Classical Crash Course, part six: Like if You Cry Everytime

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The Paris Conservatoire (par-EE kohn-surv-ah-TWAHR) was where all bright young French musicians went to study music. 

If you’re sick of French people, you should stop reading this right now. Because French people have been important to classical music, and I’m going to be talking about them a lot.

French people are, by nature, sad. And that plays into a) classical music in general and b) what I’m going to talk about today.

Today I will be talking about Maurice Ravel. Remember when we talked about Impressionism? He was sort of one of those guys. At least, he was a contemporary of Debussy. Like Debussy, he didn’t like the term “impressionist.” But like impressionists, he liked to do things differently. He attended the Paris Conservatory like any good little musician.

AND GUESS WHAT?

He really didn’t do anything important there. He didn’t do anything “different” or “surprising.” He just kinda did the school thing and got his homework done and then graduated. He wasn’t much of a rebel – his teachers liked him, but his music didn’t get much attention because it wasn’t…outstanding.

BUT THEN HE WROTE Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess.)

AND…he still didn’t get much attention. At least, not at first. Initially, this was a solo piano work (he arranged it for orchestra later.) To be honest, Ravel wasn’t a great piano player. And when he debuted Pavane, no one was a really big fan. Here’s a quote from a critic:

He is a mediocrely gifted debutant … who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard.

Well, ouch. Okay. In fact, that same critic also outright called Ravel a copycat. Others still called the initial performance bumbling and clumsy; and also referred to Ravel himself as being self-possessed and aloof.

Guess who gave an eff about the critics? NOT RAVEL. He didn’t care about the shade critics were throwing. He was a perfectionist to a T, so the only criticism he would accept was his own. And thank goodness he did, because if he hadn’t been persistent, we wouldn’t have gotten hugely popular pieces like the infectious Bolero. We also wouldn’t have Ralph Vaughn Williams as an orchestral great of the 20th Century (he was one of the only musicians to be trained by Ravel.) He also kept his private life private, which other composers have NOT BEEN GOOD AT DOING.

Other than Bolero, Pavane is probably one of Ravel’s most well-known pieces. To be honest, it’s kind of…slow. The French translates to “pavane for a dead princess.” Kind of a downer. That title alone might make you think this is music written for a funeral or something. I actually thought that exact thing for a long time until I researched this piece. A pavane is a slow processional dance performed in royal court, especially in the Renaissance era. Ravel meant for this piece to emanate that slow, regal procession. He imagined a young princess from long ago performing this dance. He took a lot of influence from Spanish music (hence Bolero), so this pavane is a nostalgic homage to Spanish court.

But why does it sound so sad? That’s what I can’t figure out. The title is morose – no one likes to think of a dead child. And the music sounds fit for a memorial service. It’s heavy and melancholy. But this piece isn’t paying tribute to any one particular princess or person. In fact, Ravel basically titled it that because he freaking could. Here’s what he said when someone asked him about the title:

“Do not be surprised, that title has nothing to do with the composition. I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout [that’s all].” 

#dealwithit

While he was a little shite when it came to naming his piece, the piece still feels really sad. Every time I hear the first few chords I get a little choky. It’s truly a moving piece of music…even though people initially thought it sucked. I think that has a lot to say about persistence. Ravel could have listened to his critics and given up. If he hadn’t wanted to put in hard work in order to be successful, we wouldn’t be reaping the benefits of his contribution to music today.

So if there’s a critic in your life calling you mediocre, do what Ravel did before Taylor Swift ever existed. Shake it off. You can even be a little snarky about it. And maybe someday George Gershwin will ask you for piano lessons and you’ll flip your hair and say, “Nah, son. C’est tout.

Well, it might not happen exactly like that, but one can dream.

a. w.

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Classical Crash Course, part five: Things Get Weird (aka Impressionism)

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“Sunrise, An Impression,” by Claude Monet. Monet kinda set the stage for Impressionism in general, both in art and in music. 

Humans are rebels by nature. If they weren’t, then teenagers wouldn’t come home with piercings in odd places and America would still belong to Britain. Also, if we weren’t such rebels, we wouldn’t have music. At least, we wouldn’t have the incredible diversity of music that we have today.

When you think of rebellion as it relates to music, you probably think of rock n’ roll, don’t you? Elvis and his hips led the way to decades of preteen girls gyrating to their record players, stoners growing their hair to obscene lengths, and rockers ripping up clothes for no particular reason (read: the 80s.) Then rock n’ roll had a bastard child and named it Metal, while somewhere in the background Bob Dylan crooned folk into existence. All of these genres were created because people wanted something different from music. They wanted it to create a new feeling for people to feel when they listened to it.

This rebellion didn’t just start with rock n’ roll, though. Jazz was the original rebel of the 20th Century. Scott Joplin’s ragtime was thought of as being way too sexy for respectable people (and also Satanic, but we’ve talked about this.) A lot of straight-laced Victorian figureheads thought it was leading to the degradation of morals in young people. (Essentially, they were saying syncopation was making teenagers have sex.)

But guess what spawned jazz?

IMPRESSIONISM. 

There have been rebels in the music family tree ever since music was a thing (so, pretty much always.) But in my opinion, I think Impressionism played pretty heavily into the evolution of music as we know it now. So let me take you on a journey to explore this very odd spawn of the family tree.

Brandy, you’re a fine girl, but my first love is La Mer: Impressionism and Our Boi Claude Debussy

Once there was a French boy named Claude, and he was a hipster. This was the 1890s, the original hipster era. And he was French, the original hipster country. Like a lot of the composers I’ve talked about, Claude Debussy was very dramatic and short-tempered. He went to music school, but immediately stuck out because he played unconventional chords and styles unlike his fellow pupils. This was around the same time Impressionism was coming to its own as an art form. The art form was characterized by its accurate (and striking) use of light and small brush strokes. The painting could be as vague or as specific as the painter wanted it to be.

Debussy sort of accidentally became the frontrunner for Impressionist music. He didn’t like the term and refused to use it when it came to his music, but his music follows closely on the heels of Impressionist art. Just listen to one of Debussy’s famous piano pieces, Clair de Lune. It almost feels spontaneous, like he’s coming up with the chords and melodies as it suits him. That’s kind of the point of Impressionism – it’s not supposed to feel pre-planned, but free-flowing, like the nature it’s inspired by.

And now for La Mer. Oftentimes in literature, the ocean is characterized as a beautiful woman that sailors are fiercely loyal to. (Poets and writers are dramatic, so of course they are going to characterize it this way.) Painters love ocean and water – just refer to Monet’s piece above. If you think about it, Debussy’s La Mer sounds the way we painting looks: ambient chords, sudden bursts of color from the horn section, chromatic scales illustrating the ever-changing temperament of the water.

Music critics have noted that while La Mer is described by Debussy as “three symphonic sketches” instead of simply “symphony,” but it fits well in the symphonic category – the first and third movements are broad and powerful and the middle is fast and upbeat (called a “scherzo.”) The three movements are as follows:

I. From dawn to noon on the sea
II. Play of the waves
III. Dialogue of the wind and the sea

Interestingly enough, Debussy did not spend much time by the sea while he wrote La Mer. He finished it in a hotel in England. He said that he got much of his inspiration for the piece from paintings and literature about the sea. The “sea” we hear in La Mer, as a result, is idealized and romanticized.

La Mer was not super well recieved when it debuted, but that was mostly because the orchestra didn’t rehearse super well and Debussy wasn’t very good at the whole “private life” thing (he had recently divorced his wife in order to shack up with a married woman. Kind of a no-no.) Much like his music, Debussy was spontaneous. He had several lovers during his relatively short life, and the women who lived with him said he was…difficult (and that’s being nice.)

Like I’ve said before, artists are hard to live with. Especially hipster artists. But they can crank out some darn good music, music that influences the way it’s done for decades to come.

And he didn’t even have to gyrate his hips.

a. w.

Classical Crash Course, part four: Bach to the Future

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Bach came from a very musical family. His father Johann Ambrosius Bach was a village musician, and his son Johann Christian Bach also became a musician. They also really loved the name Johann. I don’t blame them.

This week, we’re going back in time. Or should I say, Bach in time, because that is an original joke I just thought of and no one else has. Also, today you’ll be getting two for one – I’m going to make you listen to TWO Baroque pieces you’ve probably heard before.

Like most eras of music, the Baroque era coincided with a wider cultural movement which started in 1600. Baroque architecture popped up in Rome and Italy at this time and was soon adopted all over Europe, especially the Catholic church. People were starting to believe that art should reflect the sacred, and vice versa. So churches started to look like this:

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“How much stuff can we put on the walls before the building falls down?” – Baroque architects, probably

Walking into a Baroque church is like walking into an art museum. Look up, and there’s probably a big ol’ facade with a painting of God (usually depicted as an old white man?) Look around, and there are half-naked saints of antiquity in various dramatic, contorted positions, either in sculpture or in painting. These architects wanted to show they didn’t give an eff about the boring Reformers, who were making plain, boring churches. Baroque artists and architects would spare no expense to make sure things were elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and perfectly designed.

Baroque music took this cue as well. If you’ve listened to any Baroque music at length, you’ll notice that it’s very neat and tidy – every note fits into place (no syncopation because that is SATANIC) and it all resolves with a neat little bow at the end. Baroque composers rarely broke the rules. Like Baroque architects, the composers liked some embellishment and ornamentation, but as long as it had a good place in the music. The music was extravagant, but not overstuffed. This is also where modern opera got its start, and I’ll let you have your own opinion of that.

Enter Bach, the last child born to a German family of mostly musicians. He’s probably one of the most famous composers in the world, which is odd, because he was, by Baroque standards, quite conventional. But he also wrote a heck ton of music. He especially loved the clavier (we call it a piano now – it was a lil different back then) and the ORGAN. Who doesn’t love the organ?

“Little” Fugue in G Minor (I don’t know why “Little” is always in quotes. Is it little? Is it not little? Is it reasonably sized?) 

Bach loved the fugue. A fugue is a frequently recurring musical theme that sounds at different points of a piece, usually from a different voice in the orchestra (in this case, it’s the lower and higher voices of the organ.) You can hear the theme established at the very beginning of Little Fugue, and when it’s done, the low voice takes over while the high voice goes off and has a little party on top. Although Bach continues to embellish as he goes on, you can still clearly hear the theme throughout the fugue. Sometimes it’s in its original minor key, other times it’s in a major key for a hot second.

Unlike some of the other music we’ve explored so far, Little Fugue is neither a tone poem nor a progam piece (a piece that’s specifically supposed to mean or represent something.) It’s just a frickin fun piece. And I think it demonstrates the neat and tidyness of Baroque music.

BUT NOW WE’RE GONNA GET CRAZY.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor  (evil laughter in the background)

Seriously, if you’ve never heard this piece, where have you been? Do you hide under a rock every Halloween? The dark tone of this piece lends itself to being a sinister theme for many a villain in popular culture. It’s also a fugue, but the most popular part of this piece is the beginning – the toccata. While it sounds like it could be a type of pasta, it’s actually a fast-moving, lightly fingered, expertly-played piece of music. It’s like Through the Fire and Flames on expert mode. Y’all best be prepared.

