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What do we talk about when we talk about color? Too often we talk at cross purposes. The fact is, color isn’t a thing. It is several things, and we often stir them all up into a single confection — all of which leads to avoidable confusions. And arguments. 

One of the greatest arguments my late wife and I had was over the color blue. The fight lasted three days. We didn’t sleep the first night, but kept trying to persuade the other of our righteousness. 

“Isn’t that a blue you could fall into?” she asked.

“I know what you mean, but of course, you’re talking metaphorically, not literally.” 

“No, I mean it literally. You can fall into it.”

And we were off to the races. Of course, at the end of the third day, I capitulated. She was right. She was always right, and it was a lesson I finally learned, after years of not recognizing the fact of it. And now, I can fall into blue. 

But before I got sidetracked there, I meant to say that when we discuss color, we are really talking about at least three separate things, and the three don’t play well together. 

The three separate color discussions come from science, from art, and from language. 

SCIENCE

The first begins with Isaac Newton. He proved experimentally that white light is actually composed of a spectrum of colors, ranging from blue on the short end and red on the long end. Short and long wavelengths, that is. For, scientifically, color is a function of light’s electromagnetic wave construction. 

The problem is that there is no forest green in the spectrum. No magenta, either. The spectrum — which we see in a rainbow — contains only a single version of a wide range of hue, but none of the subtlety of actual color. 

And so, you can talk about blue being at a place on the electromagnetic band measured in wavelengths of 450 to 500 nanometers and red at the other end, at 700 nanometers. 

But these are numbers, not colors. 

Science also causes issues when it comes to color perception: How do we see the colors we do? 

Humans don’t see spectral color. That is, human color perception is not dictated by wavelength, but rather by the mechanisms of color vision. What the eye sees and the brain interprets is only marginally related to the color defined by wavelength. 

There are three color sensors in the eye, one tripped by red light, another tripped by green light, and a third by blue light. The ratios of how much each is stimulated governs what colors we see. (Yes, I know this is a grossly simplified version, but it is basically correct). 

When both blue and red are tickled, we see violet; when blue and green are set off together, we see blue-green or aqua; when green and red are stimulated, we see yellow. 

Yellow is particularly interesting. While there is a wavelength on the spectrum that is yellow, we almost never see that wavelength. It is rare in nature. 

What we call “white” light, or sunlight, contains all the hues, which can be separated by a prism into its component parts. But when this white light hits something red, the blues, yellows, greens, etc., are absorbed by the object and the red is reflected, and so it is only red that hits our eyes. The blues, yellows and greens are digested by the object and turned into heat, which is why the sun makes things hot. 

But if an object absorbs blue and reflects both red and green — this may seem bizarre, but it’s true — we see those colors combined and our brains interpret them as yellow.

The famous Kodak-yellow film box isn’t really yellow. It is red and green together, but our brains stir them together and see yellow. Indeed, most of the colors we see are impure mixes and what our brains see are the interpretations, not the wavelengths. 

Take purple, or violet, or magenta (the names for this section of the so-called “color wheel” are terribly imprecise; more on that later). It is a color that does not have a wavelength. That is, it doesn’t exist on the spectrum. It exists solely in our brains as the combination of blue and red. 

All color, or what we call color, is subjective. That is, it is a phenomenon created in our brain as a way to code the visual information of the world, very like the so-called “false color” of Hubble space photographs. It is an interpretive trick our brains play, useful for deciding which berries are ripe. The wavelengths may be real, but the redness is a figment. 

ART

For a painter, all the stuff about wavelengths and spectrums is dryly theoretical and idealized, which is to say, lies. Painters work with paint, not theory, and the pigments that make those paints are cantankerous. No blue is spectrum-blue, no green is pure green. The paints are made from dirt, or ground up stones, or plant dyes (or, nowadays, from alchemically manipulated petroleum), and all are amalgams of various ingredients. Probably 95 percent of the colors used by painters don’t occur in the spectrum. Real paint is impure. 

One yellow might mix with black to make a dun, another yellow that looks the same, might turn greenish when mixed. An artist has to know not merely color theory, but the individual nature of his paints. Some greens are bluer than others; some reds are more orangey, some more violet. A tomato is one red, a stop sign, another. Lighten tomato-red and you get an orange. Lighten stop-sign red and you get a pink.

For artists, colors don’t come in a lineup, like a spectrum, but a wheel. And on that wheel, there are three “primary” colors — red, blue and yellow — from which all the other colors can be mixed. Theoretically, that is. 

There are painters who have used only four tubes of paint for their work, usually a blue, a red and a yellow and the ubiquitous titanium white. You can’t paint without a white: the colors themselves are too dark to make a bright sky or a tawny lion. 

But there are limitations to this. You can mix a blue and yellow to get a green, but it will never be quite as bright and pure as a dedicated green paint. If you want the deepest, richest greens, you will buy a tube of green paint. 

The problem is, that there are at least three sets of primary colors. There’s the painter’s set, of red, blue and yellow. But now that much art and design is made on a computer, another set of primary colors is common, called the “additive primaries” of red, blue and green. Then, there is the printer’s primaries, known as “subtractive, made of cyan, magenta and yellow (with black added in, making it often called “CYMK,” with the “K” standing for black.)

But there are other issues, too. The spectrum exists theoretically, but real-world color has a physical presence, and so the same hue will appear different whether glossy or matte. And there are metallic colors, with specular reflections. Some paints are opaque and others transparent. Then, too, colors on one wall, which gets sunlight, will appear different from colors on the opposite wall, in the shade. 

And there is something called “simultaneous contrast,” which means that colors are affected by the colors around them.

There’s a lot to keep track of, and the ability to do so is one of the things that marks a professional from an amateur. 

LANGUAGE

In the English language, there are really ten primary colors, that is, color names that are distinct and cover generic territories of color. They are: red, blue, green, yellow, violet, orange, brown, black, white and gray. All other color names are either shades or tints of these main color names (such as “tan” being a variety of “brown”) or metaphorical and named after some object of that color (such as “fuchsia” being named after the flower). 

There are hundreds, probably thousands of variations of the primary colors, and designers and marketers keep coming up with fresh, new names, usually for the same old colors. Marketers try to make their color names more appealing (would you rather buy a fabric that was a yellow called “morning haze,” or the same one, but called “piss yellow?”)

But beyond that, there is the problem of the squishiness of color names. The boundaries between colors is indistinct. Where, for instance, does blue become green? There is a greenish blue, and a bluish green. Where do you draw the line? We each have our judgement, but that changes with context. Against a red background, even a greenish blue will appear bluer. 

Where does red become magenta? Where does purple merge into a deep, dark blue? 

Even more problematic are all those tertiary colors. Is Turquoise green or blue? The stones for which the color is named comes in both forms, and also a version in between. One person’s “amber” is another’s “golden.” Vermilion is also cinnabar. What the Roman’s called “royal purple” is to our eyes closer to red. These names shift over time and by individual perception. It makes it very hard to talk about color between two people with different color palettes in their brains. 

Of course, that hardly accounts for the various color organizations across different languages. Many languages had only words for black, white and red. Blue, for them, was a variety of black. The Ancient Greeks talked about the “wine-dark sea,” but the Mediterranean was never ruby colored. In traditional Japanese, the same word, “ao,” covered both green and blue (modern Japanese has, after WWII, added the word “gurin” as an English cognate). In Russian light blue (“goluboy”) is considered a separate color from dark blue (“siniy”), just as in English, we distinguish “pink” from “red.” 

Here’s an alphabet of English color names, and please feel free to argue over what they each mean: azure; burgundy; coral; dun; ecru; fulvous; gules; heather; ivory; jasper; lavender; mustard; navy; oxblood; periwinkle; quimper; rose; sapphire; topaz; umber; viridian, watchet; xylous; yapan; zaffre. 

So, you see, any discussion of color needs to take into account which sort of color system you mean. Pedants will complain that white isn’t a color, but the absence of color, but then, why do you need to buy a tube of white paint? And, of course, in the additive system, white is not the absence, but the combination of all the colors. So, which is it? Well, they are three distinct ways of talking about white. You need to be clear.

And even white isn’t just one thing: It comes in alabaster, in ivory, in cream, bone white, snow white, chalk white, Chinese white, eggshell white, vanilla and off-white. No doubt, interior designers and marketers could come up with a hundred new shades and names. There are warm whites and cool whites. You can paint with zinc white, titanium white and flake white, aka white lead or lead white. The range in any color is nearly infinite. 

All of which makes talking about color difficult and misunderstanding almost inevitable. 

I sit across the table from my brother at the seafood restaurant in Virginia and he doodles on a napkin with a Sharpie.

My brother is an artist — primarily a printmaker, but more recently a painter. And while he isn’t terribly prolific, he is constantly drawing. His mind is always coming up with visual ideas and he jots them down. Most never go anywhere, but he just cannot stop himself from playing. It is his way of processing experience: What he sees he transforms.

Lee Friedlander

It reminds me of the photographer Lee Friedlander, who describes his addiction to making photographs as “pecking.” Like a hen darting at cracked corn on the ground, he clicks his camera — peck, peck, peck. Some of the results of his pecking turn into finished photographs he displays in galleries and publishes in books. But there is an improvisatory quality to his work that comes — like a jazz musician woodshedding — from constantly working his instrument.

Among the images caught by pecking, Friedlander will periodically find something he hadn’t considered before, and thus his body of work takes a new direction, constantly refreshing his art.

In part, the importance of this kind of sketching is that it is not art — or rather, not meant as art. It is more the flexing of an esthetic muscle. One can become intellectually paralyzed if all you aim at is writing deathless prose, or painting the museum masterpiece, or composing the next Eroica. Not everything needs to be The Brothers Karamazov. There is great value in just pecking. It keeps your senses alive.

