Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

I first met Pauline Oliveros over 35 years ago in the Main Gallery at CalArts in Valencia, California. The occasion was a performance of her piece “El Relecario de los Animals”. I was in undergraduate composition students in the school of music; she was an iconic, accordion playing, deep listening, female icon of new music.

I never became a huge fan of Pauline’s music. But, with respect to Pauline as a human being, I am a great admirer. 

First of all, as to her musicianship, Pauline was a consummate musician of the highest order. She was simply a fantastic accordionist. The thing, though, is not so much about her playing but about her listening. Pauline’s deep reverence for the simple act of listening was breathtaking. Her “Deep Listening” workshops change the lives of men and women around the world. Her tiny little book on that subject is full of exercises and practices that have tremendously enhanced my ability, not only to hear music but, to hear the world around me. I am profoundly grateful to Pauline for teaching me to listen. Although my wife, some of my friends, and my boss may well not understand that because I have a tendency to speak before listening, when it comes to hearing subtly I am extremly adept and I owe it all to Pauline. To the, now bygone, spirit of Pauline Oliveros I want to express my gratitude and thanks.

Pauline’s will to help others did not stop with listening. Her project to use computer technology for the betterment of human beings led to the creation of the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI). AUMI uses sound generation tools and a webcam to allowing users with very limited mobility to create music both alone and in groups. This project was not about ego, not about listening, and not about Financial gain. It was purely a selfless project to make better the lives of disabled people. It was, quite simply, a beautiful deeply moving humanitarian gesture. So, to the, now bygone, spirit of Pauline Oliveros I also want to express my admiration for your selfless love of people.

Pauline was born in 1932. She was a performer and composer as well as an accomplished philosopher. In the ‘60s, Pauline was among many of the most innovative musicians, like my mentor Mort Subotnick, at  San Francisco Tape Music Center. In the  ‘80s, she began her “Deep Listening” practice to which I am so indebted. 

Pauline was a constant collaborator with Stuart Dempster and many other amazing musicians. We sometimes think of Brian Eno as the guy who created ambient music.  But Pauline and Stuart are really the ones to create the first landmark recordings. 

Pauline has most recently been a Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was the Milhaud Artist-in-Residence at Mills College. In my time, her work at UCSD and her visits to CalArts gave me a remarkable exposure to a remarkable woman. So, to the, now bygone, spirit of Pauline Oliveros I finally want to express my thanks for your willingness to share your aesthetic with all of us whose lives you touched.

It’s funny, you know, that I never really got to know Pauline well when I was actively involved in the  new music composition community. My real “friendship” with her came later in my life, believe it or not, through Facebook. Pauline took time from her busy schedule to actually interact with me about my listening practice, to discuss AUMI, and to teach me much, probably, without even knowing it. 

That’s the way Pauline was. She gave so much to other people, even me. She will always have my gratitude and she will always be in my heart. I will miss her joy, her selfless devotion to humanity, and, her generosity in teaching us all the art of listening to the subtle beauty of our world.

Rest In Peace o’deepest of listeners.

Last night Patt and I had the rare opportunity to see Michelangelo Antononi’s film “L’Avventura” as a 35mm film print at the Northwest Film Center. It was shown as part of the Italian Style exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. A few years ago, I wrote of my love for Antonioni and his first color film “Red Desert“. Today, I’d like to tell you why L’Avventura is one of my favorite films of all time.

Antonioni seems, to me, to be the opposite of many earlier Italian filmmakers. Before Antonioni and his generation were the Italian neo-realists like Visconti and Rosselini. Neo-realist filmmakers share some common production traits such as using amateur actors, on-site cinematography, outlines instead of formal storyboards and scripts, socialist themes about the working class and their struggles, and the physical effects of historical events. As one would expect from the name  “neo-realism” these films were almost a form of interpretive historiography.

Antonioni’s films, however, use well-trained professional actors (Monica Vitti!!!), expensive locations, highly stylized aesthetics, upper class protagonists, and a strong focus on the psychological (versus physical) effects of events. To my mind , Antonioni is the antithesis of a neo-realist. But I love Rosselini, so, clearly being antithetical to Rosselini and Visconti isn’t what I love about L’Avventura. That is simply one among many of the things that makes Antonioni and this particular film, unique.

