Saturday, October 10, 2009

Northeast Ohio in fall

It's been a gorgeous day, half sunny and half not, the ground wet from days of rain, the sky half full of clouds that stretch the eye past the horizon. The soybeans have lost their green; when the sun's not out they are a wonderful dull brown matte; when the sun shines on them, they are golden like the dry hills of California. The sky is an intense, light-filled, watery blue; I don't know how to make pigments, but I'd want to grind up all the lapis lazuli I could find to paint it. The blue of that sky is channeled into the tiny, unobtrusive, glowing flowers of the Michaelmas daisies.

Keats again in my head: "To Autumn," that rich poem about patience and ripening --
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue...
Or maybe John Clare, with his great eye for details and his strange moves into transcendence, is an even better poet for this. One of his autumn poems evokes the way light changes how we see and reminds us that seeing is a relationship, not a fact.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.
The pictures I took today with a new camera! What a treat to be able to do so.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bach and space

Last weekend we heard Apollo's Fire (Cleveland's vibrant baroque orchestra) perform a couple of well-known works, Vivaldi's Gloria and the first half of Bach's B Minor Mass. (The picture is Jeannette Sorrell, conducting from the keyboard, from Apollo's Fire's website).

The Vivaldi was exciting and varied: quick-paced at times, at other times lingering as in the gorgeous second movement, Et in terra pax, where the multiple, cascading suspensions seemed to evoke the  longing for peace that the text denotes. But despite that almost timeless movement, the whole experience was contained, bounded, a series of movements with clearly defined beginnings, endings, contrasts. (There's a clip on YouTube of the group doing Vivaldi's Spring last year). It reminded me of those wonderful colored stone inlay tables from 18th century Florence: crisp, exciting, but not something you'd stake your soul on.

The Bach was something else: grand, spacious. It did not hurry, though the notes were sometimes fast; it seemed hardly to have beginnings and endings; the music and the silences before, between, and after, were like one. It seemed to absorb time into the counterpoint, first one voice and then another, till all five were in on the theme; and yet when that happened, some were on a countertheme that we hadn't noticed at first. If one tune left our ears for a while, there were others just coming up out of the inside textures. Though I've sung this piece several times, the opening Kyrie always surprises me: the choir, without any orchestral introduction, in a b minor chord singing "Kyrie" (Lord). Three great chordal cries of "kyrie" are interwoven with moving lines of "eleison" (have mercy): four bars of complex, rich material. As if it were almost too rich, Bach startlingly drops the choir after those four bars, giving the orchestra 24 bars at Largo -- almost a lifetime -- to lay out a fugue, which the choir will rejoin. The lines are long, liquid, intertwining, as if they were outlining some vast architecture.

Where did Bach find that sense of space? From the Bible, certainly: "O God of our salvation, who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of them that are afar off upon the sea" (Psalm 65). From Milton, perhaps (did Bach know his work in translation?):
                                              Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant. . . [Paradise Lost, Book I]
Or from the architecture of the Baroque, the soaring domes and intricate patterns of a Bernini? 

Or from the new science, the Galileos, Keplers, and Newtons who had expanded the scale of the heavens?

When I listen to Bach, I hear how Newton had seen the relationships of time, motion, mass, and space, and given to his age -- an age in intellectual crisis, like ours -- a new sense of order and understanding.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fanny Brawne recreated

Jane Campion's new film, Bright Star, is a gutsy and wonderful film. Among many courageous and beautiful things she does for the story (the love of John Keats and Fanny Brawne), here are three:
  1. She trusts the poetry. As the credits roll at the end, Ben Whishaw (as John Keats) speaks "Ode to a Nightingale" in a quiet voiceover. When it began, I doubted whether the film would dare to give us the whole 80 lines of the poem, but I was wrong to doubt. For those who stay for the credits (admittedly, those who, like me, love film and poetry), the poem is given voice. We need that kind of immersion to remember why Keats is great and why we still read these poems. (Unfortunately, the poem is also underlaid by a wordless choral melody that distracts from its power.)
  2. She trusts the details. For me, biopic is a genre often marred by a grandiose historicity, constantly waiting for the big, known moments in the life of the central figure --  despondency, love, breakthrough, maybe success, certainly death. In so many biopics, fatality drags the picture down into tedium punctuated by those cameo historical appearances of famous people whom we recognize. Here, the film embraces the small sounds and sights of life in a London house in the 1820s more than it brings out the big organ tones of Keats' impending death. Nobody famous (besides Keats) makes an appearance. The textures of everyday life -- cloth, wood, paper, rain -- carry us along into seeing the story as happening now.
  3. She trusts the "bright star." Fanny Brawne here is far from the standard flirt of Keats biography, teasing him and distracting him from his real pursuits. She is passionate, smart, creative enough to be the love of this young poet. She is a craftswoman, a designer of beautiful clothes that become the visual counterpoint to Keats' intricately sewn stanzas. Though ignorant of poetry as the affair begins, she sets out to learn how to read and appreciate it; and by the end, she has internalized Keats' poems. Not the flirt, she is also not the Muse, silently inspiring him. She becomes instead the instrument by which these poems carry themselves into history and into our own appreciative ears. She survives him, and after his death we see her walk out into the heath, grieving by speaking aloud the title poem, "Bright Star." In that poem, Keats hopes "Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath." He cannot -- "to that high requiem become a sod" incapable of hearing -- but we, the world, history, the future, hear her, a real woman, voicing them. The fantasy of an "ideal reader" of poems sometimes dominates our thoughts of how they mean and live in the world; this Fanny Brawne, instead, is a real reader, as we ought to be.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Gauguin's waves

Having just plunged into this blog by creating my metaphor about the world as museum, I'll make that metaphor literal with last week's experience in an actual, non-metaphorical museum. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, a show just opened called Paul Gauguin: Paris 1889. It explores, and virtually recreates the exhibit that Gauguin and his friends created at the Café des Arts in Paris, as a resistance and alternative to the establishment paintings shown at the official exposition.

Collaboration amongst these then-unknown artists, in the interests of self-promotion, created a nexus of images that circulate among them, motifs that appear and reappear as one and then another tries his (yes, they are all men) hand at a motif. It reminds me of Keats and his friends' sonnet contests ("write a sonnet on the River Nile"), this time with French motifs, such as the fierce waves of the Breton coast.

The central work in the exhibition is In the Waves (the picture's from the CMA website).

I grew up with this picture. My grandfather, Frank Hadley Ginn, bought it, probably in the 1920s, and hung it in his house in Gates Mills, Ohio, outside Cleveland (my parents gave it to the museum in 1978). The exhibition helped me see that my grandfather, a corporate lawyer who built a beautiful but quite conservative stockbroker-Tudor home, had a radical taste in art. This image even now sears the eye with its powerful colors, its strange surreal flatness, its oscillation of focus (the articulated back of the nude bather; the Japanese-stylized waves; the strange and haunting green of the sea; the fascinating outline of the intense red hair). I would like to know more about what he saw in it, but since most of his personal papers are gone, I can't.

Museums at their best take images that you've lived with (perhaps not as literally as for me in this case) and make you look as if you've never seen them before.