2008-03-31

Sound Art

The Sunday Times (UK) featured an intriguing look at the integration of sound and visual art. Tim Cooper writes:

Remember when art appreciation used to be a simple, straightforward affair? You walked into a gallery, looked at some pictures, or maybe a few sculptures, and that was that. Then came photography, followed by film, the emergence of performance art and all that conceptual stuff... Now, thanks to 21st-century technology, sound art – art for the ears, as well as the eyes – is bringing a new dimension to the art world.

Actually, 'art for the ears' has been with us a long time. We call it music. More on this in a minute.

Cooper reports some of the imaginative ways aural and visual elements are integrated:

You walk into a white room in a fashionable Oxford art gallery. A fractured, fragmented version of the [Beethoven] Moonlight Sonata echoes from an unmanned grand piano at one end. On the opposite wall is a white-on-white neon display of a telephone number. You dial, then listen. Down the line, you hear a whooshing, splooshing sound. You are connected, live and in real time, to a glacier melting in Iceland.

Meanwhile, at the Science Museum, in west London, displayed on a huge futuristic grid, you can see and hear thousands of messages sent by strangers in internet chat rooms all over the world as they are intercepted, live, in a work aptly entitled Listening Post. And soon, in a warehouse in central London, you will find five grand pianos, insides out, playing on their own over the disembodied voices of William S Burroughs, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Malcolm X. This is the splendidly titled Stifter’s Dinge, created by a German composer called Heiner Goebbels. It, too, is a work of sound art.

The full article gives fascinating details about these pieces.

Cooper goes on to consider historical influences:
If sound art has a beginning, it seems to lie with postwar avant-garde composers such as John Cage, the start of a line that follows through to Brian Eno’s ambient music, the sound collagists Christian Marclay and John Oswald - forefathers of the “mash-up” - and electronic composers such as the Japanese minimalist Ryoji Ikeda.
Edgard Varèse also belongs on any short list of this kind.
Yet most of those are primarily musicians with artistic inclinations.
Oops. Gaffe alert.

All
musicians have artistic inclinations. This is true by definition. Music is art. Making music is thus making art. The 'artistic inclination' of musicians is thus a given.

It's a tic among visual artists to use the word art as a synonym for only visual art. It is useful enough as a verbal shorthand when talking to other specialists. But it crashes and burns when you step out of the gallery and start discussing aesthetic issues. Here, it doesn't do to let gallery shorthand do your thinking for you. Categories are already understood. Art consists of creations in all sorts of media. Music is a subset of art, just as visual art is.

Here the tic leads to a working definition that is actually irrelevant to the art itself. The text asks us to understand sound art as 'sound structures created by primarily visual artists.' This is in contrast to music, understood here as 'sound structures created by primarily aural artists.' But this focus on the resumes of the individuals cannot be sustained. Where does it leave the work of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, for example? She a was neither a musician nor a visual artist by profession. Was she making 'sound contemplation' and 'sight contemplation' instead of music and visual art? There is no need to let oneself in for this. Hildegard remains a noteworthy figure in the realm of both music and visual art. But it's not her resume, however we define it, that puts her there. It's the work itself.

Either way, the subject here is sound structures. The arrangement of sound for artistic purpose is music. Music is sound art. Sound art is music.
Rubin, 43, who cites Cage and Marclay as influences, sees sound art as having more distant roots. “In the early 20th century, the Russian futurists were doing orchestras with noise-making machines,” he says. “And within experimental music, there is a tradition of composers doing spatial-installation projects that push far outside what you would consider music, towards what we now consider sound art.”
The assumption is that sound structures sufficiently original to 'push far outside what you would normally consider music' are 'not music' for that reason. But this is another distinction that makes no difference. Music does this all the time. The music makers of the world are forever pushing boundaries 'far outside what you would normally consider music.' I could offer many names, but just one closes the case. John Cage.

Music is the art of sound. Where sound is art, music exists. The two are the same.

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Taiwan's Election

An editorial that appeared in the Boston Globe yesterday.

Taiwan's Message for Beijing

The triumph of the Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou in the recent presidential election in Taiwan augurs a welcome reduction in tensions with mainland China. The winner's 17-point margin of victory also reaffirms a virtue of democratic accountability: a free people's power to change leaders when those leaders and their policies lose the confidence of the electorate.

There is a danger that Beijing will view Ma's victory merely as a rejection of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, and his pursuit of formal independence - and as confirmation that China's policy of threats and pressure produced the desired results. China's leaders are sure to be gratified that only 35 percent of Taiwan's voters said yes to a referendum, proposed by Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, that called for the island to seek United Nations membership under the name Taiwan. Beijing would consider that a virtual declaration of independence by its breakaway province.

