John Rockwell: May 2008 Archives
I did my last Rockwell Matters WNYC radio show last night (Memorial Day), broadcasting live for a a change of pace; when and if it comes up on the WNYC web site, I'll link to it. The subject, designed to complement the American Music Week that Terrance McKnight is overseeing on his Evening Music show, was about how my early exposure to Burl Ives, Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson initiated a broadening of my tastes that has led to my latter-day rampant catholicity.
In the script, I stressed the operatic qualities of the three singers' voices, and how they opened me up to the possible varieties of vocal production in opera. Ives was a French-style, pre-verismo tenor, complete with voix mixte and floating head tones, and he developed a penchant for folkish classical singing of the kind that became widespread in the early music movement. Robeson was a true operatic bass, in an era when blacks weren't allowed to sing opera. Jackson was a gospel belter, one of enomous power and grandeur (and musicality and sensitivity, too). Had she been allowed and had she chosen, she too could have dominated our operatic stages.
But one aspect of her singing I didn't mention, and it was equally important to me as a boy, being as I was lily-white and all. I had never encountered black church singing before listening to her records of gospel music and Christmas carols. The carols were especially striking. She ornamented these bedrock, deeply familiar songs with all manner of grace notes and appoggiaturas and bluesy flattenings and slidings up to the pitch. I had never heard anything like that, and I was thrilled -- in the same way that a lot of people were thrilled (or horrified) when years later Jose Feliciano applied similar ornamentation to the National Anthem at a World Series. Without Mahalia, I might never have loved opera, or loved it in the same way. But without her, I might never have loved gospel and the blues and rock & roll like I do, either.
Speaking of art spectaculars (see below), we have Cai Guo-Qiang's show "I Want to Believe," which fills the main spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Cai likes to blow things up, which can look pretty flamboyant in person or at the Guggenheim, in all manner of videos documenting his explosive predilections. In our world of terrorism and war, this has a disturbing undercurrent, but that's not all Cai does. He also likes feathery arrows: hundreds of them sticking out of model tigers and a suspended boat. And he likes wolves, ferocious ones in a swirling pack that lifts off the ground and arches up Frank Lloyd Wright's circular Guggenheim ramp.
It might look like more big, cartoonish Asian art, the kind that, as with some highbrows' reaction to Olafur Eliasson, seems primary-colored vulgar to refined sensibilities. Takashi Murakami, with his enormous Hello Kitty! cartoon art, can provoke similar reactions. I haven't gotten to Murakami's current Brooklyn Museum retrospective, but I did see a show he curated recently at the Japan Society, and it was downright disturbing, right beneath the shiny kiddie surface. Good disturbing, though; Murakami gets to me on a deeper level than does Cai, at least so far.
But there is something endearing aobut the modern Chinese penchant for the over the top. I think of the composer Tan Dun, whose rather pallid "The First Emperor" has been recently revived at the Metropolitan Opera. Tan started out a modernist, and he retains some of that hard-to-take modernist dissonance, seemingly for dissonance's sake. But his other side is exuberantly populist, and for me is far preferable. His score for the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," with Yo-Yo Ma, was gorgeous. And his two big, noisy celebration symphonies, one for the turn of the millennium and the other for the reabsorption of Hong Kong into the Motherland, sounded completely over the top in their mixing-up of musical idioms. I loved them; they were right up Peter Gelb's alley.
Some of the stage work of the director Chen Shi-Zheng, a friend of Tan's, fits into this category, too, as in his circus-terpsichoric-rock opera "Monkey: Journey to the West," which has stirred up the Spoleto U.S.A. Festival in Charleston of late. It would probably be part of this summer's rather sparse Lincoln Center Festival were not the New York State Theater being closed to begin its renovation for the Gerard Mortier era at the New York City Opera.
For better or worse, when you think about Cai and Tan and Chen, China is on the move, and Chinese artsts are on the move, too.
The Danish-Iicelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is a hot property just now, and his penchant for flashy displays and gigantic scale can quicken the animus of those art purists who lament such a vulgar debasement of standards. Most all installation art is open to such strictures, as are the grandiose manifestations of earth art out in the trackless American west. I love the best of such work, but I have an operatic sensibility.
That said, Eliasson is pretty special, as affirmed by his "Weather" installation at the Tate Modern, the talk of London for its entire run (two years?). Now he has a show at both the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and its Queens adjunct, P. S. 1. I haven't been out to Queens yet -- the plan is for this Thursday -- but I want to write now about one part of the MOMA show. It consists of a room (a hallway, actually) bathed in yellow ligfht.
So it's yellow; so what? But soon you realize that this yellow light has the property of bleaching out color and turning everything gray. At one end you can stand in the middle of the light, feeling rather like a character in "Star Man" or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" being drawn up into the mothership by light beams, and watch innocent museum-goers wander across a kind of platform or bridge and enter into the yellow zone. You see them, still bathed in natural light, with their red dresses and blue scarves, and as they enter the yellow all that bleeds into gray. Skin colors, too: white people and black people and even yellow people become gray people.
It is very, very strange. Thrilling, maybe, but scary, too; creepy. Whether grandiose social conclusons can be drawn from all this, that we are all brothers under the skin and such, I know not. It's hard to extract an optimistic message when everyone looks like a corpse. But it, and other optical tricks that Eliasson plays upon the willing viewer, are pretty striking. I suppose the more profound question is whether this is art or optics, something meaningful or something merely tricky. All I can say is that if you seek an unsettling experience, check out the third floor of MOMA.