wet earth

"Portals" by Tim Fain

A recent multimedia concert in Carmel has me thinking about art, connection, intimacy, distance, and what may be in store for our species.

I do not own an iPhone.  I do not text.  I have never Skyped.  I have barely dipped my toes into the waters of Twitter or Facebook; what little I have done has been in an effort to share this blog and website with a wider readership.  So my participation in this rapidly expanding “Age of Information” feels fairly tenuous.  I recognize the professional and perhaps personal value of social media for others, but am not sure my nervous system is organized in such a way to negotiate its wild swings of stimulation.  I remain open, however, to discovery and change, so we shall see.

The concert, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay and held at Sunset Center last Friday, was called “Portals: A Multimedia Exploration of Longing in the Digital Age.”  It featured one live musician, the brilliant violinist Tim Fain, who performed in front of a movie screen.  Offstage, technicians projected recorded footage of a pianist, three dancers, a speaker, and Fain himself.  All the music was by living composers.  To some, the rituals of classical music and the traditional recital or concert may appear a bit stuffy, antiquated; everything about “Portals” was completely up-to-date.  The intermissionless event was never anything less than compelling, and occasionally even mesmerizing.  I would happily see it again.

Yet there was something undeniably strange about seeing a live person perform along with a digital copy of a person, about being so seduced by the excellence of the playing and the superior technical aspects of the show that we could almost forget how, amidst all the sound and movement our minds and bodies were taking in, only one part of it—the Tim Fain part—was “real.”  The rest was just a movie.  And so I worry, as time passes and the reach of digital technology extends further and further into our lives and our hearts, that this undeniable strangeness will begin to feel less strange.  As we turn our gazes, and our attention, ever more toward our screens, will we turn less toward each other?

In fact, this question was at the very heart of “Portals.”  What is longing, after all, but the desire to connect with another across some kind of divide?  In this case, the divide was the still mysterious terrain of cyberspace.  For when we “connect” with someone we may never see in person, whom—or what—are we connecting to?  Perhaps to acknowledge this question, Fain chose to intersperse the musical performances with readings, spoken by NPR’s Fred Child, of song lyrics by Leonard Cohen, whose inimitable work is a vast catalogue of longing and regret traversed by brief moments of clarity and the rich ambiguity of being human.

There were a couple technical glitches in this presentation of “Portals,” and though Fain was clearly frustrated by these moments, and though the errors did disrupt the seemingly seamless flow of music and images, I found myself a bit grateful for them, for their reminder that despite the lure of digital perfection, we are still human.  It is when we touch and share our flawed humanity that we acknowledge our vulnerability.  Fain was not supposed to speak during the concert, but he did, both to the audience and to the offstage technicians.  The digital dream soon resumed, but to me these unplanned interruptions were a beautiful illustration of some of my favorite lines of Cohen, spoken by Child on the screen:

                                   Ring the bells that still can ring

                                   Forget your perfect offering

                                   There is a crack in everything

                                   That’s how the light gets in.

The Art of 2012

“This is pretty,” the woman said in a distracted voice to her husband, as she entered the small gallery in Carmel, cast a quick glance across the three walls of art on display, and then walked out.

“Pretty?” I thought, but did not say.  “Pretty?  How can you make any judgment about these etchings whatsoever if you don’t slow down, stop walking, stop talking, and actually look at them?”

Hmmm.  Sounds like I was the one passing judgment here.

Being less judgmental—toward myself and others—is one of my New Year’s resolutions, but as a devoted appreciator of the arts I am making judgments all the time: what plays or shows or concerts to attend, and then what I think of them, and then whether I think they are worth my time and the time of my readers to write about them.  Such thoughts and decisions reside in a nebulous realm called taste, which is hardly a democracy.  Critics often present their year-end top ten lists alphabetically, perhaps to avoid the pressure of rating the films, books or albums from most-favorite to least-favorite. True, there is the issue of comparing apples and oranges.  But deep down, they probably have a favorite.

I have favorites, too, and in this first post of 2013 I am going to mention a few of the encounters with art that meant the most to me in the past year.

Several of those encounters took place at the Carl Cherry Center, in Carmel, which right now may be the most vital and varied cultural institution in Monterey County.  I saw several excellent works of theatre there, notably a strong production of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” and two original works probing the rich and sometimes dark complexities of the mother-daughter bond.  (If you missed them, or my posts, you can read about them here, here, and here.)  Most powerfully, a show in November of photographs of homeless women changed the way I look at homeless people in our community.  I needed to be reminded that each person at a corner intersection with a cardboard sign asking for help has a spirit, a soul, a story.  I no longer react by keeping my window closed and studiously avoiding eye contact, and instead am grateful to have the opportunity to connect with someone, even for a brief moment, who surely needs the couple bucks in my wallet more than I do.

The film that impacted me the most in 2012 was the documentary “Bully,” which showed for several weeks at the Osio Cinemas, our number one area resource for thoughtful motion pictures.  We almost lost the Osio this year when outside parties required them to switch to digital projection.  Thankfully, some local angels stepped into the quarter-million-dollar breach, and our local treasure was saved.

“Bully” told a story of vulnerability: how certain kids are able to survive the vicious taunting and physical attacks that have apparently become the norm in American schools, and others are not.  Thinking about the art that touches me on the deepest level, I often sense a certain quality of vulnerability at its heart.  As I get older, I am less interested in cleverness, intellectual showmanship, and bombast.  I would rather be moved than impressed.

One of the most moving works of art I experienced this year was Kevin Puts’ composition “Living Frescoes,” performed by Trio Solisti (piano, violin and cello) with clarinetist Jon Manasse.  I have already written at length about this concert (you can read that post here), so will only add that as time passes what I remember is not specific melodies or harmonies but what I experienced in my body: a deep and profoundly stirring feeling of connection with what I can only call, for lack of a better term, the timeless mystery.

And now I must confront my own vulnerability in continuing this post, for it would be inauthentic for me to leave out what was a personal highlight of the year: seeing and hearing and meeting author Louise Erdrich in Santa Cruz; yet such is the high esteem and even reverence in which I have placed this woman for the last twenty years that I feel abashed to put these feelings “out there,” for all the online world to see.  Okay, I’ll include one of the photos that was taken of us.  (Thanks, Grace!)  I know I look like a crazed fan.  Well, that is what I am.  (And less than a month after this photo was taken she won the National Book Award for her stunning new novel, The Round House!)

As I said at the outset of this post, a lot of judgments.  After the woman who had called the art “pretty” strode out of the gallery inside the Carmel Art Association, I resumed examining at length the exquisite work of Justin Ward.  I'd reviewed a show of his etchings, displayed at the Monterey Conference Center, earlier this year, but this exhibit was even more compelling, with more personal pieces that to my eye expressed the tender poetry of loss: a lone bicycle leaning against a wall in “Abandoned Farmhouse”; the intimate chiaroscuro of two figures framed by a gnarled trunk in “Walk on the Beach”; the vitality of a ruin in “Still Standing,” in which Ward’s mastery with line and texture revealed the robust, beautiful presence that remains when a building is abandoned, if only we take the time to see.

In Real Time

This has been an interesting week.  For the past ten days I have been steeped in rehearsals for three music events, the last of which was yesterday.  On the day the tragedy in Connecticut was unfolding on the news, I was deeply involved in a marathon rehearsal covering three centuries of Western music: Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Britten, and others.  It was both comforting and strange to experience such a juxtaposition: the disconnect from the focused grief of so many.

Over the weekend, at a sumptuous dinner table that was part of one of the events, a man said he had recently concluded that he preferred movies to plays.  “Movies are closer to real life,” he declared.

I have been pondering and weighing his comment in the context of this harrowing, bloodied time in our culture.  I adore and enjoy movies as much as the next person, but I do not think they are more “real” than live theatre, in which real people with real bodies reveal through their real voices and gestures stories about people, their struggles, their foibles, their individual and common ways of moving forward in life; and all this in the same space as other bodies, who are breathing and watching and listening and absorbing what is transpiring before them, in real time.

Because of the immersive nature of movies, as we sit surrounded by darkness, our eyes and our thoughts entirely glued to the immense screen before us, movies give us the illusion that what we are seeing is not art, but somehow something more real than art, which to some is not far from “artificial.”  So what the man at the dinner table was really saying, I think, is that he prefers movies because there is, it seems, less art in them.  There is little need to actively suspend disbelief; the circumstances of seeing a movie do that for us.

It is my belief that as a nation we are tragically and dangerously malnourished, deprived of the vital, living ingredients of art.  Art has the potential to encourage participation, curiosity, empathy, connection, and healing.  The performing arts create community.  Experiencing the visual arts can spark ideas and connect us more deeply to our own and sometimes hidden natures.  Art—even painful or ugly or sorrowful art—is always a positive act, in the sense that something is created, brought into the light, that wasn’t there before, something that had only existed in someone’s dreams, or fears, or desires.

What happened in Connecticut was the precise opposite of art.  It was an act of silencing, of destroying.  An act in denial of the meaningful ways we are all connected to one another.

I am frightened to live in a world in which the majority of people’s only experience of art is the passive consumption of corporate entertainment: movies, television and video games that are so often violent, trivial, or snarkily ironic; disembodied images passing pointlessly across a screen.

My wish for the new year is that more people take their children, their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews, to plays, to art exhibits, to concerts, not as cultural medicine (“This is good for you, so swallow it whether you like it or not”) but as opportunities to ask questions.  What does this object, painting, installation look like to you; what does it remind you of?  What did you think of that character; why did she behave that way?  Did you see any pictures in your imagination when you heard that music?  I believe that people in general, and children especially, are not being heard.  No one is listening to their confusion or pain.  Yet before we can find answers we must ask the right questions, and that is where art comes in.  I believe that the living arts may offer us a way into the hearts of one another, and help us make sense of our lives.  This past week, as I sat before the piano and felt in my body the healing rhythms of Bach, the poignant, piercing emotions of Mahler, I know that it helped me make sense of mine.

Note to my readers: I will be taking a two-week break from posting on Arts Alive.  I wish you a joyous and healthy holiday, and look forward to connecting with you through the arts in the new year.