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Still lives
The sounds of Silencio


The Russian composer Vladimir Martynov tells the story of an ancient hermit instructing his disciple on the path to Heaven. “Strive to enter the inner cell of your soul,” the hermit says, “and there you will behold the Heavenly cell.” For the ancient hermit and the contemporary composer, the path to Heaven can be found only by traveling inward.

Martynov relates the story in the notes to Silencio (Nonesuch), a series of performances by Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer and his Baltic orchestra Kremerata Baltica that includes Martynov’s six-movement 1988 piece Come In! as well compositions by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt. Kremer chose pieces by composers with a shared spiritual motto: we find ourselves by cultivating silence and retreating into it. The music of Silencio is supposed to help us do this, the sounds of violins, strings, and prepared pianos, the soundtrack to the discovery of a silence that reveals us to ourselves.

On Silencio, artistic experience is promoted as an ascetic experience of isolation, withdrawal, and quiet. The black-and-white photographs that accompany the recording suggest art’s ideal landscape: endless canyons of rock and hill that evoke little beyond their vaunted emptiness and the pristine serenity that comes with the absence of human bustle. You’re meant to listen to the music but, as you take it in, be quiet about it. As Fedor Tyutchev writes in the notes, “How can another fathom what is yours? And understand what you live by? A thought expressed becomes a lie.” Far from being merely a recording of classical music, then, Silencio is an argument for the interiorization of artistic experience: the job of art is to turn us inward and the job of those who experience art is not to describe it. Description, we are told, is a lie.

In his luminous new book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (Beacon), writer Mark Doty suggests a different philosophy of art, one born not from empty canyons of quiet but from the silence of a Dutch still life, Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, and the noise it makes in one man as he looks at it. In a wedge of lemon, four oysters, a half glass of wine, and green grapes, Doty encounters a world of light and fragrance that he experiences in the way opposite to what Silencio commands — he describes it. “When we describe the world,” he writes, “we come closer to saying what we are.”

Still Life is 70 pages of Doty looking out in order to look in: “looking outward, we experience the one who does the seeing.” We experience him as he mourns the loss of his lover, as he walks his dog and eats early morning pastries, as he remembers his grandmother’s pocketbook peppermints, as he adds more collectibles to his already over-accumulated home. There are other paintings, poems by Constantine Cafavy, Gaston Bachelard’s theories about space and intimacy, tours of Provincetown houses, antiques auctions. It is precisely because Doty knows that the objects in the still life are not his own — that he didn’t peel the lemon or shuck the oyster, that they came from somewhere and belonged to someone — that their representations can take up such strong residence in his own life. The fact that the still life’s objects have their own stories (that cling to them the same way light does) makes them all the more available to him — their narrativity, their storyness, inspires his own.

And it is their used status — a lemon seed on the tablecloth, a rind removed from its fruit — that makes them beautiful. Their used beauty leads Doty to appreciate and admire the yard-sale beauty of a chipped and cracked blue-and-white china platter that graces his living room, and from the platter we get lessons: pleasure and sorrow always co-exist, things change, life is flux, things get worn and torn, there is gain and there is loss. I realize how obvious and simple these observations must sound, but in Doty’s hands they are anything but; they become the kind of revelations that mean something, that achieve the depth of their truth, only when you’ve been forced to accept them into your life.

I read Doty’s book in my living room while listening to a Martynov violin movement. Like Doty’s house, my living room is full of clutter and crowds of objects. Much of it is furniture left over from my grandparents, who used to live here when I was a child, when they were alive and I lived somewhere else: a dining-room table that leans if you lean, a garish blue vase, a candelabra encrusted with generations of wax, and a set of eight matching chairs that have no place and no room, so they are everywhere, their wood legs splintered and disjointed, their cushions indented and buckled. I was suddenly aware that I was surrounded, by used silent objects that carry time with them and speak loss into the forward march of living, and that only when I can describe their stories will I be able to turn inward again and tell my own.

Issue Date: March 15 - 22, 2001

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