Monday, January 24, 2011

I'm not an artist, but I'll play one at the Art Benefit for the Moms Project

I'm not an artist, but I'm playing one at a fundraiser for Tim Meehan. Tim is raising money to pay an editor for his video installation project on moms. It's Art Benefit for the Moms Project 7:30-11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11 at Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Ave.

The artists contributing to his benefit (so far) are Deb Douglas, Sara Hale, Karen Jones, Kelene Karetski, Kit Keith, William LaChance, Sandra Marchewa, Tim Meehan, Jeremy Rabus, Melissa Schmidt. Some great artists, the ones I know! Then I am also contributing.

I think it's a real good idea and Tim is a real good guy, and if he thinks he can make some coin selling something I have drawn -- even if it is a round of Schlafly or OFallon beer for the editor -- then bully for Timmy, he can call me an artist.

I thought I would post up three options for what I can contribute to Tim's show and see if one of them gets more attention than the others; maybe even an advance bid for the man's project? Here is what I came up with after ten minutes in the basement, interrupted by two mischievious girls who were then pressed into duty as models and human scale for the bigger drawing.

Here is the bigger drawing, about that much bigger than a little girl's hands holding it: "Your Republican Leadership Team Needs You" (portrait of John McCain and Sarah Palin) (2008). My daughter Leyla Fern, who is holding this up, gets a co-credit for the coloring job and the "scribble scrabble".

Here is the less big one, drawn on a page from one of the common sketchbooks you see: "Dad's mermaids were my first naked ladies" (after some ex-con from central Kentucky I met through my former brother-in-law; these are in fact copies of his jailbird doodles of imaginary tattoo flash) (ca. 1992).

And then, something altogether different. Rather than clutter for the imagined buyer's wall, this is performance art or a party favor. These fingerpuppets (modeled here by family friend Promise) all go onto the fingers of one of my hands for a solo performance of -- the title is ironic, given the nature of Tim's project -- Goodnight, Mother (selected scenes from Hamlet).

I would come to the buyer's house or party and perform the piece. It takes about twenty minutes or so. I get to keep the puppets.


Art Benefit for the Moms Project will be held 7:30-11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11 at Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Ave. I take it Tim will screen video from the 42 moms interviews he has done.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Middle East meets Spain half-way at Marc Thayer

Photo is borrowed from the Flickr of abudoma and belongs to him, not me.

Marc Thayer has been to all of these important and obscure places, absorbed their musical genius, and worked hard to spread it around, with no apparent aim other than enlarging his own sense of possibility and then sharing that with anyone willing to sit still for a minute and listen.

That's what makes it such a pleasure to be around Marc when he is making music possible. He sits still and listens.

Last Wednesday evening Adam Long and I watched Marc Thayer sit still and listen, when he wasn't playing violin. He sat still and listened to young musicians from the city of Suleimanya in Kurdistan (northern Iraq), whom he had helped come to St. Louis to study. Marc put together a program of Spanish and Middle Eastern music and encouraged these international conservatory students to play some of their local music on a mix of traditional and European instruments.

"They play lots of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart," Marc said; "but not tonight!"

In their music school back in Kurdistan, Marc pointed out, they studied both European art music and their own local traditions, playing both symphony instruments and traditional ones. "I'd have a lot more fun playing music if I had learned jazz when I was a music student, and I encourage it," Marc said.

Marc Thayer is vice president for Education and Community Partnerships at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It's one key reason the symphony in St. Louis is so great, this entrusting to very senior positions -- like vice president or musical director -- people with a genuine passion for music and extreme nerve for testing the limits of what was previously thought possible.

In his remarks between performances, we got a glimpse into what shaped Marc. He talked about being a teenager in Cordoba (in Andalusia), which he described as "the capital of Spain when it was a Muslim country". Why he was there, he did not say -- he sounds of American stock -- but he spoke with unabashed admiration for the city, especially its one surviving mosque. It was spared by the Catholics, but had a cathedral inserted inside it.

"A few blocks from this mosque is where Ferdinand and Isabella gave Christopher Columbus the permission to come look for India, and he ended up here instead," Marc said.

He sat still and listened intently when Alan Salih, Reben Ali and Honar Ali played Kurdish, then Arabic, then Persian music on violin, oud, cello and sharba (a hand drum much like a tabla). "The more I listen to Middle Eastern music, the more I realize I have to learn," Marc said, during one break. Then quipped: "When I play a quartertone, it's by accident."

Yet, the most musically satisfying event of the program, Adam Long and I decided, was the Spanish music performed by Marc Thayer on violin and Maryse Carlin on piano -- and especially the final piece, a trio for piano, violin and cello in B minor (Opus 76) by Joaquin Turina, when they were joined on cello by Ranya Iqbal, who brought an exotic look to the European musical grouping.

Ranya Iqbal visually completed Marc's argument that the music of the Middle East is intimately connected to the music of Spain.


Photo of the mosque/cathedral at Cordoba is borrowed from the Flickr of abudoma and belongs to him, not me.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The mountain, the sea, and that fragile relationship that is life

"Never seen no mountain. Never swam in no sea."

This complaint from Paul Westerberg of The Replacements (in "Within Your Reach") always spoke to me. I grew up in a small Midwestern steel town in the Mississippi River Valley. It was a long time before I saw a mountain or swam in a sea.

