Virtual Panel Discussion: February 25
MUSIC AS IMAGE AND METAPHOR
Selections from the Kentler Flatfiles at the Bo Bartlett Center
Co-Curators: David Houston and Florence Neal
Musical track by Michael Kowalski and Allen Otte
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, Hugh Williams
"Music as Image and Metaphor" plays on the shared cultural space of art and music. Both are an integral part of ritual, the quotidian, and most recently, of our overly commercialized world. They are intimately intertwined throughout history, they share a substantial vocabulary, and are both powerful cultural signifiers. Music and visual art can be viewed pragmatically, aesthetically, theoretically—or, each on its own terms, as a rich lingua franca of human emotion. In short, these two art forms—experienced individually or in tandem—offer a deep insight into the worlds of which they are a part.
For centuries the Musica Universalis first formulated by Pythagoras animated the heavens. By the beginning of the Modern age, reason and science had silenced the music of the celestial spheres, replacing them with earthly counterpoint and harmony. In the 20th century, Modernist music overturned and revolutionized the longstanding relationship between harmony and dissonance, as well as the traditional barriers between music, sound, and silence. It was the French poet Baudelaire who opened the floodgates of emotion and experience with his Symbolist notions of correspondence. The equivalence between art forms and human emotion revealed a transformational set of foundational ideas, the ideas that gave us the total work of art, the license to poetize noise, and the radical hybridity of our time.
For centuries art was a local and discrete phenomenon: site specific, or at least culturally specific, if you will. With the mingling of cultures that featured so prominently in the great worlds fairs of the 19th century, to the advent of recording, to globally distributed print, radio, television, and the internet, our 21st-century culture-without-walls has now evolved for practical purposes into a culture-at-your-fingertips, one that's transformed the old world of place-and-time into a virtual circus. In our own lives we've moved from a taste for collage to an aesthetic of sampling.
“Music as Image and Metaphor” was organized in the spirit of the times. As a collaboration between Kentler Director Florence Neal and me, the exhibition was drawn from the Flatfiles of the Kentler International Drawing Space. The show features forty-one works by twenty-eight artists from ten countries. Some of the connections to music are direct and analogous, while others subtly embody ideas and strategies that are shared—adjusting for the requirements of different media, of course—by both visual artists and musicians. The musical response to each visual work, a correspondence, expands the incipient dialogue between sight and sound. As composer-pianist Michael Kowalski notes, each of these musical correspondences springs from the fertile tension between a desire to compose and the necessity of improvising: from the creative urge to break out of the box—even one that we might have jumped into of our own accord.
Our wish is that the works in the exhibition and the musical responses be considered a total work of its own. Think of the world’s diversity of art and music and see what you hear and hear what you see.
Back in the 1970s there was a brief fad of musical improvising based on spontaneous reactions to just about anything: the phone book, imperfections on a piece of paper, elaborate collages of hieroglyphs that suggested standard musical notation but couldn't be read as such, etc., etc., . . . you get the idea. It all became very predictable very fast. As Stravinsky noted in his Poetics of Music, productive freedom is more often to be found in the observance of rigorous constraints. In "Music as Image and Metaphor" we've tried to split the difference between following extra-musical cues wherever they lead and working within strictly musical constraints. There's clearly no single path that leads to such a tricky compositional equilibrium, but for practical purposes, if not necessarily for our own sanity, we settled on three basic approaches to shaping our sonic responses to the works in the show: imagistic, metaphoric, and unmediated-spontaneous (understood as goals, even if, perhaps, unachievable ones).
The imagistic response groove broke into two specific working approaches:
• providing a soundtrack, à la classic Hollywood films; or . . .
• developing musical responses to graphic gestures as if they were the themes in, say, a jazz session or even a Beethoven symphony.
The metaphoric response groove broke into two more specific approaches:
• creating a composition in sound that seems somehow analogous to the compositional approach that the artist might have employed; or . . .
• creating a composition in sound that enters into a dialogue, gesture-for-gesture, with selected figures in the graphic work.
For each artwork we usually tried to make music within just one of the five possible response modes, not so much as a straight-jacket but as a launching pad for our composing and performing. All of which is to say that, quite apart from revealing how we went about our work—which in a real sense is mere background, we hope that a similar spirit of adventure will inform the viewer's listening.
We've worked in many varied formats over the decades, often at the fringes of musical experimentation, but always with an emphasis on a high level of craft. Our approach in this instance actually calls to mind a working plan that we employed in one of our first large collaborations, a thirty-minute realization of John Cage's Music Walk for piano, percussion, electronics, and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. For the current show we divided the forty graphic works selected by the curators into two sets of twenty and then proceeded to work independently over a period of two months to create our personal sets of musical responses, each one of approximately a minute's duration. This division of musical work isn't reflected in the arrangement of the show at the Bartlett Center, so the effect in the space is that of a random walk, with our respective musical points of view caroming off the forty graphic works in an unforeseen order. The resulting suite of forty-plus minutes of music includes work newly composed and performed for this show, excerpts from our respective performing catalogs, and re-arrangements—sometimes quite radical—of material drawn from earlier compositions.
—Michael Kowalski and Allen Otte
MUSICAL RESPONSES: to listen online press the Audio Button under each artwork on the exhibition page.
THE KENTLER FLATFILES are an essential element of Kentler International Drawing Space since its founding in 1990. A compendium of artworks by more than 200 local, national and international artists, this living archive represents the breadth, quality and variety found in contemporary drawings and works on paper today. The Flatfiles are available for viewing by the public and have become an important resource for artists, collectors, curators and anyone interested in the field of drawing and prints. Selections from the Kentler Flatfiles are regularly presented in guest-curated exhibitions at Kentler and in traveling shows.
Bo Bartlett Center
Corn Center for the Visual Arts, 921 Front Ave., Columbus, Georgia
OPEN HOURS: Tuesday – Saturday, 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. / Sunday, 12:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
A catalog accompanies the exhibition.
BIOS: CURATORS & MUSICIANS
David W. Houston is the Director of the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Artist and Curator Florence Neal is Co-Founder and Director of Kentler International Drawing Space in Brooklyn, New York.
Composer-pianist Michael Kowalski and percussionist-composer Allen Otte have been collaborating on musical projects since the early 1970s. In addition to his work as a soloist, teacher, and composer, Otte is a founding member of two of the most important multiple percussion groups in the United States, the Blackearth Percussion Group and The Percussion Group/Cincinnati. Kowalski was a pioneer in computer-assisted sound synthesis and algorithmic composition in the 1970s. After years of composing primarily for percussion, dance, and electronics, he turned to theatre and chamber opera in the 1990s. Kowalski's "Gringo Blaster," commissioned and premiered by Otte and the Percussion Group/Cincinnati, is available on an Einstein Records CD of the same name.