Monday, September 26, 2011

Ear Training: William Gottlieb Listens to Jazz

One of the great images from the 1940s is Billie Holiday singing full-throated, lovely and anguished. into shadowy space. In another, Thelonious Monk turns a little shyly to the camera above him, posing his hands on the keyboard. He withholds who-knows-what quixotic notions behind his half smile, his super-cool glasses, his jaunty beret. 

By these iconic photos, we know jazz greats almost as well as we know their music. These are just a few from "The Golden Age of Jazz: Photographs by William Gottlieb," a beautiful show visiting the Schumacher Gallery at Capital University in Columbus until November.

Gottlieb, who died in 2006, was known as "Mr. Jazz" around Washington, D.C., where in 1939 he got his start writing a jazz column in the Washington Post. He illustrated the column with his own photographs. But Gottlieb's interest in jazz took him in many directions. He also hosted a jazz radio program on WINX; he even managed to mastermind a jam session between the Count Basie and Bob Crosby bands when they were in town at the same time but playing at clubs catering to clientele divided by race.

The photographs at Schumacher picture  bebop and big band artists in New York clubs through the late '40s, when Gottlieb was a journalist for Downbeat. On the simplest level they are a documentary treasure trove. But we tend to love them simply, as images that grace the private alters we build to our gods and goddesses: Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway,  Benny Goodman, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Sarah Vaughn,  Charlie Parker, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington, and their peers. 

Gottlieb was a master of black and white photography who made it his task to nail his compositions in no more than three exposures, given the high cost of film and flashbulbs. His success in lighting, in capturing nuance, the telling expression, and the pinnacle of a dramatic situation—all put viewers in a magical moment, inside the frame of unique experience.

We respond to Gottlieb's work with appreciation for its visual elegance and with awe for it subjects. But I think that we rarely stop to consider these portraits as pictures of people at work, of musicians doing what all musicians do. This body of work is full of content about the process of making music. 

Certainly some of the portraits focus on the sense or style of celebrity, as in the dressing room photograph of Duke Ellington, featuring his wardrobe, powders, pomades, and sense of elegance that fashioned his music and his personality equally. 

But we can compare that to the literally iconic photograph of young Frank Sinatra, hand on hip, gaze fixed on the far-away, standing alone at a recording microphone. "What a beauty shot!" we think. He is soulful and stylish, with his unknotted tie tucked into his trousers, with that combination of crisp and negligent appearance. He looks just like...the image of Frank Sinatra.

But the image probably arose directly from the man himself, who was actually present,  pictured at times like this when Gottlieb caught the singer not posing, but working. I think Sinatra's in the recording studio, listening to a playback take of a song he's developing. We think that singers work when their mouths are open. But here is Sinatra doing the job that's at least as important as vocalizing: He is listening critically to what he has already done, considering  adjustments for the next take in the long process of getting the sound of warm. natural emotion. I suspect that this is an "action" shot.                                                                                     

In the handsome photo of Woody Herman above, we see an emblematic image of a musician: He's playing his instrument with concentration. Since the subject is the famous Woody Herman, the photo is piquant for running against expectation, for we associate Herman with big bands—with his Herds—yet here he sits alone on the edge of a stage. He must be practicing, the individual and most fundamental activity of every musician. Practice entails both playing and listening. So this is a portrait of the famous leader and virtuoso when he plies the same fundamentals that a musician at any level must—facility on his instrument and acuity of ear

Of course there's no question of posing in this candid shot of Tommy Potter (bass) and Charlie Parker, two musicians on a gig. Potter's left hand's in position, his eyes presumably on his music. Parker's horn is in his mouth. But what are his eyes focusing on? He's not reading; he's likely to be improvising. His mind is working at a pace and intensity that almost outstrip his physical facility. Wide-eyed and focused far away/inside, Bird's expression reveals the intense loop of listening, thinking, and planning that fuels his lungs, tongue, and fingers. This isn't only a picture of Bird playing, but of Bird's penetration: He's creating and executing music.                                                                             

Gottlieb captures a similar expression on Bird's face when he and the trumpet player, Red Rodney, sit at a club and catch a Dizzy Gillespie engagement. We see Gillespie mirrored behind them, but we also get the intensity of the auditors' delight and concentration. They are in the audience, but Parker's body—hands-down, erect posture—and his face—wide-eyed, developing smile, mouth half-open—is absolutely the image of being "all ears." Rodney too, is enthralled by what he hears: he bends into the sound, and his expression is rapt as he listens. Both men are responding with their mouths as people do when they are closely following every note. They are in mental conversation with music and the musicians, and have closed out everything else. Everyone in a club hears music: Few make an activity of listening, like this, or being deep in conversation with it. 

In another picture of intense engagement, Gottlieb catches a Julliard student listening to trumpeter Howard McGhee.* As in the picture of Bird and Red Rodney, Gottlieb captures the physical experience of listening. Notice how the young man placed himself as close as possible to the performers, how he sags slightly into his chair so that the moment is all about eyes and ears. Davis's expression (for it is Miles Davis, a fact Gottlieb could not know until years later) can't be caught in a single word. Again, it's caught in intense focus of eyes, and open mouth. Does he admire McGhee? Does he like or dislike what he hears? Is he critically assessing every move, watching McGhee's embouchure, figuring out the details of his technique? Whatever is on his mind, he is listening intently. He is a musician working hard.

When Gottlieb took his pictures, he divested his subjects of anything indifferent, lukewarm, or despicable that they may have had in their daily lives, and he showed the hot or cool their music drew out of them. So when we see  all the glamor, dignity, beauty, and wit of Gottlieb's jazz subjects, we need to remember that when he took their photographs, he heard the music; these were never silent pictures for him, just as these were never silent people. Gottlieb was not a celebrity photographer. He was a jazz fan. 

We'll give the Gottlieb archive the depth of respect it's due when we keep the sound in the photographs. Gottlieb's legacy is greater than either the visual or documentary—though it is monumental as either one. He takes us deep into the experience of musicians. He does not merely illustrate or symbolize jazz with photos of the horn lifted to mouth or the hands on the keyboard. 

Gottlieb reveals the act of listening as it is performed. He shows how musicians relate listening to sound production; how listening relates to music study and learning, and how it relates musicians to one another. We should bring our ears with us when we look at his work, for the music is present in the photographs, and the dynamics in the musicians--not mere "personalities"-- portrayed.

(For comprehensive information about and images by William Gottlieb, see
Images of Holiday, Monk, Ellington, Sinatra, Potter and Parker from Smith Kramer Fine Art press packet.
Images of Woody Herman, Parker and Rodney, Davis and McGhee courtesy of Ed Gottlieb. 
*This view is not in the Smith Kramer show at the Schumacher Gallery. It is a similar but broader view that Gottlieb took on the same occasion, a view requested by the author and kindly provided by Ed Gottlieb.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Arts, Artists—and WHOSE Economic Development?

I was among the large crowd of arts supporters (around 800, The Columbus Dispatch reports) who turned out on September 19 at The Ohio State University's Mershon Auditorium to hear a moderated discussion, "A Way Forward: Arts and Economic Development."

To address this topic, Charlotte Kessler, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Ohio Arts Council assembled a panel composed of Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Columbus mayor Michael Coleman; Douglas Kridler, the President and CEO of the Columbus Foundation; and Les Wexner, CEO of Limited Brands, prominent arts patron, namesake of the Wexner Center for the Arts and board member over the years of many eminent non-profits including The Ohio State University, Stanford University, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It would be hard to think of a panel better suited to its topic.

