In May, my husband and I traveled to the Peabody Essex Museum
in Salem, Massachusetts to see the Joseph Cornell retrospective.
If you are not familiar with his boxes and collages, it's well
worth a Google or a trip to a library or bookstore with a decent
art section. Cornell, who died in 1972, lived in a small world;
he never traveled far from his home in Flushing, Queens. It
was his imagination and what he created from it that was boundless
The exhibit offered glimpses into his personal life, such as
family photographs and letters. There was a small recreation
of his studio, augmented by photographs that showed Cornell's
immense and orderly collection of "stuff." He collected
ephemera, such as twigs, glass, cork, sheet music, and magazines,
to use in his boxes and collages. As we slowly progressed from
gallery to gallery, we viewed his complex artwork under dim
lighting, necessary because of its fragility.
Prior to this exhibit, I did not feel particularly connected
to Cornell because I had only seen small, isolated examples
of his boxes. The beauty of a retrospective is that curators
borrow a sizable number of an artist's work from many phases
his or her career. It is safe to say that I've become an avid
admirer of Joseph Cornell's work.
Instead of the church-like silence frequently found in museums,
the main gallery was infused with selections taken from Cornell's
record collection. I was delighted to notice that I own much
of the same music as he did.
I cannot make art without music. I cannot write with
music playing. It is that simple. I do not want to embark on
an exploration of which parts of my brain are engaged, but this
is a major difference in my creative process. As I write this,
the sound of the electric saw from across the street is making
it difficult to concentrate. However, prose writing is easier
for me than writing poetry, so I try to ignore it and continue.
When I write poetry, I need to hear the sounds and rhythms in
my head, to play with words, to hear how phrases bump or flow.
No wonder there's not enough room for both.
I head into the studio and decide first what music will fill
my space. It doesn't take long before I have loaded four CD's
into the changer. How do I choose from my large collection?
It's much like having a particular hunger. I never crave "food."
It's always something specific: pasta, green peppers, ice cream,
popcorn, or a tomato sprinkled with salt.
Do I want big and emotional? I reach for anything Leonard Bernstein
conducted or composed. Do I want ethereal? I reach for Kathleen
Battle. Or Leontyne Price. Or Enya. Do I want sarcastic and
cynical? I reach for Steely Dan. Do I want grand? I reach for
Verdi, Bizet or Beethoven. Do I want my heart wrenched? I reach
for Mahler. Or Copland. Or Gershwin. Or Ella Fitzgerald singing
Cole Porter. Do I want to sail on a surreal sea? I reach for
Miles Davis. Or John Coltrane. Or The Modern Jazz Quartet. Do
I want bliss? Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, or Prokofiev.
I'll end with ten frequently played CD's, with the acknowledgment
that ZZ Top and Annie Lennox are reserved for long drives alone
in the car. There is no particular order and if I were doing
this next week, it would probably be a different list.