Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Return to the Rocket City

ONCE AGAIN I have returned to Huntsville, AL. New posts shall resume once I have better settled in my new-old city. . .

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Montreal in Summer, Part II

DELIGHTFUL WEATHER brings myriad students with books and journals, happy couples, and groups of playful schoolchildren to McGill University's peaceful lawns. With the exception of the last photograph, all of these images were captured on the McGill campus.

(Copyright 2009 by Christina Wegman)

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Color Theory of Art and Life

FROM STUDYING COLOR one comes to recognize two important phenomena: that we seldom (if ever) experience a particular color in absence of other colors or unaffected by lighting, and that the character of any given color can be influenced greatly by the colors in proximity. German-born artist and color theorist Josef Albers, with his interest in visual perception, showed time and again how the one color, depending on its surroundings, could look like an entirely different color to the point of being unrecognizable to the viewer if both collages of colors were placed side-by-side. Moreover, it is well-documented that two colors must match in saturation to be completely harmonious and that some hues bring out the depth and/or brightness of their neighbors, whereas others leave even the cheeriest shades dull and lifeless.

In the English language, the idiom "to show one's true colors" is used to indicate that one is displaying one's real nature, and while this alludes to the naval practice of sailing under a false flag in order to get closer to an enemy ship, that one would use the term "colors" for flag, a representation of what one stands for, seems rather an appropriate term indeed in light of color theory. That is, if "showing one's true colors" means displaying an authentic representation of oneself, and if one cannot really approach an "enemy" without showing "false colors", then the matter of how one's surroundings can change the manifestation of one's nature becomes as important to one's being and existence as it does to creating the right atmosphere in a painting or interior. Existing alone in a complete void is impossible and most likely undesirable-- and therefore deciding what one's "true colors" are and then displaying them properly will have something to do with not only internal, but external factors.

Those we call friends, the way we dress, our jobs, the books we read, how we pursue our interests, how we approach doing the laundry, what we choose to eat for dinner, the things we allow to fill our days, to enter and swirl about in our minds-- no matter how trivial or profound an aspect of our lives may seem, it is adding to the collage which shades and influences us, and whether we embrace it and keep it within our collage, modify it to our benefit, or cast it away entirely in favor of something else, lights, shadows, and accompanying tones and hues still never do fall away leaving a truer self, for it is only in the grouping that we can properly define ourselves at all. Therefore, choose your surroundings, friends, and activities wisely, and react wisely to that which does not further a coherent goal-- for a certain shade of yellow may look radiant beside some sort of violet, yet if the violet is pale but warm, longing to be red, though the yellow is cool, leaning toward blue, a sickly grayed yellow pallor and an eerie pink emerge in what might have otherwise been an exceptionally lovely field of lavender and chamomile.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Montreal in Summer

AH SUMMER! This time of year means unbearable humidity and a multitude of tourists, festivals and more in Montreal. While I often simply enjoy the spectacle of life here, I also find myself seeking out the quiet scenes of lush greenery and lovely old houses in the midst of the noises and nervous excitement of the big city. From sprays of blooms to the wide front lawn of McGill to a faded kiss on a statue (easily visible in a larger version once one clicks on the image), these are a few of my most recent photographs from the place I call home (copyright Christina Wegman, 2009).

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Layers of Meaning: Contemplations on German, English, and Language as Metaphor

SOMETHING I ALWAYS FIND PLEASANT about the German language (beyond my own cultural ties to it and fondness for its grammar) is the picturesque quality of its words; because German nouns and verbs are generally compounds of various words in common independent usage in everyday German, it is particularly easy to think of German words as building blocks of sorts on one hand, and metaphors on the other. Often commented upon, after all, is the fact that words can say much about the sensibilities of any given culture as well as provide an entire (sometimes entirely new) worldview. As a very simple example, take the verb vorschlagen or to suggest. Schlagen means to hit or slap, vor means in front of. . . meaning that to suggest something in German is to literally slap something down in front of someone. Of course, whether this means that a suggestion in German was or is considered quite informal and perhaps even negligible is hard to say (the English meaning of the word suggest circa 1340 was far less positive at one time, insinuating an evil prompting, while the Latin combination of sub and gerere is merely to bring/carry [from] under), but the immediate image that the word evokes is interesting. A less charming but more dramatic example is the word for skull-- Totenkopf (tot and Kopf) or death head (if we go back in time and think about the word Kopf as coming from the same roots as the English word cup, we get an even more macabre image of a sort of hollow drinking vessel of death), and the examples, pleasant or tragic, continue. . .

