Feldman, Rothko, Miró, Mompou, void, silence, the spiritual

I “discovered” Morton Feldman when reading Alex Ross book “The rest is noise” about the music in the last century. I listened, fascinated, the sounds suspended in time of Triadic Memories or Palais de Mari. It is a music of stillness, a music that doesn’t want to reach a destination; in the sense that usually, musical phrases, by melody, rhythm, harmonic progression, seem to move from one place to another. This strange music, full of silences, barely moves, it seems like it is synchronized with our inspirations and expirations, accompanying a meditation.

Quoting Ross:  “In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. 

In 1971 Morton Feldman wrote “Rothko Chapel”, basically a dialog between a viol and a choir with some percussion, dedicated to his friend, Marc Rothko, who committed suicide a year before, when still working on the murals for this project, a meditation space, a commission by John and Dominique de Menil, open to all religions without adhering to one in particular. I haven’t seen before those fourteen big murals almost monochrome that took six years of work, applying patiently stroke after stroke in order to create “an impenetrable color fortress”. In the opening, Dominique de Menil said that “We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine”.

When looking at the pictures, I was reminded instantly of Joan Miró’s  triptych “Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse” (in the sense of solitary), one of my favorite works and the main reason to keep returning to Fundació Miró. If I am lucky and there is no one else around I can seat in front of the three big canvasses and it is like being in a cell, meditating.

Rothko Chapel, Miro’s space, both have a particular quality that I would dare to call secular spirituality –it’s not the same as atheist-, unbound to any concrete religious aesthetics.  We may wonder whether  this quality is related to the experience of vastness and void, a big space or surface without anything, but with something that makes it different from nothingness. In Rothko’s case it is layers of monochrome color; in Miró’s triptych, the line walking the canvas (In the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid there is a beautiful similar work, “Pájaro en el espacio” -bird in the sky- and whenever I see swallows crossing the sky, I think of them as sketching lines).

The void in music would be the silence. Music that allows space between notes. If it’s a piano, it’s an opportunity to listen to the vibration of the string in the air, after the stroke, if the pedal makes stops the felt from interrupting the resonance. Other than Feldman, a musician that allows to listen to strings vibrating is the catalan composer Frederic Mompou, perhaps because he remembered the sound of bells manufactured  in his family foundry. It’s remarkable that one of his best known works has the title “Música callada” – Silent music. Lionel Salter described Mompou’s music as “the voice of silence … like Saint John of the Cross”. Again, the spiritual and the meditation.

In terms of picture shots, our common perspective would be, probably because of practical reasons, a medium shot. Void and silence allow to extend this in two directions. On one side we can look farther, up to the horizon, a vast extension of space and silence; and at the same time, it brings us to the detail of a close up shot, a simple stroke, a texture, a note or a chord, something that would be missed if mixed in an excess of information of forms and sounds. It is perhaps this kind of perspective that attracts mystics to the desert or solitary mountains?

We may wonder why this void, surfaces without forms in space, silence in music, can be a trait of the spiritual. May be it is because it creates a space where a different experience can take place? For some, it will be the presence or hint of the transcendent.  When setting aside the sounds, the noise, objects, forms that fill our field of experience, there is room for a kind of presence that until now could not be perceived. For others, instead of the transcendent, it will be to locate what we know in a vast nothingness, the experience of the ephemeral in an infinite void (a void glossed by Nabokov and Bellow in two enthralling texts).

If void in space, or silence in music, ease a profounder experience, then, what would be the equivalent regarding human activity? Perhaps to stop and remain immobile doing nothing? Would this be meditation? And the equivalent of elaborating color masses in Rothko, or Miró’s simple lines, could be the work in order to attend the right posture in zazen?

Body identity, biological outsourcing

Our body renovates itself constantly; hence our body identity would not be based on matter, on the actual molecules and cells that constitute it in a particular moment, but on the structure or form that stays, a structure that would be coded in the DNAwe inherited from our parents.But this is not exact! It happens that our body consists of 1014 cells, but just a tenth of them, 1013, are human, coded with our DNA while the rest, 9·1013, are microbes, mostly bacteria in the gut that play a role in digestion. They can be found in the nose, ears, anus, everywhere on the skin, particularly armpits and groin.

Among other things, they produce some vitamins such as thiamine, pyridoxine and vitamin K. They digest “complex plant polysaccharides, the fiber found in grains, fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be indigestible (Read article in nytimes)  Scientists from Stanford University have attempted a census of the gut microflora. They have identified 395 species of bacteria. Now they are working in sequencing the genes of the human gut microflora, and until now, 78·106 have been listed. But estimates point that “the vast majority of the genes that a person carries around are more microbial than human. Humans are superorganisms, whose metabolism has both microbial and human attributes.”

It’s extraordinary, “we” is not just “us”, our cells, in order to survive we need a foreign community to perform certain tasks. This is biological outsourcing. And this community outnumbers us in a proportion of 9:1.

