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Resonant Encounters

By Michelle Mercer

Jason Moran's STAGED: Three Deuces, 2015.

What is it about visual art—and the open, expansive settings in which it is often presented—that helps music audiences embrace the unfamiliar?

For the Met Breuer’s 2016 opening, the pianist and composer Vijay Iyer had a month-long residency, “Relation,” in a small gallery of the museum. He arranged hundreds of colleagues into various chamber groups that performed several sets of music a day, many of them experimental. When museumgoers would wander into these performances unwittingly, Iyer remembers their faces taking on a certain look.

“They were caught off-guard,” Iyer says. “They were expecting to just breeze by some drawings, and then they found themselves in a room with us and our music, having this intense time-based experience with performers. It was kind of a gentle ambush. That was one of the best things about it for me, getting these very authentic responses from people. And usually you’d see some relaxation and then also gratitude, like, ‘I didn’t expect anyone to be here with me.’”

New music performances have been a longtime tradition at art galleries and at the progressive Whitney Museum of Art. More recently, new music has shown up at the Rubin Museum of Art; the New York’s Look And Listen Festival, now in its 15th year, devotes its entire program to live music in art galleries. But when a temple of high art like the Met embraces new music, it may signal a new degree of acceptance. And indeed, from an original use of gallery spaces in musical performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to sound art installations at a small gallery in Colorado Springs, art and music collaborations are thriving across the country, with some unlikely suspects getting into the game.

La Dolce Morte

The International Contemporary Ensemble and Anthony Roth Costanzo
perform Suzanne Farrin's
La Dolce Morte in the Met's Velez Blanco Patio.

For decades the Met so reliably programmed uplifting, undemanding chamber music that performances there felt almost as timeless as the centuries-old paintings that hang on its walls. That changed in 2011, when the Met hired the inventive curator Limor Tomer, a veteran of BAM, WNYC radio, and the Whitney, to “turn the tanker around,” she says. With an annual budget around $4 million, Tomer began bringing performing arts into a more meaningful relationship with the visual art collection, introducing original dance, theater, and music into the Met’s galleries. She invited choreographer Mark Morris to give a tour of the New American Wing painting galleries. She installed Vijay and his hundreds of colleagues at the Met Breuer opening. She brought the highly interactive Ethel Quartet into residency at the Balcony Bar, so that a Met space where music had long been treated as an audience amenity—“like background music in a restaurant,” Tomer says—now presents a lively, engaging program.

Museum audiences come to performances with a refreshing curiosity and open-mindedness, Timor finds, and are unusually comfortable with unfamiliarity. “There’s some level of intention that people bring to a museum,” she says. “How many times have you heard this? ‘I went to see this exhibition at the Guggenheim, or the Whitney, or MOMA, and it sucked! It was so terrible. I’m going back next week to see some other exhibit.’ And how many times do you hear, ‘I went to this club and I heard some free jazz and you know, it’s just not for me.’ They have decided that the entire discipline is not for them. But when people come to a museum, they’re so much more open to seeing and experiencing something they don’t already know.”

Still, given relative tolerances for visual and aural abstraction, Tomer is especially interested in presenting new music in a way that allows an audience more control over the experience. “Why not give people an alternative to sitting down in assigned seats for an 8 p.m. start time?” she says. “Let them experience especially more challenging music for the duration that they want to. That does make it much easier for them to be able to metabolize music that they might not be familiar with or that requires concentration.” However captivating Iyer’s marathon performances at the Met Breuer may have been, visitors could come and go as they pleased. An all-day, immersive Guitar Festival at the Met’s Cloisters museum last spring offered the same freedom.

Tomer’s performance budget is still a small fraction of the Met’s overall budget, and as of this writing, the Met is mired in some management controversy that may affect its future performance strategy. Still, a fundamental change in performance can be felt throughout the museum, offering a vital opportunity for new music. “When someone is faced with spending time with unfamiliar sounds, they might not choose it,” says the Ethel Quartet’s Dorothy Lawson. “But in an environment like the Met’s Balcony Bar, the threshold is much lower. They’re willing to sit and enjoy the feel of the place, and then realize the music is actually fun and enjoyable, too. It’s a marvelous opportunity for us. The museum gives Ethel regular access to a broad audience, and you’d have to work really hard to get to those people in the outer world.”

“A painting is music you can see. And music is a painting you can hear.” This comment from Miles Davis, who was himself both a musician and painter, expresses the long-prevailing conception of art and music collaborations as direct mappings of the visual to aural, or aural to visual, in which the aim seemed to be a kind of synesthesia. The most famous example is Jackson Pollock listening to jazz’s jagged horn lines and improvising them as drips and smears of paint on canvas. When Coleman Hawkins released a solo saxophone recording called Picasso in 1948, his audience listened for refractions of the melody that directly represented Picasso’s cubist renderings of the physical world. Though many art and music collaborations have always been more complex than “paint the music” or “play the painting,” this midcentury conception still defines outsiders’ understanding of the field.

Jason Moran's <em>Holed Up</em>

Jason Moran's Holed Up, commissioned by
Da Camera of Houston in 2015

And it shouldn’t. In contemporary interdisciplinary work, there’s a proliferating diversity of approaches to collaboration. When you talk about the relationship between visual art and music today, words as varied as dialogue, intervention, bonding, collision, merging, and stacking come up; every musician and curator has a distinct model for connecting disciplines, and that model can change with each project.

Vijay Iyer’s background in embodied cognition theory, for example, informed his and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s musical response to Nasreen’s Mohamedi’s drawings, another project of Iyer’s residency at the Met. (Embodied cognition theory proposes that the body is involved in thinking, with the mind mediating sensation and action.) Rather than looking for a narrative or other representation in Mohamedi’s art, Iyer spent time with her drawings and “tried to let sensations emerge,” he says. “You almost feel her drawings working somewhere behind your eyes. It’s a vivid sensory experience that kind of sets your brain into an active mode, which is very unexpected when you’re looking at a static object.” Iyer and Smith also studied Mohamedi’s archive of diaries and photographs, learning “how she sees and how she responds to what she sees.” Iyer describes the resulting spirited duo album, A Cosmic Rhythm With Every Stroke, as a “merging with Mohamedi’s sensibility.”

Pianist and composer Jason Moran has made interdisciplinary performance so central to his work that he’s now represented by an art gallery, Luhring Augustine. Starting with a 2005 project with the performance artist Joan Jonas, Moran’s portfolio has grown to include collaborations with the visual artists Adrian Piper, Glenn Ligon, Stan Douglas, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker. He’ll have his first solo museum exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 2018, and as artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Moran programs performances that reflect his own interdisciplinary ideals.

For STAGED, a sculptural installation at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Moran reconstructed stages from the swing-era Savoy Ballroom and bebop-era Three Deuces jazz clubs, composing music to play in loop on a Steinway Spirio player piano at the site, and also performing live there with his own band. The piece explored architecture’s impact on the sound and development of jazz, and examined America’s tendency to demolish historic sites.

“All these different elements start to combine and tie into a story, but I get to decide how to get from A to B to C to D, and so does the audience.” - Jason Moran

If Iyer’s musical conception of Mohamedi’s drawings elided narrative for the depth of a shared sensibility, Moran’s projects have used other disciplines to tell deeper, more multi-dimensional stories, complicating music’s accepted meanings. “Working with lots of performance artists and video artists over the past twelve years has given me some different ideas than my jazz practices did about what narrative can be,” Moran says.

In his 2009 Kennedy Center performance “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959,” Moran featured his own live jazz group along with video, still photography, and recorded audio of Thelonious Monk to create a kind of conceptual art intervention into Monk’s life and music. The aim was for both Moran and the audience to connect with Monk beyond the surface of his music, but everyone built his own distinct narrative.

“That’s what I aim to do with a certain piece,” says Moran. “All these different elements start to combine and tie into a story, but I get to decide how to get from A to B to C to D, and so does the audience.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has featured interdisciplinary performance for decades, but it hasn’t been a player in that world quite as long as musician Roscoe Mitchell. As a founding member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an organization of black artists dedicated to original, cross-genre music, Mitchell took part in the 1960s flourishing of interdisciplinary performances. Growing out of the AACM was Mitchell’s Art Ensemble of Chicago, an influential avant-garde jazz group that created original instruments, costumes and sounds ranging from Afrocentric to futuristic, with performances aiming for a kind of ritual theater.

Roscoe Mitchell and Craig Taiborn at MCA Chicago

Roscoe Mitchell and Craig Taiborn at MCA Chicago.

