Thursday, June 30, 2011

Listening to Paintings at the Taubman Museum

Last Saturday I presented the first of what I hope will become an ongoing series at the Taubman Museum of Art. Below is the outline of "Listening to Paintings," listing the canvases from the Contemporary and American galleries and the songs I paired with them to sing (a cappella).

I have not fleshed out here the live commentary I provided connecting the paintings & folksongs. I make no claims as an art critic. My selection of paintings and songs was the result of the subjective intuition of an art amateur and a professional musician. I am interested in hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, or what / how / why art "means" something.

I believe threading together as many of the varied strands one can access in the fabric of aesthetic experience is one of the surest ways into what art is and how / what / why it means. I asked the audience the rhetorical question, "do I appreciate landscape paintings more because of my love for nature, or do I love nature more because I appreciate art?"

This venture is a tad philosophical. Allow at least another digression. The romantic poet Novalis wrote "the world must become Romanticized." He may have had in mind something like what this program attempts. And his poetic philosophy fits our venture:

When I confer upon the commonplace a higher meaning, upon the ordinary an enigmatic experience, I romanticize it. The operation is reversed for the higher, unknown, mystical, infinite.

Listening to Paintings in the Contemporary and American Galleries at the Taubman

“If all meanings could be adequately expressed by words, the arts of painting and music would not exist” (John Dewey)

Art & music speaking the same language / essential lyricism, ideal beauty, the sublime…

shared vocabulary: color, light, chiaroscuro, chromatic, harmony, line, form, texture, composition

Part I: Contemporary Gallery
1. Dorothy Gillespie: “Changing Seasons,”
Robert Stuart: “Shadowlands” & “Resplendent Light”
with “The Ash Grove” (British Isles / Benjamin Britten, arr. )

*tone / timbre – color / as narrative; form fitting & shaping content…
*abstract expressionism and subjectivity in interpretation...

“The inevitable self-movement of a poem or drama is compatible with any amount of prior labor provided the results of that labor emerge in complete fusion with an emotion that is fresh. Keats speaks poetically of the way in which artistic expression is reached when he tells of the 'innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling, delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty.'" (from Art As Experience, by John Dewey)

2. Janet Niewald: “Wave I / Ocean Isle,”
Sally Bowring: “A Quiet Afternoon” and Jake Berthot: "Untitled"
with “O Waly, Waly” (Water is Wide, Gift of Love; British Isles / Britten)

*associations / lists / references as interpretive guides: water=flood, oasis, storm, life…

3. John Cage: “Untitled II” and Carlyon: “missaid 3 (for John Cage)”
with “36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp” (John Cage)

*dada / chance / Zen – East / provocateur / shaman - guru

“John Cage’s 4’33” is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life.”
(from No Such Thing as Silence by Kyle Gann)

4. Paul Ryan: “Camp Under the Moon” and “From the Lake”
with “The Boatmen’s Dance” (Old American Songs / Copland, arr.) and
“The Last Rose of Summer” (Moore’s Irish Melodies / Britten)

*types of artistic “play:” with color / line / rhythm (=dance) / form itself…
Summer as fertile creative ground: play, escape, nostalgia, stages-of-life, et al...

Part II: American Gallery
5. Dewing: “The Rose” and John Singer Sargent: “Norah”
with “The Salley Gardens” (British Isles / Yeats / Britten)
and “She’s Like the Swallow” (Britten)

*tabula rasa for the artist & the audience – subjectivity & interpretation
in great portraits, divas and other characters...

6. Steichen: “Midnight Strollers” and Frieseke: “Nursery”
with “At the Mid Hour of Night” (Irish / Britten) and
“Long Time Ago” (Old American / Copland)

*romanticism, impressionism & the nocturne…

7. Durand: “Catskills with Round Top"
and Thomas Hart Benton: “Cotton Pickers”
with “At the River” (Copland)

*romantic landscapes and lyrical modernism

Watch this space for future programs. Arias, duets and dramatic "scenas" from the operatic repertoire would make for an exciting take on this idea. As would any number of "themed" programs (art & songs for: 1. the seasons; 2. nocturnes & lullabies; 3. love & relationships; 4. portraits & autobiography; etc...)

Ultimately, all talk about art is secondary and subservient to actually experiencing it. So visit the Taubman and look at the paintings (listen to them too). Come to the Opera and the Symphony, listen (and look at!) the music.

All that talk about art and music can become vague & cryptic anyway, so here's another intentionally provocative (characteristically light-touched) "piece" from John Cage to keep us musing with a smile.

from Silence
John Cage

III Communication

What if I ask thirty-two questions?
What if I stop asking now and then?
Will that make things clear?
Is communication something made clear?
What is communication?
Music, what does it communicate?
Is a truck passing by music?
If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?
If I don’t hear it, does it still communicate?
If while I see it I can’t hear it, but hear something else, say an egg-beater, because I’m
inside looking out, does the truck communicate or the egg-beater, which communicates?
Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck
passing by a music school?
Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?
What if the ones inside can’t hear very well, would that change my question?
Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?
People aren’t sounds, are they?
Is there such a thing as silence?
Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something?

1 comment:

  1. Amazing program. I do hope more great music can illuminate Taubman in the future. Thanks for the nature v/ art question. I believe that if art is a special recreation of nature, nature itself must a have some creative elements that we recognize as inspiration. Singing a painting or painting a song is a wonderful example.