Archive for the ‘Art criticism’ Category

A Bit Of Prowling About

Text: Bob Litton
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Howard

eden (1)

In contrast with my self-description as a flaneur, I seldom go out at night anymore. Most of my sauntering about town is done during the morning and late afternoon.

One recent evening, though, I roused myself to venture to a local venue called “Brown Dog Gardens” where native plants and large crystal rocks are sold, and where small social fetes are sometimes conducted. The reason for my outing was that my friend Chris Ruggia and the two women who have joined him in a group they have dubbed “The Swifts” were slated to hold their first “gig” at BDG.

The crowd wasn’t huge — only twenty to thirty persons, several of whom I hadn’t seen since I quit the night-time bar scene a few years ago — but they comfortably filled up the available area. Most of the folks stood, sipping their wine or water and supping on chili con queso; but a half dozen folding chairs were there, and I seated myself on one near the small stage.

Nearly a year ago, Chris (at my request) brought his guitar over to my apartment and sang a song. I can’t recall which one, but it was an old pop song or maybe a folk song…one I knew. His voice at that time was soft and seemingly hesitant, and his playing appeared the faltering effort of a new guitar student. The other night, however, he came on strong vocally during the three numbers in which he was the singer. His fingering on the strings was likewise much more professional, it seemed to me. In one rendition, especially, he reminded me of Paul Simon doing one of his more energetic vocals. The heavy-set woman did most of the singing — very powerful lungs.

I really enjoyed the performance, which extended for only about an hour, beginning at 6 p.m., with a brief break. I guess they played and sang a total of approximately twelve songs, none of which was recognizable to me. The genres were a mixture of blue grass, American folk, and New Orleans blues. Chris told me this morning that one song was a slightly modified version of Elvis Costello’s “Blame It On Cain” (Post Punk Rock). A few others were “How Dark My Shadow’s Grown” (a contemporary blue grass borrowed from The Bad Livers), a rendition of Doc Watson’s “Lone Journey” (old time country), “Three Is A Magic Number” (an educational TV song from School House Rock), and the Depression era song “One Meatball”.

I regret that I don’t have a recorded file of any of the The Swifts’ songs to share with you, but maybe one day soon they will produce an album, and we can return for an encore.

The Swifts debut was very enjoyable! I wish them much success!

Above is a photo which one of my other acquaintances — Mike Howard, a former NYC fashion photographer — took at the musicale.

Finis

Corners

1311285-Henri_Fantin-Latour_Un_coin_de_table

“Un Coin de Table” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904). At this gathering of some of the literary lights of late 19th century Paris sit the scandalous couple in the left corner of the painting: Paul Verlaine and his young protégé and lover, Arthur Rimbaud. It was not a very convivial group; notice how no one is looking at any other member of the bunch, and that the vase of flowers has been stuck in at the last stage of composition as replacement for Albert Merat, who refused to pose for the same painting with Rimbaud. The painting was shown at the Paris Salon of 1872. (Source: Google Images/Encyclopedie Larousse)

©Text Only: 2015 By Bob Litton 

I don’t know why it is that topic ideas come floating into my brain at the oddest times, especially just after I have concluded that there is nothing left for me to write about; I have, after all, virtually written my autobiography through most of the pages in this blog; and I have drained the well of my accumulated knowledge and wisdom, dispersing it all to an invisible world. But there it was at 2:45 in the morning: Corners!!!

At first it was just a reflection—as I lay in bed, gazing at one of the corners where two walls and the ceiling collide—on a Hank Ketchum “Dennis the Menace” cartoon I had viewed the day before, one showing Dennis in one of his frequent panel scenes, sitting in a corner and hugging his teddy bear. Dennis complains to his mother as she walks away, “Confession may be good for the soul, but it sure is taking away from my playing time.” Is that supposed to be punishment—a substitute for spanking? I wondered. Hardly severe enough! She should at least have carried off his teddy bear!

Then more reflecting: Many of the “Dennis” scenes are of him sitting in the corner. And the same is true of Wagner and Dunagin’s “Grin and Bear It”, where a bruised boxer is sitting on the stool in his corner, but he is recovering, briefly, from punishment. (I couldn’t locate a recent panel to illustrate the kind of complaining remarks the boxer usually makes about his over-sized or more adept opponents.) His corner is the boxer’s retreat, his only safe zone.

Then, of course, many of us are acquainted with that old analogy about “painting ourselves in a corner”. In this case, we are not discussing self-portraits but rather our figurative manner of saying we have inadvertently created a dilemma for ourselves from which there seems to be no way to extricate ourselves without developing it into even more of a problem.

Even Wall Street has its share of shady corners. Surely you have heard of major plutocrats such as the Hunt brothers, who “cornered the market” in silver in 1980. They borrowed heavily to buy as much silver as they could, and they wound up with about a third of the world’s supply. When reaction set in, they were unable to meet a $100 million “margin call” (basically a demand to surrender collateral). The price of silver dropped from an inflated high to less than 50 percent of its “bubble” value within days and led to a panic. The Hunts’ estimated $5 billion fortune declined to about $1 billion by 1988 and eventually they filed for bankruptcy.

Another popular phrase occurs to me: “Cutting corners” to get one’s way despite the legal risks. Although I have heard and read that said about others, particularly in the business and political worlds, I don’t recall having ever tried to “cut corners” myself: probably not enough imagination to venture into it.

Awful lot of negative stuff there about corners. Their self-image must be depressing.

Let us return to art works and try to be more positive. Consider the painting below:

Luncheon_of_the_Boating_Party__85799.1395676758.1280.1280__39347.1405477724.1280.1280 (1)

“Le Dejeuner des Canotiers” (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Now, this crowd is definitely more congenial–nay, convivial–than the set depicted above by Latour. Almost everyone is at least glancing at another person. And again, we have corners being accented: the two men in boaters’ shirts and hats, the table’s end, and, oddly, the pole in the center rear that seems to divide the composition in half. I love this painting!!! (Source: Google Images/The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

I have perhaps said all I know to say about “The Boating Party’s Dinner” in the cutline under the reproduction above. One could draw an “X” across the canvas and reveal the compositional structure.

Notice that the same is true of Latour’s painting. The  men’s varying heights (which I guess are actual) and their positions allow them to form two rough diagonals across the canvas. And as for corners, the literary gentlemen are not only crowded at one corner of the table, they are also squeezed into one corner of the room. Even the Impressionistic landscape painting on the back wall helps to accent the corner motif. I suppose Fantin-Latour was just trying to be economical, but all he has accomplished is to cram eight staid portraits into a single frame.

“X”es are in fact basic at least to representational art. Another great artist who bears out my assertion here (if any bearing out is required) is N.C. Wyeth. The compositional strength of his bold, muscular illustrations can be immediately grasped by the viewer who imagines a large “X” penciled across most of his works. To me, they are very pleasant to look upon. I suppose that it is not too far-fetched to claim that the “X” in art is kin to the “X” in home-building: they both support their creations. In fact, perhaps I should have titled and developed this essay as “X”es and corners.

Ah, corners and “X”es, how would we ever get along without you?

Finis

POSTSCRIPT:  For another treatment of basically the same subject—mundane motifs in art and literature—check out my April 19, 2013, essay Secular Epiphanies on this blog site.

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

A Little Shop Talk, or A Meditation on My Native Language

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

And then Elise—certainly that was her name—told us, merrily, that the brown spot on her waist was caused by her landlady knocking at the door while she (the girl—confound the English language) was heating an iron over the gas jet, and she hid the iron under the bedclothes until the coast was clear, and there was a piece of chewing gum stuck to it when she began to iron the waist and—well, I wondered how the chewing gum came to be there—don’t they ever stop chewing it?                                                

                                                       — From O. Henry’s story, “The Fool Killer”

Now, I realize that looks like clumsy prose, dear readers; but it is not; it is just O. Henry getting settled into a character who is also the narrator in one of his tales. William Henry Porter—a.k.a. “O. Henry”—was in fact a gifted writer, with a vast, exact, concise vocabulary and a vibrantly rhythmic sentence flow. It is just that not all of his characters were similarly gifted.

But the reason I have quoted such a long sentence from one of O. Henry’s less successful stories is to bring to your attention the phrase I have underlined, for it frequently fits my own perspective on my native tongue, both when I try to compose in prose and in poetry. The rest of this essay will be a somewhat wandering description of the trials and tribulations I encounter in writing, sometimes reaching the point—as currently—of wanting to ditch the whole effort. I have not yet figured out why I cannot do so.

The problem with which the narrator quoted above is wrestling concerns the grammatical issue of pronoun reference. The poor fellow is faced with a sentence in which he is discussing two women and wants to limit referring to them more particularly as much as possible. He wants to employ the feminine pronouns, but that puts him in the uncomfortable predicament of needing to clarify to which “she” or “her” he is referring. Okay, it is not a major issue, but it is that very minimal value that is most frustrating for any writer because of the time it takes to rectify; if the troublesome question had been grander, then he would not have minded toiling with it so much. I find myself in similar grammatical choke-holds way too often.

A similar problem involves repetition of words in adjoining sentences. (Note as an example the word “similar” in the last sentence of the previous paragraph and in the first sentence of this paragraph.) The irritation is not due to any inappropriateness in a particular word—the term might be perfectly exact. No, rather than a lexicographical or grammatical problem, it is an aesthetic issue. Boy howdy! I discover much too frequently that I have repeated the same word in two adjacent sentences, and very often the discovery occurs after I have already published the blog post or sent the email: after the fact, it jumps right out at me as with a protruding tongue. Part of the annoyance results from the fact that I cannot quickly think of a synonym with which to replace the second use.

We also have some words the replicative forms of which I cannot explain. The only ones I can think of are “filibuster” and “cataract”, although a few others could probably be located by a really diligent searcher. I looked up both terms in an online dictionary and found these definitions:

Filibuster: (1) the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority. (2) an irregular military adventurer, especially one who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.((Aaron Burr is a good example of that sort of fellow, I think.)) Now those two words are spelled the same, but for the life of me I cannot perceive any similarity between them other than the adjective “irregular”.

Cataract:  (1) a descent of water over a steep surface; waterfall, especially one of considerable size. (2) an abnormality of the eye, characterized by opacity of the lens.

Now, we have many shorter words—such as “lie”—which are laden with unrelated meanings; and that is natural, I think, because there are only so many syllables available to us; but “filibuster” and “cataract” are not at all short: what is the connection?

Then there is the matter of orthography—or, as it is more commonly known—spelling. Do not take this pronouncement as authoritative, for my acquaintance with languages is limited to English, Spanish, French, and Chinese (in none of them, except perhaps English, am I fluent); but I have heard and I believe that English is the most difficult of all modern languages to learn. Even the Asian languages come in second in terms of difficulty, despite the complexity of Chinese characters. But that comparison topic is fodder for another essay. In this place I want to note some of the spelling hurdles learners of our language face. There are two basic ones: (1) the descent of much of our vocabulary from classical Greek and Latin (e.g., psychology, February) as well as borrowings from more modern languages such as French and Spanish (e.g., boulevard, rodeo); and (2) the effect of nationalistic pride that caused us Americans to alter the forms of some words from their Franco/British originals (e.g., theatre to theater, savour to savor).

The same nationalism affected American punctuation rather stupidly, as I noted in the “Preface” to my CD-ROM book A West Texas Journalist, (several articles from which are included on this blog site): our use of quotation marks in the United States differs significantly from that in the United Kingdom, and not in any positive way.

Anyway, all these factors have impacted on English writing. In some aspects I prefer the American mode; in others, the British. Of course, there are other hazards related to prose-writing, but I will leave those for some possible later essay.

As for poetry, it presents its own problems. I haven’t written what I classify as “poetry” in more than a year. I think that probably my poetry-composing days are over. Here are a few of the reasons why. Rhyme is out-of-style right now. In fact, even meter is ignored often enough, gauging by what I have seen in the New Yorker magazine the past few years. Many of our modern “poets” appear to favor what has been defined as “prose poems”. They are prosaic pieces that often enough do not say anything, and when they do say something it might be vulgar (like two lovers caressing each other’s tongues) or it might be almost as vapid as “the wind and sun have dried our clothes, you see”. (That is not a direct quote; it’s just something I threw out for you to note the way even iambic pentameter can be employed to dramatize the dully mundane.)

When poets using English do venture into composing something with rhyme, they are almost always forced into at least one weak, forced rhyme match. It’s a wonder I still have as much hair on my head as I do, because, so many times, I have faced that intransigent line that has no perfectly fitting word to even approximately sound like the end word of a previous line. Of course, a perfectly acceptable way to avoid this issue is to write in blank verse, which Robert Browning employed quite marvelously. However, even when I have done that, I have encountered the ironical situation when the exact word that fits also rhymes with some word in the previous line; I rhymed when I had not intended to do so. For the purist, I tell you, poetry is a pool of quicksand!!!

There is much more I could say about the tribulations of prose and poetry, but I will save them for, perhaps, another day.

Finis

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

On Seeing Music

©2015 By Bob Litton

Synesthesia: Ever hear of that? It has been defined as “sensation produced in one modality when stimulus is applied to another modality, as when hearing a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color”.