But the authorities in Beijing would be making a mistake if they indulge in too much self-congratulation. The voters of Taiwan could hardly be indifferent to China's pre-election meddling, but they were acting on their own practical self-interest when they chose the moderate Ma over the DPP's Frank Hsieh.

Much of Ma's appeal was rooted in pocketbook issues. The former mayor of Taipei wants to boost the island's faltering growth rate by expanding commercial relations with the mainland. He favors direct air and maritime connections across the Taiwan Strait and lower barriers to investment in mainland enterprises, which already totals more than $100 billion. He called for a "one-China common market" and the signing of a tension-reducing peace treaty with Beijing.

China's President Hu Jintao and his ruling circle should read Taiwan's vote not simply as a rejection of Chen's intemperate call for de jure independence, but also as popular support for continuing the status quo. Ma recently summarized, as a policy of three "nots," how he intends to fulfill the popular will: "not to get independent, not to be united, and not to use military."

China did not win the election in Taiwan. On the contrary, the voters of Taiwan were showing their neighbors on the mainland what they are missing by living under an unelected authoritarian regime. By cracking down recently on dissent in Tibet - instead of granting that region genuine autonomy within China - Beijing has only damaged its case for reunification with Taiwan. And if China's rulers want someday to lure Taiwan into rejoining the motherland, they will first have to allow their citizens to choose their own government.

The authors read the post-election tea leaves well. This is an accurate assessment of why Taiwan's people voted as they did. Only time will tell whether the predictions ('China didn't win') are as accurate.

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2008-03-30

First Outing

Today the Hsinchu Philharmonic Orchestra and I performed our first gig together. The event was the Hsinchu International Glass Art Festival, an annual event hosted by Hsinchu City at its famous Glass Arts Museum.

Our concert, which took place outdoors, featured light classics and some environmental Sturm und Drang courtesy of the planet Earth. Hsinchu is not called Taiwan's 'Windy City' for nothing, and when you throw in a tropical spring thunderstorm you're in for a mighty afternoon of clipping music to stands. But the players are used to this, and even the youngest musicians handled the challenges with aplomb. The crowd was welcoming, too, even if the elements weren't so much.

All in all, a delightful afternoon. Our first indoor subscription concert takes place on June 15 Sunday.

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2008-03-29

Eyes on Tibet

The eyes of the world are on Tibet this month, where China's authoritarian government has cracked down violently on protests and is blocking press access to the region. Here are sites that provide information and support.

China Digital Times (Berkeley, California USA) - Tibet Updates
http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2008/03/unrest-in-tibet-the-latest-news/

Tibet Government in Exile
http://www.tibet.com/
Official site of the Dalai Lama's government in exile.

Tibet Online
http://www.tibet.org/
Sponsored by the international Tibet Support Group community.

Free Tibet
http://www.freetibet.org/

Save Tibet
http://www.savetibet.org/
Related sites:
Human Rights in China
http://www.hrichina.org/

Reporters Without Borders
http://www.rsf.org/
Olympic officials awarded the games to Beijing only after China's Communist government promised to improve its record on human rights. The whole world knows it now: those Olympic officials were had.

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2008-03-28

First Recorded Sound

A pioneering moment in audio technology has the world buzzing today. Morag Lyall describes it briefly in today's Gramophone (UK):

The earliest instance of recorded sound will have its first public hearing today at a conference for the Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University, USA. The phonautograph dates from 1860, 18 years before Thomas Edison invented his phonograph and 27 years before Emile Berliner patented the gramophone.

The phonautograph was created by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville [1817-1879], a French inventor but, unlike the phonograph, it was not intended to create audible sounds. The device, using a needle, etched the soundwaves from the voice onto soot-covered paper from an oil lamp, creating a kind of sheet music.

From this, audio historians have now been able to reinterpret the written soundwaves using a digital scan of the paper, producing an audible score. What results from the 1860 recording is a woman singing a 10-second clip of Au Clair de la lune, never heard before.

The woman is widely thought to be Scott's daughter. More details about Scott's invention may be found in the following reports.
The BBC provides interviews with audio specialists with illustrations.

iTWire carries a detailed report with links to related articles.

America's NPR supplies a photograph and detailed audio report.
And, courtesy of First Sounds, you can hear for yourself the world's oldest recorded sound.

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2008-03-26

Digital Minimalism

The Saint Louis Symphony is back in the recording business. Gramophone reports that the SLSO and conductor David Robertson have released a new audio record of John Adams 1985 minimalist symphony Harmonielehre. The interesting twist this time around: no CD. This release is for download only.

You will be able find the record at Amazon.com and iTunes (US store). The Saint Louis Symphony is working with IODA on this project. The Adams piece marks the first in a series of planned releases. The next record the SLSO will release for download will be Stravinsky's Symphony in C, due in September.

