Mu­sic to one’s eyes

Christo­pher Lantz

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Michael Abatemarco

Christo­pher Lantz’s Field Man­ual for the Per­for­mances of the Forty-Nine Sym­phonies: The Odyssey of Three Crea­tures in Search of a Nat­u­ral World (Way of the Tur­tle, 1997) is a chil­dren’s book for adults. Rather, it’s a book for the child in the adult who is still enchanted by magic. The story tells the tale of a young boy and his stuffed an­i­mal com­pan­ions, Buf­fler the buf­falo and Kan­ga­roo, who dis­cover a “House of Sym­phonies” in the wilder­ness, where lives a wise old man called Cap­tain. The walls, floors, and ceil­ings of the house are in­scribed with unique sym­bols that are ac­tu­ally mu­si­cal no­ta­tions. The scores are read as a se­ries of sym­phonic move­ments that, when played, cre­ate an evoca­tive mu­sic never heard be­fore. Though couched in the guise of fic­tion, Lantz’s de­scrip­tion of the House of Sym­phonies is based in re­al­ity. The house ex­ists and is lo­cated in New Mex­ico, on top of Rowe Mesa. Lantz, an artist and com­poser, is its ar­chi­tect and, along with two ag­ing dogs, the house’s only oc­cu­pant since his wife died 12 years ago. “I spent three years build­ing it,” Lantz told

Pasatiempo. “The name of the game was only I could build it. I didn’t have any help.” A se­lec­tion of Lantz’s art­work is on ex­hibit in Christo­pher Lantz: Paint­ings at Phil Space from Fri­day, Feb. 12.

In­side the house, ici­cles hang from where a bath­room sky­light is leak­ing. The in­side is as cold as the ex­te­rior, and some­times Lantz, an oc­to­ge­nar­ian with one good eye and an eye patch over the other, gets snowed in. One re­cent morn­ing, he awoke to find his phone was iced over and frozen to the wall. With tem­per­a­tures drop­ping at night to near-zero de­grees or below, it’s a won­der that he sur­vives at all with­out suc­cumb­ing to ex­po­sure. One of his dogs, an el­derly fe­male, is twenty-one years old and suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia. Lantz gets up ev­ery few hours over the course of the night to make sure she has enough cov­er­ings to keep her warm. “This is the worst win­ter I’ve ever seen here,” he said. “It’s been 10 below ev­ery night.” Dur­ing the day he stays warm in­side a tent with a small stove that he set up in his liv­ing room.

The sprawl­ing in­te­rior, piled with blan­kets to pro­tect against the win­ter chill (it’s heated by in­ef­fi­cient wood- and coal- burn­ing stoves) only adds to the home’s odd ap­pear­ance. Loops, swirls, sharp an­gles, and zigzags carved into the walls look more like pet­ro­glyphs than mu­sic. Lantz’s paint­ings, in­clud­ing the Score Paint­ings — mu­si­cal com­po­si­tions that are playable but also ex­ist as works of vis­ual art — lean against the walls and fur­ni­ture, some of them stacked about 100 paint­ings deep. A hall con­nect­ing two ar­eas of the house has a se­cond mu­si­cal com­po­si­tion built in, with no­ta­tions made in the floor. “This is a fugue,” he said of the hall. “Seven mu­si­cians start on that end and seven start on this end and they start walk­ing across. It’s played by reg­u­lar in­stru­ments: clar­inet, vi­olin, flute, sax — 14 dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments.”

Lantz, who has a PhD in acous­ti­cal physics from Stan­ford Univer­sity, in­vites mu­si­cians to come to the house. He in­structs them in how to read the mu­sic to play The House of Sym­phonies. The mu­sic is played on spe­cially de­signed glass bowls he says were de­vel­oped by NASA, sim­i­lar in con­cept to a Ti­betan rin gong (singing bowl). A small rod strikes the glass, pro­duc­ing a tone whose pitch can be al­tered by ma­neu­ver­ing the rod around the lip of the bowl. There are no staves in the no­ta­tion, as in reg­u­lar sheet mu­sic, and it is com­posed in non­lin­ear ar­range­ments.

When he paints, he lays his com­po­si­tions flat — some­times on the floor — to work on them, get­ting close up due to his hav­ing only one good eye. “See­ing is not re­ally an is­sue,” he said. “Hear­ing is a big is­sue.

In al­most ev­ery­thing I do, I’m lis­ten­ing. I think I paint by lis­ten­ing.” But Lantz doesn’t play any recorded mu­sic when he paints be­cause, like his au­di­tory com­po­si­tions, he says of his art­work, “This is the mu­sic.” Lantz’s work reads as ab­strac­tion, but there are rudi­men­tary fig­ures and line work sim­i­lar to the sym­bols of the House of Sym­phonies. One se­ries, ex­am­ples of which are on ex­hibit, con­sists of vis­ual ex­pres­sions of am­pli­tude. “What would it sound like to have a hun­dred ka­zoos play­ing?” he asked. “That would give you a cer­tain am­pli­tude, as op­posed to 33 flutes; and that would be a whole dif­fer­ent type of am­pli­tude.” The am­pli­tude is rep­re­sented by rec­tan­gu­lar forms in the paint­ings; the greater the am­pli­tude, the larger the rec­tan­gle.

Lantz, who com­posed his first sym­phony at the age of six­teen, has spent his life at­tuned to sounds and sees no real dis­tinc­tion be­tween color and mu­sic, like a synes­thete who hears a com­po­si­tion and ex­pe­ri­ences it visu­ally. He sees art and mu­sic as closely al­lied, in­form­ing each other. “If I didn’t hear it, I couldn’t paint it,” he said. “Each piece has its own mu­sic. The prob­lem is how to paint with­out get­ting in­volved. I have to go into that place where I don’t ex­ist. Then I hear this mu­sic and I paint it. That’s it.”

Above and right, in­te­rior views of the House of Sym­phonies, pho­tos Michael Abatemarco; op­po­site page, left, Christo­pher Lantz: The Red Witch, 2015, acrylic, char­coal, and ink; right, Fish Mon­ger, 2015, acrylic, char­coal, and ink; below, Christo­pher Lantz, pho­tos James Hart

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