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Contemporary Museum hosts the sound of art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 28, 2010 - The Book of Ecclesiastes declares there is nothing new under the sun and while that proclamation has its own integrity, the urge to create the new is pervasive and compelling, and artists' re-employment of venerable traditions always has had potential for creating work of exceptional novelty. At the very least, the shock of radical innovation sparks intimations of originality and newness. Such is the situation with a recent marriage of music and the visual arts in St. Louis.

On Sunday, three new musical works by students in a composition program at the University of Missouri at Columbia will be performed at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in Grand Center. Mizzou's New Music Ensemble, which is part of the Mizzou New Music Initiative, will be in the spotlight.

The music was inspired by art created by winners of the Great Rivers Biennial 2010 competition, on exhibit at the Contemporary through Aug. 8. The composers are Stephanie Berg, Michael Strausbaugh and David Witter. The creators of the works of art that inspired the music are Martin Brief, Sarah Frost and Cameron Fuller.

This intersection is not unique by a long shot; in fact, such intersections are rather frequent if you follow the musical score backward in time. Just about everyone can hum parts of the frequently performed Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," and if you telescope back and visit the revelations of Cubism, you find musical scores and musical instruments playing in the work of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris.

In those days -- the incandescent, revolutionary days of the early 20th century -- there were exuberant and rapidly recurring collaborations between painters and sculptors and the denizens of the world of music. Visual artists stepped up to the collaborative stage to design decor and costumes for operas and ballets and artists' balls.

Picasso, for example, was designer for Erik Satie's "Parade," and the artist Rene Auberjonois designed for Igor Stravinsky's "L'histoire du soldat." In this country, Florine Stettheimer's costumes and sets for the Wordsworth Atheneum's production of Virgil Thompson's "Four Saints in Three Acts" are legendary.

Closer to home, before the flickering-out of Gaslight Square, the late artist Ernest Trova -- then enchanted by the cacophonies of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning -- painted as musicians played jazz at the Crystal Palace. In the early 1980s, the late and never-to-be-forgotten Louise Nevelson came to St. Louis to design sets and costumes for Gluck's "Orfeo ed Eurydice" for Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

So what you'll see and hear at the Contemporary on Sunday afternoon at 2 is the continuation of a brilliant, exuberant tradition of artistic collaboration.

The musician-philanthropist Jeanne Sinquefield is the godmother of this endeavor, and when we talked on the telephone the other day you could hear her smiling. She said the notion of the collaboration came about last fall, when she and Contemporary museum director Paul Ha met up during the 2009 Women's Chess Championship. (The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center and its activities are recipients of funds provided by Jeanne and her husband, Rex Sinquefield, as is the St. Louis Beacon.)

"Paul told me what he was doing with the new artists," Jeanne Sinquefield said, "so we hooked up." Ha and the Contemporary supply the works of visual art while the composition program at Mizzou supplied the composers. Sinquefield's observation about all this is that it has been quite good fun.

Artists -- be they musicians and composers or painters and sculptors -- don't see the world the way the rest of us do, Jeanne Sinquefield said. These different perspectives or visions provide some of the many stimuli that invigorate the creative process.

A composer, looking at a painting, for example, might imagine how the painting sounds, Jeanne Sinquefield said, "and produce the sound of art." Visual artists may hear shapes and colors and forms as music is played. Music, in my experience, is a necessary furnishing of an artist's main habitat, the studio.

"I don't know if you'll like the art or the music," Jeanne Sinquefield said, "but I do know it can be magical." And she said also that it is possible the music won't suit the art, or vice versa. But what she does know is the product will be interesting.

Sunday's concert is the world premiere of the three student compositions. Also on the program is a performance of "1 8 3 9," a composition by University of Missouri faculty member Paul Seitz. The piece was inspired by the work of the grand post-impressionist Paul Cezanne, and it includes an excerpt from composer Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time."

The Gateway Foundation, the organization responsible for the creation of Citygarden in downtown St. Louis, sponsors the Great Rivers Biennial 2010 exhibition. The exhibit continues through Aug. 8. Opening night is Friday, April 30.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.