Saturday, May 26, 2012

Measuring the Marigolds

The Fork - André Kertész

Last night, a strange thing happened here at Seat of Pants. I arrived home to a roaring gale, thankful that I'd got in the logs a couple of days ago, when the weather was borderline nice. I tossed my overnight bag on the floor, plunged into the hearth in my work clothes and lit the match. There are a lot of things about this week that beg to go up in smoke. A fire allows you to reflect. It's a window to wonder.

Lately, the longing for my first love - music - has wanted to express. I was never very good at it, I'll be the first to admit that. But, I have had moments when I've pleased myself exceptionally well by plonking away at the piano and singing a song, either of my own making or someone else's. It was easier when I had an actual piano and all I needed to do was open the lid and play. Weeks ago, I set up an old electronic keyboard and amp in breathless anticipation, but I still hadn't got the desire to play. And then, last night, I suddenly did.

After four years, even 'very rusty' would be an overstatement. I needed to choose my reawakening tune carefully. No point in setting oneself up to fail. Of the hundreds of tunes in The Real Book , I chose Inchworm. It is a sweet, simple tune by Frank Loesser, most memorable for me because it was in a favourite film of childhood, Hans Christian Andersen. And, crucially, I recalled the lyric of the refrain which goes something like this,

Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigolds
You and your ‘rithmatic
Will probably go far
Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigolds
Seems to me you'd stop and see
How beautiful they are

It's a children's song, a novelty. It's in The Real Book, the jazzer's manual of standard lead sheets, for a very good reason. A great many musicians have created something wondrous from this simple tune, not the least of them, John Coltrane.

And so, to my point, at last and finally. Re-imagining someone else's idea is very different from executing your own original idea. Sometimes because of, rather than despite my severe limitations as a player, I find quite a lot of 'me' goes into my musical interpretations. I think this as a good thing. Re-imagination owes the originator more than mere mimicry. It seems to me that the biggest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity in this enterprise, is to reconfigure and advance the simplest ideas while honouring their originality and integrity. My old friend Geoff Titley has achieved exactly this in his series After André Kertész.

Geoff Titley - Fork VI*

I loved this photograph immediately. It is an exquisite composition. Appreciation of it doesn't require  knowledge of the source photograph. I wasn't familiar with the Kertész picture, but once I'd looked at it, I saw that Geoff had used a very simple technique to perform a classic 'inchworm'. He had reversed the position of the fork so that the prongs point up instead of down, presenting an opposite point of view. The gloom expressed in the downturn of Kertész's fork is transformed into glee by the upturn in Geoff's. It's clean and clever. But he has done much more.

The element that makes this a great image, in my completely biased and inexpert view, is that Geoff has added something of himself, something that derives from his own time and experience. I recognise it because I share this time and experience. Growing up in the cultural blandness that was Australia in the 1960s, the black'n'white miracle of television cartoons animated our world. 'Everyone carries a shadow,' Carl Jung wrote, 'and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.' Jung considered the shadow 'the seat of creativity'.

Our childhoods were dominated by two giant shadows - the Second World War with its unfathomable human consequences and the Cold War with its incomprehensible, yet ever-present nuclear threat. If any of it could be articulated, it certainly wasn't done in the presence of young children. Because of this, we knew little of the world outside of our own domestic bubble. The space that should have been filled by knowledge was a vacuum into which only carefully prescribed learnings were injected at regulated intervals. It was interminably dull.

Cartoons were the key to unlocking our youthful imaginations in an era when Biggles and Anne of Green Gables were rendered ridiculously redundant by the destruction of most of Western Europe and a good deal of East and Southeast Asia. After this, only fantasy was going to cut it. Television cartoons had a hundred different ways of both exploiting our fears and lampooning them in a way that included children in this great, ironic joke that comprised 'the world'. Through them, we learned not to fear the unknown in the way that our parents did.

Shadows in cartoons may introduce menace and then immediately subvert it. An advancing razor-backed monster can turn out to be a mouse carrying a hairbrush or a pouncing grizzly bear just a teddy toppling forward. My first vivid recollection of the role of shadows in cartoons comes from The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia. When Mickey Mouse, as the apprentice, takes an axe to the rogue broomstick he has animated to collect water, the 'murder' is represented in shadow. Perhaps Disney was a Jungian. Apparently, he and Jung did know each other.

In toontown, shadows can even assume independence and take vengeance on their caster. When you've grown up with cartoon shadows, you never take a real-life shadow for granted. Adam Elliot's film Mary and Max is steeped in this understanding, and all the more brilliant for it. Geoff's cartoonising of the shadow in his image also captures this knowing with a deftness and lightness that just makes me smile and smile. And by these small steps are marigolds measured.

*You will notice that this reproduction has a watermark. If you would like to buy an unadulterated copy of this image, go to Geoff's Website.