Consensus rarely occurs when men in suits assemble these days; rounds of applause rarely pass the hands of arts advocates, who are more likely to be wringing them in the presence of potential funders. But this occasion was virtually dripping dollar-green tears of relief and joy. For the message came loud and clear: The NEA is a willing partner to a city that fully recognizes how the arts generate vitality, optimism, and business revenues. Many convincing facts and figures were cited to demonstrate that a dollar spent on the arts yields the sort of return that makes any business-minded person sit up and take note. Entrepreneurs are attracted to neighborhoods where cultural organizations start up. Arts groups provide safe, stimulating places for children, and deter crime in doing so. The arts help cities retain their young professionals, and they attract visitors by providing a lively, sophisticated atmosphere.

Because of the brilliant success of our Short North arts district, Columbus is indeed, as Chairman Landesman warmly noted, a national model for successful arts-and-business linkage. Artists and enterprising gallery owners in the '70s  transformed a derelict neighborhood into a quarter of urban chic filled with entirely local galleries, boutiques, restaurants and bars. The prosperity of the Short North is credited to the arts.

This goodwill forum ended with Mr. Kridler's hope that the audience could "feel the love" that came from the panel in such form as Mayor Coleman's optimism that arts will anchor the revitalization of two other Columbus neighborhoods ripe for comebacks. Everyone left happy. There was feta cheese at the reception, so I left happy too.

Otherwise, I still feel a little queasy about the whole thing. As I see it, once again it's the old story of "Artists to the front lines;" artists as the canaries in the coal mine; as the cannon fodder in red coats. When will down-market neighborhoods be saved by sending in car dealers, chiropractors, Best Buy and The Limited?

What have artists got that others don't, making them so desirable for this job no one rushes to claim? Apparently it is that, unlike people in other forms of enterprise, artists are comparatively poor, they produce products, and they are committed to their art even in the face of the most terrible financial incentives. They are committed enough to take anything they're offered, as long as they can concentrate on their work. On this, funders can generally rely. Artists don't expect reasonable compensation.

Businessmen and governments can rebuild using the arts because arts organizations are malleable. They can be squeezed financially by business and government and then praised for tightening the belt when told to. The controllers of the economy know how well the arts will make them money and build new neighborhoods too. How we love the arts, those economy-builders, as long as arts organizations never use their power, and as long as individual artists don't make a living or fight to make more. As "student athletes" are to the NCAA and universities, so artists are to business and government.

Columbus's charming Short North has lost many of its most respected galleries in the past ten years. Other business have come and gone too, but galleries aren't replaced, while places to buy scented soap or to have some new fantasy on the martini always are. Do artists inhabit the Short North? It's become so stylish and upscale that few can afford it. The founders are long gone.

But artists remain great at spade-work. During my years in  greater Boston, friends were deeply involved in a large artists' cooperative that united to finance and purchase an empty warehouse in Somerville that became the Brickbottom  building of artists' live-in studios with a communal gallery. This vast addition of affordable housing was a tremendous boon to the art community. But as Brickbottom—between the railroad tracks, down the street from the sanitary transfer station—became known, it became the chic place to be. Residents found they could make money not by selling art--a dicey income-producer at best--but by selling their studios at immense profit to non-artists who liked the artsy address. At least those cynical artists showed some (inappropriate) capacity for self interest: There's "the arts and economic development" for you. The city of Somerville is the better off, but I don't know if a new generation of artists can still afford to buy in at Brickbottom.

In the economic development model advanced by our recent panel, artists make/write/play stuff that people want to consume. The idea seems to be that if people go to the Short North on Gallery Hop night, they will consume art as well as apple-tinis (although there seems to be increasing confusion between these commodities). But even if people were out to build art collections of a Friday night, this would benefit only the very few visual artists whom galleries have chosen to represent, many of whom are not local. The healthy galleries remain open anyway because they are well-defined specialists in the market and have national and international clientele. 

Artists aren't just craftspersons who make items for mass-market trade. Many artists make art that has limited appeal; many more make art that lots of people deplore. This holds for the work of writers and musicians. But if we think about the artists who actually do occasionally sell, who gig, who place a story in a magazine—these rarely come close to averaging the minimum wage for sales of their artistic product. They must  teach or have a day job to make ends meet. For very few can being an artist be a full-time job. And a lot of the public sees no reason to question or object to this. It's not widely perceived that "artist" is a "real job," on the level with salesman, financier, or business owner.

