Monk’s Dreams

No, this post does not refer to the dreams of a monk, but rather to the dreams of one of my favorite artists, Thelonious Sphere Monk. By any measure, he is a giant of American music, but many listeners found his music dissonant and hard to listen to. Lorraine Gordon, his friend, and owner of the Village Vanguard, wrote of the disinterest she encountered when she took his music to record stores in Harlem. “He can’t play, lady,” one of the owners advised her, “the guy has two left hands.” Noted poet and critic Philip Larkin called him “the elephant on the keyboard.”

Monk’s music can sound discordant, as if he kept hitting the wrong notes. This is because he was dreaming. A piano has only 88 keys, but there are more than 88 sounds possible in the world; in fact, sounds are infinite. So how does one get around the limitation of only 88 sounds? One of Monk’s dreams was to catch sounds in-between the notes, often by playing two ajacent keys at the same time.

In many of my works, I try to paint the edges between the worlds we live in. We live our so-called “normal” daily waking routines of jobs and family. But we also live in other worlds: our daydreams, our imaginations and especially the worlds we live in while we sleep. Is it possible to paint the worlds between those worlds? The Threshold is one of my attempts to do this.

The Threshold Study – Charcoal/paper – 18 x 24 inches

One October afternoon, I was drawing my sister, Jane, as she was taking a nap, when my nephew Aaron, wearing a down vest and a Halloween mask, suddenly peered into the room. Then he went away. His brief appearance was entirely innocent, but my imagination suggested a hint of something different, although I couldn’t articulate the feeling. I soon finished the drawing, but my imagination would not forget the vision. So several weeks later, I began to paint and to let my imagination expand to take me wherever it wanted. Only later I realized that I was painting what Monk was playing, the spaces between the notes.

The Threshold – Oil/canvas – 13 x 21 in.

In the painting there are several in-betweens: a room with the sleeping woman, a lamp, curtains and a rug, but the walls have dissolved and this interior space morphs into a meadow with the moon rising above some trees. Does the painting depict sunlight or moonlight, or both?   Five figures are about to be interrupted by a soldier with an automatic rifle. The woman with the red headscarf kneels on the rug, which is simultaneously in the room and outside of it. Why do three people kneel? Are they praying or simply observing the moon and its light reflected in a circular pond?  Or will they be shot execution-style by the man with the gun? 

What does all this mean?

We might as well ask, what do dreams mean? Or for that matter, what does music mean?  What does anything mean?  I don’t have answers to these questions. In fact, I doubt there are any answers. But I think I should have titled the painting Thresholds, plural. In Thelonious Monk’s music, as in all of our worlds, there are many thresholds. Are we listening?

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