This quality of German, the consistent transparency, so to speak, of the construction of words, is certainly an aspect of many other languages as well (Armenian being such a language that came up recently in my discussions), particularly those which have not yet been so inundated by loan words in the course of the past few centuries as to become almost completely structurally unrecognizable or even (in essence) incoherent, and as I reach farther back into time to get at the ultimate roots of words, there comes a point when I finally run into Sanskrit (or at least Latin or Greek), or when I find myself, in fact, reaching into a mysterious language void, but the conclusion still seems reasonable-- a language such as German, with its accessible compounds of words still-in-use, gives the immediate impression of concrete vividness.

English, on the other hand, as the above humble hint of an etymology of suggest confirms, is wrapped under layers of meaning: Germanic Old English, Latin by way of Old French, Greek, and countless other languages, to the point that defining a system by which meaning is constructed in English is not only extremely complex, but a task which would require learning several different languages to do correctly. Mark Twain's satirical jabs at German may have their weight at times, but all languages are constructions, and the rules of English seem to present far more cryptic "exceptions" unless one can come to a solid knowledge of Latin and Greek and the understanding of how various languages evolved or were blended to form what we now call English.

How much simpler it is to understand how to use whom, for instance, when the word is explained as a lingering remnant of a once-prominent case system. How much more interesting a word such as conjugal becomes when it is revealed that it has the connotation of two oxen being yoked together (conjugation, a word with a very different meaning in English, comes from the very same Latin roots). Indeed, a comparative study of language and linguistics can always be fascinating, yet I can think of no language that requires comparative study to get at the underlying structure and meaning of things to the extent that English seems to do. Whether this makes English particularly rich or merely perplexing and inconsistent is a good subject for debate considering the status of English in the world today, but either way, I think it is safe to conclude that the English language stripped of the details of its roots and origins seems to lose quite a bit of its meaning and vivacity.

Friday, 5 June 2009

A Night at the Opera: Lucia di Lammermoor

THURSDAY EVENING brought a stunning crowd to the Place des Arts; not only was it the final opportunity to see the Opéra de Montréal's presentation of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, but it was also possible to view the opera for free sous les etoiles on a large screen set up just beside Rue Sainte-Catherine. I myself had tickets for the top balcony of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, which, I must say, is rather far-removed from the stage, but I found the performance quite intriguing and well-orchestrated even from a distance.

The story-line of this 1835 dramma tragico presents us with a Romeo-and-Juliet-style dilemma set in Scotland and based on Sir Walter Scott's historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor. The opera itself, of course, is pure Italian bel canto, and if it were not for the occasional mention of Scotland, costumes, and the stone columns and archways of the sets in this particular production (which were fairly simple, but effective and nicely traditional), it would be most difficult to place Donizetti's opera anywhere other than Italy. The passions and tempers of Lucia and Edgardo run high, culminating in promises of eternal love, murder, madness, and suicide-- which are some of the staples of tragic operas, I realize, except that whereas the German opera is an opera of ideas and ideals, the Italian opera is an opera of people. German operas often attempt to offer philosophical explanations and conclusions, even in the midst of a profoundly moving whirlwind of music and action; Italian operas seem far more concerned with lovely singing and the flux of human emotions, the depiction of life in its joys, desires, tragedies, and even horrors.

In fact, Lucia di Lammermoor is perhaps best-known for Lucia's scene of madness in the third act, which is, odd as it seems to say it, quite possibly the most aesthetically pleasing musical depiction of insanity which has ever reached my ears. Of course, my perception of this scene, and indeed the entire opera, was all the better for having heard Cuban singer Eglise Gutierrez perform the role of Lucia. Her voice can haunt or warble, disturb or uplift-- or sometimes do all four at once. Vibrato could be heard occasionally in her voice, but it was skillfully used and extremely subtle, and therefore added further nuance to her performance. Stephen Costello was convincing enough as Edgardo, but I was far more impressed with baritone Etienne Dupuis as Lucia's manipulative brother Enrico.