At least not until it comes to economic development, when art becomes real and central, and everyone has plans for artists because they provide the basis for everyone else's economic growth—as we've just been convinced by people in the best position to know. 

But is there any expectation that artists themselves will make money from economic development? Is anyone talking about the growth and stability of the arts organizations, of getting them to the place where they no longer have to live in iron lungs with government and business entities at the switch: Breathe in this year, breathe out the next? 

Our Mayor suggests that neighborhoods newly flourishing with the arts will have more galleries. Is the model a crafts fair, at which the artists profit from their low-overhead booths? Or, more likely, will each new gallery select a few locals from a national pool, with usual contract of 50-50 between owner and artist? Galleries are businesses that make money; their first job isn't to be arts organizations. They'll take the artists they can make money from. Economic development does not trickle down to local artists in any art form just because the city uses them to get the gentrification ball rolling. It's just one example. Bureaucratic ideas of how the art world works are nearly always generous, as we see here; but they rarely have right the information upon which plans are made.

When anyone tells artists that it's love and marriage with economic development, it's time to be skeptical. If artists decide to be part of the action, fine. But it has to be a considered decision. 

Artists and arts organizations are acculturated to being beggars. Most will do too much for too little, will take orders from people with funding, and will justify all sorts of price reductions, free donations to charity auctions,or other sacrifices by thinking that they will "be good for my career," or "get me some exposure." They are likely to conspire in robbing themselves of their own productions and effort. 

The case is now made by funders with power that the arts are key to the future of Columbus, Ohio at least. They said it. A dollar spent on the arts multiplies itself many times over. I am completely convinced of the truth of this argument. Artists should take seriously that they are needed, as they always have been. The implications of this are serious too: Artists are in the  position to act from strength, not only to advocate "the arts," but to advocate for themselves, for their own, individual careers and incomes. 

Artists need to think like business people—or at least like people who expect to get paid for their work and unique capacities. Artists should be paid for their value in the marketplace, for contributing what they do best, and for irreplaceable skills and knowledge. It's sort of what members of sports teams get, isn't it?

So, when it's implied that artists fly down the mine shaft for the excellent goal of making Columbus or any other city a more chic, livable, economically successful place, they should respectfully insist that they're flying business class, with accommodations and  guarantees upon arrival. That, or they'll discuss the new neighborhood after Macy's moves in.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Circle of Love: Violinist Dorothy Martirano

The topic of the moment in Starr Review is love and its expression by some contemporary artists whom I love. Love permeates art, even when a particular art form seems at first encounter obscure or baffling. It’s a theme, like death or grief, birth or response to nature, which, if kept in mind, can clear the path and lead us into art we didn’t think we could navigate.
Morgan Powell, Sal and Dorothy Martirano 
Dorothy Martirano; her late husband, composer Salvatore Martirano; and composer Morgan Powell, are all prominent in what has variously been called "New Music," “contemporary music,” and “contemporary chamber music.” “New Music,” which I'll use for simplicity's sake, is nevertheless a pesky term, by which a lot of people mean a lot of things. Most of these make lovers of Dowland, Bach, Beethoven, and Ellington wince. This tends to happen when the word “new” precedes the name of any art form.

One way to describe New Music is by the effect it has on many of us, familiars of “old music.” New Music often surprises our expectations based on classical music. Contemporary music may use sounds that haven’t been considered musical (for instance, blown PVC pipes) or are borrowed from other cultures (the electrified oud) or result from new uses of traditional instruments (a bassoon played on reed and neck, without its body). New music uses experimental structures or demanding instrumental techniques, non-Western tuning systems, or extended silence. 

Not all of these devices are actually new, but they don't turn up frequently in standard repertory.

Sometimes we find contemporary art unknowable, nonsensical, or even assaultive. It raises the old cultural ambivalence about artists: Are they heroes? Or tricksters and bullies? That ambivalence triggers the response we have discussed in the previous post, making audience members feel like outsiders, excluded by the very art experience they’ve been invited to. People unaccustomed to new music end up thinking of the composers and performers as hostile Others.

We recognize, though, that the wish to be annoying won’t keep most composers in a studio for ten hours a day, or pursuing the dream of hearing their music played to an appreciative house. So while their listeners may find the work of contemporary composers disconcerting or noisy, it's worthwhile to keep trying. They may be struck to discover the human in the work, the way contemporary music touches emotions never tapped by the traditional and familiar, or that it elicits ideas that never before had any core around which to form.

Dorothy Martirano, Violinist, Wife and Helpmeet

Dorothy Martirano, 2011
Dorothy Martirano is a violinist whose talents and catholic interests find her playing in symphony orchestras and bluegrass bands; equally happy improvising in most kinds of music you can name. Jazz, classical, blues, new music--just no bluegrass. She lives in Urbana, Illinois, where she’s a member of the rich scene surrounding the University of Illinois, were her late husband, the polymath composer, Salvatore Martirano, was a dynamic, inspiring colleague and professor. (See a brief biography of Martirano.)

Dorothy Martirano specializes in contemporary music and in artistic collaborations—in 2009 she premiered both a work for solo violin, and one for violin, tape, and dancer. Over the years, she’s performed in North, Central, and South America, in Europe, and Asia, most recently in France, Italy, and Thailand. She’s been a guest performer at the University of Chicago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Series, the Knitting Factory and Roulette in New York. She’s a regular guest with the Tone Road Ramblers improvisational sextet.

Home in Urbana, Martirano is the core player in a tango group (Tangotta), a gypsy-flavored accordion group (Almost A) and two improvisational music and dance ensembles. She also loves playing with one of her sons, “a remarkable funk bass player!” 

She was the concertmistress of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony for over twenty years, and has played with several other classical ensembles in the Midwest.

For ten years when she was raising her small children, Martirano didn’t even own a fiddle. She cared for the children, managed a 24-hour household, and taught strings in the public schools as the wife of Salvatore Martirano. During his own remarkable career, Dorothy’s well-known composer husband, Professor at the University of Illinois, wrote works that ranged from sacred works (Mass, New World Records B003Z2OTSO) to multi-media performance pieces of scathing satire (L’s GA, sound sampled) to the masterwork for sextet, Thrown, commissioned by the Tone Road Ramblers and played for the 1984 Olympics. At Illinois, his involvement during the ‘60s with the pioneering electronic music laboratory (Experimental Music Studio) led Martirano to his invention of the SalMar construction, a machine for composing music.
Martirano at the SalMar

The enormous SalMar, with its 24 suspended, 6-pound speakers that swayed to the motion of sound waves, was installed in the living quarters of the Martirano home. Energetic and gregarious, Martirano liked to have his students to the house for jam sessions that could last until breakfast time, commencing well after Dorothy had put their children and herself to bed. Like many women artists with world-class talents, she was a patient and loving wife and mother.

Around 1987, Martirano replaced the SalMar with a more flexible, state-of-the-art invention he called the yahaSALmaMAC MIDI construction. This was an interactive computer and synthesizer, a composing machine with 24 tracks. He recorded (“sampled”) sounds—complex, organic sounds that became the voices he composed with in lieu of orchestral instruments. Martirano’s machine was designed so that he could even improvise with it in real time, just as one would with any standard (and less complicated) instrument. Into the electronics of the construction was attached a Zeta electric violin.

Dorothy and Salvatore Martirano on Zeta violin and yahaSALmaMAC
In 1985, Martirano wrote a duet for Dorothy titled “SAMPLER: Everything Goes When the Whistle Blows.” Its instrumentation is Zeta violin and yahaSALmaMAC. In this sample from “SAMPLER” you’ll hear the characteristic well-controlled size and drama of Martirano’s writing. It invites any imagery that forms in the listener’s mind.

Consider that Martirano is writing with 24 sound units, none of which are simple tones. When he orchestrates, each element is in itself complex, so in layering them, he can create sound as great as a Wagnerian orchestra, with power to spare. Don’t try to count it out. Think about the kinds of sounds that he uses. These are not "electronic" sounds for the most part; some seem, in fact, to be natural. Whatever you hear, you hear correctly, even if it surprises you. This is the opening of the work. The violin is present from the first note.

You can listen HERE
This and the following sample are from CDCM Computer Music Series, Vol. 3: Experimental Music Studios and Computer Music Project at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Centaur Records, 1989, CRC 2045. Used by permission.

It’s not music to inspire foot-tapping. Rather, it places the listener’s whole body under a waterfall, in a torrent, in a windstorm of sound and sensation. Like a wind, it doesn’t need our judgment, only our willingness to refuse being overwhelmed so we can be present for the experience.

The wide-ranging musical enthusiasms that drove Salvatore Martirano’s composition included jazz, with which he was constantly involved. He and his fellow composer, faculty colleague, and friend, Morgan Powell, formed the Late Night Jazz Quintet in 1978, playing in Urbana clubs and on the road.

In these final 4 minutes of the work, we get a further sense of Martirano's eclecticism and the abandon of his style when he sets Dorothy loose on this jazz mad dash.

Listen HERE

The violin line cuts through SAMPLER like a saber. Dorothy Martirano’s playing is fast, furious, and flexible, as the music changes dynamics and form from symphonic to jazz. Her playing stands out not only for its crispness, but for its passion. She attacks notes as if with her whole body, scratches as if with sharpened nails. She pushes the tempos like a pile driver, like an engine speeding to daylight and the tunnel’s end.

If we think about a loving expression from composer to wife, “SAMPLER” might not pop to mind: no lush strings sustaining long lines of major chords. Though Martirano’s work may be Romantic in size, it doesn’t sound like it would pull the heartstrings of most wives.

But who is the woman he’s writing for? She’s been willing to inhabit traditional feminine roles: She’s raising the children, being a housewife and hostess, and supporting a husband whose talents, personality, and expression are all enormous. That is, she’s a loving and flexible woman with the power of self-control that benefits everyone around her, leaving them free to pursue what they want.

This music acknowledges her power not only as the midwife to others’ concerns, but it acknowledges that she is equal to those to whom she lends her support. She has the force and talent to play the hell out of her husband’s daunting music. She’s a complete artistic partner to him, no matter how many socks she washes or parties she throws. She is strong, present, and equal. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.” "SAMPLER" is music of love as homage, tribute and recognition that there are no impediments, at least for this woman. 

The Martiranos and Morgan Powell

Morgan Powell, photo Patricia Hruby-Powell
Composer Morgan Powell has been a friend of the Martiranos for as long as he's been in in Urbana. During the mid-‘60s, he was Salvatore Martirano’s graduate student, soon to become a faculty colleague. They spent the rest of their careers together in the Department of Theory and Composition. Salvatore’s early death at age 68 in 1995 didn’t leave his widow alone; her friendship with Powell has continued in the form of many musical collaborations in groups like Tone Road Ramblers, Compost Q, and Spinnin’ Slidin’ Scratchin’. 

In 1999, Powell composed “Sonny’s Songs,” a violin solo for Dorothy Martirano (“Sonny” was a nickname for Salvatore).

It conveys grief for the death of his friend, the husband of his friend, the wife. "Sonny's Songs is for Dorothy in the extra sense that no one else has played it or is likely to, given the extraordinary demands of performing it.

As “SAMPLER” strikes the listener as an unusual expression of marital love until we think deeply about the details of an artist couple in a day-to-day, gendered life; so “Sonny’s Songs” may seem at first unrecognizable as an expression of grieving over a loved one. Again, we expect sorrow to sound a certain way, to be lodged in minor chords, lento tempi, and crescendos and decrescendos that imitate sobs released or swallowed.

But if we imagine the actual rather than the stereotyped processes of mourning, “Sonny’s Songs” makes gut-level, intuitive sense. Grief is an assemblage of attitudes, emotions, and actions that include body and mind, affect and action. There’s anger, guilt, regret, relief, even giddiness. We cry, stare, curse, and our moods are volatile. Our emotions are unruly. Think of this while you listen to Powell’s “Sonny’s Songs,” performed by Dorothy Martirano.

You can listen HERE 
Recorded at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois, 2000; produced by James Staley and Morgan Powell.

If you can understand being “cracked up,” “broken,” or “laid low,” by grief you can feel the sorrow, rage, and full spectrum of emotion in Powell’s work. Ironically, in its visits to the extremes—the highs and lows of dynamics and the instrument’s voice range—“Sonny’s Songs” seems to play tribute to  Martirano’s largeness of  expression, even without the huge orchestration. Another compositional device that may add to the sense of emotional breakage is a structure that embeds many of Martirano’s favorite  tunes, “There Will Never Be Another You,” which we saw above. Another is “Stella by Starlight,” the basis for Martirano’s “Stuck on Stella.” Even those the quotations aren't recognizable by most, using around twenty tunes in an 8-minute work adds to a sense of lost balance.
Powell and Martirano mourn a mutual loss—if different in nature, yet mutual in degree. So it’s a work that not only mourns the death, but also the heavy work of experiencing grief and continuing to act. While I think “Sonny’s Songs” is a breathtaking piece of music and a profound human expression, it works on yet another level for those who have the good luck to see Martirano perform it live.

Martirano says that it took her over a year to learn to play “Sonny’s Songs”—that she almost gave up, in fact, despite her consultations with Powell about the parameters of  instrumental technique. The physical effort it requires of the violinist is impressively evident in Martirano’s performance, which forces her to be in continual, jerky movement, like a marionette—or like the rickety skeletal figure in a Totentanz. A video shot at the Marshall University Festival of New Music in February 2011 gives some idea of this, though the camera distance and placement show it to less spectacular effect than in person.

Of playing “Sonny’s Songs,” Martirano has said that it took her a long time to come to a true emotional awareness of the work because it is so difficult. That difficulty may in fact be functional for her. It may have initially provided a way for her to negotiate the depth and power of emotion, at the same time that performing the work still appears to force an exorcism of grief, to be a dance that shakes rough energy out of her body, something that drains her to limpness.

Powell and Martirano, 2011 Marshall University
New Music Festival
With “Sonny’s Songs,” Powell lets us in on an intimate expression of love and lamentation for one particular Salvatore Martirano, who died. Herein lies the generosity of art. We in the public never knew this musician, husband, colleague and friend. But as we find ourselves joining his mourners, and as we experience their grief through this passionately played music, the piquant memorial begins to suggest the life of Martirano and his art.

Anybody's sorrow makes us reflect on our own. But “Sonny’s Songs” reconstitutes and expands the idea of what grief looks and feels and sounds like, just as “SAMPLER” gives us another way to understand love as homage and full acknowledgment. Both of these works come from the human heart, from experience of people in real situations.

Would you know this just by listening to this music without the background I've written? Perhaps not. But would you get farther with this music assuming that the images it brings to your mind are a suitable starting place? That your first reactions aren't wrong or irrelevant? That the composer’s emotional palette and yours may be similar? And, of course, will you find it more accessible by considering that the composer considers him or herself to be doing something valid and important, worthy of your greatly coveted attention?

I think you can go far with assumptions like that. I think they can loosen your imagination and sharpen your receptivity.

Give it a whirl, and we’ll keep talking.

With many thanks to Thomas A. Johnson and Sarah A. Hippensteele of AshImage for very patient technical assistance.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Making Lovers of Friends

A friend asked what my blog's about. When I told him that it's about art, "I don't think I'll be looking into it,” he said. “Now, if it were about sports or politics—something like that—I probably would." Wishing not to dismiss me, though, he added, "I have some posters in frames at home. Just things I like, you know."