What’s most suprising about this piece to me is that it might have been written by Bach in 1704, when he was still in his teens. The date of this composition is widely debated (it may have been just a few weeks/months before he died). After the dramatic toccata, we are plunged into a very dramatic fugue with lots of dynamic changes. Also, we hear a diminished seventh chord (at about 7:40) which isn’t very kosher for Baroque composers:

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The diminished seventh chord is like an ugly stepchild. It could amost be perfect except something is just…off…

The fugue is a bit different from Little Fugue in that in goes through several more tempo changes and is played almost entirely in sixteenth notes. It almost sounds messier than Little Fugue, doesn’t it? Messy might not be the right word, but it almost seems a bit freer of constraints (the last seventeen measures alone go through five tempo changes.) It also ends with what is called a plagal cadence, or the “amen” cadence (if you ever sing a hymn in church and it ends with two huge “AAAAH-MEEEEEN” chords, that’s a plagal cadence.) Except its in a minor key, so it’s a creepy amen cadence, and you are left unsettled but also satisfied by what you just heard. (At least I am.)

If you don’t know how you feel about organ, listen to some organ works by Bach and make up your mind. He certainly gave you a lot to choose from. It might sound Baroque, but don’t fix it.

a. w.

Classical Crash Course, part three: Mahler? I Hardly Know Her

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Mahler spent time in Leipzig, which is where you go if you’re a cool musician, like Bach or Handel. This is the Alte Borse, a concert hall in Leipzig. 

I want to start this blog with an apology to all 4 of you who are reading this so far. On Wednesday, I promised I’d be bringing you Rachmaninoff, but I made a mistake. I thought the piece that I was thinking of was by our pal Rach, but it’s not.

So instead of reading more about our friendly neighborhood Russian composers who were sad all the time, we’re going to talk about an Austrian composer who was sad, but only part-time. We’re also finally moving out of the extra-ness of the romantic movement into the slightly less extra-ness of modernism. When you think of modernism, think “innovation.” Modernists took all the big ideas from romanticism but added a twist – a twist in that they didn’t give an eff. About anything.

Enter Mahler. Mahler was the frontrunner of modernism, having arrived on the classical scene when romanticism was dying out. Unfortunately, although Mahler was a giant of his age, he wasn’t fully respected as a musician and composer until after his death. Since he was a Jew, Nazi Germany was not a fan of his work, so most performances of his music were banned. (At one point in his life, Mahler actually converted to Catholicism so he wouldn’t get overly criticized by the anti-Semitic press.

Mahler has a lot of well-known works. While his best-known is probably Mahler 8, the piece I’ve chosen is a movement from Mahler 5. The piece that I’ve chosen out of this symphony is speculated to be one of the most performed of his works.

HOW TO MAKE LADIES SWOON: Adagietto

If Adagietto were a truly “romantic” piece, it would be breaking a lot of rules. While romantic pieces, like Tchaikovsky’s “None But the Lonely Heart,” are sumptuous and sweeping, Adagietto is…sexy. Although the piece is written in a minor key and sounds somewhat melancholy, it’s actually a celebration of love. In fact, some scholars believe that Adagietto represents a love letter Mahler had written to his wife, Alma (Alma Mahler. Am I the only one who thinks that’s funny?) Here’s the text of that letter, translated from German:

(Also, if your man doesn’t write you love letters, DROP HIM.)

And if you listen closely, you can hear the music reflect these simple words. The repitition of the theme (introduced at the very beginning of the piece by the string section), the dearth of musical “sighs” (like the ones I talked about in Tchaikovsky), accompanied by some dissonant chords during the climax of the movement, which may represent his “lament.”

Before Mahler met Alma, he had quite the reputation with the ladies. Alma knew this, and wasn’t too keen on meeting him. But when she did, sparks flew and they were quickly married (she was already preggers, btw.) Their married life was not easy. Like most artists, Mahler was tempermental, and Alma was prone to be flirtatious. In 1907, their young daughter died of scarlet fever, and that same year Mahler was diagnosed with a heart defect, which ended up killing him in 1911.

