A Thomas Cole Pilgrimage

Thomas Cole's home, Cedar Grove
Thomas Cole's home, Cedar Grove

Yesterday I traveled back to Boston by way of Catskill, NY, for the second leg of my Beyond the Notes road trip (see my previous post for info about the Charles Burchfield portion of this trip). I went to Catskill in search of inspiration, information, and footage for my upcoming web video segment on the 19th century Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole and his cycle of five monumental paintings, The Course of Empire (the inspiration for my string quartet of the same name).

Filming idyllic Hudson River views at Olana
Filming the Hudson River at Olana

I set out with the goal of filming and photographing the region where Thomas Cole painted, found inspiration for many of his landscapes, and founded the Hudson River School. Using the Hudson River School Art Trail as my guide, I visited Cedar Grove, the painter’s home from the 1830s up to his death in 1848 and now the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. I also visited Olana, the former home of Frederic Edwin Church, another Hudson River School painter who studied with Cole; and the Kaaterskill Falls and surrounding country, a popular subject for Cole and his contemporaries.

While at Cedar Grove, I took a guided tour and stepped foot in his studio, study, and bedroom, and learned about his life and family. At the time, the family owned considerably more land than the historic site now occupies, and two additional studios on land adjacent to the main home have since been destroyed. (One will be reconstructed in the coming years.) Although it was entertaining and interesting to get a glimpse into history, it was the landscape that I felt would really hold the key to Cole’s world.

Kaaterskill Falls
Kaaterskill Falls
Thomas Cole, Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826)
Thomas Cole, Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826)

The land around Olana provided some stunning views of the Hudson River Valley, and I was lucky enough to hit upon beautiful weather. The drive into the Kaaterskill Clove and to the Kaaterskill Falls took me about 14 miles further into the Catskills up a winding mountain road, which was crawling with visitors swimming and sightseeing. I had some difficulty finding the views identified in the Trail Guide, particularly a clear view of Kaaterskill Clove, and I suspect that some locations that used to be ideal viewpoints have since become overgrown with trees.

In the Catskills
In the Catskills

The trip into the Catskills was scenic, and it was easy to see why a painter might be inspired by the country. Still, I never quite found a landscape view that completely evoked, for me, the grandeur and the intensity of the images produced by Cole and contemporaries. These artists freely applied their imaginations and the Romantic ideals of the Sublime and the Picturesque to their images which, it seems, are truly larger than life.

If you’re interested in seeing more of Thomas Cole’s paintings from this region, among other locales, I recommend this excellent resource: explorethomascole.org

Next week I’ll be traveling to New York City to film an interview Linda S. Ferber, Senior Art Historian at the New-York Historical Society, and an expert in Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School artists.

A Charles Burchfield Pilgrimage

I’m currently on my first road trip shooting footage for Beyond the Notes (see this post for a description of the project). The primary purpose of this trip is to collect material for online videos about American painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), the artist who inspired my wind quintet, Watercolors, and orchestral tone poem The Sphinx and the Milky Way. (See this post for more about my interest in Burchfield, and the paintings that inspired Watercolors.)

Burchfield's home in Gardenville, NY
Burchfield's home in Gardenville, NY

My pursuit of all things Burchfield has taken me to Buffalo, NY and surroundings, where the painter spent much of his life. Yesterday I visited the Charles E. Burchfield Nature & Art Center in Gardenville, a community center and park on Buffalo creek. There I caught a glimpse of his former home and studio where he lived and painted from 1925 to his death in 1967 (a private home across the street from the park), and filmed and photographed woods and flowers that evoked some of the nature scenes in Burchfield’s paintings.

Charles Burchfield, The Moth and the Thunderclap (1961)
Charles Burchfield, The Moth and the Thunderclap (1961)

I continued onto the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo to visit the stimulating exhibit Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art, which “provides an unprecedented opportunity to consider synesthesia through the work of some of the 20th century’s most significant artists—luminaries such as Charles E. Burchfield, Arthur Dove, Max Weber, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keeffe and Adolph Gottlieb.” (source) It was intriguing to see diverse works from both Modernists and later artists that dealt with the translation of music and sound into visual art. The exhibit features a number of wonderful works by Burchfield (including the bold The Moth and the Thunderclap); excerpts from his sketchbooks on display document a language of abstract forms and symbols, through which he sought to express the music of Sibelius and Wagner.

Filming at the Burchfield Nature & Art Center
Filming at the Burchfield Nature & Art Center

After taking in the exhibit, I had the pleasure of filming an interview with Nancy Weekly, longtime head curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, co-curator of Sensory Crossovers, and author and editor of a number of essays and books on his work. (I recently enjoyed this book by Weekly.) She was wonderfully generous with her time and expertise, and spoke with me on a number of topics relating to Burchfield’s work, including the importance of music in his paintings; and the phenomenon of synesthesia in art.

With this informative interview, I am hopeful that Beyond the Notes will become a valuable and entertaining resource for anyone interested in exploring Burchfield’s art—especially visitors who may not have the motivation to seek out books on the topic.

Tomorrow takes me to The Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY, where I’ll be shifting my focus back into the 19th century and the monumental landscapes of the Hudson River School.

Beyond the Notes: companion for arts events

For the next few months, I will be focusing on the development of Beyond the Notes (beyondthenotes.org), a new kind of multimedia companion for arts events. Each “digital program note” on Beyond the Notes will accompany an event, and may include video interviews, audio excerpts, slideshows, and other interactive features, which will be accessed by audience members on a website or in the concert hall (but not during the performance!) via a mobile application supporting iPhone, iPad, and Android.

By producing websites and mobile apps rich with interactivity and substantive content, I hope to inform and enhance audiences’ experiences of the performing arts and visual arts, and to facilitate communication between artists and their audiences.

Thomas Cole, The Savage State (1834)
Thomas Cole, The Savage State (1834)

From now through September, I will be producing a pilot Beyond the Notes website and mobile app to complement a performance of my string quartet The Course of Empire, based on paintings by Thomas Cole, at the Peabody Essex Museum on July 30 in coordination with national touring exhibit Painting the American Vision.

Beyond the Notes will also accompany my recital at New England Conservatory in October, which will feature The Course of Empire and other music inspired by visual artists including Charles Burchfield (Watercolors and The Sphinx and the Milky Way), Georgia O’Keeffe (The Faraway Nearby From the Faraway Nearby [orchestra piece], and To Create One’s Own World), Michelangelo (Revealed in Stone), and Hiroshige (Setsugekka – mp3s coming soon).

I will be closely blogging and tweeting the production process for the Beyond the Notes pilot. My first exciting step: a road trip this weekend to film an interview with Nancy Weekly, leading Charles Burchfield scholar and Head of Collections and Curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY.

I’ll also be heading to Catskill, NY to do research at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and to film landscape footage in the region that inspired Cole’s monumental paintings. In June, I’ll be interviewing Linda S. Ferber, Senior Art Historian at the New-York Historical Society, an expert in Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School artists; as well as Carol Steen, artist and founder of the American Synesthesia Association, for a segment on synesthesia in art and music.

The first Beyond the Notes website/app is being funded in part by an Entrepreneurial Grant from the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at New England Conservatory. (My first Entrepreneurial Grant, awarded in summer 2010, supported the creation of The Faraway Nearby, a multimedia video piece inspired by the New Mexico paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe.)

This pilot project is an experimental vehicle towards developing a new model of media enhancement for music and arts events. If successful, I plan to start a service creating websites and apps for small arts organizations ranging from galleries to theater companies.

Reading of “The Sphinx and the Milky Way” for orchestra

Charles Burchfield, The Sphinx and the Milky Way (1946)
Charles Burchfield, The Sphinx and the Milky Way, 1946. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY.

My tone poem for orchestra, The Sphinx and the Milky Way, received a reading on May 2nd, 2011 by the New England Conservatory Philharmonia under the baton of Andres Lopera, who is studying with Hugh Wolff. This piece, like my wind quintet Watercolors, was inspired by the paintings of Charles Burchfield.

Listen to an mp3 of the reading (duration ca. 5 minutes).

Please keep in mind that this is a reading, not a rehearsed performance.

Charles Burchfield and “Watercolors” for wind quintet

Autumnal Fantasy (1916-44)
Autumnal Fantasy, 1916-44. Private collection.

I am fascinated by the works of American painter Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), and was inspired by his visual world to compose a wind quintet and an orchestral tone poem (The Sphinx and the Milky Way). The premiere of my wind quintet Watercolors, the winner of NEC’s 2010-2011 Honors Ensemble Composition Competition, will be performed on Thursday, May 12th at 8:00pm in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115) by Andra Winds, who were selected this year as an NEC Honors Ensemble. I’m very honored to have my work performed by this talented group in beautiful Jordan Hall.

Charles Burchfield, An April Mood (1946-55)
An April Mood, 1946-55. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.

Watercolors references four watercolor paintings completed during Burchfield’s late period (the mid-1940s-60s). Although the paintings were not created as a set, I selected them for their complementary contrasts and connections.

Burchfield’s dynamic style and almost psychedelic imagery are arrestingly unique. His haunting paintings speak of a spiritual world of transcendence, redemption, decay and renewal, and he depicted the wonders of nature (the patterns on a sphinx moth’s wing; moonlight filtering through the petals of a sunflower) in an artistic voice that is as distinctive as it is beautiful.

Charles Burchfield, Glory of Spring (1950)
Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring), 1950. Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY.

Each movement of Watercolors reflects my impression of an individual painting. The paintings depict natural environments in different seasons or moods, from the barren rainstorm landscape seen in An April Mood to the luminous forest of Glory of Spring. At times, musical references to the visuals are direct (the bird or insect-like motifs in Autumnal Fantasy, for example), but more often than not, my music is an interpretation of the paintings’ overall atmospheres.

It is interesting to note that Burchfield himself was a passionate music fan (which helps to explain why his paintings are so suggestive of music). His copious journals reveal that he favored Beethoven, Wagner, and Sibelius, and created artworks inspired by his listening. Burchfield was sensitive to sound, especially the sounds of nature, and some of his paintings contain abstract patterns that directly represent sounds (see Autumnal FantasyThe Insect Chorus [1917] or Song of the Telegraph Poles [1917-1952]). These images pulsate with energy, and imply a world of sensory experience.