Mel Steele

I periodically visit my brother-in-law, Mel Steele, who is also an artist, a very accomplished artist who regularly sells his paintings to clients both private and corporate.

I often spend a portion of my time doodling — pecking — with my tiny point-and-shoot digital camera. We would sit on their patio talking about the things one yammers on about with one’s relations — old times, where former acquaintances have gone, the horror of recent politics, the joys of fishing — and I would distractedly point my camera around me at the things one seldom notices.

I wasn’t thinking of making art. I barely paid attention to what I was doing with the camera, but I pecked. The result is a kind of notebook of the things we lived among, seen in some different way, so as to lift them from their context, to suck them out of the everydayness they languish in.

 It reminded me of an assignment I used to give my photography students, some 35 years ago, when I taught the subject at the same school where my brother also taught. “Make a photograph of something so I cannot tell what it is.” I made sure they understood I didn’t mean to make it out of focus or poorly run through the darkroom, but to find something we see everyday, but pay so little attention to, that when faced with its presence, we might be baffled until that moment when, the proud student, having fooled us all, tells us what we’re looking at and we all let out a gasp of breath and say, “Of course, now I see it.”

Try it: 

Quiz photo No. 1 (Answers at the end of story)

These pecked pictures are mostly details. 

Quiz photo No. 2

They are not the grand view or the concatenated whole, but the tiny bits out of which the larger scene is built. 

Quiz photo No. 3

Most of us pay attention only to the whole, when we pay attention at all; for most Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the cloud that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, closet. But every house has a door, and every door a door-handle; every car has tires and every tire a tread and each tread is made up of an intricate series of rubber squiggles and dents. Attention must be paid.

Aime Groulx

Many years before, when I taught photography at a private art school in Greensboro, N.C., the artist Aime Groulx, who ran the school, made a photograph he called Doorknob to the Doors of Perception. I still have my copy. It was his version of “pecking.” 

Doorknob to the Doors of Perception

Paying attention to the details means being able to see the whole more acutely, more vividly. The generalized view is the unconsidered view. When you see a house, you are seeing an “it.” When you notice the details, they provide the character of the house and it warms, has personality and becomes a Buberesque “thou.” The “thou” is a different way of addressing the world and one that makes not only the world more alive, but the seer also.

(It doesn’t hurt that isolating detail makes it more necessary to create a design. You can make a photo of a house and just plop it in the middle of the frame and we can all say, “Yes, that’s a house,” and let the naming of it be the end-all. But if you find the tiny bits, they have to organize them in the frame to make something interesting enough to warrant looking at.)

Side panels of a pickup truck

Sectioning out a detail not only makes you look more closely, but forces your viewer to look more closely, too. Puzzling out what he sees without the plethora of context makes him hone in on its shape, color, and texture. It is a forced look, not a casual one.

So, when I gave my students that assignment, it wasn’t just to be clever, but to make them pay attention to the minutiae that are the bricks of the visual world they inhabit. And paying attention is a form of reverence.

The mental view of the world is telescopic. It zooms from the blue watery globe in the blackness of space, down to the map of the U.S., to your state, to your city — each step focusing on closer detail — and then to your street, to your house, to the room you are sitting in to the armrest you are tapping your fingers on, to the hairs on your knuckles. Always more detail. 

Turn from the tapping hand to the floor and see the woodgrain in the flooring, or the ceiling and see the cobweb you had not noticed before. The clothes you are wearing has a texture and a color. The wrinkles in the shirt of blouse are replications of the drapery in Greek sculpture. 

Each of these details is a microcosm, worth looking at — it is your world, after all. What did William Blake write? “To see the world in a blade of grass. And heaven in a wild flower. To hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.” 

Or, as he scribbled in annotation to the pages of Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is alone the distinction of merit.”  

The general is the world of politicians and businessmen, of carnival barkers and evangelists. Dogma, ideology, commercial advertisement, are founded on generalizations, while what genuinely matters in our lives is the particular. It is generalizations that permit the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha statues, the bombing of synagogues, mosques and Sikh temples. The stoning of homosexuals. It is generalizations that lurk behind the Shoah. It was generalization that justified the enslavement of a race of people. 

To know any individual is to know the stereotype is a lie. The world, and its peoples, are infinitely complex and varied. So much so, that no broad statement can ever be anything but a lie. And so, there is actually a moral level to this paying of attention to detail, to the minutiae, to the individual. 

And so, you peck. Finding this bit or that bit, that shape, that texture, that precise color. This is the context of your life. 

You can focus your attention on color. How much yellow is in your field of view at this moment. Look around. Single it out. Or blue. How many different blues can you spot right now? Paying attention is being alive; paying attention is reverence. Attention must be paid. 

Duck eggs

Your life is not made up of the broad swathes, but of the minute details, and when we pay too much attention to the big picture, we are likely to miss the particles that give that picture its character. 

And when you come to make your art, write your novel, dance your dance, that detail means there is a truth to what you do, a reality behind the fantasy that gives it depth and meaning. 

Exercise makes your muscles strong. Pecking keeps your senses alive and alert. Peck Peck Peck

Click on any image to enlarge

Answers to quiz: No. 1 — the twill of denim jeans; No. 2 — dried coffee stains on a white table top; No. 3 — garden hose on patio tiles. 

As I continue to contemplate the possibility of perhaps, maybe, decluttering my trove of Classical music CDs, I come to the 20th century. I have to admit, that I listen to music from that period more than any other. It was my century. And so, I have a ton of discs from composers who wrote, beginning in the 19th, but extending their careers into the 20th, and now, music from the 21st century. 

Sometimes, we forget that such lush music as that of Rachmaninoff or Richard Strauss continued to be written: Strauss’ Four Last Songs, perhaps the most high-calorie confection ever put to paper, was premiered in 1949, four years after the end of World War II, and 36 years after Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “There’s still plenty of good music to be written in C-major,” said Arnold Schoenberg.

So now, as I did last time, I am going to sort through the violent century and salvage what I think needs to be saved, making a pile of recordings and regretfully saying goodbye to too much great music, but, you know — I’m 73 years old and I’m not going to be able to listen to all of the thousands of CDs that currently clog my shelves. 

I’ve set the goal of picking a single work (or set of works) by significant composers to throw on the pile. I’m going by chronological order, according to birth dates. And we start by remembering that Edward Elgar was a 20th century composer. Yes. He was. 

Edward Elgar 1857-1934 — Initially I thought the work I could not do without was the doleful Cello Concerto, from 1919. The First World War speaks directly through that music. But, no, I have to go with the Violin Concerto of 1910, which is one of the few noble concertos that can stand with those of Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Berg and Shostakovich — not merely tuneful, but an expression of the highest thoughts and emotions that humans are capable of. 

But, I’m in luck. Because I can save the Violin Concerto, played by Pinchas Zukerman on a disc package that includes the Cello Concerto, played by Jacqueline Du Pre, with the Enigma Variations thrown in.  A perfect summing up of the best of Elgar.

Gustav Mahler 1860-1911 — Choosing is too hard. I have double-decker shelves devoted to Mahler, the composer who moves me above all others. How can I clear it out? How can I consider any of it as “clutter?” I thought originally I would have to save Das Lied von der Erde, and I don’t know how I can say goodbye to it. But Mahler said famously, the symphony must contain the world, and the piece that does that more than any other is the Third Symphony, and so, I’m putting that on the pile.

I just counted, and I currently have 14 recordings of the Third (with another on the way from Amazon). The one I keep is Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Not only is it a great performance, but the 2-discs are magnificently engineered. The sound is stunning.

Claude Debussy 1862-1918 — While I love Debussy’s piano music (especially played by Paul Jacobs), the keeper is La Mer. I have not counted the versions on my shelf, but there are not a few. 

Pierre Boulez recorded it twice. The second is OK, but nothing special, but his first go-round, on Sony, is cut by diamond and the most exciting one I know. It may not be a sea-spray evocative as some, but it makes a compelling case for it as belonging to the 20th century. It comes in a package with a pile of other Debussy.

Richard Strauss 1864-1949 — Strauss can sometimes seem a bit reptilian. How much is show-biz with his show-off orchestration. But there is no doubt to the sincerity of his Four Last Songs. They are the most profoundly moving orchestral songs I know, outside Mahler’s Der Abschied

I wanted to save Jessye Norman’s version, with Kurt Masur, but I have to admit, my heart has always belonged to Leontyne Price in these songs, accompanied by Erich Leinsdorf. Both versions are gorgeous, but Price is now packaged with Fritz Reiner’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. On the pile. 

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 — As tightly argued as Mahler is spacious, Sibelius packs a great deal into a well-cinched frame. Of his seven symphonies, the one that speaks to me loudest is the final one, which makes me feel in my bones the vast icy spaces of Scandanavia. 

Leonard Bernstein recorded it twice, once for Columbia (now Sony) and later for Deutsche Grammophon. The first is tighter, but the second comes with the Fifth Symphony, giving me the chance to save two symphonies for the price of one. Bernstein slowed his tempos as he got older, and some people don’t like the broadened Fifth, but I have no problem with it. And the Seventh takes me to other places. 

Serge Rachmaninoff 1873-1943 — My dearest friend, Alexander, refuses to listen to Rachmaninoff, saying he is too gooey and Romantic. But I have been trying to get him to recognize that his music — especially his later music — is oozing with Modernist irony. What is more sly than the Paganini Rhapsody? Yes, there’s the “big tune,” but even that is undermined by what surrounds it. But if I have to save just one piece, that would be the Symphonic Dances. I love them to death. 

