What a Conductor Actually Does on Stage: Two Short Videos Explain the Little-Understood Art

When we imag­ine a sym­pho­ny orches­tra, even those of us oth­er­wise unfa­mil­iar with clas­si­cal music imag­ine a con­duc­tor stand­ing up front. We know the con­duc­tor leads the orches­tra, but how exact­ly does he/she do it? “What the pub­lic needs to under­stand about con­duct­ing is that it’s an antic­i­pa­to­ry art,” says con­duc­tor James Gaffi­gan in the short Vox explain­er video above. “What we do takes place before the music hap­pens,” all of it meant “to do jus­tice to the com­pos­er.” He then breaks down the func­tion of the main tools avail­able to the con­duc­tor to do that: the right hand, which holds the baton, and the left hand, which “has a much more com­pli­cat­ed, strange role in our phys­i­cal world.”

Clear­ly some aspects of con­duct­ing aren’t so eas­i­ly explained. Hence the beau­ty of con­duct­ing as an art form, which encom­pass­es exem­plars as dif­fer­ent as Gus­tav Mahler, rep­re­sent­ed in his day by car­i­ca­tures “mak­ing crazy ges­tures” and “jump­ing up and down on the podi­um,” and Mahler’s con­tem­po­rary Richard Strauss, who con­duct­ed by “bare­ly mov­ing.”

Gaffi­gan also brings in the exam­ple of Leonard Bern­stein, the best-known con­duc­tor of the 20th cen­tu­ry in the West, who in record­ings of his per­for­mances is “always danc­ing,” who “can’t help mov­ing around the podi­um, and his rhythm is con­ta­gious.” (But as Open Cul­ture read­ers know, Bern­stein could also con­duct with only his eye­brows.)

You can hear, and see, anoth­er per­spec­tive on what a con­duc­tor does in the New York Times video just above. “There’s no way to real­ly put your fin­ger on what makes con­duct­ing great, even what makes con­duct­ing work,” says New York Phil­har­mon­ic direc­tor Alan Gilbert. Gilbert pro­vides sev­er­al exam­ples of the tech­niques he uses while con­duct­ing not just to tell which musi­cians to start play­ing when, but to imbue their col­lec­tive per­for­mance with just the desired tex­tures and nuances and bring out all the lay­ers of the music and the rela­tion­ship between them. All the while, the con­duc­tor must remain in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion: some­times with all the play­ers at once, some­times with just one sec­tion, and some­times with just one indi­vid­ual.

“There are some con­duc­tors who look as if they’re incred­i­bly well put togeth­er, and phys­i­cal­ly all in order,” Gilbert says. “That does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that you’ll hear inspired music-mak­ing. There will be some con­duc­tors whose tech­nique is osten­si­bly all over the place, not nec­es­sar­i­ly so clear, but some­thing comes across, and it can even be extreme­ly pre­cise.” A con­duc­tor can have all man­ner of ideas about how the orches­tra should play, but with­out the faith of the musi­cians, none of those ideas can take musi­cal form. “One of the ways to make your sound bet­ter is to make it real­ly obvi­ous that you’re real­ly lis­ten­ing, and that it real­ly mat­ters to you what it sounds like. That’s not actu­al­ly con­duct­ing; that’s embody­ing or rep­re­sent­ing an aspi­ra­tion.” Con­duc­tors, in oth­er words, must be the music they wish to hear.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Move­ments of a Sym­pho­ny Con­duc­tor Get Artis­ti­cal­ly Visu­al­ized in an Avant-Garde Motion Cap­ture Ani­ma­tion

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

What Hap­pens When Every­day Peo­ple Get a Chance to Con­duct a World-Class Orches­tra

Watch Leonard Bern­stein Con­duct the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic Using Only His Eye­brows

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Stream Online the Complete “Lost” John Coltrane Album, Both Directions at Once

Expec­ta­tions ran high when it was announced last month that a lost (!) John Coltrane album, Both Direc­tions at Once, had been dis­cov­ered by the fam­i­ly of his ex-wife Naima, and would final­ly be released for fans to hear. Would it prove wor­thy of Son­ny Rollin’s com­par­i­son to “find­ing a new room in the Great Pyra­mid”? Such dis­cov­er­ies can lead to dead ends and dis­ap­point­ments as often as to rev­e­la­tions. In this case, the album yields nei­ther, which is not to say it isn’t, as Chris Mor­ris writes at Vari­ety, “a god­send.”

