Music Inspired by Art in the Whitney Museum’s Collection

Posted in art and music, Beyond the Notes, The Coming of Spring, The Faraway Nearby on May 11th, 2015 by Nell

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the stunning new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking district of New York City. Three of the artists prominently featured in their wide-reaching inaugural installation of works from the collection, American is Hard to See – Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Chiura Obata – have been primary inspirations in my ongoing work of composing music in response to visual art. Each of these artists engaged with nature, place, and spirituality, and conveyed a powerful “musicality” in their images, although in very distinct ways.

If you’ve recently visited the Whitney, plan to visit in the future, or if you’re just curious, I hope you’ll enjoy perusing this little guide to music I’ve composed inspired by artists in the Whitney’s collection. Think of it as an art & music pairing menu!

Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), Cricket Chorus in the Arbor, 1917.

On view at the Whitney: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), Cricket Chorus in the Arbor, 1917. More information

The Whitney has an exceptional collection of works by Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), and it was at the Whitney at their 2010 exhibit Heat Waves in a Swamp that I had an impactful first experience with seeing his paintings and drawings in person.

Several of Burchfield’s early paintings are now on display on the 8th floor of the Whitney in a section dedicated to art related to music and sound. Appropriate, then, to pair these works with some music related to art!

My compositions inspired by the works of Charles E. Burchfield include an orchestral tone poem and a one-act opera (listen above).

Watercolors, my wind quintet inspired by four of Burchfield’s paintings, was performed at the grand opening of the Parrish Art Museum. Visit Beyond the Notes to see a complete video of that performance and to learn about Burchfield’s paintings.

Chiura Obata

CHIURA OBATA (1885-1975), EVENING GLOW OF YOSEMITE FALL, 1930

On view at the Whitney: Chiura Obata (1885-1975), Evening Glow of Yosemite Fall, 1930. More information.

On the seventh floor of the Whitney, you’ll find eight woodblock prints by the (in my opinion, vastly under-appreciated) Japanese-American painter and woodblock print designer, Chiura Obata (1885-1975). It’s a special opportunity to see these rarely-displayed works.

Obata’s woodblock prints and watercolor paintings of Yosemite, the High Sierra, and the internment camp in Utah where he and his family were imprisoned, inspired my piece Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) for flute and guitar (listen above). This piece was commissioned by Devin Ulibarri and Alicia Mielke and premiered last June at Boston GuitarFest. Learn more about Obata’s artworks and my music.

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Summer Days, 1936.

On view at the Whitney: Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Summer Days, 1936. More information.

My journey creating music inspired by art began in 2009 with Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), an artist long-celebrated by the Whitney. Summer Days, one of many exquisite paintings that emerged from the landscape of her adopted home in New Mexico, is on display on the 7th floor. A few of her abstract works are also visible on the 8th floor.

My music inspired by O’Keeffe’s paintings – especially her vision of New Mexico – has included an art song for soprano and chamber ensemble; an orchestral tone poem (listen above); and a multimedia video work (watch below). Visit Beyond the Notes to learn about Georgia O’Keeffe and my music.

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Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art

Posted in art and music, Beyond the Notes, performances, The Faraway Nearby on September 23rd, 2011 by Nell

I’m very excited to announce my upcoming recital, Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art. The concert will be a multisensory, multimedia experience featuring live chamber music performed by wonderful NEC student musicians coordinated with video and slide projections of the art that inspired it.

Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art will be presented at the New England Conservatory of Music on November 2nd, 2011, 6:00-7:30pm in Pierce Hall (241 St. Botolph St, Boston MA). Reception to follow. The event is free and open to the public.

Beyond the Notes screen capture

Beyond the Notes website as seen on a mobile phone

The concert will be enhanced by an accompanying digital companion, which will be launched within the next couple of weeks. Visitors are invited to browse the website ahead of time, or before and after the concert in the hall or on their phones, and explore video clips, audio excerpts, photographs, and information about the artists and music.

The new website will highlight Watercolors, a wind quintet inspired by the paintings of Charles Burchfield, in addition to the portion of the website featuring the string quartet The Course of Empire, which was posted in July.

The section on Watercolors features video clips from a fascinating interview with Nancy Weekly, Curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center; Carol Steen, painter and co-founder of the American Synesthesia Assocation; as well as a movement-by-movement analysis of the connection between my music and the paintings, which is interspersed with audio excerpts and relevant images from the paintings.

While The Course of Empire and Watercolors are being highlighted on the website/app, every piece on the program has its own dedicated page and content. Other pieces featured on the program and the accompanying website include:

  • Setsugekka for violin and piano, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige. The website will include videos introducing the genre of Japanese woodblock printing, and the traditional theme of setsugekka (snow, moon and flowers). This section features text and narration by independent print scholar John Resig (ukiyo-e.org).
  • To Create One’s Own World for soprano, flute, bass clarinet, and marimba, and The Faraway Nearby video piece with chamber score, both inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe. The website will include audio clips, song text, and the online video of The Faraway Nearby.
  • Revealed in Stone, a song cycle for tenor and piano inspired by the sculpture and poetry of Michelangelo. The website will feature an analysis of the English translation of the poetry used in the cycle.
  • Triptych for solo guitar, inspired by the formal structure of triptychs (especially as seen in Medieval art). The website will include a comparison of different genres of triptychs.

Both the concert and website have received support from the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at NEC.

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s Favorite Music

Posted in art and music, The Faraway Nearby on January 31st, 2011 by Nell

I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for the second time in 2010, while I was in New Mexico shooting footage for a multimedia video piece relating to O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings. While filming the locations that formed the basis for many of her paintings, I sought to gain some insight into the sources of her inspiration. O’Keeffe paintings are somehow very musical in character, and I’ve wondered how, if at all, music had influenced her (even if indirectly). I knew that she had some personal interest in music, as is obvious from the titles of paintings such as Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, or Blue and Green Music. O’Keeffe herself had played the violin at an earlier point in life, and she considered singing to be “the most perfect means of expression”.

While in Santa Fe I met with museum curator and prominent O’Keeffe scholar Barbara Buhler Lynes, who was kind enough to point me towards some leads for research. I described the video project to her, and how my work is propelled by a musical response to O’Keeffe’s paintings – the musical texture, timbre, and harmony that I imagine as the musical environment in which her visual world would exist.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)

Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)

Ms. Lynes directed me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library, where I read an essay on O’Keeffe and music by a former curator for the museum, Heather Hole, which was written for a program by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The library also had a complete log of the LPs that were found in O’Keeffe’s possession after she passed away in 1986. This essay, the list of musical recordings, and my later tour of O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, helped to illuminate the role that music played in her life.

Ms. Lynes explained that O’Keeffe was influenced by the concept of synesthesia – the experience of “crossed senses”, i.e. hearing images or seeing sounds – as it had been explored by European modernists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). These artists sought to find the equivalents of music in color and imagery, and to find a universal language in art that transcends the specificity of language or direct representation.

According to Heather Hole, O’Keeffe had been influenced by one of her teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University, Alon Bement, who had played music in his classroom and directed the students to “draw what they hear”. From early in her career, O’Keeffe appreciated the abstract quality of music because it seemed somehow essentialized or pure, and freed from the superficial details of representational art.

Abiquiu

O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home

Once she had permanently settled in New Mexico in the late ’40s, O’Keeffe had a high-quality McIntosh stereo system installed in a peaceful and spacious room in her Abiquiu home. There she would lay in her favorite lounge chair, gazing beyond a wall-sized window at an elegantly framed salt cedar tree, and absorb recordings with full attention. She supported the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival early on in its existence (during the latter decade or so of her life), and invited musicians to perform for her in her home, where she would listen to them, often with eyes closed. In Hole’s article, one of the musicians related how she would listen with a striking intensity of focus.

Her large library of LPs included primarily classical music. Interestingly, O’Keeffe didn’t seem to listen to very much music by then-contemporary composers. Perusing the catalog, I spotted just one or two records each of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, and Ives, as well as an Edith Piaf album and some odds and ends.

