Modern Music Masters


It was with eager anticipation that the world awaited, as if suspended between two worlds, those of the future and the past, the dawn of the new millennium. For many it was an opportunity not only to look, with eager anticipation of what the future might hold, towards the future; for others to look back in time; for some to do both. An opportunity to collect our thoughts, if you will; to take stock of where we came from, in the hope that we might better understand where we might be leading. The new millennium coincided with my entrance into the realm of middle age, I was inclined to welcome the dawning of the new millennium as an opportunity to contemplate the periods that were to shape the impressionable years of my most tender youth, as well the formative years of my adolescence. The forces of nature that were to give these years, namely the sixties and early seventies, their particular flavor, character, and breadth of vision, were to leave an indelible impression upon me as an individual; at the same time they shaped the views, the values, hopes and expectations of an entire generation. Although long since come and gone, the repercussions of remarkable this period in time, and all that it embodied, to this day are still being felt, esthetically, culturally, and politically.

Looking back back on that era now from both a personal as well as an historic perspective, I was struck by the extent to which music in the second half of the twentieth century served as both a catalyst and a mirror of the social unrest and change that so typified the dawning of the what has come to be known as the Age of Aquarius. Equally striking is the degree to which such disparate sensibilities derived inspiration from one another, and managed to coexist harmoniously, creating a dynamic synergy from which a torrent of music in all its breathtaking variety was to emerge. This very variety seemed designed to reflect the capacity of humankind to feel an equally varied range of emotions; just was being made to invite people to move and surrender to the power of dance, at the same time music was inviting people to think, to contemplate, and to conceive of imagine and healthy alternatives to what had become the status quo that America of the 1950s had spawned. Within the kaleidoscopic visions through which Bob Dylan allusively expressed expressed his righteous indignation, the benign optimism of the Beatles, the ravishing harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the integrity of Joan Baez, the earthy soul of Odetta, and/or the dark, jaded cynicism of the Rolling Stones, one could find multi-faceted, ever-changing reflections upon which to gaze, and get a glimpse of both oneıs self and the world at large; as a result, the much anticipated release of a new album was as much an opportunity to learn about oneself as it was an opportunity to embark on the latest musical journey of a legendary, ground-breaking band, or of a singer-songwriter of genius. Mutually inclusive, the processes of self-discovery and self-revelation propelled one another, as intertwined, as the artists and their audiences.

For a brief moment it seemed as if a subtle esthetic balance was struck -- a balance between audience and performer; between music and message; between commercialism and integrity; between the vernacular and the sophisticated; between the ingenious and the humble; between folk art and high art; between the electric and the acoustic; between tradition and innovation; between the improvised and the scripted; between the melodic and the percussive; between the afrocentric and the white; between the lush and the austere; between the ideal and the flawed; between oneıs imagination... and reality. That such a confluence of disparate modes of expression and experience should have converged to weave such an intricate pattern of timeless, transcendent music ‹ each element significant in its own right, yet inextricably woven into a larger, social context ‹ remains inexplicable (one might say that part of the enduring allure of the culture of the sixties is the mystery behind such a sudden confluence of sheer talent is part of the enduring allure of the culture of the sixties, and early seventies); equally inexplicable -- and just as fascinating -- is that phenomenon of phenomenons, namely The Beatles: never before (and most likely never again) had a group so popular ever been so good. Listening to the Beatles, and watching them evolve, how could on not help but feel an amazing spirit of cooperation, as each person contributed to a larger whole, and each person and each member strove to meet the most exacting of professional standards? To see the young take pride in their work, to witness such inspired musical interaction was, in many ways, to receive an education in civics of the highest order. To taught by example is always preferable to being told what to do, particularly when one is young.

Alas,this balance between the imagination and reality were soon to prove transitory, if not altogether illusory, as the dreams of racial harmony, brotherhood and peace so eloquently expressed in such songs as Blowin' In The Wind, We Can Work it Out, Give peace A Chance, crumbled in the face of the dissolution of the Beatles on the one hand, ant the proliferation of racial strife, and the persistence of violence and warfare, on the other. Despite of humanity's inability to live up to artıs idealism, John Lennon did manage to harness the optimism required to pen his masterpiece Imagine; never before (or since) has an alternative to the human condition as we know it been so eloquently married to such a hauntingly simple melody, serving to remind us that hope is indeed the last thing to die.

