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Classical 101

As the Guggenheim Turns 50, It's Time for Some "Circular" Music

ADAM - TWO AUDIO PIECES This year is the fiftieth birthday of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  As you might imagine, the museum is mounting an exhibition in celebration of the work of its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who died at the age of 92 six months before it opened. When our music director, Beverley Ervine, reminded me of this auspicious anniversary, I started thinking about how classical music expresses roundness. I went to the Guggenheim for the first time in 2008.  Confession: as an architecture buff and a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright's work, I went to the museum mostly experience the museum itself.  I recall that the various exhibitions of art inside the museum at the time were quite intriguing, but honestly, I couldn't tell you now what artists' work was on display. We chatted with a family on vacation from Sicily as we stood in line for admission, then took the elevator to the top of the museum.  From there we launched ourselves like marbles down the museum's famous spiral ramp, savoring the artwork along the way. The slanted floor made me feel as though one leg were longer than the other, and as we approached street level, my toes were aching from butting up against the tips of my shoes during--literally--our downward spiral. Which is to say that one doesn't just see the Guggenheim; one feels it. The press release announcing the special exhibition the Guggenheim is mounting of Frank Lloyd Wright's sketches and other materials pertaining to the museum's designs states that "Few designs in Wright's oeuvre so well illustrate the concept of designing 'from within outward' as the Guggenheim Mueseum, in which the interior form gives shape to the exterior shell of the building." I suspect that Frank Lloyd Wright felt the Guggenheim even as he was designing it.  By the time he completed the design, he had already designed a number of structures based on curved or completely circular forms. In 1938 he designed Monona Terrace, a convention center set on Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin.  In 1952 he designed a house in Phoenix for his son, David, on the plan of a 154-foot diameter circle.  In 1959--the year of the Guggenheim--Wright's design for the round Gammadge Memorial Auditorium, at Arizona State University in Tempe, came to fruition. And in the same year, two weeks before he died, Wright designed a circular house in Phoenix for Norman and Aime Lykes.  The list goes on and on. The architectural challenges of constructing curvilinear designs with mostly angular materials probably on some level appealed to Wright.  How must Wright, who spent his childhood handling Froebel Blocks, have felt those designs? Classical music can express the notion or feel of roundness in any number of ways, but a repeating ground bass is perhaps the most interesting one.  In works on grounds, I often get the feeling that I'm somehow trapped in the music's repeating cycle. I suspect that this notion of feeling trapped or confined must have occurred to composers who based compositions about madness and grief on ground bass lines. Madness traps one in the recurring cycle of his or her own obsessive thoughts. And if you've ever grieved, then you know how the mind will go back to that same dark place of loss when you least expect it to. Monteverdi's Lamenta della ninfa and Dido's Lament, from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas are perhaps the clearest examples of musical works whose "circular" grounds, I believe, convey madness and grief "from within outward," just as Wright's Guggenheim pushes its interior outward in its exterior shape. Listen to Monteverdi's nymph as she struggles to cope with her anger at being betrayed by her lover: [audio:monteverdi_lamento_della_ninfa.mp3] (Soprano Emma Kirkby sings the nymph with the Consort of Musicke, from a recording of Monteverdi's Eighth Book of Madrigals.) Now listen as Dido, overcome by pain, spirals to her death when Aeneas leaves her and Carthage to spread the Trojan race to what we now call Italy: [audio:purcell_didos_lament.mp3] (In this recording, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly sings Dido with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.) Here, too, the list goes on and on.  At the Guggenheim I never actually felt trapped as I do when experiencing the circular prisons that confine Monteverdi's nymph and Purcell's Dido in their distress.  But I did feel something at the Guggenheim--disequilibrium at standing on a slanting surface for hours, aching toes.  Most significantly, I got the clear sense that this museum wouldn't take its visitors as idle hostages, as some ground bass lines (and, let's face it, some museums) seem to.  The Guggenheim keeps us moving--and alive with art.