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  • Scott M Williamson

L2P: "American Impressions" and


Yesterday, members of our fabulous Susannah cast - Stephanie Marx, Zach James,

Toby Newman, Brooke Tolley, and Jason Nichols, accompanied by Nancy Harder - joined me for one of my twice-annual "Listening to Paintings" (L2P) programs at the Taubman Museum of Art. Yesterday's pairing of music, poetry and art tied the TMA's "American Impressionism in the Garden" special exhibition to music by Floyd, Bernstein, Adamo and Weill, and words by Wallace Stevens, Lillian Hellmann, Mary Jo Bang and Gwendolyn Brooks. My outline for the program is below.

L2P (Listening to Paintings) | American Impressions | Susannah & Americana | 22.4.17

Introduction – shared themes: genres (portrait, character study, landscape, etc – reflected in music via arias, ensembles, and “set” pieces…)

Parallels – shared vocabulary: color, line, palette, chromaticism & harmony, balance, form (content) – themes, genres & vocab. also shared with poetry…

If we agree “regional” American art and music share characteristics – landscape paintings, from Hudson River Valley to Marsden Hartley; the “rugged” “pioneering” NE verse from Dickinson to Lowell; music that captures an essentially “American” or “National” “spirit” (like Bernstein and Copland) – then shouldn’t our experience of one enrich the other?

Hence today’s program, where you can see the music, hear the drama, and experience (2-dimensional) art come to life in new ways as you approximate a synesthetic experience, engaging various and multiple senses at once – let the act of listening open your eyes to a new perspective on a painting; as you look at a work of art, open your ears to the words and music suffusing this artistically charged space…

Susannah | 1950’s allegory, Crucible, “classical” theatre | Floyd & gothic/verismo

1. Ain’t it a Pretty Night – (genre/setting; read “It’s like a great big mirror” verse)

read: "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (intro. "Susannah & Elders" story; “Old Masters”; ekphrastic)

2. Hear me O Lord – (character study, “classical” portrait – Eakins, et al.)

read: Lowell’s “Helen” (formal character study, technique as expressive, Helen=Susannah)

3. Trees on the Mt. (multi-level; diegetic/genre; landscape as character, anthropomorphic)

read: The Lark excerpt (Hellmann/HUAC; Bernstein, Floyd)

4. What a movie! (Trouble in Tahiti – flux/blur of 1950’s genres – innovation)

read: Mary Jo Bang / Damien Hirst (“shock” vs. “fascination” and wonder/awe value)

5. Joy Beyond Measure (from Little Women –American “regional” “classic”)

Adamo as “nephew” of Bernstein, Floyd; “letter” aria as dramatic genre, Shakespeare to Pushkin, Mozart to Verdi, et al.

read: “Langston Hughes” (G. Brooks: power of the lyric; “sweet-bitter” & “tragic” art…)

6. Lonely House (Street Scene – song as Hopper nocturnal city-scape; Weill & co. & "Broadway Opera"; infl. on Floyd)

P.S. Further thoughts pursuant to L2P:

WCW: “The Fool’s Song” (poem-of-the-day): Heigh-ho, Truth in a cage!

The idea that “shock-value” in art, controversy allegedly for its own sake – renders said “provocative” work/artist cheap, or of merely superficial value… That “shock value” obscures the true “fascination” or “wonder” (as in the “sublime” factor of "awe") which a provocative and substantive work may have.

The Rite of Spring retains its fascinating ability to continue to surprise and unsettle, 100 + years after its shocking and scandalous premiere… It remains to be seen whether or not Damien Hirst’s sculpture of a tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde (or Mary Jo Bang’s poem on the work) will endure beyond their creator’s lifetimes…

PPS: Lowell’s “Helen” from his amazing sonnet sequence, History, which I ended up not reading yesterday, as I had intended to, at L2P…

It’s bold opening proclamation, “I am the azurel come from the underworld,” which, typically Lowellian, crescendos by line 3 to “see our galleys bleed with dawn”… True to its title, and again, the product of its author’s leaping, labyrinthine imagination, we have a violent and operatic history lesson:

Agamemnon drowned in Clytemnestra’s bath, Ulysses

the great gulf boiling sternward…

(I love the layered reflectiveness from this manic-depressive poet, who “boiled sternward” and imagined himself Achilles during one of his institutionalizations…) And then their is Lowell’s Whitmanian “muscle music” (Terrance Hayes, a current descendant),

I hear the military trumpets, all their brass

blasting the rhythms to the frantic oars,

the rowers metronome enchains the sea.

Lowell can’t help himself with the double-entendre/pun, which, being another symptom of the manic, is also one of the ways Lowell’s poems unspool like a multi-colored strand of Ariadne’s spool of thread, guiding us through his poetry’s (and life’s!) labyrinths…

His classically-etched free-verse sonnet ends with a dramatic flourish; it reminds us our speaker is the most beautiful woman among mortals, Helen, and in describing the prow of a Greek warship, puts the gods themselves in their place:

High on beaked vermillion prows, the gods,

their fixed archaic smiles smarting with salt,

reach out carved, indulgent arms to me.

The final image also echoes the beloved genre painting of “Susannah and the Elders”. Lowell’s music, in its own way, reverberates (in dissonance?) with Steven’s “music is feeling, then, not sound” in his “Susannah and the Elders” poem, “Peter Quince at the Clavier”… And this, more than my presentation would have allotted me to say had I included even the poem, is just the tip of the enthralling Lowellian poetic spool…

(Thank you, Sir Robert, we know of what you speak when you write, "I myself am hell..." (from "Skunk Hour," Life Studies)


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