But, like so many other things in this list, I can have cake and eat it at the same time, with the recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, bundled with the gooey, Romantic Second Symphony under Mariss Jansons, and the tornado of the Third Piano Concerto, played by Leif Ove Andsness. 

Arnold Schoenberg 1874-1951 — Now we’re entering territory fully recognizable as Modernist. I wish I could save Pierrot Lunaire, but I have only one slot available, and it has to go to Verklaerte Nacht. While I admire Pierrot, I love Transfigured Night

Of the versions I have, both in its orchestral form and its original sextet form, I am surprised at how good the version is that was recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It goes onto the pile, and gives me the bonus of the Orchestral Variations

Charles Ives 1874-1954 — I have three or four versions of the Concord Sonata, and heard it live played by Jeremy Denk. It should be saved. But I am going, instead, with the Fourth Symphony, which is pure Ives, with all his usual tricks. Friends think I’m joshing when I claim that Ives’ music is beautiful. But it is. You just have to get used to the idiom. 

The best version (I have four of these, too) is the first recording, led by Leopold Stokowski. One word for it: Transcendental. 

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937 — Stravinsky dismissed him as a “Swiss watchmaker,” but I think that was only professional jealousy. Yes, we’re all tired of Bolero. But I want to save the Concerto for Left Hand, which is jazzy in parts, terrifying in parts, and always makes you wonder that anyone can play two-hand piano with only one hand. 

But there is also that ethereal slow movement of the G-major Piano Concerto. The disc with Martha Argerich playing the G-major and Michel Beroff playing the Left-Hander, with Claudio Abbado and the LSO, also gives us the orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin. What a luscious disc. 

Bela Bartok 1881-1945 — There’s a lot to save with Bartok, also. But I can’t have the Contrasts, the piano concertos, the six quartets and the Concerto for Orchestra. No. One disc. And the piece I want to keep most is the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Luckily, one of the greatest performances of that music, by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, also features one of the greatest performances of the Concerto for Orchestra. It is essential listening for any music lover.

Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971 — Much music, many styles. Part of me wants to save the Requiem Canticles and the Movements for Piano and Orchestra, just to tweak those who hate 12-tone music. But since the entire 20th century seems launched by The Rite of Spring, just as the 19th was launched by the Eroica, I have to save it.

There are lots of great performances, but none as feral and primal as the first of them recorded by Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil. Even Stravinsky, who hated “interpretation” in performance agreed that it was like no other. The disc also includes Petrushka, so, what’s not to love?

Anton Webern 1883-1945 — Do we have to? I’m afraid so. Luckily, there isn’t much of it. No one can make blips and blurps like Webern. He was the godfather of all subsequent serial music, disconnected, alienated and difficult. Yet, he makes such interesting sounds. And few pieces last more than a few minutes, even seconds. Take at least one bit of the broccoli: Try a little Webern. 

Karajan put out a tight, condensed disc with the Passacaglia, the 5 Movements for String Orchestra, Op. 5, the 6 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, and the Symphony, Op. 21. This is a fair sampling, really well played. And the entire symphony lasts only 10 minutes. 

Alban Berg 1885-1935 — The third wheel of the Second Vienna School is the easiest to love and enjoy. He is the most emotional, and found a way to cheat on his 12-tones, to suggest key areas. His Violin Concerto is the most powerful fiddle concerto of the whole century, the most personal, the most emotional, and the most beautiful. 

No one plays it who doesn’t give it his or her most serious efforts. It cannot be just tossed off. My favorite is by Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Chicago Symphony and James Levine. It also includes Wolfgang Rihm’s Time Chant, which, I’m afraid, I find utterly forgettable. I’m saving the disc, anyway, for Mutter and Berg and all the pain of loss in the world condensed to music. 

Serge Prokofiev 1891-1953 — Shouldn’t I save the Seventh Piano Sonata? Or the Third Piano Concerto? Or the Fifth or First symphonies? Yes, I should, but I’m going to save the full ballet score of Romeo and Juliet, which, I believe, is the greatest ballet score of all time. The whole thing, not just the suite. I might be swayed by having seen it danced many times, in some of the best productions ever. But the music stands on its own. 

There are three possibilities: Previn, Maazel and Gergiev. I’m going with Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra. It just noses out the others. 

Paul Hindemith 1895-1963 — Hindemith used to be the third part of the triad of Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith as the top Modernists in music. But he has fallen on hard times. Stravinsky and Bartok have better tunes. But when Hindemith borrows tunes from Carl Maria von Weber, he is as good as any. I love a lot of Hindemith, but I admit, he is not overtly lovable. But the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber is jaunty, catchy and a ton of fun. 

A really good performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch also gives us two of Hindemith’s best other scores, the Mathis der Maler symphony and Nobilissima Visione. This is Hindemith you could actually learn to love. 

Duke Ellington 1899-1974 — Yes, in my book, this is classical music. Ellington does for his group of instruments nothing less than what Ravel can do for the standard symphony orchestra, with all the colors and surprises. And harmonically, Ellington is ages ahead of many more traditional composers. I have about 50 discs of Ellington’s music, and I love him in each of his decades. But the height of his creativity and originality was with the band he had in the 1941-42, the so-called Blanton-Webster band, named for bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor sax, Ben Webster. It’s a misnomer, because you can’t forget all the other luminaries in the band, from Harry Carney to Cootie Williams to Johnny Hodges. 

There is a three-disc release that has most of the work the band did in those two years, including Ko-Ko, Cotton Tail, Harlem Air Shaft, Take the A Train, Blue Serge, Sophisticated Lady, Perdido and the C-Jam Blues. Each a miniature tone-poem. This is music to take seriously. Seriously. 

Aaron Copland 1900-1990 — There are two Coplands, the earlier, knottier Modernist of the Piano Variations, and the later, popular composer of Rodeo, El Salon Mexico and Billy the Kid. But to my mind, his very best is Appalachian Spring, a ballet score he wrote for Martha Graham. It is usually heard as a truncated suite and enlarged for full orchestra.

But the version I love best, and the one going on my pile, is the original full-length chamber version. Copland recorded it himself, along with the suite from Billy the Kid. Unfortunately, you have to put up with the tedious and tendentious Lincoln Portrait, here narrated by Henry Fonda. 

Harry Partch 1901-1974 — England has its eccentrics, but America has its crackpots, and Partch is Exhibit A. Having decided that the tempered musical scale is a “mutilation” of true music, he invented and built a whole orchestra of new instruments, such as the chromelodion, the quadrangularis reversum, the zymo-xyl, the gourd tree and cloud-chamber bowls, in order to play music in his 43-note octave. I saw an exhibit of them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1960s. They were stunningly beautiful to look at. Hearing them, is something different. 

Partch wrote a lot of music for his instruments, some enchanting, like his songs on Hobo graffiti, Barstow. I am saving his full-length Delusions of the Fury, which is based on a Japanese Noh play and an African legend and a codification of Partch’s own delusions. Hooray for him. 

Dimitri Shostakovich 1906-1975 — Surely the major composer of the middle of the 20th century, Shostakovich labored hard under the yoke of Stalinism, and his music expresses his deep humanity (except when he is buckling under the pressure of the commissars and pumping out party-hack material; but we can ignore all that). His symphonies 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14 and 15 are among the greatest works of the century. But I’m saving his first Violin Concerto. It is, I believe, his ultimate masterwork. 

Its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, recorded it with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the the New York Philharmonic and anyone who cares about classical music should know this performance. It is coupled with Rostropovich playing the first Cello Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. Together this is a powerful pair. 

Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992 — Harry Partch wasn’t alone. French composer Olivier Messiaen had his own ideas about harmony and rhythm, and created an idiosyncratic body of music that is built on bird song and Eastern mysticism, combined with fervent Christianity. 

He wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prisoner camp and played it for the first time for its inmates and guards. His most popular work (if you can call anything so peculiar “popular”) must be the Turangalila Symphony, a rich, spicy, aromatic blend of orchestral colors, and you can get both works together in a set with conductor Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestre de l’Opera Bastille. 

Henryk Gorecki 1933-2010 — Gorecki had the misfortune to have become popular. His Third Symphony topped the pop charts in England in 1992 and sold a million copies world-wide. Officially titled the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it speaks of war, love and loss. It is a slow piece, moving only by tiny steps from first to last. Its popularity has led some critics to pooh-pooh its depth and beauty, believing nothing that popular could be any good. They should listen more carefully. 

The version that sold so well was the premiere recording with Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta. I have several versions on my shelves, but this first one is still the best. Onto the pile. 

Morton Subotnick 1933- — The California-born composer of electronica had a brief moment of fame in the late 1960s when Nonesuch Records released his Silver Apples of the Moon, and followed it up with The Wild Bull. The first, with its synthesizer squeaks and blips was bright and energetic, the second with its groans and wheezes, was much darker. 

Both deserve to be remembered. They may be a relic of their times, but they really are worth listening to. And they are now both on a single Wergo CD. 

Arvo Pärt 1935- — The Estonian composer’s meditative music is what he calls “tintinnabuli,” and in 2018, Part was the most performed living composer in the world. His music appeals not only to the classical audience, but to the New Age one as well. It is spiritually-aimed music and is both beautiful, well-constructed, and easy to listen to. You can wash in it like a warm bath, or you can listen as intently as you might to Bach or Bartok. 

He has arranged his most popular piece, Fratres, for any number of instruments and combinations (there is even an entire CD of nothing but variations of the piece), and I could save pretty much any one of his discs. But I am going to put Te Deum on the pile, primarily for the Berlin Mass that is on the disc. 

