Friday, February 28, 2014

These Stones Beneath Our Feet

(Want to avoid words?  Want immediate video instead?  Go directly to These Stones Beneath Our Feet.)

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, high on what Angelenos might call a mountain top, is visible for miles around.  The Getty is a wealthy institution.  Many priceless, historic and beautiful artifacts of human culture are there. The architecture is stunning, monumental.  The views are breathtaking. Anyone can enjoy it free of charge.

Yet, when I visited there last, my most memorable and meaningful moments involved sitting in the entry hall looking at the floor.  While waiting for my companions to do their business in the bookshop I passed the time staring at some utterly unremarkable flooring.

Gradually the stones became metaphor to me.  At first I equated them with the museum itself: "This floor is like the Getty."  Then they became a symbol of all the culture which the Getty holds: "This floor is like the history of human culture."  Finally I found myself comparing these solid, boring, gray tiles with the very history of humanity.  I began to ask myself questions; questions like:

  • How long would the floor last?  
  • How would it be destroyed?  
  • What events would cause these square tiles to break?

One thing for sure - it will take a long long time before those floor tiles are broken.  I'm assuming regular maintenance, of course.  I suppose it's possible that they would decide to remodel the Getty, although I'm sure the museum has better things to spend its fortune on.  A rich foreigner could, someday, buy the place, tear it down and move it, brick by brick, to some other country.

The Getty is like a castle or a church.  Grand residences and religious monuments tend to outlast the cultures which build them.  Think of the Pyramids or Stonehenge.  It's entirely reasonable to imagine that the Getty buildings will become a pile of rubble someday.  Within two or three thousand years, perhaps?  Ten thousand?  After the Big One?

Besides inert stone slabs, I was also watching shadows of people walking through the hall.  The afternoon sun was causing their shadows to move across the stones and through my field of vision.  I remembered the poor guy trapped in Plato's cave watching shadows - not that I understand what that's about.  Or care.

I wondered what the people of these shadows were thinking.  The end of our shared culture was the farthest thing from their minds, I'm sure.  After all, they were visiting an institution dedicated to preserving that very culture.  The people on their way out were considering the bookstore or the restrooms or catching the tram to the parking garage.  The ones still arriving were likely wondering which expensive, elegant artifacts of history they most wanted to catch a fleeting glimpse of before the place closed for the night.

The stones, I thought, were as permanent as anything humans have ever created while the shadows were as fleeting as light itself.  The shadows were, literally, light itself.  I suppose it was about this point when I pulled the old point'n'shoot out of my pocket and shot some video of the stones and the shadows.

Alas, people were not very co-operative.  Especially those on their way to the restrooms kept walking through my field of vision.  Later I edited the video, removing any legs and shoes.  I combined just the bits with only stones and shadows.  I separated these with a matte gray background.

Meanwhile, in my mind, all these convoluted, convulsive thoughts about stones and shadows began forming into short word patterns.  Eventually these became what can only be called a "poem": two short sentences expressing more or less the same vacuous ideas I've been spewing at you here.

I added a hint of politics, also a touch of anarchy - sentiments probably stemming from having visited such an august, respected institution only to discover that I had found more to think about in the waiting room floor than on any of the gallery walls.  That tells you more about me than it does about the Getty.

The Getty is a museum of gorgeous art and cultural memory.  It should not be faulted for the artifacts it choses to display.  After all, it is a work of an early 1%-er, J. Paul Getty, who lived during the "ancient" times when our country still had strongly progressive income tax rates that made it harder to become filthy rich.  That was back before men with more money than sense took over our country.  Getty was someone who used wealth beyond the dreams of avarice to hoard many exquisite rare objects, the best anywhere.  Then, after his death he allowed his stash to be shared with poor schlubs like me.

All Getty's money was used to build an overwhelmingly grand shrine, the very grandeur of which gives all the small, fragile items inside more significance, just because they are there.  The objects are like shadows on the stones, I guess.  The shadows need to be preserved.  They must be important.  Why else would they have been placed in such a grand mausoleum of culture?

Anyway, back to the plot.   You'll remember that I had created a video and defined a subject matter and had written a "poem".  The missing element was music.  I like writing music.  I would rather spend my time creating music than looking at superb stuff in a museum.  Writing music is much better than looking at boring stuff.  Certainly better than staring at a floor no matter how solid and stable.  If you have spent any time reading Mixed Meters, none of this will be news to you.

I started the music with some tuned gong sounds, a gamelan-like feel.  After a minute I added a very ominous trumpet theme, four notes.  This motif derives its menace in large part from excess reverberation.  I kept adding to it and actually liked the music I was writing.  I composed music for about half the video.  Then ... for some reason ... I stopped.  I put this project on hold for over a year.  I didn't think about it at all, except for the occasional vague self-deprecating self-flagellating thought.  "You idiot.  You never finish anything."

I have two other large unfinished projects which have been sitting around much more than one year.  Both of these pieces have texts.  One is based on Schubert's Unfinished Symphony.  Not finishing that one makes a kind of sense, huh?  The other is a very intensely self-referent work: a piece of music which describes itself as it goes along.  Hopefully These Stones Beneath Our Feet will encourage me to finish those as well.

Last December, I started work on These Stones again.  I was pleased that I could pick up the musical ideas where I left them.  It's hard to tell when listening where the long break in my work habits actually happened.  That's good, right?

The "poem" is not part of the audio.  It appears only on-screen, very tightly synchronized with the music.  Words flash quickly.  Take your eyes off the video and you might miss something.  And there can be long periods of waiting between words.  The only way to connect the words will be in your mind.

I thought about posting the entire "poem" online.  I immediately rejected this idea.  You'll need to pay attention if you want to read the whole thing.  (This is really just a silly trick to get you to pay more attention to the music.)

You can listen to the music without watching the video and, therefore, without seeing the words.  I hope the music will still be interesting that way but I fear that it won't mean as much.  Without the video the music strikes me as being like a movie soundtrack without the movie.  The reappearance of themes and textures makes more sense when you can see what is happening.

Whew.  That's it.  I'm all worded out.  So there's nothing left for you to do here but watch the video.

These Stones Beneath Our Feet by David Ocker © 2014, 666 seconds

Other Mixed Meters posts of somewhat dubious relevance:

Floor Shows (with a reference to the Shoe Event Horizon)

Tile Patterns (pictures of colorful stone tiles in a supermarket)

Elie Broad: Masterpieces, Money and Monuments (just another rich Angeleno with his own art museum)

The Preserving Machine by Philip K. Dick (not really relevant to this post except for one sentence: "Bombs fell, bursting the museum to fragments, bringing the walls down in a roar of rubble and plaster.")

Cool and Warm, Dylan and Waldo at SFMoma (my visit to a different museum where, unlike the Getty, the exhibits overwhelmed me with things to think about. Here's the final paragraph: "Outside, I felt relieved by the simplicity of a bustling city street with a stiff breeze and clear blue sky. I felt no desire to visit an art museum again any time soon")

Going Coastal by David Ocker (another video with my music about a day with friends doing things at the beach including visiting the Getty Villa in Malibu.  To be fair, I like that place better than the Getty Castle.)

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