Why I love Ravel

You’re in a room with your family at Christmas. Everybody’s home. There’s lots of food and laughter to go around and joy is in the air. Your daughter brings the family photo album and places it on your lap. She crawls under your right arm and tells you she wants to hear stories about everyone in the room. You smile and skim through the photos. Some of the people in the photos are in the room with you, by the fireplace, under the mistletoe, giggling in the kitchen. Some are not.

Looking at the photo of a person who is in the room with you is very different from looking at the photo of a person who’s no more. Nostalgia and memory have a way of being distinct in such moments.

I’ve always been freaked out by the idea that photographs exist, moments captured in time. The best photographs, however, are not ones that capture but ones that host memories. It’s graceful. It’s like the memory walked into the photograph of its own volition. There’s no hint of forced retention. It is but a moment that floods. It reminds me of Impressionist paintings. Their subjects were not mythical in nature but local; captured as a moment of the fleeting. This is the very thing we find cameras do well.

This brings me to Ravel, one of the greatest composers of all time. Here’s a video by Nahre Sol if you want to have some idea about who Ravel is:

This is the first piece from Ravel that I listened to. It was performed by Martha Argerich and it absolutely blew me away. I’m not classically trained and I have no idea what the technical difficulties are when it comes to composing or performing a piece like this but the passion that I felt as I listened to it was so powerful and pure. It was almost like somebody had taken a perfect photo of me and I was falling into it, experiencing all the intricacies of movement made still.

Many people don’t consider Ravel to be an Impressionist even though he is from that period. But if you ask me if I think Ravel is an Impressionist, I wouldn’t know how to say he isn’t.

This post is about Le Tombeau de Couperin, which l was listening to the other day.

I, being the philistine I am, had no clue what it was about. I was just another musician enjoying music. But as I listened to it, an image started forming in front of me. Unlike the usual visions I have, this was a still image. There was no movement. It was almost like a painting. Bright colours were set against dull and the brushstrokes were conspicuous but not messy.

What I saw first was a girl in a bright red dress. She was picking flowers in a garden and she seemed very happy, blissful at least. There were houses in a light beige in the background. She wasn’t looking at anything. Her eyes were set on something above the horizon. After lingering on her for a few moments, I was taken to another still image. This was of an old man. His clothes were not in focus but his face was; extremely so. He had a very thin beard and for some reason that seemed important. He had a worn hat on his head and he was holding a shovel. He was not using it but had stuck it into the ground. His right hand was still on the shovel but he was looking at something. The moment I asked myself what he was looking at, I was shown another image. This time, a baby in swaddling cloth was lying on the bank of a very shallow stream of water. Then, for a moment all these images came together. The old man was working in the garden where the girl in red was. He would stop working now and then and smile at the girl. Then he would look at the baby. The baby was far away from him; over a broken fence and across a shallow stream, on the the other bank. There was a certain pain in his eyes when he looked at the girl and the baby, the kind of pain that doesn’t hurt but rather presents itself as an opportunity for you to be aware of how deeply you can feel. I didn’t know why he felt this.

This vision was so powerful that I decided to look up what the piece of music was about. Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed between 1914 and 1917, during the First World War. The word ‘tombeau’ in the title is a musical term popular from the 17th century, meaning “a piece written as a memorial”. I found that you’re supposed to use the word ‘suite’ and not ‘piece’ although the latter still makes sense in a way. Each movement is dedicated to the memory of a friend of the composer who had died fighting in World War 1. The music, however, doesn’t feel like it’s about death per se. This was intentional according to Ravel. He said, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence”. His aim, which he made clear, was to pay homage to the Baroque French suite sensibilities. At least according to Wikipedia it was.

When I found this out, suddenly the pain in the eyes of the old man seemed to make sense. So did the baby, the broken fence, and the thin beard.

Nahre Sol, in the video I linked above, talks about how Ravel’s music has a certain melancholy to it. I would take this further in the case of Le Tombeau de Couperin and associate it with the fusion of the pain of lost childhood/innocence with the perception of childhood from a place far removed temporally. Imagine a veteran of a horrific war looking at a girl in a red dress picking flowers unaware of how dark the world really is. The thin beard also made sense in this context. Thin beard is more abrasive/rough while a full beard is soft. I also associated the broken fence with the destruction of the war. It seemed right to do so. The baby is even farther removed from the old man, born beyond the fence into a broken world, one that has no explanation for the destruction.

