23 May 2017

How To Be Lazy - Even In Translation

 "I could have a job, but I'm too lazy to choose it;
I have got land, but I'm too lazy to farm it.
My house leaks; I'm too lazy to mend it.
My clothes are torn; I'm too lazy to darn them.
I have got wine, but I'm too lazy to drink;
So it's just the same as if my cup were empty.
I have got a lute, but I'm too lazy to play;
So it's just the same as if it had no strings.
My family tells me there is no more steamed rice;
I want to cook, but I'm too lazy to grind.
My friends and relatives write me long letters;
I should like to to read them, but they're such a bother to open.
I have always been told that Hsi Shu-yeh
Passed his whole life in absolute idleness.
But he played his lute and sometimes worked at his forge;
So even he was not as lazy as me."
- Po Chu-I, 811 C.E., from The Importance Of Being Idle by Stephen Robins, Prion Books, Ltd., London: 2000
Laziness (La Paresse) by Felix Vallotton, 1896.

Neil Philip of Idbury Prints comments: "This is great, isn't it? The translation is by Arthur Waley, though the last line has been altered, to its detriment. Waley's line reads as follows, with the "he" in italics which I can't do:

So even he was not so lazy as I.

Hsi Shu-yeh is the Taoist poet Hsi K'ang (223-262 C.E.). No doubt the transliteration of all these names has changed since Waley's day. "

And I replied:  "The editor of the anthology didn't include any source credits, but I was so taken with the poem that I hoped the spirit of Po Chu-I wouldn't mind."


Image: Vincinzo Balocchi  - Young Girl Sleeping In A Chaise Lounge, 1960, Museum of the Story of Photography, Florence.

09 May 2017

Alice Coltrane's Eternal Spiritual

I first heard the music of  Alice Coltrane when I was a student, doing my homework by the radio; she had recorded several times before and I had certainly heard the music of her (by then) late husband, saxophonist John Coltrane, but until I heard her album Eternity I had no idea what Alice did.  As varied and impressive as the music was - from the Afro-Cuban percussion propelling Los Caballos, Coltrane's musical tribute to the elegance and playfulness of a horse's movements, to Spring Rounds, her orchestral version of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring  with   shimmering washes of harmony - nothing affected me like the opening piece Spiritual Eternal.  
Here Coltrane  plays the Wurlitzer organ, an instrument that, until she adopted  it, got even less respect from  jazz musicians than the Hammond B-3 does.  The music begins with a series of modal arpeggios that move seemingly at random until they are resolved by a large orchestral entrance whereupon they all join in playing a jazz waltz.  No Dixieland band this, the orchestra's  blend of brass and strings takes some inspiration from the Society Orchestra of James Reese Europe (1891-1919), the man Eubie Blake christened "the Martin Luther King of jazz."   Coltrane's solo playing soars with the jagged drive of bebop, a music she heard growing up in Detroit, deployed in her quest to make  universal music, along the way incorporating  Indian classical raga, blues, and the occasional Viennese twelve-tone row.   This is definitely not dance music but by the time  the last glorious long-drawn out note fades, I am never sitting, I am standing in awe and joy.
I never wanted to miss the Wednesday evening  program on WAER-FM,  the  Syracuse University radio station.  Hosted by a woman, something unusual in 1976, the hour was crammed with music I still love:  harpist Dorothy Ashby, (heard on Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life), pianist and composer Jessica Williams (then in her San Francisco phase recording as Jessica Jennifer Williams), and vocalists Esther Satterfield (The Land Of Make Believe with Chuck Mangione) and from Brazil, Flora Purim (Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly, Nothing Will Be As It Was Tomorrow).

From Spiritual Eternal, I worked my way backward to Alice Coltrane's first recording as a leader, A Monastic Trio (1968) and the transcendental Journey In Satchidananda (1970), discovering along the way her other instruments, the harp played with feather-weight glissandi (remember those arpeggios), so different from the strong and straight melodic lines of Dorothy Ashby, and the piano.  Coltrane, I learned, had replaced the titanic McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane's quartet  the year before his death, something that certain Coltrane fans equated with the snake in the garden. For this, and for her experiments with the note-bending capabilities of modular synthesizers, she remained outside the jazz mainstream for the rest of her life.  That Alice Coltrane needed to become a leader in order to have a group to play with after her husband's death in 1967, seemed unworthy of comment at the time.  It makes me think of an exchange between contemporary trio leader Michele Rosewoman and  an unnamed male musician who, when he asked her  "What's with this all-woman thing?" as her group was setting up for a performance,  Rosewoman turned and gestured toward his band with the reply "What's with this all-man thing?". 

A strong spiritual element of one sort or another had been in Alice's musical life from childhood.  Born Alice McLeod in Alabama in 1937, she joined  her mother in playing pinao and organ for their church choir after the family moved to Detroit.  At the same time,  Alice  played jazz dates in local clubs.  Sister  Marilyn McLeod became a songwriter for Motown Records; her hits have included Love Hangover for Diana Ross and Same Ole' Love for Anita Baker.  

When Alice met John Coltrane, the two joined together in searching  for  transcendence in non-Western religious books such as  the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and in writings on Zen Buddhism Alice would ultimately find a home in Hinduism and founded a Vedantic Ccnter in California, where she lived until her death in 2007.   Musicians Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra pursued a similar quest for a system of belief that could free black people from the oppression they were subjected to in America.  This is what Su Ra meant when he declared, "Space is the place."