Honestly, L’Avventura is pretty light on plot-lines. But here is what Janus Films has to say: “A girl mysteriously disappears on a yachting trip. While her lover and her best friend search for her across Italy, they begin an affair. Antonioni’s penetrating study of the idle upper class offers stinging observations on spiritual isolation and the many meanings of love.” That’s the extent of it. The “missing girl” is “Anna”, her lover is “Sandro”, and the best friend is “Claudia”. Sounds pretty damn dull, huh? My wife sums it up even more succinctly. The Patt Bilow synopsis is this:

Anna disappears and Sandro is a scumbag“. You pretty well nailed the plot, babe. That is one reason I love you so much! 🙂

Seriously, though, the film does have a bit more structure than I’m flippantly implying. L’Avventura should be viewed more as a “composition” in the musical sense than as a traditional film. In that context, L’Avventura could be said to have five “movements”. Each movement, then, has it’s own unique mood and environmental structure. Each ends with some event that changes how we view the characters; each alters the narrative direction. This is not my own private analysis. It is widely accepted that there are 5 sections to the film.

  • 1. Anna goes to the Island
  • 2. The search of the Island, for Anna
  • 3. Claudia and Sandro follow Anna’s trail
  • 4. The new relationship between Claudia and Sandro
  • 5. The return

The film also has much more character complexity than simply to say that Sandro is a scumbag. He is. But he is also weak, more insecure than he is willing to portray, needy, and angry. Sandro cries at the end of the film and, oddly, Claudia comforts him. This implies that he is weak, lonely, and for all his money, alienated. So, frankly, is Claudia. After all, she does become Sandro’s lover much more readily than one would hope.

So, ok. Look… It’s not much of a plot. Surely, that is why it was booed at its first ever showing at Cannes in 1960. But, it does have structure and meaning; even if its greatest meaning is little more than to say that everyone suffers from post-modern alienation. There are more important aspects to the film and I’ll readily admit that it is not plot that makes L’Avventura great.

What then? Does it have a super-secret encrypted message? Well… I can’t answer that question any better than the greatest of film critics, Roger Ebert. In 1997, Ebert said this:

These people were bored by a lifestyle beyond my wildest dreams. When I taught the film in a class 15 years later, it seemed affected and contrived, a feature-length idea but not a movie. Only recently, seeing it again, did I realize how much clarity and passion Antonioni brought to the film’s silent cry of despair.

His characters were parasites whose money allowed them to clear away the distractions of work, responsibility, goals and purposes, and exposed the utter emptiness within. It is possible to be rich and happy, of course, but for that you need a mind, and interests. It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained. “L’Avventura” becomes a place in our imagination–a melancholy moral desert.

This is not all that different from the many other interpretations which say that L’Avventura is a direct shot at the Italian upper-middle class who Antonioni the socialist really does dislike. But, when it comes to wasting time and money, the upper-middle class may also be an allegorical representation of a larger problem. I propose that it is. I propose that the film forces us to ask the larger question of meaning in human life in general. How do we make a meaningful life? Antonioni does not answer that. But he does do one heck of a good job of demonstrating that idleness, inaction, lack of productiveness, complacency, and meaningless sexual promiscuity are not the constituent parts. About that, we must ponder long and hard.

I still have not explained why I love the film. Unless I simply enjoy static plot-free films about angst, there must be more. So, let’s forget about plot and meaning; let’s focus on aesthetics. There are 3 fundamental aesthetic characteristics that make this film great. I’ll share them now. Hopefully, you will see why I’m in love with this film despite the minimalist plot and slow pace of its 473 shots.

1. Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to visual detail. As a competent photographer, I think I’m adequately trained to speak to the compositional style in Antonioni’s ouerve. I propose that if you were to print of every frame in L’Avventura, the majority of those prints would contain a near-perfectly composed image. That results from Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to detail.

2. Without being overt or cheeky, Antonioni uses superbly crafted iconography and even simple visual cues in very powerful ways. We begin to see this as early as shot 2. We can tell that Anna and her father don’t have a particularly good relationship because they speak to each other’s backs, with no eye contact. That’s not really the iconography I’m talking about but it quickly demonstrates how Antonioni uses imagery to tell us more than words or action.

