Kate Atkinson and quantum physics

LifeAfterLife3Kate Atkin­son has now won the Cos­ta Book Award twice in the past three years—for her com­pan­ion nov­els, A God in Ruins (2015) and the stun­ning Life After Life (2013). To cel­e­brate, here are my thoughts on the first one, which I just fin­ished.

Life after Life can be seen as a kind of thought exper­i­ment: what if a life, when cut off by ear­ly death, could be lived again, and again and again? Would any­thing change, and would the per­son who lives it learn any­thing from her pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences?

This is what hap­pens to Ursu­la Todd, who is born, and then born again, and again, on a snowy night in Eng­land in 1910. She arrives still­born the first time, but we fol­low her as she dogged­ly relives her own life, which grad­u­al­ly extends in length until she lives as far as the Lon­don Blitz and, once or twice, into post­war peace­time and pover­ty. A dia­gram of the book’s struc­ture would look very dif­fer­ent from most nov­els: more like a tree, with sev­er­al of Ursula’s ear­ly lives cut off by acci­dent and ill­ness (in the ter­ri­ble influen­za epi­dem­ic of 1918) at the trunk, and then longer branch­es devel­op­ing as Ursu­la moves into adulthood—some sub­tly altered, and oth­ers veer­ing off in stark­ly dif­fer­ent direc­tions.

Some moments act as pres­sure points. One, a lazy sum­mer after­noon in the yard of her large family’s com­fort­able home out­side Lon­don, con­tains the seeds of events that fuel mul­ti­ple diver­gences. Oth­er moments feel like twigs rather then branches—possibilities for rela­tion­ships that nev­er come to fruition. In most of Ursula’s lives, she remains sin­gle, and only in one life does she have a child.

If this were a work of sci­ence fic­tion, we would expect the author to open her hand and explain, or at least sug­gest, how all this works. Is Ursu­la the only one who has, or is cursed with, this abil­i­ty to relive her own life? Or are oth­er peo­ple branch­ing away into par­al­lel lives as well? From one life to the next, Ursu­la feels inti­ma­tions and omens from her ear­li­er expe­ri­ences, which can move her to act dif­fer­ent­ly, avert­ing the pre­vi­ous out­come. If she isn’t the only one this is hap­pen­ing to, is she the only one with the sen­si­tiv­i­ty to break through the mem­brane of death and ben­e­fit from her expe­ri­ences?

Atkin­son has lit­tle inter­est in spelling out her premise; the clos­est she comes is an allu­sion to rein­car­na­tion, in con­ver­sa­tions a young Ursu­la has with her psy­chi­a­trist, to whom she is sent after a trou­bling inci­dent ris­ing from one of her trace mem­o­ries. Of course, Ursula’s expe­ri­ence is dif­fer­ent from the tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ing of rein­car­na­tion as the ser­i­al inhab­it­ing of dif­fer­ent lives over time.

But her sit­u­a­tion offers a vivid illus­tra­tion of one aspect of the Many Worlds Inter­pre­ta­tion of quan­tum physics—what’s known as a Lev­el 3 par­al­lel uni­verse, in which, at every moment, a person’s choic­es give rise to oth­er prob­a­ble uni­vers­es, each slight­ly dif­fer­ent. The the­o­ry doesn’t allow for com­mu­ni­ca­tion among these uni­vers­es, but that hasn’t stopped many sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers from imag­in­ing it hap­pen­ing. Atkinson’s branch­ing struc­ture also sug­gests video game pro­gres­sions, as well as, maybe, a hyper­text sto­ry. I don’t think Atkin­son meant the nov­el to be any of those things, but it brought up these ques­tions for me as strong­ly as any sci­ence fic­tion nar­ra­tive.

What she does offer, as the mag­nif­i­cent writer she is, is a deeply inti­mate, rich­ly nov­el­is­tic sense of a per­son liv­ing her life, and the peo­ple and events that sur­round her. For me, the rep­e­ti­tions and vari­a­tions through Ursula’s many lives had the effect of inten­si­fy­ing the sense of being inside this character’s skin, as well as that sense of read­er­ly poignan­cy when rec­og­niz­ing the return of a char­ac­ter or place, just slight­ly shift­ed.

