The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on November 20th, 2014

As a longtime pianist, I am only too aware of the many challenges involved in mastering the instrument and its repertoire. What audiences ultimately hear in the concert hall and on recorded performances is only the very tip of the iceberg. Just beneath that tiny, perceptible tip there exists a huge, invisible mass of preparation comprised of planning, study, decision-making, reflection, assessment, introspection, interpretation, relentless practice, and sheer disciplined effort that makes the final product possible. Most people have an inkling of this on some level, but few fully understand how truly difficult a task the preparation is. As is the case with all of the Arts, what appears to be an average, normal, and expected performance level, a level that may even appear attainable for the average audience member given a little time and practice, actually requires extraordinary talent and training (ballet comes to mind in this regard).

Now, there are many, many fine pianists around the world, both professional and amateur, who are fully capable of delivering decent, technically adept, and sometimes even dazzling performances. But every once in a while we encounter someone whose playing goes beyond the realm of proficiency and demonstrates an even higher quality --- artistry… the ability to translate what at first glance appears to be prosaic into poetry. These are the people to whom we must pay particular attention because they can give us keen insight into possibilities that sometimes escape our perception, possibilities that might lead us to more richly satisfying aesthetic rewards.

A case in point is the following figure from the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major for Piano, Opus 2 Number 2 (seen here in various iterations):
This is not an example of a dramatic moment among Beethoven’s works. We often tend to think of musical interpretative success in terms of the projection of strong, highly-charged emotions like anger, sadness, melancholy, joy, and the like. But this is none of those. It’s actually kind of awkward looking on the page, coming out of nowhere as it does from a low note, rippling up to a high one, bouncing a couple of times, and then dropping like a stone back down into the depths. For the pianist, questions arise regarding what to make of it without turning it into a mere, somewhat gangly, technical feat. And then comes along an inspired solution from the pianist Emil Gilels, and the musical idea immediately becomes infused with vivid character. Click on the album cover to listen.

This is but one example of true artistry. The apparently awkward musical figure is transformed from just notes on a page into a poetic gesture. Each time it is heard, it's as though an elegantly graceful bird has fluttered up out of obscurity, settling lightly and delicately on a tree branch. And as we listen to the rest of the piece, we find ourselves not just enjoying the music, but eagerly awaiting that musical figure's delightful reappearance.

by Robert Millar on November 19th, 2014

… as I did in my previous blog entry, have you ever watched the 1948 British film based on Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, directed by Sir David Lean? Whatever else you may think of the film, there are moments in it that are quite stunning due to the creative cinematography of Guy Green. The work he did on Lean’s previous film, an adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations (1946) that always seemed to be featured in TV reruns during the holiday season when I was growing up, established him as a major figure in the world of cinematography (he received an Academy Award for his work on the film). So he was a natural to undertake the photographic rendering of Oliver Twist, Lean’s next film. Both films are inevitably dated, but they continue to be strangely engrossing and quite atmospheric, and the cinematographic style has had a profound effect on the imagery in many subsequent movies. Not that Guy Green was the first photographer to compose compelling imagery, but he lived early enough in the history of photography to still be considered a pioneer in putting such powerful imagery into the service of moving pictures.

Take a look at a few moments of the beginning of Oliver Twist. Watch how well the initial situational set-up is communicated without words. Pay special attention to how the following factors influence the expressive content of the narrative:
  • The position, angle, and the point of view of the camera with respect to the subject matter.
  • The dramatic contrasts of darkness and light created by rich and complex combinations of blacks, whites, and shades of gray.
  • The increasing intensity of the storm and of physical action and their emotional implications with regard to the story.
  • The use of light to highlight the woman’s pregnancy.
  • The use of metaphor in the coincidence of the woman’s labor pains and the jagged, writhing thorn stems.
It's all designed to be pretty compelling.

