Archive for the 'Minimalism' Category

Wave

In the spirit of the dynamic geometric abstract film projection art of Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack here is an excerpt from the 2009 video a wave of Peter Campus. The art has been made by slowing down the film, and enlarging selected pixels in a film of surf, abstracting away from the original images, with the sound being that of the breaking surf. The result, like much minimalist art, is meditative and sublime.

The video is part of a current exhibition of Campus’ video art, Video ergo sum, at Jeu de Paume in Paris, France. The image is a still from the video.




Wowsers

The views of philosopher Peter Singer have always struck me as humourless and puritanical. Refusing to wear leather shoes while questioning the right of disabled babies to be allowed to live strikes me as evidence of someone with their values seriously askew, to a point I consider abhorrent and immoral.  Confirmation of a conflict in our respective values comes today in a quotation from his latest book in a review in the NYT by Dwight Garner:

Writing about the sale of paintings by artists like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol for obscene sums at Christie’s, he declares: “Why would anyone want to pay tens of millions of dollars for works like these? They are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill. They are not even unusual within the artist’s oeuvres. Do an image search for ‘Barnett Newman’ and you will see many paintings with vertical color bars, usually divided by a thin line. Once Newman had an idea, it seems, he liked to work out all the variations.”

Well, others may see these art works as beautiful, so it takes some arrogance to assert the contrary subjective opinion as if it were objective fact. As well as learning how much he values his own aesthetic judgment over anyone else’s, from this we also learn that Singer does not like modern art; he apparently also lacks the capability of seeing the beauty inherent in subtle variations of a single, simple theme. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth must also not be to his taste, for working out all the variations of the one idea is all that movement is. And let us not mention the minimalist works of JS Bach, where there may be even fewer ideas than one.

Even when his works of art are considered individually, some of Newman’s art is sublime, for example, the painting “Midnight Blue,” (pictured), currently on display at the Royal Academy in London, as part of the RA’s Abstract Expressionism Exhibition.    In my experience, to appreciate the sublime, one needs to disengage one’s left-brain (for right-handed people) – the verbal, rational, sequential side – and seek to appreciate the work with one’s right-brain – the intuitive, holistic side;  in other words:  don’t think about the painting, just feel it.  Most English-language philosophers, in my experience, are all left-brain, all the time. (George Santayana, who wrote poetry as well as philosophy, was perhaps an exception.)

And to mention only the beauty of an art work, or the supposed artistic skill needed for its creation, would seem to indicate an impoverished view of the many purposes and functions of art.  At least one purpose of painting, and a common motivation for people who paint, is not to produce beautiful (or indeed, ugly) objects, but to express oneself through the act of painting. This was famously the purpose of the artists who came to be called abstract expressionists, of whom Newman is one.  Closely related, one  may  also paint in order to express the feelings one has while engaged in the act of painting.  (See here for a discussion of this purpose, and here for lists of reasons why people may draw or make music. Beauty is not the half of it.)  Nothing in Singer’s words indicates that he has any appreciation of these other purposes, or that he has even read or reflected on the extensive literature in philosophy, history, theology, and anthropology on art and aesthetics.   Of course, one can be a famous philosopher without knowing much of anything except one’s own special topic and being blind to non-verbal ways of knowing and understanding, as the humourless Bertrand Russell showed.

 




More minimalist art at Temple Station

Following the previous exhibition, described here, more optic minimalism at Temple Underground Station:

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Alice Nampitjinpa at Temple

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Workmen replacing the wall tiles at Temple Underground Station in London have temporarily revealed patterns on the concrete walls that bring to mind the sublime optic minimalist art of Alice Nampitjinpa. For a limited time only. Guaranteed to make you homesick for Australia.

Below is Nampitjinpa’s Tali at Talaalpi (1998).

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Category Theory in a nutshell

Category theory takes a bird’s eye view of mathematics. From high in the sky, details become invisible, but we can spot patterns that were impossible to detect from ground level.

The opening sentences from Tom Leinster [2014]: Basic Category Theory. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Studies in Advanced Mathematics.