When Ursu­la lives through sev­er­al hor­ri­fy­ing vari­ants of the Blitz, it becomes more pow­er­ful for me, not numb­ing­ly repet­i­tive. If a nov­el is a way of inti­mate­ly know­ing a per­son or a cul­tur­al point in time, then the refrac­tion of Ursula’s expe­ri­ences among her dif­fer­ent lives gives a height­ened, more-dimen­sion­al sense of her and her time—a kind of tur­bo-pow­ered lit­er­ary por­trait.

I won­dered at one point if this nov­el might crys­tal­lize a new genre: of alter­nate lives, as opposed to alter­nate his­to­ries like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Cas­tle. (Life After Life does ven­ture a lit­tle into alter­nate his­to­ry too.) If there are any more books like this, I’d like to know. On the oth­er hand, I can’t imag­ine any­one doing it with more breath­tak­ing inten­si­ty than Kate Atkin­son has here.


Talking with Diane Burko on art and climate change

Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015
Diane Burko: Eagle Glac­i­er, Juneau, 1982–2005, from Land­sat Series, oil on can­vas, 2015

My con­ver­sa­tion with cli­mate artist Diane Burko has just been post­ed on Cre­ative Dis­tur­bance, a pod­cast­ing plat­form for dia­logue among artists and sci­en­tists on sus­tain­abil­i­ty and envi­ron­men­tal issues. We’re hap­py to join oth­ers on their Art & Earth Sci­ences chan­nel, shin­ing dif­fer­ent lights on urgent issues relat­ing to cli­mate change—especially this week, as the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty gath­ers in Paris with the goal of reach­ing a uni­ver­sal agree­ment to slow glob­al warm­ing.

Here’s the link:


In the pod­cast, we talk about how Diane made the tran­si­tion from painter of large-scale land­scapes to an artist/advocate who has trav­eled to the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic, wit­ness­ing and doc­u­ment­ing the loss of glac­i­ers; and how she tries to con­vey the scale of cli­mate change through her paint­ings and pho­tographs, mak­ing her work a kind of bridge between sci­en­tists and the rest of us. In this paint­ing, for instance, she has over­laid a sky-view image of the Eagle Glac­i­er in Alas­ka with reces­sion lines, bright­ly mark­ing the retreat of the ice over 30-some years.

For more about Diane and her work:




An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Ele­gy for Tes­la, instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambi­tious Ele­gy for Tes­la is a high-tech, dream­like and heart­felt med­i­ta­tion on Niko­la Tes­la, the leg­endary sci­en­tist and inven­tor. Jaffe’s mul­ti­me­dia instal­la­tion fills the Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D print­ed mod­els of his icon­ic inven­tions, and ani­ma­tron­ic, motion-acti­vat­ed fig­ures of Tes­la that move and, in some cas­es speak.

Tes­la stands as an avatar of mas­sive cre­ativ­i­ty, with his hun­dreds of patents, and basic break­throughs in alter­nat­ing cur­rent, radio, robot­ics, and even com­put­er cir­cuit­ry. Jaffe pays homage to his achieve­ments, while embed­ding them in the medi­um of a life that had strange­ly myth­ic ele­ments. She’s par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to the poignan­cy of the old­er Tes­la, the eccen­tric lon­er who fed and cared for pigeons, whose lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion had run up against the lim­its of the public’s recep­tion of his work.

This aspect of Tes­la is part of what drew me to work with com­pos­er Jon Gib­son on Vio­let Fire, an opera that tried to cap­ture the inner life of Tes­la in all its strange­ness through music, move­ment and video. So I was delight­ed to be asked to write the cat­a­logue essay for this exhib­it. One part of the Tes­la mythos is the white pigeon he befriend­ed, and who trig­gered in him a vision of blind­ing light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds her­self, sur­rounds Tes­la with a flock of ten­der­ly mod­eled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as car­ri­ers of his ongo­ing inspi­ra­tion, and mark­ers of his intense, intu­itive con­nec­tion with the nat­ur­al world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Ele­gy for Tes­la, gallery view

But Tes­la, in the form of his motion-acti­vat­ed dop­pel­gangers, steals this show. Cura­tor Mary Sal­vante coor­di­nat­ed an NEA-fund­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion between Jaffe and stu­dents and fac­ul­ty in Rowan’s Engi­neer­ing Depart­ment to cre­ate the sys­tems that ani­mate her sculp­tures. They stand, and move, in a per­fect salute to Tes­la as “magi­cian” of wire­less elec­tric­i­ty.

