Uncovering the Dream

dream by damselfly58

dream by damselfly58

A while ago, I began to realise that a strange thing was happening to me. Every time I was invited to a wedding, something went terribly and bafflingly awry.

 When one of my best friends asked me to bring something meaningful to place on the altar at her wedding  I knew just the thing– a beautiful wooden statue of two people kissing, closely entwined. I got up early that morning, and it was not until I was halfway to work that I realised that I had left the statue behind. I couldn’t risk being late for my students, so I had to resign myself to attending the wedding without the statue, and hoped my friend wouldn’t mind. She was gracious about it at the time, and it wasn’t until much later that she let on that she had been deeply disappointed. Continue reading…


Impro as a Lifestyle

impro

photo: Remy Bertrand

Recently, I’ve been taking theatrical impro classes which culminate in a public show, and they’ve sparked lots of ideas in me. Our teacher, Remy is extremely imaginative and adventurous, and so we never know exactly what we’ll be doing from one moment to the next. However, we do generally start the class with a warm-up.

An impro warm-up is designed to get us to a place where we are able to be open, creative, free, bold, natural, inventive, uninhibited. Once we are in that place, anything is possible. It doesn’t really matter how we get there. Recently, we were instructed to improvise several scenes and songs in Spanish, although most of us don’t speak the language. At other times, we will speak gibberish, or mime, or do one action while describing another. It’s more about what goes on inside us- allowing ourselves to experience that moment of daring, the pushing-through of the membrane that usually stops us emerging fully into life. Continue reading…


Klezmahler!

She’Koyokh and members of the Aurora Orchestra

A few days ago, I happened to hear about an intriguing concert in London- the Aurora Chamber Orchestra playing Mahler’s First Symphony, followed by a Klezmer band, She’Koyokh. Being a fan of both Mahler and Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music), I decided to book tickets, not quite knowing what to expect.

The concert took place at St Luke’s, Old St in the City, a converted church, now rehearsal and concert space for the LSO and others. The first half began with the orchestra in darkness, a sole spotlight on Timothy Orpen, an astonishing young clarinetist, who played a virtuosic solo by Jörg Widmann. Hardly had he finished when a clarinettist in the rafters took over (Susi Evans, from She’Koyokh), playing a traditional Doina, accompanied, still in darkness, by the orchestra. This was drama at the service of the music, and it worked beautifully, highlighting the prime role of the clarinet in both the symphony and in Klezmer music, and introducing both improvisational and traditional music from the outset. It was only after the conductor, the charismatic Nicholas Collon, crept on to the stage and the first few chords of the Mahler symphony trembled into life, that the lights began to come up.

The Mahler was performed in a brand new version for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington, with one instrument per part. This version was fascinating. Watching single strings cope with demanding counterpoint and lyrical intensity in a virtuosic display with the transparency of chamber music was stimulating. Each wind player brought individual colour and charisma. There was nowhere to hide, and no one wanted to. There was sometimes a pull between those wanting to let music breathe (particularly string players), and the wind agreeing with the conductor in wanting to drive the music forward. This resulted in minor ensemble difficulties occasionally, but over all the playing was outstanding. The famous funeral march of the third movement is punctuated by obvious references to Klezmer music, making explicit the raison d’être of the programme. It was only in the fortissimo sections of the final movement that I really missed the impact of a large orchestra.

After the interval, it was the turn of She’Koyokh, a distinguished klezmer band, to take the stage. In vibrant outfits, with rakish hats and equally rakish grins, they provided an immediate contrast to the classical players, and the audience were enthralled within minutes by a series of songs and dances from the Sephardic Jewish tradition, Bulgaria, and Turkey, amongst others. Astonishingly, some of the Aurora players had volunteered to join them, having taken a series of workshops on Yiddish music. A main part of the success of the evening came from seeing music being made with such playfulness, courage and risk-taking. Watching the classical players step (leap) outside their comfort zone, be inspired by folk music, and willing to improvise publicly was an inspiration.

As humans, we often mistake seriousness for purposefulness, and vice versa. Here purpose was all joy. The strengths of the classical players: virtuosity, musicianship, the ability to learn new music quickly in different styles, combined with the strengths of the multi-cultural band: Characterfulness. Juice. Drama. Instinct. Chutzpah. Groove. It was one of the most invigorating evenings I’ve experienced in a long time, and I didn’t want it to end.


Precious Nonsense

The other morning I chanced upon this poem, and it blew past my defences and burst me open.

i thank You God for most this amazing

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth

day of life and love and wings:and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any-lifted from the no

of all nothing-human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

 

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

~ e.e. cummings ~

 

Why should a poem that one can’t make sense of have such an impact? It’s like some part of the psyche makes sense of it when the other parts cannot. Maybe the lack of sense confounds those parts and meaning jumps into the space left behind. In his book, “Precious Nonsense”, Professor Stephen Booth  suggests that the greatest appeal of our most valued works of literature may be that they are, in one way or another, nonsensical. Precious nonsense is precious indeed.