The album lives up to its title, cho­sen by Coltrane’s son Ravi, as a tran­si­tion­al doc­u­ment, stun­ning, but not par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­pris­ing. Hear all 7 cuts on the sin­gle-disc ver­sion of the release on this page, with typ­i­cal­ly excel­lent play­ing by Coltrane’s clas­sic quar­tet (bassist Jim­my Gar­ri­son, drum­mer Elvin Jones, and pianist McCoy Tyn­er) and an ear­ly take on “one of the warhors­es of the Coltrane catalog”—“Impressions”—including three addi­tion­al takes on the Deluxe Ver­sion, which you can stream on Spo­ti­fy here or pur­chase here. (Tyn­er sits out the take on the sin­gle disc ver­sion, turn­ing it into a “hard-edged, per­co­lat­ing show­case for Coltrane in trio for­mat.”)

Sev­er­al crit­ics have sug­gest­ed that this “lost album” isn’t a prop­er album at all, but rather, as Ravi Coltrane put it, “a kick­ing-the-tires kind of ses­sion,” and per­haps that’s so. Nonethe­less, it works as “a por­trait of an artist and a band on the brink of a his­toric explo­sion,” Mor­ris writes.

“The brac­ing, prob­ing, self-ques­tion­ing and keen­ly played music on this col­lec­tion is the miss­ing link between the pro­vi­sion­al work heard on 1962’s ‘Coltrane’ and the quartet’s epochal stu­dio albums – ‘Cres­cent,’ the devout ‘A Love Supreme’ and (with addi­tion­al per­son­nel) the free jazz mag­num opus ‘Ascen­sion.’”

Oth­ers echo this assess­ment. Drowned in Sound’s Joe Gog­gins calls Both Direc­tions at Once “hard evi­dence that he was still look­ing for new sounds with­in old struc­tures,” and The New Yorker’s Richard Brody describes the ses­sion as “some­thing of a stock­tak­ing” that bal­ances the exper­i­ments of the band’s live sets with the reigned-in dis­ci­pline of its ear­ly 60s stu­dio work. Brody also laments that “lit­tle on the album match­es the music that Coltrane was mak­ing at the time in con­cert.” Win­ston Cook-Wil­son at Spin describes the music as “some­times at war with itself…. The con­trasts of their cat­a­logue are pushed against each oth­er, some­times with­in the same song.”

All of this inter­nal ten­sion makes for an excit­ing lis­ten, espe­cial­ly in its two new orig­i­nals, known only as “Unti­tled Orig­i­nal 11383” and “Unti­tled Orig­i­nal 11386,” and the 11-minute “Slow Blues,” which Mor­ris apt­ly describes as “a geared-down, ency­clo­pe­dic work­out on blues changes” that builds, after its tem­po dou­bles, to a “full-cry con­clu­sion.”

In all, the new lost album shows Coltrane just about to break new ground, but not quite yet, which per­haps makes it a new­ly essen­tial doc­u­ment for the Coltrane com­pletist. For most lovers of the great inno­va­tor, it’s just a damn fine “new” Coltrane record, both dar­ing and acces­si­ble at once.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream the “Com­plete” John Coltrane Playlist: A 94-Hour Jour­ney Through 700+ Trans­for­ma­tive Tracks

John Coltrane’s Hand­writ­ten Out­line for His Mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme (1964)

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The 10 Rules for Students and Teachers Popularized by John Cage: “Nothing Is a Mistake,” “Consider Everything an Experiment” & More

