23, April 2009 § Leave a comment
“Melody is the golden thread running through the maze of tones by which the ear is guided and the heart reached.” – Anonymous
The journey began in Italy during the fall of 2008. Then followed a blur of training, technique exercises, rehearsals, foreign languages, music notes and performances! It is now springtime in Paros, Greece, 2009 and it’s all coming back to me.
This past fall I had the opportunity to sing with The Aegean Center’s Vocal Ensemble and had an incredible experience performing on the island with fellow students and a number of locals (including John Pack’s lovely assistant, Stella Skordalellis). This spring I am back to singing with the ensemble and am also taking individual vocal training with Orpheas John Munsey, the ensemble’s director. This means that not only do I have a handful of choir concerts to perform at the end of the semester, but there will also be a solo concert in which I will be performing two baroque arias (Marco Antonio Cesti’s “Tu Mancavi a Tormentarmi”, and a gorgeous Handel aria), and three Francis Poulenc pieces (“La Reine de Coeur”, “Montparnasse” and “Hyde Park”). All are very different in feel.
The Handel piece is exquisite and wonderful to sing, but takes much technique and support “from the gorilla!” as Orpheas tells me. By this he means to sing higher notes from the lower half of the body – to get grounded in that primitive, muscular half of our form and allow its strength to support the air and diaphragm as notes jump up and down. So began the process of being trained to effortlessly and automatically draw from that incredible support when I sing.
It started with a heavy metal folding chair: as I approached a high note I was having difficulty supporting, I was instructed to slowly raise the chair with my arms out in front of me until it was at its highest point as I hit the highest note. This process engages abdominal muscles and forces these muscles and the diaphragm to work together to support the air that produces sound, my sound, a sound that, with the help of a chair, miraculously, became much easier and free flowing.
Another similar technique I was introduced to, one which I prefer, is even more entertaining. I place a pillow between my knees (this sounds interesting, no?) and as that familiar high note approaches I squeeze the pillow as hard as I can, really engaging the powerful, supportive lower half, and out comes a beautiful sound – a note that flows from the toes and effortlessly fills the room.
Physical technique issues aside, I have also discovered other, more artistic difficulties – the expression of the music itself. Once the technique is there, what’s left is the interpretation of the music and lyrics and the task of conveying to an audience the emotion and feel of a piece. Each song is like a piece of theatre and a new character has to be embodied and expressed accurately with feeling.
As I mentioned before, the Handel aria is an exquisitely beautiful piece, but it is also quite difficult. Singing gorgeously the praises of love, this piece requires a great deal of support – I think this song is the reason for that pillow – and resonance. Down right screechy at first, I’ve now managed to get the sound to seem more natural and supported, but a lot more work is needed before I will be able to do the composer any justice at all come May.
The gorgeous “Tu Mancavi a Tormentarmi” is a lament sung by a haunted and heartbroken woman. It’s a challenge technique and performance-wise (the pillow often comes into play here!)
“La Reine de Couer” is smooth and sultry, and is a lot of fun, though not easy, to sing. The text is a french poem by Maurice Careme and Poulenc has beautifully interpreted its calm, seductive feel. My challenge lies in giving colour to the text and the higher notes as well as maintaining breath through the phrases.
“Montparnasse” is an imaginative, almost dreamy poem by Guillaume Apollinaire and is the longest of the Poulenc pieces. It is very artful, full of odd dynamics and phrasing such as building up to a high note, only to pull way back at the last moment to sing as softly as possible.
“Hyde Park”. Honestly, it’s crazy. At about two and a half seconds long, it is probably the most difficult piece I have, seeing as the vocal line, full of odd, jumping notes, tends to go where ever it likes while the piano does its own thing underneath, all at a breakneck pace. Another poem from Apollinaire, it’s supposed to remind one of a bustling street: cars driving and honking, people walking briskly about. Well, Mr. Poulenc, success.
With only about two months or so to performance time, I’m feeling the pressure and believe it’s time to get to some serious business. To be honest, I feel like I have a lot to do on every single piece I have and it’s a bit overwhelming at times, but I try to remember that this is why I am here, why we are all here at the Aegean Center – to be pushed to grow and learn. As anxious as I am about that night in late May, I am also very excited, excited to finally see all the hard work pay off and to be back here on Paros, doing what I love.
13, April 2009 § 1 Comment
Since writing my previous post, we have made a lot of progress in Jane’s Velazquez seminar. We began painting with a putty mixture, which is a technique that Velazquez and many of the Old Master painters seem to have used. We made our own putty out of marble dust and oil. Jane purified the marble dust that she got from a local construction yard through an extensive process of rinsing, allowing it to settle, pouring out the impure water, and drying it out. With the clean, dry marble powder, we experimented with adding various mediums to make putty. We tried three different consistencies of oil, liquin, and egg yolk. Each medium gave the putty a different structural quality and drying time.
Making putty was something new to me and I found it very satisfying. New research into many old paintings (by Velazquez or Rembrandt for example) shows that artists often mixed putty with their paint pigment. Using putty in this way instead of oil is a way to make the paint more transparent, more sculptural, and quicker to dry. Linseed oil will yellow with age and crack on the canvas’s surface, but putty will not. We found that using putty doesn’t make the paint chalky and opaque like adding white does, but it does make a little pigment go a very long way.
When I experimented with putty, I immediately loved it. It is a very economical way to prolong your oil paint since it is extremely cheap and easy to make – just mix marble dust and oil together! I chose to paint a knotty old olive tree that I saw in Lefkes on one of our hikes. One of the wonderful benefits of living in such a beautiful place as Paros is that nature is everywhere and it serves as a constant inspiration for artwork. Putty is especially great for painting organic shapes and it helped free up my brushstroke, which is usually more tightly controlled. I felt like I was sculpting and molding the paint as I applied it in thick gobs. I went in with several layers of paint and subsequent glazing into the knots and dark shadows. I am pleased with the final effect; the paint quality, particularly in the sky, has a unique semi-opaque yet luminescent feel. Because I had so much fun with this painting, I plan on painting another olive tree using putty.
In Jun’s painting class, I have done several new paintings. I chose to paint a scene of rather pissed-off cats perched on a dumpster. It is an image that we see on every street corner and I find it quite humorous. Cats, which I traditionally think of as cute cuddly animals, lurk threateningly around big trash cans and I can’t help but wonder what goodies they are gruffly guarding. I wanted to dramatize the scene so I used a slight worm’s eye view to look up at the cats who glare down at me, enhanced by a harsh sense of light with raking cast shadows. The background was a struggle because at first it flattened the sense of space and felt artificial, like a wallpaper that the cats were stuck on top of. I tried to subtly gradate it, which helped but I am still not pleased with it. I played with various textures on the cats, the trash cans, and the landscape, and worked up gradually with many layers. I enjoy people’s reaction when they look closely at the cats’ expressions; it’s a painting that’s ok to laugh at.
I also did a reflection painting. I began it much like the portrait I did of St. Paul, with a burnt sienna monochromatic, then heightened and darkened the details. My still-life set up was dominantly black so I went over everything with a black glaze but that left the fabric feeling very transparent so I added positive paint on top of it. This was rather frustrating because I had gone into so much detail in the underpainting and I ended up covering it over with the next layers. Having the framework laid out so thoroughly did help because I had studied the folds and crevices so intently that I understood the fabric’s form and how it was draped, thus making it easier to paint. For me the painting was a concentrated exercise in breaking down a complex subject into shapes and forms.
While I was working on the more arduous reflective study, I did a smaller side painting for fun. In Liz Carson’s photo history class, we were looking at early photographs of hazy cityscape scenes. I was attracted to the symmetric forms and shapes and I wanted to create a simple city line and play with blurry abstracted reflections. I have been meaning to experiment with letting watery paint drip and blend together since this is a texture I want to incorporate more into my work. It was a good way for me to loosen up and focus on paint quality rather than on form. I used many layers of glazing and a limited palette consisting mostly of pthalo blue, burnt umber, ocher, and black.