I have always consider it to have been my good fortune to have first been exposed to this restless, cascading torrent of creativity during the course of my impressionable preteen years. For rarely has such a magnificent array of enlightening epiphanies been cast upon the world in such dizzying, quick succession; that they should have been delivered via radio airwaves television, and via the releases of such vinyl recordings constituted one of those rare, happy marriages of science, technology and the arts, comparable in its significance and impact to the invention of movable type five centuries earlier. To hear for the first time such seminal vinyl recordings as the Beatles' Sargent Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour and Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow on the lush, colorful and experimental front, and Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding on the more wistfully solemn, and decidedly biblical front, was paramount to finding every conceivable reason to believe -- however naively, innocently and/or blindly -- in artıs power to inspire, indeed embody all that is most noble in human nature, and therefore to find faith in the restorative powers of art to bring harmony where there is discord, order to where there is chaos. What better way to introduce a child to such disarmingly pure sentiments as "All You need Is Love", than through the happy, glowing coexistence of artful chord progressions, radiant harmonies, and poignant lyrics?; At the tal end of the sixties, it was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who invited in an equally tender way, parents to "Teach Your Children Well". Now a parent of two teenage daughters myself, I, too, have found that perhaps the most effective way share wisdom to do so gently, seductively, through art, which is to say through sublimation, be it literary, visual, and/or musical. As a somewhat quiet child inclined to spend my leisure time engaging in the solitary pursuits of day dreaming, drawing, and painting, I derived both comfort and inspiration from the presence of music in my life. I recall with great fondness the moment I was introduced to the song Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, a song evocative of, indeed inspired by the magical quality often found in children's art, having been written by John Lennon in response to an image that his five-year old son Julian had drawn one day while in school. That a sophisticated wordsmith of the caliber of John Lennon should feel compelled to pay homage to the whimsical, fanciful vision of a child was a bold statement for its time -- a timely validation if ever there was one, one that accorded childrenıs sensibilities a dignity and respect that more often than not was either ignored or denied by adults. Eager to find validation in certain aspects of their counter-culture lifestyle, which included the use of certain drugs, many adults mistook poetic license for the manifestations of a chemically altered state of mind. Ironically, we now know that in seeking to find the meaning of the song, many an adult at the time failed to see the forest for the trees, mistaking the title of the song for an acronym of the drug lysergic acid dyethylamide, just as we now know that the musical cascade of shimmering words of Bob Dylanıs Mr. Tambourine Man were not a song about the effects of marijuana, and everything about poetic license.

It is in this context that I must consider myself particularly fortunate, it was the innocence of preteen youth that allowed me to presume that the advent of the flowering of psychedelia stream of consciousness lyricism owed little or nothing to the effects of hallucinogenic drugs (the existence of which I could not have been aware), and everything to the power of the Artist's imagination to achieve altered states of consciousness through poetic insight, artistry and consummate craftsmanship (something artists had done for centuries prior to the advent of the chemically induced state of mind, as I was to learn from living in Florence, Italy). it is a shame that substance abuse should be so synonymous with certain aspects of the music in the sixties, early seventies counter-culture; one need only contemplate the premature deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison at the hands of drug abuse to regret the role that drugs played in many a musicians life.s In the end, one need think only of the sheer longevity of Bob Dylan's career, and of the consistently high standard of quality of his lyrics and musical compositions spanning four decades, to realize just how little his monumental catalog of songs is indebted to his ephemeral experimentation with drugs in the mid-sixties, and just how much his work is rooted in the absorption of the past, the mastery of his craft, a vivid imagination and in his extraordinary ability to think in the most metaphorical of terms.

