Posts Tagged ‘CalArts’

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.

Advertisements

I remember once telling my old tabla teacher, Taranath Rao, that I had wrestled in high school. I recall being quite surprised to find out that he too was a youth wrestler! I’ll never know whether I could have out-wrestled guruji; but I surely know that it would take me another hundred lifetimes to become even one thousandth the tabla player that he was.

I also surely know that I was very blessed that a man in the direct lineage of the Farukkhabad Gharana of tabla masters would be willing to take, as a student, a 20-year-old composer of electro-acoustic music who had neither the tenacity nor the aptitude to become an accomplished hand-drummer. The fact is, I began studying with Taranath because I “wanted to learn something non-Western” and because my friend Amy (who was an accomplished percussionist) was going to study tabla – and I thought Amy was cute.

Over the years that I knew Taranath, he became far more that just a path to “something non-Western” and a reason to hang out with Amy. He became one of the great influences on my life. This is not because I would ever become a particularly good drummer but, rather, because knowing him led me to both my interests in India and to a realization about what a truly joyful human being could be and how precious it was to know one.

Taranath Rao was born one hundred years ago today, March 6, 1915, in Mangalore India. His uncle, A. K. Rao, was an accomplished Indian violinist and his own father, Ramarao Hattiangady, was a percussionist and an actor. Because of these family members, Taranath received some very early exposure to musical genius. Taranath first studied tabla with Vishnu Goakar. He learned mridangam from his own father.  Ultimately Taranath studied with Shamshuddin Khan, who he first met while on tour with the great master Abdul Kareem Khan. There is an old story about Shamshuddin Khan that says his hands were so light, and his drumming so effortless, that anyone sitting behind him could not even tell when his hands were moving and when not. Clearly my guru learned this lesson well; sadly, I did not.

Taranath moved to Bombay around 1932 to study art. Shamshuddin Kahn didn’t have time to take on new students so, first, Taranath studied with pakawaj master Subbarao Ankolekar who also player tabla in the style of Delhi gharana. It was not until almost 7 years later that, in 1939, Shamshuddin Khan could make time for Taranath. He had found his guru.

Though having begun to master the Delhi gharana, his discipleship under Shamshuddin led him to another stylistic lineage. Through a history that I honestly do not know well, my guru Taranath, is directly in the discipleship lineage of the fathers of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas.

I studied with Taranath from 1979 or 1980 through 1982. He taught me a tremendous amount about drumming and about the theory of North Indian rhythm. He also taught me about joy, love, and humor.

We used to joke with Taranath because he had difficulty pronouncing the letters W and V in English. He once told us how important rhythm is to Indian music by saying that “Music contains rhythm like the waves are in the ocean.” We kept asking him to repeat the word “waves” as if we did not understand. Finally he said” “WAVES! WAVES!… V-A-V-E-S!” He was just awesome!

Taranath had some physical problems by the time I knew him. That is actually what brought him to the US. He could no longer play 5 or 6 hour-long concerts. He could still, however, perform at a world-class level for our American-style 2 hours shows. Because he did not drive, one of his students would typically pick him up and bring him to school. Of course, that left us open to a variety of alternative plans. One of these was to show up, as a group, to pick him up. This could result in quite a wonderful dining experience when we would, just by the stroke of luck, be invited to dinner.

Once, on his birthday, Taranath received from his students, a 1/2 gallon bottle (I think) of Chevas Regal. This was an extra entertaining evening because we had not only the joy of Tabla lessons and dinner, but also the great Joy of watching Taranath’s wife (who we all called “Mami”) walk around offering up whiskey from that big bottle. What do I remember that made that so entertaining? Well… Guess what LETTER the word “Whisky” starts with? That right! “W“! Mami, like guruji, couldn’t pronounce the letter W! So, she walked around the room offering us “‘Ski?” “‘Ski?”, “‘Ski?”

Those were some fun times. But there is one memory that cemented the memory or Taranath in my mind, for life. Not long before guruji died I was in Los Angeles and went to visit CalArts, where I had studied with Taranath. This was either 1990 or 1991. I was walking the halls, giving my wife a tour, when I met Taranath with one of his newer (younger) students. I had not seen him in something like 7 or 8 years. When he saw me, he got the most priceless smile on his face. He nearly ran up to me and embraced me. He turned to his student and then back to me. With one of the most genuine smiles I have ever seen, the great Pandit Taranath Rao, direct descendant of the the leaders of the Farukkhabad and Lucknow Gharanas, looked at me and said “Look at you!” and turned to his student and said of me “HE was one of MY STUDENTS TOO!!!” Rarely in my life have I been so warmly embraced.