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2008-03-20

Ko Fan-Long

One of the delights of living in Taiwan is the new music you discover. On many programs here you will encounter the music of Ko Fan-long (柯芳隆, b. 1947), one of Taiwan's leading composers. His is a versatile muse, equally at home with the idioms of villages and studios, islands and Alps, recital halls and Himalayas.

Ko, a native of Taichung, graduated from the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. In 1980 he went on to enroll at the Berlin University of the Arts in Germany, where he studied composition with F. M. Beyer. He joined the NTNU faculty upon his return to Taiwan in 1985. Today he continues to serve his alma mater as music department chairman and professor of composition.In 2002 he received Taiwan's prestigious Wan San-Lien Music Award.

In Ko's compositions you hear a cosmopolitan blend of European and Asian timbres and techniques. He often calls upon performers to switch concepts with in a single piece, sounding first like an instrument from nineteenth-century Austria and the next like an instrument from ancient Tibet. He easily and fluidly shifts gears from the pentatonic scales of traditional Asian music to the free atonality of twentieth-century music. Compositions by Ko that have drawn particular acclaim here include the Quintet II (1992) for chamber ensemble, The Weeping Mermaid (1993) for orchestra, the imposing three-movement Dream of the Year 2000 for chorus and orchestra, and Overture to Taiwan's New Century (2003) for orchestra.

In September 2007 I heard three of his major orchestral works--Taiwan's New Century, The Weeping Mermaid, and Dream of the Year 2000--featured in an NTNU American tour program entitled Formosa Dreaming. Apo Hsu led the NTNU Symphony Orchestra and Formosa Festival Choir. The four soloists for the symphony were Hsieh Meng-chieh (soprano), Lee Yu (alto), Lin Chung-chi (tenor), and Chang Yu-hsin (bass); the massive choir was prepared by Huang Tsui-yu. The tour program also featured the music of Taiwanese composer Tyzen Hsiao.

Works
  • 1971 Sacrificial Ceremony for violin and piano
  • 1972 Chang'e as a Rocket for solo piano
  • 1973 Duet for Clarinet and Piano
  • 1974 Ripples in Ma-Zu for solo piano
  • 1980 Change for cello and piano
  • 1981 Trio for Oboe, Violoncello and Piano
  • 1982 Growth and Decline of Five Elements for four cellos
  • 1982 Sextet for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn, Violin and Violoncello
  • 1983 Septet for Flute, Clarinet, Strings and Percussion
  • 1984 String Quartet no. 1
  • 1984 Sedan Chair of the Gods for full orchestra
  • 1985 Duet for Oboe and Violoncello
  • 1986 Sedan Chair for a Wedding for flute, oboe, horn, violin, cello and piano
  • 1988 Mend the Torn Silk for chorus
  • 1992 Quintet II for violin, cello, flute, trombone, and percussion
  • 1993 The Weeping Mermaid for orchestra
  • 1994 Four Hakka Ballads for clarinet, violin, cello and piano
  • 1996 First Time (Taiwanese song)
  • 1997 Sacrifice for piano trio
  • 1998 Artistic Conception for solo piano
  • 1999 Formosa String Quartet no. 2
  • 2000 Dream of the Year 2000, a three-movement symphony for chorus and orchestra
  • 2000 Love Story for seven bassoons
  • 2001 When the Bugle Calls for trumpet and four horns
  • 2002 Taiwanese Folk Song Suite for strings
  • 2003 Water Lantern on February 28 (Taiwanese song)
  • 2003 Overture to Taiwan's New Century for full orchestra
  • 2008 2-28 Requiem (April premiere)

A variant of this post was submitted to Wikipedia and Answers.com in 2007 as an encyclopaedia entry.

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Ariel Moscovici & Sylvie Rivillon

I was delighted to receive a friendly message this week from Ariel Moscovici, the Romanian-born French sculptor. He had spotted a photo I took of one of his works and wanted to say hi.

Everyone in Taiwan knows Between Earth and Sky, the circle of stones by Moscovici that graces Taipei 101's north plaza.



Taiwan is home to several sculptures by Moscovici, including works in Taipei, Hualien and Taichung.

Our island also claims two monumental works by his wife, Sylvie Rivillon, sculptor of Elevation in Kaohsiung and Construction Around a Wave in Hualien.

You can find fascinating tours of their work at two new web sites:

http://arielmoscovici.free.fr/

http://sylvie.rivillon.free.fr/
Appréciez votre visite!

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Centre of the World

The axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar and centre of the world) is a ubiquitous symbol that crosses human cultures. The image expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms. Communication from lower realms may ascend to higher ones and blessings from higher realms may descend to lower ones and be disseminated to all. The spot functions as the omphalos (navel), the world's point of beginning.

