Monthly Archives: November 2018

What is she looking at?

“Cape Cod Morning”, Edward Hopper (1950)

From time to time I fear that I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by art.

Perhaps it’s a facet of ageing – I feel that I’ve seen or heard a lot of it before – or maybe its a curse of the online age, where all art is in a piece of modifed aluminum in my pocket. Either way, the “wow” factor strikes me less and less these days.

All the more so when it comes to visual art. It’s a long time since I’ve stood before an artwork and felt a deep connection or resonance. Until recently, the last time I felt this way was standing before Picasso’s “Still Life With A Mandolin“, in Dublin a few years ago. 

And then something happened. A few weeks back my wife and I, with friends, attended the Portland Book Festival, which was partly held at the Portland Art Museum. The Festival entrance fee allowed for access to the Art Museum and its “Modern American Realism” exhibition.

All of which brought me to my revelation. Turning a corner on the second floor of the Museum, to step into the exhibition’s room, I was confronted by an imposing image of a woman, standing in a window, staring at something out of frame.

The picture, at over a meter high, transfixed me. I’d never seen this painting before. Who was this person? What had happened to her (why was she in the dark shade, in contrast to the bright of the wall and the grass outside)? Was she looking at something specific (which I assumed until I spent longer looking at her face) or staring into space?

Moreover, was I wrong in reading a sense of dread into the image? Did it simply capture a mundane moment on a mundane morning, and nothing more?

The picture was Edward Hopper’s “Cape Cod Morning“, painted with oil on canvas in 1950. I know little of biographical background to the image, which was unlikely to have been painted in New England, but instead in Hopper’s small downtown Manhattan studio. But it was a notable work created in a period of inactivity for the artist, I’ve read.

The genesis of the image doesn’t matter, of course. Brian Eno has written that “what makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.” So it was with “Cape Cod Morning” – the image stuck in my mind for the rest of the day, and in the days and weeks since I’ve viewed it online again and again.

I’m still trying to figure out what – if anything – she’s looking at.

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November

Best summed up by Tom Waits really.

No shadow
No stars
No moon
No care
November
It only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That’s the color of bone

No prayers for November
To linger longer
Stick your spoon in the wall
We’ll slaughter them all

November has tied me
To an old dead tree
Get word to April
To rescue me
November’s cold chain

Made of wet boots and rain
And shiny black ravens
On chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
You’re my firing squad
November

With my hair slicked back
With carrion shellac
With the blood from a pheasant
And the bone from a hare

Tied to the branches
Of a roebuck stag
Left to wave in the timber
Like a buck shot flag

Go away you rainsnout
Go away, blow your brains out
November

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On reading Chekov’s “Gusev”

A soft lilac sky spreads above a calmed, welcoming ocean,
That accepts a dead soldier – nature looking after one of her own.

It reminds me of a funeral I attended as a child,
The yellow sunlight bathing the altar and casket, blessing the final going.

And tells me an impossible truth, that the world can sometimes stop,
And breathe, and briefly mark, a spirit flown.

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Joni, “Amelia” and me

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

What one song celebrates Joni Mitchell’s genius?

At her 75th birthday party this week, it was – inevitably perhaps – “Big Yellow Taxi“, which closed out the night.

For me, it could be “A Case Of You”, “Woodstock”, “River”, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” or “The Circle Game” (though I’d have to favor Tom Rush’s cover of the last song). In fact, it could any song from her albums “Blue”, “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” or “Hejira”.

But there’s one Mitchell composition I continually return to, perhaps because its lyrics of travel and uncertainty and learned life experience resonate deeply with me, as does its wistful melody.

The song is “Amelia” (which I’ve written about previously). Lyrically, it’s an odd combination of travelogue, tribute and existential questioning, which contains one of my favorite lines in popular song:

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know

Musically, it’s in the “Joni tuning” of CGCEGC, with chord slides which create a yearning, searching feeling. But trying to dissect the song weakens the experience of listening to its full six minutes, and immersing oneself in its feelings of desire and disconnection, commitment and hope.

Diane Krall sang it at the birthday party at L.A.’s Music Center this week, and I’ve no doubt she made a fine job of it. But there’s nothing like the original. Thanks Joni.

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George casts a long, long, long shadow

George Harrison.

George Harrison.

The Beatles’ White Album contains a great many things for me. The proto-punk of “Helter Skelter”, the arpeggio wonder that is “Blackbird”, John Lennon’s heartfelt song to his absent mother, “Julia”.

And then there’s “Revolution 9”, the musique concrète sound collage that I only listened to for the first time in full this past week.

But, after almost three decades of listening and distilling the double album – the 50th anniversary of which falls later this month – what stands out to me, first and foremost, is George Harrison’s songwriting. Specifically, his two songs “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long”.

While the rest of the White Album sways from musical beauty to discordant freak-out to music hall fluff – often in the course of a couple of songs – these two Harrison tracks appear as something different, music on and from a different level (given “Long, Long, Long’s” genesis in Indian meditation practices, perhaps “transcendent” is the word).

Dissecting them for meaning is somewhat pointless – they exist in the ear and the soul. One’s a song about love’s importance (“Long, Long, Long”), the other’s a song about love’s potential, with one of the most perfect guitar solos in popular music (courtesy of an uncredited Eric Clapton).

Both have been written over at length (my favored account of each is contained in Ian McDonald’s classic “Revolution In The Head“), as has the White Album itself, not least because a newly-remastered, bells ‘n’ whistles release is in the offing.

All this attention has brought me back to the original album, and listening to it has brought me back to Harrison’s songs. As the man, and the band, and the album itself – despite reissues – slip into history, his music sounds completely fresh, completely now.

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