Thursday, December 2, 2010

Where the magic is real...

Yesterday morning, riding the A train up to 125th St to catch the M60 bus to LaGuardia, I read a jingle for the PBS documentary Circus, a behind-the-scenes look at the life of circus performers.

We live in a trailer
We work in a tent
We dance on a wire
Our dogs pay the rent
So come join the circus
And see how we feel
Where the stories are true
And the magic is real.

I chuckled to myself and noted the ironic wit contained therein and immediately moved to the depressing recognition that reality TV ruins a lot of magic.

But my spirits literally lift as soon as I return to Rilke's Duino Elegies and the Angel that inspired so much great poetry in him. The post immediately below is a short note about the Chorale's Holiday program Dec 3-5. Below that are musings about angels, dreams, visions and other magical nonsense that enriches the lives of otherwise earthbound mortals.

Rilke addresses the Angel directly in the Seventh Elegy. An excerpt from it will be one of several "readings on light" interspersed between the a cappella works on the Chorale's holiday program.

Life here is magic…we want to lift it up and show it,
even though the most visible happiness only reveals itself
when we’ve transformed it, within…

Miracles! O stand in wonder, Angel…tell the others of these things:
my breath is insufficient for such praise…O Angel, it was—
...and music rose still higher, soared beyond us…

(from The Seventh Elegy, trans. E. Snow)

Music is the medium that brings us closest to the beyond. It is the most "magical" of the art forms. Music stimulates the range of human emotions, conjures angels, evokes the heaven & earth and inspires us with the magic of harmony.

The quaternity of elements--earth, wind, water & fire--are sometimes called the "fourfold" in philosophy. They are grouped in pairs: mortals (water) and divinities (fire), earth & sky (wind). Art is one of the means by which the fourfold are united. Heidegger refers to "dwelling" as our being "at peace" (the two German words are related) in the "onefold."

Writing 60 years ago, he diagnosed a condition worsened by reality television and post-modern culture. "Our dwelling today is harassed by work, made insecure by the hunt for gain and success, bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry."

The Museum of Modern Art in NYC recently opened a bewitching show that is bound to be one of the hot art exhibitions of the year, "Abstract Expressionist NYC." It had me at "hello." I was taken with one of the early galleries of Barnett Newman's austere, color field canvases (they resemble Rothko as Mozart does Haydn). As Rothko divided his color fields into horizontal blocks of the deepest, most vibrant monochromes imaginable, Newman marks his paintings with a vertical "zip." This stripe-like band simultaneously divides and unites the canvas in a wonderful aesthetic paradox.

Newman said "I hope my painting has the impact of giving someone as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time his connection to others."

I do believe that is a quaternity of elemental responses the artist wishes to evoke in a series of abstract canvases first titled "Onement." It was painted at the same time Heidegger was waxing philosophical about dwelling poetically. (Freaky. Cool. Both).

If I lost my hearing I would turn to painting to remind me what the world sounds like. Like music, color provokes an astonishing range of responses. Painting is magic, too. Rothko wrote that "pictures must be miraculous." His deep-hued color field paintings (the red/blue/browns--which always look purple) wrench my gut and touch my soul. There's something mysterious about the chromatic density of his (ostensibly monochromatic) "fields" and the responses affected by their juxtapositions.

"Toward nightfall there's a feeling of mystery, threat, frustration--all of these at once" he wrote in describing (at least one of) his intentions.

Many of the artists in the exhibition cite similar intentions and responses to Rothko's. Franz Kline's forcefully executed, rough-hewn evocations of Asian calligraphy are monochromatic yet singularly powerful (and partly inspired by John Cage's talks on Zen Buddhism, the I Ching and Asian philosophy in general). Echoing Newman, Kline painted "not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking."

One of the most brilliant paintings in the MOMA show is one of two--by my count--de Koonings. This one is near the end, so don't spend all your time in the Pollock gallery gushing over those exuberant "drip" paintings. "A Tree in Naples" has some of the most out-of-this-world blue in the world. The artist described its deceptively prosaic-sounding origins: "I really got very elated by again looking, by again seeing that the sky is blue, that the grass is green."

I get very elated by again listening, by again hearing the simple purity of voices in harmony in the music the Chorale sings. And I can't wait for the magic these great singers will bring to life this weekend. The Circus jingle reminds us that performance is not magic but practice, technique, concentration, coordination and talent. It is science and art. Both are essential. The "onement" cannot be attained when any one of the elements is missing or out of balance. Really good a cappella harmony is like walking on air or dancing on a wire. I'm reminded of a favorite quote I shared below (in "Let us recount our dreams") from the playwright Tony Kushner, addressing the cast of Angels in America.

"And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty? If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain...and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst."

The cliché about perfection being 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration rings true where such human endeavors are concerned. We "sweat and strain" to make the magic appear at all, to call down the angels to visit us once more. The great conductor Robert Shaw often reminded his singers that "before the holy dove descends, we have to clean out the cage." Indeed.

One of the singers' favorite works on this program is Will Todd's new motet Angel Song II. It evokes a choir of heavenly angels singing "Hosannah" using only the vowels of that word to create an atmospheric impression of the original "night before Christmas." I'll be canvassing listeners to hear their impressions of our evocation.

"Poetic dwelling flies fantastically above reality" Heidegger remarks. Our listening and hearing music, our looking and seeing art bridges the span between these worlds. It makes the real fantastic and the fantastic real. It calls us to join the chorus of Rilke's closing Tenth Elegy.

Someday, at the end of the tether of hardened knowledge,
may I emerge singing praise and jubilation to assenting angels.
May I strike my heart's keys clearly, and may none fail
because of slack, uncertain or fraying strings...

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