I listened

I heard something
but there was
nothing there—
noises in the distance.
I heard something
in the darkness,
then I was awoken
from a daydream
in a shattered haze
to hear her calling,
“I am me.”

I wanted to turn away,
but I was nearly there
out of the background
and into the day,
I had to reach that
farthest star, I fell.
I could hear her calling,
“Every lifetime I have is now.”

I wanted to turn away,
but I was living
beyond reason, beyond hope.
I listened to the passions
of the dragonfly,
to the sound of
my own thoughts.
I listened to an unknown
language
and I realized:
I could understand.

I wanted to turn away,
(but) I wanted to cry
I had salvation
and before I knew,
I could fly.
 
 
–  Via Estela

A Casual Defiance of History: The secret of Trude Fleischmann

Trude Fleischmann self portrait with camera
Trude Fleischmann self-portrait, 1928 (Wien Museum)

Why are outstanding women often forgotten or overlooked? Fortunately, Trude Fleischmann is not quite a secret anymore due to an extensive and masterfully-presented exhibition at Vienna’s Wien Museum—which thoroughly solidified her position as one of the most important Austrian and Jewish female photographers, as well as showcasing her as one of the most significant photographers of the 20th century.

Fleischmann launched her career at a time when Austrian women had just begun to assert themselves socially and professionally. She began her four-year course of photography studies in 1913 at Vienna’s Institute for Photography and Reproduction Techniques, just five years after the institute had opened its doors to women in 1908. Photography was an overwhelmingly male-dominated field, and leading photographers often disparaged women’s contributions: Influential Viennese photo-journalist Hermann Clemens Kosel even stated that women brought “the moral seriousness of art into absurdity”.

The exhibition, Trude Fleischmann –The Self-Assured Eye (Der selbstbewusste Blick), covered Fleischmann’s Vienna period from 1920-1938, highlighting her exceptional studio portraits along with Alpine landscapes and street photography. The portraits show Fleischmann’s mastery of her art and a unique identification and understanding of her subjects. Her studio (at Ebendorfer St. 3 near City Hall) was the scene of many parties for her well-connected circle of friends, and frequented by the many artists, performers and intellectuals whom she photographed.

Fleischmann and her colleagues were in touch with the social, political and artistic movements afoot in Europe at the time. A significant part of this was the emerging status of women, growing out of necessity. During the World War I, with workers scarce, women took over traditionally male professions. After the war ended these women, many of whom were Jewish, continued their careers, exerting their independent spirit. Trude Fleischmann gave shape to this new self-assured woman with the revealing portrayals of her contemporaries, the success and popularity of her studio, and the devotion to her craft.

Portrait of writer Karl Kraus, with his hands centered in image
Portrait of writer Karl Kraus; photographer Trude Fleischmann, 1930

At times expressive and bold, sensitive and delicate, personal and serious, Fleischmann brought not only her subjects’ images onto the printed photograph, but their personality and essence as well. She deftly combined her finely-tuned sensibility with the emerging technology, notably in her choice of composition and cropping to accentuate personal or identifying characteristics of those captured. One notable example–and one of my favorites–is an image from 1930 of Austrian writer and journalist Karl Kraus, in which the writer’s hands take precedence, his enigmatic face off to the left and largely cropped out of the frame.

Outstanding among her portraits are the motion studies of modern dancers, capturing the dynamic, sculptural poses and avant-garde costumes of this era of expanding female liberation, as the women proudly express their emergent personal and artistic freedoms. The portrait of Austrian stage actress, the Countess of Carnarvon Tilly Losch (née Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Losch) is particularly enthralling, posed as ‘Princess Teablossom in the ballet, Whipped Cream’ (sounding like a ballet that would’ve enthralled Edward Gorey). The exhibition also includes the provocative nude portraits of the of dancer Claire Bauroff — photos considered scandalous in their time; upon public presentation in Berlin in 1925, they were censored and confiscated by the police. Advertising the 2011 exhibition, a larger-than-life image of the nude and relaxed Bauroff adorned the outside of the Wien Museum, in a casual defiance of history.

Trude Fleischmann exhibition catalog
Exhibition catalog cover with Fleischmann’s photo of dancer, Claire Bauroff.

