John Rockwell: May 2009 Archives

It's been gorgeous in the Northeast this weekend, and so, inspired by the 75-degrees and the white puffy clouds and by Maya Lin's new "Wave Field Storm King" earthwork art, we ventured down and across the Hudson to the Storm King Art Center on Saturday. Embarrassingly, since it's halfway between our home in Manhattan and our country home, this was the first time we'd been there.

There are a lot of contemporary art shrines and minimalist shrines and earthwork shrines out there, and I've been to most of them. Storm King -- I keep thinking of Storm Cat, the aging horse who used to pull in the biggest stud fee in the country and who lives (unless he died, but I don't think he has) on a gorgeous spread in Bluegrass Country owned by the brother of a friend of mine's wife, who also live there, if I have that all straight -- is on a rolling 500-acre estate that was turned over to the State of New York 49 years ago (correction: I'm told its a private not-for-profit entity). It has all sorts of outdoor sculptures looming over its wide-open fields and tucked away in bowers and among trees; and the setting, surrounded by Hudson Valley hills and mountains, is just as gorgeous as my friend's Kentucky horse farm.

Some of the work on display is beautiful (like Andy Goldsworthy's serpentine stone wall, right next to the Lin), some rather ordinary, some more striking and imposing than inviting (Calder and especially di Suvero dominate large swaths of the grounds), with lots and lots of big-name artists. There is a main house, in which right now is terrific Lin exhibition with some beautiful work that fills rooms, smaller drawings and a slide show; the woman sure has created a body of work beyond the Vietnam Memorial, which will always remain her best-known achievement.

Lin is a minimalist who works most happily outdoors, making incremental pieces in series in which small elements or water add up cumulatively to forms that emulate nature or harmonize with it. She grew up in southwestern Ohio, and since we had just come back from a pilgrimmage exploring Indian mounds, in particular Mound City and Serpent Mound, the influence is palpable.

"Wave Field Sorm King" is the third and largest in a series, the first two being in Michigan and Florida. The space (16 acres?) is generous and the earth has been shaped into undulating forms, each mound maybe 20 feet high and 50 feet long (those are guesses). When you look at whole field straight on you get a saw-tooth effect, with the peaks of one undulating line showing between the dips in the one in front. Photos show a wonderful variety depending on the season: lush green now, vibrant fall colors, pure white winter snow.

For me, the effect was slightly lessened by the vastness of the surrounding nature dwarfing the contained space of the actual shaped forms. I also found the roar of the adjacent New York State Thruway disconcerting, though the rush and whizzing of the cars are partly masked by trees and could, I suppose, be heard as oceanic.

The park has not quite gotten the manicuring of the "waves" in hand. Paths have been worn by people trekking among them, and people follow the paths because they think they're supposed to. The Storm King folk don't want them to walk on the parths or the ridges, but they also don't want to desecrate the naturalness by posting warning signs. The grass has grown in with patches and lumps, undercutting the rolling perfection seen in the well-maintained Indian mounds in Ohio.

But these are growing pains. I guess the reason that Storm King falls just short of the peak of my own personal minimalist shrine hierarchy is its lack of focus. The sheer concentration and power of Donald Judd's machine-tooled aluminum boxes at Marfa, or James Turreell's megalomaniacal but awesome Roden Crater or Walter De Maria's "Lighting Field" or the Richard Serra installation in the big long room at Bilbao all strike home harder because they aren't in competition with other work on the same sprawling site. Yet Storm King is still well worth many more visits, and we hope to make up for lost time by doing just that.

May 31, 2009 5:17 PM | | Comments (2)

Look at anything long enough and patterns, even if they're patterns extraneously superimposed by the veins in your eyeballs, will begin to appear. I have made it a self-imposed party trick the past two springs to give 45-minute talks to the American Friends of the Salzburg Easter Festival wherein I take every piece of music to be played at the festival and knit them into a grand pattern, as if Simon Rattle and his cohorts had planned it all along as some diabolically didactic exercise. It's been fun for me, and it seems to work OK for the Friends.