The axis mundi image appears in every region of the world and takes many forms. The image is both feminine (an umbilical providing nourishment) and masculine (a phallus providing insemination). It may have the form of a natural object (a mountain, a tree, a vine, a stalk, a column of smoke or fire) or a product of human manufacture (a staff, a tower, a ladder, a staircase, a maypole, a cross, a steeple, a rope, a totem pole, a pillar, a spire, a pagoda, a statue). Its proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious (pagoda, temple mount, church) or secular (obelisk, minaret, lighthouse, rocket, skyscraper). The image appears in religious and secular contexts. The axis mundi symbol may be found in cultures utilizing shamanic practices or animist belief systems, in major world religions, and in technologically advanced 'urban centers'–wherever the impulse exists to link a column with the idea of a centre.



Symbolism

The image originates in a natural and universal human psychological perception: that one's native land and home stand at 'the centre of the world.' Home is indeed the centre of one's known universe, the point at which all experience of the larger reality begins. From this spot we may venture in any of the four cardinal directions, make discoveries, and recognize new centres. The name of China, 'the Middle Kingdom,' expresses the perception of that land's ancient occupants that they stood at the world centre, with other nations lying in various directions relative to the spot.

Within the central known universe a specific locale–often a mountain or other elevated place, a spot where earth and sky come closest–gains status as center of the centre, the axis mundi. High mountains are typically regarded as sacred by peoples living near them. Shrines are often erected at the summit or base. Japan's highest mountain, Mount Fuji, has long symbolized the world axis in Japanese culture. Mount Kun-Lun fills a similar role in China. For the ancient Hebrews Mount Zion expressed the symbol. Sioux beliefs take the Black Hills as the axis mundi. Mount Kailash is holy to several religions in Tibet. In ancient Mesopotamia the cultures of ancient Sumer and Babylon erected artificial mountains, or ziggurats, on the flat river plain. These supported staircases leading to temples at the top. The pre-Columbian residents of Teotihuacán in Mexico erected huge pyramids featuring staircases leading to heaven. Jacob's Ladder is an axis mundi image, as is the Temple Mount. For Christians the Cross on Mount Calvary expresses the symbol. The Middle Kingdom, China, had a central mountain, Kun-Lun, known in Taoist literature as 'the mountain at the middle of the world.' To 'go into the mountains' meant to dedicate oneself to a spiritual life. Monasteries of all faiths tend, like shrines, to be placed at elevated spots. Wise religious teachers are typically depicted in literature and art as bringing their revelations at world centres: mountains, trees, temples.


Representations

Places

Because the axis mundi is an idea that expresses a subjective experience through a variety of concrete images, no contradiction exists when multiple spots on the planet serving as 'the centre of the world.' The symbol can operate in a number of locales at once. The ancient Greeks regarded several sites as places of earth's omphalos (navel) stone, notably the oracle at Delphi, while still maintaining a belief in a cosmic world tree and in Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods. Judaism has Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, Christianity has the Mount of Olives and Calvary, Islam has the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock) and Mecca, said to be the place on earth that was created first. In addition to Kun-Lun the ancient Chinese recognized four mountains as pillars of the world.

All sacred places constitute world centres (omphalos) with the altar as the axis. Altars, incense sticks, candles and torches form a column of smoke, or prayer, that unites earth with heaven. Shrine architecture reflects this role in many ways. The stupa of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, reflects Mount Meru. Cathedrals are laid out in the form of a cross, with the vertical bar representing the union of earth and heaven as the horizontal bars represent union of people to one another, with the altar at the intersection. Pagoda structures in Asian temples take the form of a stairway linking earth and heaven. A steeple in a church or a minaret in a mosque also serve as connections of earth and heaven. Structures such as the maypole, derived from the Saxons' Irminsul, and the totem pole among indigenous peoples of the Americas also represent world axes. The calumet, or sacred pipe, represents a column of smoke (the soul) rising form a world centre.

Plants

A plant can serve as the axis mundi. The tree provides an axis that unites three planes: its branches reach for the sky, its trunk meets the earth, and it roots reach down into the underworld. In some Pacific island cultures the banyan tree, of which the bodhi tree is of the Sacred Fig variety, is the abode of ancestor spirits. The bodhi tree is also the tree under which Gautama Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, sat on the night he attained enlightenment. The Yggdrasil, or World Ash, functions in much the same way in Norse mythology; it is the site where Odin found enlightenment. Other examples include Jievaras in Lithuanian mythology and Thor's Oak in the myths of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis present two aspects of the same image. Each is said to stand at the centre of the Paradise garden from which four rivers flow to nourish the whole world. Each tree confers a boon. Bamboo, the plant from which Asian calligraphy pens are made, represents knowledge and is regularly found on Asian college campuses. The Christmas tree, which can be traced in its origins back to pre-Christian European beliefs, represents an axis mundi.