The Bri­an Eno archive More Dark than Shark recent­ly post­ed on its Twit­ter account a list of twelve rules for stu­dents and teach­ers used by John Cage. Though much has been writ­ten about the artis­tic affini­ties between Eno and Cage, both of whose com­po­si­tions have pushed the bound­aries of how we think about music itself, they also both have a deep con­nec­tion to the idea of using rules to enhance the expe­ri­ence of cre­ation. Where Eno has his deck of cre­ative process-enhanc­ing Oblique Strate­gies cards, Cage had this list of rules first com­posed by an edu­ca­tor, silkscreen artist, and nun named Sis­ter Cori­ta Kent.

Kent came up with the list, writes Brain­pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va, “as part of a project for a class she taught in 1967–1968. It was sub­se­quent­ly appro­pri­at­ed as the offi­cial art depart­ment rules at the col­lege of LA’s Immac­u­late Heart Con­vent, her alma mater, but was com­mon­ly pop­u­lar­ized by Cage, whom the tenth rule cites direct­ly.”

That tenth rule, more of a meta-rule, reminds the read­er that “we’re break­ing all the rules” by “leav­ing plen­ty of room for X quan­ti­ties.” But one can eas­i­ly imag­ine how the pre­vi­ous nine, hav­ing as much to do with the enjoy­ment of the work of learn­ing, teach­ing, and cre­at­ing as with its rig­or­ous per­for­mance, might appeal to Cage as well. The com­plete list runs as fol­lows:

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trust­ing it for a while.

RULE TWO: Gen­er­al duties of a stu­dent: Pull every­thing out of your teacher; pull every­thing out of your fel­low stu­dents.

RULE THREE: Gen­er­al duties of a teacher: Pull every­thing out of your stu­dents.

RULE FOUR: Con­sid­er every­thing an exper­i­ment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-dis­ci­plined: this means find­ing some­one wise or smart and choos­ing to fol­low them. To be dis­ci­plined is to fol­low in a good way. To be self-dis­ci­plined is to fol­low in a bet­ter way.

RULE SIX: Noth­ing is a mis­take. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to some­thing. It’s the peo­ple who do all of the work all of the time who even­tu­al­ly catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to cre­ate and ana­lyze at the same time. They’re dif­fer­ent process­es.

RULE NINE: Be hap­py when­ev­er you can man­age it. Enjoy your­self. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: We’re break­ing all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leav­ing plen­ty of room for X quan­ti­ties.

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to every­thing. Always go to class­es. Read any­thing you can get your hands on. Look at movies care­ful­ly, often. Save every­thing. It might come in handy lat­er.

Some of the rules on Ken­t’s list, which has now exert­ed its influ­ence for half a cen­tu­ry, sound faint­ly like the Oblique Strate­gies Eno and the painter Peter Schmidt would come up with in the 1970s. Take rule num­ber six, “Noth­ing is a mis­take,” which brings to mind the Oblique Strat­e­gy “Hon­or thy error as a hid­den inten­tion.” But we’re all on the same field when it comes to tech­niques to move our minds in worth­while new direc­tions, as Cage, Kent, Eno, Schmidt, and most oth­er seri­ous stu­dents, teach­ers, and cre­ators might agree. They’d cer­tain­ly agree that, all rules aside, every­thing ulti­mate­ly comes down to doing the work itself, day in and day out. “Craft,” as Eno once said,” is what enables you to be suc­cess­ful when you’re not inspired.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Impres­sive Audio Archive of John Cage Lec­tures & Inter­views: Hear Record­ings from 1963–1991

How to Get Start­ed: John Cage’s Approach to Start­ing the Dif­fi­cult Cre­ative Process

Lis­ten to John Cage’s 5 Hour Art Piece: Diary: How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Mat­ters Worse)

Nota­tions: John Cage Pub­lish­es a Book of Graph­ic Musi­cal Scores, Fea­tur­ing Visu­al­iza­tions of Works by Leonard Bern­stein, Igor Stravin­sky, The Bea­t­les & More (1969)

Jump Start Your Cre­ative Process with Bri­an Eno’s “Oblique Strate­gies” Deck of Cards (1975)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How to Paint Like Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol & More: A Video Series from the Tate

Learn How to Print like Warhol… in five min­utes?

