The Cleveland Museum of Art Composers Cohort: “Find your inspiration here”

Since its inception in 2008, the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program has brought more than eighty international artists to Cleveland for residencies. Now, and for the first time in its history, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) will make a serious commitment to the commissioning of new music in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation.

Over the next two years, the latest edition of the Creative Fusion program will result in the creation of six new works by composers from across the globe under the auspices of the museum’s Performing Arts Series. The composers—Luciano Chessa, Cenk Ergün, Aya Nishina, Sophie Nzayisenga, Henry Threadgill and Aleksandra Vrebalov—will travel to Cleveland, gain inspiration by immersing themselves in the museum’s collection and the city, and create compositions, three of which will be premiered in Cleveland in the spring of 2019 and three during the 2019–2020 concert season.

The scope and nature of the works in this series will be developed during the composers’ visits to the museum and the city. Discussions with curators and conversations with potential collaborators from across Cleveland’s creative community will steer the process, in close coordination with the museum’s performing arts staff. After this research phase, the composers will create their work on individually crafted timelines.

Tom Welsh, who is constantly engaged with composers and performers in his role as director of CMA’s Performing Arts Program, has selected the six composers from what he calls “my own long, long list of composers to watch, and who someday we would like to work with.”

Welsh told each of the artists that there is one big string attached to the project: “‘We invite you to come and spend time in the museum and find your inspiration here.’ That inspiration might be an object, a collection of objects, it might be the building, the people, the city of Cleveland itself. All of this is a grand experiment. What’s going to spark one artist or another is yet to be determined.”

That’s phase one. Welsh said that in phase two, composers will “go away—this is the creation and writing phase.” In phase three, composers will return for the world premieres of each piece.

Luciano Chessa (b. Sardinia) is a composer, conductor, audiovisual and performance artist. He has been commissioned by SFMOMA, the Performa Biennial, and in 2014 he presented three events at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum as part of the exhibition Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe. Chessa is also a music historian specializing in 20th-century Italian and 21st-century American repertoire. He is the author of Luigi Russolo Futurist. Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult (2012), the first monograph dedicated to Russolo and his “Art of Noise.” In 2009, his Orchestra of Futurist Noise Intoners (OFNI) was hailed by the New York Times as one of the best events in the arts. Chessa is currently preparing the edition of Julius Eastman’s Second Symphony, the world premiere of which he will conduct in NYC in the fall 2018.

Cenk Ergün (b. Turkey) is a composer and improviser whose work has been performed by artists such as Sō Percussion, the JACK Quartet, Alarm Will Sound, Yarn/Wire, and more. Ergün has participated in events including the NY Phil Biennial, Lincoln Center Festival, Gaudeamus Music Week, MATA Festival, Bang on a Can Marathon, WNYC’s New Sounds Live, Peak Performances at Montclair University, Stanford Lively Arts, and San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. Venues that have featured Ergün’s music include New York’s Carnegie Hall, Le Poisson Rouge, The Roulette, The Stone, 92Y, Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw, Zürich’s Tonhalle, and Istanbul’s Babylon.

Aya Nishina (b. Japan) composes concert music, soundscapes for film, site-specific installations, and performance art. In 1982 she came to the US at the age of fifteen to study at the Interlochen Arts Academy. She moved to New York City in 2001 and immediately joined the artistic community of Tzadik Records as the youngest composer ever to be signed for the label’s composers’ series at the time. Since then, she has collaborated with her mentors John Zorn and Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as with a wide range of highly creative, visionary artists practicing today.

Sophie Nzayisenga (b. Rwanda) is the first female master of the Rwandan traditional zither (inanga) and is currently one of the leading professional female inanga players in Rwanda and East Africa. She has developed the role of the inanga in traditional Rwandan music, as well as in international formations in Malawi, the UK, and Turkey. In 2016, she was one of the fifteen musicians from across Africa who participated in the fourth edition of the Nile Project.

Henry Threadgill (b. USA) is one of only three jazz artists who have won a Pulitzer Prize. After decades of probing music, cult status, and critical acclaim, Threadgill’s Pulitzer Prize caps his growing high-culture recognition: 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award, 2015 Doris Duke Impact Award, 2008 United States Artist Fellowship, 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship. He is especially proud of being the first black non-classical musician to receive a Copland House Residency Award.

Aleksandra Vrebalov (b. Serbia) has written more than seventy works ranging from concert music and opera to music for modern dance and film. Her compositions have been performed by the Kronos Quartet, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, Serbian National Theater, Belgrade Philharmonic, and Providence Festival Ballet, among others. Vrebalov’s cross-disciplinary interests have led to her participation in seminars, residencies and fellowships that include the MacDowell Colony, Djerassi, the Hermitage, New York’s New Dramatists, Rockefeller Bellagio Center, American Opera Projects, Tanglewood, and Moral and Mythology in Contemporary Art (Novi Sad).

I spoke with four of the composers to find out what excites them about the Creative Fusion Project, who their potential collaborators might be, and what ideas they have for their eventual compositions. I began by asking them how they planned to spend their inspirational time.

Mike Telin: Do you have any thoughts on how you will spend your “inspirational” time?

Cenk Ergün: During my first visit to the museum in 2016, I was struck by the contrast between the intimate, close-up experience of viewing the pieces in the museum’s collection, and that of stepping out onto the vast, empty space of the Ames Family atrium. The main focus of my next visit will be a workshop with a group of musicians in the atrium, to get a better sense of its acoustics, to think about what sort of instrumental forces it may require, and to experiment with various formations of musicians around the space.

I’ve been to Cleveland many times but haven’t actually explored the city in depth. I am always interested in a city’s relationship with water. During my visit, I want to explore the coast of Lake Erie, this edge where the city ends and connects by water to the rest of the world.

Henry Threadgill: Visit the museum, the city and be inspired. I traveled to the Cleveland Museum last year and heard an Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble concert and now I’m ready to get on with the specifics.

Luciano Chessa: One of the things I want to do is to get a sense of how this museum functions. My first opera was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I’ve performed at the Guggenheim, so I’ve spent a lot of time in those institutions. Most museums own way more art than what is on display. So, the question is, where is the rest living, how often do you see those pieces, and who makes the decisions as to what eventually gets displayed? How do you choose to store an important painting from the 1700s?

All this may be unrelated to the piece that I end up writing, but that’s where I want to start.

Aya Nishina: I’ve already visited the museum. It took me a day and a half, but I saw everything. I didn’t want to leave out anything because you never know what miracle will present itself, so I followed the map. Because the Museum’s architecture is both modern and old, it is a nice womb for creativity. Sitting here in the atrium you can’t help be inspired. I also went to different concerts and rehearsals—the Cleveland Orchestra, the Case Early Music Singers, the Cleveland Institute of Music. I also heard the Oberlin Choristers and met the children. The children were so attentive and the teachers were very sweet.

MT: Do you have any potential collaborators or types of collaborators in mind?

Cenk Ergün: The museum has invited an excellent group of local musicians for the workshop in the atrium. These are trombonists and vocalists affiliated with the Cleveland Institute and The Cleveland Orchestra, as well as other ensembles in the area. The final instrumentation of the piece is not yet decided. It may require anywhere from eight to fifty musicians, which will all be drawn from local music institutions and ensembles.

Luciano Chessa: I’m not at this stage yet because I haven’t decided whether the piece is going to be for an ensemble or whether I will be performing in it or not. I have a lot of questions.

Henry Threadgill: I’m going to do something with the young musicians who are being nurtured at Oberlin. They can play contemporary music, and they can improvise. I want to dedicate something to Olly Wilson, who taught there and established the TIMARA program (Technology in Music and Related Arts). I’m planning to bring my group Zooid with me.

MT: Can you share any ideas about what the final product might be?

Aya Nishina: Perhaps a symphony of ancient creatures. It could be a treasure hunt for children after they listen to the piece. I think I was in the Asian section when I realized that the collection of animals I was taking photos of all had open mouths. My grandfather was a choral conductor, and throughout my studies of composition, when I see open mouths I hear singing—monkeys, lions, birds that all make different sounds. I also saw a cross made out of mineral rocks. When you look at it closely you see these cracks, and I was very interested in the stories that they tell you. It’s like a tracing of time. It would be interesting to do a sound installation taking the data from the time that is condensed in this rock.

Cenk Ergün: In my music, I often utilize sound as a way to create a static sense of space rather than as a tool to construct an unfolding narrative. Having written mostly for the concert stage, this is a rare opportunity to create music for an actual, physical space. The architecture and acoustics of the museum—especially of the atrium—will play a big role in shaping this work.

The goal of this composition is to contribute sounds to the existing acoustic makeup of the space, and to determine some of the sounds that will happen in it for a period of time, rather than to present a concert piece in the context of a proscenium stage.

I am planning a work lasting several hours, not necessarily as a continuous experience that requires constant attention, but rather as a sonic environment that the listener can enter, wander around in, and exit at will. The performers will be singers and trombonists spread throughout the space, emitting long, held tones. I will approach physical space and the various possible formations of musicians in the space as a compositional parameter. Because of this the work will be called Formare (Latin for formation) which also connects to my two previous works premiered in 2016 at the Cleveland Museum, entitled Celare and Sonare.

Luciano Chessa: One idea is to use the organ, because the museum has a great one. I studied organ when I was at the Conservatory in Bologna—in Italy, it’s mandatory to study organ if you’re studying composition. I am interested in mechanical instruments, and essentially the organ is the father of them all.

Another is to do something like the project John Cage did at the Philadelphia Museum using objects from the collection rearranged daily according to a chance-derived score. (Cage said that his idea was that “the exhibition would change so much that if you came back a second time, you wouldn’t recognize it.”)

Writing a piece for orchestra would also be interesting.

Henry Threadgill: Like I said, I’m planning to bring Zooid with me, but I have to do something the students can handle. We play in a particular language and I can teach them some aspects of it, but there’s just not enough time.

MT: What made you want to take this project on?

Cenk Ergün: Tom Welsh and I have a long history of friendship and collaboration that has led to countless wonderful projects. The most compelling aspects of this one are the vast freedom and resources it provides me to create a work that is limited only by my imagination. It was so great working with the wonderful production staff at the museum in 2016. I am looking forward to building on this experience and to immersing myself further in the museum and the city.

Henry Threadgill: First the music, but I’ve always been interested in the lake and its survival. I mean, it was dead and it came back to life. It was tragic and it’s a credit to Cleveland that they brought it back.

Luciano Chessa: Two reasons. One is the memory of being in Cleveland for the first time with the “Intonarumori,” back in January of 2015 and I did like the city quite a lot. So, this is an opportunity to not only return to Cleveland but to allow me to discover more about the city. I like Cleveland for its industrial age, and when I was there, there was a feel of the industrial revolution in the air. For someone who has worked in futurism, giant brick structures are very appealing to me, because that era was an important influence for futurism itself.

Second, I like Tom very much. He is one-of-a-kind, and when he proposes something, I listen. I’ve known him for a long time and if he thinks a project is right for me, I trust his instincts.

Aya Nishina: When I was contacted about it, it felt like a piece of magic was bestowed on me. I think a project like this is every composer’s dream. At least for somebody who works between the borders of practice, visual art and music, it includes everything that you want to do. And Cleveland is like a wonderland.

Mike Telin serves as executive editor at Additionally, he team-teaches classes in music journalism at Oberlin College and Conservatory and has recently contributed articles to Early Music America, Classical Voice North America, and Symphony magazine.