All Times Through Paradise
Hanging with Saint Cecilia
By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Nov. 20, 2009
You are my hiding place
You shall preserve me from trouble
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance – Psalms 32:7
Roky Erickson hangs in the Louvre. His head does, anyway.
Paris has its problems, but iconography isn't one of them. Everywhere you look, another cerebral cortex tattoo. Head spinning in civilization's storehouse of original psychedelia, an Austinite privy to the resurrection of rock & roll's pioneering hometown howler might be excused his frozen wonderment in front of a 17th century Italian painting of David and Goliath, post-confrontation. David's steel brow wears all the crown needed, but his posse mate's tambourine raised over him in halo pulls counterpoint to the severed head in the rocker's fist. Horror sublimate Roky Erickson would nod at Goliath's red temple prayer resemblance.
The following spring, 1999, a distant cousin appeared upstairs at the Harry Ransom Center in the heart of UT. Here, Goliath's head sits like a basketball next to an infinitely more petulant monarch-to-be. And that wasn't all.
Killing an hour before a matinee across the street at the Dobie Theatre meant immersion in a Louvre-like gallery of Euro consciousness-raising. Saint Agatha, with a Carrie-esque look on her face, holding the shears that have left her two breasts on the plate in front of her, has her own way of stopping people in their tracks. So too with a near life-sized oil on canvas of a saint sitting at a pipe organ. Her ecstasy alone ensured return meditations to the free upstairs gallery. Jimmy Buffett once advocated getting drunk and fornicating; spiriting a date to the HRC's second-floor transportation hub might have constituted lysergic foreplay.
Saint Cecilia's organ recital today hangs in the Blanton Museum of Art, up the grand staircase, two rooms to the left. Hers is the center spot, practically doubled in size by a frame that could house a family of four and butler. Judging by its gnarled majesty, that would be The Addams Family. Her rosy cheeks and cleft chin brand not only the institution's "Guide to the Collection," but also its membership brochure and, after the museum opened in 2006, a trio of banners acting as standard-bearers on MLK Boulevard.
The patron saint of musicians deserves as much in the live music capital.
According to poet W.H. Auden, Saint Cecilia wasn't just a precious singer-songwriter, either:
In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm
And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air
'When the Saints Go Marching In'
Lord, how I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in – As sung by Louis Armstrong, 1938
Jonathan Bober wouldn't dream of calling himself a drummer ("I'm an autodidact who dreams of a full kit in his study"), but talking his way into New York's Village Vanguard as a young teen marks a lifelong jazz jones. Make that Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins, the one ("allow me two") jazz engine(s) who the wiry Bober concedes he'd trade places with if pressed. The Bronx's silver tongue orchestrates life at an up-tempo.
Standing in front of Saint Cecilia, the Blanton's curator of prints, drawings, and European paintings, who moved to Austin for the job 22 years ago, nods vigorously at the suggestion that paintings better populate the imagination than the bookshelves of albums and movies. Postcards from a museum gift shop act as surrogates.
"Traditional works of art depend upon physical human experience in one time and place and are to me the great human and existential fascination," says Bober. "The importance of that fascination is irreducible. The work of art, whatever you want to say about it, write about it, illustrate of it, [being in its presence] is still the only complete experience of it. To experience something of great beauty and complexity as a unique integrity in time and space becomes the most important lesson of all of an art museum."
Downstairs in his corner office, amidst rapid-fire Saint Cecilia scholarship, he pauses.
"The picture is so beautiful, inherently beautiful, that you don't need history or anything else to know it and find it appealing on many levels," smiles the stick man riding a metaphorical cymbal quietly. "She has been one of the most successful pictures in the Suida-Manning Collection, with staff, visitors."
Ann Wilson, until recently associate director of the Blanton, herself originally from Baltimore, at first demurrs admitting any musical skills, then reveals she's in the amateur choir at St. David's Episcopal Church Downtown. An avid operagoer, Wilson endorses Red River indie rock combustions White Denim and the Octopus Project after overseeing them into the museum's B Scene comminglings, noting that the former act's bass player, Steve Terebecki, worked at the Blanton. ("We have them right before they get hot and take off.") American Analog Set's beat keeper, Mark Smith, greets this appointment-bearer at the front desk.