Philip Glass 1937- — Glass is unavoidable, even in popular culture. He must be the most prolific composer since Vivaldi. He began as a strict Minimalist, but loosened up that style to become what can only be called a “Glassian.” At his best, he is hypnotic and powerful. At his worst, he can become tedious. His Einstein on the Beach was epochal and groundbreaking. I have an entire shelf devoted to his releases. His trilogy of movie scores for the Godfrey Reggio abstract-narrative films in the quatsi series are a perfect introduction to Glass. Koyaanisqatsi was the first and best known.

But I am going to save the third, Naqoyqatsi, mainly because it can be heard as an extended cello concerto played by Yo-Yo Ma. 

John Adams 1945- — Almost neck-and-neck with Glass is John Adams, another lapsed Minimalist who has created his own distinct voice. His opera, Nixon in China, is pretty well the only contemporary opera to join the mainstream repertoire. I’ve seen it live, and I’ve seen Adams’ Doctor Atomic live. They are both thrilling as Verdi or Puccini. 

But I’m going to save a particular favorite orchestral work, Harmonielehre, or “Harmony Lesson.” Its opening chords are even more startling than the two E-flat bangs at the start of Beethoven’s Eroica. And the disc I’m saving includes two of Adam’s most popular and gripping overture pieces, The Chairman Dances and A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Osvaldo Golijov 1960- — The youngest composer on my pile is now 60. I first heard his music in a live performance of Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw singing the lead. It blew me away. And I was going to put my recording on my pile, but then I heard his Passion of Saint Mark or La Pasión Según San Marco, and fell in love with it. 

It combines Latin and African rhythms and folk music with a huge percussion section and more than 50 singers. When it was premiered, it got a 15-minute standing ovation. It deserves its place on my pile. 

____________________

And so, my fantasy ends. I have now an imaginary pile of music to listen to, to the exclusion of a thousand other CDs. But it is just a fantasy; I could never actually declutter my shelves. I have, in the past, culled recordings to make space for new, but now those I culled are just stuffed into old dressers, cluttering up the drawers in both of them, hidden from view as if I had actually gotten rid of them. But I can’t. And with new recordings coming my way from Amazon, I may have to cull once more, just to make space. And I may need another old dresser in the storage room just to take care of my rejects. Marie Kondo can go jump in a lake. 

What do cows in India, Mexican bugs and Egyptian mummies have in common?

If you said, “Rembrandt,” give yourself a cigar.

Most of us, when think of color, think in the abstract. Color is the spectrum or the rainbow. Or the deciding factor in which car we buy. We think we know what “blue” means, or “yellow,” but that doesn’t say what particular blue or what of many possible yellows. Just an abstract approximation. Exact hues require incarnation. 

And so, for an artist, color is pigment, and pigment is ornery, peculiar and sometimes toxic, sometimes distressing, even morally questionable.

Poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his book-length Paterson, “No ideas but in things.” It was the total anti-Platonic declaration of faith in the here-and-now, the lumpy, gritty, quotidian things we can feel with our fingers or stub our toe with. I paraphrase his dictum with “No color but in things.” This is not abstract, but palpable.

A painter cannot simply decide on green or yellow, but on what pigment that paint is made from. Each acts in its own way, mixes with others differently, dilutes differently, requires a different thinner, binder or medium, displays varying levels of permanence, transparency and glossiness. The painter cannot think in abstract hues, but in the actuality of the physical world. Hands in the mud, so to speak.

The earliest pigments were dug from the earth or sifted from the cook-fire: Ochers and soot. The caves of France and Spain were painted with these pigments. 

They had to be worked into submission by the artist, grinding, mixing, adding medium and binder. His — or her (we cannot know for sure) — hands got dirty in the process. There was a smell to it, fresh loamy smell or the acrid residue of the hearth. There was a feel, gritty or pulverized, oily, or smudgy like moist clay.

So, until the mid-19th century, all paints were made from the things of this world. Soils and rocks, plants and snails. Each pigment had its idiosyncrasies and those had to be reckoned with when mixing them or placing them side-by-side. None was pure, save, perhaps, the blackness of soot.

Then, in 1856, an 18-year-old chemist named William Henry Perkin, trying to find a cure for malaria, found instead a new, synthetic purple dye — the first aniline dye. He called it “mauve,” or “mauveine.”

A decade later, the German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, working for BASF, synthesized alizarin crimson, making an artificial pigment that matched the natural alizarin dye that had been extracted from the madder plant. It was the first color created from an element of coal tar — a byproduct of turning coal into coke.

Apres moi, le deluge” — Since then, there has been a flood of synthetic colors, all devised in the laboratories of giant corporations. There are the aniline dyes, the azo dyes, the phthalocyanine dyes, diazonium dyes, anthraquinone dyes — a whole chemistry lab of new industrial color. Many of these new dyes and pigments were brighter and purer of hue and more permanent.

 (Not all: the new chrome yellow that Vincent Van Gogh used developed a tendency to turn brown on contact with air. Properly protected, chrome yellow is familiar as the paintjob on most schoolbusses).

Nowadays, even oil and acrylic paints with traditional names, such as burnt umber and ultramarine are likely to be produced industrially using chemical derivatives. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Rembrandt or Michelangelo had to arrive at their paints through laborious and time-consuming processes.

Most pigments came to the artist’s atelier in the form of a rock or a sediment. It had to be ground down to a powder, a process normally done by an apprentice — basically an intern: “Bring me a latte, a bearclaw and the powdered cinnabar.” Being ground to a grit wasn’t enough; the poor apprentice sometimes had to spend days with the pigment between grinding stone and levigator or muller, working it into pulverized paste that could be mixed with a binder and medium and finally used by the artist on canvas.

It wasn’t until the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention of a pigment-grinding machine in 1718, that the tedious work of pigment making became doable in large quantities. And it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that prepared paints, sold in zinc tubes, made it possible for artists to buy portable paints they could carry out into the countryside to paint in the open.

But we should not forget the sometimes ancient origins of the paints used for the canvasses of the Renaissance, the Baroque — the Old Masters. This is where the Indian cows, the Mexican bugs and the Egyptian mummies come in.

First, let’s look at a few of the standard paint-sources from this pre-industrial age. Many of them have wonderful and memorable names, now largely gone out of use.

We’ll take the reds first. None was perfect, several were lethal. 

Carmine — This is the Mexican bug I mentioned above. The cochineal scale insect grows on certain cactuses in Central and South America. It is a bright violet- to deep-red color. The Aztecs called it “nocheztli,” which means “tuna blood,” and dyed the tunics of Aztec and Inca royalty.

Crimson — Before the Conquista, a European scale insect, growing on the kermes oak, provided a red dye. These insects were picked from the twigs with fingernails and processed into a scarlet dye. It was the color used to dye the curtains of the Temple in Jerusalem. Also widely used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. It was less efficiently grown and produced than the cochineal of Mexico, and so was replaced. Michelangelo used it in his paint.

Vermilion — A scarlet red form of mercury sulfide and highly poisonous, it was mined in Europe, Asia and the New World as cinnabar and was used also for cosmetics and medicine — hardly a wise use. In its mineral form, it was used to color Chinese lacquer. A finer, and redder version was first synthesized in China in the fourth century BCE, and depending how well powdered it has been ground, produces hues from orangey-red to a reddish purple that  one writer compared to “fresh duck liver.” It is still also produced by grinding cinnabar. 

The terms “cinnabar” “vermilion” and “Chinese red” are often loosely interchangeable. The finer the grinding, the brighter the red. Painter Cennino Cennini in his 15th century Craftsman’s Handbook wrote: “If you were to grind it every day for 20 years it would simply become better and more perfect.” It was the most common red in painting until it was replaced in the 20th century by cadmium red.

Dragon’s blood — Mentioned in a First-Century Roman travel guide (a periplus), it is a maroon-red pigment made from the sap of various plants, most notably the Dracaena cinnabari. Medieval sources wrote that it was made from the blood of actual dragons. It is also what gives classic violins their reddish varnish. In several folk-religions and in neo-paganism, it is a source of magical power, presumably because of its supposed connection to dragons. 

Minium — Also known as red lead, this orange-red pigment was commonly used in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was made by roasting oxidized lead in the air to form lead tetroxide. It is named for the Minius River between Spain and Portugal, and because this red lead was used for the small letterings and illustrations in hand-made books, it is the source of our word, “miniature.” 

Near colors of yellow, orange and purple had their sources, too. 

Gamboge — A yellow pigment formed from the resin of the evergreen Cambodian gamboge tree (genus Garcinia). Coincidentally, the name comes from the Latin name for Cambodia. It is the traditional color used to dye Buddhist monks’ robes. The pigment first reached Europe in the early 17th century. When mixed with Prussian blue, it creates Hooker’s green. A strong laxative if ingested; in large doses can cause death. 

Orpiment — A bright yellow pigment gathered from volcanoes and hot springs and is a highly poisonous compound of arsenic and was once used as an insecticide and to tip poison arrows. It was traded as far back as the Roman empire. Its name is a corruption of the latin auripigmentum or “gold pigment.”

Realgar — Realgar was, along with orpiment, a significant item of trade in the ancient Roman Empire and was used as a red paint pigment. It is an arsenic sulfide mineral and sometimes called “ruby of arsenic.” Early occurrences of realgar as a red paint pigment are known for works of art from China, India, Central Asia and Egypt. It was used in European fine-art painting during the Renaissance, a use which died out by the 18th century. It was also once used as medicine and to kill weeds, insects and rodents. Be grateful for modern medicine. 