Human form

The human form can function as a world axis. World religions regard the body itself as a temple and prayer as a column uniting earth to heaven. A statue of a human figure in meditation combines the image of body, altar, temple and tower. Some of the more abstract Tree of Life representations, such as the sefirot in Kabbalism and in the chakra system recognized by Hinduism and Buddhism, merge with the concept of the human body as a pillar between heaven and earth. Disciplines such as yoga and Tai Chi begin from the premise of the human body as axis mundi. Astrology in all its forms assumes a connection between human health and human affairs with celestial bodies. The Renaissance image known as The Vitruvian Man represented a symbolic and mathematical exploration of the human form as world axis.

Houses

Houses also serve as world centres. The hearth participates in the symbolism of the altar and a central garden partipates in the symbolism of primordial paradise. In Asian cultures houses were traditionally laid out in the form of a square oriented toward the four compass directions. A traditional Asian home was oriented toward the sky through Feng shui, a system of geomancy, just as a palace would be. Traditional Arab houses are also laid out as a square surrounding a central fountain that evokes a primordial garden paradise. The nomadic peoples of Mongolia and the Americas more often lived in circular structures. The central pole of the tent still operated as an axis but a fixed reference to the four compass points was avoided.

Shamanic Function

A common shamanic concept, and a universally told story, is that of the healer making use of the axis to navigate between earthly, celestial or nether realms to bring knowledge back from another world. The theme appears in stories of Odin and the World Ash Tree, the Garden of Eden and Jacob's Ladder, of Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. Such a journey forms the essence of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The epic poem relates its hero's descent and ascent through a series of spiral structures that take him from through the core of the earth, from the depths of Hell to celestial Paradise.

Anyone or anything suspended on the axis between heaven and earth becomes a repository of potential knowledge. A special status accrues to the thing suspended: a serpent, a victim of crucifixion or hanging, a rod, a fruit, mistletoe. Derivations of this idea find form in the Rod of Asclepius, an emblem of the medical profession, and in the caduceus, an emblem of correspondence and commercial professions. The staff in these emblems represents the axis mundi while the serpents act as guardians of special knowledge.


Traditional Expressions

Asia

  • Bodhi tree
  • Pagoda
  • Stupa
  • Mount Meru in Hinduism
  • Mount Fuji (Japan)
  • Mount Kailash regarded by several religions in Tibet, e.g. Bön
  • Jambudweep in Jainism which is regarded as the actual navel of the universe (which is human in form)
  • Kailasa (India), the abode of Shiva
  • Mandara (India)
  • Kun-Lun (China), residence of the Immortals and the site of a peach tree offering immortality
  • Human figure (yoga, tai chi, a figure in meditation)
  • Central courtyard in traditional home
  • Bamboo stalk, associated with knowledge and learning

Middle East
  • Garden of Eden, four rivers
  • Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
  • Ziggurat (Tower of Babel)
  • Jacob's Ladder
  • Jerusalem: the Temple Mount
  • Mount Calvary
  • Cross of crucifixion
  • Steeple
  • Mecca: the Ka'aba; focus of Muslim prayer and locus of Adam's descent from heaven
  • Dome of the Rock where Muhammad ascended to heaven
  • Minaret
  • Dilmun
  • Land of Punt
  • Paschal candle
  • Garizim (Samaria)
  • Alborj (Persia)


Europe

  • Yggdrasil (World Ash Tree)
  • Mount Olympus
  • Delphi, Oracle of Delphi
  • Colossus of Rhodes
  • Montsalvat (Grail legend)
  • Maypole
  • Christmas tree
  • Jack's Beanstalk
  • Rapunzel's Tower
  • Hearth
  • Altar
  • Human figure, especially praying or crucified


The Americas

  • Teotihuacán Pyramids
  • Black Hills (Sioux)
  • Totem Pole
  • Tent
  • Calumet (sacred pipe)
  • Bamboo (Hopi)


Modern Expressions

Axis mundi symbolism abounds in the modern world. A symbolic connection between earth and sky is present in all skyscrapers, as the word itself attests. Spire structures readily come to be regarded as symbolic centres of a culture and as icons of its ideals. The first skyscraper of modern times, the Eiffel Tower in Paris France, exemplified this role in the nineteenth century, as did the Empire State Building in the twentieth. Taipei 101, a twenty-first century descendant, unites the images of staircase, bamboo, pagoda, and pillar; at night, it also evokes a candle or torch. The Washington Monument in the United States and capitol buildings of all sorts fill this role. The Burj Dubai (United Arab Emirates) will fill the role when it opens.

The design of a tower emphasizes different elements of the symbol. Twin towers, such as the Petronas Towers standing in Kuala Lumpur today and the World Trade Center towers erected in Manhattan in the 1970s, maintain the axis symbolism while more obviously assuming the role of pillars. Some structures pierce the sky in phallic fashion, implying upward movement or flight (Chicago Spire, CN Tower in Toronto, the Space Needle in Seattle). Others emphasize the more lateral elements of the symbol, in implying portals (Tuntex Sky Tower in Taiwan's southern port city of Kaohsiung, the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri USA).

