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The Construction of Boston

APRIL 2, 2007
musical doodles while waiting for the concert to start
"The Construction of Boston" is a short opera by Scott Wheeler. The text for it comes from a 1962 poem by Kenneth Koch who wrote it for the artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, and Niki de Saint Phalle. They did one sold-out performance in New York. The text was later discovered by Wheeler who orchestrated it for full chorus, soloists, and full orchestra. The Boston Cecilia (with which my wife Stephanie sings)  performed it in Jordan Hall yesterday.

Why might this be interesting to artists and ilustrators today? Who are Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Ste. Phalle? We're illustrators, not artists!

Firstly, the text is funny, accessible and poetically engaging. The music is vibrant and exacting and demands great skill to play while being completely beautiful and tonal. This is a place where art and illustration have an uncomfortable alliance. Art can't be this hermetic thing sealed in its little ivory tower and why should illustration limit its ambition to cereal boxes and lifestyle magazines? Illustration does exist in the world of ideas AND the world of commerce.
"Shooting Picture" 1961 by Niki de Saint Phalle (shot at by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns)
Robert Rauschenberg should be familiar to most of us. He was/IS a provocative painter, printmaker, sculptor who propelled pop art into a more politcal, theatrical and personally charged realm in the 1960s and 70s.
Jean Tinguely
came out of Dada and Contructivism to create fantastic and ungainly metal sculptures that moved, exloded and self-destructed. They exist as potentially threatening (and light hearted!) jokes in urban settings that make the passerby consider their everyday assumptions.
Niki de Ste. Phalle:
  painter, collage, bricolageur, sculptor. One of my absolute favorite artists. As her career started to take off in the early 60's, she was doing these large assemblages that incorporated lots of stuff including balloons filled with paint. These artworks would then be completed by shooting guns at them which made the balloons  burst and covering the assemblage with rivulets of oozing paint.  Right in the middle of New York or Paris, all these luminaries would be  shooting guns at paintings and drinking red wine!
Krista River
Quickly then, back to "The Construction of Boston" (or anywhere for that matter). In the poem and opera, art is used to tell an unconventional history in which artists are colossi engaged in nothing less than Creation (in the Biblical sense). Rauschenberg creates the topography and climate and brings the people. They have no place to live to get out of or enter into the New England climate so the Spirit of Boston (sung by the entrancing mezzo-soprano Krista River) brings the god-like Tinguely on board to build buildings and create  harmony between Nature and City. Soon it is all too apparent that Beauty is missing and the Spirit summons Niki who with her magic pistols creates beauty and hope for the hard working citizens.
Sharla Nafziger
The character of Niki de Sainte Phalle is sung with tremendous feeling by Sharla Nafziger.
The other soloists included tenor William Hite and baritone Christopheren Nomura and contralto Elizabeth Anker.

The long and short of all this (if you kept up with me this far!) is that Art is vital to people as individuals and as communities. Not only does it tell us our history and who we are, Art tells us who we want to be.
Topical: Recommended