The conjunction of sound and sight fascinates me. Usually, the term “synesthesia” is applied to programmatic musical compositions such as Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”; but nearly the same principle can be seen, I believe, in some individual words evoking phenomenal sounds, classified as onomatopoeia: “honk”, “whisk”, “boom”, et cetera. However, I want to restrict my discussion in this essay to sounds/images in musical compositions.

It is really odd, in a way, that I am engaged here with music, because I was a weak student in elementary school music class. I enjoyed the class as far as singing the American folk songs, Stephen Foster’s pieces, and armed forces’ anthems: that time, immediately after World War II, was really a chauvinistic period in our nation’s history, particularly in the South, where I lived. However, the part of the brain which grasps the mysteries of musical composition is also the part where arithmetic is learned; and arithmetic was my Achilles heel. Also, and this is something I still do not understand, I could not match my voice tone to the ones our teacher plucked on the piano when testing us individually.

What makes the odd even more strange is that I was the lyricist for a song that won a district-wide contest co-sponsored by the Dallas School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. After I was named the winner of the lyrics contest, my teacher helped me compose some music to accompany the words, I humming, in bits, a pseudo-melody and she jotting down the musical notes. That part of the contest I did not win; a little girl from a school across town did. The loss did not surprise me; I did not like my music either, while I did enjoy hers and now wish I had obtained a copy of her score. Still, I was on stage with the girl when maestro Walter Hendl introduced us during the annual children’s concert.

Other than that, I never ventured far onto the music scene. Oh, I did take a few guitar lessons when I was very young, since I wanted to be like my hero of the time, Gene Autry: I cannot recall now why I gave that up.

Yet, as I became a teenager I naturally shared my peers’ enthusiasm for popular and rock-‘n’-roll music; but I also liked to listen to some classical music then available on station KXIL (now a religion station) in Dallas. I was acquainted with only a few classical  works: “William Tell Overture” (of course), Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, Camille Saint-Saens’ “Omphale’s Spinning Wheel”—that just about covers it. Radio adventure dramas of the time—“The Lone Ranger”, “The Green Hornet”, and “The Shadow”—were obviously the lead-ins for that stage of my musical education. Actually, radio dramas did much to foster knowledge of classical music for many of us in those years.

About that same time, my mother took me to see Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”. I do not recall how I responded emotionally to the entire film, only that I enjoyed “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and admired, slightly fearfully, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”—or at least Disney’s animated rendering of them. Many years later, I guess it must have been in my 30s, I read an article in which the author disparaged “programmatic music”, that is, music which describes a scene. His thesis was that music should be “pure”, not reliant upon association with anything visual. That view is now quite widely held, I believe, and probably resulted in the current tendency to name compositions in mathematical terms or simply the name of the instrument(s) to be involved, as in most of John Cage’s so-called musical compositions. (This movement away from “association” or “meaning” in music was contemporaneous with an equivalent notion among poets: Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens are notorious in this manner; and Archibald MacLeish, in his poem “Ars Poetica”, asserted that a poem “should not mean but be”.) Ever since I read that music critic’s article I have been pretty much “straddling the fence”, not feeling competent enough to assert whether the critic was deluded or whether I am just a fossil stuck in some historical stratum. Frankly, though, I simply prefer music I can visualize…create a mental scene for…even if it isn’t accompanied by some background narrative.

After giving all that bio-historical stuff as background—as a sort of “disclosure”— I will now return to the topic with which I started: synesthesia.

A few years ago, I happened upon a clip on YouTube that fully engaged me: it was a rendition by Stephen Malinowski playing, on a piano, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”[1]. The fascinating aspect of that clip was that it was accompanied by a video showing rows of animated rectangles of various colors; the intensities of the colors changed as the rows moved along, visually indicating touches on the keyboard. It reminded me of a lava lamp my mother gave me while I was at the university. I also watched and listened to Malinowski play, on an organ, J.S. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”[2]. Man! That was a pleasure and a half.

Malinowski (also listed as “Smalin” on YouTube) has several other musical pieces for which he has arranged animations—some rectangles, some circles with connecting lines. And, just recently, I saw a blog post by a group of British art historians collectively known as “ArtLark” on WordPress.com (the same host where I publish) about Oskar Fischinger[3], the German abstract painter and animator. In the early 1930s, Fischinger experimented with the same manner of musical animations as Malinowski, only without the aid of a computer. Fischinger reportedly created a portion of Disney’s “Fantasia” but later repudiated it after discovering that other Disney artists had altered his work.

Now to my main point. While watching several of Malinowski’s renderings, I began to wonder what passes through a composer’s mind as he touches piano keys and makes notations on sheet music paper. I wondered if he, or she, visualizes something like Malinowski’s rectangles and circles or if he/she imagines a sun rising, then a bird chirping, then single drops of rain, then clouds rolling, then horses galloping through a Swiss valley as we listeners can visualize the setting for the “William Tell Overture”. In some way or other—either in abstract forms or in representational figures—the composer must visualize while creating, just as we do while listening.

At least I think so.

[1] Debussy: Clair de Lune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlvUepMa31o

[2] Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipzR9bhei_o

[3] http://artlark.org/2015/01/31/oskar-fischinger-an-optical-poem/

Finis

Celebrating Anniversary of Amira’s HGT Win

© 2014 By Bob Litton: All rights Reserved

NOTE TO READERS: Last June, I published my first essay on Amira Willighagen. Those who have not read that one might benefit from perusing it before proceeding to read this one, probably my last. You can find that review via this URL: https://boblitton.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/a-shout-out-for-amira/  [Dear Readers: I published the post below earlier than I should have: Amira’s HGT win anniversary isn’t until December 28. After I wrote this piece, I just became too eager to release it to Cyberworld. I have some more Amira commentary scheduled for release early Sunday morning (Dec. 28), so please check that out also. —BL]

Above all the sad and crazy events I read about every day there arose in my view last May the brightest, most cheerful star ever to appear in my personal heaven: Amira Willighagen, the Dutch girl who won the Holland’s Got Talent contest in December 2013. (I discovered her serendipitously on YouTube while searching for a song sung by somebody else.) Amira was nine-years-old at the time she auditioned on October 26, and the three judges anticipated that her song selection would be a children’s favorite, but they were surprised…nay, astounded…when she sang one of Puccini’s arias with a voice that sounded as though it were coming from the throat of a diva at least twice her age. A few months later, Amira told an interviewer that her uniquely mature sound was produced by using not merely her throat but also her stomach to sing. (Somebody clue me in here. As I will relate in subsequent paragraphs, Amira is a talented jester as well as a talented singer. My question is, is she joking about this “stomach” business?)

Since capturing the HGT trophy on December 28, 2013, Amira has entertained at concerts in various countries, including South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, the U.S., and Argentina; been given a special “master class” in London by her hero-conductor Andre Rieu; and performed during one of maestro Rieu’s outdoor concerts last July in Maastricht, Netherlands.

Also, last March Amira’s first CD was released (on her birthday). Initially, I did not intend to buy the CD because more than fifty percent of my enjoyment of Amira’s performances is derived from observing her extraordinary poise and openness to her audiences – her stage presence: I can only obtain that pleasure by watching her videos repeatedly on YouTube. HGT judge Dan Karety was absolutely correct: Amira is “a star who belongs onstage.”

After hearing it announced that she had won the HGT competition, Amira revealed for the first time her impish sense of humor by lying on the stage with her arms and legs pointed upward in mimicry of an animal playing dead. Later, while being interviewed by one TV host in Germany and by another in Argentina, she again revealed, more subtly, this aptitude for the comic. Her jesting humor became apparent when she responded to their questions.

The German lady asked what her future goal is, expecting Amira to say she wants to become a diva. However, Amira said she did not know how much longer she would continue singing, that she likes to do athletics, and eventually wants to work for McDonald’s. The host, taken slightly aback, said, “Touché!…There is plenty of time for you to decide that. I hope to see you performing at La Scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan in New York City.” (Good save!!!)

The Argentinian lady was not so fortunate. In Spanish, she thanked (“Gracias!”) Amira for appearing on her show and then asked Amira how to say that in Dutch. “Dank u vel” replied Amira with a slightly guttural enunciation. The host tried to say the same, and Amira repeated it even more gutturally – three more times! – almost as though she were spitting out sour milk! The poor woman tried to imitate Amira’s exaggerated expression with each repetition, until finally giving up and saying, “Okay!”, she let it drop. (I have to admit that episode was a bit rough on Amira’s part…but funny, too.)

Regarding the Maastricht concert, I really admired Amira’s onstage behavior, especially the way she curtsied in three directions during her curtain call. There were two aspects of the concert, however, which disappointed me: (1) they had costumed her in what was purportedly a medieval princess’ dress and bonnet; and (2) the acoustics were less than desirable due to the fact that it was an outdoor event. The latter problem, of course, could not be avoided, as far as I know. As for the dress, though, I think they would have done better to have donned her in the dress she wore while singing “Nessun Dorma” at the HGT finals, or even the simple outfit she wore at her audition in October 2013. (Like a Quaker or a Shaker, I always prefer the plain and simple over the fancy and gaudy.) None of the videos I watched after the “contest” ones were as good as those three, where the acoustics were superb, the cinematography commendable, and the dress modest. I will concede that the dropping of bits of blue and gold confetti all over Amira at the end of her audition, and after she was announced the winner in the finals, was an uncalled-for nuisance. Nor did I find that the simulated water waves during the “Nessun Dorma” performance added anything to its appeal.

Naturally, there have been some critics of Amira’s rise to operatic stardom. There is one mudslinging female blogger who says young girls should not try to sing opera, which, she claims, requires intimate knowledge of the languages and histories of the countries where the operas were composed. Others opine that heavy-duty aria-singing can damage a young person’s throat organs.

All this puts me in the unusual position of having to defend the singing of nonsense (which I have slammed in previous posts) and not paying attention to the nonsense. It reminds me of the remarks art historian Lord Kenneth Clark made during one episode of his BBC series Civilisation:

What on earth has given opera its prestige in western civilisation, a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. ‘What is too silly to be said may be sung’.*  Well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious— these things can also be sung and can only be sung.”

In the present instance, the criticism is really aimed at those who encourage a young girl to sing a song uttering the pleas of a young woman to her father and threatening to drown herself in a river if he does not grant her wish. Okay, it’s a tragic scene. Should children be exposed to such horrific words, either singing them or hearing them? Well, look at the folk tale of “Hansel and Gretel” and 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s derivative opera: parents abandoning their children in the forest to let them starve there, a witch fattening a boy for her supper, a girl pushing the witch into an oven. That story and many similarly rough tales we endured…need I say enjoyed…during our childhood. That much being given, what difference does it make what aria a young girl sings, as long as she sings it prettily. If the issue is the age appropriateness of a nine-year-old wanting to buy an engagement (or wedding?) ring, there are many occasions in all the arts where we are expected to suspend disbelief: Even I, at the age of twelve, eagerly used to sing the “Theme from High Noon” during music class talent exhibitions, and nobody ever commented to me on how absurd that was.

Finally, there is a pretense of “rivalry” which some people on the Internet have tried to foist on Amira and her American contemporary, Jackie Evancho, who won her own singing contest when she was only ten years old – four years before Amira. But these young ladies apparently are not jumping into that mud puddle. (Good for them!) Jackie gave Amira a “shout-out” on one of her Web sites, and Amira included Jackie among the persons she thanked on the booklet that accompanied her CD.

At nearly 75 years, I seriously doubt that I will be able to watch – much as I would like to – Amira’s progress into a potentially great operatic career. As Amira’s grandmother poignantly noted not long before dying, “She belongs to the world now.”  But I am content with what I have been able to see and hear thus far. And, on my blog’s stats page listing of “views” I see 21 “views” on the “Amira” post during last June and July. I hope at least one of those “views” was on the Willighagen family’s computer.

______

* Lord Clark is quoting Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799), but I was unable to locate any record of the location or context of Beaumarchais’ comment. – BL

Finis

O Beauty, Where Art Thou?

©2014 By Bob Litton

The Purpose of Canyons

Three men who had been classmates in high school greeted each other joyfully at a school reunion. They had been good friends all the way through their public school years but had since moved to separate sections of the country and had lost contact with one another. Now in their thirties, all had entered different career fields: one was a college science professor; one, an artist; and the third, a cowboy.
They decided they wanted to spend more time together, so they agreed to meet a couple of months later at an Arizona resort town near the Grand Canyon, which none of them had ever seen. The day following their arrival in Arizona, they spent several hours drinking wine (the scientist and the artist) and beer (the cowboy). Although a bit woozy after that binge, they nevertheless wobbled late in the afternoon out to the canyon’s rim.
The science professor, wide-eyed with awe, exclaimed, “Just imagine how many eons are evidenced in the strata of that wall across the chasm!”
The artist, observing the purple, red and golden hues of the sunset as the fiery globe rested upon the canyon, said dreamily, “What a beautiful painting I could create here!”
The cowboy, squinting and gazing, gazing and squinting, as he tried to fathom what his friends were talking about, finally sighed wearily and muttered, “What a hell of a place to lose a cow!”
After pausing a few seconds to guess what was going on here, the three friends began to quarrel over which man’s vision was actual. Then they fought. Then they rolled in a wild knot to the canyon’s rim. Then they fell.
— BL’s extended version of an old joke of unknown origin

I just wrote a check donating a small amount of money to an FM radio station in Arizona that plays classical music twenty-four hours a day. The station ended their fund drive yesterday. However, I did not pledge anything during that drive because I don’t like making pledges I might not be able to live up to and because I shrink from surrendering my bank account information to Cyberspace. I will, though, continue to contribute occasionally what I think I can afford to the station because I have been listening to it for several months now and feel guilty about receiving and not giving.

