November 06, 2007

Ringing True Among The Tone Deaf

George Gershwin ca. 1936, 1925, 1927.

"What comes out of that piano frightens me."
--George Gershwin

"He was the only man I knew who could make a piano laugh."
--Abram Chasins, about Gershwin

"The World Is Mine."

by Jerome du Bois

Last week we went to see and hear Hershey Felder reincarnate George Gershwin for a couple of hours, and then Frederic Chopin for a crystalline twenty minutes. It was beautiful, impeccable, and inspiring, and Felder's obvious love and passion for a specific human imagination loosened the kudzulike vines of misanthropy that try to bind and smother me in these cruel times.

Felder has been staging this piece, George Gershwin Alone, for six years, while also developing and staging two other "movements" for a kind of career-arc "sonata," as he explained it on stage, with Beethoven at the beginning, Gershwin in the middle, and Chopin as the final movement. This master of the piano's magic knows what it can summon from dedicated human talent. Even after six years Mr. Felder is clearly still charged by and in charge of this portrait of a genius who was gone far too soon.

His physical phrasing is as elegant as his vocal phrasing. In the middle of the piece Felder as Gershwin says goodbye to Kay Swift, a love lost forever, by rotating an armchair about eight inches, and then, slowly, with his spread right hand --that complicated hand that rewove the reverberations set up by Irving Berlin, the black composer Fletcher Henderson and his crew, Jewish cantors like Harold Arlen's father Samuel Arluck, and the Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms he learned in his youth-- with that golden doomed hand he caresses the satin back of that armchair upon which her fine head must have rested many a night while listening to him play . . .

This is my bell ringing, ringing true. This is what I want to see and hear. (And I speak for Catherine as well.) While other theatergoers --tone-deaf fools in our estimation-- may chase the gratuitously cruel, the silly, or the atrophied, we choose among the too slim pickings of works with heart and without irony. We were glad to see that the night we went to see Mr. Felder, near the end of his run, the place was damn near packed. Word must have gotten out around town among those who share our feelings: don't miss this guy. It sure made us feel less alone. (This doesn't mean we insist on or prefer pollyanna sunshine stuff. I myself have called for some playwright or screenwriter to get to work on the murder of Theo van Gogh.)

Quick aside: we two are precisely the kind of arts patrons the arts administrators from city and state who have been shunning us should be cultivating. We attend from six to twelve major arts events every year --not free gallery visits or art walks, but plays, operas, musical events, major museum exhibitions and other venues you have to pay money to get into. But we're not season ticket holders or contributors to museums, though we could be. We just can't stand most of what's out there, and we won't give the scene our blind trustful support. (If I was somehow forced to back a Martin McDonagh play, I would burn the theater down and damn the consequences.) We're picky.

But we're serious, too, and eager to fill in the blanks in our cultural backgrounds. Neither one of us knew very much at all about George Gershwin, just the general vague humming and handwaving and how did that tune go? (Remember what Watson said of Holmes in the very first mystery, A Study In Scarlet: "His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.") When we got the flyer about the theater season, Felder's Gershwin piece was the only one that tugged at us, that we could identify with. So we bought the tickets.

But we didn't want to go unprepared, so we got hold of Michael Feinstein's very first album, Pure Gershwin, and Wilfred Sheed's new book The House That George Built, and some other things, and had a lot of fun with our research. 'SWonderful to revisit a time which, though it had its share of human cruelty and God's mysteries --from the abbatoir trenches of WWI to the tumor which took half of Gershwin's brain-- still those times had not been infected with nihilism and its smirking cousin irony, which have turned people mean. It is not nostalgic to work to resurrect and revitalize those times. With our postmillennial wisdom about the dead end of postmodernism, we can step around ranting distractions from the tin-eared self-loathers, we can recover the past, and introduce it to a much better future. Felder's work helps us get there.

Where else have I heard my bell ringing lately? Catherine heard it first, actually, late last year, which led us to The Heard --Museum, that is, downtown. And we'll revisit those visits, and discuss much else besides, such as fake poetry and "flogs," as we promenade, as we meander, as we now leave Hershey Felder and Gershwin's ghost at the theater, Chopin's final notes drifting around us like snowflakes and falling to melt on the warm late October Phoenix sidewalk . . . .

[While we're strolling down the street, I'm reminded of another quick aside for market researchers: you've seen pictures of parts of Catherine's wardrobe, and some other things, such as our customized coffee table. Just about everything we have acquired over the last half-dozen years or so has come from local merchants of vintage furniture and resale clothing, all within a two-mile radius of our house. We almost never pay retail. Some of these independents come and go, like fireflies, and sometimes they're hard to find between relocations. But we admire their tenacity and gumption. I can mention two because they're gone now --Pink on Central and Johnny's Metropolis. We found some great bargains --you would absolutely faint, dahling-- at both places. As for the rest, find them yourselves.]

Here's the scheme of this piece I'm writing right now: there are a million different ways to divide the world into two kinds of people, and here I've chosen the images of those who can hear the bell ringing true and the tone deaf, who cannot. The template is not limited to music. I'll be giving several examples, beginning with a short comparison of the movie "The Illusionist" (TI) with the movie "The Prestige" (TP).

Superficially they're both about magicians, with two principal male characters and a strong female role. But TI is elegant, wise, and heartfelt, and TP is bombastic, obvious, and pugilistic --a Hollywood answer to a Hollywood exception. In TP the two rivals take turns maiming each other, mugging their handsome features for the camera, and corrupting the entire enterprise of magic; in TI nobody dies except the main bad guy, and he kills himself. Everything and everybody else is redeemed. It is a brilliant movie in which a savvy outsider uses the Austrian class system against itself in an extended series of multifaceted moves to secure his treasure, a life with the woman he loves. It is not enough to just gallop away with her in an escape which guarantees pursuit; instead, he must disappear with her in such a way that pursuit would be absurd and unthinkable --the final distraction. And yet, just before he brushes past us into history, he leaves a clue behind for the cop who's been dogging his case, and redeems him, too, though he doesn't really have to. (Paul Giamatti's face during this sequence becomes almost angelic.) That's how generous the Illusionist was, and the movie is. And one more thing: just before the third act, to get out of a legal bind, the Illusionist goes to the window at police headquarters and speaks to the crowd below, who believes he can raise the dead, and tells them and the audience the key secret of the movie, in essence revealing the end of the story, and we don't hear it, we don't see it, we don't get it. After the movie, as you're walking away or talking about it over a drink, you suddenly do the take. It's amazing, and you don't feel manipulated, you feel grateful to the moviemakers, but it's because of that heart and that generosity. Unlike, for example, at the end of The Usual Suspects, another smoke & mirrors movie, where the viewer feels mugged and left ugly by Keyser Soze.

Before we get to the Heard Museum, travelling in my mind, I see the Phoenix Art Museum, and I'm reminded of another clear example of ringing true versus tone deaf: the big black shiny bulgy-scoopy Anish Kapoor sculpture in the new big Somebody's Name room there. We didn't get the title, but it should be called Nothing But The Wow Factor. The museum acquisitions people, if they had any music in their heads at all, would have done much better to buy a Martin Puryear --just about any one of his big pieces. The differences between the two sculptors couldn't be more obvious --Puryear's hand reaching for the saw or the sander, Kapoor's reaching for the phone-- so I won't belabor the point.

And mounted outside the museum right now is another example of tone-deaf aesthetics, British artist Julian Opie's umpteenth LED crudity, anemic as hell but probably a cash cow for the artist, and for the museum an easy purchase with a veneer of hip. For the viewer, hunger city. I mean, try to see it from a car:

[Photos taken November 4, 2007, travelling west on McDowell Street.]

Here's a better one, which I found on Hearsight, a new local flog (that's not a typo) that I'll be focusing on later on in this piece:


Nice picture --if I knew who took it I'd tell you [Update: a reader emails that it's Ken Howie; thanks]-- but it doesn't improve the idiotic thing, which just shows the two reductive figures endlessly walking in place; he may think he's avant-garde, but he and these two bozos are on the road to nowhere, regressively backpedalling over Muybridge in the process. Opie's processs is to reduce actual video footage of real people to crude pixels. He makes much of preserving individual quirks --these came from actual people!-- but the heads are zeros, and so is Opie's, and whoever at the Museum finally signed off on this piece.

I bring it up to contrast it with our much better outdoor video idea, The Collective I. Again, I won't belabor the obvious differences, just list a few: the Opie piece is just another acquisition, a static object; our piece was a continually changing and growing stream of images and words, delivered through different screens publicly and privately, all organized and instantly accessible. It was an edited YouTube before there was YouTube. The Opie piece has nothing to do with Phoenx or Arizona; The Collective I has everything to do with both, and it would open the Phoenix Art Museum up and really let the world in, everybody ringing their bell. Because the World is theirs. (Setting up a bike repair shop or a curry kitchen or a chocolate factory in a gallery or museum is a desperate attempt to make the art world relevant to people outside its orbit, which hasn't happened yet, no, not yet, not by a very long shot.)

Finally, the Opie piece is a deliberately crude throwback to early technology, thumbing its nose at the availability of full-motion video (affordable to museums) to try to hide the fact that the action is simply stupid, an inflated version of a crosswalk signal. He has nothing to say and he is saying it and it is nothing.