Much of the visual, and even verbal, language that is used (in a much more advanced way) to depict allegory in L’Avventura comes from Catholicism. Last night, the entire theater laughed when Claudia, in shot 202, hands Anna’s father Anna’s Bible. He takes it as a good sign that she would not commit suicide. He says: “I believe than anyone who reads the Bible could never do anything so rash!“.That is a sort of verbal joke. But consider the later scene where Sandro purposely spills ink on a young architect’s drawing and then escapes a fight with the young man by scrambling into line with a large group of black-clad school boys and their priests. Ahhh! Saved by the priests!

But, by no means is all the allegory Catholic. In fact, the penultimate (and not so subtle) iconography comes at the end of the film where Sandro is represented by a church tower and Claudia by the cavernous womb of a church. Sexual allegory? Naw… never! 🙂

3.Antonioni borrows an almost anti-teleological aesthetic commonly used in Japanese literature and abstract expressionistic music like that of Morton Feldman. He spends more time on character and psychological effect than enacting plot and action. His camera often stays on a shot for several seconds after the action has ended; creating a teleological version of “negative space”.Like L’Avventura, Japanese novels are often also static, and the same is true of music by an abstract expressionist composer like one of my old teachers, Morton Feldman. like Feldman’s music and Japanese novels, the lack of a temporal dynamism in L’Avventura is actually the source of its utter beauty. Instead of bouncing through quick cuts and fast-paced action, the viewer must watch the film long enough to adapt to its pace and time extension; having settled in to the pacing, we can experience the subtlety and detail almost like a meditation on perfectly composed images floating in a clear lake of temporal stasis.

I don’t just make this stuff up. Antonioni himself explains his philosophy of time, events, and images in an essay called “The Event and the Image“. He states explicitly that he wants to present an “event” and then dispense with it quickly in order to use related images to depict the EFFECT of the event. In L’Avventura the “event” is the disappearance of Anna; the “image” is the entire remainder of the film; imagery and iconography are used to to explore the effect of Anna’s disappearance on Claudia and Sandro. It make for a very beautiful experience if you let yourself have the time to immerse in it.

I’m used to watching this film on a Criterion Collection DVD. Watching the 35mm film print was both good and bad. It was good because it is historically significant and film does have a particular look. Unfortunately, I sometimes found it difficult to read the white subtitles. Also, I was a bit surprised at the lip sync issues and how much the audio synchronization problems bothered me.That is just a characteristic of the available technology. Still, there are plenty of films from long before 1960 that have well dubbed audio tracks. I do have to say, though, that even with the poorly sync’d audio track it was sure a blessing to get to see a film print of one of my all-time favorite flicks!

All-in-all it was a great thing to see L’Avventura on film. Thank you to the Northwest Film Center for showing it, to the Portland Art Museum for letting members in free, and to my lovely wife for being the only friend interested in coming to watch it with me! Now I need another 2 1/2 hours to devote to this film.  I really want to go back to my DVD and watch it with the secondary audio track; therein my old friend and video professor Gene Youngblood provides a play-by-play commentary. It might be time for some serious cinematic geekdom!

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been over a month since I posted the first part of this piece. In the interim I’ve dealt with mom’s broken hip and a week in London, among other things. None of that is really an excuse, except to say that I’ve been crazy busy. Oh well. Back at it.

James Turrell often talks about his work in the context of Plato’s parable about the cave. I’m sure you know that one. Those kept prisoner in the cave can only see the shadows of what’s outside in the real world. They think that the shadows ARE the real world, not knowing that there is a larger, more vivid, much more complex world outside their cave. They don’t know that because their concept of the world is shaped only by what they perceive. Personally, I hate that parable; not because of what it says about sense perception but because Plato uses it to describe his notion of underlying forms and I’m SO not into Platonism.

But, I have to say that when Turrell uses the parable to explain the concept that we are living in a place far more wondrous than what we actually perceive, I get it. Personally, I draw a hard-line when the implication is that we live “in a reality that our mind creates” because that leads down a subjectivist rat hole that has historically led (IMHO) down a very scary path. I refuse to believe that we create our own reality: reality is not a social construct or a linguistic construct or a perceptual construct. Reality is reality. Existence exists. That is my belief system and I’m sticking to it.

Now, the part of the equation that I DO buy into wholeheartedly it the idea that what we commonly consider the totality of reality is subject to the sensory limitations of our perceptual apparatus. To me, the profound power of Turrell’s work is that he forces us to confront the perceptual and cognitive limitations and to look deeply. I don’t want to burden that thought with New Age pseudo-spiritual fluff. Feel free to do that yourself. But, I see this work in a more objective way,

You see, I feel that awareness of subtlety and attention to detail are tools for cognitive tuning, living as fully as possible in the world, creative success, and the ability to maximally experience joy, beauty, and wonder. And, the more joy, beauty, and wonder we are able to glean from our experience of the world the more fulfilled we can be as individuals. Turrell’s work, by encouraging us to look more deeply than typically possible, makes us more aware, makes our experience more nuanced, and positions us to have a deeper, more fulfilling life.

That’s a pretty bold statement and, just to be clear, it came from me not from Jim. I’m not sure he’d describe his work the way I do; but I’m sure he’d approve of my assessment. And… It’s my assessment that leads me to the aesthetic value I see in his work.

Although teleology is something that much of 20th and 21st century art has forsaken, I still believe in the old notions of direction and purpose. I know, I’m old-fashioned. In many cases, artists have “purposes” with which I disagree. I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is intellectual activity that is purposeless. If you make violent art to sensitize the viewer to the horrors of violence, I may not like it, but I’ll respect it. Conversely, if you make violent art just for the sake of violence, I’ll look you in the eye and call it valueless.  The point is that art have a purpose.

My own belief is that the value of art comes when that purpose is, in one way or another, directed toward making we humans better for having experienced it. In the case of my friend Michael Newberry, the purpose of his work is to make us see the greatness we can achieve and the capacity we have for joy. I love his work because it has that purpose. At the diametrically opposite extreme, consider Alain Resnais’ film “Night and Fog”. The purpose if the file is to make us see the utter depths of depravity we can fall to when a nationalistic genocidal machine is allowed to grow from a history of antisemitism and the capacity the Nazis had for bestiality. I love that film, although I can probably never watch it a second time, because it has a purpose. The purpose is painful, horrifying, and tragic. But it strives to make us better by making us wary of the depths to which we can fall. Terrifying as it may be, we are changed by watching it; hopefully made just a bit more empathetic and compassionate.

But what about Turrell?

Okay. That brings me to the aesthetics of nuance. The work of James Turrell makes us better human beings because it makes us pay attention to subtlety. By experiencing Turrell’s work we wrestle with perception, we experience surprise, we watch, we wait, we look, and we see. In each case, we exercise our cognition and we tune our senses. We stand in a museum looking at a hole in a wall and some fluorescent tubes. Big deal, you say. Damn right it’s a big deal. Because, if you give yourself time to experience that light, to let it work it’s magic on your visual cortex, to become sensitive to its subtlety, you may just walk out of that museum and notice a flower you’d otherwise have missed, see a sunset you might have otherwise been too busy driving past, hear a bird you might not have noticed, smell the aroma of the bread at the bakery you walk past, touch a stone whose texture you may have missed, experience a smile that might have gone unnoticed, feel just a bit more intensity in that night’s orgasm, LIVE just a bit more fully than you lived before…

…Just maybe… the world will seem a little bit more blessed with  wonder.

That’s an aesthetic worth experiencing.

I admit it. I am a foodie. I am a wine snob. And…. I am a baguette fanatic.

In 1986 I made my first trip to France. My friend Robin and I went to Paris and spent 3 wonderful weeks with our friend Paul. I came to love Paris and I came to love French food. Three years later, my wife and I spent our own 2 amazing weeks in Paris – visiting a friend at IRCAM, MEETING Olivier Messiaen, visiting every possible museum… and EATING. Almost 2 decades elapsed before I again found cause to  return to France; this time, on several occasions, to Albi – birthplace of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, home to the tallest brick cathedral in the world, appellation of a wide array of un-exported wines, and the city that introduced me to Cassoulet (which, given 2 or 3 days of preparation and someone willing to bring be sausages from Toulouse, I have been known to make as well as a Southern Frenchman). Over all the years between my Paris of the 80’s and my Albi of the 21st century, I have searched for good baguettes. They were there in Paris. They were there in Albi. They were everywhere I went in France. They were NOWHERE ELSE.