And so… on this 100th birthday of one of my favorite men of CalArts, I think of Taranath Rao with the same warmth and love that he last embraced me, those many years ago.

Jai Guru!

One thing that sucks about getting older AND being a “people person” is that I care so much about so many people who are also getting older. I also pride myself on my relationships with amazing people. It’s a blessing and a curse; knowing amazing people who get older, and older, and like all of us, eventually die. Today, I’m tired.  I have to admit it: I’m getting tired of writing memorials to great men and women who pass away. But, I have to do this because something in me wants to help keep memory alive. It’s sort of my “thing”, I guess.

In the Autumn of 1978 I sat on the floor of the Main Gallery at the California Institute of the Arts. I was a surprisingly unworldly 18-year-old.

I had just started college, working toward my degree in music. I had managed to take solfeggio placement tests that confirmed I did not even need to take ear training classes. I was hard at work with Theory, composition lessons, music history, and critical studies. I had yet to meet John Cage or Morty Feldman. Aaron Copland had been (or was about to be – I forget) my first “guest composer” experience. I had a good ear, I knew a lot about the “new” discipline of electronic music, and I was studying my way through the annals of Western music theory. About anything “non-western” I knew absolutely nothing.

Sitting before me, on risers, at one end of the Gallery were 4 men. Amiya Dasgupta on Sitar, 2 students on Tambura, and a short bearded white guy on Tabla. I grew up in California in the 60s and 70s but I had never heard real Indian music. I’m almost embarrassed to say this but the problem with a Alap and 22 shrutis for a guy who did not know what the hell I was listening to is that I did not even know when they stopped tuning up and started playing the “real” music. Still I was mesmerized. The Sitar was a million times more amazing in the hands of Amiya that in the intro to “Norwegian Wood”, that was certain. It was astonishing. But even more amazing was the bearded white dude. He did not get to play much at the beginning. But by the end, his fingers moved so fast I could barely see them. His name was John Bergamo.

JBergamo

It goes without saying that I was changed that day. I knew that I needed to learn about things that did not come from the west and did not have voltage controlled oscillators on them. I knew that I had to know the bearded white guy and to learn at least a little of what he knew. John Bergamo was the reason that I spent 3 years studying tabla with Pandit Taranath Rao, the reason I wrote a solo percussion piece for Amy Knoles, the reason I could get 3 absolute percussion masters (the “Antenna Repairmen”) to play my percussion trio, the reason I got to take “independent study in percussion” with one of the greatest living percussionists, and the reason I fell in love both with India and with percussion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

John Bergamo was also the owner of the coolest percussion instrument I ever got to play. David Tudor was supposed to come to town and we were going to get to study with him. But something happened and Tudor could not come out. I was honored, however, to be able to work with a really amazing group of fellow students to create an homage to Tudor which we called something really creative like “An Environment for David Tudor”.  John loaned us some instruments, one of which was the front cowling from a 747 jet engine! I remember exactly where we hung that thing, although I have not got a clue how we did it.

In case you did not know John personally, you may not know why I call him a Renaissance Man of percussion. So, consider this: In his long career, John Bergamo worked with some of the most diverse composers and performers in the known universe, Just to name a few: Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller, John Cage, Ringo Starr, Charles Wourinen, Lou Harrison, Ali Akbar Khan, John McLaughlin, Morton Feldman, Herb Albert, Percy Heath, Robert Shaw, Max Roach, and Frank Zappa. He played with several other friends of mine (and my beloved mentor Lucky Mosko) in the Repercussion Unit and he played on the soundtracks of 18+ Hollywood films. He did a lot of percussion overdub work for ‘The Mothers of Invention” and, after studying with him I know I’ll never listen to Zappa’s “The Black Page” without thinking of him. Finally, after all of that, in 2012 John’s dedication to percussion and to education earned him election to the prestigious Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

I suppose I need not really say this but I’m very sad that the world of percussion, the CalArts community, and my personal circle of friends has lost the great John Bergamo. I’ll miss him.

John Bergamo was born in Englewood, New Jersey, May 28, 1940 and passed away on October 19th 2013.

It was 1978 when I began to attend California Institute of the Arts as a music composition student. From the standpoint of money making capacity I’m quite certain that was not the best decision. I’d probably have lots more money if I’d done something like a business degree at Harvard (a program and a school which I’d never have gotten into anyway and at least I acknowledge it). But from the standpoint of critical thinking skills and the broadness of experience, I will never regret the time I spent at that institution that I so deeply love.

I don’t know now, but 30 years ago CalArts was an entire institution devoted to modernity. Dancers danced modern dance. Filmmakers made experimental animation. Painters were abstract painters. Theater directors directed modern plays. And, in the music school we had no Jazz program but we had a world-class 20th century music ensemble, an amazing percussion program, 3 analog electronic music studios, and some of the world’s most respected faculty like Mort Subotnick, Mel Powell, Nick England, Lucky Mosko, Barry Schrader, Lee Hambro, and on and on. In other words, we were ALL about contemporary art.

One of the greatest things about CalArts was that you could not get out of there without learning about disciplines other than your own. You couldn’t get a music degree just by studying music. You virtually HAD to be interdisciplinary in some way. In my case, I spent part of my time in the film school with Gene Youngblood, Michael Scroggins and Ed Emschwiller; and some of my time with John Brumfeld and his “Topics in the History of Photography” class. I also had the very great honor of working together with, the now well known conceptual artist, Stephen Prina on a project that the institute funded precisely because it was interdisciplinary. But, in addition, one of the basic premises of the institute was that, regardless of your specific discipline, everyone had to take these classes called “critical studies”. That meant that you couldn’t be a filmmaker, or a painter, or a sculptor, or an animator, or a dancer, or a musician, without knowing the basic history of every discipline in 20th century art. This is why CalArts was such an amazing place to learn to be a critical thinker. I remember well that the first paper that I ever wrote for a critical studies class was (very pretentiously) called “Anti-Teleology in Modern Art”. Of course it did not take a genius to discern that the 20th century was an entire generation devoted to the destruction of teleological art. That was easy. What was more difficult and more surprising was to learn everything else that had been destroyed during that century. I think it’s telling (in, to my mind, a bad way) that the 2 texts I most remember from those days were called “Marxism and Art” and “The Social Construction of Reality”.  Just the titles of those 2 textbooks should tell you where I’m heading here!

Among other things, the greatest mode of “destruction” of the 20th century was the transformation of the romantic notion of “art as inspiration” into the ultimately postmodern notion of “art as an anti-realistic, anti-rational expansion of creative process”. In painting for example, Picasso, was arguably the greatest master of composition in the 200 years surrounding his life. But, 20th century aesthetics let that fact be, not only necessary but also, sufficient for him to be considered a great “artist” not just a great “painter”. In literature, Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which I admit that I love even though I’m using it as an example here) is considered a great “novel” even though it purposely has a trivial plot about trivial people on a trivial day in a trivial world and is built from virtually incomprehensible language. By virtue of contemporary aesthetics, Joyce’s “creativity” and “imagination” (both arguably valid aspects of Joyce’s work) permitted those characteristics to be, not only necessary but also, sufficient for him to be considered a great “artist” not just a unique “writer”.  Later in the century, John Cage’s 4″33″, better known as “silence”, was actually considered, by virtue of 20th century aesthetics, to a viable piece of “music” even though it was nothing at all. (now I have to admit that it’s the one piano piece that I can play well. But…. who cares!) Along the way, many very beautiful things were created. But, in the 20th century, “beauty” was an “artifact” not an “objective”.

This brings us to the words “not” and “objective”. Which brings us to the word “subjective”. Which brings us along a path from a Kantian to a Post-Structuralist worldview. Which means, I propose, that the 100 year transition from beauty and inspiration to ugliness and manic-depressive, cynical, despair is the result of the intellectual flow from Kantianism to Post-Structuralism – or stated more personally – from Kant to Lyotard and Derrida and Foucault. I’ll honestly admit that I like much of the art that has occurred along the path. But when we’ve ended up with people preserving sharks in formaldehyde and calling it art, I have nightmares about the future.  I’m not sure whether philosophers would call these phenomenological nightmares, semiotic nightmares, hermeneutic nightmares, or aesthetic nightmares. But they scare me and, for better or worse, I blame that fear on the acceptability of irrationality, of subjectivity, and of philosophies that promote constructing reality based on linguistics rather than on sense perception. In other words most of what I fear is the fault of Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, and their followers.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll share what the Post-Structuralists say and do and, specifically, why I don’t like it. Stay tuned.

Since 1980 I’ve had the desire to experience a whole array of emotionally charged installation and video art. Since 1988 I’ve had a continuously growing collection of pastel and pencil drawn nudes hanging on my walls. Since 1989 I’ve had a personalized Oregon vehicle license plate that says “R MUSIC”. Interestingly (at least to me) is the thread that binds together those 3 seemingly disparate aspects of my life. To understand the thread, you need to know why each is important to me.

Let’s begin at the end – with the license plate. I moved to Oregon in 1989. I had California plates that said 3DGRFX because working with 3D Graphics is what I did for a living. When I moved to Oregon I wanted to make a change to, not only my state, but also my identity. So, I changed what the plates said. For a long time I did not know what to put on those new plates. Then, one day I was going to lunch with a friend and the car stereo had been turned up quite loud on my drive in to work. As soon as we got into the car, the Opera “Tosca” went blasting through the parking lot. My friend turned to me and said: “turn it off! Turn it off! I hate that kind of music!” I apologized for the volume and then said: “hey, lots of people don’t like opera; but Patt and I LOVE opera so Opera is what plays in MY car. This is our car and this is our music!” That was the very instant that I decided on my new plates: R MUSIC.

The nudes represent a less silly story. I used to hang out in Los Angeles at a place on Traction Avenue, called “Al’s Bar”. One day, one of my downtown friends brought a postcard into the bar and showed it to me. It was a painting called “Denouement”  by an artist who lived across the street. I was stunned by the uplifting beauty of the painting and I had to meet the artist. While I could never afford to own Denouement or any of his other major works, we did become friends and I did start buying his pastels.

As for the video and installation art, all I can say is “read my last blog post”. Several times in my college career I saw video work by an artist who’s work I could neither afford, nor take my eyes off. The artist came to teach in several video art classes that I took from Professor Gene Youngblood at CalArts. He is my favorite artist and I still can’t take my eyes off his work.

So… who are these 3 guys and why do I consider their work to be contributing factors in my own personal philosophical, emotional, and psychological development? The first question is easily answered. These 3 guys are Giacomo Puccini, Michael Newberry, and Bill Viola. The second question is relatively straightforward but is not as easily answered. The simplest answer is just that each of these artists focuses like a laser beam on the thing that I personally find most powerful in art and in life: EMOTION. But that’s a rather banal explanation unless coupled with the rationale. So, here goes.

The word “emotion” can mean many things. In my context, it really refers to something more broadly called “The Passions”. Honestly, I know very little about intellectual history prior to the 17th century so I won’t pretend that I know where the categorization of the passions began. What I do know is that in 1668 Charles Le Brun cataloged 22 of them based on facial movements. Three and a half centuries later, today’s master of emotional communication, Paul Ekman, is still working on understanding them. What I also know are two things that are entirely personal and subjective. I know that I respond very strongly to highly emotional art. And, I know that the art I personally find most powerful is that which helps us to develop our ability to see or hear deeply and with sensitivity. So, if I was writing a manifesto (right… in my dreams!) I would say that the purpose of art is to provide audiences or viewers with tools that cultivate their mindfulness, and sensitivity to the subtle beauty of all that surrounds us. Each of these artists provide me with exactly that.

Puccini often took everyday experiences, rather than heroic Wagnerian characters and subjects, as the basis for his operas. This neither implies that Madame Butterfly is “everyday” nor does it imply that I like Wagner. Both are untrue. What is does imply is that Puccini understood the subtleties of ordinary life and was able to portray them sensitively. More important was Puccini’s ability to write extraordinary melody in a way that evokes enormous emotion. The man clearly understood the power of melody to express every subtle aspect of every possible emotion.

In a very different way, Bill Viola understands emotions on a very subtle level. He wants his viewers to experience these emotions but he also wants to heighten out awareness of them. Bill’s work serves to make us aware of how life is lived and experienced and how we emotionally respond to that. Not every emotion that Bill wants us to experience is positive. As much as he want’s us to know what love and ecstasy are like, he also wants us to understand things like sadness, fear, death, loss, grief, confusion, emotional conflict, anger, and everything in between. That’s why Bill can create a piece like “The Passing” which eloquently examines the spiritual, emotional, existential extremes of human birth and death; concurrently juxtaposing them.It’s why he can create something like “I do not know what it is I am like” that does the exact same thing with the natural world. It’s why a viewer can sit transfixed in an installation of “Five Angels for the Millennium” and feel uplifted. And, it’s why “The Passions” can effectively juxtapose everything from “Man of Sorrow” to  “Emergence” in a way that maintains philosophical integrity. Bill doesn’t only want us to be uplifted. He wants us to know what every emotion feels like and, through experiencing his work, to become sensitized to those emotions and to be better able to recognize and wrestle with them. All of Bill’s work reaches it’s pinnacle in “The Passions” because all of those pieces deal with what John Walsh calls “Emotions in Extreme Time”. The pieces were not shot on video. They were shot on 35mm film at an extremely high frame rate. The result is that we viewers need to spend time with the pieces (you can’t just walk by them). But, when you do, you experience the most intricate subtlety imaginable. You learn everything about the emotion expressed in the work. For I guy like me, who values emotion as the most affecting component of art, nothing is more powerful than Bills most recent work!