Madder — Another dye that goes as far back as ancient Egypt, it is a violet to red color extracted from the Rubia tinctorum and related species, plants that grows on many continents, and in southern France is called garance — for those of you who love the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis. It is turned into a pigment from a dye by the process known as “laking,” and so often encountered as madder lake.

Tyrian purple — This is the purple of the Roman emperors, and is extracted from a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of a predatory sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean. It was worth its weight in silver and it might take 12,000 snails to produce enough dye for a single garment.

Blues and greens were often so close as to be made from variants of the same thing. 

Bice — Is a dark green-blue or blue-green pigment made from copper carbonates, primarily the mineral azurite, sometimes malachite. Lightened, it was often used for skies.

Smalt — First used in ancient Egypt, it is a cobalt oxide use to color glass a deep blue. The glass is then ground into a powder used as a pigment.

Ultramarine — The ultimate blue, made from the mineral lapis lazuli, found almost exclusively in Afghanistan, which, for Europeans, was “beyond the (Mediterranean) sea” or “ultra-marine.” The process of making the pigment from the mineral was complex and the final color was so highly prized, and so expensive, that its use had to be expressed in the contract commissioning a painting by Renaissance artists, less they use some less costly, and less glorious blue. 

Prussian blue — The first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian blue is iron hexacyanoferrate and a very dark, intense blue. It is also sometimes called Berlin blue or Paris blue. It is the blue of traditional blueprints and became popular among painters soon after it was formulated in 1708 — by accident when a chemist attempted to make a red dye and got blue instead. It largely replaced the more expensive ultramarine. After it was imported to Japan, it became the standard blue of woodblock prints. 

Egyptian blue — Long before Prussian blue, the ancient Egyptians manufactured a light blue pigment from calcium copper silicate, by mixing silica, lime, copper and an alkali. First synthesized during the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2500 BCE), its use continued through the Roman period. The Egyptians called it “artificial lapis lazuli,” and used it to decorate beads, pots, scarabs and tomb walls. 

Indigo blue — The familiar color of blue jeans comes from indigo, made from the indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria. At least, it once did. Now the dye is synthetic. It is a deep, dark blue, almost black. Before the Asian indigo plant was imported to Europe, the dye was made from the woad plant Isatis tintoria. Before the American Revolution, Asian indigo, grown in South Carolina, was the colony’s second-most important cash crop (after rice), and counting for a third of the value of exports from the American colonies. Initially, European woad processors fought against the importation of Asian indigo dyes, as later, after adopting the Asian product, they fought tooth and nail against the synthetic. Progress. 

Verdigris — A green pigment formed by copper carbonate, chloride or acetate. It is the patina on the Statue of Liberty, but in oil paint, it has the odd property of being initially a light blue-green and turning, after about a month into a bright grass green.

Viridian — A darkish blue-green pigment, a hydrated chromium oxide, popularized by Venetian painter Paolo Veronese.

Sepia — a dark brown to black dye and pigment extracted from various species of squid. Most popular as an ink, it has also been used for oil paint.

You will have undoubtedly noticed how many of these pigments were poisonous. It has certainly been suggested that Van Gogh’s madness may have been caused by his habit of tipping his brushes on his tongue.

So many of these pigments relied on the unholy trinity of toxins: mercury, arsenic, and lead. Their toxicity was understood from ancient times. The cinnabar used for vermilion was mined in China by convicts, whose life expectancy was — well, who cared? They were convicts. 

The most common toxic color through history was white, which was most often lead carbonate, or flake white, aka white lead. It was easy to manufacture by soaking sheets of lead in vinegar for weeks at a time and scraping the resulting white powder off the surface of the metal. Flake white was a wonderful, opaque and brilliant white pigment. Unfortunately, it could kill, blind or make mad those who used it. Even today, older houses have sometimes to be de-leaded of their original paint in order to be sold legally. Children are especially vulnerable.

A substitute for white lead was looked for. Zinc white — an oxide of zinc — was tried, but was not as opaque or as white. Nowadays, titanium white is used, safer and nearly as good a pigment.

But, as I said at the top of this article, some of the old pigments were not only dangerous, but morally questionable.

Ivory black — made from elephant ivory, and essentially ivory charcoal, it is (or was) an intense black pigment. Nowadays, it is most often made from bones, as bone black, aka Mars black.

Indian yellow — A pigment brought to Europe from the east, it was described as being made by feeding cows solely on mango leaves, which made their urine an intense yellow, which was then evaporated into a sludge, dried and sold. The cattle were severely malnourished by this diet, and the practice outlawed. There are those who doubt this explanation of the pigment, but no one doubts the strong stench of the bolus. It is no longer made.

Mummy brown — A bituminous brown, made from ground-up Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Popular from the 16th century, it was good for “glazes, shadows, flesh tones and shading.” In the 19th century, the supply of Egyptian mummies was so great that in England, they were used as fuel for steam locomotives. But when the actual origin of the pigment became widely known, a moral repugnance swept England and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones was horrified to find out what he was using, “and when he heard what his brown was made of, he gave all his tubes of this color a decent burial” in his garden.

Makes you look at all those rich, warm browns in Rembrandt with a slightly different eye.

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This blog entry is significantly rewritten and expanded from an earlier essay published on the Spirit of the Senses website in March, 2018.

Click on any image to enlarge

In my seven decades — half of them spent as an art critic — I have been to too many art galleries and museums to be able to count the shows I have seen. Nor can I count the concerts, recitals, theater productions I’ve seen or books I’ve read. Most of them I’ve enjoyed, but few were so memorable that I still have in my nostrils the aroma they gave off. 

This is not to disparage most of the others. I’ve eaten too many restaurant meals to count. Most of them I enjoyed. They did what was asked of them. But can I recount a ribeye I once had in Bakersfield? No. That would be silly. 

But there are meals and concerts that stick, art exhibits that did more than give an hour’s pleasure, concerts that changed my way of thinking about the world. 

And let’s be honest, one is willing to pay the ticket price for a lot of minor pleasure in the expectant hope that this next one will be a world-changer. The odds are against it, but we persist. Every once in a while, we are gobsmacked, and know why it has been worthwhile to sit through a hundred Beethoven Fifths to get to this one that goes beyond mere pleasure to transcendence. 

We live for those moments; they make life worth living. 

In a recent blog, I recounted my earliest such encounters, with Eugene O’Neill at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., when I was in high school. With J.M.W. Turner at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a few years later. With Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the same year. These all set my life on a course to spend it with art and music. These all proved to my adolescent heart and mind that there was something more real, more important, than the suburban life I was being brought up in. 

But the immersion didn’t end there. In subsequent years, there were many exhibits and concerts that stand out. That became such an engrained part of my life and world view, that it is as if I was still standing in front of those paintings, or sitting in the concert hall, hearing those notes. 

Let’s just take three piano recitals as examples. In 1991, I heard Maurizio Pollini at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. In the first half of the recital, he played all of Chopin’s Preludes. In the second half, he played the Berg sonata and Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, Op. 19. All that was great. But he finished with the Stravinsky Three Scenes from Petrushka, one of the most difficult bravura piano pieces ever written. Pollini tore through it like a demon, but made every note musical. It blew me away. (The recital was notable for its intermission, too. The doors to the hall were locked and for nearly an hour, we could hear the piano being re-tuned behind those doors. Apparently Maestro Pollini was not satisfied with the instrument. We were kept waiting in the lobby until he gave his approval to the tuning). 

In 2008, I heard Jeremy Denk at Zankel Hall in New York, the recital hall that is part of Carnegie Hall, play the single most daunting program I could imagine, with Charles Ives knucklebusting Concord Sonata in the first half, and Beethoven’s mind-busting Hammerklavier Sonata in the second. I could only think of John Lennon’s immortal line “I got blisters on me fingers.” For an encore, he reprised the Hawthorne movement of the Concord. Very like running a 200-meter directly after running a marathon. 

I’ve heard Denk several times since then, and each time, his playing was, if not so Olympian, certainly significantly memorable. He proved to me, for instance, that the etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti are great music. And that Beethoven’s Eroica Variations are actually comic. 

Then, in 2011, I heard Andre Watts play the Liszt B-minor sonata in Scottsdale, Ariz., on an all-Liszt program. I had the perfect seat to see his fingers spin over the keys, and learned a great deal about the disposition of Liszt’s voicings by being able to see Watt’s fingers. His playing was ethereal. Liszt was a Watts specialty. 

But it wasn’t only music. After my initial infatuation with O’Neill in high school, I had seen too many mediocre live theater productions, and had come greatly to prefer movies. Theater seemed too artificial, too, well, “theatrical” for my tastes. But then, in 1993, I saw the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America — both parts on successive days — and saw what live theater can do that nothing else can. It was one of the seminal experiences of my life. 

(It was also ruined for me most other theater, because so seldom is it ever this overwhelmingly powerful. But I have seen other great theater since then. Angels is not sui generis. I have seen Angels three more times, once in its road production —not all that good — once in a production by Actors Theatre in Phoenix, which was nearly as good as the New York production, and finally, in its Mike Nichols filmed version, which is very different from the stage version. It is a movie, not theater. Very good, but still, not the live experience on stage. The same difference between seeing the movie Amadeus and the stage version. Movie is good; live is great.)

I got to travel for my newspaper, and was able to review many major art shows around the country. They have been some of the most eye-opening and mind-expanding things I’ve done. 

In 1994, I saw John James Audubon: The Birds of America at the Art Institute in Chicago. It featured 90 of the original paintings used for the engravings published in his books. The originals persuaded me that Audubon might be considered America’s greatest artist. (You can read a version of my newspaper review here.)

