Saturday, October 15, 2011

Music As Map: Beth Hetland

The first two issues of Beth Hetland's Fugue are indicative of a young artist who has taken on an ambitious, personal project as one of her first major works. Choosing to attempt to depict music on the comics page is a particularly difficult trick for a young artist, but Hetland's obvious understanding of musical composition turned this into one of the comic's main strengths. Fugue is the story of Patricia Gullo and her journey through music. Its subtitle is "a family in three parts", and that's the true focus of the book: the ways in which families support, pressure, disappoint and eventually pick each other up. While the performance of music is a key component of the story, the way music is written is even more important. A score is not the music, but rather a map or puzzle that can lead to the treasure of music once it's decoded. To go back to Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville, maps as we understand can be decoded to understand our relationship to space. Comics can be read to understand a narrative as it relates to time and space. A musical score, once played, makes the sublime audible. That is, music is not an art form that can be reduced to a privileged material structure (like a sculpture or painting) or even reproduced like a comic or book. The art form is not even the recording of the music; that is an imperfect attempt at capturing the sublime experience of hearing music in one's head as a composer does. Only the map of a piece of sheet music comes close to providing the clues that will allow a listener to pick up on this.

That's why Patricia throughout both issues is so obsessed with the composer's original intent: music isn't just about fun, self-expression and camaraderie (though these elements are important as well), it's about chasing the sublime experience. The first issue was about her having the courage to truly pursue music as her passion, to have the confidence to work hard in testing the limits of her talent. There's a great two page spread where her future boyfriend (and husband) gives her a tab of LSD and they listen to Pachelbel, an immersive experience that helps cement the idea that nothing is more important than music. Pursuing the sublime has its price, however, as she freezes up at her senior recital and is unable to perform. She's afflicted by a kind of vertigo as the fear is not of performing per se, but a fear of not doing justice to the work as it was originally scored. That fear of not being great is a paralyzing one, a fear that has nothing to do with creation or performance and has everything to do with expectation and judgment. Or as Lynda Barry puts it, the Two Questions: "Is this good?" "Does this suck?"

The second issue explores this dynamic with her three daughters. It's clear that they all have some kind of musical talent and/or interest, but it's immediately suggested by her husband that she's pushing them to do play. In other words, she wants to live vicariously through her children to finish the job of performing and grasping the sublime. But that's not what it's all about; indeed, she also simply wants to share herself with her children, to play with them as a way of expressing a mutual love for something they love dearly. Who better to play with than one's own children? And "play" is an interesting term to use, because just as playing an instrument is an expression of joy that's done with great seriousness, so is play for a young child a matter of great focus and concentration. Beyond wanting musical partners, Patricia wanted to pass on the simple joy of music to her children. It's something that keeps her in check when she was about to go too far in pressuring her children to play the way she wanted them to. The danger of inculcating a hatred of music in her children was too horrible to contemplate, and that allowed her to come to her senses before she went too far.

Still, the idea of one of her children being good enough to reach for that kind of musical mastery continued throughout the book. Her first daughter, Alison, was clearly a talented player but had no interest in learning how to read music. That was too much like work and music to her was simply a matter of pleasure. Her second daughter, Beth (presumably the author or the author's stand-in), could read and understand music (and certainly loved it), but she was much more interested in drawing than playing. It was the youngest daughter, Rachel, who shared the same gift as her mother. She was portrayed as being developmentally delayed: quiet, grim and distant, she doesn't talk until she was four (when she sneaks out of her blanket fortress to play at the piano). When everyone else noticed, she copped to learning by ear--which happened to be her first words! She grew up to have the same kind of talent as her mother, but faced the same dilemma: mastery of a certain Mozart piece was beyond her grasp, and the fear of not being able to face up to the task of performing the music in front of a group of witnesses paralyzed her just as her mother was paralyzed. She and her mother are both dreamers, something that gives both of them inspiration but also can provide the seeds of its own ruin.

I'll be curious to see how Hetland ties all of this up in a third issue, but I wanted to comment on some formal aspects of the work. First of all, Hetland repeats certain motifs throughout the comic much like a piece of music might. The most common set of "notes" she repeats is the passage of time as expressed as a child sitting at a piano bench, getting noticeably older panel-by-panel. There's also the sort of conflict and resolution you might hear in a symphony, expressed in the form of both panels and notes. Of course, the second issue resolves in much the same way as the first, providing each issue/movement with a recurring theme. The eyes of Hetland's characters are black dots, while their eyebrows are simple lines; clearly, they are meant to imitate notes on a scale. That's made clear on one page where notes and a stripped-down version of Rachel's face are presented in alternating panels. Hetland's line is simple and unfussy. The main critique I have of her work is that she's better at page design and panel composition than she is at drawing figures. Sometimes, the way figures interact with each other in space is distorted. Her anatomy (even the way she simplifies it on the page) is also wonky at times, with arms and legs bending at strange angles in otherwise normal scenes; even if this was intentional, it's a distraction to the simplicity of the story. Lastly, she relies too much on facial expression to get across body language, which has the effect of making the bodies somewhat irrelevant. It's not an accident that the pages that are talking heads and musical notes are the strongest in these comics. These drawbacks don't mar the ambition of these comics and the cleverness with which she's designed them. In her own pursuit of the sublime, Hetland has simply gone for it in a very public fashion, and I'll be excited to see how she manages to stick the landing.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Rob for such an insightful and well spoken review! Can't wait to send you part three when it's done!