01 May 2011


Luckily for concert-goers looking to kill time, some museums have late hours Thursday, so I went back to SFMOMA for another look at the Eadward Muybridge exhibit before heading across the street to Yerba Buena for Lucinda Childs’s Dance.

I had been to the exhibit once before, a relatively quick lunchtime visit. Even more than in most photography exhibits there are lots of fairly small pictures (the famous motion studies), so repeated visits are helpful. There are plenty of other photos from earlier in his career, though, including some vast and remarkably crystalline panoramas of early San Francisco, which are of obvious historic and nostalgic interest to locals.

I was interested to see that Muybridge was one of those artists whose technological and aesthetic advances were linked to a fairly conservative, status quo outlook. Maybe that outlook is just an attempt on the part of a deeply weird man to stay connected to what he sees as normal society. Much of his earlier work was commercial, including some beautiful shots of Central America that were actually meant to entice investors. The labels by some of the motion studies point out that those of men tend to concentrate on manly activities (uh, OK, acts of normative masculinity) such as boxing and other aggressively athletic acts, though honestly I’m not sure what they expect given the aim of showing sequentially how certain actions take place: it would be pretty funny to do a motion study of a portly guy sitting at a desk with his office paperwork, but that’s only funny if you’ve already done the more obvious athletic activities.

At the end of the exhibit we see how Muybridge himself was one of those moving towards the invention of motion pictures, which are probably the central art form of the twentieth century. The show included a short film strip recently put together from some of the motion studies, mostly of animals. I think it was while once again watching Intolerance several years ago that a passing close-up of some chickens moved me deeply with the thought that those chickens were long dead. I mean, all the people involved were also long dead (with the possible exception at that time of Lillian Gish), but this feeling always strikes me more strongly when I see old films of animals, perhaps because the animals are just filmed by fugitive chance and people are more usually intentionally filmed.

I had been thinking a lot about repetition and routine anyway, partly because I was re-reading some Gertrude Stein and partly because I was feeling particularly trapped in my own exhausting routines, when even things that are supposed to be fun seem compulsive and joyless. So much of life is just maintenance. It’s day after day, and your repetitions make a personality and that makes a life.

Muybridge always reminds me of Philip Glass, though for a much more mundane reason than a similarity in their work (the repetition with slight variations of a small unit so that it seems the same but ends up very different): Glass wrote a stagework about Muybridge, The Photographer, which I had seen long ago in Boston, and that CD was one of the first two I bought (the other was Handel’s Solomon, in a then-new recording by John Eliot Gardiner). Muybridge had shot and killed his wife’s lover and was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide, right around the time he did his motion studies, and that is the subject of The Photographer. I can still hear the high chorus singing “a gentleman’s honor.”

On to a more recent show. I headed over to Yerba Buena for Dance, a collaboration among Glass (music), Lucinda Childs (choreography), and Sol LeWitt (film). Dance is a revival of a 1979 piece, which is repeatedly described as a groundbreaking and seminal masterpiece of minimalism; I can’t say I know enough about the dance scene in late 1970s New York to judge that, but it’s a stunning work still.

Gertrude Stein in Paris in the 1920s is one of those fervent, febrile, magical scenes that a certain type of aesthetically inclined person daydreams of. Yet I always wonder what I would have noticed or felt if I had been there – among day-to-day survival efforts, would I have appreciated or even noticed that I happened to be in the place to be? New York in the 1970s seems to be turning into one of those scenes. At the time (I was in my native California and in college) New York mostly had the reputation of a dirty, dangerous, and very expensive place to live. And now I see more and more memoirs about what was going on there then that make it all seem so exciting and glamorous and youthful.

Dance is made up of three sections, each about twenty minutes long. The music is instantly recognizable as Philip Glass. The second piece, which features a solo for a woman dancer (originally Childs herself), had a more solemn tone and the third had kind of a honky-tonk undercurrent. LeWitt’s film is of the dance itself, and is coordinated with the live performers. Sometimes we get a different angle (say, looking downward) on the dance, sometimes we get close-ups of the dancers, sometimes we get split screens. None of it seems overly busy or distracted, however: generally we see the ghost dancers moving in rhythm with the live performers. Since this production uses the original film, there is the added poignancy of seeing the past recaptured and brought back to life, imposed like the memory of a previous performance on what we’re seeing.

The movement, like the music, tends to be deceptively simple, and you have to pay attention and notice the small variations, though it's easy to fall into an almost otherworldly trancelike state, as the dancers often whirl like the dervishes who induce meditative ecstasy with their twirling. Dancers move across the stage by themselves in a straight line. They twirl. They extend both arms sideways from their shoulders, usually with one slightly higher than the other, the way children would if you told them to dance. The costumes are very basic white pants and leotard tops for both men and women, so that depending on how far back you are you can’t always tell immediately which is which.

Having been around in the 1970s, I think I was surprised that something so elegant came from that era. Movie, music, and movement all have a clarity that reminded me of Mozart. As the almost generic title suggests, Dance is stripped down. You can sit there bored that you’re watching what seems to be the same thing over and over or you can pay close attention and start noticing how different it all is.

Afterwards there was a talk with Lucinda Childs, who came out to take a bow. She must be around 70 now but is still recognizably the elegant dancer we saw in the film. It was getting late enough so that I reluctantly decided I should skip the talk, since I had to get up and go to work the next day.

Since he was here in association with this revival, yesterday afternoon Philip Glass gave a solo recital, presented like Dance at Yerba Buena by San Francisco Performances. Before each piece he went to the microphone and introduced it briefly, in a low-key and often humorous way. He was dressed entirely in black, except for a thin cloth bracelet of bright red around his left wrist. Once I noticed the bracelet, I also noted that the piano stool had two thin bands of the same shade of red around the seat cushion. And then I noticed that the microphone he used when he spoke had a band of a similar shade of red around it. This was probably just a coincidence but was visually striking in a minimalist way.

He sat at the Steinway, slightly hunched over and completely absorbed. He is not a histrionic player. His sound is clear, liquid and sparkling. There was only the briefest of pauses between pieces in a group, but you could always tell when he was starting a new piece (in other words, contrary to what some believe, all music by Philip Glass does not sound alike). The pieces ranged over several decades: Six Etudes (1994-1999), Mad Rush (1980), Metamorphoses Nos. 2, 3, 4 (1989), Dreaming Awake (2006), and the Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990).

He mentioned that several of the pieces “had been blessed” by being used for dances by Lucinda Childs and Molissa Fenley. He was very generous in his remarks about all his collaborators. He told us that he used to perform Wichita Vortex Sutra with Allen Ginsberg, but after Ginsberg’s death in 1997, he didn’t play the piece for about ten years. Then he realized that Ginsberg, who couldn’t always perform in person, had made a recording for him to use, and that he could still use that, so he started performing the piece again. He does sometimes perform the piece with other speakers (“Patti Smith or my cousin Ira”), but, just as LeWitt’s film brought back the Dance of the 1970s, we had the recorded voice of Ginsberg reciting his great anti-war poem, Wichita Vortex Sutra, to Glass's beautifully hymnlike, meditative music. It's always special to hear a composer perform his own music.

The encore was actually two pieces (I didn't catch their names and SFP hasn't listed them on its site yet) which were written about ten years apart but which, he eventually realized, coincided in key and mood, so that he performs them together since they are coincident even though there was ten years between composition . He self-deprecatingly noted that some people say they can’t tell when one piece ends and the other begins, but he “thinks they’re just drifting off.”

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