Posts filed under “Art”


Benno Janssen was Pittsburgh’s favorite club architect: he gave us the Twentieth Century Club, the Keystone Athletic Club, the Masonic Temple, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the Longue Vue Club, the Rolling Rock Club, and the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association. For this last club he designed a magnificent Renaissance palace with an enormous arch for the main entrance, and what is a Renaissance arch without a massive cartouche for a keystone?


Our friend Father Pitt supplies us with this picture. Have a look at it and try to imagine the story behind it. What do you think happened to bring it to its present form?

Father Pitt says that he imagines it this way: he sees the sculptor spending months interweaving the letters Y, M, W, and H in the most artistic manner, finally finishing it and presenting it to the discriminating eye of Mr. Janssen, and being told, “You left out the A.”


Somehow this marking found its way into Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos, making a mockery of Stravinsky’s carefully worked-out musical theories.

Dear Dr. Boli: I just ran across this quotation from Igor Stravinsky: “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.” What did he mean by that? —Sincerely, Manfred Honeck.

Dear sir: He meant that music is by nature incapable of being played in a manner that could be described as accarezzevole, affannato, affetuoso, amabile, con amore, appassionato, doloroso, drammatico, espressivo, feroce, con fuoco, furioso, gaudioso, giocoso, impetuoso, lacrimoso, lusingando, melancolico, misterioso, rilassato, scherzando, serioso, sospirando, or tranquillo. When Stravinsky saw any of those markings in a score, he became molto agitato.


This picture was taked the day before yesterday.

The curious stony protrusion in yesterday’s picture is one of the blunt pinnacles on the central tower of the Church of the Ascension in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The architect, William Halsey Wood, seems to have put a lot of effort into the tower, without which this would seem much more like some prosperous but ordinary institutional building.

These pictures are donated to the public by Father Pitt, who also published pictures of this church back in 2013. In that article he wrote, “Right on the border between Oakland and Shadyside, the Church of the Ascension is one of the diminishing number of black stone buildings in Pittsburgh. Father Pitt hopes that his pictures will preserve the memory of our black stones when the last stone building has been sandblasted.” As he expected, those black stones did not remain black much longer. Here is how the church looked in 2013:

There was a time when all stone buildings in Pittsburgh looked like this. It was the architectural signature of the city. Since the soot stopped accumulating, however, more and more of the black stone buildings of Pittsburgh have been cleaned to reveal their original color. One wonders whether the architects ever really intended them to be seen that way. They knew what Pittsburgh’s atmosphere was like: did they expect their buildings to end up anything but black?

As Dr. Boli predicted, the guesses were entertaining, and in many ways more plausible than the truth. Truth often lacks plausibility, and something should be done about that.

“Mary,” for example, suggested that it might be a “neighborhood water tower with defense capabilities to keep the adjacent city council at bay.” In the jealously jurisdictional world of southwestern Pennsylvania, that is a very plausible idea. Every year the local papers run an op-ed piece about the many potential benefits of merging Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, the way Philadelphia merged with Philadelphia County long ago. It would create one of the ten largest cities in the country. It would consolidate many duplicated services and save millions. It will never happen, and if it were seriously threatened, every borough would build towers like the one Mary envisioned.

“GP” suggested that it was a “synchronization point” in a video game, which is also very plausible. It is certainly more plausible than the implausible fact that Pittsburgh is crusty with these Gothic churches, none of which could possibly be built today, since the money would never be spent and the crafts that produced their ornaments have all died.

“James the Lesser” was correct that “this is in a land that cares about conservation of history”: the church has been on the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation’s landmark list for more than fifty years, and Shadyside is the kind of neighborhood where there is good money for preservation. But the “oddly boxy statues” turn out to be an optical illusion that will be dispelled if you enlarge the picture.


Can you guess what this curious structure is or where it can be found? It is, of course, part of a larger structure, but that is the only clue we plan on giving you today. Tomorrow all will be revealed, but today you may have the fun of guessing; and Dr. Boli knows his readers well enough to know that the best guesses will not necessarily be the most accurate guesses.


Practice the seven aesthetic works of mercy and make the world a safer place for persons with sensitive artistic temperaments:

  1. Turning off the television.
  2. Unplugging and removing the amplification system from a concert hall.
  3. Correcting backwards apostrophes at the beginnings of words in signs and advertisements.
  4. Reeducating practitioners of “contemporary Christian music.”
  5. Teaching writers of popular lyrics the principles of rhyme.
  6. Using a fast shutter to capture a waterfall, in defiance of the motion-blurring convention of every inspirational poster in the dentist’s office.
  7. Teaching an art student to draw.


No. 1: Music.

The face of not having nice things in music, by Egon Schiele.

A quick tour of Wikipedia articles on music that began at Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron:

Moses and Aron is based entirely on a single tone row, itself constructed from cells…

Okay, what’s a tone row?

In music, a tone row or note row (German: Reihe or Tonreihe), also series or set, is a non-repetitive ordering of a set of pitch-classes, typically of the twelve notes in musical set theory of the chromatic scale, though both larger and smaller sets are sometimes found.

Okay, what’s musical set theory?

Musical set theory provides concepts for categorizing musical objects and describing their relationships.

Right at the beginning of that article is a helpful illustration with this caption:

Example of Z-relation on two pitch sets analyzable as or derivable from Z17, with intervals between pitch classes labeled for ease of comparison between the two sets and their common interval vector, 212320

The reason we can’t have nice things in music is that only people who find this stuff absolutely fascinating are allowed to write serious music.