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Making (Sound) Waves with Public Art

Making (Sound) Waves with Public Art

Thursday, April 19, 2018
Sound in Sculpture 2015

By Tim Rogers, Student Engagement Coordinator and Co-Creator of Sound in Sculpture

Throughout my time at Texas Performing Arts, one of my favorite projects to have been a part of is Sound in Sculpture. The idea for this program came from a few different places. First, when I was a composition student at the Butler School of Music, department chair Donald Grantham shared a work with us that he had written when the Blanton Museum moved to its current location. This piece, "Music for the Blanton" highlighted several notable works from the Blanton’s collection, and used the music to move the audience through the space. The idea of writing music inspired by visual art is not new in isolation—such famous pieces as Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition" or Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" are but a few of the many times artists have drawn inspiration across media. What really stuck with me about Dr. Grantham's work, however, was that the music was presented in the same space as the visual art, allowing a much more direct conversation between artistic works, but also a much different and more engaging audience experience.

Sound in Sculpture 2016, Photos by Lawrence Peart

When I began working at TPA, and spending a lot of time in Bass Concert Hall (Bass), I also began spending a lot more time interacting with the Landmarks public art collection. In Bass we have 10 pieces from Landmarks (and another right in front of the building), but these works are often a nice backdrop to the events that we produce—not the focus. I saw an opportunity to switch that dynamic. Putting these ideas together, with an enthusiastic partner in Landmark’s Education Coordinator, Catherine Zinser, led to the birth of Sound in Sculpture.

We held our first performance in the Bass Lobby in 2015. Since that first year, we have commissioned 16 new compositions and highlighted 12 pieces of the Landmarks collection, while helping to momentarily reenvision how we interact with public art in public spaces.

Sound in Sculpture 2017, Photos by Maggie Calton

This year, we are excited to add 6 new compositions inspired by 3 pieces of the collection to that portfolio. While every year and iteration of this event has been unique and special, I am especially excited about the possibilities this year at The Bill & Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex & Dell Computer Science Hall, focused on the work of Sol LeWitt.

Circle with Towers, Sol LeWitt

One of the first times I went on a guided Landmarks tour where LeWitt's work was discussed, the immediate thought that I couldn't shake was that his artistic process sounded a lot like writing music. As Landmarks describes his Wall Drawing #520, his "wall drawings do not exist as permanent objects but rather as a diagram and set of instructions." Moreover, his structures, like Circle with Towers demonstrate "the artist's generosity in welcoming others to interpret his work, including the artists and craftspeople who realize his artistic visions."

Wall Drawing #520, Sol LeWitt

As composers, we sometimes perform our own work or produce a recording, but often the written score is the main method for how music is relayed. As such, each performer is free to interpret the basic elements on the page in order to produce a musical performance. This interplay over time and space, in recreating art based on instructions, really resonated with me for what we are trying to do this year with Sound in Sculpture. For me, LeWitt's methods (which are also referenced by artist Casey Reas, seen this year in A Mathematical Theory of Communication), directly parallel the process of writing and performing music, adding even more rich creative conversation for this performance.

Sound in Sculpture

During this year's concert, we experienced a wide range of pieces hitting upon all of these themes. These included a piece for saxophone quartet that involved armor, foot percussion, and reversed poetry spoken through megaphones, a quartet of whistlers, several groups of mixed woodwinds, and one building-wide piece that separated a guitarist and bassist physically, but unified their sound through live electronic manipulation.

Sound in Sculpture

Once again, these pieces showed how individuals can see the same object, but be drawn to and find meaning in different aspects.

Seeing how the Butler School of Music composers interpret and respond to the art, and hearing the fantastic performers bring these new works to life is always an immense pleasure. I look forward to continuing this wonderful tradition for many years to come.

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