Tag: visual art

Do You Hear What I See?

Allen Otte's set up for Begin Again (photo courtesy Allen Otte)

I spent my youth playing notes on a page. And if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did too. This notation, particular for what we think of as Western music, is merely one graphic, albeit specific, representation of musical sound. And some of it is quite pleasingly arranged on the page, with calligraphy and shaped staves. But connections of music to visual art are as old as music notation itself.

Chant was notated with beautiful framing on the pages. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition translates the paintings of Richard Hartmann just as Debussy’s La Mer is a sonic response to Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa. William Grant Still took as his subject works by Richmond Barthé, Sargent Johnson, and Augusta Savage in his Suite for Violin and Piano. Gian Carlo Menotti broke through his writer’s block when he visited Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi to come up with perennial holiday favorite Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Lady Gaga was likewise inspired by the same artist’s Birth of Venus for her own “Venus.”

These visual connections give the listener a starting point for understanding, which is especially useful in the field of experimental music. What is unidentifiable sonically can trigger a memory or a feeling when it’s attached to a visual. A visual that inspires the composer or improviser is sure to also inspire audiences to a fuller and more moving experience.

A visual that inspires the composer or improviser is sure to also inspire audiences to a fuller and more moving experience.

The Kentler International Drawing Center is driving this connection home with its now-touring exhibition Music as Image and Metaphor. The Kentler Flatfiles have been accessible to Brooklyn visitors for three decades, and curators planned to bring a selection of the collection to the Bartlett’s Center in Columbus, GA this past year. This would have combined with performances by composer/pianist Michael Kowalski and percussionist/composer Allen Otte via the music department at Columbus State University.

In a dilemma familiar to many last year, by October 2020 it was decided that the plans had to change. But Kowalski and Otte did not completely abandon the concert – they instead created a lasting musical installation, able to reach far more visitors than a single performance, with an opening in January 2021. For 40 pieces from the collection, Kowalski and Otte would create individual short musical responses. 40 new pieces of music, connected to visual works, accessible in the gallery and also online. A setup that allows the visitor to absorb themselves in the aesthetic conversation, or, exist within the infinity mirror of creativity.

Both Kowalski and Otte, as well as curators David Houston and Florence Neal, were happy with the result, and now the exhibition is headed to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, MS this month.

Allen Otte is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. With the Black Earth and later Percussion Group Cincinnati he has been on the cutting edge of percussion-based chamber music. (Note: the author is a former student of Allen Otte.) Michael Kowalski was a pioneer of computer-based composition, who moved from chamber music to opera when he founded The Postindustrial Players. The two overlapped as students at Oberlin, and have collaborated before. But while being quite like-minded artistically, their approaches could best be described as opposites.

Knowing the likely answer, I asked both men if it was easier to write one 20-minute piece or 20 one-minute pieces.

Otte found the episodic nature delightful. “I could boom, you know, get an idea, make a response and not be responsible for actually much more than than the idea and the response. And in a minute or 90 seconds, it’s gone.” Percussion being an area where less is more in many cases likely made this more intuitive. “If it were twenty one minutes from me, I would have been uncomfortable,” he said. But he had expected Kowalski, who lists “composer” first among his occupations, to keep the game at a high level.

Kowalski agreed that the two are of a different mind, and thinks an attentive listener could take note of different kinds of craftsmanship happening. But that’s part of the fun, “because you don’t get in one person’s groove and stay there. It takes 45 or 50 minutes to actually hear the whole thing. If you just walk through the show and spend a minute on every piece, that’s how long it would take.”

Guests can take a tour through the exhibition, listening to pieces inspired by each piece of art. There is no stated theme, and no planned progression. The locations in Columbia and Biloxi are set up differently, with the images in a different order, so if a story can be extrapolated, it will be different than any other version of the exhibition. This includes an online visit, which can of course be in any order one likes.

In the compositional process, nearly opposite approaches were both successful.

Kowalski outlined specific procedures for himself, almost like a game:

Music as image:

  • Provide a soundtrack (as if the image is a film) or
  • Use the image as a graphic score

Or music as metaphor:

  • If the artist were making music, what would this image sound like? or
  • Enter a dialogue with the visual art

Random selection of these approaches created structure – more of a puzzle to solve and less of a blank page. And he applied these four procedures with a simple shuffle of the deck – mostly sticking to whatever process came up, no matter the image.

Otte was more intuitive, keeping a chart of the images he had an immediate reaction to, and curating himself from there: asking “whether I was doing too much of one kind of thing and whether I really ought to find a way to push myself to think about a piece in a different way.”

Both Otte and Kowalski spent time studying with composer Herbert Brün, who was a pioneer of graphic notation, and who is also represented as a visual artist in the Flatfiles. In Otte’s hands, responding to Brün’s piece was unexpectedly his most difficult assignment.

Three computer generated graphics by Herbert Brün

Three computer generated graphics by Herbert Brün–Orchestra Model One (1971), Ensemble Analogue Four (1974), and Web I (1971), image courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.

“Herbert’s piece was one of the hardest ones to do and one of the last ones that I came up with,” he said. But also pointed out that throughout the project, difficulty often yielded a better result. This is possibly because some of the pictures presented a challenge, or because the challenge demanded more time be taken, and led to more self-questioning. Of Brün’s work he noted, “Well, actually, that’s the one that’s somewhat strong, that has some substance to it.”

Hear Otte’s response to Brün’s Orchestra Model One here.

For Kowalski, who is a white man, this challenge came in the form of an image of musicians at New York’s iconic Five Spot by biracial artist Robin Holder. His randomly selected procedure was to create a soundtrack – something that could easily have come across as an appropriation.

Five Spot 2 is one of the more literal images in the entire exhibition, so there was no way to ignore what was in it.

Five Spot 2 is one of the more literal images in the entire exhibition, so there was no way to ignore what was in it. “I had to be honest and embrace that. So that was a toughie.” So in this one case, he did break his procedural “rules,” writing what he felt was a more appropriate musical response. He also recruited an ensemble. Once again, having to think a little harder being a good impulse “that just forced me to come up with something else, maybe something better.”

Robin Holder's drawing of a group of jazz musicians playing instruments and singing.

Robin Holder: Five Spot 2, stencil monotype, 22″x30″ (2005), image courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.

Hear Kowalski’s response to Five Spot 2 here.

While the ensemble was an enjoyable addition to the project, one standout is fairly minimal, as Otte responds to art by Mary Judge using just an amplified pencil.

The museum’s notes call the music “often surprising, sometimes baffling, always illuminating.” The connection between the 40 works chosen (out of 2000 options) by David Houston and Florence Neal is up to the beholder.  The same can be said about the pieces of music.

Otte felt a connection with the works by relating to what he called the performative aspect of an artist–the idea of still engaging an audience while the visual artist’s work remains still. Whereas Kowalski found a kinship with the act of creation – making a picture being analogous to making a sound. Different results, but the mindset implies a similar procedure.

All of which are ideas that can apply to other visuals when they combine with music–especially dance, where both Otte and Kowalski have a great deal of experience.

“I can only say that I’ve been, more often than not, astounded at what dancers are hearing in music and how they experience music and it’s often fascinating,” Otte said. In his experience dancers may give apologies for not “knowing” an appropriate musical term, while their assessment of the piece is generally quite insightful.

Kowalski also noted the complexity of choreography as a visual form: existing in three dimensions and moving. “If you’re sitting beyond about row 12, you’re seeing a great deal of usually very complicated forms, tracing patterns, on a fairly large stage.”

A previous collaboration between the two featured this interaction. Kowalski wrote a piece for the Percussion Group Cincinnati called Rebus, which includes choreography with flag signals. Initially composing a storyboard, once again the visual existed before the sounds. But, that piece was quite concrete – something Kowalski has always found essential working with dancers.

“Unlike musicians, dancers don’t notate, usually they don’t go into a rehearsal with a bunch of things in their head already,” he pointed out. “They work it out. It’s a very different way of working from most musicians that I know.”

