Fallback Friday: Rhythmic Transfusions

By Tereza Belfort

February 26, 2021

Glenn Gould performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fifteen Variations With Fugue, Op.35 ‘Eroica’ in E-flat major” (1960).

In her elegant essay Rhythmic Transfusions from 2016, writer Tereza Belfort compares a filmed 1960 piano performance by Glenn Gould with the raw, fleshy paintings of artist Francis Bacon. Though the celebrated pianist and the tortured artist may seem an offbeat pairing, Belfort draws their respective oeuvres to the forefront and makes a compelling case for the way both make use of unlikely angles to elicit a flow of energy from their respective mediums. Gould’s upper body “contrives and relaxes several times,” she writes. “His head whirls and draws imaginary circumferences in the air.” Of a figure in one of Bacon’s paintings Belfort observes, “[he] appears frozen in the midst of a series of spasmodic movements and seems to be trying to escape from his suit…but also from his own body.” This sensitive reading of both performance and painting underscores the contrapuntal in both artists’ work—an element of utmost significance to each of them.

Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief

The legs of the grand piano are inflexible. They have to be strong, vertical, and rigid enough to sustain a heavy complex of strings, wires, hammers, and dampers. Everything is mathematical inside the shell-shaped box. The instrument rests in its austere harmony, meticulously constructed to generate vibrations that can translate into melody. Positioned on the circular elevation at the center of the stage, the piano stands against curtains that descend from the ceiling and form entrances to the dark vacuity of the backstage. Eighty-eight keys wait for the pianist’s hands, and if one were able to look very, very closely, one would see the strings inside the body of the piano slightly vibrating in anticipation, producing a suppressed whining.

Sitting on a chair and wearing a suit, the pianist has an awkward haircut. He salutes his anxious partner and prepares to interact with wood, plastic, and steel. Two fingered creatures crack in the air above the instrument exhibiting the lively articulation unique to human hands. The piano desires that articulation and agitates the atoms of its inert materials. But the pianist is gentle and does not extend the courtship longer than necessary; he folds the suit’s sleeves and stares at the keyboard. Both player and play-thing know the instructions to follow: merge, merge, merge! The soft human arms surrender to instrumental geometry and form right angles, as the fingers spread and touch the surface of the piano. Finally.

Glenn Gould is playing Beethoven. It is 1960. The video’s gradations of gray aggravate the action; Gould’s hands are luminous white stains against the glossy black of the piano. The surface above the keys, where scores are usually placed, is empty. Gould knows the melody by heart; he becomes the score. The slope of the piano functions as an unintentional mirror, reflecting the particularities of the performance that the camera would not be able to capture otherwise. It creates an echoed composition in which four hands dance a very complex choreography. And the reproductions of the hands feel so real that one might even expect the pianist’s fast fingers to accidentally entangle with their own reflections. In that sense, the surface of the piano operates not merely as a reflector, but also as a container of the action. Gould’s entire body is synthetized in the isolated and emphasized points of contact between human and instrument. The reflection does not merely show floating limbs, it praises the channels that connect two bodies and allows the energy to flow.

There is also a codependence between the keys of the piano and the hidden strings they activate. Depending on the position of the camera it is possible to see keys and dampers moving in synchronicity. The intricate elements of the piano respond to every pulsation of the hands and expand like a living, growing organism.

Gould’s performance is a mixture of tenderness and extraterrestrial precision. At times, his hands function as sharp tools, making incisions in the air like rapid gavels. Then they effectuate a swirl and become soft, boneless pigeons landing on a fence. Such is Beethoven’s arrangement: slow and docile tempos that grow into dry strokes, metamorphosing arms from amebae into skyscrapers. Inside this space of improbable transformations, Gould’s upper body contrives and relaxes several times. His head whirls and draws imaginary circumferences in the air. A human compass, he hums and knocks his teeth while totally immersed in his performance. Such intimacy between pianist and instrument contradicts the logic of a spectacle. The private relationship attracts outsider eyes and ears to its magnetic field, but is completely indifferent to anything external. The only thing that matters is the intensity of the action.

If this performance were a painting, it would be by Francis Bacon. In his extensive body of work, Bacon repeatedly explored several specific formal and thematic concerns. Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror (1968), for example, shows a centralized and contorted figure sitting on a chair on top of a circular arena. Dyer appears frozen in the midst of a series of spasmodic movements and seems to be trying to escape from his suit––a type of garment that always looks constraining––but also from his own body. His face has already dissipated into the exterior space, becoming trapped inside the mirror. The leg of the chair braids itself together with one of his legs. Although the figure’s surroundings look artificial and imprisoning, it offers points of fugue through which the figure can escape.

Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror (1968), oil on canvas, 78 x 58 in. 

Curtains, stairs, chairs, washbasins, mirrors, and umbrellas are objects that offer points of contact through which the figures can squeeze themselves and expand to the color fields that encompasses them, gradually dissolving in the surface of the canvas. All these elements were exhaustedly repeated with paint touching canvas to create a specific space: the place in which Bacon’s sensibility dwells. This space is not easily penetrable; it is private and secret, but for some reason it opens an interstice for foreign eyes to peek through. It is not only the hermeticism that repels, though. There is also a physical unintelligibility in the paintings that deconstructs one’s balance and induces vertigo: a fear of falling into an abyss of deformed flesh.

It is easy to see the inherent violence of Bacon’s paintings in the deformed or disfigured pieces of meat he presents as persons or living beings. But the violence resides more in the nature of the figure’s surroundings than in the figure itself. Or better yet, it resides in the rhythmic transfusions between space and figure. Meat is constantly struggling with imposed borders, and structural lines are often visible in Bacon’s paintings: straight verticals and horizontals, geometric forms, Cartesian coordinates. Lines designed to organize, enclose, and compress illuminate the rigidity of what longs to be unshakable. These theoretical lines try to shape the unimaginable, and in their objective indifference to all things that decay and vanish, they display the most human aspect of the inhuman: the necessity for creating eternity, or a constrictive space that will live forever.

In the end, even though there is a clear oscillation between figure and surroundings, the planned artificiality of the material space generates claustrophobic sensations. It is a double struggle, or a double attempt to escape: that of the figure within his own body, and that of the figure in an unnatural environment. Those struggles are evident in Figure in Movement (1985). In this painting there is a figure merging with the threshold of a door against a black space. This door is sustained by what appears to be a floating geometrical platform that will probably lead nowhere. The figure tries to subvert the order of this world, but ends up surrendering to it, dissipating and becoming part of it. In this unavoidable surrender resides violence, but what is interesting is that the figure is not the only one who suffers the imposition. The space has also to become more flexible in order to trap the figure. It is a two-way exchange.

Francis Bacon, Figure in Movement (1985, oil and pastel on canvas, 78 x 58 in.

Bacon’s geometrical incisions isolate the malleable, meaty characters in the same way that Gould’s concert stage is constructed to focus solely on the solitary performer. In both cases, the presence of the figures contrasts with the surroundings because of their agitation and lack of conformity with the pre-determined rules of calculation; rules that aim to straighten out, formulize and categorize living bodies and spaces. The figures have no choice but to live by those rules––because those are the rules of everything––and in a way they belong to that space. But their physicality is so alien and illogical that it surpasses whatever seems insurmountable, they escape from the shackles without breaking them.

Other formal artifices employed by Bacon to isolate the figures are the color fields. These fields derive from the lines and are delineated by them, but have a life of their own. Dense patches of red, orange, blue, purple, and black disengage and envelop the figure at the same time. Sometimes the color patches bleed, forming a shadow that is as much part of the figure as any other brushstroke. Again there is a double movement, a play of action and reaction: the figure trying to find its way through the color patches, and the patches themselves looking for lodge inside the figure. The same happens in the video of Gould, but instead of Bacon’s bright palette, chunks of black and gray divide or merge space. The piano’s black tone pours out into the rectangular entrances to the obscurity of the backstage; no differentiations here. But the curtains and round pedestal are assertive in their delimitations, they gash other elements as if to say: I am here, and here I will stay.

The constant expansion and retraction of surfaces both in Bacon’s paintings and in Gould’s concert video form a new and unexpected space of oscillation and intermediacy. Visual elements transform so quickly that they have many durations and can belong anywhere. Then, through spasmodic and fleeting subversions, the unshakable slowly dismantles. To highlight such ephemeral actions Bacon sometimes utilizes diagrammatic circles and arrows, similar to those that Gould’s head and upper body invisibly draws as he plays and hums Beethoven. His actions make the contrasts between materials diminish, leaving an impression that in this new space, every body and every object is made of the same substance; everything shares the same rhythm.

Consulted Bibliography:
Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

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