Recenlty I've been to a bunch of dance in New York, which I do with some regularity even though I am maybe better known as a music critic and have been retired as chief dance critic of the NY Times for two and a half years. I won't pretend that all the dance can be linked togther into one grand pattern (though maybe so; see below!). But there were certainly some piquant subsets.

On May 12 Martha Graham's "Clytemnestra" had the New York premiere of its recent revival, and for me it was a disappointment. It wouldn't have been had I remembered that most Graham after, say, the mid-50's fell short of her great early work. "Clytemnestra" is one of her Greek tragedy extravaganzas, a full-evening epic. It was first seen in 1958, with Graham in the title role, and was in the company repertory long after that, even after Graham had stopped dancing. In new costumes (by Halston) it was nipped and tucked and filmed for television in 1975. The present revival stars Fang-yi Sheu in a welcome return to the company, and was seen in Asia (and Europe?) and Washington last year before this New York revival at the Skirball Center.

For me, it just looked dated, often risibly so. The original costumes (reportedly better than Halston's but still...), the awful music (by Halin El-Dabh) and above all the mannered choroeography all called more attention to themselves than to the tragedy. Even Sheu, the best present-day Graham dancer, failed to hold one's attention, even though she looked good and indulged in all the proper contortions and contractions and agonized, imploring gestures. A long night.

Seeing "Clytemnestra" came in the midst of my reading of a new biography of Yuriko by Emiko Tokunaga. Yuriko was a leading Graham dancer, teacher and coach, and danced Iphigenia in the original "Clytemnestra.".The book may not be a writerly masterpiece, but Yuriko's is a great story, starting with internment camps in World War II and continuing through her long and fascinating dance career.

Seeing Graham reminded me of Balanchine. The two were often held up as antipodes in the 40's and 50's, and it's hard not to be reminded of Balanchine during a NewYork City Ballet season. Recently Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post wrote an essay suggesting that the genius and the dominance of Balanchine have by now stunted ballet in this country, shutting off all manner of theatricality and modern-dance hybrids in favor of Balanchine's stripped down classicism and, worse, epigones who weakly emulate it. Kaufman didn't mention the critical coterie that devotes itself to analyzing Balanchine's genius in minute detail and assessing anyone who tries to dance his work and dismissing most any other choreography. Sure, the article was was meant to be provocative; nobody doubts Balanchine's achievement. But for me it was successfully provocative, and salutary.

Which segues seamlessly (LOVE those patterns!) to the City Ballet's spring gala on May 13. This had the advantage, in addition to the requisite Balanchine, of offering the two premieres scheduled for this season, otherwise only available on different programs. Those reviews I have seen mostly admired Otto Bubenicek's "Toccata" but devoted much of their space to praising Balanchine, in particular his "Theme and Variations" as danced by Megan Fairchield, who struck me as bland, and Joaquin De Luz, who was terrific.

I found the Bubenicek dry and tedious, though it might have worked better in a more intimate space. But I was impressed by Benjamin Millepied's "Quasi una Fantasia," which some others dismissed, to three of the four movements of a haunting score by Henryk Gorecki (good music does augment the dance experience, both the creation and the reception, which Balanchine knew better than anybody).

I have found the Millepied ballets I've seen so far derivative, mostly of Balanchine. This was different: Two principal couples (Rebecca Krohn and Sebastien Marcovici and Janie Taylor and Jared Angle, all fabulous) with 16 more dancers, some of whom emerged from the pack into couples themselves. What was impressive, aside from the to me emotionally compelling placerment of the principal couples against the mass, their frozen reaching out into the void, was the choreography for the corps and its placement on stage -- mostly bunched together into writhing masses, with tendril-like hands and feet recalling too easily the choreographer's last name, all lit dimly but evocatively by Mark Stanley. It was a moving piece, and it suggested not only welcome growth by Millepied but the ways Balanchine's idiom can be extended without violence to his aesthetic.

That evolution can and must, I think, be in the direction of more overt theatricality. I think Kaufman thinks that, too. Dance that is about as theatrical as it can get came (for me) on May 15 (the entire run was May 12-16) at Dance Theatre Workshop, in the form of "The Golden Legend" by Christopher Williams.

Williams dances regularly around town, and also works as a puppet-maker and manipulator for Basil Twist. His current obsession is martyred saints from the early Christian Church, with churchy music to match. Three years ago at Peformance Space 122 he gave us "Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins," vignettes of the usually gruesome ends of a clutch of female martyrs. Since then he as been working on the male side of the ledger, and the result was "The Golden Legend."

In this Williams had so much to say -- ranging from devotion to camp irony to sexual titillation to cuteness to disgust, sometimes all at once -- that he went on way too long (three hours and 15 minutes with one short intermission).There was an opening processional and a closing recessional. In between came dances for 17 separate saints, with attendant helpers, demons and accompanying singers and instrumentalists. Altogether 39 peformers took the curtain call, 40 if you count Williams.

In both the female and the male evenings, Williams subjected his saints to odd costuming (bondage was big with the women) and considerable suffering. The costumes at DTW were delicious, with a special affection for lambs' ears (agnus dei; get it?). After a while, though, the formal structure -- vignette after vignette -- grew predictable, and maybe the actual dance movement wasn't quite as compelling as the theatricality (though it could be pretty interesting as enlivened by Williams's special assortment of performers).

Williams likes to enlist luminaries of downtown dance for his pieces, dancers and ex-dancers and even critics (Elizabeth Zimmer in "Ursula"). For "The Golden Legend" he had David Parker and John Kelly and Jonah Bokaer and Chris Elam and Gus Solomons Jr. and David Neumann and many more. This isn't just a gimmick. These people are successful because they project vivid personalites, and Williams gave them every chance to do just that. The puppets (birds, lambs, a lion, etc., etc.) were adorable and eerie. With a little more money (though this surely cost Williams and DTW every penny they had) for some kind of proper set to decorate the big ;empty stage, it would have been even better. Were I still a festival director, I would throw a big commission at Williams and let him run amok.

I was a festival director once, at LIncoln Center in the 90's, and just recently the center celebrated its 50th anniversary, dated from the first shovel of earth turned by Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. Lincoln Center was partly an urban renewal project to clean up tenement slums infested by youth gangs. Which are in turn celebrated, if that's the verb, in Broadway's current revival of "West Side Story" from 1956, by Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins (later the moon to Balanchine's sun at City Ballet), Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. The revival is basically very good, highlighting the brilliance of Bernstein's subtly sophisticated, winningly popular music (but what a pity to make the last 10 minutes mostly a spoken drama with modest cinematic underscoring when it could have been the climax to true music theater) and Robbins's choreography. Laurents's directs for the most part very well, but to sing "I Feel Pretty" entirely in Spanish is to castrate Sondheim's wonderful English lyrics.

At the same time as the anniversary Lincoln Center had two versions of "Romeo and Juliet," speaking of "West Side Story": Peter Martins's darkly violent one at City Ballet, which I saw when it was new and didn't feel compelled to see again, and, in its Great Performers series, Mark Morris's modern-dance version at the Rose Theater. I also saw this when it was new, last summer at Bard College, and had mixed feelings: the folkish group scenes worked well enough, but the newly discovered "happy ending" original Prokofiev score sounded disappointing and the big love scenes looked underchoreographed.

On May 17 I just loved it. Why? Morris says there were very few alterations to the choreography, though he added that having danced the piece over the last year everyone felt surer about it. Some of the string complement had been thinned, bringing all the music into better balance. The conductor this time was Stefan Asbury, who really shaped the music lyrically and dramatically and hence supported and inspired the dancers in a way that the elephant-footed Leon Botstein had failed to do at Bard. Last, I had deliberately arranged to see the other princpal couple. Instead of the touching and balletically airy Noah Vinson and Maile Okamura, this time I saw David Leventhal and Rita Donahue. For me, the emotion and tender erotic/romantic attraction of the young lovers worked better this time, and thereby enlivened Morris's choreography for the big scenes. It was a lovely afternoon, as dancerly inventive and theatrically telling as one could hope for. It gave me hope for the post-Balanchine future.

May 25, 2009 5:17 PM | | Comments (1)

For those of us unhealthily fascinated by managerial appointments in the arts, here and abroad, the news that Alexander Pereira has been named the new artistic director of the Salzburg Festival is of considerable interest.

