a chair in a room, a room in a house…

I spend a lot of my time thinking about composition. About how things come together, how they find form, how those forms take shape. About how bits and pieces and passages connect to create a whole that is, if I may borrow the cliché, more than just the sum of its parts. About what all this business of making things and arranging them has to teach us about who we are and why we are even here in the first place. And I’m always on the lookout for kin whose work explores the fascinating territory of compositional principles and illuminates them in a way that offers me a new window, and new way in.

Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen used to design not only buildings, but the furniture and rugs to go in them, in keeping with the philosophy of architecture and design at the turn of the century. He is known for designing the Railway Station in Helsinki, The Cranbrook Academy outside of Detroit, and advising his students to “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

Saarinen House Dining Room, designed by Eliel Saarinen (Courtesy Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Art Museum)

Knox Martin, a living legend of a painter from the New York School, talks about the importance of each passage in a good painting having at least seven different roles, or compositional functions. If we look at his painting, Crucifixion (below), we can see this in action. Take that small red circle in the upper right hand corner. Notice how it has an upside down twin in the opposite corner. Together they act like pins, holding up the composition as if tacked to a wall. That red dot also happens to be the same color as the candy cane striped passage that draws the eye down on a steep diagonal. It also rhymes with several other round little shapes throughout the canvas, like the beady eyes of the beast at the top, the blue buttons along the lower right edge and their white and green counterparts just up to the left, while simultaneously acting as an understated counterpoint to the splay of yellow fingers on which it rests. I’ve lost count now…how many was that? It doesn’t matter, because the eye keeps moving, finding new pathways, new connections; the painting keeps opening up. In this way, Knox asserts, the painting creates for the viewer an experience of infinity, where the subject matter is creation itself.

Crucifixion, Knox Martin (acrylic on canvas 9'X11')

My long time collaborator and fellow Architect, Lisa Gonzales, encourages students to notice the fact that they are always and already in relationship to something: the floor, the air, the sound, their mood, the architecture in the room. If you’ve ever taken her class, you may have seen her brilliant and hilarious demonstration of how plentiful are the possibilities when you tune into the many layers of relationships available for your consideration at any given moment. One instant she’s standing there talking to you, and the next she’s thrown herself across the room, in a funny physical running commentary of the myriad unfolding relationships: between her feet and the air, her heart and the floor, her voice and the ceiling fan. Before you know it, your attention, body and the room itself are enlivened and ready to engage, compose and relate to and with everything in and around you.

Lisa Gonzales (photo by Bill Frederking)

As I sift through these examples, what I love most about them is the presence of a thread, a through-line… a chair in a room, a room in a house… a link from one thing to another thing… every passage having seven roles creates a dynamic infinity… an energetic connection ...the floor, the air, the light, your heart: you’re in relationship to everything…a continuum along which our attention can move…

And there….there is the word that points to the thing that really wakes me up, really makes my heart sing: move. I love how much movement dances through these different examples of compositional research.  And how that movement, of our bodies and our attention, is the thing that allows for these compositional connections to be made.

I take these ideas into the studio with me, fascinated by how deep the research can go, especially when practiced in the context of ensemble work. As I am improvising, what happens when I perceive what I am doing as being a chair in a room, a room in a house, and so on?  How can this guide me as I warm up my attention from the inside out, from myself and my own movement impulses, out into the space, to other bodies, other movements?  Can I dig into and shape my material so that every gesture, every phrase has seven connections, seven compositional functions?  (Will I make myself crazy even trying?) How far can I widen the relational frames when I generate movement, when I make a choice?  How far can I stretch my compositional attention into the macro, without losing any of the care, concern and love for the detail in the micro?  This is what I’m after, this is the work that I came here to do.

Because what I do affects what is around me. My actions, movements, and intentions all have consequences. We are always in relationship to something, whether we are dancing, painting, planting, building, planning, living or dying. Everything we think, say or do is in some relation to everything else that happens.  I’ve spoken before about the poetic effect of the choices we make, the importance of paying attention to how what we do ripples out into the piece, the room, and the world beyond.  As I keep practicing this work, I can’t help but wonder: just how far can my attention reach?  How far can I stretch my awareness?

Iroquois traditions hold that all major decisions should be made with the Seventh Generation in mind. In other words, it’s not just about me here now, it’s about the we that will be seven generations down the road (the Seventh Generation being the one which is beyond our direct contact, more than 120 years into the future.)  Even if we can set aside the paradox of time, which is always something of a kicker for the improviser devoted to staying in the moment, that’s still quite a stretch.  120 years into the future?  I thought we were talking about chairs and rooms and dances and composition?  Right.  We are.  We’re also talking about using our attention (and intention) to build connections between ourselves and the world around us, a world that needs us to pay attention now more than ever.  Composing, friends, is choosing.  And while making choices with our attention seven generations out might seem like a leap, I think it’s the leap we all need to make.