A Minimalist Nativity Scene

A minimalist Nativity scene, by Emilie Voirin:

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Influential Books

This is a list of non-fiction books which have greatly influenced me – making me see the world differently or act in it differently.  They are listed chronologically according to when I first encountered them.

  • 2015 – Benedict Taylor [2011]: Mendelssohn, Time and Memory. The Romantic Conception of Cyclic Form. (Cambridge UP)
  • 2010 – Hans Kundnani [2009]: Utopia or Auschwitz: Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust. (London, UK: Hurst and Company)
  • 2009 – J. Scott Turner [2007]:  The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. (Harvard UP) (Mentioned here.)
  • 2008 – Stefan Aust [2008]: The Baader-Meinhof Complex. (Bodley Head)
  • 2008 – Pierre Delattre [1993]:  Episodes. (St. Paul, MN, USA:  Graywolf Press)
  • 2006 – Mark Evan Bonds [2006]: Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. (Princeton UP)
  • 2006 – Kyle Gann [2006]: Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. (UCal Press)
  • 2005 – Clare Asquith [2005]:  Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.  (Public Affairs)
  • 2004 – Igal Halfin [2003]: Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard UP)
  • 2001 – George Leonard [2000]: The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei.
  • 2000 – Stephen E. Toulmin [1990]:  Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1999 – Michel de Montaigne [1580-1595]:  Essays.
  • 1997 – James Pritchett [1993]:  The Music of John Cage.  (Cambridge UP, UK)
  • 1996 – George Fowler [1995]:  Dance of a Fallen Monk: A Journey to Spiritual Enlightenment. (New York:  Doubleday)
  • 1995 – Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch [1992]:  Thinking Body, Dancing Mind.   (New York: Bantam Books)
  • 1995 – Jon Kabat-Zinn [1994]: Wherever You Go, There You Are.
  • 1995 – Charlotte Joko Beck [1993]: Nothing Special: Living Zen.
  • 1993 – George Leonard [1992]: Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.
  • 1990 – Trevor Leggett [1987]:  Zen and the Ways.  (Tuttle)
  • 1989 – Grant McCracken [1988]:  Culture and Consumption.
  • 1989 – Teresa Toranska [1988]:  Them:  Stalin’s Polish Puppets.  Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska.(HarperCollins) (Mentioned here.)
  • 1988 – Henry David Thoreau [1865]:  Cape Cod.
  • 1988 – Rupert Sheldrake [1988]: The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature.
  • 1988 – Dan Rose [1987]:  Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969-1971. (U Penn Press)
  • 1987 – Susan Sontag [1966]: Against Interpretation. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • 1987 – Gregory Bateson [1972]: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (U Chicago Press)
  • 1987 – Jay Neugeboren [1968]:  Reflections at Thirty.
  • 1982 – John Miller Chernoff [1979]: African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. (University of Chicago Press)
  • 1981 – Walter Rodney [1972]: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.  (London: Bogle-L’Overture Publications)
  • 1980 – James A. Michener [1971]: Kent State: What happened and Why.
  • 1980 – Andre Gunder Frank [1966]:  The Development of Underdevelopment.  (Monthly Review Press)
  • 1980 – Paul Feyerabend [1975]: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.
  • 1979 – Aldous Huxley [1945]:  The Perennial Philosophy.
  • 1978 – Christmas Humphreys [1949]:  Zen Buddhism.
  • 1977 – Raymond Smullyan [1977]:  The Tao is Silent.
  • 1976 – Bertrand Russell [1951-1969]:  The Autobiography.  (London: George Allen & Unwin)
  • 1975 – Jean-Francois Revel [1972]:  Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun.
  • 1974 – Charles Reich [1970]: The Greening of America.
  • 1973 – Selvarajan Yesudian and Elisabeth Haich [1953]:  Yoga and Health. (NY:  Harper)
  • 1972 – Robin Boyd [1960]: The Australian Ugliness.