That sounds like fun! My Saturday’s pret­ty open…

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, The Tate’s How To series is a bit of a mis­nomer. This is not the any­one-can-do-it approach of PBS leg­end Bob Ross and his Hap­py Lit­tle Trees

Yes, the short video demon­stra­tions come with sup­ply lists and step-by-step instruc­tions, but with­out an exist­ing fine arts back­ground, you may feel more than a lit­tle bit daunt­ed, pin­ing for the sort of kid-friend­ly mod­i­fi­ca­tions that help sec­ond graders mim­ic famous artists with such aplomb.

Rather than rel­e­gate your fresh­ly-pur­chased screens, roll of acetate, and econ­o­my-sized con­tain­er of pho­to-emul­sion to the same clos­et where your cross coun­try skis, for­eign lan­guage cas­settes, and beer-mak­ing kit are cur­rent­ly spend­ing eter­ni­ty, we sug­gest that you not buy them at all.

Instead, appre­ci­ate the way these videos bridge “the gap between Art His­to­ry and Art Cre­ation,” in the words of one view­er.

So THAT’S how Warhol and untold thou­sands of oth­er artists, includ­ing this segment’s guide Mar­i­anne Keat­ing, make their prints! A lot of equip­ment! A lot of pre­cise steps. Maybe some day you’ll take a stab at it.

’Til then… Keat­ing picked for­mer Jamaican Prime Min­is­ter Michael Man­ley as her sub­ject. Who would you choose?

Artist Sui Kim’s seg­ment on Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky’s approach to paint­ing inspires a semi-abstract scene from her South Kore­an child­hood, using the same col­or palette as Kandinsky’s Cos­sacks.

What would you paint?

Though before blithe­ly slap­ping a sec­ond-grad­er rain­bow on your vision and assum­ing you now know how to paint like Kandin­sky (whether or not you know how to paint), check out the Tate’s descrip­tion of the orig­i­nal:

Paint­ed between 1910 and 1911, Cos­sacks is an expres­sion of Kandinsky’s belief in the pow­er of art “to awak­en this capac­i­ty for expe­ri­enc­ing the spir­i­tu­al in mate­r­i­al and in abstract phe­nom­e­na.” The dynam­ic ten­sion between abstract form and con­crete con­tent may be read as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the wider con­flict between the forces of polit­i­cal oppres­sion – Kandin­sky had been deeply moved by the strikes and upheavals in Odessa a few years ear­li­er – and the hunger for spir­i­tu­al reju­ve­na­tion con­se­quent upon the rise of soul­less moder­ni­ty. Like his con­tem­po­raries Piet Mon­dri­an and Hen­ri Matisse, Kandin­sky saw paint­ing as an exten­sion of reli­gion, capa­ble, as he wrote in his Rem­i­nis­cences (1913), of reveal­ing ‘new per­spec­tives and true truths’ in ‘moments of sud­den illu­mi­na­tion, resem­bling a flash of light­ning.’ The echo of the Ancient Greek writer Longinus’s notion of sub­lime speech, which sim­i­lar­ly strikes like a bolt of light­ning, is car­ried over into Kandinsky’s descrip­tion of the spir­i­tu­al mis­sion of the mod­ern artist. In his 1911 essay On the Spir­i­tu­al in Art, he com­pares the life of the spir­it to ‘a large, acute-angled tri­an­gle,’ at the apex of which stands the soli­tary artis­tic genius dis­pens­ing spir­i­tu­al food to the mul­ti­tudes below.

Pret­ty com­plex stuff!

Per­haps Picas­so is a more straight­for­ward propo­si­tion.

