Notes On David Salle’s “How To See”


“To take a work’s psychic temperature, look at its surface energy.”
– David Salle, How To See, p. 15.

David Salle’s How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art is a superb collection of writings about understanding visual art in terms of its intrinsic affective qualities rather than in terms of what it may express about the world or how it fits into a popular theory of interpretation. “Theory abounds, but concrete visual perception is at a low ebb” (2) Salle tells us. The author is an accomplished artist himself and in How To See he draws on his experience to engage with the works of a variety of contemporary artists including Edward Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Alex Katz, and many others. Salle’s go-to methodology is to notice, as he takes measure of a piece of art, “what it is you actually find yourself thinking about” (7). Questions flow from here: What makes a work of art tick? What makes it good? What makes it interesting? These questions get us on a path to understanding what Alex Katz aptly describes as an artwork’s “inside energy” (5).

For Salle, an artwork’s qualities exist in a form independent from what the artist may have intended. Moreover, the content of the artwork is more than a sum of cultural signs. The central problem of criticism then, is figuring out how to “talk about art without invoking the ‘isms,’ or resorting to generalities” (5). Where do we turn, Salle asks, to find a vocabulary that communicates what it feels like to see? The essays about artists and their art in How To See offer an informed storytelling by an author whose perceptions are grounded in a lifetime of creating. It’s this grounded experience that leads Salle to say that what reveals an artwork’s nature and quality is “the specific inflection and touch that goes into its making” (15). If any artist’s work is a long-term research project to reconcile form and content (69), then so too is the critic’s long-term project a matter of reconciling content with interpretive form as he or she figures out a way to convey art’s ever-delicate balance of aesthetics and mechanics (113).

At the end of How To See Salle includes a list of thought-provoking exercises for anyone wishing to engage more deeply with art. (As I read I of course thought about how these prompts might apply to musical examples.) Here are four of my favorites that deserve wider sharing:

Build your own analogies. For each work of art, make a sentence that begins “This is a work of art that…” and complete the analogy (244).

Compare and contrast. “Compare two works of art that are stylistically similar but of different intensities” (244).

Similes. Describe a work of art with a sentence that begins “This is a work that puts me in the mind of…” (245).

Where would it feel at home? “Imagine ten works of art of diverse styles and give the ideal place where each would be seen” (246).

Musical Resonances In “City Of Gold”

“In a lot of ways I think food is starting to take the place in culture that rock and roll took 30 years ago, in that eating has become incredibly political. And just as the street has always dictated fashions on music and other things, it’s starting to happen that way in food.” – Jonathan Gold

Is there is a special connection between the world of music and the world of food? I thought about this question as I watched “City Of Gold”, a recent documentary about the restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. There is, at the very least, something very musical about Gold himself. He grew up playing cello and listening to classical music, studied music and art in college, and began reporting on food and popular music in the mid-1980s. Since 2012 he has been the L.A. Times’ restaurant critic, publishing weekly reviews on the city’s best eateries, often focusing on little known places hidden in plain sight. “City Of Gold” brings us into Gold’s life as a critic and at home with his family. We fellow him around in his pick-up truck as he drives to strip malls for Northern Thai and food trucks for tacos, see him pitching ideas to editors at work, watch him sit super still in front of his laptop thinking but not yet typing, and eavesdrop as he talks with his kids at an art gallery. Gold always seems to be thinking about his work–while eating, while writing, while talking with others about food, while reading up on histories of regional cuisines, and of course, while driving his truck all over L.A. seeking his next culinary discovery. He comes across as both a composer and an improviser–on the one hand, taking his time, savoring essences, and planning; and on the other hand, delighting in playful, on the spot verbal quick fire. You sense that this someone at once deeply thoughtful and intuitive, following his curiosity down whatever paths they lead.

Watching Gold go about his work it struck me that writing about food is something like writing about music. Consider this: both eating and listening are evanescent encounters with passing stimuli that can conjure a spectrum of powerful sensations, feelings, and even memories. How does one write about such encounters in a way that captures their depth of feeling, gives them context, and renders their relationship to the eater or listener? Does one focus on the particulars (flavors, sounds) or on the associations they conjure? “City Of Gold” gives us a sense of how one critic goes about evaluating the intangible matters of taste by celebrating them with grace and generosity.


How Would You Analyze William Basinski’s “Cascade”?

It’s a beautiful, maybe melancholy piece of music.

But where does it begin and end? It’s as if this music has been going for a long long time. It has an oceanic quality.

It’s all about repetition. The music is built from a tape loop of a piano phrase.

We hear a subtle melodic movement within the loop–twice around a high place, twice on a middle plateau, and then down to a lower register. The piano loop seems to breathe.

Even if you wanted to (I don’t)–how would you render this music in notation? Maybe it would be a four bar phrase in b-flat minor, with important melodic notes (a-flat, b-flat, c, d-flat, f) with giant note heads and less important background ones written tiny.

The music sounds minor key (b-flat minor). But the sixth degree of the scale is never used. Instead we hear a lot of the fifth degree (the note f) which, when combined with the b-flat, creates a kind of I-V drone as one might hear in the background of say, Indian music. Those two notes–b-flat and f–together create a sense of stasis, as if to say: This music isn’t going anywhere–are you ok with that?

Back to notation: notation would imply that the piece is four bars long. But it’s forty minutes long. Why are we harping on its constituent repeating units?

More notation issues: the echoing haze of delay and reverb are a part of the piece, but how would one render that that that that? And the timbre of the loop is as if aged or degraded. It has sonic patina. How to render this quality?

The piece is forty minutes long but is it changing over this time? Is there a process to it? Does it do something? If so, what does it do?

One of the striking impressions I get listening to “Cascade” is its disconnect from other musics I’m familiar with. It has more activity that a simple drone. It is kind of minimal, but doesn’t seem to have an overt processual agenda. It is ambient, but not benign like so much music in that style. It’s not recognizably the sound of a piano–it sounds more like a zither. It doesn’t include singing. It doesn’t have a beat–though it does have a pulse. It doesn’t have a verse-chorus structure. It doesn’t have a lead melody, harmonic progression, or a bassline. The music doesn’t overtly reference other musics let alone a single tradition that might inform it’s making.

But still, “Cascade” has something: it has its own, maybe melancholy beauty.

What is this beauty the product of? What comes to mind when I listen is a machine aesthetic. We know that it was made out of a tape loop. This explains the repetition and the degraded sound. (An old loop.) But there’s more to say about machines. Machines shape us–something happens when we interface with them. Just take a look around you at all the people glued to their smartphones. The small screen is now a thousand worlds that hold our attention in a thousand ways, and there’s a look we sometimes have when beholden to the screen–something between a smile and serene focus. For me, something about “Cascade” captures the sereneness of our focus on the smartphone’s small screen endlessness. In short, the music holds us suspended.

I wish I could stop there. But “Cascades” includes its own unexpectedness. Thirty-five minutes into the piece Basinski fades out the loop and makes an abrupt key change. One loop has become another and the final five minutes is this new sound that slowly rises, falls, and disappears. Is this a cadence? A coda? A perfect ending? The music doesn’t say.

The point is that music built from just a few notes of a degraded four-bar piano bar loop can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Notes on John Berger’s “Portraits”


“The given is a prison.” – John Berger, Portraits, p. 37.

For a few years now I’ve been loving the writing of the English critic, novelist, and cultural historian John Berger. I came to him through the work of Geoff Dyer, who is a huge Berger fan himself and made me aware of Berger’s classic book About Looking. A few years ago Berger published Bento’s Sketchbook (2011), a meditation on art, the creative process, and perception. His most recent book is Portraits which traces a history of painting from cave painting to the modern era. Each chapter focuses on a single artist and explains to us what we see and what it means. This narrative approach to surveying the history of art has been used before by others, but there is something deeply personal here about the way Berger brings his own artistic experience to bear on his assessments and reflections on the dozens of works discussed in the book. His knowing is integrated—he’s like a super museum tour guide whose commentary weaves the art’s presence into that of your own life. But that sounds too formal. Sometimes when reading him I have the odd sensation the he’s talking to me—to us—as we putter around a large overgrown garden, stopping here and there to chat as we gather vegetables for dinner. As Berger says in Bento’s Sketchbook, “I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world.”

In Portraits Berger writes magisterially about expressive culture. What makes his sentences incisive and epic and his language clear and simple is his grasp of art’s underlying urges and details. For him, the details are everything and even when we think we see everything (the book includes numerous black and white photos) he reveals details that we didn’t know were there in the first place—the shape of a hand, an unusual or impossible perspective, the way light falls, or the striking stillness of gaze in an otherwise chaotic face. The next step is how Berger connects these details to meanings. Through him we see that artistic practices are “the exact measure” (48) of things going on in the wider world at the time–sometimes in times that are surprisingly like our own. For example, here is Berger discussing The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-5), a triptych by the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) whose three panels depict Adam and Eve in Paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights, and Hell.



Berger uses our own hyper-present, hyper-connected moment to make sense of what he considers to be the prophetic perspective in the hell panel on the right side:

“There is no horizon there. There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past, and no future. There is only the clamor of the disparate, fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium” (36).

As you read Berger you come to wonder about the relationship between the artist and the critic and how they need one another. Berger is both. In other parts of the book his practical experience sings in passages in which he discusses how drawing, like criticism, is a two-way activity that gives back to the maker:

“To draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing” (85).

Insights like this are all over this 400-page book. My takeaway is that when Berger explains the elements that make art so powerfully revealing you have the sense that he could locate exactly those signifying details in just about anything he turns his attention to. This kind of writing—well, it’s not a kind really, since Berger’s prose is singular—shakes us awake. Berger rattles us into understanding that all of our pursuits—from the personal to the political to the technological—have the depth qualities of art. In Portraits Berger the critic and painter helps us see that there’s always more here than meets the eye.

Brett’s Sound Picks: Kara-lis Coverdale’s “Ad_renaline”

“Music is an adjectival experience.”

-Simon Frith (Performing Rites, p. 263)

The mood of Canadian organist and composer Kara-Lis Coverdale’s “Ad_renaline” is optimistic, though tinged with mystery too. The music is made up of layers of organ (organ-ish?) sounds and voices. We hear three pulsing staccato chords of uneven counts repeating a two measure phrase, with echoing and swirling counter lines floating high above, answering and filling in the texture, low and slow bass tones stretching things out below, and a choir of female voices (the composer herself?) singing four melancholy descending notes. Like ice cubes melting, the layers of organ and voices soon dissolve into transparent traces of their former state, leaving us at the end of this inspiring piece with just a sketch of that original pulsation.

Juxtapositions: Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942) And DJ Richard’s “Nighthawk” (2015)



Edward Hopper’s most iconic painting depicts several people in a city diner late at night. As with much of Hopper’s work, the mood of the scene is desolate, empty. The people seem more like concepts than characters, their individual life stories forever hidden  from our view. In the Hopperian world, time itself is frozen.

DJ Richard, originally from the coastal town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island (which, by the way, is not far from the Cape Cod settings depicted in many of Hopper’s other paintings) makes a kind of techno that evokes its own kind of desolate night scene. There are just a few sounds in Richard’s “Nighthawk”–a three-note pulsating chordal drone, some hints of low bass, and a repeating single note melody. The star of the texture is the percussion–a syncopated, jagged weave of synthetic Roland TR-909-esque kick drum, snare drum rim click, handclaps, and hi hat cymbals sounds–none of which articulate the conventional four-on-the-floor beat.

This is where the juxtaposition between Richard’s music and Hopper’s painting begins to come into focus, bridging the seventy-four year gap between them. It’s not just the outward or surface mood of loneliness that these two works share. Underneath both of them is also a deep sense of absence. In “Nighthawk” Richard’s percussion play what sounds like a continuous drum fill whose tensions never resolve themselves, suggesting the pulse of the underlying 4/4 beat without ever playing it. The drone, the bass, and single melody note do nothing to resolve the music’s rhythmic tensions. As we listen we’re held suspended, waiting for something that never arrives. Similarly, in Hopper’s “Nighthawks” we feel the palpable silence of what is about to unfold but never does–in the uncertain back stories of the characters in the diner, but also in the details around the painting’s focal point such as the street intersection, the buildings in the background, and indeed, in the perspective afforded by Hopper’s point of view. He has set us up to look in on the scene–to know things the characters in the scene do not. All this raises questions: When assessing a famous painting or piece of music what do we know and how do we come by our knowing? How does seeing shape how we listen, and listening shape what we see?

On Olivier Messiaen’s Astonishing Chords

“It is…the denial of forward-moving time that is the generative and fundamental substance of Messiaen’s music: the matter of his verbal commentaries is no more than an explanation of the music…and conducted in terms other than those of the music.”
– Paul Griffiths, Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (1985, p. 17)