Any of my readers who share with me an appreciation of classical music are probably as aware as I of the threat to that genre on the radio because of its relatively small audience and its resultantly minimal sponsor roll. While residing in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, I listened nearly every day to WRR-FM, the City-owned station at Fair Park which played classical music all the time. Every other year, it seemed, the City council’s agenda included an item regarding the possible sale of WRR. The sale proponents’ argument was that the City should not be sponsoring a radio station in competition with other radio stations, all of which were rock-n-roll, C&W, or talk show sites. The local intelligentsia always loudly retorted that WRR did not survive on tax money but on its own advertising and sponsorship incomes.

Concert hall venues are in about the same condition; some orchestras have disappeared. I don’t know if that is because there are too many orchestras for the population or because classical music is too incomprehensible for mass audiences. (Classical country has experienced a similar decline.) It occurs to me that, as with modern rock-n-roll, modern C&W is indifferent to the production of the poetic and often humorous lyrics that used to spice them (e.g., “Ode to Billy Joe” and “The Race is On”).The “moderns” prefer unintelligible mumblings about the cliches of dusty roads and tractors that are supposed to attend a repetitive beat designed for the “Texas Two-Step”. Beat conquers melody!

Even I do not enjoy the works of some classical composers as much as I used to enjoy them. Gioachino Rossini and Richard Wagner were early favorites of mine — back in my early twenties — for the obvious reason that they were often boisterous and manly, but Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, a very quiet piece, was also a favorite. I guess whatever was a favorite with the crowd was a favorite with me. Debussy still ranks high on my list of admirable composers, but Wagner has declined considerably; and I am not quite sure why, although I have my suspicions. Whenever they play Ride of the Valkyries — a piece I used to thrill to — I now can hardly wait for it to conclude. The Russian composers, especially Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Borodin, have since monopolized my sympathies; but I appreciate several others almost as much. And I have become a fanatic for adagios, regardless of the nationality of the composer.

This slide from one style and mood to another has been cause enough for me to ponder the shapes and tones of beauty. Well, let me be honest: I have almost always wondered what are the attributes which excite the response within our minds and/or souls which we denominate the aesthetic sense “beauty”. In elementary school we were warned by our teachers to avoid words like “beautiful”, “wonderful” and “interesting”, because they are “worn-out adjectives”: the alternative for our written compositions (restricting the present remarks to “beautiful”) are words like “poignant”, “seductive”, “comforting”, “colorful”, “charming”, etc.; that is, more particular, pointed terms.

Most of us are cognizant of the supposedly emotional associations of colors, particularly red (anger, anxiety) and blue (cold, melancholy). Yet, red roses are often considered delightful gifts of appreciation and a blue sky is usually seen as a welcoming invitation to joyfully stroll down some country lane. Nearly three decades ago, the Dallas Fire Department changed the color of its fire trucks from cherry red to amber because the latter color reputedly grabs people’s attention more immediately. It has been supposed that the “beautiful” colors set in flower blossoms are meant to attract pollinators; but are the insects really appreciative of beauty per se, or are those blossoms’ colors perceived merely as glyphs designating the species beneath? How do the various colors of objects and scenes get emotionally separated and catalogued in our minds? I wondered.

As for myself, while still using crayons in grade school, before the era of “political correctness”, my favorite color was Indian red. Next in line was a sort of blue-green: cannot recall its name now. Somewhere along the path to adulthood I took to pastels, virtually all of them. Why did that change occur? The nearest I can fathom is that as I aged I became mellower — much less aggressive; I had learned the cost of belligerency.

I also learned that the generally preferred form for illustration was the human body, not tanks and airplanes. Animals and trees of various species could be rendered to appeal as well. But what was there about any of those that justified their characterization of “beautiful”?

I have discussed directly — and slantingly — in previous blog posts some of the issues concerning aesthetics, particularly the question of whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder or whether there is some abstract, socially accepted, ideal beauty that is relatively eternal (pardon the oxymoron). We humans have, I believe, an irritating urge to want demarcations in various areas of life, e.g. aesthetics: lines that will set off against each other the ways of viewing any phenomenon. (We do seem to be evolving into a blurrier manner of seeing in the areas of race and sexual orientation; there is now a budding debate over what is called “asexuality” to confuse matters even more.) Now I have reached a point where I can intellectually accept the non-reality of such strict borders, although I still cannot repress the emotional desire to draw them: consequently I keep returning to this issue of whether distinguishing palpable appearances is possible or whether they in fact slide into and blend with one another. Is there a sufficiently valid scale of perfecting to justify the careers of critics, or are we all just marooned on our little islands of individual preferences, each as valid — and as invalid — as the other? Does what we classify as beautiful occur to us out of an innate knowledge or have we been taught what is beautiful for so long that we now accept it as the “real beauty”? And why does anything have to be beautiful anyway?

That is as far as I have gotten in my cogitations to date. I apologize if any of the above leaves my readers frustrated; it could well be argued that I should have waited until I have some persuasive resolutions of these questions before sending them out into Cyberspace. However, I am beginning to doubt that that day will ever come. Anyway, more than half the fun from such musings derives from the questions, not the answers.

Finis

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Thank you for reading.
BL

NOTE TO NON-WORDPRESS BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL 

Young Poems

©1961 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: I am in a mental slough right now, folks; so I have returned to some of my earlier writings…and I mean way earlier. While I was still in the air force and stationed on Okinawa, I checked out a novel by James Ramsey Ullman titled The Day on Fire from the base library. The book was a fictionalized biography of the late 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and it got me all fired up about writing poetry myself. As my regular readers should recall, one of my latest blog posts related the anecdote of my first attempt at poetry, when I was ten years old. But one brick does not a castle make. And, as I have read elsewhere since then, that novel also fired up other young poet wannabe’s.

Anyway, I subsequently read a volume of modern American poetry and discovered that, since I had left high school it seemed, America had turned away from rhyme and hammered hard on meter. Yet it was not really so recent. I have read T.S. Eliot’s remark that he hated paying attention to meter. The problem with “free verse”, however, as Robert Frost said, is that it is “like playing tennis without a net”. The fact is that rhyme, when it fortunately seems inevitable instead of forced, makes a poem more credible, more eligible for popular acceptance; and meter, when it is consonant with the meaning of the words, adds impact. The rhyming of long words is especially effective in humorous poetry: look through Byron’s “Don Juan” and you’ll see what I mean.

One of the new facts I learned about modern poetry, on Okinawa, is related, I believe, to the invention of the typewriter and its use by poets. The lines of some poets’ works, the anthologist said, were broken with the intent of guiding the reader’s eyes in such a way that, when read aloud especially, the lines would have a unique emphatic effect. I point to Hart Crane’s “The Bridge:Section IV: Cape Hatteras” as a good example of my point here.

Moreover, what was common in the poems I read was the amount of personal introspection among the poets, even to the point of “confessional poetry”. This, as I learned later, is typical of young poets. I’m afraid it too much affected me. But, it is true, there is a profound flowing of the blood and hormones in the 14- to 24-year-old set that can lead either to poetry or to drugs, sometimes both.

This introduction is longer than I intended it to be, but I felt it necessary to alert you to the fact that the following two poems were written by a boy-man either 19 or 20 years old. Yet I still hold onto them out of inexhaustible fondness, much as a man will cling to his teddy bear.

When I was young

When I was very young
I thought that the sun’s rays
piercing the clouds
were the eye of God
watching the acts of mankind.
I thought that the stars,
high and shining,
were the angel counter-parts
of those departed
k
eeping eternal vigil
over their loved ones.
I thought that God spoke
through the mouths of some men.
I was happier then.

 

Wise Counselor

                        There was one who did not smile
                        when the boy let out his heart
                        but listened intent the while
                        till counsel was asked.  In part,
                        this is what her wisdom said:
                        “You ask me if you’re too young
                        to love; if within your head
                        childhood’s dreams still rule your tongue.
                        You can love, and deeply, or
                        you may change your mind one day.
                        But youth is not the time set for
                        thought or throwing dreams away.
                        Be not so concerned, my friend,
                        about what may shortly end.”

Finis

NOTE TO WORDPRESS BLOGGERS: If you would like to comment on this post you need to click on the words “Leave A Comment” in small bold print just above the by-line. That will open a box down at the bottom for your comment. I welcome comments, even critical ones, as long as they are polite and related to the essay, story or poem within the post.
Thank you for reading.
BL

NOTE TO NON-WORD-PRESS BLOGGING READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL 

 

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