At any rate, I was surprised to see how quickly the concert hall emptied after the standing ovation. I believe I would have liked to see roses tossed dramatically at the stage, or perhaps a bouquet handed to Gutierrez, but the bows were carried out sans flowers. I walked among the empty red seats of the concert hall, down the stairs, and into the streets of Montréal. . .

Thursday, 28 May 2009

How to Look Like an Intellectual Without Even Trying

LIVING IN THE MIDST OF A SORT OF "CAFE CULTURE" as I do, I cannot help but think (and it is a comforting thought, for a moment) that intellectuals are considered fashionable these days. As I walk along the streets, I see so many young people carrying books under their arms (the titles prominently displayed), so many pairs of dark-rimmed glasses, so many laptops and paper cups full of coffee, so many pregnant pauses in the conversation, so much ruffled hair that suggests that the young man or woman in question was just leaning over a desk, head in hand, thinking and--

. . . well, I do believe that many of these characters seem at first glance rather appealing to a career academic who spends a lot of time with fountain pens and paintbrushes, but I wonder whether they are trying too hard, so to speak, to appear intelligent when there is a much easier (and perhaps cheaper) way. The quickest and easiest way to look like an intellectual is to actually be one!

It may sound as if that venture will require a ridiculous amount of time reading that could have been spent sitting in a coffee shop looking contemplative or talking to strangers in said coffee shop, but this is hardly true. Thirty minutes to an hour per day of serious study or practice is often enough time to be well on one's way to learning a new language, developing one's writing skills, or any other such intellectual pursuit (though more time spent intelligently will speed the process and allow for fine-tuning, certainly). The hours my generation spends lurking on the internet to merely pass time could equal great masterpieces of literature or art or astounding new findings in science-- it is one thing to use our online tools to connect with others, explore the creativity in the world, or share information, but quite another to spend all of one's free time in a state of internet-induced stupor (or, in fact, ennui). In order to be able to do something well, beyond having a bit of a natural aptitude for it, one must simply to do that thing consciously and regularly. . . we work on our computers consciously and regularly, so why not our language skills or our knowledge of mathematics or our ability to reason? I would think that trying to figure out how to dress like a "geek" without looking as awkward as one would be far more complicated.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Montreal in Spring

DESPITE MY CRITICISMS regarding the state of upkeep of many areas of Montreal and my dislike of aspects of the city which I find demoralizing, there are surely also beautiful things to be found, and more than enough scenes, pleasant or unpleasant, to inspire any photographer. These are my favorite shots from this week.

Photography by Christina Wegman Copyright 2009

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Chopin in the Afternoon: Jean-François Latour at the Place-des-Arts

RUE SAINTE-CATHERINE on a breezy, overcast Sunday. The sidewalks are quiet except for the occasional beggar or passerby, and the atmosphere, with its odd mix of seedy dépanneurs, the occasional clothing store, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, graffiti, strip clubs, sex shops, and pubs, is gritty and apathetic. It seems shameful that Montreal's most distinguished concert venue and cultural center, the Place-des-Arts, would end up surrounded by such a decrepit neighborhood, and yet there it is, a modern-ancient temple, cryptic, gray, and grand, with pink flowering trees peeking out of the corners. A man is curled up under a blanket with his two black dogs near entrance to the ticket office.

I had come to see Jean-François Latour, a celebrated young Canadian pianist, play Chopin. Salle 5 was dreary and I was surprised that it was not filled with concert-goers, but perhaps 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon is not prime-time for such performances. The audience settled and the pianist took the stage.

As a great lover of Chopin's works, I have certainly developed a number of fixed ideas about how they should be interpreted, and was initially skeptical as Latour began with the Polonaise in C-sharp minor. The opening chords sounded heavy and the notes of the trills were often slightly different from those which I have become accustomed to hearing at other concerts and on my recordings at home, but my overall impression was that the playing was admirably deliberate and imaginative. As Latour delved into Opus 33 (Four Mazurkas), it was as if he were taking us on a comfortable, contemplative tour through an unsentimental but beautiful dream-turned-reality, and I must add that the listener was forced to wake up far too soon. This was quickly remedied, of course, as he played all twenty-four preludes from Opus 28 in smooth, rapid succession. The ending was dramatic, and as Latour's hands fell into his lap, a man in the audience began calling "Bravo! Bravo!", and after much clapping, we were treated to a delightful encore.