Reck­on you could rope a friend into mod­el­ing for a Cubist por­trait a la Bust of a Woman (1909)? If so, which friend, and what might you do for them in return?

Oth­er artists in the Tate’s How To series include J.M.W. Turn­er and sculp­tor Rachel Whiteread. Watch them all here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Every Episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy Of Paint­ing Free Online: 403 Episodes Span­ning 31 Sea­sons

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Pro­vok­ing Read­ing of David’s Philo­soph­i­cal & Polit­i­cal Paint­ing

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Miles Davis & John Coltrane Battle It Out on Their Final Tour Together, 1960

One of the great­est tour sto­ries of jazz takes place not in its birth­place but in Europe, where John Coltrane reluc­tant­ly joined Miles Davis for a nine-date “Jazz At The Phil­har­mon­ic Euro­pean Tour” in 1960. It’s not down to any shenani­gans off­stage, but the pure musi­cal fire that erupt­ed onstage. This is the sound of two genius­es pulling apart and head­ing in dif­fer­ent direc­tions. They may have returned to the States at the same ter­mi­nus, but Coltrane and Davis land­ed on dif­fer­ent plan­ets after­wards.

You can hear that in the above video. Kind of Blue had been released the year before–imagine a time where that was the case!–and here the Davis quin­tet dive in to “So What” with a fury not heard on the record.

The con­certs have been end­less­ly boot­legged, and right­ly so. They are stun­ning. Sev­er­al were record­ed for radio broad­cast, oth­ers went into the hands of col­lec­tors. Not all of the nine dates are com­plete, but there’s plen­ty of mag­ic in those sets to sat­is­fy the curi­ous.

But the final meet­ing of Coltrane and Davis near­ly didn’t hap­pen. Months after the release of Kind of Blue, Coltrane had record­ed Giant Steps and was pret­ty much ready to go his own way. But Davis plead­ed with Coltrane–he knew the mate­r­i­al real­ly well, of course, hav­ing played it all that year–who even­tu­al­ly, reluc­tant­ly gave in. (Coltrane did sug­gest Wayne Short­er take his place, and Davis lat­er brought the young sax man into the group).

Along with Davis and Coltrane, the Euro­pean tour quin­tet fea­tured pianist Wyn­ton Kel­ly, bassist Paul Cham­bers, and drum­mer Jim­my Cobb. And accord­ing to Cobb, it was obvi­ous Coltrane’s mind was else­where on the trip.

“He sat next to me on the bus, look­ing like he was ready to split at any time. He spent most of the time look­ing out the win­dow and play­ing Ori­en­tal-sound­ing scales on sopra­no.”

But when he was onstage, that ten­sion result­ed in the kind of mind-melt­ing solos that made these record­ings so essen­tial. The “sheets of sound” that one crit­ic used to describe Coltrane’s style is all here, as are moments where Coltrane just seems to be obsessed with two or three notes, toy­ing with them, try­ing to uncov­er their essence. (Some in the audi­ence thought it was too indulgent–you can hear them whistling in dis­ap­proval on some of the num­bers.) In some of these record­ings you also hear Davis becom­ing the side­man in his own band as Coltrane takes off into the stratos­phere. By the way, you can stream the full album on Spo­ti­fy.

It’s not ani­mos­i­ty, just the sound of two artists going their own way, and that’s rarely some­thing that gets record­ed. For­tu­nate­ly, the best of five dates–two in Paris, two in Stock­holm, one in Copen­hagen–are now offi­cial­ly released, 50-some odd years lat­er for the rest of us to enjoy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear a 65-Hour, Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Miles Davis’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Jazz Albums

Kind of Blue: How Miles Davis Changed Jazz

Stream the “Com­plete” John Coltrane Playlist: A 94-Hour Jour­ney Through 700+ Trans­for­ma­tive Tracks

Hear the First Track From John Coltrane’s Lost Album: The New­ly-Dis­cov­ered 1963 Col­lec­tion Will Get Offi­cial­ly Released Lat­er This Month

