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Femme Endormie by Henri Matisse

This picture is elegant.  Below, you will read my not so elegant viewpoint on the relationship of this painting, Einstein's equations, interstellar space travel, fart aromas, and a fourteen second snippet from the Andante of Mozart's Symphony #40.  

Orson Welles once did a documentary film, F is for Fake, about forgers.  One of the forgers he covered, the main case, in fact, was the case of Elmyr De Hory, who forged a number of paintings including ones by Matisse.  The above is the original, mind you.  But just think for a moment how difficult it might be to forge something as simple as the above.

I hope I'm not confusing this in my own mind with Welles' documentary, but I recall a primetime documentary about another Matisse forger, possibly on 48 hours or 20/20, one that defies my Google skills. One of the experts they consulted on art forgery turned out later to be one of the forgers himself.  When confronted, he sheepishly agreed to demonstrated how he forged simple line drawings like the one above by Matisse, or by Modigliani or by Renoir.  

Part of the trick is that it must be done quickly, smoothly, easily, all in one quick stroke, and done correctly, at the same time.  You can't drag a shaking brush (or pencil) slowly across the canvas as if you're trying to forge your mom's signature for a school absence.  That kind of thing always shows.  This particular forger was able to do exactly that, and he made it look insanely easy.  

Which, of course, it's not.  And it is.  It isn't and it is.  It's not easy because I would get rich forging Matisse if it were easy!  And it has to be easy because if it's not, then it doesn't work.  A conundrum wrapped up in an enigmatic burrito!


So this is the elegance of the Matisse painting, and I'm going to call it the elegance of the painting, not Matisse, because I don't want to confuse the two.  This isn't a death-defying circus feat meant to impress us with the performer.  It's a work of art with content, and the elegance of this work is its content.

Finding a good definition of elegance on the web is frustrating me.  For instance, I don't like this one.  It's not what I mean.  If when you hear the word elegance, you think this, then scrap that:

el·e·gance  (l-gns)
a. Refinement, grace, and beauty in movement, appearance, or manners.
b. Tasteful opulence in form, decoration, or presentation.
a. Restraint and grace of style.
b. Scientific exactness and precision.

  1. Something elegant.

From, perhaps this gets us a little closer to what I mean:


   * S: (n) elegance (a refined quality of gracefulness and good taste) "she conveys an aura of elegance and gentility"
   * S: (n) elegance (a quality of neatness and ingenious simplicity in the solution of a problem (especially in science or mathematics)) "the simplicity and elegance of his invention

I'm using something closer to the second definition, not the first.  Fuck "auras of gentility."  

Einstein's equation and elegance

Let's look, then at a mathematical equation in physics so elegant they teach it to us in grade school.

Now that's elegant!  It may not exactly be artistic, but it is aesthetically pleasing, if you're a physicist or a mathematician.  There is no fat, no bone; it's all meat.  And it's extremely information dense for all its apparent simplicity, tying disparate concepts together.  For instance, we can rewrite it as m = e/c-squared, explaining how much mass is in energy.  And since mass has gravity, it implies that pure energy can exert gravitational force...  I don't want to get too hairy, but there are university courses that explain some of the implications of that little formula.

Of course, we give Einstein credit for all this, and he was brilliant, of course, but he didn't invent it; he discovered it.  It's a fact of the universe.  One of the things that always annoyed me when I took physics in college was the way they tried to personalize the material by giving us all this hero-worship buildup crap about physicists of history.  It's all interesting in its own way, but my own innate cynicism bristled at statements like Newton's "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."  How modest!

Dumbo theorizes about the intergalactic implications of E equals MC squared.

But just think.  Someday we may send spaceships to other planets around other stars, maybe in other galaxies, and we'll encounter intelligent life very different from our own.  And using our specially designed Iphone apps that translate human speech into chemically scented communication packets for non-human lifeforms, we'll ask them, "Say, did you hear the one about e equals mc squared?  Our genius Einstein discovered that!"  And they'll say to us:

"It is interesting that you have the same equation as we do, however it is to be expected that we should both have it, because it's a basic law of the universe.  However, unlike you humans, we do not express it in this primitive form of yours with phonetically based letters that represent sound waves emitted from air passing through gas inhalation/exhalation apparatus.  All of our communication of ideas is expressed through the sharing of chemical messages emitted through our gastric system.  In fact, we are more impressed with your Iphone app that translates this than with your energy/mass equation, which really isn't yours at all.  To us, this same equation smells like this:"

And then they will emit a series of gaseous messages through their anuses, something like this:  Faarrht [energy] fafafarrrt [equals] blrat-t-t-t [mass] fahmp [times] blalalalala [speed of light] shoop-heeeee [squared].  That last shoop-heee being a particularly tangy little raspberry that lingers beyond its useful purpose.

"Fascinating!" says our diplomatic human scientist space traveller.  "You had an Einstein, too!"

"I guess you might say we do."  And then they introduce our humans to their prime scientist, an enormous bag of gas the size of a whale, its multiple snouts rooting in a troth full of slop as its anus, its huge anus, the biggest anus in the universe, terrifying in its immensity, blasts farts out at an alien college amphitheater of students, their tentacles blown back as they lean into its mighty wind, trying to sniff whatever great new discovery it has made today.

"You must be very proud," our human scientist says.  "On earth, we gave our Einstein a Nobel Prize.

"We just give ours oats and lots of 'em."  (Or the xenobiotic equivalent).

Let's go to the music!

Mozart Symphony #40 in G minor K. 550, Second Movement (Andante), performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Ton Koopman conducting.

I'm not going to break down the whole work for you.  It's a sonata-allegro movement, just like most of the music we cover here.  The exposition repeats at 3:15.  The development (a short one) begins at 6:28.  The recapitulation begins at 7:47.  There is a little rhythmic figure, sort of ditta, ditta, ditta, ditta that the movement revolves around.  But I'm going to focus on some minutiae rather than do a blow-by-blow sportscast.

I really want to show you one of the little things that blow me away about this movement.  Here's the first page of the Andante score.  And don't panic; I don't expect you to read music.  I can barely read it myself.

I highlighted a little section in pink for you.  That's the first violin section, playing a little segment that can slip by you if you don't pay attention.  In the video above, you can hear it from 00:31 to 00:45, so please, just to humor me, because I type all this crap for you and don't want to feel lonely like a wolf howling at the moon, go back and listen to that little section.  Fourteen little seconds.

It really haunts me, and yet, honestly, the first dozen times I listened to this symphony, back in days of yore, I probably didn't pay much attention to it, and yet to me, today, it's the most vital single brushstroke on the painting.

The Mozart 40th Symphony Andante is comfort food.  After my brief absence due to my sense of humor, I feel entitled to a little comfort food!  So this is good, comforting stuff, but it's not simple, just as Femme Endormie is not simple.  When I hear the beginning of the Andante, when it gets to this part of the movement, I get this feeling that it's not under control, that it might spin off into outer space.  But this is Mozart!  Mozart's music is so controlled, so respectful of the underlying concept of tonality as the rockbed of music that little moments like this can slip by you, leaving you with a vague sense of unease.  There is a conflict here between the chromaticism of the first violin's part and the diatonic rock-steadiness of the other parts.  

Prithee, Dumbo, what do chromatic and diatonic mean?

We'll get more into that next week, but basically when music is diatonic, it can be played on the white keys only of a piano.  No extra sharps or flats, no sneaky little black key notes.  Those sneaky little black key notes in music are what we call chromaticism.  Mozart didn't invent chromaticism in music by any means.  But the way he uses it is very subversive, and the above fourteen seconds are a great example of this.  

And let's listen to another example of this, between 1:42 and 1:59.  Can you hear what's happening there?  You don't need a music score, nor special musical training.  It's a small orchestra (by today's standards, not by Mozart's) so there is nothing really hidden here.  The music creeps upward chromatically, but it begins and ends firmly in key.  

And all of it done simply.  Elegantly.  There are no wasted notes.  Mozart's music is somewhat notorious for being difficult for orchestras to perform because of his musical economy.  The fact that each note counts and is necessary means one goof and you're dead because there is no place to hide.

The music of Wagner, by comparison, is much more complicated than this in its freedom of exploring different chords and keys and its flouting of the rules.  But in Mozart, it is the rules that lay the basis for the tension, because we know Mozart always brings us home.  It's sneaky.  It's like a kid in school shooting spitballs, but always found sitting with hands clasped on the desk looking innocent when the teacher turns around to see who did that.  

We've had a couple of interesting arguments break out in comments before about Mozart and just how "simple" his music is.  I understand that completely, because when I first started listening to music, I thought so too!  I stand here.  I admit it!  It took me years to really appreciate Mozart.  It is full of subtlety.  But it is not so complex that you need a Julliard education to appreciate it.  All you have to do is pay attention.  Over the course of many years, you will notice more and more things.

Leonard Bernstein on Mozart's 40th and Elegance and Chromaticism.  Great minds do think alike!

And now I have a treat that I discovered after writing my riff at the top on elegance.  It's Leonard Bernstein's Harvard lecture on the Mozart Symphony #40 where he discusses the first movement (not the one we listened to today.)

From the first sentence of his lecture about the Mozart 40th:

"Now at this point I would like to invite you to listen with me to one of the supreme examples from this Golden Age, Mozart's G minor symphony, a work of utmost passion, utterly controlled, and of free chromaticism elegantly contained."

I snickered when I heard him say "elegantly contained."  He goes on to show examples of this kind of embedded chromaticism in the first movement, describing one example as that "creepy-crawly chromaticism," buried under the diatonicism.

Next week: Probably the diary on modal music that I promised a month ago!

BIG THANK YOU to everybody who voted to nominate Thursday Classical Music for a Koscar.  You like me, you really really like me (in my best Sally Fields voice.)  Now if you can all just remember to VOTE for Thursday Classical Music when the Koscar voting really begins.  We might even get a special gloating triumph diary!

BIG THANK YOU TO SAMER, also, for posting a Christmas eve diary on Raiph Vaughan Williams's Hodie.  Excellent, dude.

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Jan 06, 2011 at 05:15 PM PST.

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