Auric and I played all that Satie had written for the piano; one of us would play with him what he composed for four hands. Once, after we had played Morceau en forme de poire, I asked our hero, whom we called mon bon Maître, why he gave such a title, Pieces in the shape of a pear, to this ravishing music. He answered with a twinkle in his eyes: ‘You do know that I visit Debussy quite often; I admire him immensely and he seems to think much of whatever talent I may have. Nevertheless, one day when I showed him a piece I had just composed, he remarked, “Satie, you never had two greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had a great influence on our writing. … Now, as a true friend may I warn you that from time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form.” All I did,’ added Satie, ‘was to write Morceau en forme de poire. I brought them to Debussy who asked, “Why such a title?” Why? simply, mon cher ami, because you cannot criticize my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless.’
— Vladimir Golschmann, “Golschmann Remembers Erik Satie,” High Fidelity/Musical America, August 1972
On Nov. 11 each year the British Commonwealth observes two minutes’ silence to remember the fallen in World War I. Of the first observance, in 1919, the Daily Express wrote, “There is nothing under heaven so full of awe as the complete silence of a mighty crowd.”
In 2001, artist Jonty Semper released Kenotaphion, a two-CD collection of these silences drawn from 70 years of BBC, British Movietone, and Reuters broadcasts — he had spent four years assembling every surviving recording. “I really don’t think people will find it boring,” he told the Guardian. “This is raw history.”
Is this a contradiction, an audio recording of an absence of sound? “Unlike the Cenotaph at Whitehall, these recordings are far from empty, with Big Ben drowning out the coughs and uncomprehending children of the reverent, amid atmospheric weather effects, broadcast static, startled birds, and rifle reports,” notes Craig Dworkin in No Medium (2013). “The ony truly silent Armistice minutes occurred during the Second World War, from 1941 to 1944, when the ceremony was suspended. Absent from Semper’s discs, those years speak the loudest and are by far the most moving.”
The final movement on John Coltrane’s 1965 album A Love Supreme is a “musical narration” of a devotional poem that Coltrane included in the album’s liner notes — he put the handwritten poem on a music stand and “played” it as if it were music.
“Coltrane’s hushed delivery sounds deliberately speechlike,” write Ashley Kahn in his 2003 history of the album. “He hangs on to the ends of phrases, repeats them as if for emphasis. He is in fact ‘reading’ through his horn.”
The hidden psalm was marked by New York musicians for decades before Rutgers University musicologist Lewis Porter presented a formal analysis to the American Musicological Society in 1980. “You will find that he plays right to the final ‘Amen’ and then finishes,” he writes in his 1997 biography of the saxophonist. “There are no extra notes up to that point. You will have to make a few adjustments in the poem, however: Near the beginning where it reads, ‘Help us resolve our fears and weaknesses,’ he skips the next line, goes on to ‘In you all things are possible,’ then plays ‘Thank you God’ … towards the end he leaves out ‘I have seen God.'”
“I think music can make the world better and, if I’m qualified, I want to do it,” Coltrane had said. “I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.”
In 1968, artist Tim Ulrichs released Schleifpapier-Schallplatten, a set of 13 discs made from commercial sandpaper in various degrees of coarseness, with blank center labels. They were billed as “monosandpaper records.”
V.A. Wölfli’s industrial noise composition “Pferd/Horse/Elastic” was named after the Pferd company’s steel-cutting discs — he simply put 100 of the construction-duty grinding wheels inside record covers.
The first single by the Dust Breeders, “Sandpaper Mantra” (1989), was a 7-inch piece of sandpaper inside a record sleeve. Their 1995 composition “I’m Psycho 4 Yur Love” swapped these materials, with a sandpaper sleeve housing a vinyl record that gets scratchier every time it’s removed.
The Durutti Column’s The Return of the Durutti Column (1980), the Feederz’ Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? (1984), and Illusion of Safety’s Illusion of Safety (1999) were all released in sandpaper sleeves.
This may have been an homage to Guy Debord’s 1957 autobiography, Mémoires, which was bound in a sandpaper cover in order to destroy any book placed next to it.
(From Craig Dworkin, No Medium, 2013.) (Thanks, Vinny.)
