I was a happy kid. One of my earliest memories was listening to Al Hirt’s Java on my toy-like portable record player. I couldn’t get enough of it, and I would dance as I listened to it over and over again. Then shit happened: school compulsion and family discord. Both of which I hated. They cut into my joy and my sense of freedom. Painting soon replaced dancing and a different kind of music replaced upbeat jazz.
I discovered pop music with classical components like the bands Chicago, Electric Light Orchestra, the Beatles, and Elton John. But they missed something. After art school my paintings began to take on more depth, time, and themes. I was going crazy listening to pop radio stations. They kept repeating the same hot songs. Out of frustration I turned to the classical music station, not so much because I loved it, but at least it was complex and varied.
Reaching the High Note
While painting one night in 1982 in New York, WQXR was playing a live performance of two opera divas at the Metropolitan Opera House. One of the singers, whose name I was somewhat familiar with, was Leontyne Price. She sang an aria that had a piano introduction that hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt like I’d entered a shimmering new world that was somehow natural and normal, as if I had found an alternate universe in which I belonged. Next day I called the station to find out what the aria was, and it turned out to be by Puccini, Doretta’s Song.
Art is the Technology of the Soul
They say that art is the technology of the soul. The best of it integrates sensory experience, appeals to our thinking, an internal logic, our imagination, and taps our emotions. When those things come together it triggers our circuits to fire on all frequencies. A friend of mine Rick Barker says that that moment is a feeling of the sublime and it serves an evolutionary purpose unique to humans: it frees us from the flight or fight response and we find creative solutions to problems.
My over the moon enthusiasm for that Puccini song turned out to be a prophetic marker, and I would go on to fully immerse myself in the Puccini universe. Shimmering vibrations of color, tones, human pathos, good and evil people, and big themes matched by the musical means. Perhaps more than any other person alive or dead, Puccini served as my mentor for what it means to be an artist.
As we go through life, the high points are very rare, and somehow a photograph of the moment never seems to do it justice. And life can turn out to be riddled with problems and unwanted obligations, but for each of us there are special, if fleeting moments that make life worthwhile. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just spend a little more time there? Art at its best is that moment, and it is always there for those who want that full feeling of living in their kind of universe.