Like Viola and Puccini, Michael Newberry’s work is about emotion. Somewhat different from Puccini and drastically different from Viola, Newberry’s work focuses on a only a subset of the passions. That subset, however, is the core of both his aesthetic and his beliefs about the purpose of art. Michael DOES have a manifesto and it’s not the same as what I said mine would be. I have a broader range of art that I would call “good” than Michael does but that is because Michael has very solid, rational, consistent beliefs about why he does what he does. So, much of the art I like, Michael does not like because it does not meet his standards for what he believes art should do. I had a conversation with Michael recently, about Picasso’s composition. Michael sad this: “Picasso is one of my favorite painters but he is not one of my favorite artists“. I’ve never discussed Viola’s work with him but I have the feeling he’d feel similarly.  Michael has an aesthetic that is strongly rooted in Romantic aesthetics. To him, the most important thing that art should do is to help the viewer or listener understand his potential for greatness; to make the audience see their human potential; and to make them have a desire to be the best, most productive, most glorious humans that they can be. Michael does not try to work with the whole gamut of emotions. Many of Le Brun’s 22 passions are exactly the opposite of what Michael wants his work to express. What he wants is for his viewers to see intense love; pure, unfiltered, unimpeded ecstasy; and the feeling of joy brought to its ultimate heights. Unlike Viola, or even Puccini, Michael does not want his work to have anything to do with fear, anger, disappointment, sadness, or death. Where Viola wants us to see everything and to be forced to deal with our own responses, Michael wants only one thing: to show you your highest, greatest, most amazing potential and to make you strive to achieve your own.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to all three of these artists. To Puccini I owe my love for some of the most passionate aural experiences one can ever have. To Viola I own my love for visual experiences that forever change ones perceptions. To Newberry I own a house full of some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, the daily renewal of my desire to strive to be my best, a constant reminder to take the personal responsibility for achieving (or not) my goals, and the acknowledgement that it’s okay (dare I say mandatory) for one to nurture one’s own joy, happiness, and love.

What my favorite artists would think of each other, I don’t really know. I’m pretty sure that Puccini would love Newberry’s painting and, at least, the most recent of Viola’s work. I’m certain that if Viola saw Newberry’s painting he’d feel he’d found a kindred spirit. I know that Newberry loves Puccini because we’ve spoken about it and listened together; about Viola’s later work I guess that Michael would respect it and love (or come to love) “The Passions”. Each of these guys would have a different view of how the others meet the aesthetic objectives of their own artistic conceptions. But, that’s why they are all great artists. Their artistic conceptions each differ but, unlike so much of the terrible art that has been produced in the last 100 years, what make each of these aesthetics unique is their unadulterated nobility.

As for me, I am just a lover of emotionally charged art with a bunch of pastel and pencil drawn nudes and a silly “R MUSIC” license plate. But the thread that binds together those really important parts of my life is passion. Today I live more passionately, more compassionately, and with greater mindfulness of our world and our human potential because of them.

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!

On this day, 21 years ago, my friend Ed Emshwiller passed away. I consider myself to have been incalculably blessed to have been a student at CalArts when Ed was dean of the film school. I remember the first time I ever saw his work, a film called “Sunstone”, and how I was utterly blown away. Like many of the people who were around CalArts in those days, Ed was a creative genius. He may not have known every single technical aspect of film like some of the professors did; or every single thing about  the video signal like, say, Michael Scroggins. But he was among the 20th century’s most amazing creative voices and perhaps even an experimental animation megastar.

I remember once when I was using the old CMX editor down in the film school. Ed stopped in and we talked about my work. He then asked me to show him how we in the music school edited. We picked a time to get together and I brought him into the old Buchla electronic music studio, still affectionately called B304. There I proceeded to show the great video master our splicing block and our razor blades. Even with all the time that Ed had spent with Mort Subotnick, I don’t think he had ever really seen just how arcane we were compared to our video counterparts in the film school. He honestly was taken aback to see that we really did still use razor blades.

From that day on, I always thought of Ed Emshwiller, not only as a professor or a dean or a great artist, but as a friend. It is thanks to Ed that I met, and was privileged to study with, 2 of the people who most influenced my philosophy of art and my sense of beauty – Gene Youngblood and Bill Viola. For that, as much as for his own creative spirit, friendship, and brilliance, I will always be thankful to have known him.

Today, 21 years after he died and nearly 30 years after I left CalArts, I still miss Ed Emshwiller – I consider my life much better for having known him.

Here’s to you my friend! Thank you for being with us for all those amazing years!