Then, one day, I was wondering around Northwest Portland and I decided to stop in at a place that I had heard about for a few years but had never visited. The pastries were amazing, but I love the pastries at La Provence and at St. Honore in Lake Oswego just as well. Ken Forkish has mastered every possible French baked good. Others have too. But Ken Forkish has also mastered something that it seems almost no other Americans have mastered – PERFECT, TRADITIONAL, French breads; especially the baguette.

All of this is just my opinion but here is what I think:

Here is a photo of the top of 2 baguettes. The upper one is from a bakery I like a lot. The lower one is from Ken’s.

Baguette top

The 2 breads are both baked to a relatively dark brown. Ken’s has much higher contrast between the valleys of the crust and it’s peaks. This is because of the high temperature at which he bakes and the care with which he allows his loves to proof. The color difference indicates that the crust is lighter and flakier that the more evenly colored crust. In fact, Ken’s crust is the lightest, crispest crust I’ve had. Just like it is in France.

A cross-sectional view of the loaves is even more telling. Look at the height of the loaves and look, particularly, at the size and relative density of the air pockets. Ken’s baguette is on the right.

Baguette Cross Section

These bigger air pockets, and this greater height is, again, due to care and control. I’m honestly not sure whether it’s his long bulk fermentation times, his proofing time, the temperature, or what. If I knew, I’d make my baguettes like he does. All I know is that when you look at these cross sections you  see that Ken’s crust is thinner and his center is lighter, airier, and softer. Um… Just like it is in… you guessed it… FRANCE.

What you can’t tell from these photos, even if you believe me when I say that they indicate crisp crusts and soft centers is this. Because this bread is probably bulk fermented for a longer period of time that most other bakers, it has a richer, more complex flavor. This is where being a wine snob comes in handy. You can taste the complexity. Now, I’m sure that Ken has little tricks he plays with his levains. But, I know (from reading his book not because I know how to bake), that complexity come from the time it takes for a full bulk fermentation. If you don’t believe me, visit the bakery and try for yourself.

Now, here’s the big question of the day. What the heck is so important about finding the perfect baguette, anyway? Well, easy. Crappy bread is cheap. Good bread is expensive. If I’m going to spend $3.00 for a baguette, I want a great one. That’s it. Nothing more. I don’t expect a lot from an inexpensive wine; though I find many of them quite acceptable. But, when I spend good money on a Bordeaux, or a California Cab, or a Oregon Pinot Noir, I want my money’s worth. This may sound like I’m cheap and it may sound like I’m snooty. Maybe there is some of both in me. But here is how I feel.

Good food is an aesthetic experience as much as a well-played string quartet or a great painting. Either it edifies you, or it doesn’t. In my case, much of my enjoyment in life comes from a great cigar, a great bottle of wine, a great string quartet, a great Rothko exhibit, a great Opera, a great sculpture, a great film; in short from sensory mindfulness. Mindful eating is an equally enjoyable experience.

So why a baguette? That too is easy. If a great steak is like a Beethoven Symphony and a great cassoulet can be as epic as Wagner’s “Ring”, then a perfect, simple baguette with an underlying hidden complexity is a Bach cello suite. Sometimes I’m up for an epic but almost nothing is more enjoyable to me, after a long day at work, than a single malt scotch and a Bach cello suite. In that context, I’ll savor a Ken’s Artisan baguette, any day.

Bravissimo Ken Forkish!

Bill Viola is among the leading video artists in the world. Some would say he is “arguably THE leading” video artist but I simply can’t accept the word “arguably”. When one thinks of video art, perhaps Nam June Paik, or Ed Emshwiller, or Kit Galloway, or Dan Sandin may come to mind. Paik may even be a contender, or even the winner, as best known among them. But to my mind, the work of no one who has ever touched a video camera can compare with the magnitude of the work of Bill Viola. Bill’s work is unique within the discipline of video art. Sometimes the pieces that Bill has created in the last decade or two are referred to as “moving paintings”. To my knowledge, no one creates anything like Bill’s work and no one uses video in a manner so emotive and so painterly. For this reason, I am more than mildly excited that Bill is not only among the 2011 Praemium Imperiale Laureates, but is the Praemium Imperiale Laureate in PAINTING!

