A Major Exhibit of the Late Andrew Topolski's Work at the Buchfield Penney
by Jack Foran
Multifarious Buffalo-born and -bred artist Andrew Topolski, who died a few years ago at the young age of 56, had a love-hate relationship with his native region. The love part is evidenced in his choice of subject matter for his musical composition entitled Navigator NFR (for Niagara Frontier Region). Worksheets on the opus are on display as part of a major exhibit of Topolski’s work in many categories currently at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
The Navigator NFR work is constructed of different musical themes for different towns or villages in the area, using letters from the place name on the musical scale. For example, for East Aurora, only the E and A, and for Depew, only E and D. Different themes—with different melodies and rhythms—that then in the full composition repeat and overlap. The musical staff, instead of the usual horizontal system, is circular. (Compositional principles that go back to J. S. Bach, who wrote music based on the letters in his name, and link Bach to Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who must have learned largely from Bach—from the cello suites in particular—about the power and majesty of repetition and overlapping of musical themes, with gradual modulations.)
Circularity and repetition and overlapping and modulation are then motifs of the visual works. And technical subject matter, the physics of things, from music to the circular or near circular orbits of planets to electron orbits of atoms. And so ultimately nuclear concerns, from the purely physical to the political.
Geometrical figures and figure elements drawn and embossed on tactual sensual handmade paper, and small constellations of data scatter, disconnected and disoriented numbers and letters. Patterns of regularity among randomness, with references from the invisibly large to the invisibly small. Kepler called it the music of the spheres.
Other works tend more toward human and animal figural, in drawings and mixed collage, and incorporating actual items, vaguely laboratory items, glass pipettes, wire coil. These works often with a mortality theme, showing skeletons contemplating skeletons. Works about death, but mocking death, art’s traditional grand project.
And out and out sculptures, grim, satiric further excurses on the mortality theme. A large wood construction reminiscent somewhat of an ancient war catapult, somewhat of a gallows. Suspended from it, as if from a noose, is an unkempt-looking corpse of a crow or maybe small raven. A gallows bird.
Topolski composed for the avant-garde musical group the SEM Ensemble, Petr Kotik, et al., but before that for the more grassroots East Buffalo Media Association, including Don Metz, now an associate director at the Burchfield Penney and curator of the present exhibit, John Toth, Mike Basinski, and John Neumann, inter al.
A Topolski prospectus (written in conjunction with Don Metz) on an early EBMA music and other media project works from the premise that “music is organized sound energy, and each pitch or frequency has a different amount of energy. Taking the basic formula for kinetic energy (K = 1/2MV^2), it is possible to calculate the amount of energy produced by a single pitch of any stringed instrument, where M = mass of the string, and V = the speed at which the string vibrates. As each pitch is calculated, it is possible to then graph a musical composition and analyze it in relation to its energy…”
A typical EBMA compositional practice was to superimpose a graphic artwork—photo, drawing, whatever—on standard graph paper, then plot critical features of the artwork on the graph paper, which could then serve for a kind of musical notation—standard musical notation, on the standard musical staff, being essentially a graph, with a y-axis, indicating amplitude, pitch, and x-axis, indicating duration, note length—thus translating graphic art into music.
The hate part of the love-hate equation had much to do with the outcome of the early 1990s competition for the floor design for the new Buffalo International Airport. Topolski’s idea for a universal solar path diagram—for solar path calculation from any given earth latitude and longitude, any time of the year—came in second.
Plan schematics for the project are on display, along with some personal communications reflecting his mood and outlook in the wake of the disappointment. Including a portion of poet Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, which he says “encapsulates my thoughts on the Niagara Frontier.”
The Rimbaud sentences seem to do more than that. They present a visual/linguistic synesthesia analogue to what Topolski was attempting in aural/visual terms, to name his two most prominent artistic interest categories. Rimbaud says, “I discovered the color of the vowels, A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green. I regulated the form and movement of each consonant, and with the rhythms of instinct, I imagined that I had invented a poetic language accessible, sooner or later, to all the senses…”
The Andy Topolski exhibit continues through September 8.
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