Negative space (2011)

Zagros ensemble (live museum exhibit performance)

flute, clarinet, bassoon, harp, 2 violins, viola, cello, contrabass (or string orchestra)
17 min.
Published by Fennica Gerhman

As a composer, I’m extremely image-oriented, almost always requiring some sort of visual stimulus to translate into music. (I’ve even wondered if I became a composer because I can’t draw.) Tasked with writing a piece to be performed first in a gallery, music that would in some way interact with the space and artworks around it, my thoughts therefore turned immediately to the terminology of the visual art world. “Negative space” refers to empty space around (or within) an art object, space which nonetheless contributes to the viewer’s perception of form and the relationship between objects in a field. Having recently finished a long, elaborate orchestral work and in need of a radical change, I became obsessed with the idea of writing quiet, largely uneventful music that approached, or at least commented on the condition of emptiness. This intent was reinforced on a trip to New York in early 2011, where I spent much time viewing up close the vast canvases of artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly and others, utterly seduced by the beauty of their works.

The stark color contrasts these artists employ had the most immediate effect on the musical material for the ensemble, divided as it is into three discreet color blocks of strings, woodwinds and harp. What made an even greater impression, though, was the sheer amount of space required to display these paintings, as they are truly works on an epic scale. Epic space, empty space, emptiness made structural, visible, then audible. I was trying to make a simple one-idea piece, but after I wrote the opening music other materials crowded in, and it quickly became about the space between objects as well. As a result, the music is less about contemplating a single work than the gallery experience as a whole. (There’s even an interruption by a group of loud museum-goers who arrive to block my view of a favorite piece.) Objects are placed on a plane, some distant, others in closer proximity, some sharing certain basic elements, but all essentially just sharing space. Some return, others don’t. Is an object the same the second time it is viewed, or different, altered by the intervening sights? Occasionally the focus lingers longer on one element, as one does in an art exhibit, but there is no conscious narrative other than that dictated by my desire to wander between things that caught my attention.

Overlaying these more abstract ideas, the music has a kind of processional atmosphere that shifts between tender remembrance and stark mourning. The background to the early stages of sketching was the Oslo terror attacks of July 2011, and thoughts of my friends and students there came out in treading, tolling rhythms and the muted, often unanswered calls of the winds.

Negative space was commissioned by the Zagros Ensemble, and is dedicated to them.