Episode 001: Air View of a Spring Nursery
In which we discuss new beginnings, old upright pianos, and John Lennon
Welcome to Polyester City, where each week I will share a new piece of experimental music I have created—inspired by a great piece of art. My beats will be accompanied by a “digital reduction” where I break down the artwork into simple shapes with minimal colors. And I’ll add in some notes about the music and art, plus related [or random] thoughts.
I think it’s appropriate that this inaugural episode launches on the first day of spring. And what better artist to greet the season of rebirth with than the one and only Alma Thomas?
Yes, this is the perfect place for me to start.
Lots of twisting, winding single-note lines. Different keys. Weaving and darting around. That sounds like spring to me.
Had to be careful though, all these lines together can get a bit discordant and dense…that wouldn’t sound so light and airy and spring-like, would it? Had to give it some space.
This beat is a simple A-A form with an intro and a coda. In the first verse, everything is [mostly] in a separate key: the bass, the main piano line, the other synth lines. It sounds random despite everything being through-composed. Then in verse two, I bring in the main theme played by strings in the same key as the bass. It’s a stark difference: the first half seems like chaos, but that melody on top of the second half kind of ties everything together like a giant bow.
The piano at the beginning and the end comes from recording a 6am writing session on an old upright in the basement at work with my phone—then dropping the file into the song and throwing a ton of effects on it to make it sound like some tumbledown old 1920s piano.
Also, as we travel along together, you’ll hear this is about as much reverb as I ever use. I don't tend to use a lot of long effects. I guess sonically it is odd to start with this piece, pretty different from most others, but the painting called for it.
A view from high up. A light wind. Leaves and pollen and flowers dancing about. I’m reminded of John Lennon’s brilliant lyric, “Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox”. Thomas put that all into long rows of spring flowers you would see if you were flying overhead.
I find some of these reductions extremely difficult to make, deciding about subjects and composition and color. This reduction came easily, though, since it naturally lent itself to most of my self-imposed constraints:
max 5 colors
90° angles only
Not far off of the actual painting. Not a lot of tough decisions to make!
The two blue colors are my favorites here. I thought since the idea is we are in a plane flying by overhead, the light blue background serves to frame the painting as if looking through the sky down on the nursery.
The artist’s story is just so fantastic. Thomas taught junior high school art for 35 years in DC. Didn’t seriously start her public art career until she retired in 1960, when she was almost 70! First solo show at Howard University by 1966. And in 1972 at the age of 81 was the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney.
I’m a big fan of artists who kept working and searching and found their true calling later in life. We’ll be visiting with a bunch of them in due course.