And the only way he had ever found, the only code, the only language by which he could speak and be heard by other men, could communicate himself, was with a bugle. If you had a bugle here, he told himself, you could speak to her and be understood, you could play Fatigue Call for her, with its tiredness, its heavy belly going out to sweep somebody else’s streets when it would rather stay home and sleep, she would understand it then.
But you haven’t got a bugle, himself said, not here nor any other place. Your tongue has been ripped out. All you got is two bottles, one nearly full, one nearly empty.
― James Jones, From Here to Eternity
Photo: U.S. Marine Corps by Lance Cpl. Alejandro Sierras/ Released
There is much more to playing the clavier than playing written music. Do you realize with accompanying there is often nothing written out but the bass line–the left hand? There might be a few notations as to a suggested harmony, but it is up to me to fill in the music, at the proper volume, style, and harmony for the soloist–often instantly. I’ve heard it said that Bach questioned whether the soloist or the accompanist deserves the greatest glory.
Consider yourself and the cello. As you play the music moves out to the listener, and also enters the core of your own being, for somehow you are tuned to the cello. Well, I am persuaded that this is because you are a chord. I am a chord. Our DNA dictates our physicality–made up of billions of little notes–on a basic level. Add to that our geography, background, et cetera, and you have your original score. Life is the layering of chords, but the underlying one that we are will never change. This brings us to string theory and love. Our personal chord resonates with the personal ones of others, and sometimes we encounter another person who is completely harmonious with us. It is a dominant, overwhelming attraction on the DNA level. However, such a person can appear to be our opposite–and that’s where this ‘opposites attract’ notion comes from–because they have tuned their chord in a different way. In reality, we are attracted to the person we have chosen not to become, an alternative adjustment to a chord that is nearly the same as our own. The clashing portions of the chords sounding together advance the richness of it.
I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men (sic) create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.
― W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
How much do the actions and thoughts of our ancestors shape our lives and limit our experience?
Louise Erdrich’s A Plague of Doves tells the story of residents in the tiny town of Pluto, North Dakota, on the edge of the Ojibwe reservation. The town and the reservation are fictional, but Erdrich, the daughter of a man of German descent and a Chippewa woman of Ojibwe and French blood, draws upon her own background to paint a rich picture of life in a small northern American town where descendants of immigrants and native people still feel uneasy with each other. The discomfort is even more confusing for those like Evelina Harp, whose veins are filled with the blood of both natives and colonizers.
All of this unease is exacerbated by a crime, or rather a double crime, that occurred in 1911, more than seventy years before the novel ends. The Lochren family was brutally murdered, shot to death at their farm. Only the baby, Cordelia, survived, found by a group of native men who happened to stumble on the gruesome scene. When the Lochren’s neighbors find out about the role the men played in saving the child, their prejudice finds suspicion in the great act of kindness. The native men are hunted down and killed, except for Mooshum, Evelina’s grandfather. Meanwhile, the murderer lives a long life, barely keeping his terrible secret. He would not have kept it all if the immigrant community had not allowed itself moral blindness rather than pursue the guilty within its own ranks.
What happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough? It becomes your entire history.
Three, and in one case four, generations of the major players are interwoven in the heartbreaking story of a dying community. By the end of the novel, the retired Dr. Cordelia Lochren is alone, unable to reconcile her feelings for native people, especially her lover, with the lies she was fed as a child. Mooshum is an ancient alcoholic, reliving the failures of his youth through painful memories that loom larger than his own life. The Peace family, descended from a man who could not leave a child to starve and was killed for his decency, show a lack of decency and control that lands them in peril deeper than their murdered ancestor. Evelina and the granddaughter of the murderer work side by side at the local diner, barely making enough to get by, never quite connecting the dots that link their patriarchs together. Cordelia alone knows the secret, which she reveals to us quite simply in the last few pages of the novel. It is actually fairly obvious, but obscured by the structure of the community itself, which is built on institutionalized racism. Even our own eyes do not want to see the truth.
Tragically tender and human, Erdrich’s prose is constantly running the gamut from crude humor to profound truth, which, she reminds us, are not mutually exclusive. I found myself identifying with the emotions the characters present and getting caught up in their feelings. Jumping from one narrative voice to another and traipsing back and forth over the decades, we come to know the residents of Pluto in their heroic moments and their feebleness, in their cruelty and their silliness, and we mourn the decline of a community haunted and held together by its ghosts.
The Old Violin, William Harnett, 1886
Erdrich does not leave her community or us without hope. The hope comes, strangely and beautifully, from music, which presents itself as supernatural force, somehow not quite bound by time and place. There is an old violin that has a marvelous part to play, found floating in a canoe, the instigator and only survivor of a fatal rivalry between brothers. It is this instrument that will change the outcome of the novel, saving a young guilty man’s life and ending that of an old guilty one. Then, its debt repaid, it will be shattered.
The music was more than music- at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.
In a split second of eternity, everything is changed, transfigured. A few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar place, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss on the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling foliage, the forward rush of life is crystalized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart.
The music was more than music- at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware. And this realization was in the music, somehow, or in the way Shamengwa played it. ― Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves
As soon as you try and take a song from your mind into piano and voice and into the real world, something gets lost and it’s like a moment where, in that moment, you forget how it was and it’s this new way. And then when you make a record, even those ideas that you had, then those get all turned and changed. So in the end, I think, it just becomes it’s own thing .
The idea of attention or contemplation, of looking carefully at something and holding it before the mind, may be conveyed early on in childhood. ‘Look, listen, isn’t that nice?’ Also, ‘Don’t touch!’ This is moral training as well as preparation for a pleasurable life. It need not depend on words, but can also be learnt from patterns of behaviour which should in any case back up the words. The far reaching idea of respect is included in such teaching. The, as it might seem, sophisticated concept of a work of art may be acquired easily. Children, if they are lucky, are invited to attend to pictures or objects, or listen quietly to music or stories or verses, and readily understand in what spirit they are to treat these apparently dissimilar things. They may also be encouraged to contemplate works of nature, which are unlike works of art, yet also like them in being “beautiful.”
―Iris Murdoch,Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
Mary Ann Toots Zynsky, known as Toots, decided as a pre-teen that she was meant to be an artist, beginning her creative life as a painter and sculptor. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which she had been told was the best of the best. And yet, nothing really sparked her interest; everything felt stilted and quiet. In fact, she planned to leave the school at the end of her Freshman year in order to pursue studies leading toward medical school. One day she grabbed a map and decided she would visit each department, perhaps hoping for a reason to stay. Everything changed as she walked down a hallway to a room that had been deliberately placed far from the main studios. Here, loud music played and hot glass swirled in the air, manipulated by artists that moved together to make colorful shapes that solidified into glass. I’m sure the music was loud and the atmosphere somewhat wild… it was 1970 after all…but the voice inside of her must have spoken with a voice to match. The next week, after classes ended, the glass studio, which had recently gained independence from the ceramics department, opened its doors to anyone who was interested. Toots Zynsky did not miss her opportunity.
Video via Corning Museum of Glass on YouTube
It is fascinating to note that Toots was not drawn so much to the final product as she was mesmerized by the process. It was the music reverberating in the space, the concept of collaboration as a kind of dance, the roar of the furnace, the hot liquid glass in motion and the counterpoint of color that quickened her pulse. When art comes from this kind of place, the final form it takes is secondary. It also didn’t hurt that this was a new medium for art and there were few rules to be broken. It was an exciting time to work with glass. On top of that, she earned her BFA working under the guidance of Dale Chihuly, who remains one of the biggest names in glass art worldwide.
In the early 1970s, along with Chihuly and some fellow RISD graduates, Toots was part of the founding team of the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state. Her work was groundbreaking: experimental installations featuring slumped plate glass and forays into video and performance art in collaboration with artist Buster Simpson. Finding new and interesting possibilities, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with glass. She returned to the east coast to pursue new projects in new media.
“I started wondering what I was doing with glass and why. There were other materials and ideas that fascinated me, and I started working with cloth, light, wire, and barbed wire. I was interested in barbed wire because it’s such a powerful symbol of the failure of humanity— that we had to come up with this material to keep each other apart.”
In 1980, Toots became assistant director and head of the hot shop at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in New York City, now UrbanGlass. Here she pioneered works that combined glass with barbed wire, pulling her interests together. She began to work with nets made from heavy glass threads which she dubbed filet de verre. These threads were fused and shaped inside of a kiln. Her first piece made entirely from filet de verre was Clipped Grass (1982). It is a beautiful, humble work of realism, glass fashioned into the image of a nest made from grass clippings. This simple piece was the precursor to the fanciful colored forms which would become Toots’ signature work.
In the early days, she had to employ teams of assistants to pull the glass into threads using an old Venetian method. This took time and resulted in unevenness. There was also a limit to the length of thread that could be produced. When Mathijs Van Manen, an inventor who had also worked with special effects for film and television, came to New York from Amsterdam to check out her work, he was amazed at what she was doing and dumbfounded at how she was doing it. Within 24 hours, he rigged a machine to turn rods of glass into threads. Toots took a trip to Europe to collaborate further on the design of this machine and stayed on the continent for 16 years. Together, she and Van Manen produced a series of kilns which she still uses in her work, although these instruments now incorporate cutting edge software and electronics. She also has special heat resistant gloves that allow her to reach into the kiln and twist the work into shape. These are the product of a desperate moment in Italy when, showing her technique to Italian craftsmen, she plunged her hands into a kiln to rescue a piece that was going awry.
“The architects were so curious and I was so nervous and the piece just wasn’t going right. All of a sudden, I reached into the kiln, grabbed the vessel, and gave it a big squeeze. Finally, I had the form that I wanted! And I thought, Why didn’t I think of this before? I was fed up with the piece, so I tried something different because I had nothing to lose.”
There is more to her work than technique, innovation and boldness. There is a great deal of sensitivity. As a synesthete, Toots relates sound to color. The rhythms of music are translated into patterns of colored glass that are like frozen portraits of sound.
After going through a period of loss in which she no longer felt like dancing, or even moving or listening to music, she began to create darker pieces with fewer colors and more shading, explorations not of music rhythms, but of the feelings she had for people she had lost. What an honor to be remembered in such a personal way by such a great artist!
Toots Zynsky continues to make beautiful things that fill a need in her life and delight others. She has collaborated on costume and scenic design for theatrical works and continues to explore what glass can express. Please check out more of her work on her website.