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Friday, September 23, 2011

PRINCIPLES OF MOUNTAIN MUSIC



robert ryman




These days I'm in no hurry to finish a painting, but when one is done, I'm happy with it like never before. I think it's because I spend more time looking at them than applying paint. They are "retinal," after all, made for totally visual reception. Today I applied the fiddle bow to the portrait of Howard Joines, Pine Swamp old-time / bluegrass fiddler. Started it months ago, maybe a year ago, got to the place of putting in the bow and finishing touches on fiddle, was intimidated by the bow, a line about 2 feet long, about a quarter inch wide with a certain curve. It's the kind of thing I have to dread it for awhile, then one day, like today. I had about an hour before having to go out the door. I mixed the color I wanted, a reddish dark brown, and did it. I think of it like zen archery. One chance and one chance only. I set about it with an unquestioning mind, just did it. And it worked.


It worked like that on the one before this one, Cleve Andrews fiddler, left the fiddle bow for the last. Did it the same way. One day I set out to do it, got it done in few minutes, best bow I've ever done and very best bow hair. Maybe I'm catching on to how it's done. Every instrument has its challenges. A banjo has a lot of circles you have to get right according to the angle. A guitar has odd curves that are different at every angle of seeing them. A fiddle is the most painstaking with the various curves in and out, the f holes, then the bow. Will wait a few days for the paint of the bow to dry some before putting the white of the bow hair up next to it. No hurry. I'd like to get it done by the end of the month, a week or so. Finishing the fiddle is all it needs, a touch here, a touch there. I've dreaded this fiddle bow for about a year. I know all I have to do is bear down on it and do it. I'm not a factory, so it doesn't matter how long it takes.


Went by Kermit's barber shop to take him the black and white print I'd used to go by for the painting of Jr and Cleve making music. I'd put it in a redi-made frame for his barber shop walls. He has 2 big walls covered with photographs, mostly b and w, newspaper articles and photographs, a Del Reeves poster, Bill Monroe poster for shows here in Sparta, musicians of the county, like Paul Miles, Wayne Williams, musicians from our recent past. He had one I'd given him a few years ago of the Little River Boys, Jr and Cleve with their 2 guitar players, Estal Bedsaul and Paul Joines. I don't want Cleve Andrews to go forgotten. He had not recorded anything that has been found, but for 2 fiddle tunes with Jr on banjo at Galax in 1966, by someone visiting from Germany. They just turned up less than a couple years ago. I've painted 2 pictures now with Cleve in them, and I've put together a cd of Jr Maxwell's music and put those 2 songs on it, so they're archived.


When this one is finished of Howard Joines I'll finish the one of the Rise & Shine Band, which I haven't touched in a couple months. Getting used to its possibilities. I've given myself a challenge compositionally, as with the one of Jr and Cleve. Something I have to think about awhile, wonder what colors would give the feel I want it to have. I want it to have pizzaz. I want it to dance. It's a horizontal row of changing colors. I'm studying how to get the most out of it as far as movement goes. I'm seeing something of a Russian Constructivist abstraction of straight lines and squares in a dance movement from left to right, or right to left. I want the eye to register movement, not a great deal, just enough to make music. I'm thinking I'd like to find a picture of Charlie Higgins, a fiddler from Independence who is kin to the Twin Oaks Higginses in this county, and may have been born in this county. He was one of the truly great old-time fiddlers with Wade Ward on banjo, the Buck Mountain Band.


In this round of painting mountain musicians, I've taken the principles mountain musicians go by, things I've learned over years of listening to the music, knowing a few musicians, quite a lot from conversation with Jr Maxwell, and have applied them to my painting. I've made a list of 7 that I can think of without blowing a gasket. #1. It has to come from the heart. From the heart means from the center of feeling. That's where you have to feel it. Sara Carter's singing was plain, but the feeling was immense, because the feeling was inside her voice. #2. Find your own style. In the old days they didn't have banjo teachers making a living teaching students. You wanted to learn a banjo, you got ahold of one, bought a cheap one from somebody and figured it out. How you figure it out becomes your style. I figured out painting without instruction. I like painting faces, hands and instruments. I can only call it a gift, like Ralph Stanley calls his singing voice. A gift is the only way I can see it. #3. Be who you are. This is the first tenet of mountain culture. #4. Don't talk down about other musicians. This applies for me to other artists. No saying, "I wouldn't call what he does art. There's nothing to it." That's not what a Zoroastrian would call "right speech."


#5. Money is not an issue. Gas money will do. Money is incidental. Sometimes I may sell one. Sometimes I'll trade with one. Sometimes give one to a public institution. Have given one to the library and probably will another before very long. In my heart I cannot paint for money. When I think about selling, my inspiration goes all to shit, then I don't paint for several years. That'because when I start up again it is a wholly new vision. This time it was mountain musicians and this time money is not an issue. #6. Make it better every time. Musicians I know are reaching for a new touch with notes played over and over to get them better each time than the time before. It's so much a part of making music, musicians hardly notice. Like I was very happy with the Ralph Stanley, then even happier with the Willard with guitar, and happy with Jr and Cleve. My heart goes into them when money is not part of it. #7. Humility. This, too, is another basic tenet of mountain culture. Jr Maxwell didn't like Carter Stanley at all, wouldn't even hear him, because in he understood Carter to be arrogant. I'd heard that from other musicians of the time, too. It happens. Ralph Stanley is not arrogant. Generally, you'll never find an arrogant mountain musician, certainly not in the old way. That, too, is changing.


I can't say this is an order of importance. It is the order of how they came to me when I sat down with pen and paper to get them articulated. I stopped at 7 because no more came to me. There are others, but I don't mean to lock myself down to a rule of law of my own making. Not at all. I'm looking at principles to pay attention to that will improve my approach to painting, which is where the act of painting comes from. Hearing at this moment Kronos Quartet playing Philip Glass, String Quartet #5, grooving to it. I love 20th century composers like I love 20th century artists. It doesn't show to a lot of people that when I go to museums I want to see the more contemporary sorts of things, abstractions, minimalism, conceptualism. A friend can't see through my realism to what I see behind it. It's what is behind it that is important to me. I want my portraits of musicians to say something like on the order of poetry instead of cartoon. In a way, I feel each of my paintings is a visual poem. For several years I devoted my art mind to poerty, never got very good, but learned to appreciate it from the inside. A modernist poem, Ezra Pound to present, doesn't have a message so much as an understanding and a feeling. I want my paintings free of "mainstream" thinking, of sales thinking. I want them to represent the mountain musicians I get painted, a gesture to keep at least their memory alive since most of them don't record. I paint now with a purpose outside myself. I paint for the musicians themselves and for a record of mountain culture in a given place and time.

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