Category Archives: Connecting the Arts

The Shape of Things….

Last Friday I visited the Racine Art Museum, where they had a show of works by Barbara Sorensen and Karen Gunderson. Walking through Sorensen’s ‘speleothems‘ installation was a dizzying, surreal experience. Pacing around and between these stalagmite and stalactite shaped forms, each step revealing new and unexpected perspectives, was like entering a cave on another planet in a distant universe.

Adjacent to this were Gunderson’s black canvases: oil on linen… black paint laid on in blocks with grooves as fine as an infant’s hair. Light reflecting off these grooves makes the painting look literally 3-D. I don’t think I have ever seen a canvas look so sculptural. As one moves past, the waves dance and ripple. I had to get close to the wall and look at them from the side to convince myself that they were really flat. The effect of movement on these sculptures and paintings echoed my experience of music and how it unfolds through time.

Shall We Dance

A few years ago my colleagues in Gramercy Trio and I embarked on an interdisciplinary project with dance, called Where Sound and Motion Meet.

Of all the art forms, music and dance in particular have intertwined histories. With the Sound and Motion project our aim is to explore and experience the special relationship between music and dance… the place where sound and motion fuse and create something new.

We look at different ways in which music and dance can interact, from the mirroring of sound through the movement – where dance is a reflection of music – to the more abstract, where dance enters into a conversation with the music.

We try to get the audience to ‘dance’ with us. At the debut concert in 2010, when asked how the first piece made them feel (a really wild merengue by Stephen Dembsi), an elderly gentleman yelled out “Fantastic!”

At the most recent presentation (Nov. 30, 2012), one audience member expressed surprise at finding that, instead of being a distraction as she had expected, she seemed to hear the music better with the dancers.

A full Sound and Motion presentation is a true ‘community engagement’ event, as it includes a tango lesson for the audience before the concert and a dance party after. But the best part is using the performance to examine our implicit feelings and assumptions about music and the movement it evokes, and make them explicit.

It’s About Time…..

For a number if years I have been mulling over the idea that Art is our way of playing with time and space. It is a self-aware, deliberate manipulating of the space-time continuum – the very fabric into which we weave our existence.

I am a musician, but also dabble in visual art and dance. Even as a child, I had the feeling (or suspicion) that while I was indulging in one of these pursuits, I was simultaneously doing the others. It’s like looking at a complex structure from different angles; from one side you get music, from another dance, over here drawing and painting and so on.

 Each art form has its particular equation in this game. Visual artists capture, or crystallize, a moment of time in space. Dancers shape space using their bodies while moving through time. We musicians use sound to shape time itself (affecting space to create that sound). We are time sculptors.


More Musical Poetry…

With all this talk of poetry, I thought I would add this delightful offering. (Anyone have any favorites to share?)

Sonnet #128 by William Shakespeare, in which the poet envies the instrument (a keyboard) his loved one (his ‘music’) is playing.

How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,

Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds

With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st

The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,

Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap

To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,

Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,

At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!

To be so tickled, they would change their state

And situation with those dancing chips,

O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,

Making dead wood more blest than living lips.

Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,

Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

Make it Personal, Part II

I have been blathering on about the expressive use of speech as a path to greater expression as music makers….

Poetry can also produce a strong ‘eureka’ moment when teaching techniques for audience engagement. I once saw Eric Booth use Shakespeare’s Sonnet #29 as follows:

Assume the listener is not familiar with Shakespeare. The language is difficult and archaic for them. If given the emotional arc of the piece in a way that connects it to their own life, the impact of the poem is much stronger. For example, using method acting techniques, you could direct them to think of a time when they felt very isolated and lonely. Next, to think of something they want – something that makes them jealous. Finally, ask what or who can always make them feel better. Then say the sonnet:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I hope the the sonnet was more accessible by reading it through the lens of your own life experience.
If Elizabethan English can be an obstacle for the the modern speaker, how much more alienating a musical language must be to the uninitiated…. And yet, with some creative thought, the same method acting techniques can open a  door into a piece of music.
My friend and colleague, Eli Epstein, has built an entire series – Inside Out Concerts – around this approach. His events are like guided meditations, and audience members tend to share feelings and impressions with each other at the end. It’s a great way to build community.

Make it Personal, part I

Poetry provides other ways to talk about meaning and communication in music. Even toddlers use their voices to convey feelings about the words they are speaking. What happens when there is a disconnect between the literal meaning of the words and the affect of the speaker?

For example, imagine a tone of voice for the words “Today is the picnic I have been looking forward to all week.” Probably it would be excited and happy. But, if you look out the window, see a storm rolling in and then say, “Oh no, was that thunder? I guess we can’t go after all.”… you would have to change the emotional message.

How does this translate to music?

Should the development of the Allegro aperto of Mozart’s 5th violin concerto be played the same way as the opening? The movement begins rather jauntily in A major. At bar 118, suddenly you find yourself in c# minor! This is pretty high drama, and to my mind that calls for very different emotional content.

The Music of Poetry…..

and, of course, the poetry of music.

Last night, at the conservatory, we had a delightful evening of poetry, initiated by visiting artist Jorja Fleezanis. It was great fun, and many of us – students and faculty – got up to read or recite.

I have always loved poetry, and have found it to be a fantastic teaching tool. What a great way to approach issues like pacing, timbre, inflection, emphasis, volume… to say nothing of plain old stage presence. All without the concerns and obstacles of the instrument getting in the way.

Of course, the use of these expressive tools is always connected to meaning – or should be. I am constantly stunned by how many students do not analyze what they are playing. Analysis is the handmaiden of interpretation, which in turn revolves, in great part, around meaning.

Without knowing WHAT you are saying you get something like:

tobeornottobethatisthequestionwhethertisnoblerinthemindtosuffertheslingsandarrowsofoutrageousfortuneortotakearmsagainstaseaoftroublesandbyopposingendthem.

Or in trying to emote, you might get something like:

TO be or not TO… be that is THE question whether…. ’tis nobler in the mind TO..

Gibberish either way.

For last night’s participants and whoever else might be reading this, I offer the following from the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.

BE YOUR NOTE

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.

Each note is a need coming through one of us,

a passion, a longing-pain.

Remember the lips

Where the wind-breathe originated,

And let your note be clear.

Don’t try to end it.

Be your note.

I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night

in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs

And sing their notes!

Sing loud!