Music into Art —Art into Music


Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

They were called the “Mighty Five.” A handful of Russian composers wanted to create a national style nearly two centuries ago. This reporter is singularly unqualified to discuss, at length, their movement or its success.

But I have forever loved Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Mussorgsky was, despite his alcoholism, erratic behaviors, and early death, one of the mightiest of the Five. Surely one of the most imaginative.

When their artist/architect friend Viktor Hartman died, at 39, the musicians arranged an exhibition of his drawings that inspired Mussorgsky’s orchestral responses. Collected into “Pictures at an Exhibition” the music evokes Hartman’s drawings of gardens, catacombs, marketplaces, and — one of my favorites — the ‘Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells.

Fernando Escartiz “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells — Mixed Media. In “The Pictures” exhibit at San Francisco Symphony (Author Photo)

The same week that this reporter enjoyed the San Francisco Symphony’s performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition” I was lucky enough to attend an Event — ‘concert’ does not quite cut it — featuring the SFJazz Collective, an all-star ensemble and composers workshop that performs newly commissioned pieces by members plus fresh arrangements of works by modern masters.

Before the Collective came on, SFJazz Founder and Executive Director Randall Kline brought onstage two remarkable young men, Dan Tepfer (b 1982) and Joshue Ott (b 1977) who are — among other things — turning music into art in ways Mussorgsky couldn’t possibly have imagined.

A seat in Row H offered a view of musical notes turning into linear strips of color with the striking of a piano key. Or mushrooming orange shapes evoked by a mellow saxophone. Before our eyes — projected onto the walls of the SFJazz auditorium, which was designed for just such a purpose — the music became art.

Pre-concert view from Row H (Author Photo)

Dan Tepfer, who grew up in a musical and scientific family in Paris, has degrees in astrophysics and jazz piano performance. He is, by contemporary definition, a pianist/composer/coder. Joshue Ott, according to his website, “is a visualist and software designer who creates cinematic visual improvisations that are performed live and projected in large scale.” He does this by using something called superDraw, a software instrument he designed.

Back in the 20th century — 1940s, to be precise — my sister Mimi and I began piano lessons as kindergarteners. Within a few years, Mimi was playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations and I was playing Brown Eyed Susans Nod Their Heads. She went on to a distinguished college music degree. In my own defense, I eventually earned a BA in Art.

And in addition to “Pictures at an Exhibition,” I have never not loved the Goldberg Variations.

I could not, though, have ever imagined them “chromatically inverted” to become #BachUpsideDown — but Tepfer did. It was a way of keeping himself sane during the pandemic, he writes on his website. Tepfer thinks Bach was a badass, with which Bach would probably agree. Tepfer wrote the necessary computer program, then created a video of himself playing the Variations with the program playing it backward. Think G Major translating into G Minor. You can access videos on his website but be prepared to spend the next day or two unable to get anything else done.

The icing on this musical cake is the appearance, is in the video of notes as color and light. It is as if a modern-day Mondrian were hiding somewhere in the piano strings, threading the aural into the visual.


New Music at Election Time: Confronting the Angst and the Unknown

Anything can happen… and usually does. After it happens, will the music still play? Or will we still be able to hear it?

john_cage_blue_print (Photo credit: emanueleED)

Opening wide their ambitious new season, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players kicked off a John Cage Centennial Celebration with a performance of his three Constructions, along with performances of three works by composers several generations younger. The idea, said SFCMP Artistic Director Stephen Schick, was to see if the “sense of delight and exploration” would reach across the years to the new musicians as well as the old/new audience. It decidedly did.

For this listener, though, the psyche could not be dragged from the wearying angst of these final pre-election days into the spirit of boundless adventure that new music represents. “New music,” that is, from John Cage in 1939 or from Missy Mazzoli today. Missy Mazzoli, who looks like a teenager but has a list of awards and accomplishments a mile long, composed the remarkable “Still Life with Avalanche” in 2008. It was performed in between the First and Second Constructions.

Hopelessly consumed with fear and anxiety over the elections, I wove the whole business together. The Constructions, with their oxen bells and giant gongs, the ad campaigns with their strident accusations, the strangely beautiful things Missy Mazzoli wrote for her Avalanche and the incomprehensible things circulating around news media from the swing states.

Music lovers comfortable with Mozart and Beethoven had to have wondered what in the world the future would bring when John Cage and his no rules/ no boundaries music burst onto the scene two or three generations back. But here is this geezer listener, captivated by Missy Mazzoli.

Mazzoli has been referred to as “scary smart.” Today’s presidential contest, between two smart men — both at least genuinely good people — is just plain scary. Some people think my guy will lead us down the path to socialism or destitution or worse. I think their guy will lead us to economic disaster, social hopelessness, global wars and a setback of women’s rights from which we will not recover for generations — if ever.

John Cage said, “The world is teeming; anything can happen.” He just didn’t explain how to keep calm while the avalanche is roiling.