Art is different to both the producer and the observer

The Brantford Expositor | June 5th, 2010

When we look at the same things, we don’t see the same things; when we listen to the same things, we don’t hear the same things. That is a basic rule of life that all of us forget much of the time -just ask any constable or lawyer about the various accounts of eyewitnesses.

But most of us tend to see or hear basically the same thing, usually the obvious thing that someone wanted us to see or hear. The role of the artist is to show us something a little different, a little deeper, a little offbeat about what our quickly created opinion told us. Stop and think, the artist says; there may be more to this than meets the eye or ear.

I am forced to use the references to both seeing and hearing for two reasons. What we see is much more concrete than what we hear and I have often started there to establish some basic principles before moving on to sound. But the main reason today is that John Mars of Paris is an artist who has produced a quantity of interesting work in both media.

Mars has been painting since he was a teenager and has accumulated quite a number of works. Almost all of them are titled “Painting.” They are abstracts, built up over long periods of time with various techniques, and the combination of the materials, arrangement and title allow the viewer to see whatever the viewer chooses to see.

After all, every viewer also brings a lifetime’s experiences and attitudes to a work of art. So every work of art is the creation of both the producer and the observer. The same is true of every experience in life but this is not a vital issue much of the time; art is there to help us deal with the times when it is, or to broaden your perception most of the time if you so choose.

Besides painting most of his life, or more precisely while painting most of his life, Mars has been listening to music. He started collecting records back when rock was still young and fresh enough that everyone had a band and there were 45s and LPs out there from some pretty strange outfits.

(Historical note: Recordings on vinyl started their life spinning at 78 revolutions per minute. When technology allowed that speed to be reduced to 45 rpms, small disks, still with just one track on each side like the 78s, became the standard way of collecting the hits of the 1960s. Reducing the speed to a mere 33 rpms allowed several tracks on each side, making them long-playing records, or LPs.)

In these days of internet sharing it’s hard to remember how geographically limited most of those rock bands were. What was big in Toronto was unknown in Detroit and vice versa. Mars’ family had a penchant for travelling well beyond Brantford, where his father worked as technical superintendent for The Expositor for 52 years. So Mars got to visit record stores in Detroit, Buffalo, Toronto and even New York, among other places.

Mars was already an explorer rather than a follower and he came home with some pretty unusual fare to influence his music-making. For yes, he was already into the music scene as well, leading a band of Martians at high school, singing and playing drums. They covered a lot of the standard stuff of the day, but Mars was always bringing in some of the different sounds he heard in his growing record collection.

Now you can hear some of those different sounds in his music, in either of his two CDs. Whasup? came out some years ago. I have been able to listen to his recent release, Detroit or Buffalo, and can tell you what I hear in it. But I don’t bring Mars’ encyclopaedic knowledge of early rock to my listening, so you may hear different things if you choose to go to and order a copy.

I hear an interesting mix I’d call “upbeat tragedy.” The words of the 16 songs often speak about loneliness and emptiness, but it’s also the sound. Mars has a hound-dog-in-the-moonlight kind of voice that bends down around the edges, perfect for expressing the sadness of these songs. Using just backup vocals, guitars and keyboards throughout makes the musical sound cluster in the middle, like people huddled together through life’s storms. Bass and drums would have added a spaciousness to the sound that would make this blend of covers and originals more ordinary and less effective.

You can listen to John Mars in person, when he appears next Thursday, June 10, at the Groove Kitchen, 656 King Street East in Cambridge, and on Friday, June 25, at The Cedar House, 12 Broadway West in Paris. Both shows start at 8.

This coming Wednesday, June 9, another artist of delightful unpredictability is coming to Brantford Downtown Jazz at the Sanderson Centre. Heather Bambrick has a colourful voice and the kind of sparkling personality that could only come from Newfoundland.

One more thing about what we hear: The sewage treatment plant in Treuenbreitzen, near Berlin, is playing Mozart into its holding tanks. According to scientists at Mundus, a small German acoustics firm headquartered in Wiesenburg in north-eastern Germany, Mozart’s rhythms and harmonies “made their sewage-eating micro-organisms perform better.” I wonder what those microbes actually do hear in Mozart?

Happy listening!

Murray Charters is a freelance writer, musician and teacher. He can be reached at