Although she was friends with Aaron Copland, and owned a record that he conducted, she didn’t seem to be a fan of his music – despite the fact that today’s listener would likely consider her landscape paintings “Coplandesque” in their evocation of American pastoral sensibility, or a classically American earthiness and simplicity of language.

Above all, O’Keeffe collected music of the 18th and 19th centuries – Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, Bach, etc, and surprisingly to me, a quantity of Monteverdi madrigals, sacred music and operas (including multiple recordings of the opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) – which were relatively obscure at the time she was listening – as well as Verdi and Wagner operas.

Although O’Keeffe is associated with the Modernist and Abstract movements in visual art, it seems natural that her musical tastes reflected the lush, lyrical, conventionally emotive quality of earlier music, rather than the harmonic and rhythmic explorations of the early-mid 20th century. The shapes in her paintings are rounded and flowing, the colors rich, and her paintings are often strikingly passionate and direct in their emotive quality – yet always balanced, elegant, and poignant in simplicity, like a Classical sonata or Romantic Lied.

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Seeing Music in O’Keeffe

Posted in art and music, The Faraway Nearby on January 22nd, 2011 by Nell

I’ve been aware of Georgia O’Keeffe for as long as I can remember thanks to my parents, who hung a poster of Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 in my childhood home. But her artwork first grabbed me in 2004, when I saw an exhibit of her paintings at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. I was captivated by the elegant undulating forms in her paintings, and was especially intrigued by her surreal images of magnified animal bones and flowers looming over skies and distant landscapes.

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway Nearby (1938)

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway, Nearby (1938)

A few years later I found myself mining visual art as a source of inspiration in my music, and exploring the idea of creating musical works that acted as an equivalent or a translation of visual experiences. I began imagining a musical language or aesthetic that would relate to O’Keeffe’s visual world.

My first O’Keeffe-inspired piece was an orchestral tone poem, written in 2009. Since this initial work, I’ve composed two more pieces in the search to create a musical equivalent to my experience of her artwork (To Create One’s Own World and Into nowhere), the latest of which developed into a video project fusing my musical and visual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings.

I’ve taken a cue in my works from O’Keeffe’s idea of “The Faraway Nearby” (from the title of a painting, above). I feel that this phrase refers to a certain quality, which is captured in her juxtapositions of delicate, emotionally evocative objects (flower blossoms, animal skulls and bones, twisting tree branches) with landscapes of monumental, seemingly infinite, scope.

For me, the idea of “The Faraway Nearby” is the feeling that an object, place, artwork, or experience that is vast (epic?) can also be deeply intimate, and understood in a personal way that transcends explanation. Master symphonists have been noted for their ability to evoke an epic-yet-personal quality (Beethoven and Mahler come to mind).

I feel that this quality relates to the virtually universal human response to nature or landscape as spiritual, powerful, and mysteriously significant. O’Keeffe clearly experienced this response more poignantly than most. She wrote that she wanted to explore through her art “the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding – to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”

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“The Faraway Nearby” premiere and recording session

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on November 13th, 2010 by Nell

** UPDATE: The Faraway Nearby is now available for viewing online!! Please visit thefaraway.org **

The live performance at Tuesday Night New Music

The premiere at Tuesday Night New Music

The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape has just received a very successful premiere screening with musical performance at New England Conservatory on the Tuesday Night New Music on a Wednesday concert on November 10. The piece was performed by a group of NEC students: Lisa Husseini (flute), Christopher Mothersole (clarinet), Wesley Chu (piano), Samantha Bennett (violin), and Marza Wilks (cello).

The ensemble performed  in front of a video projection, listening to a click track on headphones. I programmed the click to match the tempo of the mock-up MIDI track which the video was edited to, so the music in the performance was timed precisely to every cut in the video.

Although we’d rehearsed the music extensively beforehand, this was actually the first time that I’d heard/seen a performance of the music together with the video.

The ensemble with Nell after the performance

Nell with the ensemble

I was excited to discover that being to able to hear and see the musicians really lent a live energy to the video. This gave it the feeling of a true multimedia performance, not just a film screening. I hope to be able to organize repeat performances of this piece with live performers.