I do know. I appreciated the lack of defensiveness in our exchange. I’m used to being told, 
“I-don't-know-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like” by an interlocutor who expects, “Let-me-improve-you-with-Art” from me.

That my sports-minded friend takes only a limited interest in art should hardly cause him embarrassment. We live in a country where competition and conflict are bred in the bone and find expression in sports and politics. Our tolerance and attention last for timed periods. Face-offs yield the satisfaction of definitive results: a winning record and the championship; the Presidency; survival to fight an even more lethal opponent.

But art isn’t usually a fight. It may consider or incorporate processes from political, physical, mental or emotional conflicts—yet it rarely strives for decisions. Where does a work of art start? When does it end? What’s happening in the first place, and what side are we on? What are the rules, anyway?

To some like my friend, art must seem like a game with unequal rules, played by a team of insiders against isolated, individual outsiders. People uncomfortable with art may visit a museum to take a look, yet feel that to ask questions would be too great a risk of ego. Insiders—staff who label and promote shows; journalists who repeat the claims of press releases; and critics who write to inform the informed—often implicitly ignore viewers who haven’t already developed personal connections to the pleasures of art or to the ways art promotes insight and complex thinking.

In recent decades, cultural institutions have worked to welcome and educate people who don't arrive as established art lovers, seeking new members and friends from a much broader public. 

But will those new, adult friends of the museum become art lovers? Will a person who follows current affairs with ardor, or will a football fan find new love at the museum through enticements of free day, take-the-kids-day, or cocktails in the gallery? Will docent-led tours provide enough substance to kindle passion?

One thing is certain: People keep returning to what they love and want to be close to. Love is a powerful attraction, or what we devote our time to. No one falls in love with a generality or a proposition. A sports lover spends hours and hours watching games. He understands details and nuances; he calculates and compares. A sports lover observes all the changes, traditions, and complexities. For this person, sport is a universe of beloved particularities.

Art lovers aren’t people who like their cocktails under the pendant Chihuly sculpture, or who wander through the galleries en route to the shop; who speak professional jargon in public, or who lunch with their friends at the Art-y-teria. Art lovers fall in love with works of art in an intimate way they cannot with institutions, attitudes, or life styles.

We reviewers need to write from the margins of the art world if we are to encourage visitors and viewers to trust their independent experiences with art. First, our writing can suggest some habits of love. Art isn’t played—like sports or politics—between television commercials; it isn’t presented in sound bites or headshots. In general, art requires more sustained acts of concentration and patience than sports and politics. Usually, the conflicts and resolutions erupt from marks the artist leaves in the work to set off actions in your head. But they don’t occur in fifteen-minute intervals. Reviewers can demonstrate the pace of time in art.

Second, art reviews model the progress of passion from observations of a unique object through understanding the artwork's form and significance to insight into the artist’s motivation. For ultimately, we will love not merely the object, but how it came to be filled with significance.

When I was younger and discovering art, I thought that artists were apart, in an exalted world. I eventually learned that artists are inspired by other creative people and their work. But I also know that artists respond—like connoisseurs of Tiffany glass do, like hockey fans do, like I do—to everything else in their lives: childhood memories, dogs, civil rights, bad habits, sex, fairy tales, nature, death, farming, fetishes, purple, philosophy—and sometimes to baseball cards collected since 1950, or season tickets to the Celtics.

A reviewer can be a matchmaker, showing individual viewers the way to possibilities for real love. When I look long enough and searchingly enough to fall in love with a work of art, I find myself revealed or reflected back somewhere in the work—I see a Me redrawn with vigor and freshness by someone I hadn’t known I adore.

My friend with the posters discovered a fact about Aminah Robinson from my review of Gift of Love. It was just enough to inspire him to go see it. I am sure he will connect with that piece. And I could hope for nothing better than his passing my card to his buddies after the next home game and telling them, "This you've got to see." It would be good to see the love passed on down the line, through friends.