Photos: Gloria in front of E. Kelly painting at SFMoMA and doing field recording at Lobos Creek (photos Greg Habiby); Gloria's notation of a mockingbird's song; Gloria Justen and Adam Tendler performing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo Charlotte Lowrey.)
How the Project Got Started: a Commission from the Philadelphia Museum of Art
In May of this year my friend Tony Creamer called me from Philadelphia to invite me to participate in a project. He was helping to plan an event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a private celebration honoring the life and work of artist Ellsworth Kelly, who passed away in late 2015. Music would be a major component of the celebration, which was scheduled for early August. Tony invited me to play viola and piano music with the pianist Adam Tendler. For the program, Adam and I chose pieces by John Cage and Toru Takemitsu. I also suggested writing a new piece for the occasion, and Tony and the Museum agreed to commission the new work. It is the first piece of music ever commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was very excited and grateful for the opportunity!
My first step in the project was to learn more about Ellsworth Kelly’s life and work. Fortunately, since I live in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a large collection of Kelly’s art, so it was time for a field trip with my husband Greg.
Kelly worked from things he perceived
In the book, Ellsworth Kelly in San Francisco, Madeleine Grynsztejn writes: “Each piece originates in a spontaneous and direct perception, a flash of something seen in the physical realm, which is subsequently taken by the artist through a series of translations and distillations that result, finally, in an object that carries a singularity of form, an idiosyncratic character, and a self-evident quality…” In other words, Kelly worked from things he perceived, both man-made and natural. Through his artistic process, the seen things were condensed down to their essential elements. His bold shapes and dramatic contrasts have their origin in the natural world, even though they are extremely abstract. Here is a lovely 3-minute video of Kelly speaking about his work and its connection to nature and the human body.
I decided to try using a similar process to create my musical composition, using the practice of listening to the world instead of looking at it. The steps would be: Choose a location. Listen to and record environmental sound there. Process and play with the recorded sound in my studio. Translate the sonic ideas and mold them into a musical composition to be played on viola and piano.
Choosing an Inspiration Location for Listening
Another element which came into the project: Kelly loved birds throughout his life. As a musician who loves listening to birds, I could see an easy parallel. There is a park area near me which is home to many birds: the Lobos Creek watershed in San Francisco. I chose that place for my “inspiration location,” and I went there 5 or 6 times, at different times of day, making field recordings of environmental sound. Many sounds can be heard here: water, wind, insects, birds, people, dogs, foghorns, musical instruments, construction sounds, cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, helicopters and jet planes. Just last evening, around 5:30PM, Greg and I were walking in this area and spotted a coyote. At the same time a trumpet player was playing some jazz riffs on the hillside, and birds were chirping overhead. This gives you an idea of the combination of elements found here. Here’s a 20-second iPhone video of that moment.
Listening to Sounds and Distilling Them
Back in my studio, I listened carefully to my collected soundscapes, often playing them back at different speeds and in different tonal registers so I could better hear and understand them. I chose elements that seemed significant, then wrote them as well as I could in musical notation or some kind of sketch. Then I translated them into musical forms that could be played on viola and piano. In some sections harmony was added and elements were repeated to create ongoing rhythms. The “found sounds” are given a life of their own in a composed piece of music, which also includes completely invented musical elements of my own. These “invented” sections reflect the mood of the location, filtered through my subjective viewpoint and mental musical framework, rather than the actual sounds of the place.
The piece is called Distillations: Sonic Fragments from Lobos Creek, and it is 12 minutes long with five movements. Below is a 2-minute excerpt from the performance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on August 4, 2016. This is a section near the end of the 4th movement: a laid-back, late afternoon scene in which the sound of a trumpet (same guy playing in the video above) echoes across the valley. The excerpt begins with a lyrical viola melody (one of the “invented” parts) and transitions into the last movement with its “water music,” based on sounds of the creek near where it flows out to the ocean. Thank you, Adam Tendler, for being an amazing collaborator in bringing this piece to life! And thank you, Charlotte Lowrey of the PMA staff for facilitating the project!
Topics of Future Posts in this Series
Future posts in this series will go into more detail about different aspects of this project. With each post I’ll share another part of the piece, as well as clips from my field recordings. Then I’ll share the piece as a whole. Stay tuned for the next installment, coming in 7-10 days!
Upcoming posts, with audio and video:
What does the babbling brook say? (on deep listening to water. Will include Lobos Creek recording and excerpt from Distillations performance.)
Mocking the Mockingbird (on musical inspiration from birds, and cool things about mockingbirds. Mockingbird recording, written score of it, and excerpt from Distillations performance.)
Machines, Motors, Noise and Rhythm (recording from Lobos Creek Valley, highlighting machine sounds, excerpt from Distillations performance.)
Human Music in the Landscape (recording of trumpet echoing in Lobos Creek Valley, notation of it, example section from Distillations performance, and posting of complete piece.)
How does abstraction in visual art compare to abstraction in music? (consideration of different approaches and musings on whether I was successful at abstraction. I may have to create a second distillation of Distillations...)
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