I’ll be at the recep­tion on Thurs­day – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through Jan­u­ary 30.

Ele­gy for Tes­la, an instal­la­tion by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty Art Gallery/West, Glass­boro, NJ, through Jan­u­ary 30, 2016

Recep­tion Thurs­day, Octo­ber 8, 5–8 pm, start­ing with artist pre­sen­ta­tion and pan­el dis­cus­sion at 5 pm.


Phillips & Healy, sparkling

Phillips & Healy's 'Splendor in the Glass' at Wheaton
Car­olyn Healy & John Phillips, instal­la­tion in Ema­na­tions: Art + Process

Car­olyn Healy and John Phillips have done it again: they’ve cre­at­ed an art instal­la­tion piece that both trans­forms the space it’s housed in, and crys­tal­lizes some essence of the place.

This time they did it inside a one-room school­house on the grounds of WheatonArts in Mil­lville, New Jer­sey, a nation­al­ly known cen­ter for glass art. Their piece is part of Ema­na­tions: Art + Process, an ambi­tious exhib­it bring­ing in eleven invit­ed artists—some of them expe­ri­enced glass artists, and oth­ers, like Phillips and Healy, who would encounter Wheaton’s impres­sive glass­mak­ing stu­dio for the first time.

The inside of the school­house has become a kind of snow globe, doc­u­ment­ing the his­to­ry of glass­mak­ing at Wheaton, once the epi­cen­ter of the Amer­i­can glass indus­try. The open room is filled with glass objects that Healy unearthed from the back rooms and stor­age bins of WheatonArts, from big bell jars and old phar­ma­cy bot­tles to bear-shaped hon­ey bot­tles. Light-fil­ter­ing film on the win­dows, along with a few spot­lights, makes for a sin­gu­lar atmos­phere filled with odd sparkles and flash­es, and reflec­tions that seem to hov­er in midair. Sug­ges­tive videos on the wall and sound ele­ments by Phillips, seem­ing­ly explor­ing the inner qual­i­ties of glass, some­how com­plete the trans­for­ma­tion of the space into “a semi-trans­par­ent ves­sel itself, a cru­cible for con­tem­pla­tion,” as I wrote in the essay for a cat­a­log to accom­pa­ny the exhib­it.

Donald Lipski
Don­ald Lip­s­ki, Ema­na­tions: Art + Process
Judy Pfaff installation, Emanations: Art + Process
Judy Pfaff instal­la­tion, Ema­na­tions: Art + Process

Most of the Ema­na­tions exhib­it can be seen in the Muse­um of Amer­i­can Glass, and includes such stand­outs as Judy Pfaff’s exu­ber­ant and gaudy fan­ta­sia on a theme of chan­de­liers; Don­ald Lipski’s mis­chief-mak­ing inter­ven­tions into love­ly glass objects; Vir­gil Marti’s dizzy­ing faux-col­lec­tion of exquis­ite­ly hued vas­es; and the sur­re­al “barn­yard ani­mal” forms of Paula Hayes.

Dis­cov­er­ing this adven­tur­ous show at Wheaton, set in a shady pine grove on the sandy soil that made the glass indus­try pos­si­ble, is like find­ing the sparkling innards of a geode. If you go, don’t for­get to walk down the path to the lit­tle school­house with the extra­or­di­nary inte­ri­or, cour­tesy of Phillips and Healy.