Wilson, credits Bober, put forth Saint Cecilia as the face of the Blanton.
"I'm flattered, and I think he's being too generous," reacts Wilson, who's since (and fittingly) gone to work for Austin choral ensemble Conspirare. "What I do remember is we started thinking about how to present the new Blanton to the world at large, so we started looking at iconic images from the collection.
"You have to think of the practicality of it. What's going to work on a banner, for example? Those big banners out on MLK are incredibly vertical, very narrow. It's hard to find works that will have a slice, a detail that tells the story of the whole painting.
"The other thing you look for when you're putting something on a book cover or a postcard or brochure – is it beautiful? Look at her and how much emotion and energy she has. And Simon Vouet, the artist, is a great name. Not necessarily a household name, but for many reasons, it said, 'This is one of our strongest, most beautiful paintings.' It had all this energy. It has color. She's vertical!"
Wilson laughs. Research and focus groups locally told her and her colleagues in no uncertain terms that whatever the new Blanton had in mind, music better be involved. Film, educational programs, social networking – paramount – but music was "tops on everyone's list." Somebody blow a chorus of "St. James Infirmary."
"And Saint Cecilia, it just clicked with me, 'Wow, we're the live music capital of the world, she's the patron saint of music, and our curator says it's one of the most beautiful, iconic images – one of the greatest hits – of the Suida- Manning Collection.'
"So really, it was nothing more complicated than that," she shrugs, "but I'm flattered Jonathan gives me the credit. Because I do think people love her. I suggested to our education department, which was putting together the audio tour, that they should ask Gerre Hancock to be the voice of the 'uncommon commentator.'"
'Saint of Me'
Augustin knew temptation
He loved women, wine and song
And all the special pleasures
Of doing something wrong – The Rolling Stones, "Saint of Me," Bridges to Babylon, 1997
Simon Vouet wed Virginia da Vezzo in 1626, the year attributed to his Saint Cecilia.
Parisian by birth and baptism, Vouet (1590-1649) counted da Vezzo (1597-1638) among his art pupils in Italy, where he arrived as a young painter from a family of painters when he was 23. Briefly inhabiting the same parish as Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), whose David-and-Goliath head-butts Roky Erickson, the young Frenchman followed in the same line as the Italian, behind Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). The Blanton's own David and Goliath comes by its decapitation courtesy of Claude Vignon (1593-1670), also a Rome dweller of both the period and peer group.
Before 1626, Vouet's portraiture leans toward masculinity, not the least of which is his own David and Goliath five years earlier. Often the work reproduces flat and stark, his women likely wearing the mask of martyrdom. The year of his betrothal, five saints – Catherine, two Catherines of Alexandria, Agnes, and Cecilia – burst their dimension with Technicolor bliss. Honeymoon suite needs paint thinner, stat.
"Yes – essentially," confirms Bober. "I'm convinced. And it's not a subtle, scholarly point so much as a good human point. Earlier studies of Vouet emphasize that he fell in love with this Roman painter, and it's an appealing notion to think that he's smitten by this girl, because suddenly, in fact, the physiognomic type – the face of his females – change, 1625, 1626.
"Now part of that's inherent to internal stylistic development. He's going more ideal. Earlier, he's more realist Caravaggiesque; a little coarser, a little rougher. He's always smoother, and in his drawing he's more elegant than other Caravaggio-inspired painters. But mid 20s, his forms begin to become more idealized. He's partly reacting to a group of Bolognese painters, who are most successful in Rome in an interval between Caravaggio and the rise of more illusionistic painting in the late 20s.
"It's partly a response to that, but it's partly the guy's smitten.
"And there are portraits of Virginia," offers the curator. "There's one assumed to be a self-portrait, an etching by [Claude] Mellan – an engraving by Mellan – after a self-portrait. [Saint Cecilia's] not a literal portrait, but it's inspired. And above all, that painting and a whole group of half-length females that Vouet paints, 1625, 1626, they're glorious. You feel a man in whom love has been awakened. He's responding to the female form and face with sympathy, enthusiasm. He can't do enough with it.
"And ours is one of the greats."
Punching his security code into the vault lock across the hall from his office, Bober wastes no time locating Mellan's original e-study of da Vezzo from the metal cabinets inside the large antiseptic room. Of the Blanton's 19,000-piece collection, all but 2,000 stack up as prints and drawings. Mellan's 5-inch-by-3-inch line art, dated 1626, belongs on Italian money. By virtue of the obvious family resemblance, Vouet's quintet of saints from the same year thus translates into lira denominations too big for general circulation. Nine months after the Vouet/da Vezzo nuptials, Louis XIII called the artist home to be the king's No. 1 brush. Cardinal Richelieu got his due as well.
Saints, after all, in Roman Catholicism, remain conduits to God. Practice of virtue and its accumulation define their divine rights and inspire holiness. Whereas angels embody pure spirit, never corporeal, saints often suffered horrible deaths, Cecilia dying from a failed beheading. Promised in marriage to a pagan, Cecilia refused to consummate the marriage, having already promised herself to God. After converting her husband and brother to Christianity, she followed up by burying them both once they were martyred for that same reason and was herself subsequently sentenced to death.
"Unfortunately," concludes The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, "this story is unsupported by any near-contemporary evidence."
'It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City'
The devil appeared like Jesus through
the steam in the street
Showin' me a hand I knew even the
cops couldn't beat
I felt his hot breath on my neck as I
dove into the heat
It's so hard to be a saint when you're
just a boy out on the street – Bruce Springsteen, "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973
How does a kid from Lubbock choose the organ as his vocation in high school?
"I fell in love with the sheer sound of it," replies Gerre Hancock sweetly.
By contrast, the voice introducing him on the Blanton's audio tour sounds like the Tin Man had an Aluminum Sister:
"Simon Vouet's works introduced the Italianate Baroque style into France in the 17th century. This large painting, Saint Cecilia, features a subject that is right up Gerre Hancock's alley. Hancock teaches sacred music at UT and is one of the country's foremost church and concert organists."
Professor Hancock, organist and master of choristers emeritus at the Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for more than three decades, returned to the scene of his undergraduate degree in music in 2004. Fifty-plus years ago, the local music scene rode a single horse.
"The symphony was pretty good," recalls the musician/composer in the living room of a Central Austin condominium he shares with his wife of 49 years, Judith, a senior lecturer at UT whom he met studying advanced music in graduate school in New York. "But for the most part, music either took place in local churches or on campus, although the [music] department was much smaller in those days.
"Austin was much smaller too."
Were the pipe organ in the Hancock's living room any bigger at some 2,500 pipes, the couple, whose four arms and four feet duet upon it, would have to move out, abandon ship.
Austin Chronicle: Define sacred music.
Gerre Hancock: Any music set apart for religious or ceremonial occasions.
AC: Is yours a religious background?
GH: Yes, very much, Baptist, and I've been an Episcopalian most of my life.
AC: Music plays such a large part of any religion. Why is that?
GH: I think it's hard to find expressions – religious feelings – without music. People can talk and talk and talk, but that's not necessarily the same thing as experiencing beauty. Somehow music gives a dimension of depth to those beliefs that speech doesn't give.
AC: On the Blanton's audio tour, you theorize that Saint Cecilia's improvising at the organ.
GH: I'm sure of it. You can see the position of her hand, the expression in her eyes and in her face. She's trying to find a different expression of her relationship to God.
AC: Why is she the patron saint of musicians?
GH: She was very gifted as a singer. She had a wonderfully perceptive ear and was able to translate that into playing. The rest is history.
AC: Given the nature of sacred music, do you yourself feel a spiritual connection when you play?
GH: It's so much a part of me that I'm not aware of it a lot of the time. I've been at it now for about 70 years, studying music and practicing every day. But I've always been aware of that part of it, definitely, the spiritual plane that you attain, that comes to you through music. It's definitely a high at times that you get.
AC: Since Saint Cecilia might not have existed, is she a valid symbol or simply a bookmark from the church store?
GH: She's a valid symbol, a full-blooded one as far as I'm concerned. The combination of the dedication, the direction of her life, and her musical gifts, that's a pretty powerful combination of virtues. I'm a great believer in her being much more than a paper doll, a cutout. She's fired so many people's imaginations, whether she lived or not.
