It was an experiment: What happens when some of the top musicians in the Twin Cities examine 21 disparate artworks—then quickly record their responses? No agenda, no time to overthink. Just play.
It’s called Listen!, part of the museum’s Evolvelle initiative to creatively interpret the art in our collection. (Evolvelle, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, has also backed the juxtaposing of classic films and MIA artworks and the repainting of park benches in neighboring Washburn-Fair Oaks Park in colors drawn from artworks.) These aren’t tunes, they’re tuneful soundscapes, with all the raw energy, telling motifs, and playfulness you’d expect.
We’ll unveil Listen! at the next Third Thursday on June 19, called Get Local, featuring local food, local art, and local music from Dérobé Dance Band. On the Web, your iPad, or phone, you can simply listen or you can remix the tracks of each composition with a flick of the finger. Nothing quite like it has been created in museums, which is perhaps the best possible tribute to these singular artworks.
So where did the music come from? We asked producer Tom Hambleton, head of Undertone Music in Minneapolis, who assembled many of the musicians, created much of the music himself, and processed the final product.
How did you turn this concept into reality?
TOM HAMBLETON: Originally, the MIA was thinking of creating sound collages for these artworks from all manner of disparate sources. But as wonderful as that sounds, you couldn’t mix them to sound like anything but tennis shoes in a dryer. So I proposed that I would take some of the pieces, Ed Ackerson took some, and I brought in other musicians, too.
How did you start?
TH: When I brought in musicians, I would say, “How would you respond to this? What kind of music do you feel? What do you hear when you look at this?” I had a guy who works with me in the hip-hop realm [Chris Caesar], a jazz percussionist [J.T. Bates], a piano player [Tanner Taylor], a cellist [Chris Quinn], and a guitarist [Mike Michel] who creates really interesting textures that I would fill out with piano or drums. And I created a lot of music myself.
There are also snippets of people talking about the art. Where did those come from?
TH: I interviewed people in the galleries who were looking at the artwork, and I told them that they didn’t need to say anything erudite or witty, just what attracted them to the piece. I took some salient quotes and used them with the music, like a sample in rap and hip-hop. I also pulled phrases from preexisting interviews with curators and the like that I could use musically and rhythmically, like another instrument.
How did the translation of objects into music work, did certain colors or time periods inspire sound?
TH: Some of the art really speaks to the time it was created, like Work No. 27, Red Wing, [by Charles Biederman, from the late 1960s], which is very abstract and geometric. Then there are pieces like the Soundsuit [by Nick Cave, from 2010], which is just crazy—if it did actually turn on, it would sound like New Orleans insanity. With every piece, I got a feeling from it and went from there. This project, though, was also about play, engaging the audience. To not simply say, “Let’s just hang these things on the wall,” but how can we invite participation? Another way to make the art live.
I also put the question of inspiration to Ed Ackerson, the veteran songwriter, musician, and producer who created a good number of the Listen! soundscapes:
How did the art inspire you?
ED ACKERSON: I would look at a piece and think, “What does this sound like?” Not literally, but what do I feel when I look at it, and translate that feeling into sound. Different textures, maybe the blue thing in the background—it’s a very abstract and impressionistic way of thinking about music.
Does abstraction come naturally to you as a songwriter?
EA: I’m very much an abstract person. Don’t get me wrong, I like classic rock and classical music and traditional jazz, but I’m more interested personally in the stuff that stretches my head a little bit, things with multiple meanings that make me think a little differently, put a bit of a filter on reality.
Synethesia is the phenomenon of having senses that mix, like you taste shapes or hear colors. Does that happen to you?
EA: Well, you have to be careful about that because people will be like, “Oh yeah, your sound is really orange.” But it’s kinda true for me, I do kind of know what orange sounds like. My main job is a record producer, so I have to know how to translate things.
How did that play out with specific objects?
EA: Bronco Buster became an electronic impressionistic soundscape of a horse, complete with the clop-clop sound—wood blocks, maybe some white-noise that I got off a synth to make it more coarse. The African power figure, meanwhile, suggests action, a certain anguish, though the dude looks kind of peaceful. This is something you couldn’t write a song about necessarily; sometimes the complex is easier to represent in broad strokes than a traditional song.
As a songwriter, though, you create discrete songs. Was it hard not to think that way?
EA: Actually, it was nice to be presented with 20 or 30 little things that have no standalone consequence. There is no star player that we need to make awesome. It’s a cloud of things that need to be interesting as they interact. And the fact is, the success of any pop phenomenon is not just based on the songs—think of Shakira. You’re capturing a gestalt of cultural memes and sounds people are into and little irritating things that stick in your head and together that’s having a serious emotional effect. There are X factors beyond what you can put on a piece of sheet music. Having said that, I don’t like Shakira records.