Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus

My lovely wife got me Aimard’s recording of Messaien’s monumental piano suite for my birthday. I’ve been wanting to get to know this piece for some time but have always put off buying a copy. So over the last two weeks I’ve been going through it for the first time. On purpose I didn’t read liner notes at all, not even the movement titles, just listened.

You expect a big piece like this to cover a lot of moods, still, it went places I didn’t expect. There was the tenderness one associates with traditional depictions of the Christ child, but some movements were aggressive and angular. Nearly the attacks of Beethoven. From a purely musical perspective this makes sense as a strategy to sustain almost 2 hours of music, but from a theological or devotional perspective it is more interesting. The music acknowledges a tremendous range in Christ, an infinitude, present even in the child. So much devotional music and poetry, whether hymns to Siva or Rumi’s contemplation of Allah, expresses the multiplicity of the divine by naming the God or describing it in as many ways as the artist can imagine. It’s a common trope. Even within that sort of approach, Messiaen seems to have more range, a willingness to include tones that are messy and harsh, bitter flavors as well as sweet. I thought of Pasolini’s portrait of Jesus in the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Of course, Messiaen’s piece is also about the viewers, not just intrinsic and essential characteristics of God. The effect of the incarnation was to take God, who had been mostly ineffable except for isolated occasions of revelation, and provide a human form that anyone could look at—gaze upon. God became something/someone to be regarded in human space and time. The incarnation gave a new interface between divine and human—in the Christian scheme. Obviously, in other traditions like Hinduism, ancient Greece, Egypt, gods made themselves present in the world all along, available for viewing. Messiaen’s piece can also be seen as a portrait of multiple perspectives on a singular focal point which is not expressed directly.

I was surprised to see this was a relatively early piece (1944). On this first listen it had much to do with the late Saint-Francois. Some sections seemed to be built from one false resolution after another, extending out into the infinite. At times the musical language borders on cloying, but always redeemed by a shift or the revelation of false resolution. I’ve also been listening to Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande lately, and there is a strong continuity between the two. Some of it is certainly the role of whole tone scales for both composers. And a particular sweetness that comes naturally to both/

I wanted to take a leap and toss off these initial impressions of the piece. Maybe I’ll write more when I know the piece better.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Hunter and Chattanooga

I went up to Chattanooga yesterday to see the Carrie Mae Weems show at the Hunter Museum. It’s got to be the best looking city in Tennessee, with Lookout Mountain over it and the river curving through town. It’s been 10 years or more since I’ve been there. I think the pedestrian bridge from the Bluff View arts area to Frazier Avenue on the north bank is new. Chattanooga has done a great job of reclaiming their riverfront. It was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny, and there were tons of people out. Of course, on a pleasant day like this you’ve got to keep in mind that the place is overrun with Christianists. Actually, it’s pretty obvious. There was a new store going in on Frazier Avenue that was called fish something and looked like it was going to specialize in Christian gifts and jewelry. But being there, Bob Corker makes sense. He comes across as quite competent, and you can see that in the city—they’ve done a good job of building the city.

This was my first time at the Hunter. They’ve got a very attractive new wing (ca. 1995), and many nice pieces in their collection—a good, big Rauschenberg from 1975, an attractive Frankenthaler in reds and pinks, an interesting Hans Hoffman (no rectangles). Good contemporary works by Lorna Simpson, Leslie Dill, Robert Longo. And crafts – a spectacular Albert Paley wrought iron fence made for the first new wing in 1975, and lots of glass including one from William Morris, the ubiquitous Dale Chihuly and important people like Harvey Littleton and Howard Ben Tre.

My big discovery was a landscape in the Hudson River style of a storm in the Tennessee Valley. It was the pre-TVA river, wild and rocky. Three horsemen are in the mid-distance, still tiny in relation to the scene, negotiating a crossing. The clouds are moving through the valley, interspersed with breaks of sunlight. The painter was William C.A. Frerichs, whose dates are 1829-1905. He traveled and painted a lot in the South. Here’s the thing—Frerichs is my mother’s maiden name, not one you run across every day. The bio says he was Dutch, but my ancestors were from a German town close by, Etzel.

Seeing the Hunter, a museum with an actual and growing collection, makes you long for the same in Nashville. The Hunter doesn’t have a cache of old masters assembled a hundred years ago, but puts energy and money into buying contemporary art, art that is available. In Nashville, it is Cheekwood’s role to do collection building, and one can only hope that some day they will get to the point financially, and probably in mission clarity, to start acquiring comparable works.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reunited with my books

My parents came to visit and loaded their car down with boxes of books of mine that have been in their possession for decades, in attics and storage spaces and any place else they could keep them out of the way. While I appreciated being able to use my folks as off-site storage all these years, looking into the boxes was to be reunited with parts of myself. I was sure I had a copy of The Cost of Discipleship, and periodically I’ve turned my house upside down looking for Call Me Ishmael. Now they are back in my home. It also reminds me of things I’ve forgotten about myself, like the fact that I own several books by Georg Lukacs, not just History and Class Consciousness. I had no memory of those. But owning them was a way of telling myself about a certain kind of intellectual atmospherics that I aspired to develop. Serious. Tough-minded. My mind didn’t necessarily form up that way.

And the books that looked interesting at the time. A collection of radical revisionist history essays. Various books on the crisis in higher education. When I picked up Do It by Jerry Rubin I probably had the idea it contained important clues about something, but now it’s an interesting artifact (pretty interesting in fact). And some things mean something more or different now. I've been reading Barth's book on Romans, so it's nice to realize I have a copy of his Outline of Dogmatics.

And delightful surprises. I was sure I had thrown out the copies of that Downbeat subscription I had in high school during the 70s, but no, I kept them, and here they are, with cover combinations like Andrew Hill and George Duke, or John Klemmer, Sam Rivers, and Leroy Jenkins. Now I remember—during various cleanup projects I thought about tossing them, but always decided against it. I’m a pack rat, but it’s going to give me a few moments of idle distraction now.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Nashville Arts Summit

I went by the Belcourt for two of the Arts Summit panels on Saturday. This was a more or less day long event organized by the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt (Bill Ivey’s outfit). As I understand it the point of Saturday was to assemble a lot of folks from every part of the arts, get them to describe Nashville’s “assets” (assume they’re think Asset-Based Community Development) in their area, the barriers, and what should we do differently/new/in addition. For theater, visual arts, music, film and I don’t know what else they assembled a panel who spoke to this and then took questions from the audience. The Curb Center folks were writing it all down and I guess they are going to write a report and take it to Metro and whomever else will listen. I think it’s meant to be a followup on the arts survey that was done years ago (I think the Frist Foundation funded it) and was one of the things that led to the creation of the Frist Center.

The visual arts panel was not great. It was a small group, which should have worked out better than it did, and most of the comment were of the variety of “let me tell you about this great community arts program we have going.” Try to get more involved in the schools and in promoting arts education. Lots of nice advice about how to make a living as an artist here. One person (I think he was from the Nashville Composer’s Association) said we should bring the Artspace group from Minneapolis down to do an assessment of developing some artist live/work/performance space. Of course, he really pushed the idea that we need a 300-500 seat performance venue—and he was standing in the middle of one, the Belcourt’s 1925 hall, the original home of the Grand Old Opry. Of course, you have to sell a few tickets to pay the rent on the Belcourt.

The music panel was a lot better. It was all people who are involved in genres other than Country and Christian, and it included Alan Valentine from the Symphony and Carol Penterman from the Opera. The others were someone from the blues community, Lori Mechem from the Nashville Jazz Workshop, someone from the Americana Music Association, I think a bluegrass guy, and Chris Stenstrom from Alias.

Valentine in particular had some great ideas. One was to do a big festival covering a lot of genres, like Spoleto but a wider range. His main point was to start out big, do something the national music audience and press have to pay attention to, like the new hall. That made sense, even if everyone did get a little carried away—“look at the range of music on this stage, no other city can do this.” False. Just about any major city and lots of smaller ones. Although the panel didn’t represent our newer communities (for one, Sankaran Mahadevan wasn’t there), tons of cities can claim a lot more going on in a variety of Latino styles, strong local African scenes, etc. But it doesn’t really matter whether another city can do this. Nashville can. Why not. Just need some money. I hope they'll keep the Lincoln Center summer festival in mind, which every year has a really great global reach.

Valentine also talked about starting “the world’s best art school” in downtown Nashville. I don’t know if he was talking about secondary school or college. My guess is the former. Another good idea. Why not. The Ensworth School sprung up almost overnight.

One thing he brought up, and some other people made similar points, was the lack of media coverage for the arts. Now he started by acknowledging the Scene and saying we do pretty well because that’s what we’re there for, and that the Tennessean has gotten better. I was wondering if he was envisioning another media outlet, but I suspect he was more concerned with seeing the Tennessean give the arts more space in the daily, and maybe wanting to see more on TV. I have a feeling that for the Symphony and other big organizations, all that really matters are the big outlets, and I can imagine that’s frustrating.

The contributions from Valentine and Penterman on the music panel point to one problem with the visual arts panel—the Frist Center and Cheekwood really should have been there. One of the major gallery owners would have been good. I don’t know if they asked and got turned down, didn’t ask, etc. The music panel worked because it had the big guys and some smaller ones. That would have helped kick the visual arts discussion to a different level to deal with creating distinctiveness and stronger performance.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Alicia Henry and Sam Dunson show at Watkins

Watkins is opening a show on Saturday of work by Sam Dunson and Alicia Henry. It’s sort of a change of pace for the college’s gallery, a show by two artists not affiliated with the school. They picked well. Sam and Alicia Henry are two of the “fill-in-the-adjective” artists – best, hottest, most well regarded. You pick. They are both African-American and teach at TSU and Fisk respectively. I don’t think they’ve ever done a joint show, and that should be interesting. Henry works with all sorts of materials, creating cutouts of people and things from fabric or paper that lie somewhere between sculpture and pictures, and making sculptural forms like a series of whisk brooms that have pictorial qualities from hanging pretty flat to the wall. Sam is a pure painter (although there are constructed aspects to some of his works). He has a keen figurative imagination and a thing for story-telling, but he’s someone who keeps questioning and looking for next steps. Last time I saw some of his work was in the final days of In The Gallery this Fall. It will be interesting to see what he brings to this show.

It doesn’t look like Watkins is doing an opening for the show, but there is a closing reception and talk on March 30.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Musical innovation courtesy of the US Navy

A friend of mine is in the process of making funeral arrangements for his father who died recently. He was a Navy vet, and they are giving him an honor guard and the other trappings that go with that. But one thing’s been a problem—finding a bugler to play taps. The Navy can’t find someone, and my friend’s family doesn’t want them to come in and just set a boom box down on a chair. Apparently this is not an uncommon dilemma, because the Navy has a solution. To quote my friend: “they've got a fake horn with a microchip, amp and speaker inside. The sailor holds it up to his lips and presses a button. Taps comes out.” Go here to check it out and place your order.

First of all, this has got to be another example of how people used to know how to do stuff they just can’t do now. There’s no way buglers did it full time. It must have been just the job of someone in the unit. Maybe the guy who played cornet in high school band. But now there’s no one around who can figure out how to buzz their lips enough to get those few notes out.

It’s also so fitting that there’s a technological solution. Why get someone to learn how to do something when you can pay a contractor $500. It doesn’t really save much effort, because someone still has to stand there and hold the thing. But demand is hopping—the website talks about backorders.

I love the imitation of someone playing the bugle. It’s the same as a boom box—actually it might sound less like a bugle depending on the source file and the amplification. But what matters is there’s some guy standing there, pretending like he’s doing something. They should just get a guy in uniform to hoist a boom box on his shoulder. But I guess that wouldn’t provide, in the words of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense John M. Molino, “a dignified 'visual' of a bugler playing Taps, something families tell us they want."

Call me when they've got one programmed with Clifford Brown solos. Now that would solve a problem I've got.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Frida Kahlo print at Frist

On Sunday I did a quick walk through the Mexican prints on the second floor of the Frist. I need to spend time with it. Among all the serious, socially conscious figures of peasants and workers (I will look at them and feel virtuous), two prints stuck out. One is a Frida Kahlo print, called El Aborto or The Miscarriage that she did after having a miscarriage. It’s a picture of her, with a fetus inside, another fetus or baby outside attached to her with the umbilical cord, some strange things that look like they could be scientific drawings of a zygote splitting, and a bunch of plants, blood or tears flowing down one of her legs. If you like Lesley Patterson-Marx’s stuff, you should see this. The combination of images, their arrangement. It’s like Lesley’s aesthetic grandmother. And right next to it is this wild Diego Rivera piece that seems out of character for him. It’s called The Communicating Vessels, a tribute to Andre Breton. Tree roots encircle the mouth and branches wind into the eye sockets of a face whose brain sits exposed on the forehead, in the third eye position. It’s done in real strong red and black and looks like it could be the poster for a rock show.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Terry Thacker is one impressive guy

Terry was on a panel discussion at Downtown Presbyterian Church yesterday, the topic was sacrifice and the death penalty in keeping with this year’s DIG show theme. It was a good group, moderated by David Dark, and the other panelists (other than Terry, who if you don't know is chair of the Fine Arts department at Watkins) were Rocky Horton from the Lipscomb art department, Harmon Wray, who directs a program in Faith and Criminal Justice at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Josh Perry, a medical ethicist from Vandy, Jewly Hite, who writes for the Scene some and other places, plays music, and is getting a degree at the Vandy Div School, and Stacy Rector, the Exec Director of TCASK, probably the main groups trying to get rid of the death penalty in Tennessee. It really was too big a panel because one wants to hear what all of these people have to say.

So everybody had something interesting to say, but Terry took things to a different level, contrarian up to a point and erudite. I can’t do justice to his remarks, but he challenged religion for purveying dead, codified forms. He sees art as having the role of breaking down those dead forms to recover conversation and intimacy. It is the role of art to replace these monolithic systems with truncated forms that allow room for the conversation, and this is the foundation for polis (very pleased to hear him reference polis, not sure if he had Olson in mind). True religion, and art, want to destroy the things that get in the way of genuine polis—Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed when they stopped functioning in the way a city should as a human system. Art confronts the dead forms with semiotic violence, deploying a “mobile army of metaphors” in Nietzsche’s words (quoted by Terry, not something I came up with). He also touched on a great quote from Heidegger, to “joyfully dance outside the house of Being.”

The panel (and people in the audience who spoke) seemed uniformly opposed to the death penalty, and there was a lot of agreement that support for it is just mystifying. Terry turned that discussion upside down by forcing an acknowledgement that there is a reason why the death penalty is so compelling, even though its stated purposes (deterrence, closure for victims) start to spring leaks as soon as they are subject to scrutiny or facts. Using the insights of someone engaged with art, he pointed out that the death penalty has a symbolic purpose that is still powerful, although it qualifies as an ossified symbol that no longer serves its purpose. The only way to challenge its hold on society is to break it down on a semiotic level. This struck me not as being a naïve assertion of the power of art to change people’s hearts, but a fairly pragmatic invitation to join a necessary sort of culture war that started from a clear-eyed assessment of social truths.

This is not the first time Terry has said things that caused me to sit and take notice.

Again none of this is take away from the other panelists. In particular, I was pleased to see Stacy participating just because I’m very glad she’s taken over as Executive Director of TCASK. She’s smart and articulate, and I have the sense that she will bring something of a pastoral spirit to the problem (she’s an ordained Presbyterian minister). I also think it reflects well on the Presbyterian Church that she has found her call for now in this role. It’s a good place for a collective prophetic voice.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Good and Bad

Last Friday I got a chance to play in a group Ben Marcantel put together to do music for a screening of a video piece of his. The film was great, lots of color and patterns evolving and spinning around, spiders from the backyard, good goofy parts. The playing was really fun. Ben on guitar, his wife Amy on vibes and voice (she was going to play keys too, but didn't get around to it), Ryan Norris on Fender Rhodes, and a friend of theirs from South Carolina, Casey, on drums. Ben and Amy had worked out modes for each of four sections that went through whole tone scales, major scale, mixolydian mode, a modified harmonic minor, and a couple of pentatonic things. I like structuring stuff this way -- not too much, but something. Things were also shaped a lot by Ben's playing. He had a definite sense of the arc he was looking for. His playing reminded me of the French player Raymond Boni's sound on Joe McPhee albums. Not a bad thing to be reminded of Joe McPhee.

I played soprano, which gets to the bad part. I was also going to play tenor, but before the show I dropped my mouthpiece on the concrete floor of the theater. It bounced several times in slow motion, and sure enough, when it stopped there was a big chip off the tip. This has been my mouthpiece for 30 years, a Herb Couf J10*S that I got when I got the Couf/Keilwerth tenor I play. It was my sound, it was me, and now it's gone. I'm not a particularly big gear head, but as near as I can tell this mouthpiece is very rare. I never see it listed on comparison charts. I suspect Couf just made it for a little while in the 70s. It's a weird one, with a very small chamber (takes an alto ligature), a very high baffle and a wide opening.

Here's a couple of pictures of the mouthpiece in its post-mortem state. You can see the big chip in the bottom picture.

I know I'll get over this and find something that gets me back to a sound I want. I picked up a Berg mouthpiece on Saturday that'll be OK, might even be good with the right ligature and reeds, and I'll keep looking. But for now it's RIP to this mouthpiece, thanks for 30 years.

Friday, March 02, 2007

This weekend's Arcade openings

This month’s round of openings at the Arcade galleries features the first collaboration by two of Nashville’s best proponents of performance art, Heather Spriggs-Thompson and Quinn Dukes. They both are interested in the conflicts and tensions of women’s experience, which can translate in their hands into a collision of traditional feminine qualities with downright messiness—you are never surprised to see either one end a performance covered in goo, ashes, or dirt. The title of their piece at Twist is “Eros and Thanatos: Between,” a consideration of the love and death principles that dance with each other and which Heather and Quinn will play out in a sort of pas de deux all along the Arcade balcony. They are scheduled to start the piece at 6:00 and are planning to let it play out over 3 hours, although they are never sure how long they will sustain a piece. There's an endurance quality to performance art.

Elsewhere in the Arcade, SQFT presents prints by Chicago-based artist Shawn Stucky--he's got strong connections with bands and has a kind of old-timey surrealist style that fits well the tone of a lot of smart bands. Dangenart opens its annual juried show, which reliably attracts intersting young artists from around the country whom we haven't seen before.

As usual, the gallery openings will run from 6-9 on Saturday. (March 3). Downtown Pres is having a pot luck before all of that, with a preview of the annual DIG Art Show in the Fellowship Hall. You enter on the 5th Avenue side of the building.

Also, I'm playing tonight for a film by Ben Marcantel tonight at Watkins. There's a reception at 7:30 and the film starts at 8:00. I got together with Ben yesterday to try out what he wants to do musically and it was a lot of fun.