The exhibition followed Trude Fleischmann’s flight from Vienna to New York City, following the Anschluss in 1938 (Hitler’s annexation of Austria), when the studios of other Jewish women photographers began to be “Aryanized” or their names and identities “deregistered.” These contemporaries included other successful Viennese photographers such as Edith Glogau, Grete Kollin, Trude Geiringer and Edith Barakovich, who were also shown in the exhibition, giving a taste of what yet lies to be discovered. In 1940 Fleischmann opened a studio in Manhattan’s theater district at 127 West 56th Street, successfully adapting to her new home and expanding into street portraiture. Just two years later she became an American citizen. Eventually she relocated out of the city into Putnam County, in the village of Brewster, New York. Now more than twenty years after her death in 1990, this was the first major exhibition of Fleischmann’s photographs, described by co-curator Anton Holzer as one of leading “forgotten women photographers.”

Beautiful photo of the silhouettes of a horn player and a dancer in front of a large window
Ernst Matray (dancer, choreographer, actor and director; seated) and Katta Sterna (actress and dancer) by Trude Fleischmann

“Strange as it sounds,” Holzer explains, “Trude Fleischmann was recognized in her time, but today as a reference point for young photographers, she is still a secret.” In the aftermath of World War II and the diaspora of Jews throughout the world, the pre-war lifestyle and culture that had flourished in Vienna was lost, as was even the memory of their very existence — not only with the destruction of photographs and negatives, but with the lost lives of the friends, family and relatives who knew the women and their work.

The exhibition was the continuation of a movement begun in the 1980s and 90s to recover the remaining and underrepresented contributions of Jewish culture in the years between the wars, as Austria then began to deal with this dark chapter of its history. “Forgetting is not a natural process,” Holzer emphasized. While much of the culture from that time has been lost there is still much to rediscover as we continue to reaquaint ourselves with these distinctive women, such as Trude Fleischmann, and the expressive lifestyles of those she photographed.

Photographs on the wall of a Trude Fleischmann exhibition
A room of the exhibition at the Wien Musuem.
Entrance to exhibition on Trude Fleischmann in Wien Museum
Trude Fleischmann exhibit, Wien Museum

* This piece was adapted from an article I wrote for The Vienna Review.

A Symphony of Chance: John Cage and the Music Not Yet Heard

Portrait of John Cage wearing a crown
John Cage, Frankfurt 1986 – © Andreas Pohlman

How to pay tribute to a great artist: Through the supposed flattery of imitation or the path of inspiration? If the latter, then with what approach? Would you carefully plan each step or let improvisation and chance guide your way? I asked myself these questions while on the way to an exhibition in Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier. In its quartier21 freiraum space 60 international artists paid tribute to the composer and artist John Cage (1912-1992) with Membra Disjecta for John Cage: Wanting to Say Something About John, on the centennial of his birth and what happens to be the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Bracing an icy cold, but architecturally beautiful, walk past palaces and museums, I wondered what to expect. Always eager to discover different perspectives, I knew there would naturally be many of them on the subject of such a multifacted individual like John Cage, one of the leading figures of the twentieth century avant-garde and an influential composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher and artist. A pioneer of aleatory, or indeterminacy, he employed the element of chance in the composition of music, and often allowed for the same in its performance or interpretation. Cage was also integral in the creation of “happenings”: spontaneous art-actions he established with his students. As an instructor at The New School he was influential in the formation of Fluxus, an interdisciplinary group of artists, composers, writers and designers.

Plans for sound installation in garden shed
Plans for sound installation in garden shed: “Gardening with John 1.1” – © Alvin Curran

The artists who paid homage to Cage are friends and contemporaries, including Alvin Curran, Ray Kass and Richard Kostelanetz plus others under the Cagian influence like Tyler Adams, Arturas Bumšteinas and Hassan Khan. The exhibition presented more than a hundred works in an assortment of media with paintings, drawings, collages, prints, texts, musical scores, sound installations, videos, an interactive birthday cake and some books written by Cage himself. The assemblage of sounds and images mingling with each other created a multimedia environment in the space, intended as a virtual work of art in itself.