On the one hand, this might seem a reversion to the bad old (or at least conservative old) days prior to Gerard Mortier, who shook up the festival and the Austrians in general in the 1990's. After him Salzburg made efforts to continue his innovations, albefit without his pugnacious flair, with the the appointments of first Peter Ruzicka, then Jurgen Flimm to succeed him. Neither lasted beynd their first five-year terms.

Pereira, who beat out Pierre Audi and Stephane Lissner for the job, will be 64 when he takes over in 2011, at which time Flimm (who's moving on to the Berlin Staatsoper) will be 69. Periera was born in Austria but has led the Zurich Opera since 1991. That might suggest that if he were such a hot ticket, he would have moved on long before from a house not quite at the level of Vienna, Milan, London, Berlin (Staatsoper) or even Paris, even if Zurich does boast a higher number of international singing stars on its roster than one might reasonably expect. So maybe the Salzburgers went for another five-year man, one who will reassert the old primacy of stars and standard repertory at the festival.

And yet, and yet: Neither the repertory nor the productions in Zurich are exactly shabby, and the level of musical performance has been top notch. Sure, famous opera singers may not wish to settle in for the months-long rehearsals demanded by some of our more exacting Regie-Theater directors. But some observers, even some who enjoy innovative productions, might question just now necessary such protracted rehearsals really are.

Certainly they will synch up neatly with Salzburg's schedule, which demands rehearsal but not months of it. The announcement of Pereria's appointment referred to him as "a complete professional" with "the experience of handling difficult financial situations." Not exactly a sweeping proclamation of his artistic vision. But it would be wrong to write him off.

What he is not, despite his age, is a post-1968er, a devotee of hard-core modernist repertory and confrontational stage direction. Yet he's not some fuddy-duddy conservative, either. (I say all this based on his work; I've never met the man.) Clearly he gets on well with famous singers. But clearly also he represents a different kind of Germanic opera administrator, more like Andreas Moeller-Zebhauser at the privately supported Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden than Mortier or Flimm. As such he will strike some Germans (and Austrians and Swiss) as a regression to the bad old days, when record companies and artist managers and bejeweled clientele ruled. For others, he may seem a needed corrective, away from directorial extremism (however brilliant) and back towards conscientious good sense.

P.S.: Pereira's successor in Zurich will be Andreas Homoki. HIs tenure at Berlin's chronically underfunded Komische Oper (Walter Felsentein's old theater) has been controversial. But as a stage director he was responsible for the greatest production of Strauss's "Frau ohne Schatten" I ever hope to see, so things don't look so bad in Zurich, either.

May 25, 2009 2:09 PM | | Comments (0)
A link to my latest entry to ARTicles, the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, wherein I discuss the sometimes overlooked older-fashioned concerns of arts journalism innstruction and a recent retro manifestation of same.
May 23, 2009 5:50 PM | | Comments (0)
A link to my latest entry to ARTicles, the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program -- this one about how solutions to seemingly intractable problems have a way of sneaking up on us.
May 10, 2009 5:18 PM | | Comments (0)

Not many composers can claim credit for initiating an entire musical movement with one piece. Terry Riley can. With "In C," first heard in San Francisco in 1964, what I have called motoric minimalism burst onto the scene and is with us still. Reducing music to its simple basics had been around before 1964 (La Monte Young, for one), but the idea of coupling consonance and simplicity with a steady, driving pulse had not. The subsequent music of not just Riley but Steve Reich (who had a hand in the creation of "In C," reportedly suggesting the plinking octave pulse that can underlie the music), Philip Glass, John Adams and many more -- no matter how eventually overlaid and elaborated -- had not.

On April 24 David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet organized a 45th-anniversary celebration of the piece at Carnegie Hall -- the big Carnegie Hall, the Stern Auditorium, not the smaller Zankel Hall, where hipper music usually cavorts. The place was packed and the audience cheered, and rightly so.

This was an all-star affair, with 70 credited musicians and their sometimes bulky and exotic instruments crowding the stage like some mega-Mahlerian extravaganza. Among them were Riley himself, white-bearded and benign; the Kronos players, front and center; Dennis Russell Davies, billed as "flight pattern coordinator" though "sound mixer": would have been just as appropriate; Stuart Dempster (one of the several performers from the original performance or the first, 1968 recording; Glass; Osvaldo Golijov; Scott Johnson; Joan La Barbara and Morton Subotnick (who commsioned it for the San Francisco Tape Music Center); Kathleen Supove; Margaret Leng Tan; Wu Man; and 16 members of the Young People's Chorus of New York City. Instruments included all the conventional suspects plus didjeridu, conch, "little instruments," theremin, claviola, bass melodica, Uillean bagpipes in C, "original and neglected instruments," Nord Electro, toy piano and toy glockenspiel, pipa, guzheng and three kotos

Other than its flowing, surging beauty and sonic splendor, what made this 90-minute performance so interesting was its further proof of the malleability of Riley's inspiration. As those who follow such matters already know, the "In C" score (projected behind the musicians at Carnegie) consists.of 53 short motifs. Any number of musicians on any kind of instruments may perform it, at any tempo, though Riley has expressed an inclination for about 35 and high, bright sounds. Each musician plays the motifs consecutively, but may repeat each as long as he or she wishes, or pause to listen. When a performer reaches no. 53, the motif is repeated until everyone has arrived there. The steadily plinking high C's, on a piano or mallet instruments, is a suggestion, not an imposition, though I have never heard the piece without them. There are some other rules and suggestions (build to a crescendo, then subside to a diminuendo at the end, and so forth), but that's pretty much it.

Riley says the group can be larger than 35, but again, I had never heard one this big. Typically, "In C" is an enlarged chamber work, with each musician compelled to be highly attuned to the others and to interact with chamber-music-like precision. The performance on April 24 was overtly orchestral, emphasized by the presence of Davis, who wandered about the stage, cueing the wildly disparate subgroups to bring out different layers of aural color.

We sometimes talk of a great orchestral performance as chamber music writ large, with the refined  sensitivity of the players to one another. But this was truly orchestral in the weight and sweep and controlled tonal variety of the music. That "In C" worked so well in this very different guise was yet another tribute to Riley and the nova-like brilliance of what he had wrought. I can hardly wait to see what his followers come up with for the 50th anniversary in 2014!   

May 10, 2009 4:05 PM | | Comments (0)

As I eased back into my blogging saddle, after an untimely absence, I once again typed six grafs and then had them diabolically disappear off the screen, gone forever. I don't want to take this as a message from God, but the signs seem clear.

Anyhow, here's some recent non-balletic New York dance in which the highlight was ballet. Trisha Brown's nicely assembled program at the Brooklykn Academy of Music's Opera House included the American premiere of her "O zlozony/O composite" (2004). This was commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet and owes its Polish title to a compelling young (or so it sounded) female precorded voice intoning Polish texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay (translated) and Czeslaw Milosz. What the words meant, I know not, and the program was no help. But it sounded very cool, especially in conjunction with one of Laurie Anderson's best electronic scores, urgent and deceptively calm and devoid of her own presence and mannerisms. Jennifer Tipton's lighting was typically evocative, though for some reason I can't remember what Vija Celmins's set design looked like, no doubt a function of minimalist understatement (his) and a failing brain (mine).

What made the dance so vividly memorable were the three Paris etoiles who had performed the premiere five years ago: Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris and Nicolas Le Riche. Some complained that Brown's pure academic ballet vocabulary was rudimentatry. I found it classic, a wonderful blend of ballet tradition, sculptural form and the simple purity so characteristic of Brown's lifelong work. That Brown could tone down the inherent balleticisms of even these precisely trained ballet dancers was in itself some kind of triumph.

The program was nicely assembled because it celebrated that very lifelong work. It began with "Planes" (1968), one of Brown's wall-climbing, roof-descending pieces from 40 years ago, ingenious and sneaky-strange. Then there was her classic "Glacial Decoy" (1979), with five women methodically cavorting and twisting in front of a four-panel shifting display of photographs of workaday life by Robert Rauschenberg.

And finally something brand new, a piece called "L'Amour au theatre" consisting of eight dancers from her own company (as opposed to the ballet dancers) in dance excerpts from Rameau's opera "Hippolyte et Aricie." To my taste, the dancing and choreography lacked the pointed brilliance of "O zlozony," but the real test will come next year, when it will form part of an evening-long Rameau program. Perhaps then these dances will fit into a more convincing whole. But already, their blend of unadulterated Brownish choreographic calm and 18th-century formality was intriguing.

I am tempted to stop, for fear of another diasppearing screen, but I forge forward: A few days later (I saw Brown on April 29, and this was May 5) came a gala in support of Cafe La MaMa's dance program and honoring Harvey Lichtenstein, the longtime leader of BAM and creator of its modern incarnation, and Deborah Jowitt, the beloved Village Voice dance critic and chronicler of dance in general and downtown dance in particular for some 40 years. (This is where the somewhat different first version of this screed was swallowed into the electronic aether.)

Lichtenstein and Jowitt are both more than worthy of being honored, and the overt tributes to them were well done. Unfortunately video excerpts from Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown were subverted by a malfunctioning projector. But the overall program, in the presence of the now wheelchair-bound Ellen Stewart of La MaMa, was the real honor.

The evening offered Nicky Paraiso as host and contributions from Potri Ranka Manis and Molissa Fenley and Gus Solomons Jr. (a stiff but fierce and heroic and perhaps Duncan-esque solo to Chopin) and two members from Meredith Monk's vocal ensemble and a version of a Ronald K. Brown hip-hop-inspired dance by earnest students from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

For me, the several highlights were a winsome, multilayered commentary on ballet and commedia dell'arte by Douglas Dunn in a solo from his recently revived, quarter-century-old "Pulcinella" (another Paris Opera Ballet commission); a typically fluid and sensuous duet from Vicky Schick and Jodi Melnick (of whom I am rapidly becoming a fan), with a cameo from Diane Madden of the Brown troupe; and Doug Elkins's hilarious solo from his "Fraulein Maria" to "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from "The Sound of Music." "Fraulein Maria" is an affectionate camp homage to that musical and by now a holiday favorite in New York second only in popularity to Mark Morris's "Hard Nut."

Most unusual, though, was a solo called "The Sphere" (1997) by Maureen Fleming, along with 12 young women from Brown University, RISD and the Seoul Institute of the Arts, all set to Philip Glass's hypnotic "Music in Changing Parts." Fleming, whom I had not previousy encountered, is an American butoh dancer. But unlike most Japanese butoh, which to me looks like people crawling dazed from a nuclear explosion, Fleming celerates eroticism.

She performed nude or nearly so on a round platform accented by Christopher Odo's side lightring and slowly contorting herself in amazing ways (those arching back bends!). The 12 younger women, dressed modestly in flesh-colored leotards, lay on their backs in mandala-like wheel-spokes, three women per spoke, and engaged mostly in sexual pelvis thrusting. It sounds almost pornographic, but it was really more meditative and sculptural. Critics have complained that if you've seen one Fleming dance, you've seen 'em all, and maybe so. But this one was pretty striking, and I, for one, would be curious to see her again. Her web site shows dancers with fascinating wings and branch-like hand extensions. I wonder what that looks like on stage?

Finally, a word on Stephen Petronio's 25th-anniversary program at the Joyce Theater, a world premiere called "I Drink the Air Before Me." Petronio's choreographic style, at least here, consists of a steady level of high energy, with dancers rushing from the wings, jumping, twisting, and rushing off again. (There was some ancillary shtick as a prelude involving Pretonio himself as a ye olde sea captain or pirate, costume by Cindy Sherman, with cutesy nautical trimmings.)

I went in part for Petronio but even more for the commissioned, hour-plus-long score by Nico Muhly, a composer whose work I like to follow. This consisted of a chamber group on a platform at the rear, audience right, and Muhly himself at a grand piano lower left, playing and cueing. At the beginning and end there was a children's choir with hand bells.

The instrumental score was interesting as a departure fror Muhly's usually more lyrical, consonant style. The writing was ingenious and troubled, maybe a warmup for more ambitious orchestral scores. What made it work was the way Muhly had absorbed Petronio's nervous, insistent choreography and echoed and extended it in his music. Well worth the watch and, even more, the listen.

May 9, 2009 1:40 PM | | Comments (0)

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