Sunday, November 29, 2015

An Elegant Native of the Lagoon, This Afternoon

An egretta garzetta, or little egret, looks for a bite this afternoon, with Murano as a distant backdrop. Hunted extensively in the 19th century for their plumes--used to adorn hats--they became extinct in several regions of Europe. But since coming under the protection of conservation laws in 1950 they have made a comeback and are no longer considered in danger of extinction.

Though the above image was taken near the island of Certosa, they can now be seen in the city of Venice proper--sometimes on Riva degli Schiavoni, for example-- which a native Venetian told me was never the case when she was growing up 30 years ago. Back then you'd have to venture out into the lagoon to see them. But, she says, decreasing numbers of fish in the lagoon at large have forced the egrets to risk coming into closer contact with humans. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Autumn Trio

Some young musicians aspire to perform before a sea of faces in a huge stadium show; these three were content with the waters of the Giudecca Canal as their audience.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

L'Inferno on the Zattere, This Afternoon

Scenes from a spirited one-man performance of an adaptation of Dante's great work. I know nothing about the performer except he's awfully good at portraying tormented souls and is worth watching if you happen upon him.

The toxic industrial hell of Marghera makes a fitting backdrop for a performance of Dante's Inferno

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Stormy Festa della Madonna della Salute This Year

The candle-lighters had nothing like the usual crowds to deal with this year, but were kept busy, instead, relighting candles repeatedly blown out by the wind

Candles and helium balloons are, respectively, the sacred and profane ritualistic elements of Venice's annual Festa della Madonna della Salute and in past years I sometimes wondered what, if anything, was the connection between the one item lit within the church and the other that bobbed in enormous masses outside it, waiting to be bought by excited kids.

This year the answer (or at least an answer) was revealed: high winds wreak havoc with both of them.

Rain isn't unusual on this feast day, celebrated on 21 November and rivaling the fireworks of the summer's Festa Del Redentore as the city's most important holiday, and I've never known it to diminish the crowds. But the gale-force winds that accompanied this past Saturday's storm were strong enough to keep a good many people from venturing out of the house, even for the purpose of petitioning St Mary for a year's worth of good health. And neither the promise of a balloon nor marzipan (frutta finta, is what Sandro calls it: "fake fruit") could get Sandro, or anyone else, to accompany me.

So it was a low-key affair this year: the balloon sellers forced to crowd their massive clouds of floating merchandise beneath a sottoportego or within the dark entrance hall of a nearby palazzo, the sweet stalls bereft of traffic, and the vast majority of candles on one side of the church blown out almost as soon as they were lit by the wind gusting through the church's open doors.

Nor did I make castradina this year: the ritual dish specific to this holiday whose preparation, like the resurrection, is a three-day process.

So for those interested in finding out just how one goes about preparing the smoked, spiced, sun-dried leg of mutton called castradina or seeing images of the feast celebrated in full force I'd refer you to the links below:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Favorite Work of Art at the 56th Venice Biennale

At times one or both of "Work Songs" co-creators also performed: in the above image, Jason Moran, on piano, with Jamet Pittman and Roosevelt André Credit

My favorite work of art in the current Venice Biennale, Jason Moran and Alica Hall Moran's "Work Songs", strikes me as the fullest realization of the two qualities that the Biennale's General Director Okwui Enwezor said he had in mind when he decided to create a performance space in the very center of the Central Pavilion: "liveness" and "epic duration."

Of course, the piece I've been participating in since the exhibition's opening in early May, an ongoing public reading of the whole of Das Kapital in English, also embodies these qualities. Marx's huge work itself is both epic and epochal, and reading a little more of it each session--typically 3 times every day--is an exercise in endurance as well as duration. But as "live" as we readers may be, we don't stray from the text, whereas the various singers (solo or in pairs) who have performed "Work Songs" can, and do, make the project into something new with each performance.

So if you're lucky (as I've been) to see a lot of the performances, you can't help but be struck by the infinite variety of approaches and moods evident in each 40 minute performance. This is "liveness" in the fullest sense of the word, and each performance is both a reiteration and a furthering of the whole project--which itself starts to seem like a nearly 7-month-long epic song, progressing as a song does, through repetition and variation.

