heritage.

Filed under: art, Titian

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

Titian’s Dog

IMG_1076

In a recent article in The American Scholar“Carnival of the Animals” — Jan Morris joins Ruskin in admiring the menagerie of non-human creatures in Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings.

“I have counted in his pictures 20 species of animals and at least 11 sorts of birds,” writes Morris, “plus a winged lion, a basilisk, cherubs, peculiarly multi-antlered stags, and sundry angels.”

This reminded me of another Venetian painter and his love of nature: the great Tiziano Vecellio. I spent an ecstatic afternoon last month at the exhibition Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Art at the Scottish National Gallery, which brought together Titian’s two Diana paintings as well as The Death of Actaeon — all part of his monumental mythological cycle of poesie canvases based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a vast commission by Philip II of Spain.

The detail above is from Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) and shows the goddess’s lap dog (a spaniel?) yelping at the male intruder who has unwittingly (so Ovid’s account goes) chanced upon the nude Diana and her nymphs as they are bathing in a spring.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon

Titian, Diana and Actaeon

Titian’s sequel painting narrates the denouement in which Diana curses the hapless Actaeon, causing him to be transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hunting dogs. Given this context, the nearly comic effect of Diana’s little toy dog shown in a frenzy is all the more startling.

Titian, Death of Actaeon

Titian, Death of Actaeon

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art history, Titian

Aeneas and the White Sow

Aeneas, his son Ascanius, and the prophecy of the white sow (British Museum)

Aeneas, his son Ascanius, and the prophecy of the white sow (British Museum)

cum tibi sollicito secreti ad fluminis undam
litoreis ingens inventa sub ilicibus sus
triginta capitum fetus enixa iacebit,
alba solo recubans, albi circum ubera nati,
is locus urbis erit, requies ea certa laborum.

Virgil, Aeneid, Book III, 389-393

Filed under: art, Latin, Virgil

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