Shapes, Notes

I finally had some “down” time yesterday after a fairly packed Ash Wednesday. I should have slept in yesterday morning, but rather than giving in to wintry malaise, I decided to recharge my batteries with a bit of visual stimulation. Among the many benefits afforded students at the Juilliard School, one is free admission to the Museum of Modern Art. In times past, it’s been a usual haunt for me on my commute from Oberlin to NYC for harp lessons. It’s not a total surprise to be honest. Other organists and choral groupies can often be spotted wandering around, as the museum is situated just behind St. Thomas, 5th Avenue, a church boasting a distinguished choral tradition. A point of pilgrimage for me and my kind, this single block in Manhattan offers the experience of hearing an Anglican evensong next door to a temple of American iconoclasm.

After stopping off at JOE for my morning fix, I headed to MoMA and meandered my way to a Jackson Pollock exhibit. I knew Pollock’s name and vaguely knew that he was an abstract artist, but apart from that my knowledge of him was slight. Walking in, I saw my first painting and was immediately struck not just by the shapes, but also the sheer density of the figures. It was apparent that there’s a considerable amount of paint on the canvas, and that there is no doubt or second thought about the way in which this or that shape is situated. The decisiveness was almost unnerving. There are no brush strokes. There is no “direction” to the paint. There are only these semi-naturalistic blobs, akin to the shapes of years-old chewing gum on city sidewalks or the patterns seen in the dark when you close your eyes.

Before heading any further, I stepped out and did a search on my iPhone for Pollock. What I read was intriguing. Pollock threw materials at the canvas and used syringes and turkey basters to literally drop and splatter paint. He also experimented in surrealist free drawing, supposedly allowing the hand to be guided subconsciously to create shapes and forms. Walking back into the exhibit, I look for a drawing. There’s one across the room from the first blob painting, with jigsaw puzzle-shapes formed into eyes, and eventually into a bee. On the lower left hand side, lines and triangles descended downwards, where circles started and formed wings and a body, revealing the initial shapes to be antennae on a butterfly.

My friend’s arrival halted my entomological thoughts, but I was glad to have a companion. He’s a typical composer in that he’s astute in his observations and perceptions, being in the full-time business of artistic creation. Weaving in and out of conversations about our lives and catching up, the topic of how to take in Pollock arose, and a certain sense of distance we felt from the works in front of us. It wasn’t a matter of understanding or relating to them, as Pollock’s outlandish shapes and novel techniques are visceral and stirring. But lacking expertise as painters, making value judgments and assessing their worth proved difficult. Comparisons with music were made in short order. As we talked, it became apparent that when we hear equivalent techniques in music, particularly when encountering American modernism, years of training in levelling out all that is erratic still color our perceptions.

I was immediately reminded of Pollock’s contemporary Henry Cowell. Known for banging on the piano with his elbows, scratching the strings with his nails and turning the instrument into a one-man special effects machine, he’s on the tip of many a Juilliard student’s tongue thanks to the presence of professor Joel Sachs. A veritable Yoda, on all things modern and musicky, he has written the definitive biography on Cowell (“Henry” in our seminars) and wonderfully illustrated this great modernist’s influence upon performers and musicians of the twentieth century. Despite my great affection for Dr. Sachs’s course on American music, there is something about Cowell that leaves me at once emboldened and unsettled, even doubtful. I know it’s my own instinct to occupy some sort of middle ground on a matter that means a great deal to me. It’s not uncommon for us as humans to be precious with those things and people for which we care. Caution sets in. Disturbances to our established systems render defensiveness against something challenging or unknown. In listening to Cowell’s piano music, I’m unable to take it at face value. Unlike with Pollock, my sensibilities tell me that playing with my fists is some sort of cop out, and that scratching and plucking the piano wires is something my grandmother would shout at me for doing when I was in kindergarten. Especially now, as a conservatory student, I spend so much time refining an interpretation and avoiding plasticity that the overuse of unsubtle effects seems like a brutish or unnecessary affront.

In class this week, we were all assigned to make our way through Cowell’s great treatise New Musical Resources, supposedly a book with a mind towards theorizing his views on music. I admit as I read through the book, a light skim was impossible. Just as with Pollock’s blobs and art, I had my first encounter with a completely novel way of thinking about music. In speaking on how music ought to be created and perceived, Cowell doesn’t start with aesthetics, but with the observation that musical sound is a scientific phenomenon in the human perception of vibrations. From this stance, Cowell begins to treat all rhythmic and sonic schemes as one, removing all separations between pitch from rhythm. Being a theoretical tome, the levels of complexity reach substantial heights, offering that time signatures can be set in multiples of 3, rather than indices of 2. Note values now contain different shapes to show relative lengths, and can be divided up into fractions as small and particular as 1/44.

Screen shot 2016-02-12 at 21.00.11

It all seems farcical, evocative of a sci-fi novel about the Tesseract. But I can’t dismiss it, as unsettled as I am by certain implications, such as the notion of three consecutive tempi at once being the same as the change in a dynamic marking from loud to soft. In the flurry of new ideas, removing what he sees as false separation of musical dimensions, he frames his entire book within the precepts of traditional harmony and profoundly explores the implications of a C major chord. In so doing, he manages to reiterate time and time again the purpose of his project: to increase musical complexity for the sake of a more refined medium of artistic expression.

In rereading the book two more times, I gradually realize that some of these ideas aren’t so much new, but forgotten or discarded. Frescobaldi comes to mind, telling us to play our hands at different speeds. The instrument maker Vincentino created a keyboard with a 19-note scale in the 16th century, trying to exploit the different combinations of beats in order to heighten expression through minute experiments with vibration.


Using alternative unit lengths was essential to sub-dividing bars into prime number for a little known Parisian cleric named Pierre de la Croix. Books of music from the past, such as the Chantilly Codex used pictorial scores and different colors to show differences in rhythms. For a considerable period of time, musical scores were too complex to condense on a single sheet of paper, but required multiple sections, each with their own organizational schemes. Shaped notes are still an important part of American hymnody in signifying relative pitch intervals for hymns, the likes of which formed the basis for much of Charles Ives’s music.



It’s all astonishing but completely in line with the foundations of American modernism with musicians such as Ives, in using what is around you to create something peculiar and individual.

My trip to MoMA leaves me pondering whether my perception of American modernism as “iconoclastic” is fair or accurate. In reading Cowell or seeing Pollock, I’m challenged, but nothing has been torn down. At least with Cowell, it’s a form of revival, a resurrection even, of ideas and perspectives lost to the various fates of systemization, organization, ease and comfort. It also feels like a better alternative to a Lenten trend of introspection. Why spend forty days alone in the desert, when forty thousand years of art and music can instantly challenge you to express yourself with more refinement?

I’m reminded of a poem by an Oberlin professor. I don’t have permission to reproduce his poem here. His name is Kazim Ali, and his poem on deserts seems to encapsulate the experience of heading to a space which is supposed to mess with your mind a bit.



You came to the desert, illiterate, spirit-ridden,
intending to starve

The sun hand of the violin carving through space
the endless landscape

Acres of ochre, the dust-blue sky,
or the strange young man beside you

peering into “The Man Who Taught William Blake
Painting in His Dreams”

You’re thinking: I am ready to be touched now, ready to be found
He’s thinking: How lost, how endless I feel this afternoon

When will you know:
all night: sounds

Violet’s brief engines
The violin’s empty stomach resonates

Music a scar unraveling in four strings
An army of hungry notes shiver down

You came to the desert intending to starve      so starve


I realize that a classical music blog is perhaps not the right place to discuss crises of faith, so I’ll stop here.

Except to say that you should go see the Pollock exhibit at MoMA.

Leave a Reply