The basis of "Work Songs"--which is performed Thursday through Sunday at 4:40 pm--is a recorded 40-minute series of tracks created with a variety of instruments, electronic beats, samples, and/or field recordings. The singers are given a track list with each track's running time and the lyrics of each song that should "go" with each track, but the tracks almost never have any obvious melodic relation to the song. This ain't karaoke; there aren't the expected, recognizable tunes to sing along with.  Instead, for example, the first song on the list, "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore", is accompanied by a rhythmic sound of chains, which returns this well-known song to its documented origins among slaves living on an island off the coast of South Carolina.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (at left) and Lisa E. Harris performed both as a pair and solo during their weeks in the piece

But the singers themselves are in no way bound to approaching the track list in a certain way. Which isn't at all surprising given the musical versatility, inventiveness, and just plain fearlessness of the project's co-creators who, three years ago, were given an entire floor of New York City's Whitney Museum of Art to do as they liked with for five days as part of that institution's own biennial (

One afternoon last summer, Alicia Hall Moran mentioned (almost in passing) in regards to "Work Songs" that they had aimed to create something that the singers could perform in front of a predominantly white audience without embarrassment--the embarrassment, I took it, of being little more than the rote representatives of a stereotypical "Black experience," doing traditional songs in crowd-pleasing ways.

As she talked a little about creating the piece I got the impression that even in the middle of doing so they had a sense of the singers they knew who would be perfect for it. But this wasn't a just job they were putting together for those singers (though singers are always happy when those come along), this was the kind of project that would, ideally, draw some of their best work out of them.

Jason Moran told me that when Okwui first contacted them about creating a live piece he warned them it would be staged in an arena area that people would pass through on their way to see other galleries. Perhaps they'd sit for a few minutes, but then they'd move on. And the piece would be, probably, 20 minutes long. Jason agreed. Then Okwui contacted him again and asked "How about making it 40 minutes long?"

"No problem," Jason replied. But then, Jason said, he set to work on it and he realized it wasn't so easy to occupy 40 minutes of empty stage time. "That's work," he said, "filling up that time. There were times I wished we'd just stuck to 20 minutes."

Indeed, filling up 40 minutes of stage time can be hard on the singers as well, regardless of the fact that almost all of them are not only classically-trained opera singers, but adept and gifted in an astonishing array of styles, with extensive and impressive resumes.

In fact, one singer told me that the classically-trained part of herself was about ready to freak out when she was first given the skeletal set list and told to have at it. She showed me the few pages inside the slim hardback book each singer brings to the podium with her or him and said, "Really, where is the rest of the material? I was like: This is it?!"

In addition to performing with Steven Herring (at left), Anthony Mills is now performing the piece solo

"Work Songs," in other words, is not only all about work, but it is itself work, and the experience of this work for the singer, the process, is foregrounded. Paradoxically, the unchanging nature of the recorded accompaniment puts more rather than less pressure upon the performer to be present for each session, to explore each piece anew each time--taking it apart or embroidering it, or both--and risking that it might just fall flat, instead of simply presenting a tidy, rehearsed, predictable performance.

I asked another singer one day if, given the challenges of the piece, there were ever sessions when she was tempted to "take it easy"? Just deliver the songs as the crowd-pleasers that someone with her voice and training and experience and charisma could make them, simply overwhelming whatever complexity or discordance the recorded tracks might present?

"No," she answered without hesitation, "that would be hard, not easy. There's work and then there's work. That would be drudgery."

In other words, among the many things going on in "Work Songs" (and I'm just scratching the surface here), one of them has to do with the dignity of work (just as Marx concerns himself with the same issue in Das Kapital, and the British artist Jeremy Deller does in his small piece not far away in the Central Pavilion displaying the electronic monitor each Amazon warehouse worker must wear on his or her wrist that constantly monitors their efficiency). The list of songs begins with purposeful, hopeful effort (even if originally sung by slaves), continues with the energy of "Rock Island Line" (originating with railway workers, then prisoners) and the mythic impulse of "John Henry," before gradually giving way to something that can be as crushing in its own way as hard labor: joblessness.