The Trees, the Trees
Well they drew him from the forest
Like they draw blood
Tied him to a tree like St. Sebastian
And he turned his head
And let the arrows fly
Through the trees, the trees
The ornamental leaves
– St. Patti Smith, "Boy Cried Wolf," Gung Ho, 2000
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow trees rising up behind Liz Lambert, out of the Hotel Saint Cecilia's grass-valley bosom, tentacle skyward like varicose veins. The hotelier's sharp, knowing laugh pierces the newly daylight-saving-time-darkened courtyard, a banquet at the Adriatic bar inside and a steady stream of cosmopolitans and red wine flowing above the rocks flooring the empty patio and driveway outside.
"[The Hotel Saint Cecilia] is, in a sense, about an era," she enthuses. "I had in my head, when I started looking at this place, this image of Mick Jagger in the driveway in front of an old Victorian with a Bentley in the background and a chauffeur washing the car. He's in his total late-Sixties/early-Seventies glory, whether it's Beggars Banquet or Exile on Main St. That kind of elegance and high ritual that has rock & roll written all over it."
Mission accomplished. Room No. 5, out of a total of 14 spread through five buildings on an acre of land not two blocks off South Congress – three down from Lambert's coffee hut Jo's, whose next-door neighbor sleeps her first accommodation smash, the Hotel San José – cranks to 11. A stand-up Yamaha piano on one wall, the Threatles (Lennon, McCartney, Starr) on another, and vintage Rolling Stone pages tacked up behind the bed – Bowie, Boland, Townshend, jewelry store Rita Coolidge, short-shorts-wearing swine herder Linda Ronstadt, bare-assed Keith Moon, and Jon Landau's deaf review of Sticky Fingers – are all in concert. On a quiet Sabbath evening weeks later, a complimentary shack-up at the Hotel Saint Cecilia yields Timbuk3 co-pilot Pat MacDonald setting up at the Continental Club nearby before he darts down a couple of doors to gobble dinner in the window Zen.
"I remember the first really big person that walked through the San José that I paid attention to was in the first year, when Patti Smith stayed there," grins Lambert, five years steady with local singer-songwriter Amy Cook. "I didn't even know she was coming, and suddenly she walks through the lobby with a guitar on her back."
Ben Harper, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Pearl Jam have all perused the Hotel Saint Cecilia's music and poetry books, DVDs, and vinyl library since it opened last December, every unique apartment armed with a turntable. Metallica's Death Magnetic, Springsteen's Born to Run, and Patti Smith's Horses top the charts in Room No. 5. Rather than a Dylan, Wilco, or U2 doc, a black metal behind-the-music, Until the Light Takes Us (see review), has been smuggled into the gated, invisible compound for a late-night screening. An owl swoops low over my car just outside on Academy Drive.
"I had an engraving of Saint Cecilia that I picked up at a flea market," recounts Lambert. "You know, one of those old engravings from a book. Someone had hand-colored it this beautiful blue. I tacked it up onto my bulletin board just because it was so elegant and so beautiful, and I loved the idea of Saint Cecilia as the patron saint of music and poetry.
"So I had it tacked up in my office, and when we were first considering buying this place and I was trying to imagine what I'd do with it, for some reason I looked up and it really struck me that it was a good fit with Austin. There was something really old-school, in a much older sense, about this place. It just took off from there. Looking up and seeing the engraving and thinking, 'What a great name for a hotel in Austin, and what a great theme to build upon.'"
Saint Cecelia [sic] Street off Burnet, the length of a football field and intersecting St. Joseph before dead-ending at the Saint Louis Catholic Church; the First Presbyterian Church's annual St. Cecilia Music Series (www.fpcaustin.org/news/music.html); even a long-gone local band of Raul's veterans, St. Cecilia: The patron saint of musicians keeps company in Austin's integrity of time and space as if dictated by the title of the Saints' 4-CD Aussie punk bible: All Times Through Paradise. Even David Byrne and Brian Eno got into the act last year, tubing "The River" on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today:
But a change is gonna come
Like Sam Cooke sang in '63
The river sings a song to me
On ev'ry St. Cecilia's day
St. Cecilia's feast day falls on Sunday, Nov. 22.