EMANATIONS: ART + PROCESS     Artists include Mark Dion, Paula Hayes, Car­olyn Healy and John Phillips, Don­ald Lip­s­ki, Vir­gil Mar­ti, Michael Oat­man, Judy Pfaff, Joce­lyne Prince, Rob Wynn and Mark Zir­pel

Through Jan­u­ary 4, 2016 at WheatonArts, Mil­lville NJ             www.wheatonarts.org

Free admis­sion on Wheaton Wide Open Week­ends: Sep­tem­ber 11–13, Octo­ber 23–25, Novem­ber 6–8, and thru Jan­u­ary 2016


Leah Stein, Dance Alchemist

LSCD 2 crop Leah Stein, a mas­ter of site-spe­cif­ic chore­og­ra­phy, is known for cre­at­ing out­door dances that work a kind of alche­my on the places where they hap­pen. She pro­ceeds inclu­sive­ly, allow­ing her dancers, the audi­ence, the place itself, and ran­dom ele­ments includ­ing passers­by and even the weath­er, to come togeth­er into a new kind of com­mu­nal zone.

In TURBINE, the col­lab­o­ra­tive piece cre­at­ed with the Mendelssohn Club to mark the 200th anniver­sary of Philadelphia’s his­toric Fair­mount Water Work’s com­plex, we in the audi­ence fol­lowed the fif­teen dancers and sev­er­al dozen singers as they moved through the out­door site, and some­times sur­round­ed us. Immer­sion was a fit­ting strat­e­gy for this place, once an ear­ly-indus­tri­al mar­vel that sup­plied clean water to the city, and now an eeri­ly beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of open Greek-Revival struc­tures, cliffs, trees and lawn set between the Philadel­phia Muse­um and the Schuylkill Riv­er.

Begin­ning in a grove of trLSDC1 smees, the dancers and singers appeared with­out fan­fare among the audi­ence, offer­ing sim­ple arc­ing ges­tures and short, over­lap­ping musi­cal phras­es. We fol­lowed them as they moved across the grass, entered a river­side gaze­bo, and then made their way along a short pal­isade to a wide plaza. The dancers, in bright orange, and the singers in blue-green vests or scarves, seemed to be mak­ing a new map of the place while mov­ing across the sur­face it described.

Writ­ers includ­ing Charles Dick­ens and Mark Twain vis­it­ed the renowned Water Works in their time, and com­pos­er Byron Au Yong culled haiku-like frag­ments from their descrip­tions to cre­ate flex­i­ble son­ic mod­ules. Au Yong, who has made site-based work before, allowed the singers some lib­er­ty in the tim­ing of their own phras­es, which inter­wove, some­times fad­ing in the air, some­times res­onat­ing like depth charges. For the choir mem­bers of the Mendelssohn Club, who have worked with Stein before, the piece offered a unique­ly chal­leng­ing adven­ture, and we felt their brav­ery as they bal­anced walk­ing and expres­sive ges­tures with out­door singing. Mean­while, the dancers held the space like sentries—moving, or often still; offered rit­u­als of pour­ing water; and danced, all with nev­er-flag­ging con­cen­tra­tion.

Dancers and singers on the plaza
Dancers and singers on the plaza

As we attend­ed to what was hap­pen­ing, the site came to life around the per­form­ers. Stand­ing in the ear­ly evening light, I was struck by the uncom­mon grace­ful­ness of this place, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly felt it as it is right now: a place ringed by parked cars and traf­fic noise, part of a liv­ing city.

Expe­ri­enc­ing a work by Leah Stein, I’ve found, has after­ef­fects. Some good art does this—by desta­bi­liz­ing our per­cep­tion, it makes us see dif­fer­ent­ly. It may be part­ly the shock of dis­place­ment into an unex­pect­ed venue that inten­si­fies our atten­tion, push­ing us into the present moment (like com­ing on a flash-mob per­for­mance, which may be a new folk form of site-spe­cif­ic dance). But her out­door events, although large-scale, are anti-spec­ta­cles, induc­ing a sense of won­der through an almost hyp­not­ic sense of height­ened recep­tiv­i­ty. After the last min­gling of per­form­ers and audi­ence on the plaza, we left trans­formed, released into the sur­round­ings and sud­den­ly see­ing the col­ors of dusk as more sat­u­rat­ed, the sounds more crisp, and every move­ment as a sig­nal.


TURBINE was per­formed on June 28, 2015 at the Fair­mount Water Works. 

Leah Stein Dance Com­pa­ny

Mendelssohn Club of Philadel­phia


More women in opera?

Giulia Grisi as Norma, 1844
From an engrav­ing of Giu­lia Grisi as Nor­ma, 1844, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

With all the great women’s roles in opera, from Aida to Nor­ma to Tosca, bring­ing up the issue of increas­ing women’s role in opera could seem like beg­ging the ques­tion. Or like the set­up for a punch line—how many sopra­nos do you need to put on an opera? But at the recent Opera Amer­i­ca con­fer­ence, held ear­li­er this month in Wash­ing­ton D.C., a ses­sion on Women in Arts Lead­er­ship drew about 100 peo­ple, most of them women, for an ener­getic dis­cus­sion prompt­ed by ques­tions like: Why are there so few women lead­ing opera com­pa­nies? Why are most of the new operas pro­duced still writ­ten by men? If more women could make deci­sions, would the sub­jects of new operas change somehow—maybe fea­tur­ing more parts for women?

The all-women pan­el, includ­ing three opera com­pa­ny direc­tors, was eager to move past such ques­tions and start act­ing on solu­tions. One pan­elist sug­gest­ed a goal of reach­ing thir­ty per­cent par­tic­i­pa­tion in each cat­e­go­ry of opera pro­duc­tion, from direc­tors to com­posers, set design­ers and more—a lev­el that’s con­sid­ered a tip­ping point after which fur­ther changes can begin to take care of them­selves.

Opera Amer­i­ca has already begun one strate­gic ini­tia­tive: offer­ing com­mis­sion­ing grants to women com­posers, and to opera com­pa­nies will­ing to help pro­duce their work. I was there at the con­fer­ence with one of the sev­en recent grant win­ners, Kit­ty Brazel­ton, a fan­tas­tic com­pos­er and an old friend from col­lege. We’re work­ing togeth­er on a new opera project, and the grant she received will make pos­si­ble a work­shop per­for­mance this fall, in New York. We’ve both worked on opera projects before, with col­lab­o­ra­tors who hap­pened to be men—although the first music project Kit­ty and I worked on, play­ing in a four-piece folk-rock band she orga­nized in our fresh­man year, was also an all-women ven­ture.

Will our project, called Art of Mem­o­ry, be fla­vored dif­fer­ent­ly some­how because of our gen­der? Since the sub­ject is the strug­gles of two male saints—St. Augus­tine and St. Ambrose, who knew each oth­er in Milan in the 4th century—it wouldn’t seem to be nudg­ing any gen­der shift in sub­ject mat­ter. But Kit­ty is writ­ing both lead­ing parts to be sung by women. In fact, she plans to sing St. Ambrose her­self, con­trast­ing her rock-mez­zo vocals with more tra­di­tion­al opera vocal style. Very cool!

Women have tra­di­tion­al­ly played some male roles, called “trouser roles,” often when the male char­ac­ter is young. Our project’s cross-cast­ing is meant as a way to shake up the audience’s encrust­ed ideas about two long-revered saints. In my last opera project, Judg­ment of Midas, Kam­ran Ince rewrote the part of the god Pan for a sopra­no. Anoth­er com­pos­er, Melis­sa Dun­phy, used a sim­i­lar approach in her 2009 piece, The Gon­za­les Can­ta­ta, with music set to the tran­scribed tes­ti­mo­ny of for­mer Attor­ney Gen­er­al Alber­to Gon­za­les before the Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee. Dun­phy neat­ly flipped the cast­ing of the piece, so that the near­ly all-male par­tic­i­pants in the orig­i­nal hear­ings were all sung by sopra­nos; only Sen. Dianne Fein­stein was sung by a man. In this case, the num­ber of sopra­nos need­ed to put on an ora­to­rio, at least, was four­teen.

Change is hap­pen­ing in opera, and we don’t know where it will lead. It’s excit­ing to be part of that.




Upholding Isis

Relief carving of Isis with horned moon headdress
Relief carv­ing of Isis with horned moon head­dress

Dur­ing a hia­tus from feline com­pan­ion­ship last year, I day­dreamed about nam­ing our next cat Isis—after the god­dess Isis so cen­tral to the reli­gion of ancient Egypt, which is also known for its rev­er­ence for cats. Then came the news reports from Iraq and Syr­ia about the hor­ri­fy­ing actions of a ter­ror­ist mili­tia call­ing itself by the acronym ISIS—or ISIL, or IS; but the first name seemed to stick. I silent­ly shelved my thought, but couldn’t come up with a bet­ter name.

Ancient Egypt has fas­ci­nat­ed me almost my whole life, and Isis makes an appear­ance in the nov­el I’m work­ing on, which takes place part­ly in ancient Alexan­dria. Isis was wor­shiped in ancient Egypt as a kind of world-moth­er. The hiero­glyph of her name includes the image of a throne, and it was believed that Isis was the source or “seat” of the Pharaoh’s pow­er. Here’s a won­der­ful dis­cus­sion of the mean­ing of her name. As the sis­ter of Osiris and moth­er of Horus, Isis played the lead in the pri­mal dra­ma of Osiris’ death and res­ur­rec­tion. Her grief for her dead broth­er Osiris made her an emblem of deep feel­ing for oth­ers’ suf­fer­ing, as her wor­ship spread through the late Clas­si­cal world.

Last sum­mer, my hus­band Steve told me about a kit­ten he’d noticed at our local cat res­cue: a beau­ti­ful, self-pos­sessed lit­tle black cat, who might have some Siamese in her. And, he men­tioned, her name was Isis. The woman who fos­tered her after she was found had giv­en her the name. I knew we had found our next cat.

Our Isis in Sphinx pose
Our Isis in Sphinx pose

So Isis entered our lives with her name already bestowed. She wears it well: when she sits at atten­tion, she’s the regal image of the Egypt­ian cat rep­re­sent­ed in stat­ues, reliefs and paint­ings. Telling peo­ple her name leads to a vari­ety of respons­es, often reflect­ing dis­com­fort with the ter­ror­ist-mili­tia asso­ci­a­tion. I may answer with some­thing like, “We’re try­ing to uphold the good feel­ings around her name.” The truth is, it pains me to think of the God­dess being over­shad­owed by a group that rep­re­sents the most heinous actions of which humans are capa­ble. Google doesn’t dis­tin­guish very well between the acronym and the ancient God­dess, and I’m afraid humans can get mixed up too.

On the oth­er hand, I keep think­ing that those who cov­er the news may have set­tled on the ISIS acronym out of the var­i­ous choic­es, part­ly because of its lin­ger­ing mytho­log­i­cal res­o­nance. We need our myths and ancient sto­ries, as a store­house of sym­bols to help us move for­ward. Maybe it’s a good thing that when peo­ple hear the next shock­ing news from that ter­ror­ist group, they feel the breath of Isis remind­ing them of some­thing else.



Remembering Sun Ra

Limited-edition press of a Sun Ra remix by Brendan Lynch/deUS
Lim­it­ed-edi­tion press of a Sun Ra remix by Bren­dan Lynch/deUS

Space is the Place—the wild space-fan­ta­sy film star­ring Sun Ra, the leg­endary exper­i­men­tal jazz artist—came out in 1974. It fol­lows Sun Ra and his Arkestra as they trav­el to anoth­er plan­et, where they hope to cre­ate an off-earth home for African Amer­i­cans. Back on Earth, they do bat­tle with a pimp-over­lord over the fate of their mis­sion, and play some fan­tas­tic music.

This Fri­day, Bower­bird will screen a new­ly restored, dig­i­tal ver­sion of this one-of-a-kind film at the Rotun­da in Philadel­phia. The event cel­e­brates (just a lit­tle late) the movie’s 40th anniver­sary, and the cen­te­nary of Sun Ra’s “arrival,” as he called it, in 1914 in Alaba­ma, as Her­man Poole Blount. He set­tled in Philadel­phia for the final chap­ter of a long and pro­lif­ic career, “leav­ing” in 1993.

I saw Sun Ra and his Arkestra in the ear­ly 1970s, a lit­tle before Space is the Place pre­miered. I was a col­lege fresh­man, and I’d nev­er heard of him. A friend who was a musi­cian took me to a lit­tle club in West Philadel­phia that looked like a bar on the outside—maybe it was a bar. Crowd­ed in at small tables, we sat just feet away from a pha­lanx of psy­che­del­ic Pharaohs: the mem­bers of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, dressed in shiny, many-col­ored robes, and head­gear that includ­ed some tin­foil. They pro­ceed­ed to blast me out of any thought I’d ever had about music and what it could be, build­ing to a wail­ing, clang­ing, pound­ing wall of sound, even while the musi­cians seemed to know exact­ly what they were doing. That night the Arkestra played their guts out, mak­ing sounds that seemed devised to lift the club into earth orbit. Sun Ra may have intend­ed to give black peo­ple a sense of tran­scen­dence and galac­tic-lev­el free­dom, but he also made room for some­one like me, a white teenaged girl who’d stud­ied clas­si­cal music, to sense the far hori­zons he was aim­ing toward.

That night became a touch­stone for me. Sun Ra’s join­ing of cos­tumed spec­ta­cle and no-holds-barred play­ing made a kind of alche­my hap­pen, and over the years I mea­sured oth­er exper­i­men­tal music and per­for­mance against it. No ques­tion, Sun Ra achieved seri­ous regard in the jazz world, even as he influ­enced many oth­er musi­cians, from George Clin­ton to Deep Pur­ple to Phish. He may not have man­aged to trans­port his peo­ple to anoth­er plan­et, but he made music that sug­gest­ed it was pos­si­ble.

Space is the Place, screen­ing as part of Bowerbird’s GATE @ The Rotun­da

Fri­day Jan­u­ary 16, 8 pm / 4014 Wal­nut Street, Philadel­phia, PA

Intro­duc­tion by Sun Ra biog­ra­ph­er John Szwed / Free / more info at bowerbird.org


Looking at the Northern Lights

Aurora BorealisThe Auro­ra Borealis—that mys­te­ri­ous shim­mer of light appear­ing some­times in the night sky—is a great thing to con­tem­plate now dur­ing Hanukkah, our Fes­ti­val of Lights, and so close to the Win­ter Sol­stice. You can’t even plan to see the Auro­ra, this huge, oth­er­world­ly phe­nom­e­non, one of the strangest of light events on earth. You just have to show up where it might be seen and hope one will reveal itself.

What is the Auro­ra Bore­alis, any­way? It was named for Auro­ra, the Roman god­dess of dawn, and for Bore­as, the north wind, in the 17th cen­tu­ry, and often just called the North­ern Lights.

Before sci­en­tists teased out the secrets of the North­ern Lights, the Kwak­i­utl and Tlin­git peo­ple of Alas­ka inter­pret­ed them as the danc­ing of human spir­its. The Inu­it peo­ple of Labrador iden­ti­fied them as the torch­es held by spir­its from the true heav­ens beyond the sky, meant to lead new­ly arrived spir­its on the right path­way. The Algo­nquin Indi­ans said that they were the reflec­tion of fires built by the Cre­ator, who retired to the north after he fin­ished his work, kept burn­ing to remind the peo­ple that he still thinks of them.

The sto­ry told by sci­en­tists is just as incred­i­ble. Our sun throws off con­stant small storms of plasma—masses of elec­tri­fied gas eject­ed out from its sur­face. These fly out in all direc­tions on the solar wind. When they get near enough to the earth, they slide across our magnetosphere—the giant elec­tro­mag­net­ic body that sur­rounds us, basi­cal­ly shield­ing us from get­ting too much radi­a­tion from the sun and the cos­mos.

Earth's magnetosphere absorbing solar plasma
Earth’s mag­ne­tos­phere absorb­ing solar plas­ma, still from ani­ma­tion at http://wimp.com/borealisaurora/

Some of the plas­ma is pulled in and sucked toward the north and south poles, where it inter­acts with ele­ments in the stratos­phere. Here’s a great ani­ma­tion show­ing this process.

This inter­ac­tion of par­ti­cles of sun and earth cre­ates the Auro­ra Bore­alis, as well as the Auro­ra Aus­tralis in the south­ern hemi­sphere. A green light show, the most com­mon, means that oxy­gen par­ti­cles have been more excit­ed by the flux of free elec­trons and pos­i­tive ions, at an alti­tude of up to 150 miles. The rarely appear­ing red Auro­ra means it’s hap­pen­ing even high­er than that. Blue or vio­let light shows reveal the involve­ment of nitro­gen par­ti­cles at a low­er alti­tude. Some­times the Auro­ra appears as undu­lat­ing cur­tains, some­times as swirling lines, or mere­ly a soft allover glow. We now have numer­ous images, and even videos tak­en from space, show­ing how globe-span­ning a sin­gle event can be.

Aurora seen from space
Auro­ra seen from space, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Have you seen the north­ern lights? I haven’t, but I hope I’ll be lucky enough to see them with my own eyes some­day. It will be a chance for an up-close encounter with an off-world astro­phys­i­cal effect, with­out the need for fil­ters or lenses—a direct expe­ri­ence of the vast elec­tro­mag­net­ic envi­ron­ment around us as it briefly drops into the vis­i­ble realm, to become a stun­ning spec­ta­cle of light in the dark­ness.








Burchfield and synesthesia

Burchfield's "Midsummer Caprice" (detail), 1945
Burchfield’s Mid­sum­mer Caprice (detail), 1945, Burch­field Pen­ney Art Cen­ter

In the paint­ings of Charles Burch­field, the trees vibrate, the air puls­es with rhyth­mic pat­terns, and bird­song takes on shape and col­or. Every­thing is alive, even a dead branch, even a house. At the major exhib­it of Burchfield’s work at the Brandy­wine Riv­er Muse­um, up through Novem­ber 16, you can see the ear­ly and lat­er paint­ings in which he worked full-out to trans­late his vision­ary expe­ri­ence of the nat­ur­al world.

Burch­field lived from 1893–1967, in Ohio and upstate New York, away from the cen­ters of art-world activ­i­ty. But he kept up with the cur­rents of mod­ern art. It’s pos­si­ble that learn­ing about the dar­ing art of the 1913 Armory Show helped him make his own break­through work in 1915, when he first began to make con­nec­tions between his own intense respons­es to nature and music, and his paint­ed land­scapes. In the 1930s he became known for some­times brood­ing por­tray­als of small towns and indus­tri­al scenes. Then, in the midst of World War II, he returned to his ear­li­er desire to con­vey the strange alive­ness of nature.

Burchfield's "Early Spring," 1966-67
Burchfield’s Ear­ly Spring, 1966–67, Burch­field Pen­ney Art Cen­ter

Birds trans­form­ing into air cur­rents, the sound of cicadas appear­ing like jagged leaves around a tree—was there some hal­lu­cino­genic stim­u­la­tion involved here? Very unlike­ly. Nan­cy Week­ly, who co-curat­ed the Brandy­wine exhib­it, has high­light­ed the idea that Burch­field had synes­the­sia—the abil­i­ty to expe­ri­ence trans-sen­so­ry per­cep­tions, such as sound as col­or or vice ver­sa. It may be that I love his work so much because I have synes­the­sia too—along with many oth­ers in my fam­i­ly, from my father, my sis­ter and broth­er through nieces and nephews. We have the most com­mon type, see­ing num­bers and let­ters as spe­cif­ic col­ors. Although it’s rel­a­tive­ly rare, at least one study has shown that synes­the­sia is more com­mon among visu­al artists, and I sus­pect that may be true of poets, musi­cians and com­posers too.

Synes­the­sia runs strong­ly through ear­ly mod­ern art: Kandin­sky wrote about try­ing to achieve col­or-sound con­so­nances through paint­ing, and it can be seen as a moti­va­tor toward abstrac­tion in his work and oth­ers, includ­ing artists of the Blue Rid­er school. Burch­field was aware of all this, yet he didn’t fol­low the path of pure abstrac­tion. For him, those sen­so­ry cor­re­spon­dences were inex­tri­ca­bly linked to the bloom­ing, buzzing pro­fu­sion of the nat­ur­al world. He per­sist­ed in mak­ing pic­tures show­ing how, for him, every­thing around us vibrates along many inter­con­nect­ed spectrums—sound, col­or, ener­gy.

Does any of this strike a chord? If so, what col­or is it?


Charles Burch­field: Exalt­ed Nature

Brandy­wine Riv­er Muse­um, Chadds Ford, PA — through Novem­ber 16