When I learned that it was dedicated to a soldier who had died in war, I felt that this was such a perfect way of keeping him alive. It’s like Ravel took a photo of him dying on the battlefield and a photo of him as a veteran who survived the war and then fused the two together.

Let me take you back to the scene I constructed for you at the beginning of this post. Looking at the photo of a person who is in the room with you is very different from looking at a photo of a person who’s no more. If a photograph is a memory, then does the photo become truer in some way if the person is no more? I don’t think so. However, if the person is no longer in the world, then they are only in your memories. They are only in the photograph. When you look at it, you not only feel nostalgic but you also attach a value to it that can only be given after the death of someone you love.

The joy of the past, when it is lost, will turn into care for the people you shared it with. But when they are no more, it turns into care for their photographs.

The photograph becomes important.

In presenting the death of a friend as a memory that has little to do with the very death of the person and everything to do with looking at loss like the old man looks at the girl in the red dress (the girl is like the photograph in this case) or the way one looks at the photograph of a loved one who has passed away, Ravel makes the music a focal point. When listening to his music, I don’t think of the people I’ve lost but I feel for the music what I would feel if I looked at a photograph of my grandfather who died a few years ago.

To me, the music is not saying “Couperin is dead” or “how sad is it that Couperin is dead?”. What I hear is “Music is a memory! Celebrate it!”.

If Le Tombeau de Couperin was a photograph, I would place it back in my photo album the way I would put back a photo of my grandfather. With care.

It’s not easy to do that.

Le Tombeau de Couperin is not about the dead, it’s about how important the photographs of them are. This makes Ravel an Impressionist if you ask me. He celebrates the moment, and more importantly, the medium that captures it. He might only be using loss and death to inspire value but they are presented with all the more depth for it.

Ravel’s intention was the celebration of music. But he didn’t have to tell me about Couperin to make me understand that. That’s how good he is.

This is why I love Ravel.

About the artwork:

In the artwork, you’ll see the girl in the red dress on the left and the baby, who becomes a boy in the artwork, on the right. The broken fence and a flower also make an appearance. I wanted to show the thin beard but didn’t know how to. My skills are limited. This is not at all what I saw but this is the best I could do with my skills.

The Glass Ceiling

You guys have seen those creepy mirrors in interrogation rooms, right? The ones in movies where on side of the glass there are people sitting in the dark looking at people on the other side who can’t see them? Well, yeah, did you know that one side of the mirror being dark and the other being well-lit is a requirement for the mirror to work in this way?

Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ll be able to see yourself in your windows at night when the light is on in your room, but you won’t be able to during the day when the sun is shining through.

Why do I bring up this interesting-yet-too-specific-and-takes-a-long-time-to-explain-so-it-really-doesn’t-belong-in-a-blog-post piece of information?

Good question.

Well, the other day I had this vision of me standing in a room without roofing. The sun was beating down on me and it was around mid-day. The sky was beautiful, with colours swirling and dissolving into each other like clouds. I wanted to reach out and touch them. So I did.

Well, I tried.

There was a ceiling made of glass in my way.

Since the sun was really bright, it didn’t look like there was a glass ceiling. I pushed first, tapped second, and then I just stood there. I looked out at all the beautiful stuff above me and felt like there was nothing I could do to truly experience them.

Then, as time passed, the sun slowly slipped out of view. It was evening. There was a light in my room, one brighter than the light outside. And now, when I looked up, I could see the glass. I could see myself in the glass. But I could also see the sky and the colours above because the sun hadn’t gone down yet. My reflection and the evening sky were two faint images superimposed on each other, still on the glass. I stared at it without blinking.

And then night came and I was alone. With myself. The glass was now a pure reflection of me and my room.

I know what the vision was about. It was about many things things that have present significance.

You see, I’m about to spend a year at home because I didn’t get into the postgraduate programmes I wanted to get into, which is partly something I didn’t want anyway but anxiety doesn’t care about what I want. I want so many things. During the day, when the rest of the world is alive, I’m constantly reminded of what I cannot have, be it because of my interests, where I come from, who I know etc. It’s just like the sun beating down on me through the glass. And I jump all day, hoping to catch one of those colourful clouds but I bang my head against the glass. This is all I can do during the day.

