Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Descriptions

I distinctly remember, in college, going to talk to my creative nonfiction professor, suggesting that I write a personal essay about my mother, and the professor pointing out that my love for my mom (which was the gist of it) would not an essay make. “How about my favorite piece of music? How about ballet class pianists? Music boxes?” I would later ask myself in a similar vein. Since then, I’ve explored plenty of conflicts and tensions in my writing, but I’ve held onto that desire to write about things I love. That’s why Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s & Other Essays (2013) makes me so happy.
With titles such as “Hart Crane’s Gorgeousness,” “Frank O’Hara’s Excitement,” “Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sentences,” and “Roberto Bolaño’s Tone,” some large proportion of his essays in this collection are about things he likes and why he likes them, chronicles of the search for that telling though not obvious detail that makes a work pop. In one of Koestenbaum’s essays, “Epitaph on Twenty-Third Street,” a paean to a poet, he describes waking up one day with this task in mind: “My aesthetic health depends on describing accurately what is remarkable about James Schuyler’s poetry.” Granted, he’s not writing about his mom; he is writing about works of art, features of culture that many relate to and anyone can Google. Still, it gratifies me that he writes about the things he adores. 
In this cup-half-full approach, Koestenbaum is following Susan Sontag’s advice for criticism as expressed in her 1964 essay “Against interpretation.” Sontag argues against looking for hidden meaning and metaphorical equivalents in artwork. As alternatives to hermeneutics, she recommends "more attention to form in art," and adds that "equally valuable would be acts of criticism that would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art."
Let me say up front that Koestenbaum is wont to interpret, particularly when it comes to poetry, and in that respect, he is certainly not following Sontag’s advice. It’s the latter part of Sontag’s recommendation, the idea of a “loving description,” that Koestenbaum exemplifies in many of his writings and most strikingly in “Cary Grant, Nude,” in which Kustenbaum imagines himself in the room face-to-face with the Cary Grant portrayed in a series of paintings by Kurt Kauper. Koestenbaum describes the paintings, formally and in great detail via this imagined meeting between him and the actor. The results are often funny.
Koestenbaum never lets us forget that “Cary Grant Nude” is a painting, and his descriptions can be patently formal: 
“Formally, the painting’s principle members are rectangles: fireplace bricks; wedge of tile on which Cary Grant stands; sections of white mantelpiece mirror; segments of bureau; outlet; baseboard; book spine. Cary Grant’s head is itself a rectangle, as is the trim portion of abdominal infrastructure we glimpse through his skin. His tan line reveals the ghost of rectangular bathing trunks.” 
But we're formally describing someone with a boxer tan. Humor emerges from the clash of the formal and the mundane. Another source of laughs is that what seems normal in a painting can seem ridiculous in real life. In the first section of the piece, called "Cary Grant Nude by the Fireplace," Koestenbaum refers to Kauper's "Cary Grant#1." Koestenbaum describes the painting as if he is standing in the painter’s place but the imagined scene is not the painting of a portrait but something quotidian. Cary Grant just happens to be "nude":
“I never expected to see Cary Grant nude. 
I’m not turned on; he’s not hirsute."
 Koestenbaum's observations:
          “His right tit has begun to sag.          
          Someone has groomed his pubic patch, shaved his balls, powdered them with baby talc.            
          His long, expressive fingers appear deft as a fey banker’s, an insurance executive’s. I picture these hands writing Wallace Stevens’ poems.”
In looking at a painting, the nudity, the grooming of the subject's genitals, hardly register. Yet to encounter such things on a regular day would of course be bizarre. In the second section, “Cary Grant Nude Walking Toward Me,” based on "Cary Grant#3," Koestenbaum makes a similar juxtaposition: “I can almost feel how warm this palazzo must be, to allow Cary Grant to walk around nude,” Koestenbaum writes, as if Grant isn’t posing for a portrait but just hanging out, naked. But Koestenbaum doesn’t say naked. He uses, and reuses again and again, the word 'nude,' the artistic equivalent of unclothed. The word keeps the reader with one foot in the world of the painting even as the rest of the essay has us imagining the odd scene between Koestenbaum and Grant.

In interpreting the paintings, Koestenbaum obviously goes against Sontag's main thread of advice in "Against interpretation." Alternate meanings emerge everywhere; for example, in "Cary Grant Nude on the Daybed," based on the aptly-named "Cary Grant #2," a cigarette continues the line of a penis and an ashtray stands in for an anus or a urinal. Wrinkles in the blanket parallel the ashtray/anus/urinal. 
Another layer of symbolism is the cracked open window with its “black curved lever [that] allows the eye to consider opening the window that will never open. That lever’s black curve, almost alphabetic, or like a newly invented piece of punctuation, doesn’t touch the sea’s horizon line, though it almost does. That averted intersection arouses erotic expectancy.” He finds other almost-touchings in the painting: “The fact that his elbow will never touch the curtain means that I as viewer (or as the one who is seduced by Cary Grant) will never adequately grasp the painting’s meanings, will never make my peace with realism.” Nor will he sleep with Cary Grant. Koestenbaum sleeping with Cary Grant is a metaphor for fully appreciating a work of art. A meta-metaphor.
         But I don't mean to criticize Koestenbaum for interpreting art; I would argue that since interpretation is part of the way that Koestenbaum appreciates artwork, it is integral to any "loving description" of it.
On the other hand, "loving" is not exactly the first word that comes to mind when I think of Susan Sontag's criticism: "arch" and "harsh" come more readily. But Sontag suggests description over interpretation, not praise over criticism. Before "loving," Sontag requires descriptions to be "accurate" and "sharp."  Her writing has incredible nuance; in her articles, praise and criticism coexist. For example, "Notes on 'Camp'" is a kind and detailed description of what she calls a sensibility, but Sontag's views of it are not entirely positive: "I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can." Hers is tough love. 

 I didn’t think much of "Cary Grant Nude" on first reading. It seemed like a clever conceit. It also seemed like a lot of effort to devote to paintings that don't particularly interest me. Was Koestenbaum really so taken with these paintings? The practical motivation for the essay probably had to do with the publication of a book of Kurt Kauper paintings in which the piece first appeared. But for me, what’s remarkable about the essay is that I connect it to Sontag. Without that link, I would not be writing about it. Who knows if the connection existed in Koestenbaum's mind, but I find it sweet, a subtle tribute to a writer he revered. 
The essay "Susan Sontag: Cosmophage," also in his new book, is Koestenbaum's overt homage. He had these words for her: "Cosmophagic, Sontag gobbled up sensations, genres, concepts. She swallowed political and aesthetic movements. She devoured roles: diplomat, filmmaker, scourge, novelist, gadfly, essayist, night owl, bibliophile, cineaste...She tried to prove how much a human life--a writer's life--could include." 
Koestenbaum, too, is a cosmophage, who savors taste through sentences and takes care to compliment the cook. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Found Art: A Garden For Its Own Sake

"All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde once wrote. Immanuel Kant thought of taste as disinterested satisfaction and beauty as having no external purpose. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Susan Sontag and doubtless others I haven't heard of elaborated this idea that art is something about which the viewer is emotionally detached. It's not only that art inspires or guarantees detachment in the viewer; he bears some responsibility for his experience: "However much the reader or listener or spectator is aroused by a provisional identification of what is in the work of art with real life, his ultimate reaction--so far as he is reacting to the work as a work of art--must be detached, restful, contemplative," Sontag wrote in her essay "On style."

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article about another kind of purposeless treasure. "The Good-for-Nothing Garden" portrays a man, James Golden, who raises a garden that is useless by design. "I don’t want it for anything utilitarian at all," he told the Times reporter, Michael Tortorello. Golden considers the purpose of New Jersey garden, called Federal Twist, to be "aesthetic, ornamental, even emotional” and sees gardens as places "to sit in, think about, look at the sky in, live in,'" Tortorello reported. Golden seems to respond to his garden the way great thinkers believe people should respond to art. 

Appreciating things for their own sake is endangered in a world in which more and more aspects of life come with a cost-benefit tag. People make attempts to justify art, but in doing so, they risk undermining it altogether. For example, a recently published study found, to speak very broadly, that reading literature makes people more empathetic. In an NPR story, study coauthor David Corner Kidd is quoted as saying, "We're having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities," and goes on to say that empirical evidence, such as that provided by his study, about the value of the arts is missing from discussions of whether or not to fund them. But looking for the value of art is missing the point. Once you discover how art can be useful and approach it with that mindset, it's no longer art. In the same vein, once a person starts visiting a garden in order to...do anything but "visit a garden," the aesthetic quality is weakened.

A potential retort to the "garden as art" idea is that Golden feels emotions in his garden and is therefore not emotionally detached. Yet to say that art involves emotional detachment doesn't mean that it inspires no feelings; on the contrary, art is known for tapping into our emotions. Emotional detachment means, I think, that the emotions inspired by art are separated from the world outside the artwork. When I listen to music, for example, I feel love...for music. It's a contained emotion. Paintings of nudes viewed as artwork, do not (in theory) inspire desire for sex--something external to the art--the way pornography does. There's also something to be said for a state of contemplation allowing feelings to rise to the surface, ones that may have little to do with the thing contemplated. 

Seeking nature as a place to think and reflect is so common it's cliché. Some poets really do get ideas on walks in the woods. Staring at the ocean is my form of natural contemplation, and it is an aesthetic, emotionally-detached experience. The movement of the waves has nothing to do with me. I don't affect the ocean (in that moment), and it won't react to me. A lobsterman might not be able to see it that way. 

To some extent, beauty is in the mindset of the beholder.

UPDATE: 10/21/13: In the last paragraph of "On style," Sontag addresses the idea of the aesthetic experience outside what's traditionally seen as art: "So many items in our experience which could not be classed as works of art possess some of the qualities of art objects. Whenever speech or movement or behavior or objects exhibit a certain deviation from the most direct, useful, insensible mode of expression or being in the world, we may look at them as having a 'style,' and being both autonomous and exemplary."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Einstein of Ballet Class: Pianist Ai Isshiki

               Imagine the minutes before the start of ballet class. The dancers are lying on the specially-surfaced gray floor, the contours of their thin bodies hidden by baggy warm-up wear, limbs radiating out in all manner of stretching positions. Those who know each other talk quietly. Those new to class just stretch, and wait. An unusual figure appears in the studio, not dressed for class, and walks across the floor in street shoes. Soon, the character makes his identity clear: he sits down at the piano and begins his own method of warming up, which is strident and loud. It is the ballet pianist, the sole musician in a room full of dancers, at once essential and alienated.
Ai Isshiki is a ballet pianist. She is also a composer. She has been accompanying classes for four or five years, first in Boston, now, in New York, at such studios as the Mark Morris Dance Center, in Brooklyn, and Ballet Arts, in Manhattan. No archetype, Ai does not represent ballet pianists as a group; however, I know from dancing in classes she has accompanied that she is a remarkable individual, and I wanted to try to see ballet class from her perspective. I interviewed her in a café before Kenny Larson’s intermediate ballet class at Ballet Arts. These are my impressions, those of a sometimes dancer, of ballet pianists and of my time with Ai (pronounced like eye). 

          Ballet class is the bread and butter of dance, a daily ritual that underpins the athleticism and artistry that we see onstage. Class depends, in turn, on music. While some classes use recorded piano music, in cities, a live pianist is a standard and essential component of every class. It’s also a role that’s easily overlooked. The dancers watch and listen to the instructor, the only one who talks during the lesson; they watch, gesture and whisper to each other. Though they hear the piano, their only real interaction with the pianist may be a curtsy or bow during the clapping at the end of class.*

Class is a living, panting, grinning, sighing, sweating thing. The pianist's beat holds it all together, leading synchronized motion in a room of otherwise independent bodies. Body to body, class to class, sameness and individuality coexist. The sequence of combination types—pliés, tendus—is the same for every class, but the details vary. The teacher shows each combination, saying the steps in rhythm, and while the dancers try to memorize the routine, the pianist decides what to play. Then the dancers do the exercise on each side, and the process repeats, from combination to combination, barre to center, culminating with leaps from one corner of the room to the other, the “grand allegro.” Within the 90-minute ballet class, Ai may play 15 to 25 different pieces.

How does the pianist choose the music? It can be quite simple: There are books of ballet class music, with songs eight or 16 bars long and organized by exercise, and Ai bought one of these when she started playing for ballet classes. She was not content to play by the book for long. Ai is determined not to play the same thing twice throughout the day—a tall order when you play up to four classes daily, as Ai does.
“For a musician like me who doesn’t wanna repeat—anything—I just needed to have thousands of repertories. I went to the library every day—I worked at the Harvard library before this free score Internet developed—I went to the library and I copied.”  
Ai is attuned to how dancers respond to her music and chooses what to play based, in part, on her sense of the energy in the room. “I see air—it sounds creepy—I see air sinking down or spinning up whenever I play and then however dancers react to it.” As we talk, I start to see the studio as more than a floor to dance on but as this rectangular prism of energy in four dimensions: dancers move through three-dimensional space according to the meter of the pianist.
Different music “gives different feelings to the space,” Ai says. She remembers one teacher calling her, the pianist, “the Einstein of the place.” That teacher was Marcus Schulkind, dancer, choreographer, teacher, and founding director of Green Street Studios in Cambridge. I asked him about this phrase, and he explained that the pianist, by setting the tempo, determines the relation, or relativity, between time and space.
            “Maybe I can tell you how I got hooked,” Ai says, “the first time that I thought, ‘this is really cool.’” The class was going okay. The energy in the room was low. It was time for the grand allegro. Ai, who is also a composer, decided to try something: she started scoring the movements, playing a different motif for each step, instead of playing a tune. “The dancers, the energy came up and the air, I don’t know how you say, sparkled?” Ai tells me, clasping her hands to her chest in that classic pose of glee. “It was very good. The first time in the ninety minutes that the music and dance got in tune or gave each other something to inspire.”
This interaction with other people is something Ai craves as an artist. 
“I never wanted to be a ‘pianist pianist.’” Ai tells me.  It took a little while for her to explain to me what that meant.“You can do everything on piano. It’s not supposed to be an issue. You can cover the whole range of orchestra, which is wonderful but which is horrible because you don’t need anybody to play with you.” Ai, who also plays in a band and composes, likes to play with other people. Though in a dance class, Ai is the only pianist in the room, she isn’t exactly playing alone—she’s playing with the dancers. They are interdependent. Her music—time—affects their movements through space and, the reverse is also true.
"ai is a very wonderful accompanist," Marcus told me in an email. "good range of music and styles, very in the moment attentive and caring; very connected to the process and very sensitive to the structure and process of training.”

Ai is is seated, barefoot, at an upright piano made of blond wood in a rectangular room full of ballet dancers.

There is a handwritten sign on the piano:
“PLEASE Do Not play the piano so Hard
Be Gentle.”

On the piano’s stand, in place of a paper score, is an iPad.

Barre is over, and center is underway in Kenny’s class at Ballet Arts, which began right after our interview. It is time for the “petit allegro,” a series of foot-twisting small jumps.
“We’ll mark it with music,” Kenny says, snapping his fingers to indicate a tempo. “And.” Ai begins to play after Kenny gives the upbeat. “Two groups this tempo, two groups a little faster.” With a jump on every beat, a dancer can bounce up and down the whole time with what’s called “ballon.” If you don’t quite get the steps though, you feel stuck to the floor. After the dancers had all done the combination at the first tempo, Kenny claps a faster beat, and Ai immediately speeds up. It is a bit fast for the dancers, but that’s the point.

The pianist, sometimes in contrast to the dancers, is a professional. One of the reasons that it’s possible to overlook the pianist is that the pianist rarely messes up—noticeably.

The dancers gather in the back corner. Ai starts to play, and in groups of five or six, the dancers begin running, jumping, bouncing across the room. It is the grand allegro. Ai plays a piece so rousing that it looked like her left hand is bouncing up and down on the piano as the dancers leap; her hand completely flops over at the wrist as it comes high off the keys. The music rumbles with anticipation as one group finishes, with a split leap toward the front corner, and the next group gets into position.
At the end of the class, Ai puts on her sandals, walks across the studio past the dancers, stretching or going over tricky steps, and goes on to her next engagement.

* Of course, the ballet pianist is not always overlooked. Many teachers and students do acknowledge the pianist at the end of class. One teacher I know signals the start of each combination by thanking the pianist by name. Ai is greatly appreciated by the teachers and students she works with. Yet a coupling of mystery and necessity still hangs over my impressions of the ballet pianist as a figure. I'm lucky to have gotten to know Ai a little bit better.