Auguste Bartholdi patented the Statue of Liberty. In 1879, seven years before its dedication in New York Harbor, the French sculptor filed a one-page abstract describing his “design for a sculpture”:
The statue is that of a female figure standing erect upon a pedestal or block, the body being thrown slightly over to the left, so as to gravitate upon the left leg, the whole figure being thus in equilibrium, and symmetrically arranged with respect to a perpendicular line or axis passing through the head and left foot. The right leg, with its lower limb thrown back, is bent, resting upon the bent toe, thus giving grace to the general attitude of the figure. The body is clothed in the classical drapery, being a stola, or mantle gathered in upon the left shoulder and thrown over the skirt or tunic or under-garment, which drops in voluminous folds upon the feet. The right arm is thrown up and stretched out, with a flamboyant torch grasped in the hand. The flame of the torch is thus held high up above the figure. The arm is nude; the drapery of the sleeve is dropping down upon the shoulder in voluminous folds. In the left arm, which is falling against the body, is held a tablet, upon which is inscribed ‘4th July, 1776.’ This tablet is made to rest against the side of the body, above the hip, and so as to occupy an inclined position with relation thereto, exhibiting the inscription. The left hand clasps the tablet so as to bring the four fingers onto the face thereof. The head, with its classical, yet severe and calm, features, is surmounted by a crown or diadem, from which radiate divergingly seven rays, tapering from the crown, and representing a halo. The feet are bare and sandal-strapped.
Bartholdi also received copyright 9939G for his “Statue of American Independence,” and architect Richard Morris Hunt received copyrights for the pedestal.
Barry Moreno’s Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia (2005) recounts the memory of a German immigrant who encountered the statue in 1911: “I remember we see Statue of Liberty. Gus asked me, ‘What’s the statue?’ And then we’re looking … and his father say, ‘That’s Christopher Columbus.’ And I put my two cents out. I say, ‘Listen, this don’t look like Christopher Columbus. That’s a lady there.'”
At the Fifth Solvay International Conference, held in Brussels in October 1927, 29 physicists gathered for a group photograph. Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Léon Brillouin. Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr. Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, Owen Willans Richardson.
Seventeen of the 29 were or became Nobel Prize winners. Marie Curie, the only woman, is also the only person who has won the prize in two scientific disciplines.
Below: On Aug. 12, 1958, 57 notable jazz musicians assembled for a group portrait at 17 East 126th Street in Harlem. They included Red Allen, Buster Bailey, Count Basie, Emmett Berry, Art Blakey, Lawrence Brown, Scoville Browne, Buck Clayton, Bill Crump, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Art Farmer, Bud Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn, Benny Golson, Sonny Greer, Johnny Griffin, Gigi Gryce, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Heard, Jay C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Chubby Jackson, Hilton Jefferson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Jimmy Jones, Taft Jordan, Max Kaminsky, Gene Krupa, Eddie Locke, Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus, Miff Mole, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Pettiford, Rudy Powell, Luckey Roberts, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, Sahib Shihab, Horace Silver, Zutty Singleton, Stuff Smith, Rex Stewart, Maxine Sullivan, Joe Thomas, Wilbur Ware, Dickie Wells, George Wettling, Ernie Wilkins, Mary Lou Williams, and Lester Young. Photographer Art Kane called it “the greatest picture of that era of musicians ever taken.”
The first movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata no. 29, the Hammerklavier, bears a puzzlingly fast tempo marking, half-note=138. Most pianists play it considerably more slowly, judging that the indicated tempo would test the limits of the player’s technique and the listeners’ comprehension.
Well, most listeners. In Fred Hoyle’s 1957 science fiction novel The Black Cloud, an intelligent cloud of gas enters the solar system and establishes communication with the earth. It demonstrates a superhumanly subtle understanding of any information that’s transmitted to it. As scientists are uploading a sampling of Earth music, a lady remarks, “The first movement of the B Flat Sonata bears a metronome marking requiring a quite fantastic pace, far faster than any normal pianist can achieve, certainly faster than I can manage.”
The cloud considers the sonata and says, “Very interesting. Please repeat the first part at a speed increased by thirty percent.”
When this is done, it says, “Better. Very good. I intend to think this over.”
The story of a musical misprint, with perhaps a moral:
A student whom Dr Goldovsky describes as ‘technically competent but a poor reader’ prepared a Brahms Capriccio (Op. 76 No. 2) which she brought to her lesson. She began to play the piece through but when she arrived at the C sharp major chord on the first beat of the bar 42 measures from the end, she played a G natural instead of the G sharp which would normally occur in the C sharp major triad. Goldovsky told her to stop and correct her mistake. The student looked confused and said that she had played what was written. To Goldovsky’s surprise, the girl had played the printed notes correctly — there was an apparent misprint in the music.
The error occurred in most published editions of the piece; hundreds of musicians had overlooked it. Goldovsky tested his skilled readers by telling them that the piece contained a misprint and asking them to find it. He allowed them to play the piece as many times as they liked, but none found the error. Only when he specified the measure were they able to see it.
The misprint is hard to spot because the bar in which it occurs is almost an exact transposition of the preceding bar. The underlying harmony is the very common V-I (G sharp to C sharp) over a C sharp pedal, and the notation in the preceding bar has already “set” the G as a sharp. So there are multiple, powerful cues for an experienced player to interpret the subsequent G as sharp.
“What is important to note about this story is that it was a relatively poor reader who was the first to uncover the error,” notes John Sloboda in The Musical Mind (1988). “Because she did not have the expectations of more accomplished players she required more information from the score to determine her performance, and so, paradoxically, read more accurately than more accomplished players.”
(Thomas Wolf, “A Cognitive Model of Musical Sight-Reading,” Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, April 1976.)
In A Thing or Two About Music (1972), Nicolas Slonimsky describes a series of “puzzle minuets” composed by 18th-century harpsichordist Johann Schobert:
Schobert is not a misprint for Schubert. He was an estimable Silesian-born musician who settled in Paris in 1760 and wrote many compositions in the elegant style of the time. Mozart knew his music well and was even influenced by his easy grace in writing piano pieces. Schobert was something of a musical scientist. Among his compositions is a page entitled, ‘A Curious Musical Piece Which Can Be Played on the Piano, on the Violin, and on the Bass, and at that in Different Ways.’ This page contained five minuets, one of which could be played upside down without any change, one which would result in a new piece when turned upside down, and one which would furnish a continuation upside down. Two could be played on the violin and on the bass by assigning the treble clef right side up and the bass clef upside down.
The full page is here. I haven’t tried playing it.
Artist Donald Evans spent his life painting the postage stamps of nonexistent countries. “The stamps are a kind of diary or journal,” he said. “It’s vicarious traveling for me to a made-up world that I like better than the one that I’m in.”
“On little paper rectangles he painted precise transcriptions of his life,” wrote Willy Eisenhart in The World of Donald Evans (1980). “He commemorated everything that was special to him, disguised in a code of stamps from his own imaginary countries — each detailed with its own history, geography, climate, currency and customs — all of it representative of the real world but, like real stamps, apart from it in calm tranquility.”
He painted them as watercolors the size of actual stamps, handling the paper with tweezers and working always with the same trusty brush. When they were finished he would sometimes cancel them with a fanciful postmark carved from a rubber eraser. He preserved them in a 330-page book modeled on a real stamp catalogue, recording in each case the name of the fictional country, the fictional date, the subject and occasion of the stamp’s issue, and the date on which he had completed the painting. He called this book his Catalogue of the World.
By the time he died in an Amsterdam fire in 1977, Evans had painted nearly 4,000 stamps from 42 imaginary nations, bearing dates from 1852 to 1973. He told the Paris Review, “The more I do, the more crazy and minuscule the detail becomes and the more stamplike they become. And that intrigues me. … One of the things I get excited about in making this work is that I try to make it look real.”
The guiding principle for his work, he said, was “basically that it describes something which I think is interesting and that it looks like a stamp.”
In 1794 Haydn visited the singer Venanzio Rauzzini at Bath. In the garden of Rauzzini’s villa he noticed a monument to a much-loved dog named Turk, with the inscription TURK WAS A FAITHFUL DOG AND NOT A MAN. As a tribute he turned the text into a four-part canon:
Rauzzini was so pleased that he had the music added to Turk’s memorial stone.
Shortly before its orchestral premiere in 1885, Johannes Brahms performed his fourth symphony for a small private audience in an arrangement for two pianos, played by himself and Ignaz Brüll.
After the first movement Brahms paused to assess its effect, and critic Eduard Hanslick, who was turning the pages, said, “For the whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.”
This is a detail from the allegorical painting Taste, Hearing and Touch, completed in 1620 by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder. If the bird on the right looks out of place, that’s because it’s a sulphur-crested cockatoo, which is native to Australia. The same bird appears in Hearing, painted three years earlier by Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens.
How did an Australian bird find its way into a Flemish painting in 1617? Apparently it was captured during one of the first Dutch visits to pre-European Australia, perhaps by Willem Janszoon in 1606, who would have carried it to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and then to Holland in 1611. That’s significant — previously it had been thought that the first European images of Australian fauna had been made during the voyages of William Dampier and William de Vlamingh, which occurred decades after Brueghel’s death in 1625.
