02 October 2010

2 octobre: Ives, Rzewski, and the Universal Lyre

2 octobre

Charles Ives comes to me this morning…the certain vibratory hum of Concord… And here in Paris, I am surrounded by pendulums, by the sound of my own body alone so often, sitting, in my room, or as I was, yesterday, in a cathedral, listening to an organist rehearsing, having my dome lifted upwards on arpeggios towards bone-white arches scooped out from the clouds and hung there by the Compagnons du Devoir centuries ago.  The marvel that they still stand! I sit, swaying slightly, marking the trajectories of the pendulum along my spine, and weaving a fine needlepoint embroidery of mobius strips under my tailbone and onto my seat between my sitting bones. I watched, with the other tourists, the simulation/replacement for Foucault’s original experiment yesterday at le Panthéon, that hideous monument to patriotism and arrogant pride. Were they, too, swaying in their seats, on their tired feet, while trying to retrace with me Foucault’s logic, his comprehension of the earth’s rotations from some theoretically “still” point above, high up in the dome, the pendulum marking by degrees the mathematical formula within the measured circle?

Crowds will be swaying this weekend in Paris, at the various Nuits Blanches festivities all over town, at parties, raves, dance performances and light shows. I will sway, my ear sways this morning between waves of noise lifting from the street up to my windows on the 4th floor, between momentary lulls and then the accumulation and thickening of automobile engines, the Metro rumbling underground setting my building and its foundations into a vibration that quickens, intensifies, grows louder, then passes.

Or sitting so still last night, listening to American pianist/composer Frederic Rzewski spin his pianistic trances at the Bastille Amphitheatre. He performed his  Nanosonatas, pour piano Livres V (2008), VII (2009-2010) & VIII (2010), followed after an intermission by all 36 variations of his 1976 epic, The People United Will Never be Defeated. I found myself inundated, swaying within the sustained oscillations of his rarely predictable chordal progressions, or the sudden eruptions and disruptions of tonal sequences run amok or finding other fractal-like patterns to follow, to fall into, to be pulled into or by, impulses, neural threads, mappings, behaviors brought into pure sound and gesture, gesture as sound as gesture, gesture as its own complex system, from origins in the mind, the will, to the messages telling to body to react, to activate the synapses, connections, and actions necessary to fulfill or carry out that impulse/desire, to enter into dialogue with the moment, to build a feedback/ loping rhythm that generates its own momentum, to act out, play the instrument of that moment which is the body in the world. All told by sound. Phrasing, shudders, sentences strung like muscle fiber to support a skeleton that gradually takes on mass, weight, gravity, and emerges and sways, at first somewhat cumbersome, but becoming graceful, refined, infinitely microscopic in its motor response, and taking on the being of this composer, this man, this life of making music, this particular grace.

In retrospect, I suppose what I can generalize from all this is that we embody our own ways of sounding the rotations of the earth, of gravity’s subtle currents as we swim upwards into verticality and life, resonating through the medium that speaks to us and for us, whether that be through sound, light, form, color, words, or the body’s movement. Or bearing children, for that matter! Fathers and Mothers of the World, Unite! Whitman really got it.

Back to the Ives connection: In all my experience dancing to Ives and listening enraptured to his music, I sense a fascination with the physics of listening, hearing, and of feeling both micro and macrocosmic vibration simultaneously in an acutely American (New England Transcendentalist) state of mind. (I remember perusing the issues of “The American Mind” that would come to our home, that no one would read, but that I would wander through, trying to locate some idea I could cling to, that would identify me as having an American mind--like Whitman’s Patient Spider.) For Rzewski, almost exactly a century
later, his Nanosonatas bend Ives (and pointillism, and the bold, brash but densely edged and textured gestures of abstract expressionism) like fractals through a prism of 20th century physics, social upheavals, personal histories, the globalization of esthetic borderlines and, for a supremely gifted composer/pianist, the dilemma of dealing with a (largely Western) musical inheritance of such magnitude that, for one man to embody the task or role of entering the recital hall on 2010 to take it on, I can only think of some Nietzschean Superman or a superhero more like a keyboard Neo of The Matrix.

And Frederic is, after all, a native of Massachusetts.

There is also the dilemma of whether we, either in our listening or in the act of creating, embody or endow sound (or movement) with expression, metaphor, a program or message.

From Charles Ives--Essays Before a Sonata:

On the other hand is not all music, program-music,—is not pure music, so called, representative in its essence? Is it not program-music raised to the nth power or rather reduced to the minus nth power? Where is the line to be drawn between the expression of subjective and objective emotion? It is easier to know what each is than when each becomes what it is. The "Separateness of Art" theory—that art is not life but a reflection of it—"that art is not vital to life but that life is vital to it," does not help us. Nor does Thoreau who says not that "life is art," but that "life is an art," which of course is a different thing than the foregoing.


But I think I’ll leave that for another time…  It’s over my head.

My favorite passage from this important essay by Ives is often printed in the actual piano score of The Concord Sonata: “Thoreau “:

…His meditations are interrupted only by the faint sound of the Concord bell—'tis prayer-meeting night in the village—"a melody as it were, imported into the wilderness..." "At a distance over the woods the sound acquires a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept... A vibration of the universal lyre... Just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to the eyes by the azure tint it imparts." ... Part of the echo may be "the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by the wood nymph." It is darker, the poet's flute is heard out over the pond and Walden hears the swan song of that "Day" and faintly echoes... Is it a transcendental tune of Concord? 'Tis an evening when the "whole body is one sense," ... and before ending his day he looks out over the clear, crystalline water of the pond and catches a glimpse of the shadow—thought he saw in the morning's mist and haze—he knows that by his final submission, he possesses the "Freedom of the Night." He goes up the "pleasant hillside of pines, hickories," and moonlight to his cabin, "with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself."

Please reference the entire essay at this link. I particularly relate to the restlessness Ives imagines of Thoreau’s actual bodily responses to his space at Walden Pond, his somewhat fitful wanderings, his pacings, as if to sound or establish that oscillation of the pendulum or “universal lyre” he seeks to become one with.