March 26, 2011

Sleepless in Orangeburg, Breathing at Alfred

Time changes hit some people harder than most and lasts longer than average. Not being a morning person by any stretch, getting up one hour earlier due to daylight savings time is enough to do bodily damage. Yes, I’m still recovering from the big switch.
The first three days into the time change saw me sleepless at night and in a zombie-like trance throughout the days. I tried to shake it off but to no avail. Most people don’t seem to take fatigue or sleepiness too seriously but my own recent mishap made me more respectful of the need for restful sleep. Coming home from work, I had hoped that napping would take the edge off of a drowsy day. But after waking up and still not being rested I decided to pretend to have a little more vim and vigor than I really did and went about evening chores with a falsely composed spring in my step. The result was that through a combination of fatigue and misplaced spryness I tripped on the back porch, careened down to the sidewalk, across the stairs and introduced my head to my sunroom via the glass windowpane. Luckily I was not seriously hurt and although I still have bruises, the face cuts did not need stitches and healed nicely. This was a good thing because I did not want to be known henceforth as Janet “scarface” Kozachek.
My activities have been slow and deliberate ever since my journey through the sunroom glass. I did mostly mundane projects at first - making casts of favorite garden rocks for use in ceramic ocarina sculptures and working on a new configuration for a pit firing kiln ( I dare not burn it until the accident-prone curse wears off). I have now graduated to carving some stone seals to re-introduce myself to tasks requiring some greater degree of alertness and a modicum of manual dexterity. The stones are small as are the carving chisels. Still, rock carving with these chisels can be hard on a middle-aged person’s hands so this small project has been a protracted process. Carve into a rock, do some paperwork, carve into a rock, have dinner, carve into a rock, do some dishes, carve into a rock, make lesson plans........
My inspiration for the small set of stone seals came from my nephew Alex Kozachek, who is a first rate ceramic student at Alfred University of whom I am extremely proud ( of course I am proud of all my nieces and nephews ). Alex will be following in his old aunt’s footsteps in the spring of 2012 when he will study at the Beijing Central Art Academy as well as the industrial ceramic center of Jing De Zhen (For those who have not been following this blog, I lived in China for about five years in the 1980's and studied for two of those years at the Beijing Central Art Academy - hence my knowledge of ancient and modern Chinese). An example of Alex’ recent work can be seen above. I love this piece which to me is a very fresh interpretation of celadon ware. I liken it to a deconstructed tenth century Chinese wine vessel.
Art that meets with aesthetic approval in China involves an invocation of the word “qi” which literally means “breath”but also alludes to the Daoist concept of a life force or nature spirit. A good painting or a good movement in marshal arts is said to have “qi.” The concept of this mystical life force, “a breath of life” if you will, may have ancient roots but its use in describing the quality of an art work can be traced to the sixth century art critic Xie He. In his canon, the Six Principles of Painting, the first word of the first rule is qi. So “breath” has a definite place of prominence in the philosophy of Chinese art. Since classical Chinese is quite different from the modern vernacular however, what Xie He actually meant in his Six Principles has been academic speculative fodder for years. I believe that in Xie He’s context qi is meant to be used as a compound word in affiliation with the second word “yun” which denotes a musical sound. For this reason the phrase “qi yun” is sometimes translated as “spiritual resonance.”
The etiology of the word “qi” itself is quite interesting. In the ancient form, the word is written as rice with steam coming off. (To see the rice in the stone carvings at right look for the stick figure with two lines on top and two lines on the bottom. The “steam” part of this character can be found in the wavy lines on top of the stick figure). In the form that is very ancient and close to a pictograph, a bowl with a generous helping of rice in it is also included in this sign. As a rather prosaic, earthy woman I like the visceral feeling emoted from this ancient form of Chinese with its link to sustenance and eating.
In western art parlance, sometimes the word “qi” or “breath” is bantered about without a clear sense of its meaning or knowledge of its origins. But it does imbue a certain sense of harboring ancient mystical knowledge on the part of the speaker. For myself, I enjoy the knowledge of origins and an exposition of the basics. And both philosophically and literally speaking, an imprint of my most recent seal carvings into the artist’s work will hopefully mean that they will never be without “the breath.”

March 6, 2011

Giving a Fig for a Small Instrument of Music

The small bell at right is one of my latest ceramic instruments. I was attempting a different shape from my disk rattles in order to bring the shape closer to the Chinese Song dynasty rattles I had seen reproduced in From Mud to Music. My flattened disk shapes yielded a satisfying sound but The I was still curious about how a rounder shape with a round pellet would sound. My initial design featured a round casing with two sound holes cut into it in addition to the slit opening in front. Soon realizing that this bore an uncanny resemblance to Kermit the Frog, I tore off the casing and started over. This time I made only one center hole and burnished the exterior with a yellow ochre terra sigillata. It struck me that this shape with its amber surface looked very much like one of the brown turkey figs I harvest from my tree in the summer. Some of them in fact are lost to birds who like to peck a hole right in the middle of the fig then don’t even have the courtesy to carry it away and devour the rest of it.

My tiny fig rattle does not sound nearly as nice as my disk rattles. But it does have one surprise feature. The pellet inside is hollow and functions as a whistle. So what doesn’t rattle at least will toot.

March 2, 2011

Udu You Think You Are?

In my last entry, I mentioned Barry Hall’s book From Mud to Music, published by the American Ceramic Society in 2006. I have been consulting ceramic texts both new and old in my quest for structural designs for my ceramic musical instruments, and this text was particularly thorough. From Mud to Music is conveniently partitioned into chapters based on the way an instrument makes its sound using the Sachs-Hornbostel classification system: Idiophones, Membrano phones, Aerophones, Chordophones, and includes a special chapter on instruments that combine two or more of these forms. The index, glossary, and resource lists are all quite excellent and very helpful.

When reading through texts such as this one, I like to try a selection from the product demonstration chapters to see for myself how the steps dovetail with the development of a usable form. Because I am in the process of writing my own book on Chinese painting and calligraphy, it also helps to look at well defined models in writing on art instruction.

This week I present my interpretation of the Side-Hole Pot Drum illustrated on page 204. The process of creating this hand built vessel from coils was clear and understandable. But because I do not own a potter’s wheel, I did have to make do with a cast plaster puki instead of a wheel thrown one. (The puki is the Native American term for the small bowl that is used to support the base of a hand built coiled pot). My example of a side hole drum, also known as an Udu, is shorter and more spherical than the drum of Mud to Music specifications but it does work. It makes a bass blooping noice ( my own onomatopoeic neologism) that probably only the most avid percussionist would adore. This sound is effected by tapping the top or side hole and allowing the air to escape the second hole. With practice, the sound can be varied by cupping the hand over a hole and altering the amount of air escaping. Doing so made a friend of mine who heard it over the telephone think that my udu was a string bass. Striking the side of the pot adds a higher timber and fluid tones can be made by tapping the holes with loose fingers.

The down side of my udu as a musical instrument is that it just sounds too quiet for me. A former percussionist colleague told me that his own udu was quiet and advised getting a microphone for it. Oddly enough, my husband claims that the sound is sufficiently loud and that it even has the ability to increase in direct relationship to the amount of time I spend practicing the drumming. Nevertheless, a microphone will soon be an udu companion so that I can perform well in drum circle.

The pattern on the drum was made from painted red, black and white clay slip and was influenced by neolithic pottery designs - in particular that of Yangshao culture. I was particularly fond of a large neolithic swirling pattern on a large vessel in the Chinese collection at Princeton University. When I saw something so bold and made so long ago I wondered if we have ever really improved on such a design.