The Philadelphia Museum Of Art, PMA to its friends, is one of our fair nation’s best museums. My wife Sandy and I visit pretty often. Its holdings are fantastic. What’s more, for years the museum has presented concerts on Friday nights, and we’ve been to a crazy number of them. During our Fridays at PMA we look at art for awhile and then hear music in the majestic Great Stair Hall. For artsy nerds like me, that’s usually a winning combination.
As we headed museumward on a recent Friday, we found ourselves in traffic hell. Our car windows were fogging up from steam coming out of our ears, but we wound up having a heck of a good time once we arrived. No pain, no gain, or something like that. Late-ish as it was though, we didn’t have barrels of time to check out art if we were to snare seats at a ringside cocktail table for the evening concert. Those seats ordinarily are claimed 45 minutes or more before concerts begin. When the preferred seating is taken, your option is to place your rear end upon the Great Stair Hall’s grand marble steps. And YOW, that’s a numbing backside experience.
And so we navigated to a modestly-sized and time-friendly exhibit, works by the not particularly well-known Dave Heath. To me and Sandy, he wasn’t even that, as we’d never heard of him. This show (it closes on February 21, 2016) is entitled Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs Of Dave Heath, and comprises numerous 35 mm photos, all in black and white, that Heath took from 1949 to 1969. Also on display is Heath’s multimedia slide show from 1969. This is the first major presentation of his early and midlife creations, and one of the few museum exhibitions that he ever has had. It was organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, with plenty of PMA input.
Sandy and I had the same reaction after looking at Heath’s photos for the first few minutes: “This guy is great,” we agreed. And I’m convinced that he is, or in any case was in the 1950s and 60s. The photographs are very beautiful and very dark, shades of black heavily predominating over those of white. I’ve always felt that this approach allows photographs to breathe emotionally, gives them depth and resonance.
Heath isn’t a chronicler of the natural world. He’s a people observer, usually in urban settings. And he is a lover of the close-up, often capturing folks deep in thought or in seeming isolation. His childhood was dreadful, and his work frequently reflects the hurt that probably never went away. But not all is aloneness or sadness in the Heathscape. Joyful images are here and there in the exhibit.
Dave Heath lives in Canada and is 84 years old. There’s not a lot of info about him in cyberspace. He was born in Philadelphia, grew up in foster homes and an orphanage, took up the camera in his late teens, and has had a full career as a photographer and photography teacher. His greatest fame and acclaim occurred in the 1960s, the decade in which he won two Guggenheim Fellowships and created the book for which he is best-known, A Dialogue With Solitude. The final pre-production copy of Dialogue is at PMA. Its 100 or so pages, mostly photographs, ring several gallery walls. Dialogue is divided into ten sections, among them Fate, Fragility And Diversity; Youth; Childhood; Ends And Beginnings. Dialogue is a deep photographic rumination on many aspects of the human plight.
Sandy and I ended up spending much more time with Heath’s images than we had anticipated. They are powerful. By the late 1960s though, Heath apparently felt that he had said all he could in black and white. He turned to color Polaroid picture-taking and later to digital photography. None of this is on PMA’s walls, and from what I gather isn’t well-known by the arts community. It’s a fine thing, though, that someone (the good folks at Nelson-Atkins and at PMA) has championed black and white Dave and decided to let the spotlight shine on him.
Show time was approaching. Sandy and I lucked out after Heath, grabbing two empty seats at a stage left cocktail table in the Great Stair Hall, a mere six feet from where Arun Ramamurthy soon would be bowing his violin. Arun Ramamurthy? Sandy and I knew as much about him as we had about Dave Heath an hour earlier. Brooklyn-based Ramamurthy, though, is a growing name to be reckoned with in classical Indian music and in musical cross-pollinations. At PMA he brought along Perry Wortman, on upright bass, and drummer/tabla player Deep Singh. The Arun Ramamurthy Trio began its first set at 5:45 PM. They played a hybrid of South Indian classical music and jazz.
When it comes to music, I’m an appreciator, not a scientist. I understand little about any musical genre’s technical side. Scales, chords, the inter-relationships of notes and how they shape harmonies . . . forget it, I’m at sea. But the big picture I understand, as did the 200 others listening to the Ramamurthy group. We all clapped madly after each piece. Sure, Arun’s melodies and voicings on violin would be pretty unfamiliar to most American ears, but they were beautiful.
In the Great Stair Hall, Arun sat on a platform, chairless and shoeless. He held his violin vertically, bowing with his right hand, working the strings with the fingers of his left. The trio played five songs in the first set, three of them originals, all drawn from or reflecting traditional South Indian classical ragas, melodies and motifs. The music was elastic, minor-keyed and highly improvised, improvisation being a major component of both classical Indian music and jazz.
Arun began song number one unaccompanied, coaxing mournful sounds from his instrument for three minutes. Wortman’s bass then entered — low, gripping notes played slowly, repeatedly — and Singh’s drums too. Singh played carefully, tantalizingly, creating a steady and simmering beat. One drumstick tapped a drum’s rim. The high hat and cymbals shimmered just so. All the while Arun stroked melancholy lines. This was Ramamurthy’s original song, Conception. I was reminded of All Blues, and other numbers, from Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue album.
The fifth song, an Arun original whose title I missed, found Deep Singh on tabla. The tune was energetic, Arun going pretty wild on violin, Wortman choosing notes eloquently and perceptively, as he did on each tune. Another thing I noticed was that Arun and Deep barely could keep their eyes off each other. They were in a strong musical relationship. And Singh’s fingers were absolutely flying, maybe wearing grooves in his tabla’s skins.
There was a sixth song, but it was not a full trio number. It was a classical raga played by two humans, Arun and tablaist Deep. They were joined not by Wortman but by a droning electronic accompaniment provided via an app on Arun’s smart phone. Amazing.
Dave Heath and The Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Another several hours well-spent at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.
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