Monday, September 25, 2017

My Portrait of Pianist Ivan Ilić

I had promised my friend, Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilić, to do a portrait of him. Months became years. I was working on it -- I wanted it to be just right. I tried many versions, and nothing seemed good enough.

I chatted about it with Ivan around the time he was recording the piano music of Morton Feldman. While listening to those incredible sounds I was infused with a sense of the spare, chaste, penetrating and profound quality of Feldman's vision as interpreted by Ivan. I realized I had to take the same approach in this portrait, to strip away all the busyness, and just let Ivan's personality emerge. Easy, right? Not so much, but now I was on the right path.

He said he liked it. (Phew!)

Ivan's new CD is Reicha Rediscovered, from Chandos.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Riots, and Booing as a Permissible Response

Guest Blogger: Adam Stern, Conductor of the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 3 / Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Benaroya Hall, Seattle on June 3, 2017 at 2pm

Igor Stravinsky would have been thirty or thirty-one from the time that he conceived The Rite of Spring to the time he finished writing it.  It was the third of three ballets that he wrote for the Ballet Russe company under the artistic direction of Sergei Diaghilev. The first was The Firebird, which catapulted him from obscurity to instant fame, and this was followed by the very successful Petrouchka, which was in turn followed by The Rite of Spring, which caused the most famous opening night riot of any piece in classical music history.

The piece broke what people considered all of the extant rules--especially of what rhythm was, and of what a symphony orchestra could do. As some people observed, The Rite of Spring sometimes turns the entire orchestra into a vast percussion instrument. There's this one measure that the orchestra loves to play, where virtually everybody is just repeating the same note eleven times, but it's this massive discord: Wham, wham, wham, wham, wham! It's like the whole orchestra's a big drum, and it's tremendous fun!

But this constant rhythmic asymmetry, and what were perceived as these yawping dissonances, and the unique ways that he deployed the orchestra, coupled of course with the fact that the choreography was considered quite revolutionary--apparently, within a few minutes there were hisses and boos and laughter and catcalls, and it just continued to erupt. There were people in the audience who genuinely liked it. Maurice Ravel was there, trying to get people around him to shut the heck up because he really wanted to listen. He thought Stravinsky was a genius. So there certainly were points of view on both sides.

Stravinsky was enraged, of course, by the riot that accompanied The Rite of Spring. He said, "This was my musical child. I loved it. It had come so naturally to me. I didn't understand why everybody else didn't get it." He just got up out of his seat and said, "Go to hell!" to all the people around him, and stomped out of the the theatre.

I don't know that that kind of reaction is necessarily going to happen very often anymore, if at all. The whole face of classical music has changed. And now, if you'll forgive me for ascending my soapbox: over the last several decades, with the withdrawal of so many music programs from schools--I don't want to say that we've become an unmusical culture, but music does not come as naturally to us as it used to. And I may be be making a blanket statement here, but I think that today a lot of audiences for symphony concerts have this mindset of: Well, if the orchestra is playing it, it's got to be good, so if I don't like or get it, it's my fault.

When Gerard Schwarz was conductor of the Seattle Symphony, I went to every concert that he did. He did a very healthy amount of new music, of world and local premieres. And in all those years, I can remember only one concert where the piece got booed. One! Now, I don't think people should disrupt performances. I don't think it's proper to interrupt the concentration of those who might be enjoying it. But to not applaud or to boo, I think if you're not ostentatious about it, is a perfectly admissible reaction!

I myself once ferociously booed a concert in Los Angeles. The woman I was with, who had never seen that side of me before, was incredibly embarrassed! I shouldn't name names, but it was the Los Angeles Philharmonic under a very famous guest conductor whose work I didn't know, so I went in hoping that I would love it, expecting to love it. He ended the concert with one of my favorite pieces in the literature, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, a piece I've known since I was a child. I know it fairly intimately; I know all of its ins and outs. This is one of those conductors--he's still with us--who essentially said, I don't care if Rachmaninov said, stay in tempo. I want to slow down here! I want to lean on this note! This performance is about me, and how I feel about the piece! And he just took that piece and stretched it, and mauled it, and did all sorts of what I thought were incredibly offensive things in the putative name of expression. I held on until the last bar, and then I let forth this "BOO!" My poor date said she wanted to move several rows away!

After I'd calmed down a little bit she said, "Look, I'm a novice. What was it that got you so upset? Because it sounded fine to me." I said, "Okay. Imagine, if you will, that Shakespeare is sacred to you. That every word he wrote is like a religion to you. It is understood that when an actor undertakes a part, of course he or she is going to bring to it their sensibility, their rhythm, their natural conception of speech based on how they interpret these lines. The director of course will have his or her input. But it's assumed that one person may go:

To be, or not to be. That is the question...

