Drawing for the MET Orchestra Musicians for the past four years has not only been tremendous fun; it has created some new career opportunities for me. This summer, I was invited to go to the Talis Festival & Academy, in the beautiful Swiss Alps, as the “festival cartoonist.” My job? Depicting fun moments and, more broadly, what makes the festival special. The Talis Festival, in Saas-Fee, is run by two fantastic bassoonists, Maria and Scott, and has no fewer than three MET Orchestra violinists (Wen, Ming, and Shenghua) amongst the resident artists and teachers. All of them made me feel at home immediately, but I still had to think about what to draw. Inevitably, this led me to reflect on the parallels that exist between the visual and musical worlds.
But first, I have to make a small detour via food – mushrooms in particular. (Being French, I hope you’ll pardon me for that.) Nobody picks wild mushrooms in a casual manner, because accidentally eating the wrong kind could have tragic consequences. Educating people is a matter of life and death, and what I find fascinating is that the most serious posters or books about mushrooms use illustrations of them – not pictures. Now, why is that? Why not use photographic precision, instead of trusting an illustrator for something so crucial?
I think it’s because of the way our brains are built. Any human being will deconstruct the various elements of a mushroom into rational and abstract categories – for example, its general shape and contour; its colours and texture; the possibility of accidental marks or spots; most of all, its general character. After internalising all of these separate qualities, the illustrator won’t draw any one particular mushroom, but the essence of that mushroom, and translate it into his or her interpretation, style, and even emotional response in a way that most people can understand.
You see what I’m getting to now: Isn’t this exactly what musicians do? Isn’t it why computer generated music will never replace the interpretation of a piece by flesh and blood musicians ? The tempo might not be as stable as one generated by a Macintosh, the pitch might vary slightly, but the result is not about ”photographic” rendering of a score. It’s about deconstructing and reimagining in real time the essence of what the composer was trying to express. Take “Che gelida manina,” (a love song if ever there was any) sung by Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème: When he describes himself by means of quick questions and answers (“Chi son? Sono un poeta. Che cosa faccio? Scrivo.”), everyone in the pit and audience is “hanging on his breath” following the natural jerkiness that such a scene demands. There can never be a “perfect” or “generic” solution for singing and accompanying theses lines, as the music must seem like it is created up on the spur of the moment. All the micro-accelerations or extra time taken are precisely what grabs our attention. The imperfections make it real.
Another field in which illustrators are generally employed is the courtroom. Now, everybody understands why it’s legally complicated or inadvisable to take photos of criminals and witnesses. But illustrators usually provide a pretty accurate rendition of faces, scenes, and ambiances. So what’s the difference between those drawings and photos?
Again, to make a parallel with music in general, and opera in particular, it’s not that we don’t want people to see the desperation of the accused or the agitation of the defence lawyer or the interest of the judge. It is that we want them to experience all the intrigue of the situation, but through a filter. An artificial filter. It doesn’t take any of the thrill away, but makes it safer and therefore more intelligible and possibly cathartic for everyone. In Dido’s Lament, by Purcell, for example – another heart-wrenching musical masterpiece – various elements interact: an inexorable repeated bass, over which flows a melody of anguish that is not strictly synced with this cycle; the repeated “remember me”; the dissonant string parts. We see and hear a woman going to her death, and every one of her leaning appoggiaturas further twists the knife. We are forced by the genius of Purcell to live that horrible scene with her, despite the knowledge that we are not going to die! That’s the power of art and why it is indispensable to all of us.
So back to the Swiss Alps: there I met Isabelle, the wife of Alexandre Ouzounoff, this year’s festival composition teacher. She directs a very successful head-hunting agency in which she employs an illustrator for the website. Instead of generic stock photos, there are cartoonish portraits of her and her employees, holding giant butterfly nets or cobwebs, catching the right candidate for your firm.
Again, she trusted an artist to capture the essence and even humour of a situation, even though it is a serious business.
All this gives me hope and renewed energy to create my little contributions to promote live music and depict the artists who make it possible for us to enjoy the full palette of human emotions.
And believe me, art is often more potent than magic mushrooms!