In keeping with geometric forms and combining watery paint and dripping methods, I painted the view from our school’s courtyard, looking up at a studio window. I sketched the scene in Draw Club one morning because I was drawn to the harsh morning shadows cast on the wall and all the sharp architectural angles that went off in odd directions yet all seemed to flow harmoniously together. I also found the simple color planes soothing and liked how they juxtapose the sinewy wire forms. I built up my color carefully and gradually with several layers of paint scumble and glazing on top. I integrated dripping on one of the walls and I painted the sky with very watered-down paint. The final piece conveys a rather simple relationship between shapes and colors. Next we are working with a limited color palette, setting up still-lives with only white or grey objects. This will force us to focus on subtle differences in hue and tonality.
6, April 2009 § 1 Comment
Photography students took advantage of the colorful pomp and circumstance of this year’s Greek Independence Day Parade in Paroikia. Led by the local marching band, school children paraded along the windy waterfront in traditional Greek garb. The symbol laden foustanella, pictured above, was worn by the military in the revolution of 1821. Its 400 pleats mark the 400 years of Ottoman rule in Greece.
Thanks to Lliam for the photos.
6, April 2009 § 3 Comments
On a beautiful Thursday afternoon last week, the Aegean Center enjoyed a lively and interesting presentation by Euphrosyne Doxiadis. A long time friend of the Center, Euphrosyne presented two previous talks this semester regarding the Fayum Portraits and the contested Peter Paul Rubens painting of Samson and Delilah in London.
Euphrosyne presented the art of encaustic painting — painting with beeswax. Byzantine icons and the portraits of the Fayum use this ancient technique which dates back thousands of years. Pigments derived from earth are mixed with the hot wax which can then be applied to a prepared surface, such as wood or canvas. Based on the tetrachromy (or four color palette) of white, black, red and yellow, this simple palette can yield hundreds of colors.
Euphrosyne gave an overview of the preparation –melting the wax on a hot plate, adding mastic resin to act as a binder, adding the pigments themselves and the application of the paint with large stiff brushes. The colored wax, once applied, immediately hardened on the surface and could then be further manipulated by using electric tools to heat, melt, scratch and shape the wax.
Many of the students experimented with the paint and found it exciting but challenging to manipulate the wax paint before it set. We found it would take some time and practice to learn subtle handling of this medium.
1, April 2009 § 1 Comment
Adrian Eisenhower recently sent us the following update about his new exhibition of photographs from the inauguration, now showing at the bau gallery in Beacon, NY:
On January 18th, two days before the inauguration, I went down to DC with a friend and videographer, Vincent Galgano. I went to make a photographic essay of the event. I brought with me three cameras: a Rollieflex, a Leica, and a digital Nikon. After walking around the mall on the 19th, I chose to use only the Rollie. The day of the inauguration, the 20th, was hectic. Even with an early start we had to throw ourselves onto the metro train. When I was at the mall I photographed alone.
After processing the Plus X with Edwal’s FG-7 and 9% sodium sulfide solution, I scanned the negatives on an Epson Perfection 4490 with Silverfast software. I was able to print at the Masters School in NY, late night hours when the students were not around. The prints were made on Hahnemuhle paper with an Epson Stylus 4000 and K3 inks. The facilities were not quite as WYSISYG or controlled as those at the Center and required some getting used to. After some fumbling they proved to be adequate.
The images are currently a part of the show at a gallery in Beacon, NY called bau. The show, called XLIV, opened on the second Saturday of March. It was a festive evening, spared not of police, milkshakes and a Ukulele. Shirin Borthwick, an alumna of the Center and graduate student of writing at Columbia (pictured above with me and Vincent), was able to attend.