Sunday, March 29, 2009

The mystical musical world of Hyman Bloom, 96

It is my great good fortune to be staying in Nashua, New Hampshire, at the home of my first mentor in Indian music, the great American painter Hyman Bloom, who is today celebrating his 96th (!) birthday with friends and family. Hyman lives with his wife Stella, whom he married in 1978, in a spacious home, converted 25 years ago from a large hundred-year-old New England barn, with high ceilings, a loft entrance, and dark broad-timber floors, and now white plaster walls, many adorned with Hyman's work, from small pencil sketches to enormous canvases pulsing with turbulent colors and spiritual energy--some of the greatest achievements of Twentieth-Century American drawing and painting.

And on this rainy Sunday morning, the home is fragrant with the rich aromas of Stella's superb Greek cooking (with able assistance since yesterday from her sister-in-law Irene Caralis, and today, sister Anna Burland) for the guests who will be arriving shortly. Not that Hyman will be the seniormost among those celebrating the occasion; we are awaiting the arrival of Hyman's long-time physician and friend (and mine while I was teaching in Cambridge), the astonishingly alert Dr. Abraham Stone Freedberg, an eminent Harvard Medical School Professor Emeritus who is looking forward to his 101st birthday in May.

I first met Hyman in Boston when I was in college in the early 1960s. One of my roommates, knowing of my interest in Indian music (which I had discovered on recordings in the 1950s), introduced me to the daughter of Hyman's dealer, who arranged for me to meet the man who was eventually to continue, following my late mother's early nurture, the spiritual support for my music that I never received from my own father. I remember very clearly going to Hyman's studio on Newbury Street in Boston on numerous occasions, when we would sit, often with little or no conversation--and listen to some of the many 78 rpm recordings he had collected from India of the great masters--material which was totally unavailable at that time in the U.S.

It was with Hyman that I first heard the legendary Indian vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar--with her jewel-like improvisations in Indian ragas--and the equally legendary Ustad Bundu Khan, who had brought the magical sarangi from its role as a box-fiddle for accompaniment to vocalists to its current status as a virtuoso solo instrument par excellence. To my ears (then, and still) the voice of the sarangi was the closest instrumental equivalent to a musical cry from the human soul that I had ever heard, and Kesarbai's singing conveyed a haunting sense of the great timelessness and vast cultural expanses of India.

I knew little at the time of Hyman's enormous reputation as a painter. He was at one point considered by Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning to be the greatest American painter, and the de facto father of American Abstract Expressionism, with paintings hanging in many major American museums. As for his work itself: his studio in those days was filled with numerous canvases of various sizes stacked mysteriously against the walls, face-in; nor was there any work-in-progress on an easel with a palette of paints nearby that this Denver-born boy would have expected from having seen in his childhood Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas' impassioned portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh. (Only much later was I able to see in his home, or in exhibitions, many of Hyman's great paintings, whose use of ecstatic and vibrant color challenges, in a very different style, that of the great Dutch master himself.) But there were exotic Indian instruments on the shelves, and when I was there the studio was filled with the voices of Indian music--that extraordinary musical universe of which I had had glimpses, also in Denver, while hearing my own early LPs of Indian classical music.

One of Hyman's early teachers, Denman Ross, had used musical scales as a model for a systematic treatment of of the painter's color palette. In the 1930s Hyman began to collect recordings of Greek, Turkish, Jewish, and Indian music, probably as a source for alternate aesthetic inspiration. I've often thought these musical explorations must have touched upon the coloristic aspects (iridescence in visual terms) of the microtonal intervals, scales, and ornaments of the oriental traditions. In the 1940s Hyman became close friends with the prolific Alan Hovhaness, one of the most widely recorded American composers (he styled himself "Scottish-Armenian", and is generally grouped among the modern musical orientalists), whose oeuvre is as controversial among the cognoscenti as it is beloved by many--including myself--in the contemporary audience for classical music. By Hyman's account they talked often, and deeply, about the meaning and mysticism of music, and the creative forces behind it.

Then in the mid-50s, Hyman met the late James A. Rubin--another Bostonian whose persona, as a businessman and extraverted bon vivant--was vastly different from that of Hyman. In ensuing years their common interest in oriental music enabled this very odd couple (the scholarly and comparatively diminutive Hyman with his deep eyes, quizzically arched eyebrows, and long charcoal beard, vs. the towering Rubin with his booming voice and PR-man bonhomie and swagger) to collaborate in the formation of the PanOrient Arts Foundation (which I'll cover in a subsequent writing).

As noted, Hyman was an active collector of oriental recordings. After a few shared meals in Boston delicatessens and Greek restaurants, the two agreed to meet to see each other's collections. Jim later would tell the story of turning up at Hyman's studio with his two LPs of Indian music (checked out from the Public Library) proudly in hand, to be confronted with Hyman's very comprehensive collection of hundreds of 78 rpm discs of usic--as well as Turkish and Indian instruments.

It was through the peripatetic Rubin, that Hyman (who hated travel as much as Rubin thrived on it) was able to expand the collection of recordings and instruments which nourished his profound love of music, and which led him into auditory realms which at once comforted and inspired him. And it was that same love that enabled Hyman to accept me--with no expressed interest whatsoever in his painting--as a frequent fellow traveller on musical paths, generously lending me his own sitar during my senior year in college.

We continued to meet, often in the company of the irrepressible Rubin, after my two years of sitar study in India (1964-66), most particularly when I returned to Harvard to teach (1974-1983). During those nine years I would lunch with Hyman almost every week, initially at the original Legal Seafoods in Inman Square in Cambridge, which with its sawdust-covered floors and boisterous atmosphere providing a welcome change from the august and often arrogant institution back along Cambridge Street.

* * * * * * *
Now, after dinner, the birthday candles heroically blown out--if not all at once (Hyman sleeps with an oxygen tube at night), and certainly not 96 in number, the last of some twenty guests have departed. The gray, cloudy New Hampshire Sunday afternoon outdoors encloses with warm comfort the now quiet, richly hued luminosity in Hyman and Stella's home, with its amazing combination of Hyman's original thin-lined sketches and large-scale colorburst oil canvases on the walls, and on adjacent shelves, in a somehow natural visual counterpoint, a seemingly endless procession of glass vases and plates and bowls of the Carnival Glass style, which Hyman has collected over the decades for their infinite range of darkling iridescent shades and shadows, to be subjects for some of his own works of still life with their mystical, motionless dances of color.

And in quiet and thankful contemplation, I celebrate the 96 years of this gentle and visionary man, and his priceless gift to me of a paternal musical blessing.

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