A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

The music begins with a delicate pressure on the piano keys, chiming, close-knit clusters of notes in a rocking motion, forward and back, slowly moving down into the lower register to isolate a few dark, sparse pitches, quietly climbing back into midrange to brighten the mood, but only briefly, as an attraction to the bass notes pulls the line towards more ominous territory, where it lingers, pauses, and concludes with a rumble and a falling arpeggiated flourish. Less than two minutes in length, it has, to my mind, a dramatic logic, cohesive tonality, and coherent perspective. I like it very much. It could be a particularly brooding Scriabin prelude, or a restrained interpretation of an early Feldman graph score, but in reality it was created by Misha Mengelberg’s cat walking across the keyboard. Mengelberg filmed it as it took place. You can hear and see it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reW2kNg6-50.

During this past summer we had to clean out my mother’s house as she moved into a small apartment – several decades of accumulated possessions, including many things we had never seen before which had been stashed in closets, things she herself had forgotten over the years. In a folder stuffed with miscellaneous papers and old greeting cards I discovered a work of art: a painting on an 8 1/2 X 11 sheet of paper. It has an abstract expressionist feel; quick, spontaneous, flashing brush strokes, a fluid sense of movement across space from left to right, and a dynamic tension derived from a contrast of densities – open, twisting, criss-crossing lines on the left thickening into a congealed mass towards the right, shaded by lighter and darker hues of primarily blue with a lesser undercurrent of red highlights. Some of the brush strokes are full and rich, others nearly transparent, mere whispers of color and weight, emphasizing their sudden shifts of direction. Overall, it’s a vibrant, eye-catching field of activity, and its varied details reward close examination. Its style and imagery remind me of several of Joan Mitchell’s brilliant abstract shrubbery studies. The artist’s name was penciled in an open space near the top: “Christopher.” My now-adult son had done this, most likely while still in Montessori pre-school, and given it to his grandma as a gift. When I showed it to him, he vaguely remembered it, acknowledged he couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old when he made it, and admitted he had no idea how he did it.

While stumbling around on the internet recently, I came across a website that sells hand-painted, made-to-order copies of famous and lesser-known works of art from an extensive catalog that includes everyone from Vermeer to Van Gogh, Matisse to Motherwell. Questions of quality and copyright notwithstanding, the remarkably reasonable price depends on the size of the canvas (you can choose whatever size fits your decorating needs) and, I suppose, the difficulty of the style and subject. For a short time I was tempted to order – for a measly few hundred dollars – a copy of one of my favorite paintings, Franz Kline’s Red Crayon, not one of his epic black-and-white visions, but an easel-sized, concise, colorful abstract that I have seen several times in its home at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. The more I thought about having it hang on my wall – not a poster, mind you, but an actual oil on canvas, with real texture, original colors, and hand-produced brush strokes – the more I began to wonder whether the copy, no matter how perfectly reproduced, would have the same effect on me as looking directly at Kline’s painting does. It’s not a question of value, or authenticity, but of artistic intent.

Goethe’s first principle of art criticism (which I solemnly intone to my Reviewing the Arts class each semester) is “What is the artist, or the work of art, trying to do?” It’s a valuable perspective from which to examine and identify a singular work of art, question how it is made, and determine not only how you respond to it, but why. But what happens when, as in the three examples above, there is no specific creative intention? Does that discredit the work as art, turn it into fool’s gold, and thus negate the experience of the audience, whatever it may be? I’m on dangerous ground here, I know, as this is precisely the argument ultra-conservative critics (and, alas, they are legion) continue to use to disparage much modern art, from Schönberg’s objectified serial composing to Pollock’s drip and splash visual “accidents,” as well as the perceived chaos of free jazz. I suppose this is as good a time as any to bring up the name of John Cage, who famously abdicated the responsibility of emotional motivation in his music, and devised various ways to achieve a systematic, non-intentional, indeterminate approach to composing that would actively engage the performer in the creative process. Equal to the commitment of composer and performer in Cage’s point of view must be the willingness of the listener to expand their faith in the potential conditions of Beauty and Meaning. The importance of a work of art thus becomes one of perception, rather than self-expression, which shifts the responsibility from the artist to the audience. The artist is now anyone who recognizes and accepts the conditions for an artistic experience.

For example, when Mengelberg filmed his cat, it may initially have been simply a display of characteristic whimsy on his part, Misha being known for his Dadaistic disdain for pretentious art and overly-respectful conventions. But where most viewers might then see only a cute cat video, an awareness of the musical quality of the sounds, regardless of their absurd source, transformed them into an artistic experience. I suspect this was the real reason for posting the film on YouTube, not to share a few moments of cat hijinks, but to offer proof that music can occur anywhere, at any time, from the most incongruous, unexpected, unintentional circumstances. Try listening closely to the soundtrack without watching the film, and see how much the experience changes. Art is where you find it.

Not coincidently, Mengelberg is the most intentionally non-intentional musician I know, and this same sense of an “energy of attention,” as characterized by poet Robin Blaser, has long been the basis for his solo piano conceptions – not necessarily his “jazz” playing with ICP, mind you, or other group encounters where he is capable of choosing any one of a number of pianistic roles to fill, but when left to his own devices, filling the empty space of composition with a deceptive improvisational nonchalance that rejects any hint of structural design and follows the attentive logic of the moment. In his extended solos, lasting often a half-hour or more, his painstakingly circumspect one-note-follows-another process is something akin to Michelangelo chipping away at the block of marble piece by piece, not to develop his own vision, but to reveal the shape of the figure imprisoned within. “Every form is only the snapshot of a process,” according to French biologist Raoul Heinrich Francé.

Of his solo albums, Impromptus (FMP), recorded in 1988, may be his most perplexing, abstract, and non-intentional. Punning upon the improvisational concept behind Schubert and Chopin’s free-form fantasies of the same name, Mengelberg offers thirteen unpredictable stream-of-consciousness essays – each a mélange of choppy motifs, meandering melodies, detached rhythms, and musical non sequiturs. It’s impossible to figure out where he is going, or explain how he gets from one point to another; an off-kilter march somehow morphs into a sedate hymn, a romantic episode (possibly an old Dutch tune?) mumbles its way into a fun-house mirror reflection of “Tea for Two,” dense Bergian chords coalesce into dour disjointed clusters, and he’s liable to begin warbling in some private language without notice. But after a while freely-associated strangeness becomes the norm (“the fruits of a tenuous incomprehension,” a phrase borrowed from art critic Gaston Diehl), and non-intention gradually discovers its own identity through the energy of attention – his, and ours. I can’t imagine another pianist who would have the gumption to release an album of such bewildering fascination, then or now. Thank you, Misha. I think.

Art Lange©2014

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