atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale

Cy Twombly passed away this week. In thinking about his work over the past few days, I am reminded of something pianist Roger Woodward wrote regarding Iannis Xenakis' Keqrops:


It was late November and already bitterly cold in New York as the Philharmonic attendant led me through an open area backstage at Lincoln Center where a reasonable Steinway was waiting at one side. I warmed up with some Preludes and Fugues, passages of sixteenths from Bach's D minor Concerto and then transposed them into a similar tempo for passages in sixteenths from Keqrops. They complemented each other in every way. The Bach seemed new; the Xenakis old, as if from antiquity.

Many have commented on the relationship between Twombly's oeuvre and antiquity. On a simple level this is due in part to the artist's allusions to the distant past in his titles, poetic quotations and imagery. But like Xenakis, Twombly's works unleash a visceral intensity and gestural "crudeness" that abandons more familiar (comfortable) methods of expressivity. The New York Times entitled its Twombly obituary "American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path." Words such as "scribble" and "child-like" may well capture the larger effect of certain Twombly works, but quite often these terms have been used to intentionally undermine the great care with which the artist composed all elements of his paintings, drawings and sculptures. Careful examination reveals the subtle fluidity and cohesion that emanate from his floating wax crayon marks, violent whorls of color, primitive shapes/imagery and texts that straddle legibility and visual abstraction while simultaneously opening up countless extra-visual associations.

  Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor)  from   Kewing   via Flickr

Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the shores of Asia Minor) from Kewing via Flickr

And then there is Twombly's sense of scale. Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) - (see image below), a massive triptych measuring 16 meters wide, features vast quantities of virtually empty space extending from the middle to left canvases. One sees Twombly's boats (a motif he regularly deployed) receding out of the explosions of color and text on the right side, and venturing into the empty space that dramatically functions as an infinite maritime expanse - Catullus returning to Italy following his brother's death. Again, to apportion so much canvas area to unadulterated space is a daring choice that beautifully conveys the isolation and smallness of the boats and mankind in general.

Twombly's handling of scale coupled with the clear right-to-left linearity of Say Goodbye Catullus, have always fascinated me as a composer. Scale/proportion strike me as common threads that connect the different parameters of space and time. The composer's "space" stems in part from a piece's total duration, a factor that directly impacts the dispersing of sound materials within. Much of what I've discovered in this area relates back to visual artists like Twombly who, whether creating a sense of linearity or not, so clearly understand how a work's scale relates to the surrounding space and, most importantly, the viewer.

I'll close with Anne Carson's translation of poem 101 by Catullus, written upon the death of his brother. Twombly's Say Goodbye Catullus depicts the poet returning to Verona after visiting his brother's grave in Asia Minor.


Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed -
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this - what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials -
accept! soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell