Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Erin Anfinson Writ Large

Erin Anfinson is having her moment in the Nashville Airport sun, with a couple of big landscape paintings overlooking the Southwest Airlines checkin area. Erin is known for her camouflage paintings, where she takes a scene and reduces it to patches of tones within one color group, which has the effect of making the underlying image hard to pick out. Your eye switches between that kind of translating activity and taking the shapes in as abstractions. She has starting breaking away from this, with more color range in the camouflage paintings (which tends to make them read a little more directly) and another series that’s completely different (little scenes in encaustic, part of it masked by one or several big circles in single color of thick paint). The paintings at the airport are more along the lines of the camy stuff, scenes of birds flying up from what seem like late Fall or winter fields. The colors are reduced to blue, brown, white, and grey, and the shapes reduced to essences. It sure looks like Iowa (she grew up there).

Boiling the birds down to these irregular pointy shapes makes it possible to imagine them as a bunch of leaves blowing around – which gives the shapes, whether you think of them as birds or something else, the sense of being nearly weightless and vulnerable to the elements, or susceptible to recording the slightest disruptions in the invisible world. It reminds me of one of Paul Chan’s videos (I don’t have the name with me, but it was in the PS1 New York region show), where birds are displaced by trash in a desolate environment. Anfinson’s paintings don’t have the apocalyptic overtones of Chan’s piece, but I think she gets in a hint of the same chaotic forces.

This reductive technique of hers continues to make for subtle and tricky viewing effects. And it works well at large scale, seen from a distance and up close. I wouldn’t necessarily have assumed that would be the case.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Review #2: NSO and Anu Tali Play Sibelius, Tower, Mozart

I finally made it to the Schermerhorn Hall last Saturday, to hear Anu Tali conduct the orchestra in Sibelius' Symphony #2, Mozart's Violin Concerto #5, and a Joan Tower piece ("Chamber Dance"). To get one blinding insight out of the way right off—the hall sounds very nice. You have the sensation of being in a small room with the group. The soft sounds were very impressive. Soovin Kim was able to tease out the notes in his cadenzas with what seemed like the slightest pressure on the bow and you were right with him.

I was interested in this program because of the Estonian conductor doing a Sibelius Symphony. I’ve never paid much attention to Sibelius, so I figured I would learn something. I mainly learned that there’s probably a reason for not knowing his work too well. It struck me as sappy stuff given over to grand gestures. Borodin came to mind.

The best music was the second movement, which started with a pizzicato bass line that was handed over to the cellos and provided the basis for a bassoon duet. All these delicious low sounds. Several sections featured a trio oboe, flute and clarinet with the clarinet in the low range, and the oboe in the lead voice but still low enough to be very reedy. The low sounds throughout the symphony were the best thing about the Sibelius. The orchestra sounded great making these sounds—enhanced by the hall, no doubt.

The Mozart was fine, Kim played loosely and languidly. Tower’s music does not excite me very much, but it is admirable in its balance. This piece, a dance-inspired work written recently for the conductor-less Orpheus chamber orchestra, has a rondo form that shifts between solo and duet passages and the ensemble. In many cases one instrument started as a solo and then was joined by another instrument—flute and then clarinet, oboe and then viola, 1st violin then second. The combinations had a sense of logic without being overly predictable. And the simple counterpoint in these passages was the nicest writing.

Now that the NSO is in the new hall, you have to ask how good they are and in what ways would they would want to improve. It’s unreasonable to think that another Chicago or Philadelphia has been hiding all these years under the TPAC acoustics, and unreasonable to think the group can just wake up and by will play at the highest international level. I heard and saw two things that made me think about the future, especially once a music director comes on full time (not sure how much of this orchestra-building Slatkin has signed on to do). The winds were generally very strong, although there seemed to be uncertainty in the horns in a few places. Also, while the hall sounds great soft, it never felt like we were hearing it played loud, and there were certainly passages in the Sibelius intended to have a heavy majesty. One possible way the sound got blunted looked to be in the violins, where the bows did not move with preternatural uniformity. You would see two players on the same stand with their hands moving in opposite directions at points—I suppose it’s possible I was looking at divisi sections, and I don’t know enough about string playing to know if it would be typical to divide the parts on each stand. There was also a visible delay in bow action from the front of the section to the back in places like the end of notes.

Review #1: Purbayan Chatterjee and Subhankar Banerjee

I guess it served as Nashville’s consolation prize for having the Ravi Shankar concert cancelled, but Purbayan Chatterjee’s concert, with Subhankar Banerjee on tablas, could not have been better. A thoroughly satisfying and thorough performance.

Chatterjee seems very interested in contrasts. In the alap on his first piece, the evening raga Malgunji, there were many sections where he would strike a note followed by the same note with a different attack and whatever else was required to generate different combinations of harmonics to surround the pitch. These sections seemed much more concerned with the combination of timbral contrasts than in melody. In the faster sections, he and Banerjee took real delight in breaking off very vigorous, fast passages and joining together to parse out a delicate 3-note figure: the contrast between loud and soft, fast and slow, takes great technical mastery.

The ascendancy of sounds over notes came out also in the climaxes of sections, the most intense of which ended with a nearly dissonant, metallic crunch.

When Chatterjee came on stage, one noticed his very stylish glasses. He’s a young man, only 29, and although he plays this very traditional music, and seemed well-attuned to the religious dynamics of performance, one cannot believe that a young Indian engaged in a cultural field in this day and age would not be completely plugged into the breadth of global culture. You wondered what was on his iPod. And it was easy to see a linkage between his use of sounds and practices in organization of sound found in sophisticated popular music.

Monday, October 16, 2006

You Are Being Watched

The weekend before last I rushed over to the Arcade to catch the tail end of the openings on Saturday night. Just I was leaving Ali Bellos stopped me and in addition to catching up a little, she gave me a sheet for ARTGO. Ali is always coming up with ideas for game art/art games, most of which never quite seem to crystallize into a full-fledged game with rules, which is part of the charm of it, watching the pieces start to form but maybe never get there. When she was in the book show in the Library she had everyone write down questions on a piece of paper which she collected. I think that was it. Something was going to happen to them, she never said quite what, I think she explicitly said she didn’t know for sure and then I never heard about it. But that was fine.

Anyway, back to ARTGO. A combination of Bingo and a scavenger hunt. Each square contains a drawing of something you might see at an opening. You get five across, up and down or diagonal, you win. I don’t know what. Doesn’t matter. And pretty much everyone wins. The squares are great: plexiglass, “that 70s haircut,” tetanus risk (a nail) cheese tray, special glasses, DIY clothing, art show friend (with a broken heart locket saying “Best Friend”), inappropriate touching (hand with circle and diagonal crossing line), The Man, country club pinky drink (drawing of beer bottle, pinky extended). It had a trenchant quality you have to love. And it made me self-conscious. How many of the items applied to me? At any rate, it left me with the thought that people are watching – either self-awareness, paranoia, or self-importance. Not sure how you figure out which.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Elkins Lecture at Lipscomb

James Elkins, professor at the School of the Art Institute and author of a bunch of books, spoke at David Lipscomb this Monday. First of all that’s kind of a remarkable sentence. You just don’t expect to hear about someone like that speaking at Lipscomb. Vanderbilt maybe. This is part of a new lecture series in the visual arts at Lipscomb. Not sure if the rest of the people are as prominent as Elkins.

I thought Elkins might talk about religion and art, since that’s the topic of one of his books and a subject of obvious relevance to such a deeply church-affiliated institution. Maybe that would have been too obvious. Or people didn’t want to go there. Or that’s not the lecture he’s doing these days. What he did talk about was the status of visual practices within the entire range of intellectual disciplines in the university (you can find the basic ideas by going to Elkins’ website , scroll down to “Visual Practices Across the University” and check out the section “Table of content and introduction”). To grossly oversimplify, when you really look at how visual material is used as a tool for intellectual discovery and explanation of the world, and when you strip away spurious uses of visual information, visual practices have the most importance in disciplines outside the humanities, like medical research or the physical sciences. It’s in those disciplines that the details of visual information matter, such as the specific features of an image on a mammogram will that guide diagnosis of structures in the breast, or modeling of chemical processes. Much of the humanities doesn’t have any great use for visual information, and Elkins even argued that art history does not concern itself particularly with visual detail.

The prevalence of visual practices in realms outside the humanities is a valid observation, but comes as no surprise to the countless people who have those beautiful Edward Tufte volumes on visual information on their shelves. Like every budget analyst I work with. Which just confirms Elkins’ point.

One of his claims struck me as odd. He contrasted the poverty of visual practices he found with the belief that our society is one of the most visual cultures ever. We see lots of images, etc. But what about the traditional claim that the West is logocentric? Hasn’t pure sensory input always taken a back seat to information processed through words? Nowhere more so than the university. It’s no surprise that the visual is an afterthought in an academic culture where everything is oriented towards the production of words. And it is most true of the humanities, where all there is are articles and books.

The best thing about the talk was that he had the most beautiful presentation slides ever. The text was whitish grey on a dark, not-quite-black background that looked smoky, like the captions on a silent movie, or even more so like a Guy Maddin movie. He uses a clean and elegant, kinda elongated font, and there were never many words on the screen, everything perfectly boiled down to the essential cues.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sad Day at Tower

So they’re liquidating liquidating Tower Records finally. Other than boutiques, used stores, and maybe mall stores, the record store is an outmoded economic form. Tower has seemed to be on its last legs for a long time. Whenever I went to the Opry location, there were far too few people on the floor for it to have any chance. I’ll buy a bunch of stuff over the next 9 weeks – I made my first trip today, but the discounts are only 10%. I’m betting a lot of the stuff I want no one else will want. Which is the whole problem, isn’t it.

It occurred to me that these next few weeks are going to be my last time shopping for classical music in Nashville. For rock and pop, and a bit for jazz, there’s Grimey’s, but they don’t really try to carry classical music. I wouldn’t if I were them. Sure I can get stuff on the internet, but there won’t be any bins of classical recordings worth running through. The classical section at Borders always seems crummy to me. I travel, so I can hit the classical music store in Berkeley, or Melody Records or Olsson's in DC (not sure how stable Olsson’s is). But it’s hard not to see the demise of Tower as a narrowing of classical music, with harder access when you leave major cities and university enclaves. Sure, the Nashville Symphony has opened a new hall, and it sounds like they are getting great houses. But they only need to sell 1,870 tickets to fill the hall. They don’t really need a broad audience, but a loyal audience that can afford it.

Tower is/was just a store, but its demise feels like a diminishment of cultural life.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

New Herzog film this Sunday at Belcourt

The Belcourt is doing a one-night screening of Werner Herzog's new film, The Wild Blue Yonder, this Sunday at 7:00. It's in conjunction with the new video show opening at Cheekwood, a group of pieces dealing with the idea of utopia curated by Greg Pond. The Herzog is a sci-fi film! I'm guessing or hoping it will have that dreamy 70s quality of something like The Man Who Fell To Earth, which for some reason has been on my mind lately. Here's the details from the Belcourt website.