My wonderful wife and I saw The Monuments Men the other day. It is a wonderful movie, but tonight, as I sip my Jasmine tea, it has me thinking about the ephemeral nature of art. It was shocking to me to see portrayals of Nazis burning paintings and other art pieces for no other reason than they did not fit the Third Reich’s view of the world. I have known for years that historically it happened, but seeing it occur in front of me on the screen, even if it was only as a recreation, still had a profound effect on me.
I have always known that some forms of art, especially performance art, were ephemeral by their very nature. I have always found concerts and plays to be particularly moving to me because they only exist for the length of the performance and then they are gone. I always have mixed feelings at the end. I am exhilarated by the artistry, but I am also sad that it is over. The consolation is that the performance will continue exist in the memories of those who were witness to the experience, at least to some extent.
I realize symphonies and plays can be performed over and over, but any performer will tell you, each time is different. Each performance has something unique about it that can never be repeated. In the case of a Jazz concert or improvisational theater, each performance might not just be subtly different, but dramatically different.
If you don’t mind a momentary digression, I was in a band in the late 90’s called Just Water. One of the songs we played was Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath. The song has a solo piano intro, so it was always the first song in a set. I would wander on the stage alone, and start playing the intro. I would take the middle section and turn it into an extended improvisation. As I was playing, the rest of the band would come up one by one and pick up their instruments. By the time I moved to the final section of the intro, everyone was on stage, and we would launch into the song full steam ahead. I don’t really know if the audience ever really got as much out of that as we did, but we liked it.
I mention that story because it indicates to some extent how attached I am to improvisational music. Going back to my very early days as a kid playing piano in my mother’s basement, I have practiced improvising. To this day, much of the time I spend on music is spent just playing without even having a particular song in mind. To me, improvised music has a special place because it seems closer to pure creative effort. There is no opportunity for a second take or to edit it once it is done. It comes out as it is, and it only exists in that one moment of time never to be heard again. I don’t know why that means as much to me as it does, but I have always embraced it.
I know improvised music can be recorded, and I do record my improvisations from time to time. But recording a performance changes it. Not just in the physical sense, but in a more important sense. A couple of years ago, my wife and I saw Kris Kristofferson in concert at a small theater near us. He was alone on the stage with his acoustic guitar and a mic. His performance was one of the most moving I’ve ever experienced. A few months later, he was featured on Austin City Limits on PBS. He sang mostly the same songs the same way he had in concert. The impact though was very different. While I enjoyed seeing him on ACL, the performance lacked the immediacy and personal connection that had affected me so strongly when I saw him live.
Returning to the beginning of this post, the movie has led me to think about the ephemeral nature of all art. Paintings may last hundreds of years. Statues and architecture can last thousands of years. While these things may be long-lived by human standards, they still aren’t permanent. They remain vulnerable to the effects of time and the unfortunately destructive nature of man. Rather than stay the same, they evolve and at each age they present something different to the viewer.
There is one additional aspect to this. Just as a person can’t step in the same river twice, the same person can’t view a painting or a statue twice. Just as the work changes over time, so do we. Each time we see a play or listen to a piece of music, we bring something new to the performance. Each time we see a work of art, we see it with new eyes.
I have one more story to demonstrate my point, but it is late and I think I have gone on long enough. The story will wait for another post.