The Modern Music Masters series is the outgrowth of a series of portraits I have created, the first being Ritratti degli Artisti piu' Celebri, a series of portraits of celebrated European artists ranging from Cimabue to Picasso. Begun in 1979, it was the outgrowth of the years I spent as an art student at the Istituto Statale dıArte in Florence, Italy, a city destined to be forever haunted by the ghosts of a once glorious past. This series, in part driven by an inclination to absorb the past -- the sort of fondness for the past that living in an ancient city inspires, soon lead to the commission, by American and Italian publishers alike, of portraits of celebrated 19th and early twentieth century literary figures. This desire to portray the great personaggi of previous epochs has continued throughout my adult life, and eventually lead me, upon my return to the United States, to celebrate, through ambitious cycles of relief-block prints, the life and times of the heroic 19th century American icons Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. After years of interpreting literary classics and seminal figures from distant, bygone eras, I began to find myself drawn towards the personaggi that had shaped, culturally and esthetically, the period of time I in which I had come of age. Clearly, the time had arrived for me to give shape and form to the musicians that have provided the musical backdrop to my life. And not only the backdrop of my life, but that of my two teenage daughters as well, hence the inclusion of artists who left their mark in the seventies and the nineties. Inversely, I have also gone back in time to before my time, so as to include the likes of Elvis Presley, arguably the greatest inspiration to the early Beatles. While the sixties and early seventies form the epicenter of the series, they do not confine it. Working from memory -- and tapping into the recesses of my mind -- I set out to give concrete form to the most fanciful notions of our musical heroes. What resulted is a series of music icons.

Looking back on the series, I see that the it embodies a quarter-century of experimentation within the realm of the relief-block. It seems appropriate that the infinite variety that may be found in modern, popular music be matched by my ceaseless experimentation in ways to depict the artists that spawned said music. Hence the manner in which I choose to swing from the shattered, black and white severity of my portrait of Kurt Cobain, to the delicate and sensuous tonal gradation that characterizes my portrait of Grace Slick, an image that was achieved by employing the reduction-print process. By employing a wide range of styles and techniques, I seek to achieve a range of aesthetic sensibility that is commensurate with the wide range of formal possibilities that the music of the past fifties years has embodied,and that were to prove so compelling, and ultimately irresistible to me as a visual artist. Viewers will note that some of the portraits are allegorical in nature, while others are symbolic; others still adopt a more literal approach to portraiture. In my portrait of John Lennon, I surrendered to a decidedly stream of consciousness approach to symbolism and composition, thus permitting to have the barren trees of Central Park, NY, across the street from which Lennon resided, function both as trees and as a crown of thorns -- an allusion to the martyrdom of his untimely death; the Gothic Revival facade of the Dakota, the renown building in which he lived, has become his voice box, if you will, while a lifeless dove transcends the force of gravity and levitates, as if in deviance of the laws governing life and Death; finally, the image appears in the form of a shroud that is suspended from a brink wall -- an allusion to the claustrophobic interior on the Cavern, the legendary club in his native Liverpool, the place that was to first give rise to Beatlemania.

This timely confluence of nostalgia and introspection is what lead to the creation of the series of relief-block prints entitled MODERN MUSIC MASTERS. Through this series I hope to pay homage to the men and women who bridged the gaps between tradition and innovation, craft and genius, entertainment and art, music and poetry, composition and improvisation, black and white, east and west, hope and fear. Although I have never had the honor, nor pleasure, to meet the subjects of this series of portraits, somehow I feel, like countless other admirers of their work, I feel as if I have in fact met them -- such is the ability of art to transcend the constraints of both time and place. As I ruminate on the magnificence of the work left behind by artists stemming from another time and place, the words of Bob Dylan "The highest purpose in art is to inspire. What else can one do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?". The subjects in this series have doem more than their share.

Stephen Alcorn
Cambridge, N.Y.

© The Alcorn Studio & Gallery
112 West Main Street
Cambridge, New York 12816
Tel: (518) 677-5798
Fax: (518) 677-2526

No part of this web site may be reproduced, in any form, by any means,
including mechanical, electronic, photocopying, or otherwise,
without prior written consent of Stephen and Sabina Fascione Alcorn.