I’ve been wondering whether the same happens in other arts. In painting, I would say yes. It’s what happens in a still life with the appearance of a sudden skull. It happens either when something unexpected is there, or something unexpected happens inside me when I see it. “It frustrates your expectations, actually”, as our aesthetics Professor used to say. So if it’s about what happens inside the viewer, then it’s not within the control of the artist. And no two people may experience the same thing.

I think of Magritte and Dali- except I feel there is such a sense of deliberate provocation in both cases. They want us to be surprised and perplexed- and it’s obvious why we should be.

At the recent da Vinci exhibition in the National Gallery, London, his two “Madonna of the Rocks” paintings hung opposite each other. Same artist, same composition, completely different result. In the painting from the Louvre, the figures radiate a tender peace, every limb is gracefully rounded, their faces glow. In the London painting, however, their faces are pale, angular and ghostly, their presences lifeless, flat and posed. Surely this must be the earlier painting- it has no spirit. Yet no, the experts think it is from a later date.

I also think of the medieval painters’ way of depicting subjects such as the Annunciation- Flemish painters showing Mary surprised by Gabriel as she makes lace or cooks waffles; or the cat takes centre stage, its fur on end as the angel appears. In one painting of the Ascension, only Jesus’ feet can be seen protruding from a cloud. Did the medieval viewers laugh as hard as I did when I saw those? Did they laugh at all?

What about music? Are there pieces that transcend or flout the expectations of the intellect? Everywhere. Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet is a classic example. Steve Reich’s Six Pianos that morphs from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic – infinitely busy to infinitely peaceful- and back again. Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, which initially seems to have no coherence or tonal centre. The moment in the Gloria from Bach’s B Minor Mass where the music moves from 3/4 to 4/4 symbolizing the spiritual contrasting with the material (the number three traditionally representing the Trinity and four Earth), when I feel more elation as the music descends to earth than I did when it hovered in the stratosphere. The mystery of how the Goldberg Variations can sound as fresh at the 50th hearing (or the 500th) as they did the first- if not more so.

Such moments of surprise can be found anywhere.  I recently discovered a Soviet-era version of Winnie the Pooh in which the classic childhood character morphed into a fretful, obsessed, existential little bear who sang aggressive tuneless snippets as he stomped across the Steppes. He was still using a lot of A.A. Milne’s words and plot lines, but he was no English Winnie.

I want to write like greenly day-mazing cummings. I want to care as little as he did about what others thought of his work. I want to blow myself open and share the freshness of my imagination.  Starting today.


Film-Poem Alchemy

This afternoon was the last day of the Christmas holidays, unexpectedly sunny, crisp and breezy. After the departure of some visitors, Robert and I were about to go out for a walk and some tea and cake, when he suddenly pointed to a patch of light on the wall behind me. The reflections from the garden of waving branches and the wrought iron of a clothes post were casting flickering shadows onto the wall in an astonishing fashion, almost like a silent movie. Robert grabbed his iPhone and captured some video. “You could use that for a poem-film, “ I remarked, thinking about the beautiful short videos some friends had made recently.

When we got home from our walk, I began improvising to the footage on the piano, while Robert listened and wrote.  Within twenty minutes we both had something. Remarkably, when Robert read his poem aloud, it was exactly the right length. He recorded it, synchronized it with the video, and then I recorded my part on top onto a different track so that we could experiment with individual volume and colour.

I’m not a recording engineer, but I know what works when I hear it. In this case, I knew we needed to take the ‘edge’ off the sound on both tracks. It took a little whole to find the right effect for the piano part. It wasn’t until Robert added a little reverb that it harmonized with the imagery. It sounded as if it had been recorded many years ago in a dusty, cavernous ballet studio on a slightly tinny upright. Perfect.

We both could hear that Robert’s voice was also cutting through the texture in a way that sounded too immediate, modern and dynamic. When he equalized it, using an effect called RCA Victor 1947, it all came together.

Result: a film-poem in one evening. If only making art could be this easy and graceful every time.


How I Became 100 Artists

Recently, I watched a TED talk by the engaging visual artist Shea Hembrey, from Arkansas.  Inspired by the idea of a Biennale ( an international exhibition by a group of artists resulting from two years’ work), he went to work to create his own Biennale –with one crucial difference. The resulting talk, How I Became 100 Artists, raises as many questions as it answers.

Here are some of my questions: How did Hembrey give himself the permission to do something so audacious? How did he come up with so much high-quality work in different media and styles? Are the two related? How many voices are inside us waiting to speak, if we would only give them permission? How much have I unintentionally restricted myself in searching for my own “voice”? What would happen if I let myself expression 100 different ways? Would it be exhausting? Would I explode with energy? Would I even recognize myself by the end of the process?

And  you?