Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals: Simulation in the Whimsical

There’s this whimsical little musical suite that I love called The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns that consists of fourteen movements, with each representing a different group or species of animal:

  1. Introduction and Lion’s Royal March
  2. Hens and Cocks
  3. Wild Asses: Swift Animals
  4. Tortoises
  5. The Elephant
  6. Kangaroos
  7. Aquarium
  8. Personages with Long Ears
  9. The Cuckoo in the Deep Woods
  10. Aviary
  11. Pianists
  12. Fossils
  13. The Swan
  14. Finale

Since its composition in 1886, different pieces have been appropriated by Disney’s FantasiaHow I Met Your Mother, the film version of Charlotte’s WebThe Godfather Part II, and Weird Al. One recorded version features Jack Prelutsky reading from his poetry. It’s lends itself well to an audience of children, with its lack of pretension and its diversity of sounds and pitches.

Each of those sounds attempts, either as a group or individually, to portray the character featured in the movement. It’s representational music, and it isn’t meant to deceive. It doesn’t seem to be attempting to force the listener to come to some sort of conclusion about the banality or beauty or simplicity of existence (though the inclusion of pianists and fossils in this tracklist certainly does comment on mortality and human nature, but those are other posts)—it does all of these things, instead, with ease.

Saint-Saëns decision to compose a suite that doesn’t merely wish to convey a story or a set of emotions, but that characterizes a set of familiar beings in a way that simultaneously brings them to life and renders them art objects whose existence can’t quite be traced back to anything solid, had to have been intentional. These wild asses and tortoises and swift animals are taken from the real—with physical proof of their existence—to the imaginary and the fragmentary. They’re shells of their earthly selves (doubly so, in the case of the fossils), but  Saint-Saëns’ compositions still allow them to express so much. And that’s all Saint-Saëns seems to want: for his carnival to express the feelings for him, no matter their fantastical existence. Reality doesn’t seem to be the primary object here, despite the (intentional) fact that each movement is founded inextricably in the real.

Published at See Gauge Blog on April 4, 2013.

Truman Capote and the Suspicion Following Extreme Self-Confidence

If Marcel Duchamp challenges art and reality blatantly, Truman Capote does so perhaps unintentionally.

In Cold Blood is a book that’s allegedly one-hundred percent true. The quotations and facial expressions and settings were captured in Capote’s astounding memory and transferred to the page with perfection. Allegedly. Hundreds of hours of interviews with the novel’s protagonists, murderes of the Clutter family in small-town Kansas, conducted without note-taking or recording, made their fragmented way into the book’s contents without destruction or even mistaken articles or prepositions. Allegedly.

Capote had a bit of an ego.

By making the claim that In Cold Blood is a document filled only with the purest reality, the reader is immediately skeptical of the work’s, to use Stephen Colbert’s word, truthiness. It’s only a representation of reality, after all. It’s a secondary source. It’s a depiction of what happened in the real world.

Further, it’s a story in a book. Whether or not it immortalizes the horrific murder of an innocent family, the words on the page come from Capote’s mind. It is a story written in his voice—a sort of stolen reality, if you think about it as a subject appropriated for art (and, knowing the party-boy Capote, fame). The reality is Capote’s.

But then, all reality is subjective, and all art is representative of that subjective reality, so art is two-times removed from the truth.

Published at See Gauge Blog on March 21, 2013.

Marcel Duchamp’s Unrealiable Narrator

When I think of unrealiable narrators, my mind sweeps from Holden Caulfield, The Dramatic; to James Frey, The Liar; to Marcel Duchamp, The Challenger.

Duchamp’s famous for his “readymades”—ordinary, “found” objects turned into gallery-ready art. Meant to question the content and form of what was culturally considered “art,” these pieces looked something like this:



Yes, that is a urinal turned on its side and signed with a false name. No, Marcel Duchamp does not frequently refer to himself as “R. Mutt.”

This piece, called Fountain (1917), is obviously provocative. It’s motives, as a part of the Dada movement, include prompting the viewer to reconsider the definition of art—a lofty objective.

But there’s a discussion of “truth” here, that I think often gets overshadowed by that more general, powerful goal. It is a toilet claiming to be art, after all.

Duchamp’s signing of “R. Mutt” on the piece is a blatant lie, if you take it as an artist’s signature (unless you want to argue that Duchamp is, here, admitting to an alter ego, or to the construction of a previously unreleased identity). It’s misleading at the very least—particularly to an uniformed audience.

If you take the signature as some sort of graffiti, you have to wonder two-ish things:

  1. Is the graffiti real? And if so, where did Duchamp acquire this urinal? Who is the real R. Mutt? Is R. Mutt a creation of some other unknown artist—who may be fictional him/herself?
  2. If the graffiti is a performance of graffiti—that is, produced as part of an artist’s statement by Duchamp, does that make the entire piece a performance? And is it a performance of art, or a performance of a performance of art?

We know that Duchamp did indeed paint the signature himself, so his inclusion of this signature is an inclusion of the false, of the representational, of the honest in its fabrication. Because Duchamp is not R. Mutt, R. Mutt’s signature-only existence (as far as we know), Fountain is a portrayal of what could have been, but isn’t.

Published at See Gauge Blog on March 11, 2013.

The Dream Conclusion in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

While Salvador Dalí’s paintings contain the contents of dreams remembered and dreams discovered, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland directly addresses the difference between reality and subconcious imagination.

The book is an obvious example of the classic “I woke up and realize it had all been a dream” ending. It’s a tactic viewed as immature or lazy in contemporary writers, but Carroll pulls it off with finesse.

This might be because such a twist ending, in the life of little Alice, does more than quickly excuse unrealistic conversations with wide-smiled cats. Alice, a girl who talks to her kitten and spends her afternoons daydreaming in the shade of springtime foliage, doesn’t quite live in reality in the first place. So, Carroll’s eradication of the “reality” of the bulk of Alice’s events just sends her back to the world she fills with the imaginary anyway.

Alice’s imaginative nature calls into question the reality, or unreality, of her phantasmagorical dream itself. She’s an intentionally unrealiable narrator, blending the real world with her fantasies. It’s easier to fall into the rabbit hole that is her brain when you can’treally tell where the dreams end and real life begins.

Published at See Gauge Blog on February 27, 2013.