"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A day in Ashland: Art, music, and shamanic adventures at the Schneider

Earlier, I wrote a post about Todd Barton, the composer in residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He's been doing a series of improvisational sessions with musician friends on Friday noons at the Schneider Museum on the Southern Oregon University campus. I've only been able to get to two of these performances but each was amazing in its own way. I do enjoy hearing new sounds-- and sometimes even like the experience of having my neural pathways blasted open, reconstituted, and rerouted -- so if you like that kind of thing too, there's just one more of these sessions to catch (July 8). Don't miss it.

Enhancing and intensifying the aural experience is the setting: the current exhibit of art in the "expressive tradition" (through August 26), "Views from the Inner Eye" , features three artists-- Morris Graves, Ellen Van Fleet, and M.R. Renjan-- whose suggestive, visionary images worked in interesting ways with the very expressive music as it unfolded (and, in the second session I saw, with dance, too).

As you enter the museum, the first artist you encounter is Ellen Van Fleet, a contemporary Sacramento artist, and her watercolors and collages are a good introduction because they do draw you in.  She says she's interested in "how the eye moves through a painting." She uses repeated painting motions to create "pure visual stimulation of that pleasure," adding, "I don't have a message." 

Some of her paintings, like "Turtle Dove I" at left, are rather sprightly, even cheerful, in the Matisse colors that evoke, for me, the creative, optimistic aspect of Northwest culture that I like best. However "Stripe #3", below, is perhaps more indicative of the mood of much of the music that I heard: some of it was very dark.

"Stripe #3" watercolor collage by Ellen Van Fleet

The next room features the Morris Graves exhibit, and that's where the musicians have set up their instruments. Here's how it is: Under a series of rather brooding watercolors (the one of the snake, below, which I found in Google Images, is very similar to one in this exhibit and might be part of the same series) are several folding chairs and an array of electronic instruments the purpose of which I couldn't begin to guess (I didn't say I know anything about this kind of music - far from it). There are keyboards and things that look like turntables and perhaps drums and - yes - some brass instruments, too.

Morris Graves, "Snake in Moonlight"

The third room is a delightful surprise, as it features the work of an artist from Kerala, M.R. Renjan. The introductory text is an autobiographical sketch that brought back a memory of that beautiful South Indian state (I once lived nearby and visited it). The artist now lives and teaches in Delhi, my other long-ago Indian home. Here are two rooms of striking, powerful images in ink (black, and black and brown) on white foamboard which somehow catch the magic of village movement and of Kathakali, the muscular classical dance of that region, from its powerful, whirly large movements to the subtle mudras of the hands. I like the way an Art Knowledge News article puts it, in words as abstruse yet suggestive as the works themselves (I especially like "Pandora's box of the inner world"):
"The works owe little to the appearance of observed reality. His predisposition towards envisioning the Pandora’s box of the inner world is timely.  He manifests it as charged with the traces of the fabulous, a theatre of pregnant meanings, surprising possibilities, of strange specters and visitations."
 This art, too, is a perfect setting for the music to come. Sadly, I Googled in vain for an example of M. R. Renjan's art to include here. But at left is a Kathakali dancer from Kerala that will probably resonate with you if you've seen the exhibit. If you haven't seen the exhibit, try to imagine this dancer rendered into the abstract, in strong black lines, with probably a lot of other stuff going on too, full of movement, and you'll get some idea...

While I'm discovering all this, the musicians are tuning up. That sound is as new and interesting to me as the music to come.

And so back to the Morris Graves room, and a few folding chairs for people like me to sit and see what would happen next. Some people have clearly come to hear the music. Most seem to know each other, and the musicians. Others appear to be there for the art, but see something going on, and stay for it.

And there is Todd Barton's Waterphone! I've seen that on YouTube. In fact, here's a YouTube of him playing it in an earlier Schneider performance.

In the first of these sessions that I saw/heard, after an early-music recorder piece (which he warned us would be the only traditional music we'd be hearing in the coming hour, and boy was he right about that!), Barton led off the session with an improvisation like this one on the waterphone. The other musicians, Bruce Bayard on Computer-thing and Michael Vannice on a whole collection of brass reed instruments, came in gradually and together they all went for a long, strange, and riveting trip through sounds that -- well, you had to be there. I don't have the theory or the vocabulary to write about it.

In an oddly satisfying paradox that struck me as somehow Mobius-like, the reclusive and visionary Graves worked his whole life, apparently, to create art outside what he called "the machine-age noise" of the modern world. Yet here were musical instruments born of the machine age, making noise that would not have existed before "machines" or the modern age -- and the music they made seemed entirely in keeping with the aesthetic of Graves images--shamanic, otherworldly, and even similarly discordant.

