Penn Live Arts Blog

Thoughts on Martin Bresnick’s Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished

Posted March 13, 2023

If the fundamental demand of the self-portraiture artist is “Look at me,” then I ask if the same may be said of the self-portraiture composer. In a way, every piece of art is a self-portrait: a way of saying, “this is how I see the world.” But when the artist places themselves in the picture, the direction of the view has changed and the eyes of the artist are not looking, with us, at something, but are instead looking at us, the viewer. “This is how I see the world” is quite different than “This is how I want you to see me in the world.”

We’ve done a number of self-portrait/autobiographical works lately, with Michael Gordon’s work about the street he lives on (Anonymous Man), and his follow-up work about his childhood (Travel Guide to Nicaragua), standing out. Even though their stories are specific and personal, they, ironically, tend to zoom out and ask existential questions. In this way they differ from a trend over the last three years to write vocal works that respond to the time with immediacy; they zoom in – on the fear and isolation brought on by a ubiquitous, unforgiving virus; on a national awakening to the inequalities and exclusions we built into our culture and passively tolerated.

Martin Bresnick’s self-portrait captures a particular, formative moment in his life without using his own words. Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished, a co-commission with PRISM Quartet presented by Penn Live Arts, draws on the words of iconic authors of the last 150 years as they address confounding issues: the overwhelming, the unanswerable. By revisiting the words he was reading in the short snapshot of time to which the title refers, Martin places us in the story; we read what he is reading, and we experience it in the sound world he creates to try to make sense of it and the nearly 60 years that have passed since then. (This sound world is a particular favorite of ours, living in the wind world of reedy saxophones, whose colors can come so close to that of the voice.) In doing so, Martin returns us, if briefly, to the existential issues that are the foundation of the works of his chosen authors. Joyce is here drowning in his own ironies – the humor and triviality of lives viewed from a distance. Meanwhile, Melville scratches his way stoically toward each dawn.

Where lies the final
Harbor whence we unmoor
No more?

Hardy makes an appearance, and in doing so, brings the voice (here, a thrush) into this world:

An aged thrush, frail gaunt and small
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

But it is Hopkins – the lesser known, godless Hopkins, tossing and turning in his own night sweats, at once critical and sympathetic to the foils of humanness – who anchors Martin’s piece.

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Crying - what I do is me:
For that I came.

There is the voice again – now, crying. Music lurks in these texts, not obviously at first, yet carefully placed there by the composer:

Each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to swing out broad its name.

Martin’s piece is the bell; the music of Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished constantly reflects on itself in the way that art is essentially about art and life is essentially about life. It feels like it often ‘turns in on itself,’ either harmonically or polyphonically. There is tension in this music, and there is joy and gratitude. Sure, Melville finds the human condition to resemble an orphan:

Our souls are like
Those orphans whose
Unwedded mothers
Die in bearing them:

But we are here, in this portrait with the artist, and the music affirms that. This is not Cindy Sherman exploring herself through the recreation of characters seemingly caught mid-act. It is not van Gogh staring at us blankly, as if in need of a friend. Maybe it is closer to Francis Bacon, with its evolving, twisted dimensions; though, Bacon self-portraits are kind of performatively “alone” in the way that Lucien Freud’s are kind of performatively “elderly.” All deeply thoughtful works, leaving us on the other side of the canvas, stared at. Viewing a self-portrait is a bit like looking into a mirror, forcing us to assess our own world view, insisting that we look into the eyes of the artist. Were we to make such a picture, how would we present our eyes? (At least, considering a medium of greater permanency than the current disposable mediums in which that ‘staring out’ doesn’t invite us to “look,” but rather simply to “watch.”)

I discovered long ago that making art is an isolating activity that we primarily do for ourselves. The word “perform” doesn’t serve art very well because an artist isn’t actively concerned with what their audience will think (while they may be, as we are, quite focused on the presentation – the respect for others’ time). We sing because we must, to be understood – because words alone aren’t adequate. I conduct because I’m obsessed with storytelling, and I find myself in the stories that writers and composers of our day make for us to sing. I am of those stories, and I repeat them in various guises as I try to understand my world better – to define and describe it through my mode of expression, song. My hope is that, if there is clarity in my delivery – mystery in the content while the edges are clear and refined – listeners will connect by, like me, recognizing themselves in these stories.

And this lies at the heart of Martin’s new work. It may be Melville or Hardy or Hopkins speaking, but this is Martin’s self-portrait – well, self-portraits; as the title indicates, each of the six movements is a different expression staring out at us, placing us in his picture, living in his world. That world is at once introspective and fresh; it feels spontaneous, like all good storytelling. It has irony and humor and a kind of resignation to the inevitable. It reminds me of a favorite passage from Philip Levine:

Oh, yes,
let’s bless the imagination. It gives
us the myths we live by. Let’s bless
the visionary power of the human—
the only animal that’s got it—,
bless the exact image of your father
dead and mine dead, bless the images
that stalk the corners of our sights
and will not let go.

Our program opens with a shorter work of Bernd Franke, On the Dignity of Man, setting an excerpt from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s De hominis dignitate (1486/87). Bernd places the two complementary, breath-dependent ensembles of saxophones and voices in highly contrasting languages. The saxophones are earthy and uber-rhythmic, while the voices have a certain freedom and declamatory flexibility, reflecting the free-will granted the first human:

Thou, like a judge appointed for being honorable, art the molder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer. Thou canst grow downward into the lower natures which are brutes. Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul's reason into the higher natures which are divine.

The piece ponders the creative freedom of the first creation. Humans being told to create at will. Art about art, reflecting life about living. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty.

What a piece of work.

For that, and for this new music from Martin. It is music that feels less, “How I want you to see me,” and more, “How I am.”

For that we are grateful.
No man can feel his
His own identity aright
Except his eyes be closed


1Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 14 (set by Martin Bresnick in Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished).
2Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush” (in Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished)
3Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (in Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished)
4Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (in Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished)
5Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 114 (in Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished)
6Philip Levine, “On the meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane”
7Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s De hominis dignitate (in On the Dignity of Man)
8Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 11 (in Self-Portraits 1964, Unfinished)

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