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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

By any Stretch of the Imagination: Missing the Mark

I believe there is a certain stretch that acts as a limit to projects of the imagination. That's not to be pessimistic about creativity--after all, it was Albert Einstein who said, "Imagination is more important than fact." Nevertheless, when people begin to test the limit of what is overly intellectualized I have to put ear plugs on. Case in point: Yo-Yo Ma's series "Inspired by Bach." I am a cellist. I have actually met Mr. Yo-Yo Ma twice, and the second time it freaked me out that he remembered my name. The first time was backstage when he came to play with us in Washington; the second time was about a year later when I attended a master class he conducted at the Kennedy Center. It didn't feel special, really. I have met several people that can retain people's names and greet everyone like their best friend even after not seeing them for years. At any rate, when the "Inspired by Bach" series was first broadcast on PBS, a great schism took over the cellists' world. Those who took Yo-Yo Ma as trying to be overly intellectual, and the others who argued the man was not only a legend in the music world, but was also a Liberal Arts scholar and genius. I have been on both sides of the argument.

Watching the film "The Sound of Carceri" again after 10 years made me reassert my initial reaction to it. The series "Inspired by Bach" offer a wide spectrum of professional artists cooperating with Yo-Yo Ma. My belief is that some of the projects worked and some others were an atrocious stretch of an overly intellectualized group of experts. For example, both of the films that interpret Bach's 6 Suites for Cello Solo by creating dance choreographies (the Mark Morris Dance Company film, and the one with the world class kabuki dancer Tamasaburo Bando), work perfectly. The others not so much.

The premise of "The Sound of Carceri" is basically to create a computer model of Piranesi's engravings in 3 a dimensional surrounding and then place Yo-Yo Ma playing Suite No. 2 right in the middle of the graphic rendition. The concept is far too complex to actually bring about with purity to the original idea; that is to say, it really isn't the space Piranesi created because the Carceri were never built, and thus the whole concept of a 3 dimensional graphic generated setting is not "pure Piranesi," but rather the Carceri interpretation of those computer geniuses constructing the engravings inside the computer. Again, I am trying not to be pessimistic, but that was the first red flag for me the first and second time I watched the film. The film is directed by Francois Girard, but little mention or none at all is brought in to the "making of" section of the film about the computer experts the created the "space." Credits are credits, and I am sure all the names of the computer experts that rendered the engraving in 3D are mentioned at the end. However, too much emphasis on the actual sound engineering (the attempt to create the resonance, amplitude and the acoustic environment of the Carceri) took nearly one third of the film, and after a while it lost its sense of interest. What is more, the actual sound engineering took place in one of the only buildings Piranesi was able to build--the Church of the Pierazzo in Rome. This was curious to me due to the fact that it seemed such a stretch, an overkill--I think spaces to recreate the acoustic environment of the Carceri could have been engineered in any abandoned warehouse in Manhattan, perhaps with better and easier results. I am not being cynical, but what was the significance of using the Church of the Pierazzo? What was it about that particular space that made the project more accurate, better? This is never explained, but I am imagining that perhaps they thought the ghost of Giovanni Battista Piranesi would "guide" their project from beyond.

There are some good commentary from two experts whose insight actually made the project "passable." The first of these is Moshe Saidie, an architect who seemed skeptical at first. He states "architecture is something we experience... a blue print or engraving is not architecture... models are not architecture [especially inside a computer]... " The second scholar is John Wilton-Elly. His commentary dealt with the "reality" of the engraving. Looking at these engravings is enough to "feel claustrophobic, feel a sense of frustration... it turns into a Kafka's sense of containment... the engraving are only manifested in our imagination... "

I don't think I've ever been more critical of what is to a degree a good project, a good piece of art. I think Yo-Yo Ma's heart was in the right place, but the stretch made the film into an unanswerable inquiry into the limits of imagination and left both Bach and Piranesi in the rear-view mirror.

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