Spawn of Mars
Blog of Fictioneer David Skinner
Concert After the Fish-Fry
Arvo Pärt's Passio 
Sunday, April 9, 2017 10:48 am
I've been listening to Arvo Pärt for quite a while. I'm not sure how I discovered him. He is still alive and still composing. His work, since the 1980s, has been generally focused on the sacred, using chant and polyphony.

I don't know much about music. I know most definitions; I can follow a discussion well enough. But I cannot explain to you the difference between a harmony and a melody — not with understanding. And I cannot distinguish either in a work. I am stupid when it comes to music. Fundamentally I am sub-intellectual. For me, a musical work is either a good noise or it's disposable. 

Whenever I tried listening to Pärt's Passio, it left me cold. It's a setting of St. John's Passion verses. It's about the Passion of Christ and yet, as sound, it caused me no passion.

I shrugged it off. Pärt has always been hot or cold for me. One work is transcendent and always too brief; another is flat and not even worth finishing. So it goes, eh? No oeuvre is consistent; no listener other than fickle.

Well, this past Friday my parish ambitiously presented a complete performance of Passio. It was performed by our usual Sunday chorus and some local singers and musicians, all led by the parish's musical director. I realize that Pärt is not obscure (indeed he has even been appointed to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Benedict XVI) and I don't think my parish is filled with philistines, but the choice of Pärt nonetheless seemed unusual. I was curious how it would play out.

We were given programs and naturally, as the work proceeded, I read along. I had never actually done this with Passio before. These days I tend not to read along with any vocal works, except when I am specifically curious about the words. I seek only noise, after all.

As I read I realized that Passio is not meant to be listened to. Not as music. It is a reading of a text. I can listen to Bach's Johannes-Passion and never know what's going on and still enjoy the glorious noise. If you don't know what is being said in Passio, the musical carriage, the musical adornment, the musical shaping, will sound almost random. It may leave you cold. Its fundamental structure is not a musical form, like sonata; its fundamental structure is spoken Latin. No poem or song is involved.

And so, when you actually attend to the text, the shifts between chorus and soloists and instruments, and between this note and that, make sense. The words are not an excuse for the voice as another instrument; they are the impetus for everything. Only with the words in your eyes is there any music in your ears.

So is Passio even "music"? It's like a musical without any catchy tunes. Whatever specific melodies or harmonies there may be, I'm not tapping my foot or bobbing my head to any of it. Is that just the definition of chant, perhaps? But you can be carried away by Gregorian chant. Passio seems to be something else. It's a text that is not silent.

There must be a name for that.

An Interruption of the Wallpaper
The Emptiness of Rothko
Saturday, February 2, 2008 4:42 am
I am an optimist. I believe that foolish forms of art endure only so long as they are a means to self-elevation. Once it is no longer the Mark of the Smart Set to gush about a certain sort of art, that art will be abandoned. 

Modern art is foolish art. Yet it has been tenacious; here we are, in 2008, and people still revere someone like Mark Rothko. But then, modern art is also the cry of the decadent, and decadence takes a while to play out. Perhaps only at the final passing of our civilization will the noisome banalities be properly held in contempt.

Till then, some of us can keep our senses and call modern art what it is: Art with a capital F.

This is one of Rothko's paintings, untitled, from 1958, part of a larger, unfinished series of murals, intended for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram's Building in New York City. It's like most of his "masterpieces": rectangles of color, arranged just so. Rothko's intentions — when considered with his actual work — are comical. He would speak about myth and intensity. "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions, tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on." His paintings were, he said, the "opposite of restful." What with the recent Holocaust and the existence of the atom bomb, normal depiction of figures and landscapes was out of the question. We had to choose instead a "pure expression of feeling." And thus... behold!

I don't know how to mock this painting of rectangles. It mocks itself. When Rothko says, "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them," I can only snort into my beer. If such as the above embodies a "religious experience," we can only imagine what sorts of explosive transcendence Rothko might have achieved had he used triangles or circles.

With his Seagram's murals, in particular, he wanted to inspire a sense of unending confinement, like being trapped in a passage. He wanted to "make those rich sons-of-bitches lose their appetites." Seagram's was paying him millions for the paintings, truly granting him a great compliment; and like all modern artists, he wanted only to discomfort and revile his benefactors. Using big brown rectangles.

Rothko, after having dined himself at the Four Seasons, withdrew from the project. "Nobody who pays those kinds of prices for those kinds of meals is ever going to look at a painting of mine." Yet what he didn't realize is that his art is perfectly suited for the walls of a restaurant. His paintings are each an easily ignored decoration; an interruption of the wallpaper. They are the progenitors of what I call Corporate Wall Art — those formless, shallow arrangements of shapes and color that imply nothing, and adorn the reception areas and cafeterias of businesses everywhere. Because Rothko's paintings lack depth of information — strained imputations of myth and feeling notwithstanding — they can only end as corporate wall art; and only our ever-deluded intellectuals can claim greatness for such emptiness.

Depicting Christ Anew
Encouragement From the Past
Sunday, May 27, 2007 1:54 am
How am I to say anything anew? For two thousand years, artists have been depicting Christ and what He was and is. Even if I am inclined — even if I am impelled — to express, in my fiction, an image of Christ, what fresh manner can I take? I am not clever enough; and my civilization is in its decadence: it offers no help; it has spent itself. At the end of our culture, all has been done and done. 

Or perhaps I am just not trying hard enough. You might think all has been done — and then you discover something. I discovered something. To be sure, this thing exists, is known, and, indeed, is more than three hundred years old and therefore rather far from fresh; but it has struck me nonetheless and made me hope, at least a little.

First, not the thing itself, but something else. Here is a detail from Rembrandt's 1646 Adoration of the Shepherds:
Consider how conventional it is. I am not disparaging it. I like it. The lighting, and especially the kneeling man in the foreground, give a great sense of people
around the Christ Child. But again, it is conventional: Child on display, lit by His own holiness, all but formally presented by His Mother.

Now, here is the thing I discovered, also by Rembrandt, also an Adoration of the Shepherds, but an etching from ca. 1652:
This doesn't have a spatial depth like the other work. You don't quite feel anyone moving towards and around the Christ Child. But there are other sorts of depth, and in this work the narrative depth is greater.
Look closely at Mary and the baby. They are bundled and lying beside each other. Joseph, off to the right, is wearing a hat. It is cold. Of course, having just given birth, Mary is tired. The baby is tired. Mother and newborn are wrapped in the same thick blankets, trying to sleep, while Father, reading a book, keeps watch. And now they are being disturbed. Look: Mary has raised her hand against the shepherd's light! There is no formality; no presentation. Even the holy light of the Child is subtle: It's not His light but the light of a flame that Joseph is reading by.

What so struck me about this work is how well Rembrandt depicted the humility of the Incarnation. The shepherds may have come at the prodding of some angel, and they may be primed to adore the Savior of Mankind, but what they have found, at least initially, is only a cold and tired little family. The fact that Rembrandt swaddled Mary... That, I think, is the most wonderful touch.

So there it is. It's been a while since I saw a fresh depiction of the Nativity. Sure, maybe I don't get out enough, and sure, this depiction is 355 years old, and surely at least 355 other people have noticed the aspects I have noticed. Still, the wonder and pleasure are there. An artistic depiction of Christ has surprised me. Whenever I wonder, "How shall I depict Him anew," I will remind myself of Rembrandt's etching and try a little harder.

A Bee Contemplates Buzzing
The Definition of High Art
Sunday, January 8, 2006 8:46 pm
Despite having been a writer for decades now and having had the unsurprising and frequent inclination, as a producer of art, to contemplate the nature of art, it was many years until I realized something that I think is very true.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: All works are not substantially equal. However much the academics might want to de-privilege the canon, there remains a qualitative difference between high art and low art. This, to be sure, is not news. If you think I am merely about to scoff at academics who overpraise hip-hop or graffiti, you would be wrong. Such academics, however much they perdure, have been adequately ridiculed already. My question is only this: Given the obvious fact that some art is high and some low, what is it, in the end, that distinguishes high from low? And my answer is this: Depth of information. 

This is not entirely my idea. I heard a man use "information content" to explain, in passing, why concert music is higher than popular music. But I believe "information content" — or, as I prefer to put it, "depth of information" — applies to all art and is, indeed, sufficient to distinguish high from low. Notice I am not saying "distinguish good from bad." "Good" is an aesthetic judgment, valid enough but not enough to make a work high. And "bad" does not mean a work is not high. "Information" applies, obviously, to content, but perhaps not as obviously to form. That is, a work of high art is presented in a form that itself invites contemplation and rational elucidation. A work of high art is elaborate in content and form. Its information is deep.

That may seem to be a truism, but what I am trying to get across is that "deeply informed" is the complete definition of high art. Yes, of course, we would argue about what constitutes "deep." But by defining high art as "deeply informed" we don't become sunk in questions of aesthetics or culture — or origins. Thus even masters can produce low art — art that is well-made, enjoyable, memorable; yet for all that, lacking depth and therefore not high. Just because it's Mozart doesn't mean it's higher than Metallica.

And, as an added bonus, my succinct definition finally makes it clear to me why so much art that is supposedly high has always struck me as anything but. With my definition in hand, one can finally banish the freeloaders from the house of high art. For example, like him or not, value him or not, Pollock is not high art, because there is nothing elaborate or deeply informed about his work. Nothing intrinsic, that is. You can read all you want into Pollock's paint spills; they're still just spills. Deep information cannot be imputed to the work but must subsist in the work for the work to be truly high.

Let Her Love His Gift
Sunday, April 25, 2004 11:04 pm
Sometimes I say outrageous things. One such thing is: Art doesn't matter. Now, I say this out of petulance. I get annoyed by the overwrought sacralization of art. The sacralization of art is just a high-minded species of material attachment, and is only slightly less awful than the sacralization of, say, Jaguar XJ8s. 

But I am not one of those who think that humans should, properly, disdain material things (art included). That's the other, equally wrong extreme. God made the world — He materialized it — for reasons we may not know, but we know they were His reasons and therefore they were good. The material world is not a trap. Our body is not a restrictive vessel but a constituent part of us; it is entirely co-equal with our reason, soul, and will.

The problem with material attachment is that one has forgotten the source of material things. Listen to St. Augustine:
Suppose brethren, a man should make a ring for his betrothed, and she should love the ring more wholeheartedly than the betrothed who made it for her... Certainly, let her love his gift; but, if she should say, "The ring is enough, I do not want to see his face again," what would we say of her... The pledge is given her by the betrothed just that, in his pledge, he himself may be loved. God, then, had given you all these things. Love Him who made them.
Art itself is a gift of God. It is a product of the creative capabilities He gave us; it is an echo of His Creation. When, however, one asserts an almost supernatural and seemingly independent excellence about art, one has begun to love the ring and forget the face of one's Betrothed.

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