Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mystery Imposed/Mystery Revealed

I follow in my children's footsteps a great deal these days. They know the way more often than not now and we all have that sense of each other as we walk streets and metros (no child/parent left behind, is our motto). I've become aware of these shapes we trace only recently when, returning from beloved Brittany, Paris's rhythms were thrown into sharp relief. Today being Toussaint, and everything (really, nearly everything) being closed for this day of remembrance, there is a little more time to think on things like this, on intimate perception in public space, on simple and complex mysteries (and yes, that is a little pot of melted chocolate that Oliver enjoyed within his hot milk while the girls were at the Bollywood dance lessons).

The Critic Happy
It starts with the Tim Parchikov exhibit at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie de la Ville de Paris (because long museum titles really are a specialty here). The show (one of four currently up) is entitled "Suspense" and I was thrilled because it was highly narrative - images of moments of suspense in a darkened room with eerie, slightly repetitive, music playing. But instead of wondering about what came before or after the moments in the photographs, I kept noticing Oliver getting more and more impatient (sighs, walking rapidly), and the girls getting more and more agitated (stage whispers, hugs). Ok, what's up? "It's just so artificial! None of these are actually suspenseful - it's just the dark room and the music. He's imposing the suspense on the images; the images themselves aren't suspenseful at all!" So I jumped in and Oliver and I started talking about where suspense comes from and what's an authentic image anyway, and how much of a photograph's effect should emerge only from the photograph itself and how much from setting. Oliver was having none of it (about the effect of a photograph coming from its surrounding rather than the photograph itself) and I found myself defending the images even as I felt my enthusiasm for them wane. Maybe Oliver's resolute modernism (art/Art is all within the frame!) was taking effect on me. I didn't really understand what he was saying until we walked into the next show, one by Alberto García-Alix, filled with shadows of birds and strangely angled figures. "Here!" says Oliver, "This guy - he takes what wasn't mysterious and shows us that it actually is mysterious. But the other guy took what wasn't mysterious and tried to make us believe it was." I've been thinking about that ever since, this duality of mystery imposed and mystery revealed. I've been thinking of it in relation to both art and the craft of art history - nourished as I've been by seeing a different art show almost every day here, and working down as I have been to the materiality of medieval works of art, that phenomenon where the mundane and the wondrous meet.

Newly discovered!
All of which (inexorably? at the very least insistently) brings me back to Brittany. As recently as 2011 (for a site listed with the Monuments Historiques as of 1931!), medieval works of art are still being discovered, or at least uncovered, there. Plaster had whitewashed this fantastic set of images on the vault of the two-aisled church of St-Gilles in Malestroit until its uncovering and restoration in 2011. Upside down and at the top, a lioness/ panther/ unicorn (as she is identified by the laminated sign propped up on the chair below) rears up; continuing clockwise, a centaur stretches out, and then down below, a marvelous marvelous elephant carrying a fortress on its back.

Truly, an elephant!
There, that's better. Now you see it in its full dappled, soft-hooved, short-tusked, lumbering glory. I love the tumult of mystery imposed/mystery revealed here: a wondrous animal made more mysterious (or more ridiculous, if you asked the kids) by this depiction whose origins and motivations remain a mystery and whose effect is well, yes, mysterious. Malestroit abounds with fantastic creatures (on its façade and all the way into its city streets with secular carvings that my beloved advisor Michael Camille loved to write about) which is really quite amazing for this tiny town of 2500 people (less in the Middle Ages) deep in the heart of the Morbihan, that most forested region of Brittany. Mystery mysteriously appearing in a mysterious place.

All of which brings me to music.

Specifically, the music of Jacob Handl (1550-1591) and Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and other searching composers brought into bright, vivid, spellbinding life by my wondrous friend David Stein who knows this music so intimately and chose it for the program of an unforgettable concert at the church of St-Gilles at Malestroit, and directed the choir that made it shine. I remember being stunned when Kant proclaimed music the perfect art (grad school, I think, or when I used to teach art criticism; it's hazy but the temporality of visual art and the transcendence of music were suddenly opposed), but I'm not stunned to think on it when I hear the music that David wills forth. That's Handl in the clip above, the "Duo Seraphim" which splits the choir into two and took the audience's breath away as a second set of voices floated up from we knew not where in the way that medieval architecture has of confusing sound. And by confusing I mean intertwining and enveloping and making the known (the sure contours of architecture you can perceptually trace) the unknown (the fluid trajectory of sound that always eludes stillness and capture). It's hearing early modern music in medieval space that makes me realize the weight (heft, force) of music, the love and effort of the choral director lifting the music and sustaining it in the space as it starts to fill with sound and mercy, wonder, love and loss.

I've always been fascinated with where music exists as art: in the composer's head, in the score, in the voices of the singers, in the director's guidance, in the audience's emotions. In this, I can think on both music and medieval oral tradition (especially meeting in troubadours and secular poetry). In this, I marvel at how spatial music is, how spatially involved it is. In this, I perceive how a space can amplify sound (how David can somehow lift music from the page and into his choir's voices and offer it up to the space all around that receives it and embraces it and nourishes it), and how it can be amplified (how it can shimmer into something so much bigger than what I can see). How the elephant is transformed in its complicity with the wonder of this music. And doesn't Tallis and his "Lamentations of Jeremiah" above somehow make this happen?

Because what is this music, what was this wondrous afternoon, save the resonant oscillation of a most common element (our human voice, modulating sound unceasingly for millennia) with one most rare (the ephemeral alignment of voice, space, sound and all the love and survival that that alignment entails)? I felt this most when David led "Shir Hama'alot" by Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). Was this the first time the elephant had been enveloped by voices tracing Hebrew sounds into the air to be held by the vault in which it was painted? It was, when Salomone Rossi wrote the music, the first time that Jewish liturgical music had been set to the Baroque idiom. It creates, every time, a marvelous commonality between early modern synagogal space and wherever it is heard forever after. It reveals mysteries in their joy.

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