Starry Nights

devils towerIn one of those artsy coincidences that harbors a touch of the unexpected, I ran across the picture shown above, which was taken last month with a multicamera rig and a 360-degree time-lapse technique to create a phantasmagoric scene of celestial splendor above the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
van gogh starry nightOf course, Vincent van Gogh didn’t have to go to so much trouble when he painted the highly reminiscent The Starry Night from 1889, above. I wonder whether the photographer (who also shares a first name with the Dutch post-Impressionist) had the masterpiece in mind when he fashioned his strikingly similar digital image.

Or maybe just a case of lucky stars?

Photo: Vincent Brady / Caters News

Glass Act

PhilipGlass3Among love ‘em or leave ‘em lists of contemporary classical composers, Philip Glass is one of those who usually ranks equally high in both categories. I would describe his work as an acquired taste, and one that I will admit I happily acquired as a teenager, thanks to his crystalline Glassworks, which mesmerized me with its hypnotic repetitions and abstract contours that created a blank slate for the imagination.

Start a discussion amongst classical music aficionados about Glass (whose memoir, Words Without Music, is published next month) and you can be sure it will be nothing if lively. For every one that considers him among the greatest composers of the 20th Century, you can find many others with opinions similar to that of a critic at London’s Telegraph, who once wrote, “Listening to Philip Glass is about as rewarding as chewing gum that’s lost its flavour.”

As is the case with most classical composers, mass consumption usually comes via popular media, and to the general public, Glass is primarily known for his contributions to numerous films, perhaps most notably his score for The Hours, nominated for an Academy Award in 2002, and more recently, the Russian production Leviathan, from last year.

Glass is one of those artists whose work I’ve continued to dip into on and off through the years, long since the classic Glassworks was etched into my creative consciousness. Case in point is a new recording of Glass compositions for solo piano, Mad Rush (nicely performed by Lisa Moore, who’s been called “New York’s Queen of Avant-Garde Piano”). As usual with any great creator who’s marked by the longevity and prolificacy of Glass, you’ll invariably manage to find some gems.

Here, it’s Metamorphosis, a piece in five movements that’s a self-contained primer on all that’s idiosyncratic about Glass’s work. It’s loosely inspired by the Franz Kafka novel of the same name (the literary masterpiece, one will recall, is about a man’s transformation into a cockroach).

Metamorphosis is all about evolvement; yet this interpretation is ultimately more about a journey out of one existence only to metaphorically retreat back to where it began. The playful arpeggios that are sprinkled against a background of the signature Glass repetitions seem to signify wonder at the mutation, but the last movement, almost identical to the first one, implies more stasis than transition. Not surprisingly, as with anything by Glass, it will leave you pondering as to its true meaning.

Speaking of pondering, it’s inexplicable to me that Glass has yet to be recognized with a Presidential Medal of Arts, or at the very least a Kennedy Center Honors award. I’ll assume those will come (though Glass is already 78, so let’s step it up). Surely he ranks up there with past recipients like American composers Elliott Carter and William Bolcom as far as his influence on modern music.

Meanwhile, time to give the evergreen Glassworks yet another listen — for old time’s sake.

‘Become Ocean’ by John Luther Adams

adams become oceanWinner in the Best Contemporary Classical category at last month’s Grammy Awards, Become Ocean by composer John Luther Adams is a highly acclaimed work from an artist who has long been inspired by the transcendence of nature, so evocatively realized in this soaring soundscape, which also won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Pop Culture Musing for a Friday 2/20/15

best actor oscars 2015Let’s Hear it for the Boys: It says something about the depth of the male performances this Oscar season that a number of amazing portrayals could not be recognized by the Academy thanks to the five-nominee cap in the acting categories. There was justifiable uproar when David Oyelowo’s powerful reenactment of Martin Luther King in Selma was not included in the final cut for Best Actor, but he was in pretty good company, most significantly Ralph Fiennes, in his wry and wonderful turn as the concierge in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as Timothy Spall’s iconoclastic depiction of the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in the beautifully shot period piece, Mr. Turner.

Personally, I found Bradley Cooper in American Sniper the weakest (though by no means undistinguished) link in a field that’s notable for a couple of performances — by Steve Carell and Michael Keaton — that go against the grain for the actors in question. An unrecognizable Carell, so familiar for his comedic talents in other venues, left me more than surprised by his haunting transformation into John du Pont in Foxcatcher, playing the troubled heir to an American fortune whose privileged life culminated in grisly tragedy. Michael Keaton was also an unexpected revelation as the washed-up, middle-aged actor seeking artistic validation in Birdman. It’s difficult to find humor in schizophrenia and desperation, but Keaton managed to balance the pathos with a deft sense of absurdity that verges on the transcendent.

The two Englishmen, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, who round out the list of Best Actor nominees, are also wonders to behold. In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne crafts a performance that is so inordinately difficult at its core: having to convey both wrenching physical disability as well as soul-stirring emotion through indelible facial expressions that serve as windows into the complex personality of the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. And Cumberbatch, as the ingenuous computer scientist Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, brings a breathtaking intelligence to a role that, in lesser hands, may have proven distantly academic, but instead lingers by way of its human dimension.

jk simmonsAdd to this overcrowded list of brilliant male performances that of J.K. Simmons, left, nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the pathological music instructor in the stunning film, Whiplash. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Simmons was moved to the supporting category in order to ensure a win (though I’ll also issue a shout-out to Ethan Hawke in Boyhood, who probably would have won had it been any other year). There’s nothing “supporting” about Simmons’s performance, which is front and center and indescribably overpowering as a jazz professor whose idea of pushing (or shall we say, punishing) his students towards greatness leaves a lot to be desired. (And gosh, some remarkable — and not nominated — work as well by Miles Teller, as the main object of Simmons’s sadistic derision.)

So who will win on Sunday?  Doesn’t matter. There’s not a loser in this bunch.

Master of Light

JMW Turner Tower of LondonTake a guess as to when this watercolor was created. Take a guess as to its style. The time-frame could very easily be contemporary, and stylistically it could be called anything from Impressionistic to Abstract Expressionist or beyond.  But Fire at the Tower of London is actually 174 years old, and it preceded Impressionism by several decades.

The painter was the British artist best known for his amazing landscapes, J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), and he was radically ahead of his time. His life and work are now on view in director Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed biopic, Mr. Turner, nominated for four Oscars in the categories of cinematography, production and costume design, and original score.

Turner Self-PortraitLet not the rather handsome self-portrait of Turner (shown left) influence you if you intend to see the film, in which case you’ll be in for a shock. I certainly was. Timothy Spall, in a remarkable performance that itself deserved an Academy Award nomination (he won the actor’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year) portrays the artist as practically porcine, borderline swinish in his physical characteristics and habits. You really have to suspend disbelief to see him as the creator of some of the most sublime masterworks in art history.

The film critic Kenneth Turan put it best when he recently described this depiction of Turner as “an elemental man with an ethereal talent.” It’s that dichotomy that makes this painstakingly crafted period piece more interesting than most. But if I had to express one disappointment after seeing the film, it would be the relative lack of insight I came away with as far as the artistic motivation — ethos, if you will — that drove Turner, especially in his explorations of color and light. One of his most striking quotes, for example, was “Light is therefore colour.” Sounds simple enough. But at its heart lies a complex puzzle that many an artist has wrestled with throughout the centuries.

The paintings shown here are ones I particularly admire, because they illustrate the last years of Turner’s artistic odyssey that culminated in the total annulment of the representational.  “Indistinctness is my forte,” he said at the time, laying the groundwork for the revolutionary Impressionist movement that began with Claude Monet and company in 1874.

It is also said that Turner’s last words before he died were, “The sun is God.” Immerse yourself in his resplendent works and you can’t help but grasp glimpses of divinity.

“Yacht Approaching the Coast” (1835)

A Sip of Art

picasso mouton rothschildThe iconic artworks that were created for Absolut Vodka by such artists as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring back in the ‘80s are more well-known, but the fascinating story of the legendary wine estate, Chateau Mouton Rothschild —  and its association with some of the giants of 20th-Century art — long preceded that famous advertising campaign.

miro wine labelConceived by the Baron Philippe de Rothschild (great-grandson of the founder of the French winery) as a way of commemorating both victory in WWII and the vintage of 1945, which is now considered the greatest of the century, the idea of engaging celebrated painters to grace Mouton Rothschild’s bottles with their work became a yearly tradition.

From 1945 onwards, contemporary artists were commissioned to create original pieces to f. bacon wine labelbe featured on the label. The reward for each was ten cases of wine, whose value was expected to grow over time. (That’s an understatement. A 12-bottle case of the Mouton Rothschild 1945 fetched a record $207,400 — or more than $17,000 a bottle — in 2010.)

The undertaking came to include such legends of the art world as Pablo Picasso (his contribution to the 1973 vintage is at top), Joan Miró (above left), and Francis Bacon (above). Warhol and Haring eventually added some wine alongside the vodka as well, with Lucian Freud and Jeff Koons joining the long list of luminaries into the 2000s.

balthus wine

The project has experienced some amusing controversy along the way. In 1993, a drawing by the French artist (and nymphet aficionado) Balthus was deemed too racy for use in the U.S., and the bottles were sold in America with a blank space where the image should have appeared. Both versions, shown above, are now highly sought after by collectors.

The Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, who carried on this creative side of her father’s legacy until her death in August of last year, once commented: “Is it art? Is it wine? What it is really is art put on bottles of wine, which happened to be art themselves.”

And what ambrosial canvasses they were.

Creative & Otherwise