Roscoe Mitchell’s 2017 album Bells For the South Side included four distinct trios recorded in MCA Chicago’s theater and gallery space among the AACM-themed exhibition “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art And Music.” In the gallery, Mitchell performed within a display of Art Ensemble instruments, which made him think hard about how to use both the historical instruments and space in his music. “For the ‘Bells for the South Side’ piece, we were in a long room,” Roscoe says. “So I stationed Hugh [Ragin] at the back of the room with his piccolo trumpet and then I had other musicians on a small stage with Art Ensemble instruments. We used swinging bells that ring on their own, and then took the tones of the bells to construct the music that the trumpet was playing. With the trumpet being in the back of the exhibition place, it put a lot of space in how the sound was being perceived.”

Appropriately enough, the first track of Bells for the South Side is titled “The Spatial Aspects of Sound.” “It was an opportunity for the audience to be immersed in the whole setting of the art and the music,” Mitchell continues. “I noted that people would move around a bit, choosing to stand in different places, and their perception of the music was influenced by where they were standing in the gallery.”

“With contemporary art museums like ours, we’re maybe not thinking so much about a performance of music responding to a particular piece of art,” says MCA Chicago Curator of Performance Yolanda Cesta Cursach. “We’re thinking about our space as a container, and how the artists and audience are moving and navigating across the space is important. It’s about Roscoe, for example, being very cognizant about how I’m capturing or receiving his sound, or taking it in from a different floor and how it’s traveling.”

Hearing sound relative to one’s position was an even more far-reaching possibility in a spring 2017 performance at the museum. Matthew Duvall, a percussionist, became intimately familiar with MCA Chicago when his new music ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, had a residency there in 2015 and 2016. Last year Duvall began planning a performance of Marta Ptaszynska’s “Voice of The Winds,” which is subtitled “a piece for 100 percussionists playing softly.”

“I felt like the museum needed to be a place for this,” Duvall says. “Because it’s this highly reflective ambient space, which for soft sounds seemed like a perfect and beautiful fit.” With additional support from the University of Chicago, Duvall rounded up Chicago’s Beyond This Point and Third Coast Percussion ensembles as partners and staged the piece throughout the entire museum, so that it became an “immersive musical sculpture.” This was no random 1960s arts happening, but finely synchronized chamber music, with a wireless click track coordinating percussionists across floors.

Meanwhile, the audience did move randomly among the percussionists. “It was astonishingly beautiful and lush,” Cursach says of the “Voice of the Winds” performance. “At the same time it really sharpened the ears as far as listening to that percussive score. Sounds floated, ran into a wall, say, or dissipated, dancing in and out of hearing range around the museum. So there was also an amazing bonding with a Merce Cunningham dance video exhibit that was on at the time.”

Inside Eighth Blackbird's interactive exhibit at MCA Chicago

Inside Eighth Blackbird's interactive exhibit at MCA Chicago.

This drifting contemplation model has its complications. As is often the case with gallery performances, acoustics caused some trouble during “Voice of the Winds,” with one reviewer complaining about the intrusion of other gallery sounds on the music. In any discussion of fresh settings for live music, it’s worth remembering the benefits of traditional concert halls, which are designed to be entirely distraction-free spaces where the most wholly absorbed listening is possible. But even with tricky sound and other issues, presenting music adventurously is worth it for many curators and performers. Besides changing the nature of a listener’s attention, performances like Roscoe Mitchell’s or Matthew Duvall’s give the audience room to interact with performers and observe their artistic process and instruments close up, taking them right inside the music.

That’s the value of opening up the stage for Colorado Springs-based musician and sound artist Glen Whitehead, a professor in the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’s Visual and Performing Arts department program. “Seated in a concert hall, you can’t move, which can create a disconnect, with the audience feeling like outsiders to the music, especially if it’s challenging,” Whitehead says. “When you break down that wall, when the audience moves around among the instruments, all that weird abstract music is not so weird anymore, because it’s part of a conversation with the audience.”

Whitehead is a regular in interdisciplinary performances around town, and presents some of his Peak Frequency Series concerts at the local Gallery of Contemporary Art. Like many mid-sized American cities, Colorado Springs is not an art mecca, but its artists are active and committed, with pockets of vibrant creativity folded into the military mountain community. In places like Colorado Springs, where the scene around any given art discipline is smaller, audiences can’t afford to balkanize as much, and music and visual art lovers alike tend to be more open to interdisciplinary performances.