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

David Foster Wallace Explains How David Lynch’s Blue Velvet Taught Him the True Meaning of Avant Garde Art

Imag­ine you’re a “hyper­e­d­u­cat­ed avant-gardist in grad school learn­ing to write.” But at your grad school, “all the teach­ers are real­ists. They’re not at all inter­est­ed in post­mod­ern avant-garde stuff.” They take a dim view of your writ­ing, you assume because “they just don’t hap­pen to like this kind of aes­thet­ic,” but actu­al­ly because your writ­ing isn’t very good. Amid all this, with you “hat­ing the teach­ers but hat­ing them for exact­ly the wrong rea­sons,” David Lynch’s Blue Vel­vet comes out. Not only does it belong to “an entire­ly new and orig­i­nal kind of sur­re­al­ism,” it shows you that “what the real­ly great artists do is they’re entire­ly them­selves. They’ve got their own vision, their own way of frac­tur­ing real­i­ty, and that if it’s authen­tic and true, you will feel it in your nerve end­ings.”

This hap­pened to David Fos­ter Wal­lace, as he says in the clip above from his 1997 appear­ance on Char­lie Rose, one of his very few inter­views on video. He went on the show, seem­ing­ly under duress, to pro­mote his col­lec­tion A Sup­pos­ed­ly Fun Thing I’ll Nev­er Do Again, which among its long-form essays on the cruise ship expe­ri­ence, the Illi­nois State Fair, and pro­fes­sion­al ten­nis con­tains a piece on the man who made Blue Vel­vet.

“Lynch has remained remark­ably him­self through­out his film­mak­ing career,” Wal­lace writes in the ver­sion of the arti­cle that first ran in Pre­miere. Whether “Lynch has­n’t com­pro­mised or sold out” or whether “he has­n’t grown all that much,” the fact remains that he has “held fast to his own intense­ly per­son­al vision and approach to film­mak­ing, and that he’s made sig­nif­i­cant sac­ri­fices in order to do so.”

Else­where in the piece, Wal­lace describes the adjec­tive “Lynchi­an” as “refer­ring to a par­tic­u­lar kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mun­dane com­bine in such a way as to reveal the for­mer’s per­pet­u­al con­tain­ment with­in the lat­ter.” When Rose asks Wal­lace about the mean­ing of the word, Wal­lace explains that “a reg­u­lar domes­tic mur­der is not Lynchi­an. But if the police come to the scene and see the man stand­ing over the body and the wom­an’s 50s bouf­fant is undis­turbed and the man and the cops have this con­ver­sa­tion about the fact that the man killed the woman because she per­sis­tent­ly refused to buy, say, for instance, Jif peanut but­ter rather than Skip­py, and how very, very impor­tant that is, and if the cops found them­selves some­how agree­ing that there were major dif­fer­ences between the brands and that a wife who did­n’t rec­og­nize those dif­fer­ences was defi­cient in her wife­ly duties, that would be Lynchi­an.”

A few years ago Youtube chan­nel Dom’s Sketch Cast turned Wal­lace’s vision of an ide­al­ly Lynchi­an scene into the ani­ma­tion above. Lynch’s visions exist, Wal­lace says to Rose, at “this weird con­flu­ence of very dark, sur­re­al, vio­lent stuff and absolute, almost Nor­man Rock­well-banal Amer­i­can stuff, which is ter­rain he’s been work­ing for quite a while — I mean, at least since Blue Vel­vet.” Though Lynch may owe cer­tain styl­is­tic debts — “to Hitch­cock, to Cas­savetes, to Robert Bres­son and Maya Deren and Robert Wiene” — noth­ing like the Lynchi­an exist­ed in any tra­di­tion before he came along. Lynch has his detrac­tors, but “if you think about the out­ra­geous kinds of moral manip­u­la­tion we suf­fer at the hands of most con­tem­po­rary direc­tors, it will be eas­i­er to con­vince you that some­thing in Lynch’s own clin­i­cal­ly detached film­mak­ing is not only refresh­ing but redemp­tive” — and, as a young David Fos­ter Wal­lace found in the the­ater that spring of 1986, rev­e­la­to­ry.

The full Wal­lace-Rose inter­view appears below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchi­an: A Video Essay

The Sur­re­al Film­mak­ing of David Lynch Explained in 9 Video Essays

David Fos­ter Wal­lace on What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ernism: A Video Essay

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Sur­pris­ing List of His 10 Favorite Books, from C.S. Lewis to Tom Clan­cy

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Patti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s 1897 Love Letter De Profundis: See the Full Three-Hour Performance

In her land­mark study The Body in Pain, Elaine Scar­ry describes “the anni­hi­lat­ing pow­er of pain,” which is “vis­i­ble in the sim­ple fact of expe­ri­ence observed by Karl Marx, ‘There is only one anti­dote to men­tal suf­fer­ing, and that is phys­i­cal pain.’” Marx’s com­ment defines a class dis­tinc­tion between types of pain: that of the over­taxed body of the work­er and the mind of the bour­geois sub­ject with the lib­er­ty for mor­bid self-reflec­tion. His pro­nounce­ment, Scar­ry writes, is “only slight­ly dis­tort­ed in Oscar Wilde’s ‘God spare me phys­i­cal pain and I’ll take care of the moral pain myself,’” a some­what glib admis­sion of the rel­a­tive priv­i­lege of men­tal suf­fer­ing in com­par­i­son to tor­ture.

This dis­tinc­tion becomes even more pro­nounced in lat­er reflec­tions, such as ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Ger­man writer and WWI war hero Ernst Jünger’s Niet­zschean 1934 essay “On Pain,” which asks, “what role does pain play in the new race we have called the work­er that is now mak­ing its appear­ance on the his­tor­i­cal stage?” Phys­i­cal pain, writes Jünger is one of “sev­er­al great and unal­ter­able dimen­sions that show a man’s stature… the most dif­fi­cult in a series of tri­als one is accus­tomed to call life…. Tell me your rela­tion to pain, and I will tell you who you are!”

This idea of the sharp­en­ing effect of phys­i­cal pain as an “anti­dote” or hero­ic tri­al dis­tinct from men­tal suf­fer­ing per­sists long into the 20th cen­tu­ry when Freudi­an trau­ma stud­ies, the diag­no­sis of PTSD in vet­er­ans, and the work of psy­chi­a­trists like Bessel Van Der Kolk begins to col­lapse the cat­e­gories and unite the suf­fer­ing of mind and body. The expe­ri­ences of sol­diers, pris­on­ers, vic­tims of abuse and assault, Holo­caust sur­vivors, enslaved peo­ple, etc. are then seen in a dif­fer­ent light, as com­posed of emo­tion­al anguish as real as their phys­i­cal suf­fer­ing, which man­i­fests somat­i­cal­ly and in extreme cas­es even, per­haps, alters DNA.

Long before the par­a­dig­mat­ic shift in the recog­ni­tion of trau­ma, Wilde, who had made light of “moral pain” in his apho­rism, explored suf­fer­ing in great depth in his De Pro­fundis. Osten­si­bly an open let­ter to his lover Lord Alfred Dou­glass, Wilde penned the piece while impris­oned in Read­ing Jail from 1895–97 for “gross inde­cen­cy.” While there, he endured both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment. As Ireland’s Raidió Teil­ifís Éire­ann writes:

Wilde was kept in total iso­la­tion, first in Pen­tonville and Wandsworth pris­ons. For the first month of his sen­tence, he was teth­ered to a tread­mill six hours a day, with five min­utes’ rest after every 20 min­utes.  At Read­ing Jail, to which he was moved in Novem­ber 1895, he slept on a plank bed with no mat­tress and he was allowed only one hour’s exer­cise a day. He would walk in sin­gle file in the yard with oth­er pris­on­ers but was for­bid­den con­tact with them. Wilde slept lit­tle, was hun­gry all of the time, and suf­fered from dysen­tery dur­ing his incar­cer­a­tion.

Dur­ing his two-year incar­cer­a­tion, his moth­er died. “I, once a lord of lan­guage,” he wrote, “have no words in which to express my anguish and shame.” Nonethe­less, he found the words, a pro­fu­sion of them, writes Max Nel­son at The Paris Review, “petu­lant, vin­dic­tive, bathet­ic, indul­gent, exces­sive, florid, mas­sive­ly arro­gant, self-pity­ing, repet­i­tive, showy, sen­ti­men­tal, and shrill,” search­ing, as he put it, to express “that mode of exis­tence in which soul and body are one and indi­vis­i­ble: in which the out­ward is expres­sive of the inward: in which Form reveals.”

They were first pub­lished in 1905 in an edit­ed ver­sion, and it is that ver­sion you can hear read—prefaced by a sung lament—above in a dolor­ous monot­o­ne by Pat­ti Smith, who con­veys with voice and body the tenor of Wilde’s prose. The let­ter, writes Wilde’s biog­ra­ph­er Richard Ell­mann, is “one of the great­est and the longest” love let­ters “ever writ­ten.” (See a scan of the orig­i­nal man­u­script at the British Library site.)

The read­ing took place in the for­mer chapel of Read­ing Jail in 2016, opened to the pub­lic for the first time “for an exhi­bi­tion of art, writ­ing and per­for­mance,” notes Artan­gel, spon­sor of the event. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured a short excerpt of Smith’s read­ing. Above, you can see her full 3‑hour per­for­mance, com­plete with her own inter­jec­tions and inter­ac­tions with the audi­ence. De Pro­fundis begins with one of the most elo­quent descrip­tions of deep depres­sion in mod­ern lit­er­a­ture, an expe­ri­ence of paral­y­sis that traps its suf­fer­er in a men­tal prison of stuck­ness in time:

. . . Suf­fer­ing is one very long moment. We can­not divide it by sea­sons. We can only record its moods, and chron­i­cle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to cir­cle round one cen­tre of pain. The paralysing immo­bil­i­ty of a life every cir­cum­stance of which is reg­u­lat­ed after an unchange­able pat­tern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, accord­ing to the inflex­i­ble laws of an iron for­mu­la: this immo­bile qual­i­ty, that makes each dread­ful day in the very minut­est detail like its broth­er, seems to com­mu­ni­cate itself to those exter­nal forces the very essence of whose exis­tence is cease­less change. Of seed-time or har­vest, of the reapers bend­ing over the corn, or the grape gath­er­ers thread­ing through the vines, of the grass in the orchard made white with bro­ken blos­soms or strewn with fall­en fruit: of these we know noth­ing and can know noth­ing.

For us there is only one sea­son, the sea­son of sor­row. 

Read a lat­er 1913 edi­tion of Wilde’s let­ter here. The com­plete, unedit­ed text was first pub­lished in 1962.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith’s List of Favorite Books: From Rim­baud to Susan Son­tag

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

Oscar Wilde Offers Prac­ti­cal Advice on the Writ­ing Life in a New­ly-Dis­cov­ered Let­ter from 1890

900 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Penguin Classic’s Back Cover Blurb for Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 Novel It Can’t Happen Here

Cam­er­ap­er­son Steve Yedlin sur­faced this on Twit­ter: “Pen­guin Classic’s back-cov­er blurb for Sin­clair Lewis’s 1935 nov­el It Can’t Hap­pen Here.” I’ll let this pic­ture, speak for itself…

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sin­clair Lewis’ Chill­ing Play, It Can’t Hap­pen Here: A Read-Through by the Berke­ley Reper­to­ry The­atre

How to Rec­og­nize a Dystopia: Watch an Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Dystopi­an Fic­tion

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Philoso­pher Richard Rorty Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Results of the 2016 Elec­tion … Back in 1998

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