Morris Graves, "Kingfisher" (not in this exhibit but similar to some of the paintings there)
In the face of the abstract, the brain forms stories and images from the patterns it perceives (and, lacking patterns, sees them where none exist) and so this is not to impose my own experience on what the musicians intended or created, but just to describe how my brain took it in: much of the music was simply physical, but at times (and this became a theme for me, that day) I found myself in an old growth forest being logged (surely Barton was playing chain saws, there) at one point and at another, in a deep ocean traumatized by BP, nuclear waste, and plastic. Whales, elephants, chain saws - oh my! Of course all this powerful stuff was balanced with other more gentle, even humorous riffs. A great variation. There was something apocalyptic about the sound I heard that day (though I don't know what others heard, or the intentions of the musicians). Aside from what my brain tried to make of what I was hearing, it was just a fascinating aural journey through a landscape of sounds I'd never heard before. And I love that!

("Wounded Gull"at the Phillips Gallery, a favorite haunt of mine when I lived in that neighborhood in Washington, DC. This is another Graves painting not in the current exhibit, but it reminds me of a lot of the music I heard)
The second performance that I saw, last Friday, didn't have such a programmatic effect on my poor brain, but it was equally strong: this one I experienced as more of an abstract shamanistic trip in a spirit, again, wholly in keeping with the visionary art on the walls, especially of Graves and M. R. Renjan. At times the guys got downright terrifying but the setting was safe so that was okay. (I wouldn't want to hear that in a dark alley or unfamiliar parallel universe, though!) The three musicians from the earlier session were there again, joined by a fourth --Terry Longshore, a percussionist on an assortment of computer-thing electronic drums that he kept getting surprising sounds from. Barton also said we'd be joined later by Suzee Grilley.

Sonoluminescence: Terry Longshore, Michael Maag, Suzee Grilley,
Bruce Bayard and Todd Barton. Performance in 2007.
When Grilley appeared, midway through one of the improvisations, dressed in black, she reminded me at first of that Jules Ffeiffer beatnik dancer cartoon character - remember her? - but I soon got over that: this is a powerfully accomplished modern dancer and she worked magic, seeming to anticipate sounds before they materialized, so perfectly did her movements express the music. She was amazing.

The musicians sat beneath a quotation from composer John Cage, an admirer of Graves. In the text he is saying that he once asked Graves if he sang and danced while painting, and Graves said yes, he did that. And here comes the dancer, who creates a perfect synthesis of the very music being played, and the very painting by Graves, this one, as she passes in front of it. At this moment, it was just like this, the music, the dancer, and the painting:

And then she danced on into the M. R. Renjan room and out of sight, and that seemed very appropriate; I could imagine her fusing those forms with the music too.

And that was pretty much how it all went.

Then back to my car, driving two miles through a beautiful summer day, finally home, in a lovely daze. Bemused and no wiser in the ways of music, but thoroughly entertained by something new to me. Ashland seduces and satisfies, and then offers more.

 The fourth session of "Todd Barton and Friends" will take place at  noon, Friday, July 8, 2011 at the Schneider Museum in Ashland, Oregon. The Schneider Exhibit "Views from the Inner Eye" can be seen through August 26, 2011. Apologies for any misspelled names; corrections are invited.

An odd personal connection... Although these were the first Morris Graves artworks that I'd seen in person, I have an odd personal connection with him: In my long exile from the west coast, living in DC (which I loved) and Virginia (about which the least said the better), I wasn't really aware of Graves, but at some point near retirement I became interested in Western landscapes and bought several from artists online. I was studying and practicing landscape design at the time, and I almost went down the road of a secondary "collection" of paintings of famous West Coast gardens (but I stopped at two). Eventually I realized that my obsession with western painters was really about a deeply felt need to move back here and have my feet on Western ground again, and then I did take steps to move here as soon as I was able to do so. The connection with Graves is that one of the paintings that caught my imagination (and the second in my Famous Gardens minicollection) was a small painting I found on eBay, which was a sort of fantasy landscape inspired by Graves's garden at his private estate, The Lake, which is only open by invitation to artists. That article also shows what a strange sort of person Graves was to the end as, following his otherworldly philosophy, he worked against his own immortality as an artist. Anyway, if I can find that painting and a way to scan it maybe I can post my very own two-degrees-of-separation "Graves" painting (by an invited artist of a lake landscape he designed) here ;-)


Harriet Berman said...

What a wonderful writer you are, Chris. I can almost hear the sounds.

The brass player was Michael Vannice. He is an amazing musician. Plays piano and all the saxophones. He plays baritone sax with the Southern Oregon Jazz Orchestra. He also arranges music for shows at the Camelot Theatre.

I'm going to check out the exhibit on Tuesday, when I get home from our trip. Wish I had known about the music. Can't seem to keep up with everything that is going on around here. Thanks for sharing this with me. I think Rochelle and Richard would really enjoy this.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed every word of your writeup and the "icing on the cake" of the photos of the paintings. I haven't yet seen the exhibit but it is at the top of my "must do" list. I am delighted that you enjoyed Todd Barton and friends as much as I!

Your writing is exquisite and a joy to read! Thanks for sharing!

Paula B

Christine Menefee said...

Thanks so much Harriet and Paula for your kind comments! Harriet, I should have known you'd know Michael Vannice, and am not surprised that he plays in Alan's great little big band orchestra (so I HAVE seen him before - but it was in a crowd!). Thanks for the correction - I'll fix the spelling :D