There is no one right way to do a project like this. But like any collaboration, trust must be involved. If the creators are open and welcoming to each other’s vision, then brilliant combinations are possible. If we were to call the visual and the musical participants “sides” of the equation – the sides have to balance, and be somewhat open to the other’s contributions. Kowalski describes this as a tension, much like a conversation. But to be successful, each factor, visual and musical alike, must point to the other.

There is no one right way to do a project like this. But like any collaboration, trust must be involved.

“Some people dig it more visual, and then they get into the music and the other people the other way around, and I just think that’s ideal,” he explained. “I’m very happy about that.”

Despite their different approaches, both musicians planned and charted and graphed to create each of these responses. Otte describes the planning as a math problem. “The calculations that went into that final one minute; that final 60 seconds repeated for each of us 20 times in one way or another.” But also occasionally the minute of music came quickly and easily. “The ones which just came in in some burst of fun, we stuck with a few of those.”

Otte and Kowalski will be live at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum for a talk and performance of even three more premieres. Forms of falling dust is a work for prepared yang-qin by Rachel C. Walker, a former student of Otte. Another collaboration between Otte and Kowalski called How To Compose Yourself involves a fairly frenzied piano part with percussive commentary. And the concert includes a new iteration of Begin Again, a work by Kowalski whose material stretches from the year 1597 to 1977 and now to 2021. In Begin Again a treatise by Thomas Morley was interpreted on an IBM computer by Ed Miller. A 1977 rendition included the voice of soprano Marlene Rosen, and this version it will include today’s additions from Otte and Kowalski.

The act of drawing on decades of material is part of what makes the project feel so substantial. Music originally created on an IBM the size of a linen closet, being watched and heard on a phone that fits in my hand, still feels fresh and new in this context. And while these pieces of music once again come to life thanks to fresh realizations, they also have renewed meaning thanks to the pairing with another artist’s visual material.

Music originally created on an IBM the size of a linen closet, being watched and heard on a phone that fits in my hand, still feels fresh and new in this context.

The clichés about art and music would tell us that the two aesthetic forms are bound to go together. I leaned into one of these, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, in my conversation with Otte and Kowalski.

“Art is how we decorate space. Music is how we decorate time.”

“Decoration,” said Otte. “That’s a loaded word.” Kowalski objected as well.

But at the surface level he immediately conceded that music could be “delightful if it is in fact decorative and entertaining.” And Kowalski identified “entertaining” as a secret word.

“That’s the word that overlaps: ‘decoration,’” Kowalski said. “Decoration is congenial and attractive and so is entertainment when it’s any good, I think. And so I would use the word ‘shape’ instead of ‘decorate.’”

So Basquiat is possibly correct, depending on what the music has to say. Whether or not you can welcome the word “decorate” for a serious piece of music is up to you, just as whether or not a piece of art “shapes” your space. And the fact that we’ve returned to these kinds of philosophical artistic conversations is another sign that we’re emerging from the harshest closure in the history of music with our thoughtfulness intact.

Development: musical image / Michael Kowalski's music sketches for "Untitled" by Kazuhiro Nishijima

Development: musical image / Michael Kowalski’s music sketches for “Untitled” by Kazuhiro Nishijima, images courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.

As a pandemic-pivot, this project was enormously successful in that some music-making happened at all. While the music world navigates a bumpy road to a new normalcy, this project is quite possibly a model. Not just of the value of interdisciplinary connections, but also one of flexibility and access.

While the music world navigates a bumpy road to a new normalcy, this project is quite possibly a model.

Music as Image and Metaphor has visual and aural elements that are complete statements on their own. It can be experienced at an individual level, at one’s own pace. And it’s available in varying degrees of in-person participation, including online. And geographically, it has been available to viewers in the southeastern USA. While the Kentler Flatfiles reside in Brooklyn, they have been available in this form to viewers in Georgia and Mississippi. Modeling and sparking conversations – musical dialogues – that allow us to grow our audience, our depth as artists, and our own creativity.

