When I was a student at Cal Arts in the late 1970s, the Music School had a thriving composition department. With Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mel Powel on the faculty along with Morton Subotnik and Stephen “Lucky” Mosko, avant-garde music was on the menu every day. I’ve never had an interest in composing music; however, I enrolled in every composition seminar that I could as a performance-major student. Typically, I would be the only non-composer in these classes. These courses gave me an opportunity to attend guest lectures by some of the important composers of the 20th Century: John Cage, Elliot Carter, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Aaron Copeland, to name a few.
I have always found the inner workings of a piece of music, you might say the “language of composition,” to be fascinating. In 1978 I spent an entire semester analyzing Plus/Minus by Karlheinz Stockhausen under the tutelage of Lucky Mosko. Anyone who knows of this monument of Western compositional thought understands where I am coming from. Unfortunately, the drawback to this is that I tend to learn new pieces slowly, typically spending too much time exploring the possibilities of each motive, phrase, or section. I used to be ridiculously picky with regard to fingering, attempting to be “true” to the music to a fault.
It was at Cal Arts that I came to know Richard Artschwager. Mr. Artschwager is not a composer, but a visual artist, and he was a visiting Art School faculty member at Cal Arts either in 1979 or 1980. For a Work/Study job, I used to work in the “Super Shop” at Cal Arts where I would build furniture. The Super Shop is a large metal and wood fabrication workshop intended primarily for art students to build sculptures and other types of artwork. For a number of weeks in that late spring, I would occasionally see Richard in the Super Shop constructing a cabinet out of white oak. I had heard that he had been a professional cabinetmaker before turning to the making of art, and it showed. His choice of wood, crisp joinery and design, all spoke of a superior woodworker, a far cry above the furniture that I had been building.
Also of interest was Richard’s appearance at the time. He was a rather tall man, with a face, hair and beard reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln. When I say that I came to know Richard, I am exaggerating. I don’t recall ever speaking to him in the Super Shop. All I ever knew of him was gleamed from watching his project develop over the weeks. Whenever he left his cabinet in the shop, I would study it, noting every detail of the exquisite craftsmanship. However, before the cabinet was completed, it disappeared. This was close to the end of the semester in May of that particular year, and I was disappointed to not see the final piece.
Shortly thereafter, at the end of that school year, there was a faculty art show in the main gallery at Cal Arts. One evening, I was leisurely enjoying the show when I came across the cabinet that Mr. Artschwager had been building. As I would have expected, the final result was stunning. Every aspect of the cabinet, from design to final execution, was exceptional. With reverence, I studied the cabinet for a good ten minutes or so. Out of nowhere, Richard appeared. I remember complimenting him on his work, and then asking whether the cabinet was intended to store prints or other artwork in the five or six thin, wide drawers.
Taken aback, Richard gave me a rather serious “Abe Lincoln” scowl, and said “No, this is my life!” Upon saying this, he deliberately pulled each drawer out to expose the empty contents and a different bottom for each drawer. One was clear, another was a mirror, a third was black, and the other two or three were different colored glass. I was speechless as Richard walked away.
For years, I pondered the significance, if any, of this chance encounter. . Initially, I wondered what each of the drawer bottoms represented. The black glass possibly signified a tragic event and the mirrored drawer was symbolic of reflection. Modern art can be deliberately confrontational to the audience or so complex that without a two-hour lecture by the artist, there is be little hope of understanding or appreciating the work. In this case, I was caught off-guard, challenged by the artist, and left dumbfounded
Ultimately, I came to believe that although it certainly would be interesting to know which of Richard Artschwager’s experiences were represented by the cabinet artwork, it is a mistake to focus solely on the artist and the relationship to their art. The creation of art is one of the most indefinable of human acts. What takes place in the mind of the creator, under what circumstances, and during what epoch cannot be recaptured, and, even if it could, I don’t know how relevant the information would be. Evidently, some of Mozart’s most spirited, exquisitely joyful music was composed during the darkest days of his life. Does that knowledge really help an interpreter? This is not to say that stylistic approaches to baroque, renaissance, classical or romantic are a waste of time, quite the contrary.
My opportunities as a student to listen to lectures given by composers of significance gave me no edge with regard to interpretive matters with their music. Similarly, when I have had the opportunity to perform for composers, typically, they have been unable to offer insight that enlightened me about their pieces. Other performers who I have queried seem to have had similar experiences when working with composers. The value in working with composers has usually been with regard to tempi, dynamic issues, problems with unplayable passages and so forth. Indeed, playing for composers has been very worthwhile to me, but what does not usually get communicated is what inspired them to write the piece, or similar artistic issues.
So, where does this leave us? Fine art is created by exceptionally creative people whose intellect and life experiences are intertwined in their work. Should you listen or play a particular piece, view a sculpture or dance presentation and think to yourself, “I don’t get it,” relax with the idea that if it is good art, you probably shouldn’t appreciate all that the work has to offer with one experience. Whether you are in a performance situation, or an audience member, your relationship with art should be first-and-foremost, a personal one. Each of us has had a unique life, one where experiences have left an indelible mark on our personality and perspective. What does the black glass represent to you, the clear glass, and the mirrored one? With time, you will come up with answers to these questions – your own understanding of art.