Biological outsourcing happens also at the most basic level of biology, according to the endosymbiotic theory. Mitochondria, the organelle that charge “the batteries” that power processes in eucaryotic cells (that is, protozoa excepted, all cells in animals and plants), would be bacteria that in a certain moment across evolution were incorporated into cell space and logic.

Regeneration, body identity

In the last post I commented the feeling of our body being serviced, repaired, its damaged parts substituted, after an intense work out. I knew about the capacity of regeneration when I drilled accidentally my finger with a power tool. Every week I could see how the hole was moving upwards while filling up.

How is our body regenerated? Are we like an group of marble buildings, immutable, that only change when some tile is damaged and has to be replaced? Actually your body is younger than you think (Your Body is Younger Than You Think, New York Times, 02/08/2005), the average age for the cells of an adult being around 10 years. Research reveals different renovation rates depending on the function and the organ.

Cells from gut surface are renewed every 5 days, those from the skin, every 15 days. It’s like the walls of city buildings being repainted every two weeks.“The red blood cells, bruised and battered after traveling nearly 1,000 miles through the maze of the body’s circulatory system, last only 120 days or so on average before being dispatched to their graveyard in the spleen”. It’s like renovating the city car fleet.

“As for the liver, the detoxifier of all the natural plant poisons and drugs that pass a person’s lips, its life on the chemical-warfare front is quite short”, around 400 days.

“Even the bones endure nonstop makeover. The entire human skeleton is thought to be replaced every 10 years or so in adults.” Other tissues like muscles last 10-15 years.

The neurons of the cerebral cortex, the eye lens and perhaps the heart are the only cells that seems to last a lifetime.

So, instead of a complex of monumental stone buildings, immutable, we are rather more like a camping or a market, where each place is occupied temporarily by someone until it parts and is replaced by another one.What are we? Which kind of body identity do we have? We are an ephemeral aggregate, a set of molecules assembled temporarily in a structure, united and dissolved like water drops in clouds.

We are not a thing but a process, “surfing over matter like a strange slow wave” in the beautiful expression of Lynn Margulis.

My one turn to live



My feeling was that you couldn’t be known thoroughly unless you found a way to communicate certain “incommunicables”-your private metaphysics. My way of approaching this was that before you were born you had never seen the life of this world. To grasp this mystery, the world, was the occult challenge. You came into a fully developed and articulated reality from nowhere, from nonbeing or primal oblivion. You had never seen life before. In the interval of light be tween the darkness in which you awaited first birth and then the darkness of death that would receive you, you must make what you could of reality, which was in a state of highly advanced develop ment. I had waited for millennia to see this. Then when I had learned to walk-in the kitchen-I was sent down into the street to inspect it more closely. One of my first impressions was of the huge utility-pole timbers that lined the street. They were beaver-colored, soft and rotted. On their crosspieces or multiple arms they carried many wires or cables in an endless falling relay, soaring, falling again and soaring. On the fixed sag and flow of the cables the spar rows sat, flew off, came back to rest. Along the sidewalks, the faded bricks revealed their original red at sunset. You rarely saw an auto mobile in those days. What you saw were hansom cabs, ice wagons, beer drays, and the huge horses that pulled them. I knew people by their faces-red, white, wrinkled, spotted, or smooth; smiling or violent or furious-their eyes, mouths, noses, voices, feet, and gestures. How they bent down to amuse or question or tease or af fectionately torment a small boy.

God appeared very early to me. His hair was parted down the middle. I understood that we were related because he had made Adam in his own image, breathed life into him. My eldest brother also combed his hair in the same style. Between the senior brother and me there was another brother. Senior to all of us was our sister. Anyway … this was the world. I had never seen it before. Its first gift was the gift of itself. Objects gathered you to themselves and held you by a magnetic imperative that was simply there. It was a privilege to be permitted to see-to see, touch, hear. This would not have been impossible to describe to Ravelstein. But he would have answered dismissively that Rousseau had already covered the same turf in his Confessions or his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. I didn’t feel like having these first epistemological impressions anticipated or dismissed. For seventy-odd years I had seen reality under these same signs. I had the feeling, too, that I had to wait for thousands of years to see, hear, smell, and touch these mysterious phenomena- totake my turn in life before disappearing again when my time was up. I might have said to Ravelstein, “It was my one turn to live.” But he was too close to death to be spoken to in such terms and I had to surrender my wish to make myself fully known to him by describ ing my intimate metaphysics. Only a small number of special souls have ever found a way to receive such revelations.


A crack of light between two eternities of darkness

Vladimir NABOKOV

Speak, Memory

The craddle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged-the same house, the same people-and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, an croaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

Such fancies are not foreign to young lives. Or, to put it otherwise, first and last things often tend to have an adolescent note-unless, possibly, they are directed by some venerable and rigid religion. Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.

I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature. Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought-with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. Short of suicide, I have tried everything. I have doffed my identity in order to pass for a conventional spook and steal into realms that existed before I was conceived. I have mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists and retired colonels who remembered having, in former lives, been slave; messengers on a Roman road or sages under the willows of, Lhasa. I have ransacked my oldest dreams for keys and clues; and let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works) and its bitter, little embryos spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents.