Sunday, August 1, 2010

All The Tea In China

Here is an interesting quote from Claude Monet:

     When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have
     before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever.  Merely think
     here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a
     streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact
     color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of
     the scene before you.
     (National Gallery of Art: The Collection)

I came across this passage on artist Karin Jurick's web-gallery.  The quote is self-explanatory, and I was reminded of it the other day while listening to Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" (1971).  I played a mind game with myself by applying Monet's advice to auditory perception: I tried to de-textualize the lyrics so that I could experience Van Morrison's voice as just sound-without-meaning, analogous to "an oblong of pink."  I succeeded only intermittently because word meanings insisted on making themselves known; I could not easily "forget" my automatic semantic processing of vocal “objects."

Still, when I could access Morrison's voice in this altered way –– as pure sound –– it seemed like a supple horn at play among drums, piano, organ, guitar, mandolin, and other horns.

   Tupelo Honey:
   Van Morrison

This auditory mind game was idly diverting but I love word meanings far more, and I appreciate a well turned lyric.  And in "Tupelo Honey," Van Morrison manages a quirky perspective shift through simple word usage.

As in this verse:

     You can take all the tea in China
     Put it in a big brown bag for me
     Sail right around the seven oceans
     Drop it straight into the deep blue sea
     She's as sweet as Tupelo honey
     She's an angel of the first degree
     She's as sweet as Tupelo honey
     Just like honey from the bee

Morrison refreshes a well-worn metaphor by taking it literally.  He says that the one he loves is of measureless value and that nothing, not even all the tea in China, would be worth her exchange.  He does this is by conjuring an image of real tea, which is to be put in a bag and dropped into the ocean: real tea, big brown bag, deep blue sea.  I am left with a concrete image of a giant tea bag slowly steeping in the ocean, and I am captured by the largeness of this idea.  I mean, that's a lot of love.

By treating a figurative expression literally, Morrison makes it new.  A tired idiom becomes an evocative conceit.
Which affirms an old truth, that it is bracing to see, hear, and think about familiar things afresh.  These enlivening perceptions are literally exra-ordinary.  It is something to see a house as a wash of color, it is something to invigorate an old idiom.

Let's close with a quote from Andrew Wyeth, on the occasion of a 1966-67 retrospective exhibition organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Its catalogue was written by art historian Edgar P. Richardson, and in it he shares this nugget:

     "It is not the country," [Wyeth] observed, as we were talking
     of one of the pictures in this exhibition, "but what you carry to
     it that makes an artist."
     (The Artist: His Life and Work, p. 8)  

By this definition, Claude Monet and Van Morrison are kindred spirits.


Galen Johnson said...

I like Van Morrison a lot and intersections of art and music are a favorite topic for me, so many thanks for this great post with such a rich menu of ideas. Monet's quote posted by Karin Jurick just about sums up impressionism and it is common to hear that the classical music of Debussey and Ravel was impressionist, but I don't know if impressionism pollinated other genres like Van Morrison. Impressionist listening seems like it would work best without the words, but I'm like you, I love the words a lot. This kind of listening brings to mind questions of synaesthesia too. Can we listen in the same way that we see? I am still trying to understand a writer who said: "I can hear what I see: a piano, or some leaves stirred by the wind. But I can never see what I hear. Between sight and hearing there is no reciprocity." He adds that hearing is closer to touch for both are experiences of participation, sharing, or contagion. This may be part of why sound, especially music, has such a particular soulful impact on us. I did feel sort of caressed when I listened to "Tupelo Honey" almost the way old hymns can do. When I googled "tupelo honey," I found out about the tupelo tree and its flowers that the bees turn into this particular varietal, but I also bumped into a Tupelo Honey Café in Asheville, NC where it happens we will be for a conference this fall. We will be sure to go, they are sure to have this honey, and I will be reminded of this delicious blog.

Kit said...

Thanks, Galen. There's much to chew on here. I actually thought I could (sort of) see what I hear, but that I needed my eyes closed to do it. Anyway, I tried to do it just now to 'The Girl From East 9th Street,' by Paul Desmond, and I failed completely. [I must've been remembering or misrmembering the 70's.]

I think hearing is closer to touch than other senses. There is a kind of impact sound makes on the eardrum. I was once told that deafness (as opposed to blindness) can carry with it the experience of being startled by people approaching into personal space. Also, I'm reminded of the auditory connection babies/toddlers have with their that the child can be playing in one space, but be connected to the sounds of mom, say, in the kitchen. One can hear around corners.

Thanks again.

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