Today we went into the studio to record the score that will appear on the online version of the video and future screenings at venues that aren’t able to accomodate a live ensemble. The group knows the piece very well by now, so there was little need for rehearsal or fine-tuning in the studio, and things went very smoothly.

Now it’s left to choose the best take, to mix and master the score, and to adjust the video as needed so that the music and imagery is perfectly in synch.

In the studio

In the studio

Over the coming months I will be approaching galleries and museums, film festivals, and music ensembles with the aim of securing further screenings and performances outside of NEC. If you know of a venue, festival or ensemble that might be interested in this piece (10 minutes duration), either as a video with recorded music or with a live ensemble, please contact me at nell@nellshawcohen.com

** UPDATE: The Faraway Nearby is now available for viewing online!! Please visit thefaraway.org **

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Premiere of “The Faraway Nearby” with live music!

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on October 28th, 2010 by Nell

The premiere screening of The Faraway Nearby will take place on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010, as part of the Tuesday Night New Music concert series at New England Conservatory. The performance will take place at 8:00pm in Brown Hall (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115). Admission is free and open to the public.

The video will be projected and accompanied by a live ensemble of excellent NEC performers (flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello). The ensemble will be going into the studio the following weekend to record the score. The video will be available for viewing online no later than January 2010.

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Editing and animation of “The Faraway Nearby” in progress

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on August 2nd, 2010 by Nell
Still from "The Faraway Nearby" (work in progress)

Animation from "The Faraway Nearby" inspired by the painting "Deer's Skull with Pedernal"

My Georgia O’Keeffe / New Mexico video project “The Faraway Nearby” is now well into the editing phase. Using a MIDI mock-up track for the score, I’ve been assembling the footage from New Mexico – five hours in total, from which I’ve extracted 220+ individual video clips, to be turned into an eight-or-so-minute video… yikes! I’m also incorporating a few illuminating quotations from O’Keeffe, and enhancing the video with brief animated segments.

I’ve utilized a rotoscoping animation technique – which involves hand-drawing digital animation over a video reference – to briefly depict O’Keeffe herself as a character in the video. More extensively, I’ve been animating still photos to build compositions inspired by the visuals in her paintings (particularly the signature animal skulls and flowers).

I’m using the Adobe Creative Suite 5 Production Premium software bundle to achieve these effects: Premiere for the heavy lifting of video editing and putting together all of the elements; After Effects for animating still images and text; Flash for drawn animation; and Photoshop for the preparation of the images used in the animations. I’m still learning all of this new software and experimenting with different ideas and techniques, but I’m excited about the way the video is shaping up.

Still from "The Faraway Nearby" (work in progress)

Quotation from Georgia O'Keeffe in "The Faraway Nearby"

The trickiest aspect of editing this project is probably the pacing. This is a non-narrative music video packed with a variety of quickly-changing visuals, so the challenge for me now is to find the balance of how long to dwell on a particular image or series of related images, while maintaining enough consistency to be satisfying and, at the same time, the sense of movement which is key to the tone or mood that I’m striving to evoke. But ultimately, everything relies on the pacing of the music.

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Day 7: Last day of filming; the Black Place

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on June 8th, 2010 by Nell

Since I began researching locations to film in New Mexico for my Georgia O’Keeffe video project, I’ve been both excited and a little nervous about the Black Place. Georgia O’Keeffe’s series of paintings on this subject (e.g. Black Place II and Grey Hills) are among my favorite works of hers. While composing O’Keeffe-inspired music (see this post for info), I often felt most drawn to relate my music to the Black Place paintings. I’m fascinated by the sense of infinite movement in her vision of these enigmatic hills.

The Black Place

The Black Place

I was nervous about filming because the location is relatively remote and seemed like it would be difficult to find. Add to that the fact that it’s supposedly “oven-like” in the summer (the grey-black dirt absorbs and multiplies the sun’s heat), and we were experiencing an uncharacteristic heat wave in the southwest.

But thanks to this website (and thanks to Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, for directing me to that website), we were able to navigate through surprisingly verdant mountains, valleys and ranches to the exact place where O’Keeffe painted (about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Abiquiu). We made an effort to arrive late in the afternoon, when the day’s heat was on the wane.

Filming at the Black Place

O'Keeffe said the Black Place was like "a mile of elephants".

It turns out that the Black Place is located directly on a four-lane highway (which it definitely was not when O’Keeffe painted it in the ’30s and ’40s!). This was both convenient and problematic: convenient because we didn’t need to hike the tripod and camera very far from the car, but problematic because it was difficult to get off of the road at the best spots for filming (not to mention the power lines and fences – and small oil pumps! – that stood in between my camera and the hills).

Despite small setbacks, I think this may turn out to be the best footage of this trip – and, poetically enough, the last footage. The “real” Black Place was fascinating and, more than any other location we had visited, it felt for me like walking into an O’Keeffe painting. While looking through the viewfinder of the camera at those smooth, undulating mounds of painted-looking grey-pink-white-black, I felt like I was seeing some of what she had seen.

O’Keeffe said that she traveled around the world and had never found a place that was better than where she lived. This project has taken me to those places that she considered great, and it has given me a new depth of understanding of her experience and where her visionary artwork came from. After a week of travel and filming, the footage is in the can – five hours in total (eek) – and now, the most time-consuming part of the project lies ahead: editing!

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Day 5 & 6: Return to the White Place; Pedernal with storm clouds; a break in Santa Fe; more at Ghost Ranch

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on June 7th, 2010 by Nell
Cacti at the White Place

Cacti abound at the White Place

I went out early to catch morning light at the White Place (this was our second visit – see this post), and spent a good couple of hours getting footage there. I heard that a major Hollywood flick (“Cowboys and Aliens”) will be filming on location at the White Place very soon, so thankfully we were there just in time to get it to ourselves! (There was, incidentally, a lower-key crew from Britain filming a documentary on dinosaurs at Ghost Ranch during the whole time we were there.)

O’Keeffe once said that when looking at her subjects, they sometimes seem to paint themselves – until you try. That’s how I feel about the White Place. It’s so multi-faceted and filled with different possibilities for angles, lighting, framing, etc, that it felt nearly impossible to get a shot that sufficiently captured what I could see with my eyes.

Pedernal with storm clouds

Pedernal with storm clouds

Later there was a lightning storm (a welcome change from the constant dry heat and sun), and I grabbed the opportunity to take some road-side footage of Pedernal with storm clouds hovering above. Afterwards, we took a break from filming for a leisurely afternoon and evening in Santa Fe (an hour drive away from Abiquiu).

The next day (Day 6), still using the Abiquiu Inn as our home base, we rested and worked on planning our route back to the Denver airport. We also returned to Ghost Ranch to capture just a bit more footage of the landscape from the road.

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Day 4: Tour of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home; 1977 documentary

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on June 5th, 2010 by Nell

Today I took a guided tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home and studio where she lived from 1949 until 1984 (except for the summer months, during which she lived at Ghost Ranch). The tour had information about the history of the place, the significance of the site in her paintings, and the small realities of her life and relationship to her space and objects, which I won’t attempt to relate here in full detail. The house has been preserved virtually exactly as she left it (“Beware of Dog” signs and all!), and I was struck by O’Keeffe’s distinctive decorative sensibility – spare, earthy, elegant. Every nook and cranny is perfectly composed, with collections of rocks and sculpture pieces on empty surfaces. The style of the furnishings is classic mid-century modernist, tinged with a Japanese aesthetic. It’s relaxing, beautiful, although not exactly “cozy”. Clearly a conducive place for making art and leading a quiet, contemplative lifestyle.

Later in the day I watched the 1977 documentary “Georgia O’Keeffe” by Perry Miller Adato, which features exclusive interviews with the artist herself when she was in her 80s. The film is out of print on VHS and has never been released on DVD, so I was excited to see that it was available for viewing at the Piedra Lumbre Education and Visitor Center at Ghost Ranch. It’s a fascinating and well-made portrait, offering genuine insight into O’Keeffe’s life and identity as an artist.

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