SEPTEMBER 24, 2010 1:07PM
Light and Sound
After I talked with Bill Klingelhoffer at the opera house (see September 22 post), I met my friend Dale Eastman across Civic Center at the Asian Art Museum. The museum is in a 1917 Beaux Arts building that held the city's old main library. Like the opera house, city hall, and other nearby edifaces, it sits in a designated historic district (Civic Center was named a national landmark in 1978). So when the building reopened in 2003 with assorted Asian treasures instead of shelves of books, only the inside had been altered. The new main library, also on this historic square, is necessarily in the Beaux Arts style, too.
The museum building wasn't what sent my mind back to the opera house, though. Dale and I were there to see an exhibition called Shanghai, which ran through early September. Shanghai was long a colonial city, and thus more open to Western visitors and influences than most other cities in China. (Hence, the Orson Welles film is The Lady From Shanghai, as opposed to, say, The Babe From Beijing.) Because I am the world's slowest art viewer, Dale went on after a while and then came back to get me, saying, "Come look at this. You can see the art deconstructing."
To tell you the truth, I didn't know what she was talking about until I stood there a minute. Alone in a small, darkened gallery was the wall-size piece pictured here (Landscape--Commemorating Huang Binhong--Scroll, 2007, an "installation with lights and music," by Shen Fan). Like a blank canvas or composers' music sheet, the piece begins with empty space. Slowly, it fills with turquoise neon squiggles, appearing one by one; each arrives to the sound of a qin (pronounced something like ch'in; q = ch), a seven-stringed instrument with a low, kind of hollow sound. The location, length, angle, and shape of the neon tube determine the tone and duration of the sound.
This photograph was taken an hour in; it takes another hour for the squiggles to disappear. I arrived just in time to see the last few vanish, like the final flickers of a candle, or the last of the sun as it disappears below the horizon. As the gallery went dark, it was so peaceful, everyone who'd been watching sighed.
Huang Binhong (1865-1955) created landscapes in freehand brushstrokes of dark ink. Composers, of course, also create their art with a series of inked strokes. But more than the note-by-note creation of symphonic sound, the neon landscape made me think of what Bill had told me about the way Das Rheingold (and thus the Ring Cycle) begins. Out of the silence comes a low E flat from the basses, and then the bassoons. The eighth French horn plays a melody based on the "natural harmonics" of that sound. (I'm not sure I get this part, but Bill says, "According to physics, these natural harmonics sound simultaneously whenever you hear a single note. In the 19th century, it was called 'the chord of nature.' ") The seventh horn plays this melody, then the two horns together, and gradually the sixth, fifth, fourth, third, second, and first horns join in. Eventually, you hear the whole orchestra, and at that point, says Bill (and it's true), "you can actually visualize a river flowing."
So: the music creates a visual image, and the neon artpiece comes with sound.