Friday, December 11, 2015

Artistic Pairings: Verse Two

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s not surprising that music and art make a nice couple. Gallery openings often have soothing background music, adding ambience to a understated, yet festive atmosphere. Films also make heavy use of music, and chances are you will quickly notice if a movie has a sound track lacking a musical score.  If you’re like me, music is often playing while I work on art, and sometimes that music is “epic.”
“Spanish Dancer”
John Singer Sargent. 1880-81.
(Private collection)

I’ve tried subtle, but it just doesn’t work for me. By my own admission, the color in my work sometimes seems garish, even though I aim for “rich.” The same can probably be said of my taste in music. When it comes to organ music, the swell shades had better be open and all the stops pulled. And I honestly cannot understand why anyone would intentionally take a regal trumpet and, with the aid of a mute, create the sound of nasal congestion. So if you’re here for elevator music or violins that limp on, ad infinitum, I suggest you leave.

Pairing artwork and music will take a bit of online juggling here, so set up two or three windows – one for the visuals, one for the sound and one to keep track of the blog post. Oh, and I suppose you may also keep that extra window open to see if bids go higher on that hideous clown doll.

Let’s start out with something extremely flavorful. I’ve paired John Singer Sargent’s “Spanish Dancer,” with a piece performed by my favorite couple known as “Lute Duo.” Sargent’s piece was a preparatory painting for a larger composition, “El Jaleo,” and captures the richness of Spanish culture through flamboyant pose and movement. Frankly, I think the study is much better than the final piece. Placing the figure’s face in shadow adds mystery to the scene, and, in typical Sargent style, brush strokes are allowed to define flourishing movement.

Anna Kowalska and Anton Birula are the Polish Lute Duo, and they may change the way you think of period music. Kowalska typically plays a deceivingly-diminutive Baroque guitar, while Birula rounds out the bottom notes on a lute monstrosity known as a theorbo. For Sargent’s “Spanish Dancer,” I’ve picked a rather spirited variation of “Canarios,” by Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710). Unfortunately, you’ll have to go to minute 33:20 of the video to enjoy the short piece. Put your thoughts of ruffled collars aside and instead envision the two pickin’ and grinnin’ in the Baroque pumpkin patch. It’s amazing that Kowalska can coax as much sound from an instrument not much larger than a ukulele. Meanwhile, Birula shows how bass strings and percussion can be played on a single instrument.
"Petr of Chelcicky at Vodnany"
Alphonse Mucha. 1918
(Mucha Foundation, Prague)

The painting I’ve chosen for the next pair is "Petr of Chelcicky at Vodnany," the twelfth painting in Alphonse Mucha’s “Slav Epic.” Stellamara performs her haunting “Kyrie Eleison” as a compliment. The musical piece is beautifully flavored with sliding, Middle-Eastern notes that speak of mourning and utter misery. But before you go out an buy 20 copies of the score for your Sunday School choir, I advise you that the translated lyrics are not meant for any sanctuary. They are woeful, indeed. Still, ‘Kyrie’ intensifies the undeniable melancholy in Mucha’s masterpiece, and give us a reality check that life isn’t always a happy-clappy experience.

Now let’s mellow things out a bit with woodwinds and a wood. This is a duo of very lovely pieces that are probably off the beaten path for most listeners and viewers. “Novembre,” by American Tonalist, Lowell Birge Harrison, and “Diligam Te Domine,” by Ascanio Trombetti, play very nicely together in a rather earthy pairing.
“Novembre” Lowell Birge Harrison.
1881. (Musée des Beaux-arts de Rennes)

Harrison was a member of the Tonalist movement, which focused on muted color and shadow, emphasizing mood. His “Novembre” makes heavy use of earth colors and patterning of a leafy forest floor to even out the composition, resulting in a calm image. This sort of gentle minimalism enhances an otherwise-unnoticed detail of the woman’s hem as it drags over a delicate branch.

It might be a stretch to fit Trombetti’s sacred theme into a natural sanctuary, but it underscores the mood of Harrison’s painting. Played on recorders the size of totem poles, the piece is thick with woodsy resonance.
“Crucifixion of Saint Peter”
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. 1601.
(Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)

I’ve used two sacred pieces for the next pairing. “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter,” by Caravaggio, is matched with “Heyr himna smiður,” set to music by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson and performed by the Trondhjems Student Choral Society. Yeah, I know: This is all sounding foreign to you. Me, too.

Caravaggio’s masterpiece uses his trademark chiaroscuro in depicting St. Peter’s martyrdom. According to tradition, Peter requested that he be crucified upside down, so as not to confuse his manner of death with that of Christ’s. The artist avoided the accepted convention of idealized portraiture in favor of real faces. He also left the composition uncluttered, allowing the saint’s straining body to fully confront the viewer. The whole is not intended to be pretty. Still, it is beautiful.

“Heyr himna smiður,” or “Hear, Smith of Heavens,” is an ancient piece written by Kolbeinn Tumason, supposedly on his deathbed. The lyrics are essentially a prayer for help as the writer neared death, with phrases such as “Drive out, O King of suns, generous and great, every human sorrow from the city of the heart.” The musical setting conveys earnestness of the prayer and deep devotion of one soon to die.
“Yes,” by John Everett Millais.
1877. (Private collection)

Next up is an odd pairing – Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais’s “Yes,” and John William’s “Cadillac of the Skies,” from the musical score of “Empire of the Sun.” If you can forget you ever saw the movie and ignore the fact that the musical piece is an ode to military aircraft, then you might possibly understand my logic in that it has a strong romantic theme. The crescendoing, deep brass practically oozes all over the sentimental “Yes.” Hopefully, the subject of his painting needs no explanation, other than the artist, a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelites, has miraculously avoided the movement’s penchant for errant knights and dreamy-eyed damsels. And, yes, I rather enjoy the genre.

While we’re on the subject, we might as well pull out the big guns with a compatriot of Millais – John William Waterhouse. Let’s put “The Dreame,” by Patrick Doyle in the same parfumed chaise with Waterhouse’s “Ophelia” and see what happens. Doyle’s lyrics nick a major artery and out pour lines like, “And sleepe so guiltie and afraid, As since he dares not come within my sight.” The piece certainly ramped up the romance in the musical score for “Sense and Sensibility.” Waterhouse, meanwhile, pumps out sentimentality via a nearly comatose femme fatale, who’s overdosed on hormones in a field of flowers. The Pre-Raphaelites were heavy consumers of romantic tales, both in myth and legend, sometimes fighting over rarefied models who personified the movement’s ideology.
“Ophelia.” Jhohn William Waterhouse.
1889. (Private collection)

By now, I imagine you have had quite enough of my music and are earnestly thinking about the nearest anechoic chamber for a little sensory deprivation. Fine. But if you begin to remember some of these paintings, and a familiar strain gently passes by, take note.

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