This diversity in itself celebrates Cage’s philosophy embraced throughout his work. “Membra Disjecta” refers to a Latin phrase for “scattered fragments” (disjecta membra). Usually relating to fragments of ancient literary and cultural objects, the term instead is applied to Cage’s method of taking inspiration from a variety of sources.

The subtitle is a paraphrase of his work, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel. In 1969 Cage was asked to partake in a tribute to the Dadaist and Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp, who died the previous year. His contribution was two lithographs and a series of eight “plexigrams”: Plexiglas panels with silk screened, randomly chosen letters positioned on a wooden base. The contemporary artist Jasper Johns was also asked to express something about Duchamp, but refused with the statement, “I don’t want to say anything about Marcel.” Cage used Johns’ statement as inspiration for the title of his work. A rare treat of the exhibition was the opportunity to see Cage’s two lithographs and his plexigram piece VII, here on loan from the John Cage Trust and Margarete Roeder Gallery in New York.

Lithography by John Cage featuring muted blues and greens on dark background
Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel – Lithograph A – © John Cage (John Cage Trust/Margarete Roeder Gallery)

Cage was born in Los Angeles, California to a journalist-socialite mother, Lucretia Harvey, and an often idealistic inventor father, John Milton Cage, Sr. This aspect—and possible influence—of Cage’s life was not overlooked in Membra Disjecta: posted on a staircase leading up to contributions of haikus and musical scores is the fascinating and hypnotic Cage About the Polywave (2011) by American artist GX Jupitter-Larsen, an underground interdisciplinary artist and former sound designer for the performances of Survival Research Laboratories. Containing an image with the words, “Electrostatic Field Theory by John Milton Cage Sr (1886 – 1964)” Jupitter-Larsen’s print is an apparent reference to Cage, Sr.’s theory of the universe.

From Sakshat Virtual Labs under the subheading “Electrostatic Field”:

Electric field is defined as the electric force per unit charge. The direction of the field is taken to be the direction of the force it would exert on a positive test charge. The electric field is radially outward from a positive charge and radially in toward a negative point charge.

Rendering of Electrostatic Field Theory white on blue
Cage About the Polywave – © GX Jupitter-Larsen

In California Cage studied music at USC, UCLA and privately under the renowned Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg gave lessons to Cage gratis after Cage promised to devote his life to music. This promise propelled Cage throughout his life, even at times when he became discouraged with the medium. Cage thought very highly of Schoenberg although he never received a compliment from his esteemed instructor. Later on, whilst recollecting upon his pupils, Schoenberg spoke of Cage not as a composer, but “an inventor of genius”.

Cage did not continue his formal collegiate studies, but did retain a relationship with universities and colleges throughout his life, lecturing on experimental music and working with modern dancers. His compositional and performance methods incorporated unorthodox instruments like metal, conch shells and household items. For those willing to brace the chilly Vienna air for a bit, a small, unnassuming television set awaits at an entrance to the exhibition with a performance by a younger Cage on an early black and white TV show. Cage performed music by banging, rubbing and using various items such as a blender and a pot releasing steaming water (Cage would lift the lid to release the sound of the steam). When he was informed that the radios he brought could not be turned on, Cage eagerly improvised by tossing them off their table so they would crash onto the floor. Each action was timed with a stop watch; all the while he intermittently made a cocktail, which he enjoyed at the end with a satisfied smile.

While Cage composed for conventional instruments such as piano and percussion, he approached them in his innovative manner, as well. In 1940 he earned recognition during a West Coast tour with a percussion ensemble where he made another noted improvisational choice. Upon encountering a performance space too small for his percussion ensemble, Cage invented the “prepared piano”, whose sound was altered by objects placed in contact with the strings. Unfortunately I didn’t encounter a prepared piano at the exhibition. It could be something to play around with when tiring of my Hanon exercises.

At times he did not actually specify what instrument should be used for a certain piece. In 1940 he composed “Living Room Music” for percussion and speech quartet, wherein no traditional percussion instruments are used. Cage instead notes that “any household objects or architectural elements may be used as instruments”. In the third movement of the piece, a player performs the melody on “any suitable instrument”. Cage used this type of open instruction upon occasion. The piece “Five” (1988) allows for the performance “by any five voices or instruments or mixture thereof, so long as they can play tones in the proper ranges.”

His innovative musical style inspired modern dancers, who were among the earliest to express interest in Cage’s work. Through this interaction he met his lifelong partner, the American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. The couple are celebrated in a piece from Ray Kass, Professor Emeritus of Art at Virginia Tech, and founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop, a collaborative, community-based art project. It was there, in 1989, that John Cage performed the art-action piece STEPS. Kass presented Cage with a five-foot wide brush, which Cage used to complete his work of art, 60 x 208 inches (about 152 x 528 cm) on special paper. From Kass’ own recollection:

This work features the isolated imprints of Cage’s shoes and, like 12th century Chinese Sung paintings of lonely travelers among remote mountains and streams, it raises the timeless image of a solitary figure walking in nature. This effect was achieved when, before applying the watercolor wash to the paper, Cage stepped in basins of water-based paint. As he walked across the paper pulling the large brush, his shoes left their imprints, and they were immediately toned and blurred under a layer of wash.

In Membra Disjecta, Kass presented a realization of STEPS in tribute to Cage and Cunningham with For Merce Cunningham – a performance of John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for A Painting To Be Performed by Individuals and Groups, performed on July 27, 2009 (ink and watercolor on nylon fabric). The piece was performed at Mountain Lake with Merce Cunningham, where Cunningham choreographed a trio of modern dancers—painting the canvas with their bare feet—and then participates himself with the inked wheels of his wheelchair. Looking at his piece one can feel as Kass did in describing the original STEPS as resembling “a giant Zen ink-wash painting of footprints in a riverbed (water/river is a recurrent theme in Cage’s Mountain Lake paintings)”. The footprints and lines as traces of fleeting spirits in a ghostly dance with the elements.

Artwork showing footseps of dancers, who stepped in paint then danced on artwork
For Merce Cunningham – a performance of John Cage’s STEPS – © Ray Kass

Some of Cage’s greatest influences came from Eastern cultures in Zen Buddhism, Indian philosophy and the Taoist I Ching. One result of his studies on the subjects is in his use of the I Ching, given to him by his pupil, experimental composer Christian Wolff in early 1951. Often called The Book of Changes, the I Ching is considered one of the oldest Chinese texts and (in an unfortunate short definition; it is a profoundly beautiful book) addresses the balance of opposites and the inevitability of change. The text is highly regarded by many as a treasury of ancient cosmic principles with chapters denoted by 64 distinct hexagrams.

This classic book also contains a system of divination wherein a hexagram is randomly determined and then its subsequent chapter is read. Cage began using the I Ching system of divination allowing oracular chance to guide the composition of music and artwork. This opened up new possibilities to explore chance-controlled music. In the same year Cage completed his first instrumental piece based on this method, “Music of Changes” for solo piano.

An homage to John Cage’s embrace of chance operations was shown in Membra Disjecta through Belgian artist Kris Vleeschouwer’s interactive installation Beautiful Day. Although this is not an interaction any visitor can engage. Situated on one side of a large exhibition room is an intriguing presentation of a stand supporting a case with a transparent cover. The display contains three dice in one corner and a mechanical, metal lever in the other, set upon a green base. Upon occasion, the corner of this green base slants upward rolling the dice toward the lever. After the base settles down the lever then returns the dice to their original side of the case.

On the other side of the room is a seemingly unrelated item, one that kept meditatively drawing my attention as I was waiting for this mechanical process to start again: an aquarium containing three goldfish and two green plants at either end. Looking around the exhibition space, I was repeatedly drawn back to these graceful and mesmerizing creatures. I kept wondering to myself: But what’s with the fish?  It turns out that set up on the wall of the aquarium, in the open space between the plants, is an electronic sensor. A goldfish swimming past the sensor sets the mechanism in motion across the room for the green base to rise. The whimsical movements of fish determining when the dice will roll.

Image of anechoic chamber in Harvard
Harvard Anechoic Chamber, 1945

It was a year after Cage’s introduction to the I Ching when he made his most controversial composition, “4’33″”. The title denotes the length of the piece, composed of three movements in which the performer is instructed not to play a single note for the entire duration. Instead of the perceived silence, the listeners are meant to pay attention to the sounds of the environment instead, thereby providing a different experience for each audience depending upon the location of the performance.

In his “Autobiographical Statement” of 1990, Cage recollected upon his visit to an anechoic chamber—an echo-free room insulated from outside noises—at Harvard University, where he realized that silence was not merely the absence of sound but the unintended operation of his nervous system and the circulation of his blood. This experience influenced Cage to compose “4’33″”, along with having viewed artist Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings series. Upon first glance appear they appear to be blank, white canvases, but John Cage was attuned to the intention of the artist and instead of only seeing nothing he observed that subtle changes in the lighting and ambient conditions of the room could be detected on the canvas.

Video still shots of Tyler Adams work Performing SilencePerforming Silence from American artist Tyler Adams is a testament to “4’33″”, and one that can answer the question for the inquiring musician: How do you perform silence? That question alone could be the topic for a foray into the philosophies of interpretation. Here, found footage is compiled in a video wall showing various performances of the piece, wherein each musician dutifully refrains from playing his or her instrument. Instead we hear the sounds of our surrounding space.

Contributing to this aleatoric atmosphere is the contribution from artist and composer Christian Marclay. Posted in various locations on the walls of the gallery is a white piece of paper printed with a message from Marclay suggesting a “participatory piece” wherein, “A sign would instruct visitors to play the ring tones programed on their mobile phone. These alarm sounds would create a random soundtrack throughout the exhibition.”

At last! A place indoors where we don’t have to be concerned about quieting our phones. Instead are encouraged to let them sound out and in doing so become part of a symphony of chance for John Cage.

There is so much more to add to this symphony, to an experience that is just the frosting on the cake, or really, reflections on the idea of frosting. I’m sure art and music theorists can disect and divide on the many aspect of Cage’s thoughts, ideas, motivations and actions. I pretend to be no expert, only a curious appreciator. I’ve just found that exhibitions are more fulfilling with a little research done beforehand. We will near a stopping point here, then, with a statement from Cage.

Two years before his death in his “Autobiographical Statement” Cage wrote about his later compositions, a series collectively referred to as the Number Pieces, written with flexible time brackets and variable structures. In his musing he poetically states the philosophy behind his musical explorations:

…I look for something I haven’t yet found. My favorite music is the music I haven’t yet heard. I don’t hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.

Whether intentionally created or accidentally encountered, music surrounds us wherever we are, even if we have to listen beyond the silence.

 


Of further interest:
Transcript: Oral history interview with John Cage, 1974 May 2, from the Archives of American Art
Video: John Cage about silence

This piece was adapted from an article I wrote for The Vienna Review.

Cage Exhibit Ringtone Letter
Letter posted in space for John Cage exhibition encouraging the playing of ringtones while visiting.
Plexigram by John Cage
A plexigram by John Cage, “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel” (sorry I forgot which one of the series). In the exhibition space, Vienna.

 

 

Barri Gòtic

The sky falls into the city
creating a dance floor
breathing onto textures and waves.
I follow its lead,
caressing the evening night
through alleyways and pathways
into corners and strange places
charged with mystery
and ecstasy,
sadness and celebration

lights encounter the darkness
as enchantment casts
its pleasures in a
spell of synergy;
the sound of water touching the stones
creates a rhythm with footsteps,
accompanying the melody
of laughter and lovers.

color reflects the dreams of artists
and dancers as they paint
steps with their feet,
sculpting the air with each other,
bodies navigating
passages of rhythm.
conversations pass, reveling
into unknown places and escapades.

men are singing melodies
of fantasies and memories,
longing and regrets.

I move through the labyrinth
reaching into the sky
as it lifts me
above the canvas
of stones and footsteps,
riding the notes
as they float away,
dancing on passions and dreams.
the music paints the sky
as guitar strings
and sweet serenades
fade away into the stars
 
 
–  Via Estela

A statement for humanity

Just a quck note to share one of my projects featuring statements, poetry and designs on clothing, bags, accessories and other items, like mugs! You can check out some items in my shop or all of them on my Star Via page.

Human Handle With Care shirts

Make a positive statement for humanity inspired by compassion and respect

in various styles and sizes for all humans: Shop Now
Update: Now available in colorful tanks, just in time for summer!
Plus selected bags and accessories.

Clothing and accessories featuring the statement: Human, handle with care.