Minimalism in Jazz

To celebrate Steve Reich’s 75th Birthday, Jazz on 3 (BBC Radio 3) ran a special feature this week on minimalism in Jazz (available for re-listening for several days).     This feature includes an interview with bass player Lloyd Swanton of The Necks.   First hearing the music of The Necks about a decade ago was a revelation, as it is the closest music to that in my head in my own improv playing.




Biedermeier Orientalism

Listening to Mendelssohn’s Auf Flugeln des Gesanges (“On Wings of Song”), a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine, I am reminded of the composer’s orientalism.    The poem expresses a deep interest in orientalist thought; indeed, the words are quite remarkable for their cosmopolitan and surrealist flavour.  Mendelssohn was well-read in Asian thought, particularly Hindu and Sufist philosophy, and was close friends with Friedrich Rosen (1805-1837), an orientalist and first Professor of Sanskrit at University College London (appointed at age 22).  In his letters, too, Mendelssohn recommended to his brother Paul a book of Eastern mystic aphorisms by another orientalist, Friedrich Ruckert, saying this book, (“Erbauliches und Beschauliches aus dem Morgenlande” – Establishments and Contemplations from the Orient),  provided “delight beyond measure” (Letter of 7 February 1840).    (At roughly the same time, of course, Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists were also being strongly influenced by orientalist ideas and literature.)  Mendelssohn was well-read in theology and philosophy generally, and particularly influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher. There is something more profound here in Mendelssohn’s thought and music than is usually noticed by people who dismiss his music (and often Biedermeier culture generally) as being lightweight and superficial.   That an activity is inward-focused does not make it light or superficial; indeed, the reverse is usually true.

Among the more there that is here, I believe, is a relationship between Sufist ideas and Mendelssohn’s love of repetition, something one soon hears in his melodies with their many repeated notes.  A similar relationship exists between JS Bach’s fascination with Pietism, and his own love of repetition, as in the first movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto (BWV 1052), or the proto-minimalism of, for example, Prelude #2 in C minor, in Book 1 of the 48 (The Well-Tempered Clavier).

Those dismissing Mendelssohn for being superficial included, famously, Richard Wagner, whose criticisms were certainly motivated by anti-semitism, jealousy, and personal animosity.  But I wonder, too, if Wagner – that revolutionary of ’48 – was also dismissive of what he perceived to be the inward-focus of the Biedermeier generation, a generation forced to forego public political expression in the reimposition of conservative Imperial rule after the freedoms wrought by Napoleon’s armies.    But not speaking one’s political mind in public is not evidence of having no political mind, as any post-war Eastern European could tell you.  While visiting Paris in the 1820s, Mendelssohn attended sessions of the French National Assembly.  While in London in 1833, Mendelssohn attended the House of Commons to observe the debate and passage of the bill to allow for Jewish emancipation, writing excitedly home about this afterwards.  (Sadly, the bill took another three decades to pass the Lords.)  

In July 1844, while again in London, Mendelssohn was invited to receive an Honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin, and hearing that he would be going to Dublin, Morgan O’Connell, son of Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, asked him to take a letter to his uncle, then in a Dublin prison.  (As it happened, Mendelssohn was unable to go to Ireland on that occasion.  See: letter to his brother Paul, 19 July 1844, page 338 of Volume 2 of Collected Letters.)   One wonders how O’Connell could ask of someone such a favour, without first knowing something of the man’s political sympathies.  So perhaps those sympathies were radical, anti-colonial and republican. In an earlier letter, Mendelssohn described standing amidst British nobility with his “citizen heart” in an audience at the Court of Victoria and Albert (Letter of 6 October 1831).  As these incidents reveal, there may have been much more to this Biedermeier mister than meets the eye.




Music as thought

I have remarked before that music is a form of thinking.  It is a form of thinking for the composer and may also be for the listener.  If the performers are to transmit its essence effectively and well, it will be a form of thinking for them also. Listening recently to the music of Prokofiev,  I realize I don’t think in the way he does, and so I find his music alien.

But what is the nature of this musical thought?

Continue reading ‘Music as thought’