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Filtering by Tag: Aubrey Allison

A Shimmering Mass

Aubrey Allison

22 A Shimmering Mass copy "Thus, writing narrative—and reading it—is an act of faith that places us in time and space, locating us in a chronology that suggests by its very order both the cause and meaning of our lives." —Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today.


Lubomyr Melnyk has spent his life pioneering a new kind of music for piano: continuous music. "The basic concept," he says, "is that it's a continuous stream of sound, unbroken. There are no phrases of slow notes, rapid notes, and pauses, the way other music is built.”

Listening to continuous music takes some getting used to. (This is especially so when you hear the music live. The sounds move through a room and bounce off walls differently than they do in a recording.) It requires a kind of attention that I, at least, had to cultivate, not unlike meditation. Melnyk himself has spent decades cultivating these skills: he’s trained his hands to play almost twenty notes per hand per second, and some of his pieces last forty-five unbroken minutes or longer. The effect is fundamentally different than classical and other conventional forms of music. It’s music to get lost in—you must get lost in it in order to follow it.

Continuous music is not built around the traditional structure of melody; rather, it is a sonic space Melnyk creates in which the sound of the piano itself flourishes. Notes build upon and interact with one another in a way that is fluid and almost out of control, almost like chaos. Once you get used to this, classical piano compositions start to feel stiff and incomplete in contrast. Melnyk compares himself this way: "Classical pianists, they live in the music they're playing. They live in the sonata; they live in the piano concerto. They don't live in their fingers."

Continuous music fascinates me in part because it seems like an antidote to an over-emphasis on story. I’m suspicious of story, of the popular push to understand our lives as part of a larger narrative. God’s narrative. In part, story is an alternative to the conception of Truth as propositional—laws, dogma, rational systems, assertions to be proved or disproved. When Christians understand their faith as participation in a divine story, Truth can operate in many different ways—experienced, incarnated in individual lives, unspeakably complex.

But I suspect that the idea of life in a narrative structure—even if it’s a structured unknowing—is shaping my expectations in a way that stops me from being entirely present. I wonder if, when I imagine my confusions, pains, encounters, and observations as material to one day be grasped and threaded together into a coherent arc—I wonder if I’m stopping short of a threshold where life is more unwieldy, but also deeper and more luminous.

When he plays, Melnyk keeps his foot on the sustain pedal, lifting the dampers away from the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely and the notes to decay naturally. With the dampers lifted, surrounding piano strings can also vibrate in sympathy with strings whose vibrations are mathematically related to their own, meaning that many strings vibrate without being struck. New patterns emerge from their interactions. At times, it’s difficult to tell if their swells are real or imagined.

When I live in anticipation of divine narrative in my own life, I suspect I’m living in the sonata, in the concerto.

I want to know what it’s like to live in my fingers.

Instead of a melody, a progression of notes, the notes in Melnyk's music are a shimmering mass, accumulating and undulating through the space around him. When you are in a room with Melnyk playing piano, you are in a room where sounds and harmonic relationships are bouncing through the space and compounding one another, creating swells and ripples in the air. There is Melnyk, alive in his fingers, and there is the music, continually escaping structure, continually expanding.

What else is there to do but listen?

Paintings above by Alex Kanevsky

Guided By Our Sense of Beauty

Aubrey Allison

Observatoire-seriesThe subjects of Noémie Goudal’s Observatories photographs aren’t real. Look closely at the architecture. Notice the grid of seams. They're made of print-outs. Goudal says she places the structures “as if they were a story being told. The viewer knows it’s fiction; he can see the paper, he can see it’s a construction. But still gets into it. It’s telling a narrative.”

This is the kind of narrative, it might go without saying, that is meant to be evocative, not informative. It opens up possibilities. The real answer to the question "What happened?" isn't relevant.

So what is it about the images that changes when we see that the buildings aren’t real?

I feel invested in this question because Goudal’s sense of narrative resonates with the way we craft narratives out of our own lives. We are expected to do this in hindsight, but we also do it as we occupy each moment. The stories we’ve lived continue to unfold in the present, and when we live with them in mind, however nuanced they may be, however lightly we may manage to hold them—isn’t it possible that we’re not telling ourselves the truth?

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes that "novelistic" does not mean "unrealistic" or "untrue to life." We find motifs in our lives—for example: a woman enjoys an intimate Beethoven concert, her first experience of culture. Several weeks later she meets a man in a restaurant while Beethoven is playing on the radio and she decides to run away with him to the city. The stories we form about our own lives can hinge on larger or more complex things than hearing Beethoven, but the effect is the same:

“Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life....Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of great distress,” Kundera writes.