Although there was difficulty in their marriage (as there is in any marriage), there’s no doubt that Mahler had a passionate love for his wife – how else could you write a piece as sweeping as Adagietto?

So boys, take a number from Mahler. Write her a love song.

a. w.

Classical Crash Course, part two: None But the Lonely Heart

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What a sad, sad little man. 

If you try to google how many songs about broken hearts exist, you won’t find an answer easily. Believe me, I tried as I was researching my next victim for Classical Music Crash Course. That probably means there’s an infinite amount, and they’ve been written since the beginning of time.

There are some questions Google can’t answer, like why he broke up with you, or why she left you at the altar, or why she decided she didn’t want to settle down in Russia with you but decided to continue her career as an opera singer.

And that tactful segue brings me to the man of the hour, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky – you can call him Peter. There’s absolutely no doubt you’ve heard some of Tchaikovsky’s music in your life, whether you realize it or not (The Nutcracker? Hello?) He’s considered a great amongst classical composers, and for good reason. While he wasn’t groomed to become a composer (he was actually educated to enter the civil service), he eventually was able to train at the prestigious Saint Petersburg Conservatory in Russia.

And Peter was sad. Sad people often write the best music, if we’re honest (hi, Adele.) His mother died when he was very young, and that started a long life punctuated by bouts of deep depression. Scholars also note that Tchaikovsky may have been homosexual, and the suppression of his sexuality played into his tendency toward solitude.

But what’s a good sad story without a broken heart? Remember how I mentioned an opera singer earlier? At around age 30, Tchaikovsky was infatuated with a young soprano named Desiree Artot, and they were engaged to be married at one point…until she put her career before him and broke it off. He later claimed that Desiree was the only woman he ever loved. At the age of 37 he got married to a former student. The marriage lasted two and a half months. Awkward.

All of that to say, Tchaikovsky was sad more often than not (after all, he lived in Russia. Have you seen the kind of weather they have? Also, communism.) So obviously, he wrote a piece with this title:

NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART. 

(Did I mention Tchaikovsky was a romantic composer? Remember how I talked about how romantic composers were very extra?…yeah.)

In 1869, Tchaikovsky wrote a set of six romantic pieces for voice and piano. “None But the Lonely Heart” was the last one to be written. It’s based on a poem by Lev Mei, “The Harpist’s Song” (are harpists sad?) which he got from Johann Goethe, a philosopher dude who wrote about Satan and heartbreak a lot (kind of like me.)

Check out the text, and get the tissues out.

None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted
Far from joy and gladness
Heaven’s boundless arch I see
Spread out above me
Oh what a distance drear to one
Who loves me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
My senses fail
A burning fire
Devours me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness.

Well okay then. (Unpopular opinion, but I think this would make a great Metallica cover as well.)

But if you think about it, I think a lot of us have been there…maybe in our more melodramatic moments, but a broken heart feels pretty bad. After all, it’s inspired a lot of heart-wrenching songs across the board – songs that we have pounding through our earbuds when we’re wallowing in self pity (“I Hate Everything About You” has been my personal fave in the past, not gonna lie.)

Broken hearts are as old as time. Even though the video I shared doesn’t feature voice, you can still hear the melancholy. Tchaikovsky’s piece features something called a musical sigh (I think there’s a more technical term, but I forget what it is. I was only a music major for one semester.) You can hear a brief example at 00:12 of the video. It’s almost as if the music takes a brief breath, like someone does when they’re sobbing and need more breath to cry. You can almost imagine the violin player (the impeccable Joshua Bell) stretched across a chaise lounge surrounded by roses or something. Very sad.

Any observations from this piece that caught your attention? Spout off in the comments. I promise not all the pieces I choose will be about sadness or Satan. Next time, we will be looking at another Russian boy – Rachmaninoff!

a. w.

Classical Crash Course, part one: Danse Macabre

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Those fibulae, with THAT tibia? Girl, please.

I don’t even remember the first time I went to our local symphony. It wasn’t an odd way for our family to celebrate a special night out. Almost annually, my parents took us to see the Nutcracker. I remember one night my brother and I listened to the music as we fell asleep. We both developed a love for that music early on (my brother was/is obsessed with Star Wars, so he had John Williams playing somewhere in the house more often than not.) Without a doubt, classical music in general is ingrained in my childhood and in my adult life.

Call me a fish in water, but I think classical music is important. And by classical, I mean symphonic and orchestral music in general. Classical is a term most people use as a blanket statement to cover all eras of orchestral music, from Baroque to the Romantic period. The actual “classical” era of music was between 1750 and 1820, but you’re not wrong to use the blanket term. (More on the jargon later.) Classical artists set the stage for themes and motifs that are still used in contemporary music today. They developed the theory and technique that musicians still use. Some might say that this is pigeonholing music in general – only giving credit to classical artists. And I’ll agree – the world has a wealth of music, but I think the music that has influenced us the most in Western culture is what we think of as our “classical” music (Bach and Beethoven and all those guys. It’s a deep and abiding part of our musical tradition, though we’ve been influenced by other cultures of music as well. But that’s not really my area of expertise.)

So instead of shooting off at the mouth about classical music, I’m going to…shoot off at the mouth about classical music. But in a more rhetorical way. Hopefully. But not so rhetorical that it’s pretentious, yeah? Okay. So in the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series on “classical” pieces that you should know. If anything, you can use the mini tidbits of information to impress your friends. I hope these little write-ups on some truly *classic* (haha) pieces will help you appreciate where we’ve come from as a culture of music.

Our first victim: Danse macabreopus 40, by Camille Saint-Saens (sahn-SOHN)

First of all, what the heck is an “opus?” An opus can mean two things: a composition by a particular composer, arranged by date; or any artistic work by any artist. The latter definition is used more melodramatically (“His painting was his last great opus“) where the former definition is more straightforward – it’s simply a fancy way for composers to put their music in order for posterity’s sake. Think of the first definition when you think of classical pieces.

Who is Camille what’s-his-face? He’s not a hipster, in that you’ve probably heard him before (if you’re listening to Danse right now, it probably sounds familiar.) One of his other famous works is Carnival of the Animals (this movement, “Aquarium,” also probably sounds familiar to you.) Saint-Saens wrote in the Romantic era of music, which is exactly what it sounds like. Everyone was very dramatic all the time. The Romantic era of music coincided with the literary movement Romanticism. In general, everyone was extra about everything – their emotions, their usage of words (have you read a book by Charles Dickens?!), and their music. Saint-Saens was very extra. Think Lady Gaga at the 2016 Superbowl level of extra.

So what’s Romanticism? Like, kissing and stuff? Sort of? Romantic composers went to extreme, in that their music would be very soft one minute and hecka loud the next, as you might notice in Danse. They also used range as it related to the notes they use – you can hear that in the dynamic violin that dominates the Danse piece. Not for the faint of heart. One last characteristic that’s important to this particular piece is the huge as heck orchestrations. You can hear that in the grandiose sound of Danse.

Now that these questions have been semi-adequately answered, let’s look at the piece itself. Make sure you’re listening right now, mkay? 

Danse macabre is what intellects like to call a tone poem. The piece is literally based off a poem written by a French poet named Henri Cazalis. And if you know anything about the word “macabre,” you can guess what the poem is about (generally.) Yep. It translates to “Dance of Death.” The piece that Saint-Saens wrote is literally meant to tell the story of the poem using musical motifs instead of lyric motifs. And guess what – the poem is weird. 

Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.

The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden-trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.

Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking.
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack-
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

If that isn’t a trip, I don’t know what is. (Opioids were a big thing in the 19th Century. Just sayin’.)

But if you really listen to the piece, you’ll really see that it mimics the cadence of the poem itself. At the beginning, the harp plays the same note twelve times – the stroke of midnight. Just listen to the initial tritones of the solo violin. Arresting, right? In music, tritones are considered “the Devil in music” because they sound so ugly and weird (most church music in Medieval times was not allowed to include tritones. Obvs.)

And then the freaky graveyard dance starts, because dead people are into that kind of thing. To make things better, they are literally dancing with Satan, who has an affinity for the violin in both classical music and bearded folk/country bands. If you ever wonder what skeletons sound like when they’re having a ghostly hoe-down, listen to the xylophone – it’s meant to sound like bones rattling around. Yeah. Bones. Thanks, Satan.

After the two main themes of the music get tossed around by different sections of the orchestra (the two main themes are the fluttery notes you hear at the beginning by the flutes and then the grandiose, eerie string theme), the whole orchestra comes in with one last hurrah. It’s the pinnacle of the ghostly dance – but then, the music abruptly stops and you hear one singular instrument: an oboe. The oboe is supposed to represent the rooster crowing, signifying that dawn has come. Satan’s gotta hoof it before the sun comes up, but before he does, he plays one last melancholy line on his fiddle, then all the bones gotta scoot.

So there it is. Danse macabre, the Dance of Death. It’s ironic that I’m starting this series with a piece about death, but I thought the dynamism of this piece would be a good place to jump in.

Give this piece a listen – I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next week, get ready for a whole lotta Russian love with Tchaikovsky!

a. w.

What Art Isn’t.

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A few years ago, a critic in my hometown was reviewing a local art festival, which has become a huge community event for our city. He was complaining about how he felt the nature of the event had become somewhat plebeian, where art was subjected to the votes of regular people, and those regular people tended to gravitate toward the “fun” pieces instead of the “thought-provoking” ones. For example, one artist placed a loch-ness monster-esque creature in the river that runs thought the city. People were delighted by it, finding it quirky, creative, and eye-catching, and it of course made it into the top ten final pieces of the festival. The critic was lamenting how other pieces were overlooked, such as striking portraits or daring pieces of art that were on display in our museums. Why subject tasteful pieces of art to the insatiable desire of common people, who only want to see what’s big, loud, and colorful?

In a sense, what the critic was saying was, “That’s not art.”

I visited ArtPrize, now entering its eighth year of exhibition in Grand Rapids, this past weekend, taking in all the details not only of the art, but of the culture of my city that I never saw before. After eight years, ArtPrize has grown from a simple exhibition of different pieces of art to a celebration of the Grand Rapids community – food trucks from local businesses lining the streets, people from all over the community spreading their crafts out on the sidewalk with handmade signs boasting cheap prices, buskers galore –

But all I saw was art.

I saw art in people walking down the street, their clothes, their faces telling their stories. The air smelled like art – elephant ears, artisan coffee, pizza by the slice. And the main event, the actual art, was all around me too. The art museum was full to the brim of the quintessential and the quirky – a spaceship made completely out of household materials right alongside modern renderings of Mary Magdelene.

I didn’t walk past one person, one food truck, one painting, and say, nose in the air, “That’s not art.”

We were created by a Creative Being. When He separated the light from the darkness, he saw two huge murals, one illuminated, one in shadow. He then began to paint on those murals. Everything you see was meticulously crafted together by skilled hands.

“There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence,” said Abraham Kuyper, “over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

So to say something isn’t art is heresy. It’s to say that God doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as the absence of art. Leave your definition of art at the door. “Art is a painting.” “Art has to be sophisticated.” “Art is cultural.” “Art is a luxury.” Throw these away. Because everything you see is art. The people you see, the food you eat, the paintings you admire. Art.

I want you to know that my definition of art is one that you might not have heard before. Everything can become a work of art. Everything can be redeemed.

The next time someone tells you that something isn’t art, ask them, “Then what is it?”

Every square inch.