So --finally!-- there we were at the Heard Museum, almost a year ago now. As we made clear in our earlier piece on Steve Yazzi's dumb go-kart trundling, and later in The Loser Tribe, there is plenty of excellent "indigenous" art at the Heard which is both contemporary and free from postmodern irony. It also honors high quality and the hard work of the human hand. True bells ringing in all the halls. We have hundreds of photos and thousands of (so far unpublished) words to prove it.

At the end of our first visit we got our first glimpse of the pomo stuff, with the de la Torres brothers' Olmec Head / trashy trailer with TV eyes. It's an ugly confection which manages to debase several cultures over several millennia, tribal, ethnic, and modern. As if an Olmec god would dream of a doublewide and a dish! As with so many modern artists, these guys just want to cut humanity off at the knees at every opportunity. They're tone deaf to the long music; their low calling is snicker and caricature, and they're certainly not alone out there in the wider art world, where fellow humanity-trashers Lara Taubman and Joe Baker found them.

And speaking of Mr. Baker, who is now --zoomo-- over at ASU's Herberger Design School as Director of, dig this, Community Engagement-- we finally got hold of his essay for "Remix," online on Hearsight. We found it worth examining in detail, and writing about, and we'll be posting about it soon. For now, a tidbit, a hilarious but outrageous lie: "Whatever the case, mediocrity no longer held my attention." Thus spake Baker.

Now to the local flogs. Wikipedia defines them as fake blogs or flack blogs, and it's the latter meaning I refer to here. They're thinly-disguised marketing tools. Downtown Phoenix Journal, Phoenix Art Space, and Hearsight are all flogs, bankrolled by big realty companies, developers, rich artcult boosters, museums, and galleries to promote themselves in the guise of short, bloggy-looking entries, always flanked by columns of adlinks. Pretty thin advertorial infotainment. By the way, when Creative Capital did their recent survey, we were the only art website mentioned, though both DPJ and PAS were online during CC's research.

Most of the copy is pap, or press releases, or, in PAS, short breathless "reviews" written less to convey information about what's in the galleries than to convey that oh-so-gritty ultra-urban atmosphere of downtown Phoenix.

Hearsight is new, and appears to be sponsored by SMoCA and the Heard Museum, among others, but who's to know, there's no masthead, no "About Us." All we know is that Scott Andrews is the editor and there is a shifting roster of contributors. Some of the contributions, such as Joe Baker's "Remix" essay, are simply cut-and-paste from other sources. There's an excerpt of an interview with Jim Ballinger of PAM taken from the November JAVA, too. (I bring that up because I haven't been able to find a copy of JAVA from our usual sources; it makes me wonder if Robert Sentinery has had to cut back production and retract his distribution area. He's never gone online, I know that. [Update 11/7: I stand corrected about the online presence. Congratulations, Mr. Sentinery:])

Hearsight also has a blowhard speculation section and a fiction / poetry section. The first features mercifully-short obfuscation with quotations from authors ten people have heard of. The second recently featured a couple of so-called poems from Kade Twist, but you know what, I just now checked Hearsight's website because I was going to tear him a new one and --dammit!-- the "fiction+" section had no plus, no archives anywhere, just a stupid new comic from the website's lameass designer, Kevin Richardson. Jeez, man, no archives, no scrolling, no comments. Photos the size of Polaroids. A pimply-faced kid posting emo on Blogspot has got better chops than this tonedeaf dude.

Still, I'll try to recover the gist of the Kade Twist pseudo-poem, because it made such a neat ending, and damned if I'll be cheated of that. It was basically a single sentence about watching a fat Pima man with a poodle on a leash running an obstacle course holding an egg on a spoon. Obviously some Pow-Wow vignette. But Twist pretentiously and without reason and definitely without rhyme strings the words down the center of the page in little clumps and spaces, as if that would make them more significant. Big deal:

The other day
In the orange twilite
I saw
The grim reaper
And guests
In a MiniCooper
In the HOV lane
A jack-o-lantern
In the rear window

No, that's mine. Kade Twist's poetry is but sounding brass, and rings as false. And, you know, when I found out the guy was a Cherokee, after I saw his hyperpretentious word-projections at ASU and the Heard, I wanted to scream at him: Sogwai! Why didn't he at least write the words in Cherokee? I mean, Jeebus Anonymous . . . . Oh, never mind. Look it up.

Long ago I read a book called The Poetry Circus (1967) by a prolific poet and scifi author named Stanton A. Coblentz. He made the convincing argument that the restrictions of rhyme, meter, and rhythm, like hammer, anvil, and fire, forged better forms, because it made the poet work hard for the best words. I have always agreed. The crap from Kade Twist and many others is not just a matter of tomayto-tomahto, potayto-potahto. Oh, no, when the bell rings true, when the music's behind it, there's a reason why the word drops off right there:

For we
Know we
Need each other so we
Better call the calling off off--
Let's call the

Hear what I'm sayin? See you soon.

Posted by Jerome at November 6, 2007 08:54 PM | TrackBack