Thursday, June 30, 2011

Layers

The long space in between my last post and this one was due to a two-week music camp--I think that's a pretty good excuse. Thanks for reading!


           When I was little I had a habit. I would become familiar with a room, and in my head I would figure out two ways of looking at that room. My dining room, for example, had two walls that met at an enclosed corner, where the table was, while the rest of the room opened up to the kitchen and different areas of the house. I could think of that room from the corner out, where it would seem very inviting and lively, or I could think of it from a perspective aimed towards the corner, where it then transformed into a sort of desolate meeting place. I had these two perspectives archived in my head, and I practiced bringing either out and viewing the world through that lens for a little while. Becoming familiar with exercises in perspectivism was probably a good thing, because now I can’t meander through any type of philosophical writings without coming across the topic. Nietzsche, Pirsig, Lao-tzu, Plato… pretty much everyone has an opinion, or a perspective, on perspective.
                Now, art is of course an exercise in perspective. Each kind of art demonstrates the creator’s point of view. Even if we are talking Cage-esque chance music compositions, they still show us the inner workings of the composer’s mind just by existing through the doings of that composer. The works of artists, when examined, usually have two or more layers of perspective: the immediate visual, and the metaphorical, or meaning of the piece. For example, by sculpting Cloud Gate for the Chicago Millennium Park, Anish Kapoor showed his artistic perspective by creating something large, seamless, and reflective, and also created a piece that allowed the viewer to see his/her surroundings in a different way. A viewer of Cloud Gate not only sees into Kapoor's personal artistic perspective, but sees the scene they are already a part of in a new, panoramic way.
                Photography and music are two great examples of art that show multiple layers of perspective at once. Photography, like many other art forms, shows literal and metaphorical perspective by giving a viewer something to look at and something to think about at the same time. Music gives a listener direct sounds that reflect a composer’s artistic style while compiling into a full idea, often metaphorical as well. Here's a photographic example: 



On the left is a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and on the right is a photograph by Willy Ronis. Both artists were French and lived in the same time period for almost the same amount of time. Both artists photographed singular subjects placed in the middle of the frame. Both figures are in pedestrian areas, surrounded by buildings, windows, and vertical objects. These similar photographers were neck-in-neck in one of the layers of perspective: both wanted to capture the solidarity of the two men in their actions, and both men are in motion. However, in the second layer of perspective, Cartier-Bresson decided to capture a man in the rain, with his coat drawn over his head protectively. While the other man obviously has a job to do, Cartier-Bresson's seems almost lost and destination-less, despite the fact that he is walking. Ronis's man has a task, as suggested by the window, and the sun and his shadow almost give him a more concrete existence. 

A musical example of these layers is evident in the two pieces “Three Places in New England” by Charles Ives and “My Father Knew Charles Ives” by John Adams. Ives’s symphonic work is a portrait of three different places in New England (Boston Common; Redding, Connecticut; Stockbridge) and is meant to place the listener in these three different places. Ives’s music is American at heart, and “Three Places” includes many homegrown melodies weaved in while adding in the occasional modern blurb. Each movement includes those early 20th century Gershwin, jazzy vibes that we connect with black and white movies and solitary, smoky walks down alleyways. The first movement, The "St.-Gaudens" in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), is inspired by an American Civil War monument and was nicknamed the “Black March” by Ives. The movement uses many civil war songs as well as mellow, slow moods to depict the long march it mimics. The music in this movement effectively depicts images of soldiers and brooding vibes without using typical America war sounds like snares or cymbals. The second movement, Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut, is matched with a scenario from Ives:
“Once upon a '4 July,' some time ago, so the story goes, a child went here on a picnic, held under the auspices of the first Church and the Village Cornet Band. Wandering away from the rest of the children past the camp ground into the woods, he hopes to catch a glimpse of some of the old soldiers. As he rests on the hillside of laurels and hickories the tunes of the band and the songs of the children grow fainter and fainter; --when-"mirabile dictu"--over the trees on the crest of the hill he sees a tall woman standing. She reminds him of a picture he has of the Goddess Liberty, --but the face is sorrowful--she is pleading with the soldiers not to forget their "cause" and the great sacrifices they have made for it. But they march out of camp with fife and drum to a popular tune of the day. Suddenly, a new national note is heard. Putnam is coming over the hills from the center,-the soldiers turn back and cheer. --The little boy awakes, he hears the children's songs and runs down past the monument to "listen to the band" and join in the games and dances.”
The lively but almost unsettling movement matches this scenario well. The third movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, is based on a walk Ives had near the Housatonic River with his wife. “We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember,” wrote Ives. The music in this movement is what one would expect with words like these; it’s flowing, impressionistic, and at a walking pace. At the end it becomes frantic and fortissimo then jumps right back to its serene self. It is obvious that Ives’s goal with the piece is to pull out images and specific sights more than any other method of perception.

File:Charles Edward Ives 1913 recadré.jpg
Ives
                
                 Adams’ piece, “My Father Knew Charles Ives,” is a dedication to Ives himself as well as a sort of autobiographical work. Adams grew up in rural New England, and his piece has been thought of as “Three More Places in New England.” While the four movements are assigned to places, they are much vaguer than Ives’s and have a higher percentage of emotion-evoking music than image-evoking music, like Ives’s does. Habits of day-to-day life in New England arise, and we feel more a part of the scene than just an onlooker. The first movement, Concord, begins with a far-off trumpet in a calm landscape and effectively gives the mood of morning in New England. However, it eventually opens up into a forward pushing march with a tuba line that takes the music away from typical march sounds. The second movement, The Lake, is subdued and desolate in a comforting way and reminds me of the movement Mother of the Man from Adams’s “Naïve and Sentimental Music.” In the third movement, The Mountain, Adams focuses on not a specific place but on motives in New England and details the vibes felt around these areas. In his program notes for the piece, Adams says, “Over a landscape of undulating harmonic regions, much more Adamsian than Ivesian, the upward movement forges ahead until suddenly and without warning the summit has been gained.” The Mountain isn’t just an image, but a journey.
                Both composers, Ives and Adams, chose to focus on their homes for these large scale pieces. Both are quintessential American composers writing music about a quintessential American region. They’re perspectives for the type of music they were going to write was parallel. However, the second layer of perspective was different for either composer. Ives chose to stick to image-based emotions. His three movements depict very specific places and situations in New England and the music is what one would expect for the three areas. Adams chose to pick vaguer areas and evoke the emotions that he associated with those places as he grew up. Instead of looking at a detailed painting of an area, like we feel when listening to “Three Places,” listening to “My Father Knew Charles Ives” is like sitting in the middle of these ambiguous places with our eyes closed, or half open. The trees and rocks aren’t handed to us visually, but we know where we are, and we know how it feels to be there. All art, whether it is obvious or not, almost always has multiple layers of perspective. Both methods chosen by these two composers are points of view, and there are endless layers to choose from. And it might be impossible to choose incorrectly.

File:Autumn in New England.jpg
NE


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