After 1978, and the move to Los Angeles, Alice Coltrane seldom recorded but, thanks to the encouragement of her son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, she recorded one final album, Transilinear Light.

Listen to Alice Coltrane - Spiritual Eternal from Eternity, 1976. 
World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda 2017,  has just been released  by Luaka Bop Records

Images:
1, unidentified photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Journey In Satchidananda, 1970, Impulse Records.
2. Jeff Dunas, photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Translinear Light, 2004, Impulse Records.



01 May 2017

Marisol, Our Contemporary

When the current Whitney Biennial opened on March 17 in Manhattan after three years of preparation, its theme  "(the) creation of the self" seemed  hermetic and out of touch, especially coming from people who think of themselves and their preoccupations as driving the culture.   This moment, as it turns out, calls for engagement with the world.
A month before, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood had asked  What Art Under Trump? in The Nation, reopening an old debate.  Artists, she pointed out,  have often been lectured on their moral duty.  Atwood didn't invoke The Metamorphosis Of The Gods by Andre Malraux, but she could have.   Malraux traced the path taken by the divine aura from the ancient world to art museums as our relationship to the divine has been transformed into a a veneration of objects. And so, the sacralization of contemporary art is about money.   Paintings, books, theater, and films, are not inherently sacred, no matter what price  they command in the marketplace, although they have in the past served religious  functions, in ancient Greek theater and medieval cathedrals, to name two instances.  


A recent bequest to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo seems like a more telling response to the moment.   When Marisol Escobar died last year, she left  more than 100 of her sculptures, some 150 works on paper, thousands of photographs and slides, and a small group of works by other artists that she collected to the Albright-Knox. The bequest also includes the artist’s archive, library, tools, and the artist's New York City loft apartment. The sale of the apartment, worth an estimated $4 million to $5 million, will bolster the art gallery's operating endowment.
Why the Albright-Knox Gallery, located some 450 miles from New York City, the place where Marisol lived for decades?  It was the first museum to acquire Marisol's work for its collection when Seymour Knox purchased The Generals in 1962.  The artist and the museum director became  friends, with Marisol making frequent appearances at  openings and events there. "She was incredibly grateful to Mr. Knox for his purchase of The Generals and Baby Girl" said Carlos Brillembourg, Marisol's longtime friend and co-executor of her estate with Mimi Trujillo.  Baby Girl  also  became an instant hit when the museum purchased it in 1964.  The little girl (who is very big) dwarfs her tiny doll-like mother.  And Marisol had another link with the Queen City: throughout her career,  Marisol was represented by the gallery of Sidney Janis, a Buffalo native.

I have had to crane my neck to get a good look at Simon Bolivar and George Washington  whenever I visited The Generals;  it stands seven feet three inches tall.  The brightly painted wooden sculpture evokes a smile and memories of toy soldiers, but there is serious business going on here.  Washington and Bolivar were both leaders of independence movements in the Americas, but their imagined appearance together suggests a  satirical viewpoint; these mounted leaders with their feet hanging in air may be out of touch with reality.  A Marisol sculpture, I soon recognized, is always about more than one thing at a time.

About Marisol there is the lingering sense that her successes as an artist were never commensurate with her achievements.  Born in Paris to Venezuelan parents, growing up privileged on three continents, possessed of   unusual talent  and great beauty, she arrived in New York to study with Hans Hofmann in 1951.  Sizing up the male art world of Abstract Expressionism, she learned to navigate its prejudices, her determination to create undeterred.  At age twenty-seven, Marisol created a series of wooden sculptures she named The Hungarians; when it was featured in Life magazine, the  artist sitting surrounded by the wooden figures struck a nerve.    At her left was a family on a wheeled platform that could have been a train or perhaps a bus.  An image of attempted escape is implied; a mother cradles an infant while the father stands behind a toddler, but where will they go?  The Soviet Army had recently invaded Hungary and  the world  watched in horror but failed to respond to tanks rolling through the capital city Budapest, crushing bodies and spirits as they went.  Surely it is no accident that in Marisol's work, the people who are trapped are looking at us.
Because the art world caught up with Marisol in the 1960s, her work has often been pigeon-holed with pop Art - and left there when styles changed - but her work has not dated.  Her astute mimicry of human behavior was much deeper than any silk screen of a soup can.   Dubbed a "Latin Garbo" for her beauty, the feminist nature of her social critique has  become clearer with time. 
“Marisol was an important figure, subtly affecting change by her silence and the particularity of her position … She was the female artist star of pop art, [but] she dramatized it in a very subdued way, through her intensely quiet manner.” – Carolee Schneeman
“Marisol was among the most highly respected artists of the 1960s. As the decades passed, she was inappropriately written out of that history. My aim was to return her to the prominence she so rightly deserves.” – Marina Pacini, curator, Memphis Brooks Museum

In 2014, the Museo del Barrio was the first New York museum to present a solo  exhibition of Marisol’s work.

Images:
1.  unidentified photographer - Marisol touches up The Generals at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
2. unidentified photographer -  Marisol and a guest with The Generals, November 18, 1963,  courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
3. unidentified photographer, Marisol - The Generals, c.1961-62, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
4. unidentified photographer -  Marisol - Baby Girl, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.