Ancient images find new expressions in modern structures. The Peace Pagodas built since the 1947 unite religious and secular purposes in one symbol drawn from Buddhism. The influence of the pagoda tradition may be seen in the newer skyscrapers in Asia (Taipei 101, Petronas Towers). The ancient ziggurat has likewise reappeared in modern form, including the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC and The Ziggurat which houses the California Department of General Services. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the Guggenheim Museum in New York as an inverted ziggurat.

Artistic representations of the world axis abound in modern art. Prominent among these is The Endless Column (1938) an abstract sculpture by Romanian Constantin Brâncuşi. The column takes the form of an umbilical or pillar linking earth to sky even as its rhythmically repeating segments suggest infinity.

The association of the cosmic pillar with knowledge gives it a prominent role in the world of scholarship. University campuses typically assign an axis role to a campus landmark such as a clock tower, library spire or bell tower. The landmark represents as the symbolic centre of the academic world and becomes the emblem of its ideals on seals, stationery, and diplomas. The colloquial picture of the academy as an 'ivory tower' derives from the same image.

The image may still take natural forms, as in the American tradition of the Liberty Tree located at town centres. Individual homes continue to act as world axes, especially where Feng shui and other forms of geomancy are practiced.

Axis mundi symbolism may be seen in much of the romance surrounding space travel. A rocket on the pad takes on the symbolism of the tower and astronauts enact a heroic story. Astronauts, 'star voyagers', embark on perilous journeys into the heavens and, if successful, return with boons that benefit all. The insignia for the Apollo 13 mission stated the shamanic aspect of the endeavour succinctly: Ex luna scientia ('From the Moon, knowledge').


Modern Stories

The axis mundi continues to appear in modern stories as well as in modern structures. Appearances of the ancient image in the tales and myths of more recent times include these:

  • The ash tree growing in Hunding's living room, in Act 1 of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), is one of many appearances of the image in the operas of Richard Wagner. Hunding's tree recalls the World Ash visited by Wotan, a central character in the Ring cycle of which this opera forms a part (1848-1874).
  • The sphinx in the science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells serves as centre for the world of the far distant future. The time traveller's explorations begin with it and the structure unites the planes of future human society.
  • The Emerald City in the land of Oz, depicted in the popular book by L. Frank Baum (1900) and the subsequent MGM film (1939), stands at the centre of the four compass directions.
  • Orodruin, location of the creation and destruction of the One Ring, is one of many representations of the symbol in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien (1937-1949).
  • Two Trees of Valinor in Tolkien's tellingly named Middle-earth produce the light of the Supreme God (1937-1949).
  • The wooded hilltop and ascending and descending staircases in The Midsummer Marriage, an opera by English composer Michael Tippett (1955), explore Jungian aspects of the symbol.
  • The ark of the covenant and its accompanying pillar of fire link heaven and earth in the climax of Steven Spielberg's film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
  • The huge sheltering tree on a hilltop that appears near the end of Stealing Beauty, a 1996 film by Bernardo Bertolucci, crowns a series of images evoking the primordial Paradise garden.
  • The surreal urban world of Bruce Wayne's Gotham City has the Wayne Building as its symbolic centre in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005). A fantastic cathedral, incorporating the images of skyscraper, spiral staircase and ladder, fills the same role in an earlier film by Tim Burton (1989).

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References

J. C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols.
Thames and Hudson: New York, 1978.

Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.
Editions Robert Lafont S. A. et Editions Jupiter: Paris, 1982. Penguin Books: London, 1996.

Mircea Eliade. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Bollingen, 1971.

Photo of Taipei 101 by Alton Thompson. All rights reserved.


A variant of this post was submitted in 2007 to Wikipedia and Answers.com for publication as an encyclopedaia article. Please see those sites for more substantial illustrations, cross-references and links.

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2008-03-17

Democracy in Taiwan, Resistance in Tibet

Another landmark in Taiwan's young democracy looms this weekend as election day arrives for two presidential candidates. Those interested in the issues and personalities in this election will find a thorough and informative discussion in the March 2008 issue of the Taiwan Review.

For a look at the process from a grass-roots level, check out the engaging photo story posted in Michael Turton's web log. Michael attended the mass rally for DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh in Taichung this past weekend and came away with pictures that capture well the energy and flavour of these events.

China's crushing of dissent in Tibet dominates the news this week. Demonstrations on behalf of Tibetans have been taking place daily in Taiwan's cities. Both presidential candidates have denounced China's actions.

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2008-03-14

An Atlantic Psalm

How beautiful our bond of friendship!

