Anthony’s Art Diary: Multi-media Edition

by Anthony Haden-Guest Photographed by Halsted Welles
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

There is a fetchingly Alice in Wonderland-ish touch to the invitation to Halsted Sutherland Welles’ collaboration with Georgia Shreve at Carnegie Hall on May 17. Music of Georgia Shreve includes four pieces, Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way, Protopia, Four Seasons (with Time Lapse visuals by Welles) and Alice in Wonderland (with images by Salvador Dali).

Welles trained as a sculptor, then morphed into being a maker of that very New York art form, the private garden, those sky-high Edens most of us only get to glimpse from the street. He has made some of the most effective in the city and is now using these natural systems as art materials to make time-lapses, which is to say rippling sequences of still photos.

Georgia Shreve, a highly regarded composer of piano sonatas, launched her career by facing down an initial unsuccess. “I studied classical singing for six years,” she says. “But then my teacher sat me down and said I don’t think you can have a brilliant career. But you have an enormous musicality.”

Had her teacher been specific about what she lacked?  

“I think she was just talking about my instrument,” Shreve says. “Because I worked very hard at it. And she was very brilliant. She used extraordinary metaphors. Singing is very hard to teach. You can’t say move your tongue to the left one millimeter. So it’s all metaphorical.”

Shreve simply rechanneled her energy from singing to composition. Choosing an instrument was no problem. “The piano is the largest spectrum of music,” she says. “It’s the only instrument upon which you can play ten different notes at a time. Most of the great composers were superb pianists … Liszt, Brahms, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff.” So she stuck to classical. “And classical encompasses both opera and art songs. Art songs are individual pieces. Like a poem set to music. I do a lot of art songs.” She instances two great poems by W.H. Auden, In Memory of W.B. Yeats and September 1, 1939, which tackles the outbreak of World War II.

So it seems thoroughly appropriate that this, the first collaboration of Shreve and Welles, which will be at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, is billed as a “Multi-Media Concert” And that the Welles element is described as Four Seasons in Three Dimensions. Lewis Carroll’s giddy Lobster Quadrille comes to mind: Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance? Yes would be the right answer here.

Shreve was on the point of becoming Welles’s client the time of their first meeting.  “My British architect had met Halsted when he was doing a Georgian house in the ‘90s and recommended him,” she says. “They would have argument bouts on the terrace because they had very different ideas. So they would fight. But in the end he did a wonderful job.”

She took to sending Welles announcements of her concerts, which  he would attend. “I was impressed by the intricateness of her work,” he says. “She would lay in voice … music … It became an experience, more than just going to a piano concerto. The last one I went to I said, Georgia, I’m doing something I want to talk to you about.”Shreve got in touch with him a while later. “She remembered what I had said in an evening when everybody was patting her on the back,“ he says. Welles told her about the time-lapses. “I didn’t understand exactly what he was talking about,” she says. “I know what a time-lapse is but I didn’t know what he was doing.”  Upon learning more, she was in.

The journey of Halsted Welles to Carnegie Hall has also been a zigzag one. As an eight year old he had fallen in love with the processes of growing garden plants and shown that he had a preternaturally green thumb. During his college years at Antioch, Ohio, he had been principally drawn to science, both hard science and various of the life sciences. Indeed by his telling he had narrowly missed entering upon a career as a marine biologist, in part because a paper he had researched upon the egg and larva development of the sant-and-pepper shrimp, which is the principal food source of the black bass in the Chesapeake Bay, had been turned down for publication in an academic journal, because too many members of that academy had papers they were pushing into print.

A lucky escape, this. Yes, Halsted also had an excellent science brain but art was increasingly becoming his focus. Indeed one of the attractions of salt-and-pepper shrimp project had been that it allowed him to deploy his drawing skills. The lightbulb moment came when he was sitting at his desk during an anthropology course. “I said to myself why dig it up?” he remembers. “That’s no fun! Why not make it! So that someone else can dig it up?”

A born maker, equally at home working metal and stone, Welles set to making sculptures. And these in due course began evolving into mix-media abstractions. “I was mixing rubber and stone … plastic, wood … bolting it together,” he says. But then it was as if he had been poked in the eye by the green thumb of an eight year old boy.

“Gardens are multi-media systems too,” he says. Halsted Welles, the creator of private gardens, was born. The time-lapses have been an equally organic development. So: Carnegie Hall.

 The new piano concerto, Georgia Shreve’s contribution, pre-existed the time lapses that accompany it. “My piano concerto is four movements. And that determines how long each season is in his work, the length of the movement,” she says. “What Halsted has done is absolutely beautiful,” Shreve says. “And what is really extraordinary is that the film editor has made it seem that my minor chord creates snow … it comes on and …. whoosh! The snow comes out.  He has so beautifully edited it that sometimes you can’t tell whether the music is creating the images or the images are creating the music.”

It should be said Shreve has two further musical elements in the Carnegie Hall concert. One is Protopia, a positive look at the world to come, and the other is based on Alice in Wonderland. “I have always been fascinated by Alice in Wonderland and when I came across Salvador Dali’s paintings of it I knew I had to turn it into music. It’s a quest story. She’s trying to get into the most beautiful garden she has ever seen. That’s why it’s so awful that she keeps on getting too little and too big. And only at the end does she get into the garden, right before the trial.” So that is a garden story too.




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