Can music and pictures coexist?

Two concerts in art galleries

5 minute read
Moran: A tangle of images.
Moran: A tangle of images.
Concerts held in art galleries have been common for ages, but they're no less risky now than when they were first introduced. The very different sensations of aural and visual stimuli compete for attention, often to the detriment of one and occasionally of both. Music can become an easily ignorable soundtrack for those who just want to look at the pretty pictures; or, in the case of music performed among the artwork that inspired it, it can outshine or overwhelm the accompanying images.

Two recent concerts in Philadelphia took on this risk of multimedia concert presentation, yielding results that mostly honored their roots.

Network for New Music, a contemporary music presenter, has devoted its 2008-09 season to exploring the interaction between music and visual art, and "Sound/Art/Space," its season opener, was an intimate chamber concert, with maybe 50 seats for the audience. Both pieces on the program reflected works by artists on display at NEXUS/foundation for today's art.

Piled-up images, piled-up notes

Kyle Bartlett's Blossom, ether, singularity was framed in cosmic terms, with free-floating figures played by two flutes and two double-basses distorted and drawn in by a "black hole" at the middle. That sense of floating in space was a thoughtful echo of Sherif Habashi's painting, in which small, intricate figures are suspended against empty canvas. The four players stood before one of Habashi's canvases, a warm but disembodied work with tigers, trees and other plants strewn across a wide expanse.

The feeling of labor and precision in Habashi's figures carried over into the players' efforts. In exploring different styles and attacks, they bent and adjusted their bodies: the flutists altering their posture to blow at different angles, the bassists straining to touch the very ends of their fingerboards, near the bridge. That pressure met a kind of relief during the "black hole" section, which took the form of a mellowed-out chorale, full of placid, unexpected beauty. The constellations of notes in Bartlett's music matched the pileups of images in Habashi's canvases almost perfectly, with the contrast between formlessness and structure in one work reinforcing those same qualities in the other.

The second piece on the program, Gene Coleman's Gadget, drew its inspiration from the video art of Jennie Thwing, in which loops and repeated samples play a large role. In that spirit, the forward motion of the piece would occasionally get hung up on a single figure and repeat it; after a feeling of lift-off, the piece would head back to the launching pad. That tension— along with the surprising timbres and non-traditional attacks produced by the five-member ensemble of flute, clarinet, cello, bass and percussion— made the piece an idiosyncratic treat, but one that didn't fully engage with Thwing's installation.

The ensemble didn't set up in front of Thwing's work, creating a separation between the music and the works that inspired it. Coleman even admitted that his chief source of inspiration was a video not present in the NEXUS exhibit— one in which a straightforward speech is interrupted by coughs that are sampled and repeated. Gadget, though engrossing, avoided the cognitive conflict that Network's season seeks to untangle. Call it a missed opportunity.

Jazz beneath the quilts

Skirting the connection between visuals and sound, jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran's commission for the Art Museum folded both into a tremendously overstuffed showing. His work, presented through the Museum's "Art After 5" program and inspired by the current exhibit "Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt," drew from modern, angular jazz, gospel, R&B and some more unlikely places, including the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The piece took the form of a single, wide-ranging set"“ something akin to a "chart-cycle," exploring many different styles, with a single text by Asali Solomon uniting the work.

If music presented simultaneously with artwork is "multimedia," then Moran's piece was doubly so: A Gee's Bend quilt was draped on the stage behind the band, and a video presentation ran continuously throughout the set.

Moran played with the Bandwagon"“ drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen, his longtime rhythm section "“ and was joined by guitarist Bill Frisell and soprano (also his wife) Alicia Hall. The roughly geometric patterns and patchwork material of the Gee's Bend exhibit permeated Moran's piece, as the sense of four players moving in four different directions mirrored the beautifully imprecise lines and patterns in the quilts.

Many of the music's most impressive features were its simplest: Moran kicking off the piece like a choir director leading a warmup; Hall's heartfelt, unadorned singing; Waits's tambourine playing during a gospel-inspired section. The sense of space that Moran took from his visit to Alabama informed the band's playing, with a number of glistening right-hand leads from Moran and pleasant, echoing solos by Frisell.

Swinging gospel vamp

In the work's most stunning transition, the band shifted from a swinging gospel vamp into a hurtling, minimalist section with both Hall and an electronically-sampled choir repeating, "Dear Lord." In the middle of a set steeped in the vernacular roots of jazz, this section had the feeling of zooming over the earth, far from the isolation of the Deep South and the pervasive legacy of slavery.

Unfortunately, the video elements of the concert worked against this feeling of transcendence, as images of women from Gee's Bend quilting and greeting Moran and his young twins were intercut with shots of John McCain's visit to the area during his campaign. The screen's position, between Moran and Frisell, distracted attention from the musicians' efforts.

The creation of the quilts that inspired Moran is improvisatory in itself, and his composition captured it almost perfectly. No tangle of images could have summed up his feelings about Gee's Bend and the work its women have produced. It might have been best to let the music speak for itself, with the quilts as the only backdrop.

What, When, Where

Network For New Music: “Sound/Art/Space.†November 21, 2008 at Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American St. (215) 848-7647 or Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. “Art After 5 program, December 12, 2008 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th St. and Ben Franklin Pkwy. (215) 763-8100 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation