Updated: Nov 13
Some Reflections on Attempting a Digital Gasamtkunstwerk
Perhaps one of the most difficult-yet-rewarding things a person can do is find their own scrappy way to bring together all of the seemingly-disparate strands and threads of their experience—their passions, skills, abilities, and knowledge across a myriad of planes—into a single form, to create a unified vision out of the apparent chaos of life.
Too often existence seems like a disconnected series of events, lacking cohesion or a cohesive sense of vision. Life happens. We learn this thing, acquire that skill, think we've got a direction—but then, poof! things change; we abandon old orientations, we set out along new paths, acquire new knowledge and new skills...
Where, then, is our identity? Where is our unified Self?
After a time, if we are not sand, we are rock, metamorphic: odd and commingled conglomerations of a million moments, crushed together by a linear weight, advancing only to breakdown...
—Unless we find a way to take this motley lump of us and carve some form from it. Sculpting the contours of intention around each chance vein, and molding happenstance to happy accident. The David came from a discarded block of marble, so they say, too unwieldy for most to find much use. But dedication and commitment ply their art of turning flukes to fate, transforming "what may be" to serendipity.
Meaning is not something we find in the raw material of our lives, it is something we sculpt out of it. It is the David in the block that we dis-cover of its excess marble. "Discover": in Latin, inventio.
And so, the task: to find a way to harmonize our countless disconnections, weaving contradiction into compliment. To take what we are, and thus what we have been, and bring them into common bond for aiming futures at. As Nietzsche says:
And so, onwards... along a path of wisdom, with a hearty tread, a hearty confidence… However you may be, be your own source of experience. Throw off your discontent about your nature. Forgive yourself your own self. You have it in your power to merge everything you have lived through—false starts, errors, delusions, passions, your loves and your hopes—into your goal, with nothing left over.
With nothing left over.
In my life, I have been a boyhood artist, sketching picture after picture in my afternoons of play; a writer, penning moody adolescent novellas after school; a devotee, seeking absolution from the Heavens; a filmmaker, editing footage to arty music; an academic, footnoting arcane monographs; a musician, honking on saxophones and composing piano concertos; a poet, wrestling with rhymes and counting iambs on my fingers; an editor, adjusting references; and on and on. All these, at some point or another, I've felt to be some calling.
But callings fade, though what we heeded stays; and we are left to find our voice in the cacophony of echoes quieted.
We are all faced with this daunting task—to find a form to contain our multitudes. For me, as one so previously given to a variety of media and artistic and literary and academic passions, the only form able to bring them all together, "with nothing left over," has had to be expansive. It has had to include art and music and writing and film and footnotes and poetry. The kitchen sink, and its installation manual. That's one reason my work could never be a book, but had to be a whole canon of them. In short, I came to realize that what I wanted to do, the thing I wanted to create, the only work that could make all of the disconnected strands of my passions serve one another in concert, was a Gesamtkunstwerk: a "comprehensive artwork" combining a plethora of mediums into one dramatic whole.
The Icon is my Gesamtkunswerk, and as I continued to develop it, I considered what form(s) it might take. How does one bring together so many competing sensory inputs into a coherent whole? Something must take precedence.
The Wagnerian opera is one approach. As Nietzsche observed, Wagner was first and foremost a dramatist, a composer second. His solution to the problem of the Gesamtkunstwerk was to prioritize the dramatic element, putting all media in service to the theater. Arriving a few decades after Wagner, cinematic drama has followed this hierarchy, and films are arguably the dominant Gesamtkunstwerks of today. But I've taken a different approach. I want my emphasis on the written word; everything should serve the poetry. This is made possible by something Wagner didn't have: the digital theater. Here, text can have its entrances and exits, illustrations can develop across the screen, and music can be composed and mixed to support the poetic cadence.
All this is crucial, especially when one lacks what Wagner did have: money. Total works of art don't come cheap. Wagner had to raise immense sums to build his Bayreuth music hall (arguably selling his soul in the process). Today, artistic films demand millions of dollars in production costs and hundreds of workers all doing their part. But with a Mac and a few hundred bucks worth of software, any eccentric madcap or poor poet with delusions of grandeur can craft their own ambitious Gesamtkunstwerk from the relative comfort of their genteel poverty. The result will reflect these limited resources, of course. But I hope what is missing can actually add to the effect, an invitation to supply the rest through audience imagination.
I'm calling my work in this genre "storyboards", as that seems to best reflect the nature of this simple cinema. And for anyone interested in my process of storyboarding, I present the following for your edification.
STORYBOARDING: THE PROCESS
Holding primacy of both place and production, the text comes first. I began GOD in 2011, and only finished its final revisions about a year ago.
Text finished and fixed, I recorded myself performing Canto 1 through a cheap mic using Logic. For atmosphere, I then waded through vast selections of free sound effects from an online database and added them into the mix.
Then comes the music. I brought out of retirement my old midi controller, the one I'd used for orchestrating a piano concerto I wrote back in high school (it was a dinosaur even then). This time around, I had the joy of using EastWest orchestral samples (instead of cheapo Garritan Personal Orchestra) by means of a fantastic subscription service they now offer ($30 a month gets you access to their entire catalog of incredibly realistic sample libraries!). Thematically, I wanted some recurring motifs and character orchestration. So, to the poet I assigned the harp, and to God the cello, with themes for Heaven taken up by the strings, and choir for the angels (naturally). The choir was a real treat, as the sample library I was using allowed me to write for chorus using actual words, not just the old "oohs" and "aahs." This allowed me to compose a genuine requiem "In Paradisum" for the angels to sing as they picked through the ruins of Heaven. (I also used these tools in writing the music for the Leviathan scene, where the libretto is, fittingly, "Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei.")
After all the audio, I started the illustrations. I originally considered paintings, but soon found that this was too impossibly time-consuming. Plus, my ability to draw/sketch appreciably exceeds my ability to paint. And so I decided to draw the illustrations in the form of "studies," such as one finds in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo in preparation for their actual paintings. (These, too, will find their place in the Icon mythos as the unfinished preparations of artist Gabriel Durante as he set about engraving/illustrating GOD—an endeavor never seen to completion, tragically (alack, poor Gabriel!)) The subjects of such studies include real works of art, whose relationships to the scene at hand also have significance (e.g., the first illustration, "Study for the poet playing his mandolin by the grave of God," is based on the painting Hope by George Frederic Watts, etc.).
Finished with the illustrations, the audio and visual components must come together. Using Final Cut Pro, I began editing them into a singular video. This actually proved to be some of the most time-consuming and frustrating work, as such things always are when the technical hinders the aesthetic. But after some trial and error, I was able to get things in a flow that generally got the sense and feel across to my liking.
The final product is ultimately its own thing. I don't pretend it gives Wagner any run for his money, even if it attempts a similar aesthetic form (the Gesamtkunswerk). But, then, Wagner wasn't going it alone... It is, in the end, a fairly crude presentation of a larger vision, and whether it enhances or cheapens the art at its core, I don't know.
What is more certain, however, is its accessibility. Presented in this form, I think that what I've written actually has a chance of finding a larger audience (instead of being used as a 500 page epic poem paperweight). Here, the sound of the cadence can be heard, the sense clarified, the images given life, and the mood more fully set with tone. The scenes I've had in my head for almost a decade come to life, and, I hope, the story emerges from the blocks of words in ways that might remain sunken on the page.
The lacunae that remain through the non-finito images, the suggestion of movements only simulated through pan and zoom, etc., must all be filled in by the imagination of the viewer, and allow for the participation of the audience in ways that fully-fleshed out cinema excludes. In this sense, I hope that the storyboard approach retains some element of the mythic—the outline, the archetype is given; the rest is up to the individual to direct and produce in their own mind.
Or, anyway, that's my overwrought artist-statement analysis of it all.
I'd love to know what you think.
My original intention was to storyboard all 24 cantos, but that may be a bit too ambitious. For now, I may just do important scenes, to break the poem open, as it were, and help reveal what's inside. If you found this project interesting, insightful, or inspiring, let me know.