Archive for July, 2011

Everyday Performance Art

July 21, 2011

I’ve been taking tai chi classes for just over two years.  Not really because I care about my health, or clearing my mind, or learning how to defend myself.  I go simply because I like being at the classes.  My teacher is probably the most graceful person I have ever encountered and it’s as disheartening as it is inspiring to see him turn the act of walking, the act of punching, the act of standing perfectly still into poetry.  He once explained to my class that we must be more determined if we want to attain grace: we must think even about how we raise a glass of water to our lips and resolve to do it beautifully.  So it’s not surprising that everything about his person, his studio and his classes seems always to be evolving into something more lovely than it was the week before.

I am particularly fascinated by his studio.  When I first started studying with him, he had just moved into the space and it was mostly empty.  He has regularly added plants and furniture, but the studio has been transformed by smaller changes as well.  From week to week, a small stone will be moved from a plant stand to a table.  Or a hanging decoration will be moved from one spot on the wall to another.  These movements never leave the marks of clumsiness – they always feel entirely intentional.  Since I can’t say for sure whose hand is doing the moving, the room has started to feel alive in its own right, as if it’s growing and changing from week to week.

I think of my tai chi studio as the best kind of performance art: the work of someone who is constantly working towards a more perfect beauty, whether anyone is noticing or not.  This is somebody who lives his life as an artist, constantly creating out of the raw materials set before him.

I was poking around MoMA’s website and I stumbled upon this video documenting the installation of a recent show, Song Dong’s “Waste Not.”  The show displayed all the hoarded trash and contents of the artist’s mother’s house.  It makes artistic sense of [the destructive act of] obsessive collecting.  But this video takes the art even further into the realm of performance.  The mundane work of mounting a show as complicated as this one makes for compelling video.  If we could all see our lives through the distance of time-lapsed moving pictures, maybe we could better comprehend the exquisite performance art of the everyday.

Strung Out

July 4, 2011

This week I saw a particularly incredible performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and the only way to describe it is in sports terms.  (Fitting, I think, since at least one critic has described the piece as “athletic.”)  Anywho, when I was younger I was a real Olympics junkie.  It didn’t matter what event was on.  If I could find a way to be home, then I was glued to the tube.  I particularly liked the ‘pretty’ sports – figure skating, gymnastics, diving, etc.  And more than the sports, I liked the human interest profiles of the athletes – especially if they were orphans from the Soviet bloc.  But my biggest thrills came from those rare athletes who sacrificed victory to push their bodies and their particular sports to the very limit.  I think of those figure skaters who suffered through disastrous rehearsals in the days before their competitions.  Any one of them stood a chance to win if she just avoided tricky combinations and performed cleanly on safe, boring, judge-pleasing routines.  Instead, she bucked safety and went right for those ill-advised triple lutzes – often late in her program after she’d already fallen.  The medal was gone, but glory was hers.

This is the only comparison that seems worthy of the moxie on display by 21-year-old violinist Nadir Khashimov on Wednesday night.  The Curtis student strutted a musicality that was just unimaginable – especially in someone so young.  I’ve been consumed by this piece for the past several months, spending too much time searching for recordings of different soloists and repeatedly listening to those that I prefer.  What I’ve learned is that this is a piece in motion.  It is utterly ruined by a purely technical interpretation; it is propelled by passion.  None of its ideas or emotions are communicated when it is played politely and the notes are merely hit.  Khashimov’s interpretation was a curious mix of skills and thrills.  I was expecting something polished, yet a little too safe.  What else could be expected from an eager student making his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra?  Instead, I was led to new revelations about the familiar piece; I profited from the discoveries of a true and intrepid musician.

For string players, it was a gratifying listen in just about every way. He danced through his double stops and made his harmonics sing.  And when he jumped down to his lowest notes, he landed on the velvet tones of a well-built cello.  My ears couldn’t quite keep up with the piece; they wanted to catch and savor every last particle of sound, but they kept falling just a few beats behind.  I was constantly reminded of that serious question from THE SOUND OF MUSIC: “How do you pin a wave upon the sand?”  How, indeed!  How do you truly enjoy any time-bound experience?

This was not a flawless performance, but a performance that was better for its flaws (and not in spite of them).  I greatly admired Khashimov’s willingness to take chances and to let a few details sour so that the major part of his performance could soar.  Hats off, sir!