I recently had the privilege to experience a new chamber music composition by Mara Gibson at the opening of a new art exhibit in Kansas City. The work was commissioned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Premiered in April by Michael Hall, ‘Canopy’ was inspired by ‘Ferment’, Roxy Paine’s (1966-) outdoor installation in the sculpture garden at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
I n the 13-min composition, Gibson meditates on Paine’s conflation of neuronal dendritic architecture and treeness... the multiplicity of meanings of what we perceive in nature is called into question. We all are trees; we all are neurons now.
L arge-scale sculptures and exotic mixed-ensemble chamber music (viola-percussion-tape) aren’t commonly paired with each other. However, in this instance it is an inspired piece of programming, an account that plumbs the depths of the sculpture’s seeming desolation... a melancholy that stems from the constitutional rootedness of a ramifying, arborizing structure that is situated where it is with little prospect of changing its venue (you; the neurons that make up your brain and make you who you are; the tree). And yet the composition culminates in a radiant, nature-affirming performance that leaves the listener-viewer with more than solace—a sense of quiet optimism.
H all takes great care with the score’s myriad directions, resulting in an intensity and beauty that would delight any composer, as well as any audience. There is a brief pause/silent_stasis at about 07:00. The solo_viola/denuded_tree resumes with a soliloquy. Then, with a harrowing climax, the percussion and recorded track of the viola reappear with renewed vigor, and with the live viola layered on top of them—effecting a grieving voice of the solo viola answering its echo and the percussion more quietly, survivors against all odds! The micrometer-precise diminuendo from 11:00 to the end is perfectly realized—and we immediately appreciate why Gibson wrote it in this way.
H all’s technique is superb throughout and manages to sound like 5 different violas, by using combinations of diverse pressures on the bow, bowing near and far away from the bridge, etc.—pensive, taut, with some ‘extended’ viola techniques. Bob Beck’s recording and production values aptly serve the intimacy of this beautiful piece. Few recordings achieve such a level of detailed commitment from the artists and the recording engineer! (I am grateful, too, that Gibson has made digital recordings of ‘Canopy’ available for download on BandCamp.com.)
A nyone who has tried to devise a likeness of a tree—sculpting one as a kid in school, or, with more serious intent as an older person—will recognize how difficult it is to do well. The fractal character of the branch points and the Fibonacci-like decimation of the caliber of the branches as you go further and further out on the limbs is hard to emulate. It is so easy to end up with a ‘fail!’—a crude likeness that looks contrived, a caricature of a tree! But Paine achieves a high level of fractal verisimilitude—a tree representation with enough character-development and complexity and depth to be believable as a tree or as another living organism with moral standing. Gibson’s writing is not ‘representational’ as such, but with equal care and finesse achieves comparable moral weight and attractive, believable, attention-holding verisimilitude.
I n summary, Gibson’s sonic stimuli synergize nicely with Paine’s sculpture’s visual and haptic stimuli. I enjoyed being immersed in both of them at the same time. The visual and musical elements are independent and exciting in their own right and (in the case of Paine’s sculpture, ‘have already stood’ and--) will continue to stand ably on their own. But, together, the two works manifest a cohesion that is evident to listeners/viewers as they encounter the works simultaneously. It is a brilliant success as a tandem installation, and ‘Canopy’ is commendable as a commissioning project. Other galleries and museums should take note of this as an example they can replicate—commissioning companion chamber compositions to accompany major new acquisitions, and organizing gala première performances (with food and wine, as the Nelson did) to cultivate new membership and community involvement! No better way than this to dispel the ignorant museum stereotype of grey-hair elites!
H all is a former president of the Chicago Viola Society and a founding member of the Lake String Quartet. He has performed at numerous summer festivals, including the Grand Teton Festival, the National Orchestral Institute, Kneisel Hall Chamber Music School, and the Aspen Music Festival. Hall serves on the faculties of Illinois Wesleyan University, VanderCook College of Music, and the Chicago Academy for the Arts. He is a graduate of Ball State University, with graduate studies with Peter Kamnitzer and with the LaSalle and Tokyo String Quartets, at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and doctoral studies with Michelle LaCourse and Scott Rawls at the UNC, Greensboro.
G ibson graduated from Bennington College and completed her PhD at SUNY Buffalo. She attended London College of Music; l’École des Beaux-Arts, Fontainebleau, France; and the International Music Institute, Darmstadt. She has received grants and honors from the American Composer’s Forum, the Banff Center, Louisiana Division of the Arts, Arts KC, Meet the Composer, the Kansas Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Bass Society, ASCAP, and the John Henrick Memorial Foundation. She is also founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop for Young Composers and co-director/founder of ArtSounds, now in its seventh year. ArtSounds specializes in “immersive art-music fusion” experiences, similar in spirit to ‘Canopy’.
T he greatest hindrance in the understanding of life lies in the impossibility of accounting for it by the enumeration of its properties. It must be understood as a unity. But if the organism [tree; neural network] is a unity, in what sense are its component properties its parts? Who is it, really, and why? How does this unity arise? To what extent must it be considered a property of the organization of the organism, as opposed to a property emerging [undeliberated] from its mode of life? These questions remain open....”
Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela.
- Mara Gibson website
- Mara Gibson faculty page at UMKC Conservatory of Music & Dance
- Michael Hall website
- Michael Hall faculty page at Illinois Wesleyan Univ
- Roxy Paine page at Wikipedia
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