In 1996, I visited Philadelphia for the big Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One hundred oil paintings, 35 watercolors and 35 drawings from public and private collections. It was an overwhelming experience. I never knew there were this many distinct greens, blues, blue-greens, and greenish blues. And when you swipe a bit of vermilion against them, the whole thing glows like neon. Seeing Cezannes live is a very different thing from seeing them reproduced in books. 

In 1999, I got to see the great Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which gave me the rare chance to see his Blue Poles, which is normally hidden away in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. 

That same year, there was a great Van Gogh show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like having the chance to see Pollock’s Blue Poles, I got to see Vincent’s iconic Wheatfield with Crows. The show as a whole was the best introduction to the artist’s growth from a clumsy, almost talentless neophyte to one of the world’s greatest painters. He wasn’t always Van Gogh, but when he became himself — the very definition of transcendence. 

I’ve been to Chartres Cathedral four times, and each time was overwhelming. I’ve now been to most of the great churches of northern France. The single most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen is the north rose window at Chartres. I have sat transfixed in the south part of the crossing, staring back to the north, in total, for hours. It is a meditation or very like a prayer, if such can be said for a complete atheist. 

Overall, it is music that has most provided me with this feeling: Of taking me out of myself and letting my mind expand to a size larger than mere me-ness. Of course, most of the hundreds of concerts I have attended have only provided pleasure and entertainment. But there are those that do more. I thirst for those. 

In 1994, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play the Strauss Don Juan and I felt music not just through my ears, but through my whole body and being. 

I’ve heard Gustavo Dudamel twice live. Once playing the Mahler First with the LA Phil, shortly after his appointment as music director. But before that, in New York with the Israel Philharmonic, playing the Tchaikovsky Fourth. That was in 2008; the Israel Phil was then an orchestra made up of older, formerly Eastern European men — bald-headed old pros who could give a polished performance under any conductor. But they played with the enthusiasm of little boys, even smiling at this bit or that as they produced the sound. After the performance, Dudamel, instead of turning and bowing to absorb the adulation of the audience, immediately danced up into the orchestra and jumped up and down with the musicians, shaking hands and pointing out soloists. I’ve never seen such a powerful effect a conductor has had on a group of musicians. They seemed to love him back. 

There have been other concerts: In 2008, there was Ozvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw; in the same year, there was Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2009, there was Nixon in China with Robert Orth in the title role. In 2010, Steven Moeckel played the Beethoven violin concerto with the Phoenix Symphony at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. I have never heard a better, more moving and detailed performance of the concerto. At least not live. 

Sometimes, it is only a single work on a program. I’ve heard Itzhak Perlman I don’t know how many times. He’s a miracle; but he isn’t always completely engaged. He can give a creditable performance even half asleep — and he has been known to. But then he will redeem himself. In 2008, he gave a performance in Scottsdale. He ended the recital with his usual encore pieces and tired jokes. The same jokes over and over each concert. Perlman can be quite tiresome. And he opened with a Bach sonata, well played but nothing special. Then, as I wrote in my review:

“But then, with the Richard Strauss violin sonata, the sun shone through and the angels sang. It’s not for nothing that Perlman is a superstar. He gave us a version of the music no one else could give. Rich as butter, emotionally complex and powerful, he persuaded us that the Strauss sonata is a major piece of music, rather than B-list work by an A-list composer, which is how it’s usually ranked.

“From the opening notes the music dripped with personality, as Perlman pushed or dragged the notes just enough to create the kind of perfect phrasing that makes the music speak directly to your innards.”

It is for moments like that for which we will put up with so much less for so long. 

There are two other moments I would like to mention. 

The first is a concert with pianist Lang Lang. He has a bad reputation with some critics for histrionics on stage — rocking and eye-rolling — and he has on occasions played loud and fast, but without much impact, for which he has gotten the nickname “Bang Bang.” But he can also play the way he did in the slow movement of the Chopin concerto, on Oct. 24, 2008 (2008 was a very good year for me). As I wrote in the review:

“At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. ‘I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.’

“That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto Sunday with the Phoenix Symphony. He lingered over it, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.

“Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.

“It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.”

My best moments in the concert hall has been when time completely stops and I get a glimpse of eternity — not eternity as an infinite number of moments end-to-end, but a eternity as utter timelessness. Time ceases to exist. 

That has happened each time I’ve heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach cello suites. I’ve heard him several times, including doing all six in a single concert. 

“Ma concluded with the sixth suite, as intense as an Aeschylan tragedy, with climaxes at the slow allemande and the even slower, deeper, more intense sarabande. Blood almost ceased moving in my veins and only started pulsing once more with the gavotte that followed, as the relief from tragedy, and a reawakening to the life of the body.

“This kind of music is why we listen to classical music: It isn’t enjoyment we are after but solace, reflection, a reconnection with the more important parts of ourselves. It brings us to the place where the deepest thought and the most profound emotion cannot be told apart; they are the same thing. It is proof that art is not merely entertainment, but food for our deepest hunger.”

There are many more such moments over the years, but I can’t mention them all. This is already too long. But, my life has been nurtured by such moments and experiences. They have made me who I am. 

Gustav Flaubert was said to have expressed “contempt for the bourgeoisie.” It is a sentiment I shared when growing up, as a bookish kid in a bookless family. Flaubert was himself a member of the middle class, and, alas, so am I. As much as I despised the suburban, middle-class New Jersey milieu in which I grew up, as I have aged, I have come to realize that it is this same middle class that allowed me to pursue my own interests. There was a bland tolerance inherent in mid-century suburbia that, while it watched Donna Reed and Bonanza, thought that college might be a good idea for its offspring — not knowing just what a subversive venture that education would turn out to be. 

As for me, even when I was in seven years old, I couldn’t wait to leave New Jersey and head off to college. As I entered second grade, I am famously (in the family) reputed to have asked, “does that mean I can go to college next year?”

My brother and I often ponder where we came from. Craig is an artist and I am a writer. Nobody else in our extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in-laws or anyone else, had the slightest interest in art, literature of other intellectual things. The closest my mother came was daubing a few paint-by-numbers canvases. The primary reading matter in the house was the Reader’s Digest nested on top of the toilet tank. When I mentioned classical music, my uncle asked if I meant, “like Montovani?” When my high-school buddies were listening to Chubby Checker and Bobby Vinton, I was listening to Stravinsky and Bach. Where this taste for the high-brow came from remains a mystery, but it is deeply buried. 

There was early on a hunger for things that seemed deeper, truer, more complex than what I saw on TV or heard on AM radio. And I found that hunger fed by art and literature. In eighth grade, we had been required to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and to memorize a few lines (“you blocks, you stone, you worse than senseless things. Knew ye not Pompey? Many a time and oft…” etc.) But the mere reading seemed archaic and incomprehensible. But late in the year, 1962, we took a class trip to Princeton, N.J. to the McCarter Theatre, where we watched a performance of the play, and it all then made sense. I loved it. 

But Julius Caesar is, after all, a fairly easy play to get through. Even the less inclined in class found it entertaining. 

The next season, though, on another class trip to the McCarter, we watched Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a rather tougher nut to crack. And I felt I had found a home. Eugene O’Neill was the kind of thing that spoke to me: To a green teen, it felt grown up, like the real thing I longed for. 

Looking back, I can see I was just a kid and had a somewhat limited understanding of what it actually meant to be grown up. By high school, I had subscriptions to the Evergreen Review and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. I read Kerouac and Ginsberg, and was a member of the Literary Guild — an off-brand Book of the Month Club — where I bought and read things like Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography, The Words

I look back now and remember Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, and boy oh boy, what I misunderstood as a pimply-faced adolescent. I reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog again last year and was surprised to discover how funny the book is. When I read it in high school, I only knew it was a book that adults read, and so I dove in. That it was a comedy complete passed me by.

Art, music and literature: I knew — or felt in my bones — that this was the real stuff. All the quotidian was mere distraction. I was truly lucky: I lived only a short bus ride from Manhattan and could easily get into the city to visit museums, bookstores and concert halls. New York was real; New Jersey was boring. And what I found in the city turned my life.

In 1966, I heard Russian pianist Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He played, among other things, the Liszt B-minor sonata. It is the first of many concerts and recitals that made in imprint on my life. I was there with my high-school girlfriend, who later became a professional bassoonist (played with both Philip Glass and PDQ Bach). We went to dozens of concerts, mostly in New York, and in Carnegie Hall. 

Speaking of Peter Schickele, my girlfriend and I were at the first PDQ Bach concert in Carnegie Hall, and after that, I was practically a PDQ groupie and managed to get to one of his concerts annually for at least 25 years, either in New York or when he took his circus on the road. 

I also had the Museum of Modern Art to go to, and the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick Collection, and what was then the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle. 

The permanent collections in all these institutions became my dear friends. But there were changing exhibitions, too. The first serious art show I went to that altered the course of my life was also in 1966, at MoMA.   

It was a curated show, intended to make a case. It wasn’t just a collection of paintings, but a curatorial argument, intended to persuade and make us think of something in a new way. It attempted to prove that English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was a precursor to the French Impressionists and Modernism, that his soft-focus paintings and, especially, his washy watercolor sketches, were somehow a step forward in the history of art, and led to the breakthrough we all know and love with Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. (It was an age that still believed in art history as a grand and natural procession from then to us, the enlightened). 

It was called “Turner: Imagination and Reality” and ran from March through May of that year. It made the claim that “During the last 20 years of his life, Turner developed a style of extraordinary originality. He evolved a new order of art, which was virtually unparalleled until the 20th century.” According to the curators, Turner was a harbinger of American Abstract Expressionists. Several of the images on view were so inchoate as to be purely abstract, like his Pink Sky, which might well be an early experiment by Mark Rothko, nothing more than strata of color spilled across the paper. 

In the catalog to the show, art historian and curator Lawrence Gowing wrote, “These pictures from the last 20 years of Turner’s life, reveal potentialities in painting that did not reappear until our time. They tell us something about the inner nature of a whole pictorial tradition, of which recent American painting is an integral part. Turner not only saw the world as light and color; he isolated an intrinsic quality of painting and revealed that it could be self-sufficient, an independent imaginative function.”

I was transfixed and went back to the exhibit a second time, convinced I was privy to a secret about art that few others knew; only those who had seen this show really understood what a revolutionary Turner had been. Please remember, again, I was a teenager at the time. 

In tandem with the Turner show was a smaller exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” a set of 34 drawings and ink transfers, one drawing per canto in Dante’s poem. It is difficult to recover the sense of elation and immersion a teenager in love with art could feel in the presence of something so new and so exciting. 

When I did get to leave New Jersey and go to Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., I was in a candy shop: I signed up for Greek, Shakespeare, esthetics, astronomy — I wanted it all. 

There was also a film series, carefully programmed to expose us to the best in cinema. We saw La Strada, Seven Samurai, Seventh Seal, Jules and Jim, Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Andalusian Dog, and even Birth of a Nation, although the student projectionist ran it without the sound on, calculating that it was a “silent film,” and not considering their was a musical soundtrack to accompany it. The racism was hard to swallow, but it was even worse — with no music, it seemed to last forever. 

With my new college girlfriend, we went to the downtown theater to see Antonioni’s Blow Up. That sense of being on the edge of art made being young  

All those films, added on to the reading material, and the concerts we had in the college auditorium, felt like what I had waited my whole life to gain access to. I fell in love with Chaucer; I read tons of Shelley — even stuff no one but a doctoral candidate bothers with. There was Classical literature in translation. There were three semesters of Comparative Arts. I minored in music composition (although, our stodgy professor der musik, Carl Baumbach, really only taught us figured bass and to harmonize chorales — and avoid parallel fifths. He could barely get himself to listen to anything as modern as Debussy.) 

I was a well, down which you could toss everything and never fill it up.

After graduation, I continued with it all, without the need to worry about grades or term papers. Every summer, there was the Eastern Music Festival, for which I acted as unofficial photographer. I sat in on master classes, went to concerts. A few were so memorable, I still keep them in my psychic storehouse: Walter Trampler giving a master class; Miklos Szenthelyi playing the Bartok First Violin Concerto — which seemed at the time the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Szenthelyi was a young Hungarian, virtually the same age as me, and his posture on stage was almost Prussian, his tone penetrating and perfect. (I still own several of his recordings. He is now a white-haired Old Master in Budapest. A half century has intervened.)

I also first heard Yo-Yo Ma. He must still have been a teenager. He performed both Haydn cello concertos in High Point, N.C., one before intermission and one just after. Yo-Yo has been as much a constant in my life as Peter Schickele. What a pair.

I also photographed the Greensboro Civic Ballet. I wish I had paid more attention to the dance in the 1970s, but my plate was otherwise full. Many years later, I came to love dance more than any other artform. (After my late wife and I traveled to Alaska, she asked if I might want to live there. Without trying to be funny, I said reflexively, “No. Not enough dance.” It was the natural answer.)

There have been hundreds of concerts and recitals, scores of theater and dance performances, bookshelves still filled with thousands of books and CDs, and more museum and gallery shows than I can count. 

I want to write about a few of them next time. 

This is real. I need to emphasize that. It is a paper handed to me by an English major at Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, Va., in 1984. That’s right: an English major. The art-history assignment was to write a short research paper on an artist of the student’s choice, picking someone whose work they especially liked. 

I was sometimes astounded at what I received from students. On one test for an art history class, with sixteen students, I got the word “coliseum” spelled sixteen different ways — and none of them correct. And that despite there being two acceptable spellings: “Coliseum” and “Colosseum.” 

At any rate, this paper, on sculptor George Segal, was a particularly — what? — unusual — example. At many a faculty party, it was read aloud in full, with professors falling on the floor and holding their guts in laughter. If you have ever been a teacher, I’m sure you can understand. 

It is important, when reading it, to pronounce all the misspellings and nonsense words. This transcription has been thoroughly copy-edited and proofread. Every typo and solecism is original to the student. 

GEORGE SEGAL

It all started as a painter. George Segal, an artist fasinated by the relationships between form and space, especially with negative space. Most of Segals education was centered around painting, in fact, while persuading a life as a chicken farmer, Segal continued his education in art. In one of the xerxed photos youll notice a scene of an artists studio. In the background are some of George Segals paintings. His interest in space and form are obvious in these paintings, and are expressed vividly.

After twenty years of painting Segal felt the canvas was too confining and explored other options. However he wanted to maintain his interest in form and shape. He discovered sculppture and felt great satisfaction with this. He said Sculpture deals with basic forms. … All basic forms exists as volumes. … Volumes penetrate each other and in this way are no longer single formations. Through penetration, space is created in its entirety. Every portion of space results from it. Basic forms are positive space volumes; negative space is created through the opposition of these positiv space volumes. Positive space is life-fulfilled — negative space is force impelled. Both exist simultaneously — both conceivable with each other. Its only the simultaneous existence of positive and negative space that creates the plastic unity. Segal realized he could free the image from the canvas by emphasizing it, however he was restricted the use of color as he used in painting. He began his career in sculpture with chicken wire and wood, and is now using bandages soaked in plaster and molding it over the models. He realized that he felt dissatisfaction with the modes of painting, and that he couldnt express the quality of his own feelings and emotions.

Segals subjects for his sculpture are common, every day subjects. Life situations that tend to be ignored or forgotton. Hes sculpted a woman putting on her shoe to carpenters working an average day. He almost always have a messages or reasons behind his subject matters. The discovery of his powerful sculptures came about quite accidental. Segal was showing his last exhibits at the Hansa Gallery in 1959, and wanted to convey how painted figures aspired to a third dimension and the illusion of space was missing. He tried to acheive this idea by placing three dimensional figures stepping out of his paintings which were hung low. The rough, and loosely drawn paintings corresponded with his sculptures that were also very rough. This is when the impact of the sculptures hit the public. This became the basic principal for all of the rest of Segals sculptures. A scupture gains definition by its relationship to another consciously presenting itself. This is definitely a rule that Segal continues to use.

Segals sculptures didnt appeal to everyone. In fact it was art that some people found hard to swallow. Some criticism included that the figures only confirmed an impression of a knotty conflict between freedom and timitation that looks to physical means only for a solution. The sculptures were found to be grotesque and dull. This put Segal on shifting ground. Segal felt his sculptures had a certain realism to them, and it allowed for free expression. He proceeded with his creations in scupture. Continuing with plaster he explored the possiabilities with this media. He soon began to practice putting the wet plasrer bandages on live models to get his human forms. This was frowned upon by the public because it was not free-hand. In the nineteenth century Rodin experienced a similar dilemma with his sculpture of a ballerina wearing a real tu-tu. But the awesome perfection of this effect couldnt be ignored, aside with the originality involved. Segal took up for himself by replying that its impossiable to have a human model pose in any other way than realistically when sitting in wet plaster. He goes on to expain that people have attitudes locked up in their bidies and arent aware of this. A person may reveal nothing of himself and then, suddenly one movement is made in the wet bandages and that movement contains a whole biography. Segal tries to capture the slightest gesture in order to show the imperfection, which he considers to be beautiful. Therefore his sculptures take on more realism and more emotions than if he had molded them by hand.

Segal claims to count heavily on the human ability to spot a metaphor, the urge to read poetry into things is universal. he has a lot to say and his scuptures have a dramatic way of expressing it. He arranges his figures as if there actors on a stage. They are placed as if we were as the audience, looking in through a window. This allows for the on-looker to feel free expression as to what is going on through the window.

Abstract Expressionsim is considered hot, serious, committed and spiritually strong. Pop Art is considered to be cool, ironic , detached and materialistic. Pop Art artist were often concerned with subject matter and technique. With this in mind Segal considered himself to be a Pop artist, if he had to place himself in a category. he considered an attitude of honesty as top priority, and to him there is neither good nor bad subject mater for life is life whether your tying your shoes or working a daily job. He claims to be primarily interested in aesthetic statements and insist on the attainment of abstract forms to carry this message out. he says it opens doors of riches of everyday experiences.

Many critics agreed with Segals opinion of his art. However there were some who did not. Still others would place him in the Abstract Expressionist scene. His colorous sculptures were seen as being absrtact, and his paintings have a lot of expression to them, yet still maintaining an abstract form. The critics saw a dynamic message behind his work which is a characteristic of Abstract Expressionism.

I personally view Segals talent lying in the Environmental Happenings or Assemblages. His work has escaped the flat canvas and moved to a three dimensional scupture. Much importance is placed on the environment of his subjects. This sets a mood for the emotion. His work is a frozen happening that stimulates a feeling. Take a look at the Execution, found in the back. This is four basic figures done in basic white. Nothing extravagavt is used here, however theres a strong reaction to this scene that creates an emotion.

Its been said its impossiable to place Segal in a certain historical category on account fo the various perceptural opinions. Possiably its a mix of Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Environmental Happenings or Assemblages. People are different and will see things different. This is why boundaries cannot be placed on what art is. If it strikes a feeling or emotion, I consider it art, however way it is done.

The best gift a writer can get is proof that his words are being read, and not just read, but understood. (When I was writing for the newspaper, too often I heard from readers who complained about what they thought I wrote and not what I actually wrote. Every writer has had this experience.)

The other day, I received such a gift, a small one, not meant to be anything important, but it was completely meaningful to me. This gift was from an old and dear friend who I only see once or twice a year, and to our lunchdate, she brought a 3-by-5 notecard on which she had scribbled with every color green she could extract from her colored pencil set. I doubt she knew how much that meant to me. 

It was a gloss on my most recent blog essay, in which I had mentioned how many greens I saw in the foliage in the woods and garden I was visiting, and also how many greens Paul Cezanne had managed to generate in his paintings. The card she plopped down on the table was meant to be a casual joke, but to me, it was very much more than that. We don’t always know the significance of what we do. 

But it set me to thinking about those greens — blue-green, yellow-green, sea-green, leaf-green (not enough words for the varieties of hue) — and made me take my camera out to the garden again to gather my own set of greens. Nature gushes with them. 

There are three qualities that make an image: shape, color and texture. (Leaving aside the question of what you name the subject of a picture: “That’s a house;” “That’s a car;” “That’s my Aunt Philomela at the beach house in Boca.”) Shape can be defined by outline. Color and texture fill those outlines in and what is more, if you are making an image in black and white, texture (stippling, crosshatching, scribbling) can substitute for color. Each of these elements can be as much a delight to the eye as harmony is to the ear or flavor to the palate. 

And so, I walked through the yard drinking in the greens and pointing my camera to arrange the patterns of shape, color and texture to try to make a kind of visual mixed salad for the eye. 

In the afternoon, I drove out into the countryside and stopped near the Mayo River — barely a river — that I had once canoed down maybe 50-plus years ago, hitting white water on the way (if the canoe had capsized, I doubt the water would have gotten higher than my knees). Along the banks were further salad greens. I gathered them all in my lens. 

The pleasure later that evening was editing the photographs, collating those shapes and textures and those luscious greens. “No white nor red was ever seen/ So am’rous as this lovely green.”

Many years ago, the professor I studied under commented offhandedly that nature never made a bad color combination. Any two colors found in nature, he said, could be placed side by side for a satisfying esthetic treat. Salmon red and pea green. The blue and yellow of a spiderwort flower. The orange and black of a monarch butterfly. 

Humans are quite capable of jarring our eyes with garish mismatches — gaze down any “Miracle Mile” for its signage — but nature, he said, is always right. Of course, our pleasure in the color-matches of nature should probably be laid at the feet of natural selection: We have evolved to love those colors and perhaps we shouldn’t be too glib about assuming that nature had us in mind when she plopped the buttercups next to the violets along the highways. 

 The riot of greens I saw and photographed played off against each other, making color combinations as rich in greens as the roadside flowers made of whites and yellows. 

And the various textures of leaf surface made their own contrasts. 

And the lights and darks, as shadow and light hit the foliage, gave them visual depth. 

Deep in one image, the bright green leaves nearer the surface hid the shadowed poison ivy, almost hidden in a cavern of green.

Leaves come in varieties of all of them. And when you layer one next to another, the contrast can keep the eye interested. 

In the process, I found myself drinking in not just the colors, but the varied shapes, creating patterns and textures that delighted my eye. 

Shape against shape, color against color, texture against texture: the analog of variety in the world, a variety that means we can never grasp it all — there is too much. 

One gets to know the plants in the woods near where you live, perhaps even name them: Duchesnia, Tradescantia, Helianthus, Ranunculus. They are part of what makes your home territory comfortable and familiar. Clovers, mosses, ferns, plantains, dandelions.  

And there is excitement when you enter a new biome and come across new greens, like the gray-green greasewood of the Sonoran Desert or the euphorbias of South Africa, each with its idiosyncratic shades and tints. 

Before the photographs from space showed us the dominant blue of our world, the Earth was traditionally called a “green planet.” It is green that makes life possible. Without it, the planet would be bare rock surrounded by the blue sea. 

Each time I visit this part of the state, I can’t help but set myself a task — a kind of art project, to try to organize a different way of seeing. A few days ago, my task was to look straight down at the ground to see what it looked like. I made more than a hundred photographs I could use. After I wrote that blog entry, and after my friend gave me her gift, I began a second project, to see how many greens I could find, how many leaf shapes and contrasts I could photograph.

These that I’m presenting here are just a small sample. But I hope they are worth looking at, at least as a tasting menu of delicious green.

Click any image to enlarge

According to European-Western tradition, there are four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west; and we mark them on a map by making the sign of a cross: north, south, east and west. Dominus Vobiscum. But Western culture tends to value a map rather more than the ground under your feet. If we take a larger view of it all, we should acknowledge two more cardinal directions: up and down. We live in three dimensions, not two. A map is only a diagram. Et cum spiritu tuo.

And when we make images — photographs, drawings, paintings — we tend to look along the flat plane of our cardinal directions, which means also, the plane of our standing vision. And if we photograph flowers, we tend to make our images like the identification photos in a nature guidebook. We look at them as if they were as tall as us, or we as ground-hugging as them. 

The bias is to ignore the sky above, the mud below. I spent some hours yesterday attempting to break my own tendencies and see if a shift in perspective might give me a fresher look at the garden. And so, I made a series of photographs pointing the camera straight down at the flowers from the top. 

The first image I made, when I put it up on my screen, reminded me of something. It took a moment, but then I had it: the Pleiades — the Seven Sisters in the night sky in the constellation Taurus. Here are the flowers:

Here are the Pleiades:

Looking down in the day was a mirror of looking up at night. Bunches of flowers, especially roadside wildflowers, often remind us of stars in the night sky. It’s why we name them cosmos, stellas and asters. 

Certainly the flower that has meant the most to me, emotionally, through my life is the aster, named for the stars. I remember a day, some 40 years ago, driving with my then-soulmate (is there a sadder hyphenated word in the language?) near Port Jervis, N.Y., and coming across an abandoned field, maybe a couple of football fields in extent, that was crammed with asters, thistles and ironweed, so thick on the ground there was barely any green showing through. It was hysterical with blue, and I thought it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Since then, I have sought any semblance of that abundance. I’m not sure a single life affords more than one of those moments. 

And so, I am walking through my sister-in-law’s garden in North Carolina and holding my camera flat parallel to the ground to see what these flower-stars look like from an angle we don’t normally see — or at least, think of them. 

Over and over the star analogy shown through. Constellations of yellow or white against a sky of green. 

Even the leaves themselves can be stars:

Patterns made: line-ups, triangles, squares, quincunx, spatters and grids. 

There is a Medieval trope that everything in Heaven finds its analog in the sublunary world (much like the Renaissance idea that everything in the world is mirrored internally in the mind). And I certainly felt that correspondence strongly while finding my floral models to photograph. 

It was the looking down that made the connection, the opposite of the looking upwards at the night sky. But looking down — straight down, if I could avoid my own clumsy feet — gave me more than that. I found that I was photographing more than calyx and petal, but discovering just how many distinct greens nature blares forth. 

Historically, painters had a limited number of pigments to use when painting leaves and trees. They could modulate those hues with the admixture of others, but there was a limit. The trees of Claude or Titian are mostly monophonic rather than stereo. The artist who freed green from those confines was Paul Cezanne, whose paintings contain more greens and more blues than any artist before or since. His eye for tint and shade was phenomenal. I remember when I first came to appreciate the work of Cezanne. I had seen his paintings only in reproduction and always thought of them as rather dull, even muddy. But visiting the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., I found a wall of the still lifes and was knocked out by the glowing depth of color: color I had never experienced except under the influence of herbs. But those chemical-induced colors were vaporous compared with the earthiness of Cezanne’s greens, blues and yellows. 

And so, there I was, camera in hand, looking earthward and seeing the exuberance of May in Piedmont, North Carolina, and the blistering variety of green that sprouts from the ground.

I walked around the property, head held downward, and finding such a joyous variety under my feet, that I wound up, in the space of under an hour, taking at least 100 usable photographs — images I would be proud or eager to share with the enthusiasm of a convert. The greens made patterns; the blossoms made patterns; the leaves were shapes to pleasure in; the colors were delicious. 

The esthetic sense, however, awakens an awareness of yet a seventh cardinal direction, which we might call “center.” It is the inward direction that is privy to the other six and gives them meaning and purpose. North, south, east, west, up, down, and in. Each in some way a reflection of all the others.

I have traveled much in each of the cardinal directions, north to the Canadian arctic, south to the Cape of Good Hope, eastward to Europe and finally, the Pacific coast. I have gone up in aeroplanes  and cathedral bell towers, and down in chthonic mine shafts and vast caverns, but most of all, I have gone inside of myself. The experience of nature — but also the making and partaking of art — expand the inner world, adding continents to the mental globe, possibilities of understanding, and depths of compassion. 

Looking down at the humble soil and its profuse variety keeps one from becoming tired of life. Paying attention is, in some ways, coequal with life itself.

Next — perhaps in tomorrow’s rain — I will extend my interior travels by looking straight up to see what is there.

Click on any image to enlarge

We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out. 

But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale. 

No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot? 

So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners. 

Desert Island book

The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul. 

My nominees for Desert Island Book are:

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book. 

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again. 

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me. 

À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty. 

Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship. 

And the award goes to:

Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry. 

Desert Island Music

This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture. 

My nominees for Desert Island Music are:

 —Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into. 

—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.” 

—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle. 

—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out. 

—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time. 

And the winner is: 

St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!

Desert Island Film

Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.

My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are: 

Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”

Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen.  I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love. 

Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you. 

Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon. 

And my choice is:

Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life. 

Bonus 

I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play. 

Opera

An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite: 

Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino

Epic poem

There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year: 

The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad. 

Live theater

What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember? 

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules. 

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And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.