This kind of meaning is real, even if it is something we construct. Anyone who denies this, says Kundera, "deprives his life of a dimension of beauty."

Noticing the seams in Noémie Goudal's Observatories doesn't change the images. The buildings are still real, even if they are not what we expect. Goudal built them, and they occupied that landscape, and we can look at the photographs now and they're beautiful. Whether or not it’s true may depend on the kind of truth you’re looking for. But in this kind of narrative, a correct answer isn’t the point.

The Birth of Innocence

Aubrey Allison

birth of innocence

This painting is titled The birth of innocence.

It is rich with color. Placed alongside artist Julien Spianti's other paintings, this scene appears expansive and bright. It is part of a series called Memento Vivi, which includes paintings with titles such as sin of repetition and sin of trust. These scenes are close to grayscale, and they don’t reach the edges of the canvas, as if part of each moment has been lost to memory.

But Birth of innocence is a departure in content as well as style: Spianti is showing us two moments in time.

The couple is also the subject of another painting, a dark moment in an unfinished room:


But when the boy comes in, the scene opens up.

Why is he here? And that title: birth of innocence? Innocence is what we lose. We fall. Even the explanation of redemption and rebirth somehow doesn’t explain to me the boy’s posture of tenderness. The gentle dip of his shoulder. If this is some kind of redemption, why has he entered into a past moment?

In an essay titled “The Limit,” Christian Wiman writes, "There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive."

Twelve years later, he wrote in My Bright Abyss, "every intellectual growth [must] remain rooted in that early experience of ultimate insight, ultimate unknowingness.... What sort of understanding could be emptier than one that diminishes or erases the moments that made understanding essential in the first place?"

It is both paintings together that make Birth of innocence so strikingly rich. The couple exists in a moment that remains unchanged except to layer it in time, to be entered into and opened up.

It is not an act of hopelessness to say that we carry our experiences with us always. There are hurts that will go on happening inside of us even while there is healing, too. Redemption is not the same as restoration. Redemption undoes no pain, reduces nothing. It expands us. It is a deepening, opening always more and more.

Living with the Fragments

Aubrey Allison

Daniel Barkley

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”  ― Flannery O'Connor

There is a picture circulating on Facebook of a gray ceramic bowl that has been broken and repaired, its cracks filled with gold. Kintsukuroi. The caption reads: (n.) (v. phr.) “to repair with gold”; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.


The sentiment resonates. We have all been wounded and broken, and we all can, at least most of the time, acknowledge some blessing. More than that, kintsukuroi marks an event in the history of an object. It tells a story. And the story ends in restoration.

But this feels too neat to me. It feels dishonest. There are wounds that can’t be painted smoothly over with gold. What about the fractured parts that will never be put back together, will never take the same shape again?

Over and over in a million different ways we learn the heaviness of the world, learn to navigate its depth and its jagged edges. It is an act of faith to live with the fragments, even the ones unrepaired by gold, even while there is no resolution, not yet.


Paintings above by Daniel Barkley: “Vincent B, Arms Crossed,” “Study for Golden Boy,” “Vincent, etude pour Golden Boy,” arranged in this sequence by the author.


How do you tell yourself the story you're in?

Aubrey Allison

22 firstchoice How do you tell yourself the story you're in? “Literature differs from life,”says James Wood, “in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice.”In time, the amorphous details will fall into place, or else we’ll forget them. We will be able to frame our life in narrative. The purpose of our pain will be revealed. But until then?

Photographer Uta Barth says “people are slightly puzzled by how to relate to [her] work, because it doesn't give them any of the things that a traditional photograph would give them.”What the photographs offer is basic: light. Light shining onto a wall through a window. Light that is usually the background, or an accent, cropped so that this periphery is now our focus. Her photos are clean and well-composed. The plays of light she captures are familiar. Initially, it seems too ordinary.

Barth makes her viewers aware of the act of seeing. It is the initial confusion, the “questioning and reorientation" that is "the point of entry and discovery....The 'meaning' is generated in the process of 'sorting things out.'"

I find myself now noticing the way light falls on my carpet, the way it composes itself on my wall, shifts and fades throughout the evening. This is more useful to me than encouragements that eventually, I will look back on my life and it will be a grand story. Will this longing be fulfilled? Will I outgrow it? Maybe I don’t need an answer. I can notice the amorphous details without explaining them. I am at a point of entry, and right now, that’s meaning enough.

(Photos by Uta Barth)