I was inspired by Latour's calmness, long breath, and control, particularly insofar as these qualities lent beauty and thought to the works without making them the least bit stiff. This was not wild, emotional, intuitive playing by any means, and I was fascinated when, during a particularly difficult passage, I noticed that Latour appeared to be gently smiling! This virtuoso is no flamboyant, self-centered showman, but rather a tranquil voice in a chaotic world-- the dirty city streets were left behind and my visions of beauty and order were happily restored to me. Such is the transformative power of the arts in the hands of a master; we are reminded, in a dignified and pleasant manner, to look at our surroundings and care about them, never to let them deteriorate into our nightmares, but to work, calmly and happily, to turn them into something closer to our greatest dreams.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Open to Interpretation

MATTERS OF INTERPRETATION often arise when I am going off on my mental meanderings or being asked to participate in a dialogue. . . and sometimes I find myself in the middle of a tug-of-war between those who believe that there are so many ways to interpret a piece of art, musical composition, literary work, theatrical show, or even everyday event that it is not proper to exclude any interpretation that comes along and those who claim that, if it is actually impossible to make definitive judgments in the world of art and culture, complex analysis is senseless.

To the latter, I must stress that, indeed, it is important to analyze art and culture-- these things can define people, tell us who we were and where we were and give us clues as to who we should be and where we might go (or even convince us that there is no need to leave what has already been found to be good); these things can help us to understand others or help us to decide what is important in life and who is living well, what concepts such as "importance" or "living well" mean, in fact. To the former, I have a more detailed admonition.

First of all, though one work may have more than one interpretation, there are certainly interpretations that are far more plausible than others. To claim that all interpretation is a matter of opinion is a very dangerous attempt to come across as inclusive that backfires into an insane asylum (the loonies, naturally, giggle and dance as the bullet passes through). Although in the case of some important artists, writers, and musicians, interpretation can be quite like trying to make one's way through a murky bog because said great talent was intentionally vague (consider some of the works of Franz Kafka), most creative people (including Kafka), have left a trail of diaries, letters, and philosophical musings that can lead to fairly certain conclusions. Also, we can piece things together through the contemplation of history-- indeed, it might be a bit amusing to give Hamlet a Freudian twist à la Olivier, or to apply feminist discourse to the tale of Griselda and then imagine how different eras and cultures might view the same story by the same author, but does this really mean that a work itself has no set meaning? Wagner clearly wanted the stories he retold in his operas to be understood a certain way, wanted the music to be seen as grand and moving and filled with German pride; one may criticize his motives or claim that he did not achieve his goals (I would argue fiercely with this person), but it would be ridiculous to attempt to interpret, say, Tannhäuser as a criticism of oppressive social norms in the Medieval era rather than a dramatic testament to the power of Christian love and a warning against blasphemy. What even a scholar might fail to realize is that seeing the opera thus would have something to do with personal prejudice rather than true understanding of the work or the intent of its creator, and that the average student/reader might take that personal prejudice to be objective fact and never delve any further into the subject.

Second of all, why would anybody perpetuate a culture in which wild uncertainty is not merely a bit of a driving force but a goal in itself? I fear that this uncertainty will merely lead to such apathy that even democratic countries will fall sway to brutal tyranny. It becomes ever clearer to me, as I ponder history, that people may have made advances in technology, but they are choosing to ignore the worthwhile things which these new breakthroughs have given them unprecedented health and free time to pursue; that is, the humanities-- the things which make us human. The ones who seek enlightenment or seek to look enlightened might find themselves at a high-brow concert on Friday evening or in the art museum on Sunday afternoon if they have the means to be in such places, but how many people actively and consciously live as beautifully as they aspire to live, or even attempt to really do so? How many people realize that a new piece of furniture or a new political leader will not transform them into greater beings, for they must first transform their minds and actions? Or will somebody merely try to tell me that what constitutes a "beautiful life" is completely open to interpretation?