I try, in my music, to locate and develop the deep harmony between seemingly disparate materials: exotic and familiar, primitive and sophisticated, old and new. Maybe it’s inevitable, then, that to my eye my New York apartment looks like my music sounds. Much of the furniture is contemporary, as is some of the art: but some of both are from long ago and far away. A large black and green abstraction frames a standing 6-foot carved and highly embossed man with a snake wrapped around his feet from New Guinea. (The abstraction is the only art piece in the apartment I made myself. Whatever else you can say about it, it works with the décor, and is beautifully, beautifully framed.)
The sophistication of a lot of “primitive” art fills me with a visceral excitement, and while I don’t own much of the work of the acknowledged 20th century masters, I can see their inspiration in the works that I do own.
Everywhere in Picasso you can see the same exaggerated shapes, bold, limited colors, and captivating air of comic menace you can see in my New Guinea “canoe mask,” while Braque could have signed his name to my wooden mask with Cassawary feathers from the same area. The thrilling oil The Garden of Eden, by the extraordinary Haitian artist Salnave Philippe-Auguste, owes nothing, and everything, to Rousseau; likewise the Inuit lithograph “Playing kickball with the demons,” of which Miró would have approved. (I like to think the Inuit would have approved of Miró, too.)
Music is everywhere, and, happily, a little of what’s performed is mine: so I get to travel (sometimes more than I’d like) and to look at the art of many cultures. When I see something that speaks to me, I bring it back to join with the family of my other pieces.
So, I would like to tell you about how the various pieces I own came to be. Most of them come from musical trips, but not all.
Mark Adamo and I had taken our first trip to South Africa in 2002. It is a gloriously varied country, and its arts are fascinating. We were staying overnight at an inn in the Blue Mountains outside of Kruger Park, and wandered into a store backed by a wall of wooden masks. I noticed two large bronze masks in a distant corner, blanketed with dust. When they were cleaned, I was stunned by the minute detail of the bronzework: imagine two noble faces (almost Comedy and Tragedy) each with fantastical creatures perched upon its head. The masks were forged in Benin, in East Africa, a storied port on the ancient Athenian shipping routes: a good portion of the history of the ancient world could be told through a survey of Beninese trade. The masks are enormously heavy and hang side by side in my living room over the mantelpiece, where they harmonize effortlessly with the Art Nouveau scrollwork over the (erstwhile) fireplace. They were created as guardian images for temple doors in the middle of the 19th century.
In 1986 I accompanied the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their first tour of Australia. I was the composer-in-residence with the orchestra, then led by the great Sir Georg Solti. One stop on the trip was Brisbane, and when there I found a store that specialized in New Guinea artifacts. A moment’s browse stretched to eight hours, and I ended up hauling a trove of this remarkable work home. It is hard to date wooden carvings and paintings from New Guinea because of the heat and humidity that roast and soak the place, so I can’t say how old the pieces are. Who cares? I love my surreally elongated crocodile head—floating like a space ship with razor teeth. The fantastic humor of the canoe figure and the mask with a large proboscis delight me, while the austere 6-foot gentleman— calmly ignoring the snake wrapped around his legs as it devours his penis—strikes me as the ultimate fertility symbol. These artists lack names, but not personalities: and I don’t think big-named artists like Piccasso or Braque could possibly have struck out in the modern directions they did without knowing this “primitive” art.
One summer I flew to Luxor to scout locations for a proposed music festival. In 1976, Luxor was the Tanglewood of the Nile—if you could overlook the lung-shriveling heat, rampant dysentery, and nose-swarming flies. Better, I thought, to spend my days searching for the glorious art of ancient Egypt in the local stores and markets: but all the pieces looked mass-produced and uninteresting. As I was boarding the train back to Cairo, a little boy trotted up to me hawking this beautiful Lapis Ibis. He swore to me that it was ancient. I didn’t believe him, but its beauty needed no authentication. Home it came.
In the early ‘80’s I accompanied James Galway to Israel for performances of my Pied Piper Fantasy in Tel Aviv. When I had free days, of course, I drove to Jerusalem.
This was before the horrors of 9/11, and I felt quite free to roam around. A little store in the Arab quarter offered sculptures of animals hammered from pieces of camel bone. For some reason, I fell in love with this peacock. Why I cannot tell you– there were other beautiful pieces – but it spoke to me, and, I’m afraid, the salesman knew it. So I acquired a treasure, if not a bargain.
My cousin keeps a house in San Miguel de Allende, and Mark and I accepted her invitation to visit in the summer of 2002. It was a beautiful, albeit Americanized, town: lots of elegant stores, offering pieces as pretty as they were repetitive. In the back of one of these stores squatted a good-sized terracotta animal figure, so begrimed that nothing else could be discerned about it. As it had been there for months, the salesperson knew neither what it was, nor what to charge for it; but we haggled, and I brought it home. When it arrived in New York, I took it (and myself) into a bathtub and we spent a very careful hour with soft soap and warm water. What emerged was an unbelievably beautiful painted jaguar, intricately embossed and vibrant with red and white paint and gold leaf. It is one of my favorite pieces, and sits alone on my piano in my studio in the country, jaws agape, threatening the room.
This wonderful piece came from my local antique store in Kent Cliffs, New York, a town which had consisted of a lone delicatessen until the deli closed two years ago. The proprietor, a Mr. Lasser, then in his ‘80’s, knew I liked unusual objects, so when he returned from various auctions he would call me if he’d found something interesting. He showed me this wooden rearing horse, and I was sold. I had to restore a missing pole and stand to make it rear—there was a hole in the sculpture suggesting such a purpose—but now it’s rampant on my piano in the studio of my New York apartment. No parts move on this wooden sculpture—excepting for the testicles, which vibrate freely, hanging on a hook.
I first visited Quebec in 1960. It is a gorgeously neo-European city, packed with great restaurants, and from it I made day-trips into the Laurentian Mountains. The Chateau Frontenac—a castle masquerading as a hotel—contained a store selling art made by the Inuit of Hudson’s Bay. Amidst the thousand carvings of polar bears, I found some wonderful hand-colored lithographs generated by a job-creation program for the Inuit. I bought a funny Miro-like picture called “Playing kickball with the demons.” Since then, I have traveled to Iqalawit, the Inuit capital on Hudson’s Bay, and have marveled at the tundra, the Northern Lights, and the Inuits themselves as they carve their sculptures.
In 2007 Mark Adamo and I returned to Quebec, so of course I paid a visit to the Inuit gallery at the Frontenac. This time I returned with a quasi-Japanese print called “The Kelp Gatherer” from 2005. Obviously the work in Hudson’s Bay had become much more sophisticated in the 45 years separating the two pictures.
This story is not at all romantic. I was visiting my mother in Florida, and trying to cheer her by redoing her apartment. I’d given her some wonderful sculptures from New Guinea and a large cabinet from Africa to go with her new modern furniture, but she needed a vibrant large painting to complete her living room. I scoured the regional art shops, and in a gallery in Coral Gables found exactly what I wanted – a generously-scaled painting by Salnave Philippe-Auguste, whom I was to learn was one of the great painters of Haiti. My mother enjoyed the painting until she passed away, and now it hangs in my house. Notice the hidden animals in the painting (like the doe near the center).
In 2003 I was invited to Beijing for performances with the symphony and a lecture at the conservatory. That October was sunny, so I rode a bicycle around the startling modern/ancient city. Before I left I went to the antique section, and found this beautiful painted-wood figure of a court scribe. In the back of the carving is an open space, and there is a paper inserted into it. I was to learn this was a particular genre of portrait sculpture; the paper contains the history of the sculpted man.
I retain an obsession with the world of Ancient Rome. The mixed sophistication and barbarity of this pre-Christian era is endlessly interesting to me. I marvel at its art, its science, its politics; and see all too clearly the parallels between its time and our own. An art that is not entirely devoted to virgins and crucifixes is refreshing to me – especially considering what happened in art and culture for the next thousand years or so. I bought this piece through Sotheby’s as a reward for surviving a particularly grueling season of travel and work. Sly and beautiful, eyebrow raised, this handsome satyr embodies and defies moral convention in a quintessentially Roman manner. And therefore he sits upon my desk, where I can see him every day.