In this collection of work songs and spirituals the refrain of a panhandler on a city street--a field recording--is given its own place. "I'm looking for work," he repeats in the recording, "I'd rather work. Please help me if you can," in rhythms that are reminiscent of the songs we've heard earlier. As in them, the rhythm of these repeated lines seems to function as a defense against despair, a way to keep going, to mark time, and to assert one's humanity in the midst of conditions that would otherwise strip it away.

There's no way you can tap your foot to this, and it's often one of the most charged moments of each performance when the singers on stage take up this refrain themselves. Here, too, different singers (or the same singer on different days) handle this material in radically different ways. I've seen these lines sung with defiance and energy. I've seen them stripped of emotion and made strange like the found lyrics of some contemporary art song. I've seen them handled like lines of poetry, whose significance can only hope to be gleaned in the act of singing them: each word weighed in the uttering, each phrasing investigated for heft. I've seen them turned into the most heartbreaking or most anguished appeal you're ever likely to hear. I've seen them almost completely passed over.

Much of the time many people in the audience have no idea what to make of this part, and in certain performances the discomfort is palpable, and people simply walk out. In certain sessions it's been impossible to figure out if the singer really is asking for money--whether it's performance, in other words, or an actual request. Is it art or life we're dealing with here?

In fact, I've seen members of the audience give money to a singer--whose intention wasn't to actually receive donations, but who couldn't refuse them without destroying the performance.

I guess the question is at such times: is the singer working as an artist or working as a person in actual need? Or more generally: What kind of performance is this? Is it a performance at all?

Which, now that I think about it, are the same questions most of us ask ourselves when confronted by people in need outside the Biennale. As if the hard work that all of us find ourselves having to do involves at its most basic level simply seeing each other, recognizing what others need, and figuring out how (or if) to respond. 

In any case, where "Work Songs" goes from this point, how it moves toward its conclusion--its mood and its method--varies (like the rest of the piece) each day, even when performed by the same singer. There are performances which are pretty lighthearted, performances involving audience participation, others that are of operatic intensity, still others that are more like poetry. Some performances dive into the bleakest depths, others seem to reach some spiritual transcendence, and some few that I've seen from each performer, whether solo or in a duet, that simply blow apart the given form and take you on a ride you could never have predicted--and that can't be repeated.

It's this unpredictability, the inspired interplay between form and freedom encouraged (demanded?) by the piece, and the sheer talent of the various singers that has kept me going back to the piece throughout the summer (with the exception of its first weeks, when anxiety about doing my own job for Das Kapital Oratorio left me no room to take in anything else). I'd guess I've seen at least a third of all the performances; maybe closer to almost half.  

Those planning to attend the closing days of the Biennale still have the chance to catch one of the last three performances of "Work Songs" on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday (the 19th, 20th, or 21st of November) at 4:40, starring the immensely talented Anthony Mills.

UPDATE: 25 November: to listen to a full live performance of "Work Songs" by Anthony Mills visit:


For those interested in checking out the just-released new album by Alicia Hall Moran, Heavy Blue, visit:

For those who might want to catch Jason Moran perform live (something I'd recommend), here's a link to  his upcoming shows (both in the US and Europe): Elsewhere on the same site you can listen to his recordings, etc. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Invisible Venice

A mid-day gondola ride on the Grand Canal, two days ago

These are the days of the invisible city: the first fog of the autumn has settled in this week.

I overheard someone say, "Imagine if you were only here for a day and all you could see was this fog! What a waste."

Of course it's not like you can see absolutely nothing. Most of this week you have, most of the time, at least a range of a city block--sometimes a little less, sometimes a lot less. But what you definitely lose are the sweeping vistas, the Canaletto views, the palazzi stretching from the Accademia Bridge to Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana, the basilica of San Marco and the clock tower beyond the Palazzo Ducale as seen from the bacino, and, of course--one of the most famous views of all--San Giorgio Maggiore seen from the molo.

I like to imagine one of the big cruise ships coming into the city under such conditions (though, in reality, they don't); to imagine the crowds lining the upper railing, and the others, mostly in pairs, penned into their private balconies. All of them looking from on high out onto a blank screen of fog, instead of the views they'd been led to expect by the promotional videos and other materials.

Would the operatic Broadway tune that I've heard some of the big ships filling their decks with during such transits help the passengers fill in the vast ghostly blank? With enough saccharine soar and swoop from the loudspeakers could a mass vision of the unseen city be conjured, coerced, dictated?

(In fact, the very last thing I'd want to be subjected to--be literally unable to escape from, short of jumping overboard--as I saw Venice for the first time, would be a soundtrack. Especially one selected by someone else! To have forever after the image of the city and some prerecorded rot linked in my mind.)

In realty, there's still plenty to experience in such conditions: the city reduced to a more intimate scale: chamber music, rather than opera; sketches of graphite or muted pastels instead of canvases.

I imagine one or two people arriving in Venice for just the day from clear sunny Tuscany not to find the city they'd been expecting--the city, in a sense, that they had already seen, even if they'd never been here before--but, instead, something like a game of exquisite corpse awaiting them.

Exquisite corpse (cadavre exquis), also known as picture consequences, was a game invented by the Surrealists in which a number of people draw a single human figure. Each person draws one section of the body, but the drawing paper is folded in such a way that each participant only sees a bare minimum of what the preceding participant has drawn. In my grade school we did a simplified version of this, in which we were given a fragment of an image--say, the torso of a basketball player--and were asked to draw the rest of the body and its surroundings.

Imagine the city of Venice our visitors might piece together from the mere fragments, the patches, that the fog allows them to view.

Visiting Piazza San Marco in particularly heavy fog, when the campanile is reduced to a stump and hardly more than the ground floor of the surrounding buildings is visible, what would prevent them from imagining three or four or more stories atop what's visible of both the Procuratie Nuove and Vecchie and the Ala Napoleonica? Their Piazza would no longer be, then, the "grandest drawing room in Europe," but, rather, tiered all around to a great height: Europe's greatest jewel-box opera house.

The ground-floor columns and arches of the basilica of San Marco might culminate, for all our visitors can see, in pyramidal forms and a forest of standards representing every region ruled by the old Venetian Republic at its most powerful. The base of the the campanile might support the modernist tower that progressive factions advocated for after its complete collapse in 1902.

Indeed, as far as our visitors can see, the campanile might actually be in the Austrian Successionist style of Oscar Wagner, whose criticism of the plan to rebuild the collapsed campanile "where it was, as it was" led in 1911 to Wagner's own modern style being satirized by the illustrator F. Graetz in the image at right (from the catalog of an exhibition at the Musei Civici Veneziani:        
In the fog the skyline of Venice could be, as far as anyone knows, thick with campanili (as medieval Florence was once punctuated by towers), in the most wide-ranging and fanciful styles, built by churches, parishes, and even wealthy individual families. Each of them the product of an aesthetic competition that continued for centuries, and which Pierre Cardin--traditionalist that he is--was merely trying to revive with his overweening tower plans for the nearby mainland (

Taking a ride down the Grand Canal in the fog our two visitors could imagine the obscured roof line of each and every palazzo adorned with the pair of obelisks that signal it once housed an admiral of the mighty Venetian fleet. Venice as the city of admirals!

In other words, Venice in the fog could become for our imaginary pair of day-trippers (or any of us) as malleable an entity as it is for Italo Calvino's Marco Polo in the book Invisible Cities. It could become the starting point for any number of fictions.

Or, to put it another way, our two visitors could get the whole city completely wrong. At least objectively speaking. But in getting it wrong would they experience the city more keenly than those of us who concern ourselves (sometimes excessively) with getting the places we visit right?   

Perhaps the more blanks we have to fill in in a city, the more closely we are compelled to look in order to try to decode (or, more likely, imagine) what's going on--because of fog or for whatever reason--perhaps the more we actually notice. And it's not hard to imagine that getting it so wrong might give our two day-trippers more to talk about between themselves than getting it right would.  

I suspect that much of the time many of us travel in search of some definitive view of wherever we are visiting. I mean, that's what guided tours and travel books and the bird's-eye overview promised by the big ships bloating through the San Marco bacino promise. But I guess what I'm wondering is whether in the midst (or mist) of foggy disorientation might it be possible to experience more rather than less of Venice?

Monday, November 9, 2015

From Venice to Rome and Back

A panorama of the Forum (please click for larger view)
To travel from Venice to Rome right now is to watch the world through the train window seem to undergo a gradual metamorphosis from the immaterial to the corporeal.

On a summer trip through Italy the heat and blaze of the long days, the brevity of one's stopovers, the soreness of one's own feet, and the crush of one's fellow tourists, can all make the most diverse locales seem as much alike as different. But not now.

In these days of early November, with their mists and fog, Venice seems to become as much a figment of the clouds' imagination as of the sea's. While clear sunny Rome, on the other hand--a good 10 or 12 Fahrenheit degrees warmer--seems the creation of its hills: as prodigious and intense as the mythical wrestler Antaeus, whose strength emanated from his mother earth. Hercules was only able to get the better of him by lifting him into the air--the kind of thing a writer like Italo Calvino might manage on the page. But being neither Calvino nor Hercules, I'm content to leave the city where it sits.  

For the autumn haze persists beyond watery Venice, all the way to Ferrara and beyond, lingering in a series of flat landscapes where a few tall lone trees are scattered sparsely about like the meager figures of one of Giacometti's Piazza sculptures, or in brief lines like the vases in a Giorgio Morandi still-life, the palette just as restrained. Autumn announces itself here quietly: a light yellow wash upon the leaves and a flattening of perspective, and with all the muted existential melancholy of Giorgio Bassani's novel The Heron or some of Michelangelo Antonioni's films--to cite two famous Ferraresi.

As you approach Florence the mists vanish, the landscape cheers, the world assumes mass. But not
the mass of Rome, not the mass of the ruins in the Forum, on the Palatine Hill, or scattered all around the city. Not the immensity of St Peter's and the Vatican Museums whose very massiveness seems--in spite of the church's rejection of pagan Rome--like nothing so much as a continuation of the old Empire by other means (though for many many centuries just as inclined to use violence). Not something entirely other, the revolution promised by its founder, but just the flip-side of the same coin: the victim (its myriad martyrs encrypted around the city) become the victimizer.

In any case, how marvelous it was to be in an actual city again! With its energy and its traffic and its mobs--of residents, not just tourists! As Florence did not, as Turin did not, as Genova did not, as Catania did not--as Palermo did somewhat--Rome reminded Jen and I of what we liked about New York City, the certain feel of it, for all the differences. Just as I began to wonder about what rents were like I happened upon her looking at an online real estate site.

But we returned to Venice, making the journey yesterday afternoon back into the mists of our ordinary life. As we approached the damp air overwhelmed the heat of the train car we rode in, which had tended toward the stifling for much of the trip. I shivered and put on a sweater, thinking of the warmth of Rome. And even the sight of fishing nets staked in the lagoon to either side of the railway bridge didn't entirely clear the appealing sense of that city from my bloodstream. But then, as we pulled into Santa Lucia station, Sandro started quite literally to bounce on his seat and whoop, then to exclaim, "We're home! We're home! We're home!" and so we were. So we are.

After living in Venice for five years you find yourself irresistibly drawn to images of boats, even from among the countless scenes depicted on the gargantuan columns of the emperors (this particular one celebrating Trajan)...  
...and of all the Venuses in a place like the Borghese Gallery this one, painted by Titian and reminiscent of similar figures of his still remaining in Venice, seems almost like coming across the image of an old neighbor in a strange city (detail from Titian's Venus Blindfolding Cupid)

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Peek Inside Sant' Andrea della Zirada

Sant' Andrea della Zirada is the pleasant little gothic church directly in front of the Piazzale Roma vaporetto stop for the 6 line; the one overshadowed, literally, by the elevated tram line running alongside it and, figuratively, by one's concerns about getting wherever one is going from Piazzale Roma. After being used as a private studio for some time by a sculptor, it was finally reopened to the public last spring as the site of an exhibition of refrigeration technology used for art preservation (

The sight of a man at work in the church last week (see image above) made me hope it might soon host another exhibit--though he didn't tell me anything specific when I quickly leaned in the slightly open door and asked him about it on my way somewhere else. At present I'm in Rome, but perhaps can find out more when I return next week.

For much more about this church--which, like the church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli was once situated at the western extreme of the city, with open views of the lagoon and mainland--please visit the fine Churches in Venice website ( or the equally interesting Churches of Venice website (

Added 12 November: And for a lot more images of the interior of the church, freshly posted (and taken last May), please visit the informative Hello World blog: