Thoughts on Music

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been coming to the teaching lounge at the Wash U medical school campus, which is just down the street from my apartment. There’s a piano there for public use, and most of the time I can show up in the evening and play a few songs without interrupting anyone’s studying. 

I didn’t realize how important music was to my creative practice until I showed up in St. Louis and was without a piano for the first time in several years. It’s hard to believe that I didn’t make this connection sooner: I studied music during my first year of college. I wanted to be a performer (Euphonium), or a composer. And even though I didn’t have the skill or the dedication to pursue music alone, I decided to focus on painting knowing that there would always be a place for music in my life. 

When I am sitting at the piano and enjoying playing, it’s the same as when I am enjoying painting: it’s a condition of complete involvement, surrender, and wordlessness. But I’m beginning to realize how fully my approach to painting is informed by my training as a musician, and how much I strive for the qualities of music in my work. A piece of music is beautiful even without the words to say it, and I hope that someone might love my paintings even if they don’t have anything to say about them. Every day that I am in the studio I imagine myself playing for one person in the audience. Every day I am practicing my skills so that I can better reach that person. 

I’m not actually very good at the piano. For the past couple of years I’ve been working my way through the Philip Glass Solo Piano book, which, despite being some of my favorite music is also not too hard to play. Philip Glass isn’t known for technical difficulty, but for his relatively simple patterns of chords and arpeggios, which repeat—and repeat—until they become mesmerizing, haunting even.  I have always loved listening to, and playing, his music, because it requires so much concentration to keep track of these repetitions, but if you can pay attention, each repetition unfolds greater nuance, endless possibilities for interpretation.

In the few months before coming to Wash U, I had been working on transcribing the Fifth String Quartet by Philip Glass for piano. It was a purely recreational task—probably more work than it’s been worth—but I was arguably more excited about it than about my painting or writing. Even though it’s one of my favorite pieces of music, it’s not at all popular. So I was excited a few weeks ago when I saw that the Arianna String Quartet, in St. Louis, was playing a concert of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and yes, the Philip Glass Fifth String Quartet! It was so meaningful for me to see this performance, first because of the coincidence, but also because it seemed to affirm what I valued about music: I was that one person in the audience…

I’m currently working on an series of paintings, an open-ended exploration around a drawing that I made of an ancient Buddha head in the collection at the St. Louis Art Museum. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started and I’m not sure now where the paintings will go. But I have already learned a lot about Art and about myself since beginning. Sitting here now, writing, I see how clearly these paintings reflect not only the music I’ve been playing but the ritual Zen practice that is also so important to my work: the daily repetition of the same gestures, the same images, the same sounds. But within that repetition, the freedom to let go, to be, and to become. I know that I will be writing more about these connections in the coming weeks.