I have always considered this a net benefit, because it left me easy to impress and open to new experiences. It was not possible, starting where I started, to think you had seen it all, because you knew there were mountains and oceans, yet had seen and swam in none.

In a similar vein, St. Louis was always the big city across the river to me. Coming across the river from Granite City, I was always embarassed for the locals who copped a snoot on St. Louis because they had been to New York or Chicago and thought the lights a little too small for them here. I just saw big lights, and giant experiences, in St. Louis.

I keep seeing it that way. Last Wednesday I took Adam Long to see a performance in the stylus Concert Series at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. This is where David Robertson, musical director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, puts together concerts around the installation at the Pulitzer. I just keep shaking my head (that's SMH, to the text message generation) at the level of creative genius being programmed in and for St. Louis.

The show Wednesday, Adam and I agreed, started at its peak, musically and conceptually, and then descended steadily, but not very far, throughout the sequence of three compositions. In fact, the third (and still wholly wonderful) piece on the program is structured around the ascent and descent of a mountain approached, and then departed, by sail on the sea.

Now I've seen a mountain. Now I have swam in a sea.

The show opened with La Souris sans sourire, performed by a string quartet with David Robertson admiring from a front-row seat. This is a 1988 composition by Franco Donatoni, and please don't feel like you're behind the game if you have never heard of it. My concert guest Adam Long is a cellist with a yen for modern composers and it was all new to him (and me).

I have found a YouTube posting of a good performance of the piece, though it doesn't specify the performers; a friend at the symphony asked David Robertson to suggest the best recording for me, and David could think of none.

The performers at the Pulitzer were Emily Ho (violin), Jooyeon Kong (violin), Shannon Farrell Williams (viola) and Melissa Brooks (cello). They succeeded completely in casting the spell of this music. David Robertson talked at some length about the title of the piece, which you might translate as The Mouse without a Smile, and Donatoni's many plays on words. David prepared us to hear the composition as playing on music the way the title plays on words; and though Donatoni's mouse may have been sans smile, Adam Long and I grinned all the way through it.

We had an aerial view of the action. The physical space of the Pulitzer has the feeling of being carved out of the corners of other spaces. The main seating for the basement floor concert stage are the wide steps walking down to it, which had filled up before we arrived. We stepped past the folding chairs at the top of the steps to stand along the railing looking down at the musicians. The view from there was good, but with Adam standing in front of me I had to thump him to get his attention and share smiles.

"I have recorded the cello player, Melissa Brooks," Adam whispered, after one time I thumped him. Adam records, mixes and masters music for a living.

Between compositions, as the string quartet was replaced on the basement floor concert stage by a solo horn player (Roger Kaza), Adam and I quickly shared geeky delight in the fact that we were seeing one of the greatest shows on Earth tonight, right at home in St. Louis. Adam is from Minneapolis, same city as Paul Westerberg; he also knows what it's like to have never seen a mountain, never swam in no sea.

This feeling of astonishing uniqueness went for a long, pleasant stroll during the performance of the next piece on the program, In Freundschaft by Karlheinz Stockhausen. This is a long, slow, solo piece, most often performed on clarinet, though I adored Roger Kaza's performance on horn. It included a lengthy interruption where Kaza very deliberately cleaned the saliva out of the bell of his horn before stuffing one fist in there to act as a mute.

Before the performance, David Robertson told us how long the piece lasts, I think so that no one made the mistake of applauding the apparent completion of the piece when Kaza stopped playing to dry the spit in his horn, which happened early in the composition. "Here is the place where you let the instrument use the restroom," David described this moment, after Kaza had finished his performance.

David described Stockhausen himself - controversial, as modern composers go - as "a wacko, but a sweet wacko". He expanded in this mood when introducing the final piece on the program, Groundswell by Steven Mackey. "Steven is a native Californian, and we are always the wacky ones," said David, a son of Santa Monica. He free-associated the names of other wacky Californians, thinking of John Cage and Gertrude Stein - a fascinating short list of native Californians perhaps no one else would have assembled.

I would rather listen to David Robertson talk about music than hear most people perform it; and Adam and I agreed that David's remarks on Groundswell were even more entertaining than Mackey's composition and the performance of it - by a superb ad hoc chamber group comprised of the string quartet from The Mouse without a Smile, joined by Weijing Wang (viola), Philip Ross (oboe), Thomas Jostlein (horn), Linda Phipps (clarinet/bass clarinet) and Peter Henderson (piano). David Robertson stayed out of his front-row seat and conducted this one.

Groundswell is a fine musical expression of climbing and descending a mountain, and was performed with expression and unity; but after the surreal mysticism of the Donatoni and the profound inwardness of the Stockhausen, it fell just slightly flat. On a different program, with lesser compositions and performances surrounding it, it would have had much more of an impact, I am certain, because I was thrilled throughout.

And, then, I was more than thrilled.

After such a striking night of original music, in such a unique and rarified space, the last thing the musical director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra needed to do was make a closing reference to a stunning public tragedy. But this is David Robertson we are talking about, and he is the kind of person who makes his own rules and sets his own standards.

Such music as what we had just experienced, David said - making explicit reference to the recent massacre in Tucson, and tearing up without affectation - reminds us "how lucky we are and how important it is to maintain that fragile relationship that is life."


The photo is mine - a sunset in Santa Monica.