Music to one’s eyes
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