Or another may be more tense:

To be or not to be, that is the question!

Or another may be more languid:

To be...or not to the question.

But these are all legitimate takes on these words. So I said to this woman, "Now imagine that you've come to a performance of this play that you love, and somebody goes:


That is what he just did to that piece."

And she said, "Okay, now I understand."

Regarding Stravinsky's initial efforts as a composer--and I felt a little guilty because I don't like dissing my hero--but when I wrote the program notes for this concert, I mentioned his Opus 1, the Symphony in E-flat Major.  I've played it for people who were very musically knowledgeable who were shocked to discover that it was Stravinsky! It sounds like Glazunov on a particularly boring day. It's this very dutiful, four-movement Russian romantic symphony that goes through all the right motions, and really doesn't do very much. I mean it's pretty. it's listenable. It wouldn't offend anybody.  But it's certainly not the striking Stravinsky that we know from when he hit his stride in The Firebird.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Guest blogger: Santí Duran

I met the artist Santiago Durán a few years ago, when I saw his work at the European cartoon art site, Toonpool.

Santí Durán, Artist

Reading comics and drawing them happened at the same time for me, ever since I can remember. I was an only child and had to distract myself with something. We had no TV, it was very expensive at that time. So I read all the comics I could get, buying them or borrowing them from friends.

When I was little I loved Disney, like everyone else, especially Donald Duck. I also read Western stories, humor and superheroes. Everything I devoured. I copied them in pencil, and then inked them with a toothpick dipped in ink!
When I was seven my family and I moved to France, where I discovered the wonderful world of Franco-Belgian comics and the authors who influenced me a lot: Tintin by Hergé, Spirou by Franklin, Asterix by Uderzo, Valerian by Mezieres, Blueberry by Giraud, and others. Five years later in the summer of 1968, when I was twelve, we returned to the village where our home was. The Catalans are very sentimental about the land.

My parents, like all parents, wanted me to be a lawyer, a nuclear physicist, or an interior minister, anything but an artist. As I had no enthusiasm for my studies and was a unique and spoiled son, I enrolled in a famous art school.
I had to learn about art history, art theory, perspective in art, deconstructing Picasso and his art, making art with mud, etc.  And comic art? The school principal asked me. What the hell was that? -- more or less affectionately. Fortunately a galactic conjunction would occur in my life, and I did not finish the studies of still lifes.

My parents opened a wine business in the village, and next to it there was a Cheers-type bar whose owner came to buy from our store. My father told him I wanted to be cartoonist. He said his son also drew, and he introduced me to him. So I met Gerardo Llobet, and as were the same age, we became friends right away.

Gerardo told me that some of the best cartoonists in Spain frequented his bar. By a strange coincidence they had come to our village and started a study group where they worked together, and they accepted him as an apprentice. One day he introduced me to them, and I showed them one of my drawings. They were very friendly and sociable and quickly accepted me. For a sixteen-year old boy, that was a revelation. Seeing famous artists at work was priceless. I would have paid for that, if I'd had the money.

After the Summer of Love in California and the revolution of May 1968 in France, it looked like the world was changing. In Spain we were at the end of the Franco dictatorship. Young people wanted to eat the world -- or at least a steak with mashed potatoes. And that was the atmosphere in that artists’ study group, and also in the village.

It was a school of comics, and a school of life – the Beatles, poker, girls, Cuba Libre cocktails, ping pong, Vivaldi, politics, football, sex, pop music, too much tobacco, cinema, classical music, pulp fiction, 2001: A Space Odyssey, humor, and good vibes. Ah! We also drew a little bit...

I decided to copy a lot, especially the American comic strip classics by authors such as Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Joe Kubert, etc. We also had great artists in Spain, and I copied Victor de la Fuente and the girls of Pepe Gonzalez, the best Vampirella comic cartoonist. I also copied the works of French artist Jean Giraud, later called Moebius, whose drawings became known worldwide, influencing Japanese Manga and the style of American superheroes. His fame translsated to cinema, and influenced science fiction movies such as the classics Blade Runner, Alien, and others. Anyway, I and the other artists I knew were all huge fans of the geniuses of drawing.

The artists, writers, musicians, and others with bad reputations who influenced me -- the artists who lived in the village, as well as all the artists and friends who came to visit -- are very important to me. Carlos Gimenez, Adolfo Usero, Luis Garcia Mozos, Alfonso Font, the scenarist Manolo Medina, the writers Victor Mora and his wife Harmonia Rodriguez, and the best graphic humorist of Catalonia, El Perich. Also El Cubri, Canovas, Tunet Vila, Miquel Fuster, Joaquin Blazquez, Pepe Gonzalez, Ventura and Nieto, Rafael Losada, Ignacio Calvet, Enrique Ibañez, and many more...It would take a book to write the whole story of these people and what I learned from them. Special mention goes to the artist Fulgencio Cabrerizo, a great professional who for many years was my main mentor. He counseled me and was very patient with me.

At that time it was normal to experiment with new techniques to stain the drawings. We did scrapings with razor blades, and used sponges, charcoal, fingerprints, sand, and gray color washes like the old masters of classical painting. I greatly admired Luis García Mozos, who specialized in discovering new techniques. We all were influenced by the Italians: Hugo Pratt, Dino Battaglia, and Toppi, and by the great Argentine genius Alberto Breccia.

I admired artists who worked in color, including the Americans artists Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta, and Richard Corben, as well as the French Impressionists, and the great Spanish classical artist, Velazquez.

I never devoted myself to painting or to drawing portraits professionally. They were only ways of learning new techniques, and having fun in parallel to doing the comics.

I’ve worked with Gerardo Llobet many times. Usually he writes the stories, and I draw his ideas. As he is a great artist, too, his scripts were more like storyboards than texts. We created jokes and black-humor cartoons for the magazine El Papus, and cartoons in a sexy mood for the magazines El Cuervo, Harakiri, El Jueves and others. We also did drawings and paintings for Spanish television contests and advertisements. Gerardo is a total artist and with a great sense of humor.

I admire artists who have a good pulse. They can make a straight streak or perfect curve. I’m thinking of those who create ink drawings for Disney, outlining the cartoons. I was in an animation studio, and I lasted one week.  There are artists who draw directly into the computer with a stylus on a tablet. When I was in a digital art studio, I lasted one day. I also admire people who spend hours painting in front of a screen. What strong necks they must have, like a giraffe! I'm more nervous, more explosive when drawing and painting. I need to circle around the table. I like moving and splashing around when I draw, like Pollock!

Sometimes people have proposed that I have a one-man show in an art gallery in a village, or in a bookstore. But I do not consider my work important. I do not even consider myself an artist. At most, I’m a comic artisan. People with great talent are few, as in all the arts.

In addition I have almost no original material left. When I worked for them, the publishing houses kept the artists’ work, and the artists had no rights.

This is what I would tell an artist hoping to work in comics: First, study nuclear physics -- and at night, go to a school of comic art. Fortunately, now they exist.
Don’t stop drawing. Copy your favorite artists, and ask the advice of any professional who can help you. If you are young and adventurous and want to make a living, emigrate to the United States or Japan, where the world’s true comic markets are.

And if you’re shy and don’t want to leave the house, like most comic artists, buy some instruction books like the ones by American artist Andrew Loomis, and start learning about anatomy, figure drawing, color, etc. His books are classics, but very clear and didactic. They helped me a lot in the beginning.

It’s also important to expose yourself to culture as much as possible: read a lot, see classic movies, go to museums, listen to good music -- not the just the mainstream. Live life, and have experiences! Because you’ll be limited if you know how to draw, but you don’t have anything to say.

And above all: follow your instincts, and do what you want!


1 - My  village.

2 - Carnaval in the village.

3 - A page from one of the comic books I drew.

4 - The Wake, a collaboration with Gerardo Llobet.

5 -  Homage to my favorite guitar hero, done when I was 18 years old. Pen nib, footprints, blade stripes ...I experimented with black ink techniques as I listened to Jimi Hendrix' experiences with his guitar.

6 - A page from one of my comics.

7 - Cupido, a fun little angel who always got into trouble trying to hook people up.A project which failed, like so many, for lack of good managers.

8 - A collaboration with Gerardo Llobet.

- Vignette of one of the cartoons I drew for the German comics magazine Gespenster, specializing in Gothic horror for young people.

10 - Mobsters, a thickly atmospheric watercolor illustration with fun characters, done for my own pleasure.

11 -The Last Trip, a black-mood cartoon drawn by me and scripted by Gerardo Llobet for the famous magainze Papus. His critiques of the meaning of death and the absurdities of fashion, dessert, and space pollution, were very successful.

Santí's entry in the Lambiek Comiclopedia:

Gerardo's entry in the Lambiek Comiclopedia: