In Exhibitions, Museum of Art, School of Music

Student performers recorded music on a Disklavier piano to accompany the art of M.C. Escher

The connection between art and music will be spotlighted in an upcoming exhibition at BYU’s Museum of Fine Art.M.C. Escher: Other Worlds” that features the mathematical and mysterious works of Maurits Cornelis Escher. While the artist’s tessellations and abstract scenes may be familiar to visitors to the exhibit, the musical inspiration behind his work is less known.

Why no one has ever tried to incorporate this into an exhibition of Escher’s work is sort of baffling,” said Maddie Blonquist, curatorial fellow at the MOA. “But the connection is definitely there.

“Escher repeatedly refers to J.S. Bach in his personal writings,” Blonquist said. “There is even an instance of him accepting a major artistic award and requesting to have a portion of the Goldberg Variations played in honor of the event. Bach, as well as other composers, were a palpable influence in Escher’s work as well as his home.”

In order to illustrate Escher’s inspiration, the installation will include a piano as its centerpiece,  but not just any piano. As visitors wander through the exhibit, the piano will appear to play itself.

“The piano we’re using is a Bosendorfer Enhanced with Disklavier Technology,” explained Blonquist. “It has all of the tone, color and musical capability that a regular grand has, but with additional recording and playback capacity that allows the technology to capture every minute variance in dynamics, pedaling and virtuosity exactly. It’s just like having a live performance in your living room, or in this case, museum.”

Kaden Larson, a senior studying piano performance, on the Bosendorfer piano
Photo by Nathalie van Empel

Before the piano can play, the pieces must be recorded. To find pianists talented enough to take on the project, the curators only had to look to BYU’s School of Music.

“Some of the repertoire is extremely difficult, works that you would hear on the world-stage,” Blonquist said. “So it’s very impressive that we have students literally in the MOA’s backyard willing to collaborate with us on such a professional level.”

Eight of the ten pieces were recorded by current School of Music students and alumni. Participants included Kaden Larson, Halie Augustus, Laura Blanchard, Forrest Howell and Michelle Papenfuss. Another key player in the process was Zach Froelich, a commercial music major and Disklavier technological expert.

M.C. Escher, La Cathedrale Engloutie. ©2017 The M.C. Escher Company, The Netherlands. All rights reserved.

The selections were carefully curated around various prints by Escher that will be on display. In some cases, Escher created a print based off a specific piece of music, such as “La cathedrale engloutie” which shares its title with the Claude Debussy piece it is based on. In other cases, the inspiration worked in the opposite direction, with Escher’s art influencing a composer.

“There are other pieces and prints that are a little more flexible in their interpretation,” Blonquist said. “There are works that Escher references specifically in his writings, but there isn’t a print that clearly matches up. This is where I think I had the most difficulty and the most fun. I had to look at the artistic principles that Escher was using and see where they were translated into music.”

Deciding which pieces of music to use required extensive research. One book Blonquist used,  “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter, discusses the relationship between Escher and his musical inspirations. Hofstadter says, “The similarity of vision is remarkable. Bach and Escher are playing one single theme in two different ‘keys’: music and art.”

“I think looking at these relationships,” Blonquist said, “and seeing where they line up and where they differ is what provides a much more enriching experience for audiences.”

One selection visitors will hear, “Piano Phase” by Steve Reich, was recorded by Forest Howell, a graduate student studying piano performance. Howell found some unique challenges associated with recording on the high tech instrument.

“Normally,” Howell said, “the piece is performed by two musicians, allowing both players to adapt to each other as the phasing is happening. Recording this piece in two separate tracks did not allow for that flexibility, increasing the demand for extreme precision and some very intense counting.”

Piano technician, Zach Froelich, on the Bosendorfer piano
Photo by Nathalie van Empel

However, despite the challenges, Howell found the experience to be rewarding.  

“I feel grateful to be involved in an interdisciplinary project,” Howell said. “Many musicians spend so much time immersed in music that they don’t often see what other disciplines have to offer them in their own discipline or development as a person.”

The curatorial team, which includes MOA curator, Kenneth Hartvigsen, hopes the interdisciplinary approach will help visitors gain a better understanding of Escher and his work.

“Several art historians have a hard time taking Escher seriously because his prints seem to just be clever optical games,” Blonquist said. “However, the more we’ve learned about his personal life and challenges, the more we understand what he means by ‘preferring to live among abstractions.’ Much like Bach, his work is intricate, intellectual and, quite frankly, brilliant. But there is also a sense of trying to organize universal principles in a way that is aesthetically beautiful and compelling. The inclusion of music as a similarly emotional and cognitive experience will hopefully be able to help visitors gain further insight into not just ‘Escher, the graphic artist,’ but ‘Escher, the man.’”

The exhibit will be on display from Nov. 17, 2017 through May 19, 2018.

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