letter to Karen Karbiener, 6 September 2014
6 September 2014: letter to Prof. Karen Karbiener, New York and Columbia Universities, in response to her lecture, "Emerson and Whitman: The Poets Who Inspired Wright".
Thank you for your thrilling lecture at Unity Temple on Thursday. It "brought me to a boil," as our dear Walt said.
I was eager to attend partly because I have been a lifelong lover of Whitman and Wright and all the exceptional ideas of their age, but partly also because I have been thinking a great deal about form recently. I am a pianist, and for the last seven months or so I have been studying J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. I decided in January that I would present them in recital in a year's time, and I have been gladly living in their world since then. In February, during a trip to London, I became obsessed with Piet Mondrian and, somewhat unexpectedly, the classical architectural diagrams of Andrea Palladio. Both of these artists seemed so perfectly to describe both the math and the movement of structure -- Palladio quite literally, and Mondrian in his expressions of distinct visual elements delicately interacting in a bound plane.
I began to wonder: how would artists like these describe the Goldberg Variations? What would a visual representation of these 32 brief pieces look like, and what would it convey not only about form or structure, but also about theme, emotion, and style? I began to paint -- mostly squares, thanks to Mondrian -- and explore how one technique, style, or palette of colors could create variations.
Mondrian expressed what he called "dynamic equilibrium" -- the idea that wholly disparate elements could exert the same level of influence over a piece and carry equal importance. That, for example, a small red rectangle could balance an entire canvas of black and white simply because of the shock of its redness, and in spite of its size.
Mondrian, like Wright, worked in pure forms. He obsessed over the whiteness of his white and never strayed from the primary colors. He knew as Wright did that the interaction of various elements of an artwork can express something about the interaction of humans in society -- that dynamic equilibrium offers a picture of ideal human relationships.
One of the many geniuses of the Goldberg Variations is that each piece is stunningly brilliant entirely on its own. Just as a lamp, doorway, or staircase can be beautiful out of place, so are these 32 sparkling moments of music. But when combined, they create an entirely new sonic environment -- one in which the constituent parts serve not some larger narrative arc, but one another. What formal, thematic, or stylistic effect would it have to play the pieces out of order? in excerpt? fully continuously or with pauses in between? These are the questions -- these and many others -- that I ask myself when I listen, practice, and paint. Since "principles are not invented," I am less concerned with "authenticity," the reigning king of Baroque performance practice. Why should I not contribute an unusual verse to the long history of Goldberg performances?
Wright wrote that if the ear can discern a pleasing combination of sounds, then surely the eye can inherently discern a harmonious combination of lines, forms, and colors. I tend to agree; I believe that there is something Natural (that is, learned from Nature) about beauty and art, but I wonder if beauty is the highest ideal to which we can aspire. I am less interested in beauty so much as the spontaneous expression of the Self -- that Whitmanesque Self, the Oversoul, what have you.
But there can be no argument: Wright, Whitman Bach -- there is beauty here. How thrilling to realize that the grandest ideas about democracy, society, Art itself, can be expressed in something simply beautiful which can be enjoyed for that fact alone. Stendahl said, "Beauty is the promise of happiness." Perhaps, then, it is an ideal to aspire to. (Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself...)
My great hero Glenn Gould (never afraid of spontaneous expression or the Whitmanesque Self) wrote, "The Goldberg Variations is music which observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor resolution.... It has, then, unity through intimate perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency." The Variations are what I have come to call "observational poetry" (as opposed to narrative poetry), a phrase I first began using to describe Billy Collins and his keen ability to lift the reader out of the quotidian, lead her to a brief moment of realization, and then quietly place her back into the ordinary world. (See Aimless Love.) I think this is the way some of the best artists work -- buildings that dissolve into prairies, words that reintroduce man to Nature, music that flows inevitably to silence. I forget which poet said, "I learned that a poem need not land on the foot of a single epiphany." That art, like all of us, may "depart as air."
When we talk about structure in architecture or literature or music, there is the literal, of course, but I think that at least in the way that Wright and Whitman and Mondrian worked, there is something of Platonic essentialism there -- that all this is an expression of some elemental Truth or Reality of which we can only see reflections and shadows. Sometimes I think that's what the arts are for (if they can be for anything): not to demonstrate how the world should be, but how it actually is, if only we look or listen well enough.
The last seven months of Bach have set me ruminating on many topics and artists, each more thrilling than the last. Though I've long loved Wright and Whitman, it wasn't until your wonderful lecture that I saw how perfectly they inform one another. I've lived with these ideas for just two days, but they've set me going at a fevered pace, which I love. I wish I could hear your speech 3 or 4 more times to fully form my ideas! Nevertheless, they will live with me long past January when I perform the Variations. I thank you for that, and I look forward to coming to know Whitman much better through your work.
Rachel Elizabeth Maley