A few years ago, an artist I worked for described her painting as being imbued with “languid intensity.” I didn’t know where she got the phrase (a cursory Googling was little help), but it has stuck with me over time and come to exemplify some of the things I really love in art.
I’m a big fan of the slow burn, of the rich and mysterious events which simmer under the surface until they consume entirely. I think of it like an infection, a disease spreading through the body and touching every cell until you can no longer tell where an aesthetic experience stops and you begin.
This phrase is used often to describe music, and I think it signifies a multitude of experiences to the point of being barely descriptive. Sometimes it’s for nonchalant rap, others for cool and effortless electro waves, or the ascending build of arpeggios climaxing like breaking waves. Maybe it is lyrical, maybe atmospheric, maybe overwrought but down-played… it’s kind of all of these things. It’s music that functions like licking, taking delectable nips and pausing to breathe on the right places to give chills.
Thinking of my 3 current fixation songs, they share common characteristics, namely that they’ve gotten under my skin to the point of obsession, and they have what I’d describe as a languid intensity.
“Rhymes of an Hour” by Mazzy Star may be an unfair example because it is inextricably linked with one of the most beautiful and erotic scenes I’ve ever seen in film. Still there is something to the cooing lyrics, the quiet hums, pronounced plucks, and perfectly timed tambourine that functions as a flick of the wrist or the jangling of a belt buckle, change in the pocket, stepping on gravel. It isn’t exactly smooth, but it has just the right inflection to push all my buttons. The repeated bass line (and God I really wish I knew enough about music to express what I’m talking about) dips into a deep and still place in the chest, with a kind of relentless honesty and dizzying tonal flip-flop. The strings and delicate percussion add just enough ambiance to stretch and expand the experience to one of unbearable tension, leaving an almost queasy but addictive sensation of simultaneous pleasure and torture, reluctantly repeated for its sheer profundity (I imagine this is why people do heroin). I feel sick whenever I hear this song, yet exhilarated and uplifted. I feel completely and consummately aware of my own biological humanity, and I absolutely love it.
A live track on the Band of Horses EP, “(Biding Time is a) Boat Row” combines sustained chords with plaintiff, strained vocals, resulting in a tense fragility. Ben Bridwell’s friable, excruciating voice carries through in lyrics that sting to the core, and the microphone pops, accidental puffs of air, and occasional moments where you can actually hear the sound of him moving his tongue in his mouth, add a level of intimacy which veers on voyeurism. The very breath he expelled comes out in this sound, and it adds to the effect in a powerfully human way. Once again, I think this track gains its intensity in the building-up of chords, but it’s not surprising that they resist going over the top. The concluding lines dwindle off, with a remorseful, despairing finality, giving it one of the most unique and appealing endings of any song I’ve heard.
“Videotape,” off Radiohead’s In Rainbows, is perhaps more slickly produced, but here I think it gains emotion by sparseness. The clarity and vulnerability of Thom Yorke’s vocals are achingly beautiful, the overlapping humming and mumbling repeats of the phrase “on my videotape, videotape” give a painful sense of melancholy fitting with the plodding piano and subtle synths. The melody forms a marching beat, consistent with the unforgiving march of time, accentuated with a 1-2 lashing of the snare, perfectly joined by that Aphex-like backwards-sounding rapid drum rattle (seriously, I need to learn music terms to describe this stuff already). Again, a somber string (cello?) joins with a few protracted notes as the beat accelerates to a disorienting, irregular heartbeat, a quiet panic, a wide-eyed moment of realization in the midst of being lost and confused. Just as suddenly, the production drops off, and a few quiet notes end the song in stillness. Faced with the loaded expanse of silence, I immediately want another sound to fill my space, as it is just too much altogether to find oneself so utterly alone.
I think the idea of languid intensity is linked to death and time, the deliberate stretching and stilling of experience in defiance of the hurtling acceleration life acquires. It is admittedly remarkably self-indulgent to escape into minor chords and the light-headedness I get from certain notes shooting between my eyes on my headphones (have I mentioned? I’m kind of synesthetic and I see and taste sounds?). Nevertheless, I love filling my time with such profound experiences and the soul-stirring impact they have.
When I close my eyes I picture rivers and tides as a perfect images of languid intensity, water trickling and swirling, then gushing into floods, with constant but unpronounced movement. Afternoon back-light on the sides of ripples writhes and dances in a slippery, enchanting dispersion. Liquid silver and gold, underscored by depths of salty mud and estuary life in deep contrast, form the light and shadow of my interior world where I like to grow salt weeds.
(Aside – spot the theme in some of my all-time favorite words: pond, river, brackish, estuary, tide, pool, marsh, weed)
In art, I make the distinction between representational and abstract art as that which is declarative and evocative, respectively. For my personal taste, I think abstract painting prevails in the domain of the slow coaxing of emotion and association because it escapes the trappings of recognition and explication (I think it initially bypasses the verbal centers of the brain, but we’ll talk about that another time). It is seductive, alluring, and lyrical, quietly pulling at the heart with little fingers like bandages (I keep thinking of a line from the Sylvia Plath radio play “Three Women” to do with an aborted fetus – I leave someone / Who would adhere to me: I undo her fingers like bandages: I go.) It has a sense of raveling and unraveling, composition and disintegration intertwined. It already is, and it is becoming, inviting the viewer into any point in the process.
I think I also love poetry for its evocation – it is, to me, painting with words, making images or suggestions of sensation without the entanglements of plot or resolution. Layering thoughts or associations, the patter of words on a page coalesce into such elegant, simple works of staggering beauty. I admire poets for the distillation of all the clutter and details of human experience into a few words saturated with meaning, positively drenched in significance and suggestion.
I like my aesthetic experiences to be like stains, starting light and spreading through the fabric of my being in a cold seep. The longer I am in contact with that which affects me, the more it colors me, until I am defined and recognizable by my fixations.
Perhaps artists are merely conduits to emotion and obsession, when it’s all said and done. Maybe it’s not really an act of creation, but one of capturing, being both receptive and attentive to the essential elements which impact us.
That’s kind of a lot to do, when you think about it. It would be tempting to gush and bubble over with everything at once, but it is careful selection which gives poignancy. So to do it with languid intensity… well that’s quite a task.