40 Flatfiles down, 1,960 to go.


This exhibition of the Kentler Flatfiles includes pieces by the following visual artists: Herbert Brün, Beth Caspar, Phillip Chen, Abby Goldstein, Takuji Hamanaka, Keiko Hara, robin holder, Richard Howe, Hannah Israel, Mary Judge, Kazuhiro Nishijima, Ralph Kiggell, Rosalinda Kolb, Jiří Kornatovský, Robert Lansden, Simon Lewandowski, Jim Napierala, Florence Neal, Margaret Neill, Morgan O’Hara, Gahae Park, Jaanika Peerna, Scott Pfaffman, Orlando Richards, Susan Schwalb, Viviane Rombaldi Seppey, Molly Snyder-Fink, and Hugh Williams.

Jeffrey Mumford: Creating a Different World

A photo of a man with a white beard against a brick wall

“I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation,” says Jeffrey Mumford, a composer who started off pursuing a career in the visual arts before music completely took over his imagination.

“I fully thought I was going to be an artist,” he explained during an hour we spent with him when he was visiting New York City for a performance last month. “I did lots of work in high school and I went to college as an art major. Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged. … I was working on it and then one day, there was white paint splattered all over it. Someone obviously didn’t like it. So I kind of ran to the music department for solace, because I was always interested in music anyway. … I came to realize that that was the best way I could express myself.”

Expression and, in particular, expressing himself his way, are paramount to Mumford, who has always rejected such binary polarities as atonality vs. tonality, Uptown vs. Downtown, or gnarly vs. lush. And he is particularly opposed to the belief that someone’s race, gender, or any other social categorization could or should determine the kind of music that person creates. According to him, “Being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides. You offend these people who in the white community think that you’re encroaching on their turf and you offend people within your own community, unfortunately, who think that you’re writing white people’s music. I think I write my music. I write what I hear. I have many influences. … There’s no one such thing as black music. … If you’re a black composer, anything you write will be black music.”

In Mumford’s lexicon, Elliott Carter, with whom he studied for three years, “is a Romantic composer.” Yet at the same time, growing up “hearing Sarah Vaughan singing made a big impression” on him. Mumford’s eclecticism and refusal to be typecast might explain why his music was presented on one of the earliest Bang on a Can marathons.

Part of Mumford’s strong desire not be beholden to any particularly stylistic silo is that he wants “to create a different world” through his music. A through line, however, that connects a lot of his creative work is its evocation of clouds, which has fascinated him since his youth:

I used to look out the window in the summer time. There were thunderstorms all over the place in D.C., and the sky would turn purple and green. And you’d see these masses of clouds splitting off and recombining. That was so inspiring to me. Then still thinking I was going to be a painter, I just wanted to grab them, bring them into my room, and play with them. But those images have never left. So musically I want to recreate this sense that you can create an environment that you can live in among these clouds.

Certainly the beautiful aphoristic titles of Mumford’s compositions—e.g. her eastern light amid a cavernous dusk or of fields unfolding…echoing depths of resonant light—evoke cloud imagery as well as poetry, and in so doing perhaps encourage a different kind of listening approach than if he simply gave his compositions the generic names based on instrumentation that so many other composers do, e.g. for the two examples cited above: Wind Quintet No. 1 and Cello Concerto.

But in addition to all of this ethereal inspiration, Mumford is also deeply rooted in humanism and wants his music to be a galvanizing force for making the world a better place and for people to think beyond simple answers. He was particularly passionate when he recounted the story of the Cleveland Orchestra premiere of the comfort of his voice, a work he wrote in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

An usher who’d been there for a long time came up to me and said, “Thank you for your piece. It wasn’t ‘We Shall Overcome’ again. It was much more complex because the man was so much more complex.” … With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the numerous other anthems that inspire our community, I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions. Does that make sense?  Then this usher came up to me and said thank you. “This piece for me meant a lot, to hear that you took a different approach than a lot of composers have taken when given this opportunity to do that.”

Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Jeffrey Mumford at the home of Bärli Nugent in New York, NY
May 22, 2019—11:00 a.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Mixed Media: Collaborative Music and Visual Art Making for Ten x Ten: 2013

This Saturday, three Chicago arts organizations will celebrate the release of Ten x Ten: 2013, a collaborative venture between ten Chicago visual artists and ten composers. These artists and composers, paired up by Access Contemporary Music (ACM), Homeroom Chicago, and Spudnik Press, worked together to craft joint “statements of intent” and create pieces of music and art which speak to each other. While the 2010 and 2012 editions of Ten x Ten paired visual artists with rock musicians and other recording artists, this year’s project is firmly in the realm of contemporary art music. The result is a ten-track vinyl LP, performed for the recording by ACM’s Palomar Ensemble, and a set of ten handmade screen prints. 

The Ten x Ten project reflects the inclusive, community-building spirit that animates the operations of both Homeroom and Access Contemporary Music. Homeroom, whose mission is to “create an artistic dialogue with shared and far-reaching impact,” hosts songwriter nights, dance parties, and one-of-a-kind cultural events like “Barbie 101,” which critically engaged Barbie dolls through performance art, queer studies, poetry, and history. ACM’s contemporary music programs include a highly visible partnership with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a wildly successful silent film festival, and an international commissioning program that brings music from around the world to Chicago. Thus, it’s no surprise that Ten x Ten has generated a set of fascinating works—and lots of interdisciplinary neuron-firing.     

To learn more about the process of creating musical-visual dialogue, I talked to composer Andrew Tham and his collaborator Edie Fake about their journey from collaborative “blind date” to finished piece. 

Ellen McSweeney: Andrew, did you and Edie get to know each other’s work before crafting a statement of intent and moving forward? What was that like?

Andrew Tham: Basically, the setup was that we met each other at the launch event that ACM and Homeroom set up for us. I didn’t know Edie’s work beforehand, so it was like a blind date of sorts. We sat down that same day and had an hour-long discussion. We talked about what both of us were working on in our own fields. He told me about the concepts that he’d been dealing with, up to that point. I told him about the concepts that I was thinking about in music. We asked, “How can we use this project as a way to combine our interests and further the conversation for both of us?”

EM: How did Edie’s visual language, which is so vivid, so full of humor and self-exposure, affect the way you approached the sounds in your piece?

Edie Fake's "Night Baths"

All artwork by Edie Fake

AT: I was really inspired by Memory Palaces, the most recent project that Edie had finished when we started talking. It’s all these reimaginings of spaces in Chicago—places like gay bars, gay clubs, spaces that have social potential and represent an ideal of social utopian space. And those are really architecturally dense—a lot of patterns, a lot of colors, really dazzling. He was trying to achieve an effect where you get this pattern going, and for the viewer, the more you look at it, the more it begins to throb or resonate. So this is the crux of our piece: we were both trying to achieve a changing temporal experience.

So my piece begins in a way that is very static. The idea is that I want it to be this flat, 2-D thing that over time stirs and becomes something more interactive, that engages the listener more and more as time progresses. And that was what Edie’s work was doing in these pieces. As you look at it for longer, you get more depth.

EM: Physical space also ended up being an important theme in your work together.

AT: Yes. As a way of beginning, I went out and found physical spaces that I wanted to translate into music, or capture an atmosphere. I made some musical sketches and field recordings and sent that to Edie—not telling Edie what it was from. He made sketches from that, and that influenced how I wrote the rest of the piece.

Edie Fake: I’ve been doing fantasy architecture drawings for a little while, usually exteriors. But when it came time to portray the space the music was making, it was obviously an interior space for me. At that time, I’d been reading a bit on how the structures of a house or building roughly psychologically align with our bodies and minds. I guess I’m still puzzling it out, but for me a sound almost automatically crafts an interior space in my mind, whereas an idea, thought or aspiration I usually visualize as an exterior, an edifice.
Edie Fake's "Friendship and Freedom"
EM: What were some of the challenges of the project for you, Edie?

EF: Deciding on the colors for the final print was a big challenge. We were asked to play with the idea of synesthesia, and I needed to figure out what colors meant for the sound of the piece. I usually design with a ton of colors, but Andrew’s sounds had more restraint. It definitely took a while for me to realize I only wanted a couple of colors popping out from a dark space.
Edie Fake's "10 x 10 colors"
EM: As people who normally work alone, how did you adjust to the joint process of creating the work?

AT: We acknowledged off the bat that it wasn’t a long-term, completely integrated kind of collaboration, and that posed an interesting challenge for us. The whole project is about the synthesis of visual art and music. How can we contribute to that concept, even if we’re not collaborating on a super intimate level? So we set it up like a game of telephone.

EF: It was pretty great – by playing a game of telephone between sound and image, we were trying to mimic the spaces we were creating in our own media. I really like when an exchange has an element of play to it. This was a great warm up for what we were going for, using static media to talk about the importance of live space.

AT: We had the same concept in mind, and we were interested in how the game of telephone distorts the process. There’s influence, but it’s never quite the same each time. We tried to embrace that.

You can hear all the tracks from the Ten x Ten project, right here. The release party is this Saturday, November 16, at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.

Guerilla Tactics

Last week’s post about boredom provoked more than a few responses, including a comment of my own that I’d like to expand upon this week:

I’ve always thought there’s a guerilla, Trojan horse element to composing in that if it’s not entertaining or compelling enough for most people, the goods (whatever they may be) aren’t going to make it past the front gate.

This comment of my own in turn provoked a response from composer/performer (performer/composer?) Matt Marks, who pointed out the connotation of trickery in my analogy and rightly decried the unfortunately common attitude that artists must wrap their wares in appealing wrappings in order to make the “medicine” go down—which gives me an excellent opportunity to discuss just who or what is being tricked in my Trojan horse analogy, and why.

In my analogy (hence, developing metaphor) concerning aesthetic appreciation, the “goods” are not some component of the aesthetic experience—not some meaning or intellectual payload—but rather the entire experience of appreciating a work of art, in all its completeness. The defenses that must be overcome—and the reason that the goods must be smuggled—are the well-girded ramparts of our rational minds, which seek to understand by dividing, disassembling, dissecting, and ultimately killing the fullness of the aesthetic experience. While it’s true that our capacity for rational understanding can yield immense insight in partnership with the intuitive mind, it must always begin from the fullness of experience for those insights to be grounded. For the same reason that a joke that must be explained to us is never funny, aesthetic appreciation likewise seems to require a predominantly intuitive connection and a similar suspension of rational analysis (even if such analysis is subsequently engaged).

What is the Trojan horse that draws us into the intuitive world of art, and makes for an understanding greater than rational apprehension alone can provide for? It’s the raw, sensual nature of the experience itself, which remains stubbornly indivisible, unique, and present.

So if we fail to fully engage the senses of our listeners, we can’t hope to do anything beyond that because art is not primarily to be explained, it is to be experienced. No one will be able to appreciate the subtle interplay of my music’s counterpoint (and the deeper resonances that this recognition makes manifest) if my counterpoint is muddy and poorly realized; and no one will be able to connect with any of the threads in your film—emotional, intellectual, or what have you—if the shots are drab, poorly lit, and unappealing.

That’s far from suggesting that artists “smuggle in” the meaning of their work inside a sugar-coated shell of appealing surface textures and mindless bubblegum; what I’m suggesting is that artists smuggle in the entire experience of their works—meaning included—by appealing to the senses and preconscious modes of understanding that are not rational. This is a rejection of the pernicious “take your medicine” attitude which Matt took care to point out, but so too is it a rejection of an equally harmful attitude: one which imagines that art and most unlikely of all, music, might be apprehended on any deep level without engaging the senses in a powerful way.

This is why I’m always at a loss when asked to explain my music in words. Although I am more than happy to use words to set up a listening experience, or to provoke other insights, I can’t explain it, precisely because the meaning of the music is not expressible in words, and is not separable from the experience of listening. In order to get my meaning across I can’t rely on rational argument any more than I could hope to elicit guffaws by carefully explaining a joke; I have to rely on the sensations that my music creates, which can sneak around the rational mind without being caught. By providing for compelling sensations and making sure that my structural designs clearly project themselves on the audible level, I have a better chance of causing someone to feel a genuine connection with the music, which is the beginning of a deeper relationship in which rational inquiry becomes engaged as well.