Warwick Hirst, a former manuscript curator at the State Library of New South Wales, writes, “While we don’t know exactly how Brueghel’s cockatoo arrived in the Netherlands, it appears that Taste, Hearing and Touch, and its precursor Hearing, may well contain the earliest existing European images of a bird or animal native to Australia, predating the images from Dampier’s and de Vlamingh’s voyages by some 80 years.”
(Warwick Hirst, “Brueghel’s Cockatoo,” SL Magazine, Summer 2013.) (Thanks, Ross.)
A changeable sculpture by Swiss artist Markus Raetz:
A change of heart:
A similar idea in French:
The Dali Museum in Spain contains a room based on his 1934 painting “Mae West (Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment)”:
See Figure and Ground.
This Katzensymphonie, by Moritz von Schwind (1804-71), resides in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in Germany. Dick Higgins, in Pattern Poetry, writes, “This piece, drawn in pencil and ink on music paper (but not orchestrated) has charm but does not appear to have been intended for performance at all. It may be a satire or lampoon on the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1904), to whom it is dedicated.”
Perhaps it might be played on the Katzenklavier, a (thankfully) imaginary instrument described by Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre of 1877:
[A] chariot … carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave … (chromatically, I think).
In 1890 the Glasgow University magazine published this anonymous assessment of the musicianship of botanist and amateur violoncellist Frederick Orpen Bower:
There was a professor of flowers
The ‘cello he’d torture for hours
When the strings gave a growl
The cats gave a howl
And eclipsed all his musical powers.
I have often noticed at the Poetry Society that, after a poem has been read and applauded, when someone dares to get up and inquire what it means, there is likely to be a great outcry to the effect that one cannot analyze a beautiful thing. That is a basic absurdity and represents nothing but a variety of snobbery.
Some will declare indignantly, ‘This thought is too great to be definitely expressed.’ There is truth, I am certain, in the lines ‘whatever deep or shallow, new or old / is clearly thought, can be as clearly told.’ The writer who does not say what he has to say clearly, is shirking his job.
— Arthur Guiterman, quoted in Everett S. Allen, Famous American Humorous Poets, 1968
Starting in the 1970s, neurobiologist Otto-Joachim Grüsser spent 10 years collating the light sources in 2,124 paintings selected at random from Western art originating between the 14th and 20th centuries. He found that in most paintings considered Western works of art, especially those painted around the time of the Scientific Revolution, the light falls from the left.
“At the beginning of modern Western art during the early Gothic period, a preference for diffuse illumination or light sources distributed around the painted scene was found,” Grüsser noted. “In a minority of paintings from the fourteenth century that show a clear light direction, a bias to the left side is present. This left-sided preference increased at the expense of diffuse or middle light sources up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and declined thereafter. In the twentieth century, the diffuse or middle type of light distribution again became dominant.”
It’s not clear what to make of this. It seems reasonable that a right-handed artist might favor light falling from the left, but why should this vary with time? Grüsser found that the left-handed Leonardo da Vinci applied light sources from varying angles, and Hans Holbein the Younger, also a dominant left-hander, favored light falling from the right.
“From such observations in the works of these two left-handed painters who painted, drew, and wrote with the left hand, one gains the impression that the distribution of left, middle, and right light direction in left-handed painters deviates significantly from the average distribution of light found in the paintings of other contemporary painters. It would be interesting to study the drawings and paintings of other confirmed left-handed artists, who worked exclusively with the left hand.”
(Otto-Joachim Grüsser, Thomas Selke, and Barbara Zynda, “Cerebral Lateralization and Some Implications for Art, Aesthetic Perception, and Artistic Creativity,” in Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger, and David Epstein, Beauty and the Brain, 1988.)
Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi spent his days making etchings of Roman ruins, but in 1745 he turned out a series of much darker visions, which he called Le Carceri d’Invenzione. “Vaults of colossal proportions from which hang extinguished lanterns, openings closed by bars, spiral staircases and suspended passageways which lead nowhere, immense gallows and wheels, ropes strung on pulleys evoking strange tortures,” writes Roseline Bacou in her collection of the artist’s etchings and drawings, “all these are the visible elements of a closed and nocturnal world.” Thomas De Quincey wrote:
Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist … which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them … representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him.
