I had no intention of ever writing a song. Sure, I’d hauled an ancient guitar that once belonged to my father-in-law out of my basement to mess around with following an unexpected surgery in January 2015. But that was it—just messing around, keeping my bored fingers busy. That is until I got wind of a song writing workshop being led by Dar Williams (a New York based singer/song writer trained up by the likes of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger) at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies set to take place in July that same year. Dar Williams — my musical idol. I signed up on a whim, never thinking twice about the purpose of the five day retreat. I just wanted to have an excuse to hang out with Dar. Online registration complete, I promptly forgot all about it.
Around this same time, myself and a team of PEM colleagues were busy turning our attention to the early development of a project we were having difficulty wrapping our minds around—Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. This large scale, scholarly painting was due to come to PEM from the Terra Foundation in fall 2016 and we knew from the beginning that we wanted to do more than just hang it on the wall. But what? For the final weeks of winter and into spring, we kicked a whole host of ideas around. In the process, we spoke richly about Morse himself; his early ambitions as a young painter, his drive to showcase the masterpieces of Europe to an American audience, the ultimate commercial and ideological failure of the work he considered his masterpiece and his eventual surrender of art for science as he rocketed toward the invention of the telegraph. Within this framework, we discussed what it means to be a curator, the wonders of imagined space, how viewers engage (or disengage) with art, what makes something a success or a failure and how art and science converge.
Evenings at home, I thought about Morse and how it must have felt to devote two years of his life to a product no one appreciated or understood. I imagined the painting as a carefully crafted message that, though received, was never deciphered. And it was this idea that came back to me in mid-June of last year when I suddenly realized I was due to write a song in just two weeks.
I arrived at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in early July 2015 with a few articles of clothing, a notebook containing roughly five lines of lyrics about a painting I’d never seen and a guitar. My workshop, I was soon to learn, was composed of about twenty people of all kinds. The youngest among us was twenty, the oldest in his mid-seventies. We were pastors and lawyers and therapists and teachers and limo drivers and… museum professionals. We would come, fondly by the end, to call ourselves the “Dar-lings.”
Upon arrival, Dar — in the same sweet way of her stage manner — gently outlined the loose structure of our days together. The first hour of the morning was to be devoted to a short lecture/discussion and song deconstruction by Dar, the middle part of the day was for independent song writing, and the later part of the afternoon was for collective song workshopping.
Each one of us, during the course of our five days, would have an opportunity to perform for the group and a single window of one-on-one time with Dar to discuss the song of our choice. I signed up for the last day, thinking I’d need every moment to finish my first song… about The Gallery of the Louvre.
Here it is:
He thought he could teach us, he thought we would care
He wanted to show us,
but we weren’t there… to see
Oh, the world, it’s so lovely
It’s beauty so vast
Well, he placed it before us, but we just brushed past
And he’s painting a message from over the sea
A message so empty, it came back to him
He changed his direction, he left things behind
He tinkered with science, it shifted his mind…
The machine, it was perfect
His legacy made
Was it all that we needed? He hoped and he prayed
And he’s tapping a message from a faraway land
And we finally saw him, as he stretched out his hand
Now time goes by quickly, our connections they change
But technology sometimes puts us far out of range
So what is it this evening that links me to you?
It’s a shared understanding,
a way to see through… to love
The device that he built us
Could never be all
If I can’t touch your face, the empires fall
So I’ll sing out a message you’ll hear and you’ll see
A message so loving, it will hold you to me
I sang this song—accompanied by own terrible guitar playing—to the Dar-lings (including Dar herself) on the last day of our workshop. And, in case any of them end up reading this blog post, I’ll own up to the fact that I cried off and on through the whole thing. Not because I was sad, but because I was amazed by how much this strange failure of a painting moved and inspired me. And because, when you strip it of all scholarship, how deeply the work speaks to our drive for connection, understanding and a shared sense of wonder. In my quiet meeting with Dar later that day, she told me that she never imagined anyone could find a more esoteric topic for a song than she herself could, but I’d succeeded admirably. And, in the way of any good parent praising a fledgling child, she applauded the song’s structure, melody and richness. And that’s how Dar Williams met Samuel F.B. Morse and, together, we made beautiful music.