It is like draft Bohemian beer
poured frothing into the mug,
filling the chilled frosty mug, flowing
over onto the oaken counter.

It is scent of Old Bay
spicing the harbour air,
the rush of ocean surf
spreading foam on the sands of Saint Augustine.

This is blessing poured from the Lord
a taste of life everlasting.


- Alton Thompson
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2008-03-12

Art in the Penumbra

A new exhibit of works by Taiwanese artists opens in Adelaide, Australia this week. The exhibit of video and photography, called Penumbra, takes place at the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art at the University of South Australia. A feature appears in this week's Australian.

The works in the show... are linked by the theme of uncertainty, which [curator Sophie] McIntyre says permeates much of the work emanating from 21st-century Taiwan.

While the island is synonymous with the "economic miracle" that has transformed China and the region from "a totalitarian, agrarian-based society into a democratised and technologically advanced global market player", she says, the continuing ambiguity about its identity and political role translates into individual explorations of identity, as represented by these young artists.

The strongest presence in the show is that of Kuo I-Chen, whom McIntyre brought to Australia for the opening of Penumbra. Born in Kaohsiung (Taiwan's second largest city, with a population of 1.5 million) but resident in the capital, Taipei, Kuo is the face of the new Taiwan art movement, chosen when he was 26 to represent his country at the Venice Biennale in 2005 with a video work called Invade the Prigioni. That work projected the looming shadow of a plane on to the gallery ceiling while the roar of turbines filled the space. That same year, Kuo was awarded the Taipei Fine Arts Museum's grand prize.

Kuo's work installed in the Samstag Museum for Penumbra was created last year and continues the artist's interest in what McIntyre calls "the relationship between human existence, our immediate environment and virtual worlds". Called Survivor, it's an interactive multimedia installation that invites the viewer to wander into virtual worlds devastated by disaster. The survivor of the title is a robot that searches among the wreckage for signs of life.

Kuo has a video-game apocalyptic approach to what McIntyre calls the new Taiwanese universalism.

Another of the artists, Huang Po-Chih, reflects this universalism in a different way, using thousands of digital scans of flowers to construct a kind of organic dance. McIntyre describes the video as showing the "transformative nature of love, as the flower metamorphoses from a twisting, contorted and entangled form into a free-floating voluminous blossom in rapture".

A different kind of romanticism comes through in the work of Wu Diing-Wuu, who uses historical photographs from the time of Japan's colonisation of Taiwan. The fading of people in the images represents the disappearance of the region's indigenous people.

Wu, also known as Wallis Labai, is the oldest of the five artists represented in Penumbra, and his work perhaps is more closely aligned with that earlier generation McIntyre talks about, those for whom art was a way to "give visual expression to the dramatic changes" in Taiwan.

"The older generation see the young artists as a generation that hustles a fair bit, wanting to get to the top fairly quickly," McIntyre says. "But in each of these artists' work you can see they share a feeling, which is embedded in the work, of uncertainty and also melancholy. That word may be a bit strong, but there is a sense of looking for something. Some use nostalgic means, some use sentiment. There's a tension that runs through all this work, which has both a light and dark side. There's strong anxiety."

McIntyre says that while the older generation of Taiwanese artists tend to think that the battles and resistance are over, the younger artists see identity as the new issue.

"Where the older generation drew on national symbols, for the younger generation it's much more personal."


The complete article by Rosemary Sorensen may be viewed here. Penumbra runs until April 4.

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2008-03-10

What Conductors Do

Jackie Burrell provides an entertaining introduction to the art of conducting in the Contra Costa Times: 'What's the big deal about conductors?'

I think a lot of the mystery that accrues around the job is because of conductor's role in performance as a signal caller. This signal-calling role is an interesting one, to be sure, and it's understandable that its details might seem arcane to many audience members. After all, the signals conductors give are not intended for the audience.

The music is intended for the audience. And that's why gestures and signals do not define the conductor's responsibility. Signal calling falls in the category of technique. In any job, techniques are those things you do, those skills you acquire, that enable you to get the thing done. The thing to be done is something more.

On the biggest level the conductors' task is really not so mysterious. Everyone knows what a stage director or film director does. Conductors do pretty much the same thing in the medium of music. In each case you have a creation that exists in document form--a score, a script--that has to be realized through performance. It falls to someone to study this document, develop an understanding of its shape, observe the ways its themes and elements interact, and make decisions about how those ideas may be convincingly rendered in a performance. At this point a larger body of interpreters is brought into the picture and the project becomes a collaboration. If the document happens to be a script, the director does this pioneering work and actors bring the creation alive in performance. If the document happens to be the score of a musical work for large ensemble, the conductor does the pioneering work and players and singers give the performance.

On opening night the conductor, unlike the director in theatre and film, still has something to contribute. This contribution is not an aural one, but the nature of large ensemble performance makes it useful to keep the conductor handy as a signal caller. On opening night the conductor takes on a role more analogous to that of the stage manager in live theatre. This role tends to get gets attention because of the manager's central placement. Yet at that point the biggest responsibilities of the conductor's task have been met. The music is performed by players. The conductor's responsibility, like the director's, is shouldered all through the rehearsals--and in the crucial period before rehearsals begin.

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Egalitarian Opera in Oslo

Norway's new opera house, to open New Year's Eve of 2009, boasts some iconoclastic design features. The AFP reports:

Despite its futuristic structure and oblique angles, the design of a new opera house set to open in Oslo next month is far from pretentious: visitors can picnic on the roof and royals will mingle with the crowd.

. . . .

The building, which sits on the waterfront in central Oslo, was designed by Snoehetta, the Norwegian firm that created the Alexandria Library in 2002, and will open with an inaugural bash on April 12.

Openness and accessibility were key concepts in the elaboration of Norway's newest art institution, which will house the Norwegian Opera and National Ballet companies.

Outside, passers-by can walk to the top of the 32-metre (105-foot) high building thanks to vast ramps connecting the ground to the opera's roof. No barriers will stop them from having a picnic at the top, skate down the ramps or jump in the waters of the Oslo fjord.

"We wanted to reflect the values of our society," Tarald Lundevall, the architect heading the project, told AFP.

"In Scandinavia, monuments are laid-back, more discreet and more low-key. The idea of easy, free access to public places is very important," he said.

. . . .

Inside the opera, the 1,359-seat main hall is equally egalitarian. Boxes, a common feature of opera houses, have not been included in the gilding-free, dark oak theatre.
. . . .

The back of each seat is fitted with a small screen that will provide text and translation for opera performances.

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2008-03-06

No Jive: Coffee Protects the Brain

The BBC reports new research showing that the daily intake of caffeine helps protect the brain.

Caffeine given daily to animals in a recent study gave the creatures a clear advantage in sustaining the 'blood brain barrier' while being fed a high-cholesterol diet. The cholesterol was prevented from damaging the barrier, as it normally does. This kept harmful chemicals in the blood from reaching the central nervous system and offered protection strokes, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Coffee and tea and the java and we:
A cup a cup a cup a cup a cup!
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2008-03-01

Hsiao's Formosan Requiem

The Ilha Formosa Requiem (full title Ilha Formosa: Requiem for the Formosan Martyrs) is a 2001 composition for solo soprano, solo baritone, chorus and orchestra composed by Taiwanese composer Tyzen Hsiao (b.1938). The composition is based on a Taiwanese language poem by Min-Yung Lee. Ilha Formosa ('Beautiful Island') is the name given to the island on the maps made by Portuguese mariners in the Age of Discovery. The heart of the piece is the second movement in which the male and female soloists, in lyrical phrases, remember those who suffered in the White Terror and throughout Taiwan's history.

In the andante first movement, the island's most ancient voices offer their wisdom and admonish newcomers to give themselves completely to their new home. The third movement, in march tempo, encourages survivors of suffering to rise above their pain. The finale envisions an island that fulfils everything contained in the name Formosa.

1. If You Ask

If you ask about the island's father,
I will tell you of the sky.
If you ask about the island's mother,
I will tell you of the sea.
If you ask about the island's past,
I will tell you of the tears and blood that dripped to our feet.
If you ask about the island's future,
I will tell you to step out. Our path is open.

2. Memory and Perception

For every victim we readily chisel a name into marble.
For every victim we readily weave a flower into a wreath.
For every victim we share an ode.
For every victim we sing a hymn.

3. Onward

Do not surrender to convulsions of self-pity.
Do not poison yourself with recriminations.
Lift your hand to the azure skies.
Set yourself upon a shining road.

4. This Beautiful Country

This beautiful country is our everlasting love.
This beautiful country is our heart's treasure.
And this modest tapestry of dreams only sketches our hopes
for this beautiful country, a green peace.

(Translation mine)

The world premier of Ilha Formosa took place in Taipei in 2001. The American premier took place later the same year in Lincoln Center, New York.

In September 2007 the piece was featured in an American West Coast tour program by the NTNU Symphony Orchestra and Formosa Festival Choir conducted by Apo Hsu. The soloists in the second movement were Meng-Chieh Hsieh (soprano) and Yu-Hsin Chang (baritone). The choir--actually the combined choirs of NTNU, Mangka Presbyterian Church Choir, New Taoyuan Philharmonic Choir, and Buddhist Candles Choir--was prepared by Tsui-Yu Huang.

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This entry incorporates text I have also submitted to Wikipedia and Answers.com for publication. The published material is subject to editing by other contributors but offers more substantial illustrations and links. This blog post preserves the text as I submitted it for any future editing by me. Your comments are appreciated.

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