"When you're presenting work that pushes boundaries, all you can really ask for is an audience that will return again and again for different experiences." - Daisy McGowan

“I think the secret to presenting cross-disciplinary work in these smaller markets is to not make assumptions about your audience,” says GOCA director and chief curator Daisy McGowan. “When you’re presenting work that pushes boundaries, all you can really ask for is an audience that will return again and again for different experiences. Maybe some sound art or music from Glen Whitehead’s concert series is outside their comfort zone, but they’ll take a take a chance on it. And then they’ll take a chance again on another exhibit or performance. At GOCA, that’s what we’ve always worked toward.”

McGowan says she’s seen a growing interest in time-based art like music from galleries throughout the Mountain West. “With visual art, the artist is not usually present with the work,” McGowan says. “But with music, the artist is present, and you’re with right there with them, seeing the creation of something that’s totally ephemeral.” The fleeting nature of music and the intimate presence of its artists require both attention and empathy from an audience. In the visual art world, live music may be ultimate avant-garde gesture: radical access to the artist’s humanity.

For musicians and curators, there’s no question that new music tends to go down easier in museums and galleries, and that visual art lovers are primed for new music appreciation. The great hope is that performances in visual arts settings might help more traditional music audiences find pleasure in new music, too. Can this trend somehow create more season ticket holders who’ll come for the unfamiliar world premiere in a program’s first half in addition to the well-loved piece in its second half?

Dozens of percussionists, spread across multiple floors, gathered to perform Marta Ptaszynska's 'Voice of the Winds' at MCA Chicago

Dozens of percussionists, spread across multiple floors, gathered
to perform Marta Ptaszynska's "Voice of the Winds" at MCA Chicago

Deeply held convictions about what music should sound like—for example, expectations of melody and functional harmony—likely won’t be undone by a concert or two at the local museum. Duvall isn’t sure that presenting music in visual art contexts has a positive effect on existing music audiences . . . but it can’t hurt. “People who are music fans sort of like what they like, and don’t always try new things,” he says. “I don’t know if we’ve converted anybody, so to speak, but I can’t help but think interdisciplinary performance is good. When something hasn’t worked in one way, to experience it in a different context only seems helpful to me. It’s a new way of listening or observing.”

And many musicians like performing in galleries because they don’t worry so much about accessibility in the visual art world, where it feels safer to risk rejection. “Some music, at the moment of performance, can feel incessant and aggressive and has you engaged by actively shutting down, tuning out,” says MCA Chicago’s Cursach. “That is also a dialogue of a kind. But at our museum, that reaction from museumgoers doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t ever see that artist again.” Rejection is a form of audience engagement, too, and the ultimate artistic freedom may be making music that a listener can refuse without losing that listener for good.

For interdisciplinary musicians, building appreciation for new music may not be as valuable as thinking more deeply about presentation in general. Making music in visual art spaces forces musicians to engage more profoundly with their performing environment and audience, and that consciousness can carry over into more conventional settings.

“Performing in galleries reminds me that a musical experience is an immersive experience,” says Glen Whitehead. “The entire environment affects how you receive the experience.” For Jason Moran, performing in the visual art world has created a mindfulness of “the frame” for all his concerts and shows. “From the sounds people hear when they walk into the space, to the lighting onstage, everything sends messages to an audience, and can help dictate attitudes or responses. Even just shuffling onto a plain stage and mostly ignoring the crowd is a form of presentation.”

Many interdisciplinary musicians agree that while postures of shuffling neglect or haughty indifference may have their place in performance, they’ve dominated jazz and classical presentation for too long. There’s a point at which the seeming height of interdisciplinary avant-gardism reconciles with good old-fashioned entertainment. As Moran points out, Duke Ellington’s success is attributed in part to his skill as an entertainer, yet by modern standards, that showmanship looks quite a bit like interdisciplinary performance. “He had the tuxedo-bedecked band,” Moran says. “He had ornate music stands, a beautiful curtain backdrop, and would come out with a dozen or more dancers. None of that was arbitrary. That’s what we’re working on now, thinking about our presentation. Performances where, elaborate framing or not, nothing in our presentation is ever arbitrary.”

Michelle Mercer is a regular music commentator for National Public Radio and the author of books on Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell. She's currently at work on a cultural history of musicians making a living in the real world.

© 2017 Chamber Music America