Listen to the Art: Composers in the Gallery



Composers Frank, Cockey, and Banfield

The Museum Loan Network has partnered with the American Composers Forum to institute the Museums, Composers, and Communities initiative. This pilot program encourages cross-discipline interaction by pairing composers with museums. In this first round, the pairing are William C. Banfield and the Mobile Museum of Art (Mobile, AL); Gabriela Lena Frank with the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas; and Jim Cockey with the Western Heritage Center in Billings, Montana. In each case, the composers collaborate with museum curators and are commissioned to create original pieces of work inspired by the museum installations.

Prior to this project, Cockey had worked in collaborative situations, but he found his recent work in Montana to be a completely different experience, admitting that at the outset he had no idea what he was in for. “I think I was pretty skeptical that I would be able to contribute to the process much more than to write a piece of music. Well, that preconception got totally blown out of the water.”

During the residency he created two works. One was expected, a symphonic piece which will premiere this week, and the other is a part of the exhibit he helped create for The Western Heritage Center. As part of the exhibit “Life By Comparison: the Lives of Frederick and Parmly Billings,” he re-recorded and documented music from the 1880s, the time period represented by the exhibit, for a Music as Artifact sound booth. He explains, “It is a non-visual experience in an environment pretty much dominated by visual thinking. And it has been very, very successful. People love it.”

The research and recording that he did for the display then influenced his commissioned piece, Symphony No. 2 (“Parmly’s Dream”). “This piece is a large work, 40 minutes in length, for orchestra, chamber choir, three vocal soloists (representing Parmly Billings and his parents, Frederick and Julia Billings), solo piano, played by Bob Nell, and Native American flute, drums, and vocals performed by Joseph Fire Crow.”

Banfield, who was unavailable for comment, penned six pieces to accompany a traveling exhibit of sculptures celebrating the American experience, which he assisted the Mobile Museum of Art in curating. His resulting chamber work, Structures: Sculptures in Soul and Sound, premiered early this month.

Gabriela Frank has found working in a museum setting—with the art historians and curators of the Spencer Museum and also the Latin American studies scholars who are part of this project—to be “inherently interdisciplinary in many ways, and…a fairly new experience for me.”

The museum had borrowed 11 pieces of art based on Hispanic idioms from other institutions around the country. As a composer familiar with Hispanic culture, Frank was commissioned “to help give the whole affair a bit of oomph” and to write three works—a mixed quintet based on a Haitian voodoo painting in the collection for their faculty and students to play, a piano concerto for her to play with the university orchestra, and a choral work utilizing Spanish and Quechua Indian (Andean) texts for the university choir. She will also be involved with some community outreach activities, performing piano works by Hispanic composers in several concerts, and speaking in different classes (music, Spanish, and history) both at the university and in public schools in the city.

The cross-pollination is a good audience builder, Frank points out. But she also cites its artistic value. “Drawing rigid lines between disciplines is tantamount to anemia. I don’t say that lightly—sometimes different disciplines confront one another ready to do battle, wanting to represent their field well, or taking exception to the idea of another discipline borrowing the vocabulary or an inspiration from one other than their own.”

Instead, she insists, “If we’re made uncomfortable by stretching our definition of what is ‘music’, what is ‘plastic art’, and so forth, I believe that’s a good thing. A great thing, actually… In working through our discomfort, we’ll necessarily produce art that says something new, that the world hasn’t actually seen yet, thereby enriching it.”

Cockey agrees. “When two powerful disciplines are able and willing to create a model of exchange, the results are staggering. A successful cross-discipline collaboration, like this one, provides a ready cauldron for creating an environment for extraordinary creativity.

“Also,” he confesses, “it’s just plain fun. And fun is very conducive to creativity. For me personally, this has been one of my most exciting and rewarding compositional experiences. When experiences like this create concrete results, like unique exhibits and new pieces of music, the audience is the entity that gets to feast on the results.”