The full collection is here. Aldous Huxley read into the prints “things existing in the physical and metaphysical depths of human souls — to acedia and confusion, to nightmare angst, to incomprehension and to panic bewilderment.” In reworking the prints Piranesi came to relate them to early Rome: One column in the vaults bears the inscription AD TERROREM INCRESCENTIS AVDACIAE, a quotation from Livy’s History of Rome in which the early king Ancus Marcius responds to a loss of values among his people by establishing a prison in the center of the city, “to terrify the growing audacity.” But the initial series were pure fantasy, and their inspiration is unknown.
In 2004, listeners of the BBC’s Today program voted Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” the “saddest classical” work ever written, earning 52.1% of the vote and surpassing “Dido’s Lament” (20.6%) from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Adagietto (12.3%) from Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony, Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (5.1%), and “Gloomy Sunday” as sung by Billie Holiday (9.8%).
During the funeral service for Princess Grace of Monaco in 1982, the New York Times noted, “while a part of Samuel Barber’s soaring Adagio for Strings was being played, Prince Albert, who is 24, covered his face in his black-gloved hands. Princess Caroline, who wept, turned towards her father, who sat next to her by the altar, but the Prince [Rainier], partly slumped, eyes half-closed, did not raise his head.” A friend of the prince described him as experiencing “one of the most deep, most total sadnesses” at the loss of his wife.
Barber’s “Adagio” was played at the prince’s own funeral in 2005, and it memorialized the deaths of Sen. Robert A. Taft in 1953, Albert Einstein in 1955, and John Kennedy in 1963. One friend of Barber’s said he heard the music on the radio within 10 minutes of Kennedy’s assassination.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Life is already full of pain; why do we design art to exacerbate it? “If we enjoy the sadness that we claim to feel, then it is not plainly sadness that we are talking of, because sadness is not an enjoyable experience,” writes philosopher Stephen Davies. “On the other hand, if the sadness is unpleasant, we would not seek out, as we do, artworks leading us to feel sad.” How is it possible to enjoy sadness?
(Thomas Larson, The Saddest Music Ever Written, 2012; Stephen Davies, “Why Listen to Sad Music If It Makes One Feel Sad?”, in Jenefer Robinson, ed., Music and Meaning, 1997.)
Is the proposition ‘Botticelli’s Birth of Venus depicts the birth of Venus’ true, false, or neither true nor false? If we assume that there never was such an event as the actual birth of Venus (as we safely can), then this proposition would appear to be analogous to ‘Alexander slew the Minotaur.’ But this proposition is true: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus does depict the birth of Venus.
— W.E. Kennick of Amherst College, posed in Margaret P. Battin et al., Puzzles About Art, 1989
Artist Alex Queral found himself spending a fortune in paint to create the thickly textured portraits he favored. He switched media and began carving them instead, at first out of Styrofoam, then “on another day noticed a stack of old phone books outside waiting to be recycled. It occurred to me that they were not unlike blocks of very soft wood, and there it all began.”
“Taking an ordinary phone book, Alex Queral carves a face into this object of so many faceless names,” writes Laura Heyenga in Art Made From Books (2013). “With a very sharp X-Acto knife, a little pot of acrylic medium to set detail areas, and a great deal of craft, Queral literally peels away the pages of the book as if they were the layers of an onion to reveal the portrait within. Once the carving is complete, he will often apply a black wash to enhance the features and then seal the entire book with acrylic to preserve the work. However, he never loses the line registration, and the book remains quite pliable.”
A good anecdote is told of Josquin [des Prez] and his royal patron, Louis XII. The king was particularly fond of a certain popular song, and desired Josquin to arrange it for several voices, and to include a part for himself (Louis). The last condition was rather a puzzle for the composer, as the king knew nothing of music, and had a very bad and unpliant voice; however, he set to work, wrote a canon on the melody for two boys’ voices, added a part for the king which he marked ‘Vox Regis,’ consisting of only one constantly repeated note, and placed below a bass part which he took himself.
— Musical Times, June 1, 1884
In redesigning the Bank of England in the early 19th century, British architect Sir John Soane presented the governors with three sketches of the building he planned: one as it was new, another as it was weathered, and a third as a 1,000-year-old ruin.
That vision became a reality sooner than he realized — his interiors were demolished in the 1920s.
Below: Gustave Doré’s engraving The New Zealander 1872 was inspired by a remark by Thomas Macaulay: “She [the Roman Catholic Church] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”
In 2009 British artist Roger Hiorns won the Turner Prize by melting a passenger aircraft engine, pouring it through a funnel, and spraying it with water to break it into fine granules.
Its dimensions are listed as “variable.”