Bill Viola’s work has been shown on virtually every continent. He has received awards from  institutions as diverse as art institutes and MIT. But leave it to Japan, where the aesthetics of emotion, subtlety, and sensitivity in art are most respected, to finally recognize the true underpinning of his work – Bill Viola is a PAINTER!

I first met Bill Viola in 1979 or 1980 thanks to the CalArts School of Film and Video and to Mr. “Expanded Cinema” himself, Gene Youngblood. Before any of us had color TVs (okay, a slight exaggeration, but only just) Gene was predicting the future of the moving image and the eventual merging of media technologies. Gene wasn’t always exactly correct, but he certainly was closer than almost anyone else. He predicted that we’d all one day have cable (or satellite) television and that it and computers would one day merge. He really is an amazing man. Besides, how many people do I know who actually knew (well) both Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand! But, I digress. My point is simply that Gene knew, back in the 1970’s, that Bill Viola would lead that pack. That is why Gene would regularly invite Bill to speak in his classes, and to show his work. To this very day, Bill’s video “Hatsu Yume” is my favorite of his earlier pieces; not because it is visually stunning (which it is), or because it is brilliantly communicative (which it is), or because he got to do it on a quite impressive grant from Sony (which he did), but because I remember sitting on the floor in class watching Bill spend inordinate minutes adjusting the television on which we were to watch the tape. Like everything about Bill Viola, it had to be both technically and visually perfect.

I never gave up on following the work of Bill Viola. I saw it in museums and I remember one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen in an LA art museum in the 80’s. I remember the first time I was transfixed by “He Weeps for You” and the first time I sat in “The Room for Saint John of the Cross“. But nothing prepared me for the visual experience that finally turned Bill from my “favorite video artist” to my favorite artist in any medium. That experience came at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles where Bill showed the body of work collectively known as “The Passions“. It was at that show where I learned that video could be so emotional and so passionate that it’s impossible to avoid tears. It was at that show where I saw that video could be quintessentially painterly. And, it was at that show where I experienced my favorite of his pieces, and my favorite work of visual art: the “Five Angels for the Millenium“. In fact, On February 17, 2003, I posted this (which I can’t believe is still there!) to the Getty Center Website: “I was in awe. I’ve seen every piece of Viola’s since the 70’s when he’d come to lecture at Gene Youngblood’s video art classes. When I saw The Greeting I thought that Viola had reached the zenith of his career. But I was wrong. Silent Mountain still resonates in me many days after seeing it. And if Silent Mountain resonates, then I don’t even know what to call the feeling that Five Angels for the Millennium left me with! Transcendence maybe. The joy of knowing that man can be uplifted. Needless to say, I love this show.” To this day, I stand by that reaction.

So I have to share just one more non sequitur. I had very little time to see the Getty show in 2003. I got to the center at exactly the time that the show was to open,  on the first day of the show. The bad news is that they were opening the show 2 hours late because the first 2 hours were devoted to a press tour. The good news, and amazing blessing, is that when I told someone in the gift shop that I’d studied with Bill, she took me up to the gallery and let me in to the press event.  Yes, I had only 2 hours to see the show. But much of those 2 hours was spent getting a private tour with Bill. So, perhaps those 5 angels like me as much as I liked them!

Now, all of these stories bring me back to my original motivation for writing this post. The work of Bill Viola has been a part of my personal aesthetic for most of my adult life. I’m sure that he has no idea who I am. That doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the pride I take in recognizing his genius over 30 years ago; the joy I take in watching the body of work that I respected back then grow into one of the most visually amazing bodies of work in western art culture; and the growth that I, myself, have received from studying with Bill, following his work, and making the moving image and Bill’s “moving Paintings” a part of my own process of self-examination and my understanding of aesthetics, emotion, and the world.

Congratulations Bill!