If you're interested, here is a link to the whole film:

by Robert Millar on November 10th, 2014

Yesterday I opened the novel, LITTLE DORRITT, by Charles Dickens (1812-1870), and was shocked. I had been casting around for a good fiction read for months, but trips to regional bookstores had thus far proved fruitless, despite the extravagant critical accolades inscribed on and just inside the jacket of every book I picked up. I had only to wade into the first few pages of the initial chapter of most volumes to begin to feel rapidly growing disappointment with what I was reading. What I was looking for was evidence of an author’s talent, originality, and craftsmanship in
  • Choice of subject matter
  • Creative development of a tale
  • Sophisticated, intelligent use of language
  • Writing style beguiling enough to draw me into the story
  • Evidence of depth of thought, perception, and feeling in the author sufficient to illuminate aspects of the human condition
  • The exercise of discrimination and good taste
I don’t think these things are too much to ask for in what is considered to be good literature, but one or more of them seemed to be conspicuous by its absence in even the most promising of titles. So after one particularly frustrating foray, I gave up and went home. And surprisingly there, lying forgotten at the back of a lower shelf of my bookcase, I discovered Little Dorritt, which seemed almost to jump into my hand and open for me to the first chapter --- and I was shocked.

I was shocked by how readily it dwarfed the other more contemporary efforts I had been exploring. From the very first line it was clear that this was truly remarkable writing, writing  that easily satisfied my standards and to which I could surrender myself with the confidence that I was in good hands. I had read Dickens in the remote past, but had somehow forgotten or perhaps never fully recognized the magnitude of his talent. The writing is witty, perceptive, accurate in its observation of human nature, picturesque, artfully constructed, and the experience of reading it is so vivid that it is much like attending a good play or a film --- a fact that has motivated many a filmmaker to transfer one or another of his works into cinema.

Here is the opening of Little Dorritt. In reading it, please don’t hurry. Writing of this caliber does not reveal its full potential to those who are in a rush. Instead, try to inwardly slow your pace so that the words have a chance to achieve their utmost effect in your imagination.

Sun and Shadow

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in
southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. 
Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the
fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had
become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance
by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white
streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which
verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly
staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of
grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air
barely moved their faint leaves.

There was no wind to make a ripple on the foul water within the
harbour, or on the beautiful sea without. The line of demarcation
between the two colours, black and blue, showed the point which the
pure sea would not pass; but it lay as quiet as the abominable
pool, with which it never mixed. Boats without awnings were too
hot to touch; ships blistered at their moorings; the stones of the
quays had not cooled, night or day, for months. Hindoos, Russians,
Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese,
Neapolitans, Venetians, Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the
builders of Babel, come to trade at Marseilles, sought the shade
alike--taking refuge in any hiding-place from a sea too intensely
blue to be looked at, and a sky of purple, set with one great
flaming jewel of fire.

The universal stare made the eyes ache. Towards the distant line
of Italian coast, indeed, it was a little relieved by light clouds
of mist, slowly rising from the evaporation of the sea, but it
softened nowhere else. Far away the staring roads, deep in dust,
stared from the hill-side, stared from the hollow, stared from the
interminable plain. Far away the dusty vines overhanging wayside
cottages, and the monotonous wayside avenues of parched trees
without shade, drooped beneath the stare of earth and sky. So did
the horses with drowsy bells, in long files of carts, creeping
slowly towards the interior; so did their recumbent drivers, when
they were awake, which rarely happened; so did the exhausted
labourers in the fields. Everything that lived or grew, was
oppressed by the glare; except the lizard, passing swiftly over
rough stone walls, and the cicala, chirping his dry hot chirp, like
a rattle. The very dust was scorched brown, and something quivered
in the atmosphere as if the air itself were panting.

Blinds, shutters, curtains, awnings, were all closed and drawn to
keep out the stare. Grant it but a chink or keyhole, and it shot
in like a white-hot arrow. The churches were the freest from it. 
To come out of the twilight of pillars and arches--dreamily dotted
with winking lamps, dreamily peopled with ugly old shadows piously
dozing, spitting, and begging--was to plunge into a fiery river,
and swim for life to the nearest strip of shade. So, with people
lounging and lying wherever shade was, with but little hum of
tongues or barking of dogs, with occasional jangling of discordant
church bells and rattling of vicious drums, Marseilles, a fact to
be strongly smelt and tasted, lay broiling in the sun one day.

Now, I fully realize that I am hardly the first person to find merit in Charles Dickens’ writing (colossal understatement). In fact, I feel a bit impertinent even writing this. Nor do I wish to suggest that there are no good authors around today, though they may seem to be in the minority. But it is my hope that sharing this experience will stir someone else to rediscover Dickens' works, certainly including but also looking beyond the compulsory school-assigned readings of A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist. Dickens turned out a considerable body of works besides these, almost all of which contain great rewards for the dedicated reader (although many of them may now be languishing in libraries rather than residing on bookstore shelves). Revisiting Dickens only serves to underline the ancient observation that all that is new is not necessarily improved. We can only be thankful that such rich reading experiences are still available.

by Robert Millar on November 3rd, 2014

Gustavo Dudamel has been the resident or guest conductor of a number of the world's symphony orchestras in recent years, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic (now in his seventh season as Resident Conductor). Chief among his favorite conducting venues, however, remains Venezuela’s Simon Bolivár Symphony Orchestra, originally an orchestra made up of underprivileged youth who were trained in the revolutionary music education system, El Sistema, initiated by musician and activist José Antonio Abreu. The story of El Sistema is an inspirational one.
But just as inspiring are the fruits of El Sistema’s efforts, seen here in some of the first worldwide concerts given by the Simon Bolivár Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dudamel, himself a product of the system. All of this is old news by now, but it continues to be good news which can be enjoyed again and again, thanks to the ubiquitous presence of You Tube. So even if you long ago heard about the El Sistema musical phenomenon, come back with me now to the not-too-distant days of yesteryear to relive a time when Dudamel and the Simon Bolivár Symphony Orchestra were fresh on the horizon of classical music and were creating a worldwide sensation. Allow yourself to get swept up along with the attending audience in the delight and enthusiasm of their ebullient music making. You’ll feel better for doing so!

by Robert Millar on October 26th, 2014

I never can quite get over the ability of painters like John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) to capture the truth of a subject. We most often see this technical mastery manifested in his famous portraits, like this one:
Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida Sitwell and Family
From left: Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida, Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988), and Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969)
Oil on canvas    circa 1900
As you can see, he is extremely adept at accurately catching something of the personalities of his subjects and he is additionally able to faithfully render the colors, textures, materials, and surfaces of physical objects as they interact with ambient light.

I am particularly impressed by his works created with watercolor paints. Watercolor is an extremely unforgiving medium that depends on leaving just the right areas of the paper untouched so as to let the white come through as part of the work, and applying colored, watery washes in just the right amounts and under such control that they don’t travel across the paper beyond the artist’s intent or with too great a saturation. Not to mention choosing precisely the right colors and having the other necessary technical skills to suggest reality. Great care, discrimination, delicacy, and even daring are called for. So when we see works like the following nature watercolor that not only surmounts the technical challenges of the medium, but also faithfully captures the light, character and impression of a moment and place, it’s hard not to be impressed.
A Tent in the Rockies
John Singer Sargent -- 1916
Watercolor on paper
This is a work of suggestion rather than detail, but look at how vividly the sunlight plays on the outside of the tent and its poles, and how accurately the bright, bright light penetrates the fabric of the sloping roof. See the light and shadowed areas of the forest and the shaded interior of the tent. It is all so alive that you can nearly smell the characteristic odors of sun-warmed canvas, fresh air, and the resinous fragrance of the pines. If you’ve ever been camping under similar circumstances, it will not be difficult for you to identify with and enjoy the impressions conveyed here. You will know what it’s like to sit in this tent.

Especially striking is Sargent’s talent when it comes to conveying the illusion of water.
Val d'Aosta (A Stream over Rocks; Stream in Val d'Aosta)
Oil on canvas  1907-1908
Again, this is a work that is not trying to depict the subject in all possible realistic detail, but it is realistic nonetheless. Look at the differentiation between the active, rippling surface of the water and the shallow bottom of the stream with its darker-hued wet rocks and sand. See the glints of light on the stream bed, the reflections of the sky on the surface, the illusion of the clarity of the water, and the fish. If the image is not quite coming together for you, stand back a bit and look at it. It’s all quite fresh, lively, and bracing! So much so, in fact, that at this moment I’m feeling inspired enough by these outdoor works to seriously consider packing up my camping gear and heading out for one last 2014 Sierras adventure.