Then evening comes and I realise that there is a thick sheet of glass between me and the world, that the curse the 21st century casts on youth is the ability to see all that they cannot be or have. In the twilight hours, as I see myself and the world in the glass of fate and destiny, I am inspired by how it grounds me in reality by placing the good and the bad into context. This prepares me for the hours to come, when loneliness will take hold of me.

In the deep hours of the night, I am all I see. I look at my reflection on the glass and I write, speak, and draw. I reinvent, nay find myself in the void. This act does have the power to heal and restore but it does so only if I stare at the glass in the evening. To see myself and the world at the same time, to stop fighting and observe my existence in all its beauty, glory, and tragedy is the only thing that can bring healing in the night.

Well, now you know why I create everything in the night when everyone else is sound asleep.

About the artworks:

The first artwork contains a lot of ideas that I’ve already explored in previous posts with mountains, gyres, allusions to authorship, etc. The ice from the Hemingway post makes a reappearance as this post has a lot to do with fear of losing potential (https://thefourthdimensionoflife.wordpress.com/2021/07/10/obsessed-with-loss-of-potential-jpg/). Lions, as you know, mean a lot to me. They keep appearing in my dreams. I’ve been a lion in some and I’ve also been protected and attacked by them in some. There are other reasons but I won’t go into them now. If you have a good eye, you probably noticed how the speech bubble kinda looks like a human being, with the lion and its mane making up the mouth. Not exactly planned but I believe these things happen for a reason. Makes sense in context anyway.

The second artwork is more minimalistic. You can see the colours yellow and red making an appearance. And you probably know what they mean if you’ve been keeping up with the posts. If not check this post (https://thefourthdimensionoflife.wordpress.com/2021/08/04/why-i-even-try/)

All Is a Mirror For The Chameleon

Original Artwork

Today, around noon, I found myself spending a few moments alone with my imagination. Listening to Santana’s Samba Pa Ti, my mind filled with all kinds of colours and images. I was alone on a beach, my hand buried in the sand. A green beverage of some kind was pouring over me, covering me in translucent green. The green pouring over me almost felt like a hand, like I was caressing myself. It was passionate. For a moment, I tried to take control of the scene and bring a woman into the picture. It seemed fitting that a feminine presence be the reason for such passion. But when I did so, the picture almost burst into a million pieces. So I decided to let it go. I was to be alone in this.

While I’m not sure what this means, I thought it would be helpful to mention a few interesting thoughts that have occupied my mind for the past few days. I had a passing thought a few days ago of a chameleon in front of a mirror. It struck me that if the chameleon only identified itself by its colour and not its form, then the world would become its mirror. Imagine that- the conflation of perception of the outside world with that of self. For a moment, I wondered if that was what happened inside the void that I keep mentioning, that nothingness where I flail around and retrieve pieces of the broken mirror; the place where I create art out of necessity and learn more and more about myself. Was this exercise of existence a conflation of the kind mentioned above?

I believe I will be able to answer that better in time. For now, a record of thoughts will suffice.

About the artwork:

It is possible that the green in the painting and in my vision had to do with me reaching into the ground, into myself, and thus into nature itself. I had mentioned in a few other posts how I create art to “ground myself” and that no art except mine has the ability to make that happen. I have drawn from an earlier painting of mine that represents me burning in the void (from post ‘Why I Even Try’ which is linked below). This time, I chose to make the head red because recently I have found my thoughts taking a much darker turn, favoring the confusing and the self-destructive during introspection. However, my limbs continue to help me create art impulsively from the fascination I have for my pain and depression. So they remain yellow. The reason why the head is facing the sky and not the ground, which would have been more natural, can be found in my post ‘On Sublimity’ which I will link below.

Reading the following posts and looking at the artwork in them might be helpful if you are interested in dissecting this post further:

Fish At The Park

Fish 1: Yo, why you looking at me?? You’re staring. It’s not polite

Fish 2: Yo, you’re looking at me. Plus, you know I can’t blink. Staring is all I do

Fish 1: It’s not like I choose to look at you, dude. My eyes are on the right when I’m sitting down on my comfortable side.

Fish 2: I have very similar reasons

Fish 1: I see. Fair enough.

In a lonely barren land

original artwork

The other day, I found myself talking to another writer who follows me here. We were talking about how I bring together my artwork and writing. Our conversation touched on how skill and craftsmanship can affect the ability to communicate in such a way. I shared some thoughts in the conversation that I thought was worth revisiting for my own nourishment as much as that of all the lovely people who follow me here on WordPress.

I ended an earlier post with a few lines that I believe will help me add a lot more depth to what I am about to do because the post is about something relevant to the discussion.

The only way to ground myself is to dig in, into myself. This is why I try. This is why I make art. Because I am alone in the genius.

I wrote this about two months back (link to the post: https://thefourthdimensionoflife.wordpress.com/2021/08/04/why-i-even-try/ ). At the time, I felt that this was a sentiment that was mine alone. However, yesterday night I was reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (which was recommended to me by one of my professors) and I found myself sharing in the above sentiment with another writer, a brilliant one. Rilke talks about how personal and lonely the journey of an artist is. He writes:

You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself.

In the final paragraphs of the earlier post of mine that I mentioned above, this is exactly what I was trying to say. Art, for me, is born out of necessity, and as such the function that it serves is essential and perhaps existential. I look inside for answers. It has not been long since I have found a space to create such art. At the moment, it is a barren land, the loneliest of places, where trees do not hide birds and water moves no rock. But I know that I belong here, whatever season awaits me.

Now that I have touched upon my understanding of the space in which artistic creation takes place, let us return to the main intention of this post which I mentioned in the beginning. In the conversation I had with this person on skill and craftsmanship, I shared my thoughts on why proficiency in a skill should not stand in the way of artistic creation.

One thing is obvious: a painting does not captivate the eye by virtue of its resemblance to what the world actually looks like. Some of the greatest painters of all time have earned their place by distorting reality. I believe it is the obvious consistency, decorum, and evidence of conscious decision that comes across that people think warrants admiration. What is interesting here is that a painting only has to come across as the result of these things, it doesn’t really have to be.

I have noticed that if I sit down and watch a toddler scribbling on a wall with a crayon for more than 15 minutes, I can find a certain consistency in the way they draw. This probably has nothing to do with calculated decisions informed by thousands of years of art history but probably more to do with their muscle memory and the way they hold a crayon. Whatever the reason be, consistency can be discovered by those who are willing/gifted to look for it in all kinds of places. To a certain degree, that’s why I think the artist finds art everywhere. It is also why when I enter that lonely space that I mentioned earlier, I plug my ears. No matter what people say, and a lot of it may even be worth listening to, the recognition of art is a mediocre by-product resulting from a system of measurement that is highly dependent on a person’s ability to see. The artist truly doesn’t matter in the exercise if you ask me. Of course, that’s just one way to look at things. I choose to look at this way because art that I create in the void is a reflection of parts of me that all the light in the world cannot bring forth.

I am not very proficient at putting words together or making colors speak. If there is some classical way of measuring how steady my brushstrokes are, I’m pretty sure I’ll be very below par when compared to a lot of people I know. However, it does not discourage me from making art because I do not make art by taking into consideration how others see the world but by being aware of how I see it. Because, for me, art is a way for me to paint myself. I believe that the true joy of artistic creation lies not in other people seeing you but in you seeing yourself, especially the parts of you that have always remained hidden.

To do this, I must let go. When I make art, I allow myself to be a toddler scribbling on a wall. And the more I do it, I am made all the more aware of the consistencies, patterns, and rules that I follow without intending to. And as I stare at them, I am made aware of my muscle memory, which is a metaphor for so many things. I am made aware of how I hold my crayon and why I hold it so. I believe deeply that this is what Rilke was talking about. To dig into oneself is truly the only exercise that will make art necessary for the artist. And art that is not born out of necessity, I think, will destroy the artist.

Sometimes, by virtue of us being humans and living in the same world together, another person’s art can make sense to us. Over time, it is even possible that the brilliance of an artist who is able to beautifully traverse those fine lines between the important extremes will bring people together. If that happens, it is the most beautiful of by-products. But that is all it is- a by-product.

Dig deep into yourself, find ways to be deeply aware of why artistic creation is at its heart a journey into the void. Be excited about reaching out into nothing and retrieving something. Be okay with flailing around aimlessly in the dark. In such exercise is the birth of all the rules and consistency this world seems to be hooked on. No matter how bad or good you are at drawing or painting, you will find that these things exist regardless when you look inside yourself. But even more importantly, it is in such habit that you truly see yourself.

About the artwork:

I continue to draw on mountains and gyres, my fancy for which you’ve witnessed in the previous posts. What the colours mean can also be found in my previous posts. It is an illustration of where I am at the moment, discovering the depressing yellow underneath as I truly see how I wear my skin. I’m leaving a lot of skin behind on this journey. I am also running away from a lot of things, which I’ve made clear with the outstretched hands, and running towards something at the same time. I’ve represented the last part by bringing the legs together as a person would if they were to firmly place themselves somewhere.

Muse

Living water flows from veins ripped open by the world

The sun shines right through some people. If you’re at the right place at the right time, you’ll see how they carry the burden of the joy that fills your world. It’s a very private burden. To know it feels wrong.

But if you hold her hand in an imaginary land where to know is not a crime, you’ll feel the water slipping through her fingers; living water flowing from veins ripped open by the world. It falls on the grass and makes words grow like tress and bear music.

It falls on grass and make words grow like tress and bear music.

She is what people call a muse.

In this world that I’ve made up in my head, where lions escort us through the wilderness of harsh and bitter reality, I am constantly reminded of how undeserving I am of the beauty that she inspires. Is she a memory, a meeting of the earth and sky? Am I in love? Is this what it feels like?

where lions escort us through the wilderness of harsh and bitter reality

She

Original Artwork

She crushes the grass beneath her feet

like the grapes of Montenegro

The forest floor bleeds crimson and green

She has set the mountain free

And I follow the flowers that blush

like a rose in the morning sun

For if not for this taste of summer,

my heart would turn stone cold.

The Author On The Mount

Authors live on the mountains. They see everything. I know this because I push the rock up the mountain every day and I see it; I see the view.

Perspective.

But it does not last and I cannot take it with me. As the rock rolls downhill I have no choice but to descend into the vanity and confusion of everyday life. Tomorrow, I will do this again. I have to because I saw.

At the top of the mountain, as I behold the setting Sun, it is unclear to me if I am the author or if I am experiencing the author- the finisher of my faith. This is hidden to me and it eats away at my soul. Nevertheless, what I see inks me.

I will forget the image even as I become the image.

In becoming do I repent? Do I become the view from above where I see myself through the eyes of the author? Is this the ultimate judge? The true ideal?

I think we have tried for centuries to climb up the highest mountains in the world because we know this. Or maybe we feel it. We experience the confirmation of the author in us/or the author when we experience the bigger picture. It elevates us and changes us. It is just in its judgement.

I think it’s powerful that after a day of hard work, Jesus went up the mountain to pray/talk to God all night; that he was crucified on a hill; and that he ascended from the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus’s “face changed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” and where He was visited by Moses and Elijah who talked to him, is perhaps the most powerful image for me (Luke 9). If we go to the Old Testament, there are so many instances where mountains become places where God meets man. The Ten Commandments being given to Moses atop a mountain is just one of many examples. For me, the fact that mountains appear the way they do in the Bible is one more reason to believe that the view from the top stands for so many things that have the power to change us.

I chose to paint the pencil in the colour of skin because I think that’s what happens when you experience life from a higher vantage point, be it through art, prayer, or love- you are rewritten. You become the image you see. You experience authorship; what it feels like to know more, to see more. It is a powerful ideal and it judges you and motivates you to align yourself to something that is evidently powerful and timeless. I also like how the edges of hills and mountains create Vs. You could reduce ‘view’ to ‘VU’. That’s just me drawing an interesting connection. What is important is that you get the idea behind all of this.

This piece is part of a series of artwork I am creating where I take images of things that move me and I superimpose over them what I consider to be the meaning that is relevant to me personally and to all of us universally. Meaning before the object. That’s the idea.