World Premiere of “Transforming Forest” at SITE Santa Fe

Andy Goldsworthy's "Tree Fall"
“Tree Fall” by Andy Goldsworthy. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Announcing the World Premiere of Transforming Forest (2018) for piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by Montage Music Society—Santa Fe’s chamber ensemble dedicated to music inspired by visual art.

SITE Santa FeThe World Premiere is presented by SITE Santa Fe, a world-renowned space for contemporary art. The program will be repeated on Montage Music Society’s Altazano Salon Series.

I composed Transforming Forest in response to the four incredible installations created by British artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco. These site-specific artworks resonate deeply with me and I hope to share some small piece of that through my music. Visit my website about the project for descriptions of my music and the artworks that inspired it.

FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 2019 @ 6:00PM
SITE Sante Fe, Santa Fe, NM
Event Website

SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 2019 @ 3:00PM
Altazano Salon Series, Santa Fe, NM
Event Website

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Favorite Music

I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for the second time in 2010, while I was in New Mexico shooting footage for a multimedia video piece relating to O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings. While filming the locations that formed the basis for many of her paintings, I sought to gain some insight into the sources of her inspiration. O’Keeffe paintings are somehow very musical in character, and I’ve wondered how, if at all, music had influenced her (even if indirectly). I knew that she had some personal interest in music, as is obvious from the titles of paintings such as Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, or Blue and Green Music. O’Keeffe herself had played the violin at an earlier point in life, and she considered singing to be “the most perfect means of expression”.

While in Santa Fe I met with museum curator and prominent O’Keeffe scholar Barbara Buhler Lynes, who was kind enough to point me towards some leads for research. I described the video project to her, and how my work is propelled by a musical response to O’Keeffe’s paintings – the musical texture, timbre, and harmony that I imagine as the musical environment in which her visual world would exist.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)
Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)

Ms. Lynes directed me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library, where I read an essay on O’Keeffe and music by a former curator for the museum, Heather Hole, which was written for a program by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The library also had a complete log of the LPs that were found in O’Keeffe’s possession after she passed away in 1986. This essay, the list of musical recordings, and my later tour of O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, helped to illuminate the role that music played in her life.

Ms. Lynes explained that O’Keeffe was influenced by the concept of synesthesia – the experience of “crossed senses”, i.e. hearing images or seeing sounds – as it had been explored by European modernists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). These artists sought to find the equivalents of music in color and imagery, and to find a universal language in art that transcends the specificity of language or direct representation.

According to Heather Hole, O’Keeffe had been influenced by one of her teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University, Alon Bement, who had played music in his classroom and directed the students to “draw what they hear”. From early in her career, O’Keeffe appreciated the abstract quality of music because it seemed somehow essentialized or pure, and freed from the superficial details of representational art.

O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home

Once she had permanently settled in New Mexico in the late ’40s, O’Keeffe had a high-quality McIntosh stereo system installed in a peaceful and spacious room in her Abiquiu home. There she would lay in her favorite lounge chair, gazing beyond a wall-sized window at an elegantly framed salt cedar tree, and absorb recordings with full attention. She supported the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival early on in its existence (during the latter decade or so of her life), and invited musicians to perform for her in her home, where she would listen to them, often with eyes closed. In Hole’s article, one of the musicians related how she would listen with a striking intensity of focus.

Her large library of LPs included primarily classical music. Interestingly, O’Keeffe didn’t seem to listen to very much music by then-contemporary composers. Perusing the catalog, I spotted just one or two records each of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, and Ives, as well as an Edith Piaf album and some odds and ends.

Although she was friends with Aaron Copland, and owned a record that he conducted, she didn’t seem to be a fan of his music – despite the fact that today’s listener would likely consider her landscape paintings “Coplandesque” in their evocation of American pastoral sensibility, or a classically American earthiness and simplicity of language.

Above all, O’Keeffe collected music of the 18th and 19th centuries – Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, Bach, etc, and surprisingly to me, a quantity of Monteverdi madrigals, sacred music and operas (including multiple recordings of the opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) – which were relatively obscure at the time she was listening – as well as Verdi and Wagner operas.

Although O’Keeffe is associated with the Modernist and Abstract movements in visual art, it seems natural that her musical tastes reflected the lush, lyrical, conventionally emotive quality of earlier music, rather than the harmonic and rhythmic explorations of the early-mid 20th century. The shapes in her paintings are rounded and flowing, the colors rich, and her paintings are often strikingly passionate and direct in their emotive quality – yet always balanced, elegant, and poignant in simplicity, like a Classical sonata or Romantic Lied.

Day 2: “Abstraction” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; arrival at Ghost Ranch

Jemez mountains in Alcalde
Jemez mountains in Alcalde a la "Black Mesa Landscape"

We awoke at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos and headed out towards Santa Fe. On the way, I stopped to shoot some film of the Rio Grande river and surrounding hills. We also pulled over by Alcalde, the town where Georgia O’Keeffe had stayed on a ranch in her early visits to New Mexico and painted views of the Jemez mountains. I snapped a photo that shows approximately the same view as her painting “Black Mesa Landscape / Out Back of Marie’s II”.

We eventually made our way to Santa Fe and went straight to the “Abstraction” exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (co-organized with the Whitney Museum in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC), which was wonderful. The textual curation was limited to some interesting quotations from O’Keeffe herself, which shed some light on her attitude towards the art on view. The works spanned the length of her career, from her early minimalist watercolors (see “Black Lines”) to late bronze cast works (see “Abstraction”). The exhibit encompassed “purely” abstract pieces, such as “Music – Pink and Blue II”, as well as works that blend the line between abstract and representational, like “Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow”, the least literal in her group of paintings in which magnified animal bones frame views of the sky. And of course, the exhibit also featured some of O’Keeffe’s abstracted landscapes.

I found the series of jack-in-the-pulpit paintings particularly beautiful and interesting, displaying clearly how O’Keeffe would start with a quasi-realistic representation of an isolated subject (see Jack-in-Pulpit – No. 2), and transform it into increasingly abstracted images (see Jack-in-Pulpit – No. 5) , like fantasias on the shapes and colors that she saw in the original subject.

There is a certain feature of these works that is essentially imperceptible when viewing reproductions in a book or poster. Generally speaking, the largest of O’Keeffe’s paintings tend to show her most simplified images (see “Sky With Flat White Cloud”) , while the smaller paintings often feature much more delicate and detailed subjects (see “The Black Iris”) . It seems to me that the bolder the image, the larger it needs to be in order to be really seen – it was O’Keeffe’s way of throwing the viewer into her vision. (In a famous quote about her flower paintings, O’Keeffe explains her reasoning: if she made flowers big, even the busy New Yorkers would have to stop and look at them.)

After taking in “Abstraction”, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center across the street for an appointment with Barbara Buhler Lynes, who was generous enough to take the time to speak with me. Ms. Lynes is the museum’s curator, co-curator of the “Abstraction” exhibit, director of the Research Center, and the author of “Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place”, among other books, which documents views and locations of O’Keeffe’s paintings and explores the compositional inventions (abstractions) in her so-called representational paintings. Ms. Lynes pointed me towards some leads for research on O’Keeffe and music, which I’ll be discussing in a future blog entry dedicated to the topic.

Ghost Ranch
Ghost Ranch

We left Santa Fe and continued toward Ghost Ranch, the location of O’Keeffe’s beloved summer home and studio, formerly a dude ranch and now a retreat and education center. As we approached Ghost Ranch, we suddenly came upon epic vistas of red-orange cliffs and rolling tree-dotted hills, always with Cerro Pedernal (which O’Keeffe called her “private mountain”) looming in the distance. We were treated to a spectacular view of the sunset reflected on the cliffs outside our lodgings at Ghost Ranch. All of this, of course, was captured on film.