ART BECOMING MUSIC Creative Fusion: Composers Series uses the Cleveland Museum of Art as Muse

Luciano Chessa

Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress was inspired by a narrative series of paintings of the same name by William Hogarth. Mussorgsky’s piano composition Pictures at an Exhibition was prompted by… pictures at an exhibition, featuring works by his late friend Viktor Hartmann. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night inspired an orchestral work, an opera, and, for better or worse, Don McLean. The histories of visual art and music are littered with intentional synesthetes who view sensory walls as fluid, if they view them at all.

For the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Composer Series, which commenced in spring 2018 in partnership with the Cleveland Museum of Art, a half-dozen composers from around the world—Sardinia to Serbia—were invited to Cleveland and the museum to draw inspiration for original pieces of new music to be performed as part of the museum’s bejeweled performing arts series.

“Each iteration runs on its own template and timeline,” says Tom Welsh, the museum’s director of performing arts. As well, the inspirations took wildly different directions.

Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz composer Henry Threadgill worked with the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble and conductor Tim Weiss, in collaboration with his own ensemble, Zooid, for the world premiere of “Pathways,” a piece written for eleven musicians, that was presented in January. The pathways referenced in the title, according to Threadgill’s program notes, include one to Lake Erie, which he called “a gift to humans who reside here,” and another to “the Oberlin music world.”

While Welsh thought Cenk Ergün, a composer born in Istanbul, Turkey, might find something in the museum’s vast collection, it was the building itself that inspired him. “He fell in love with the architecture,” says Welsh, specifically the dramatic sweep of the museum’s atrium. Ergün composed “Formare” for female choir, children’s choir, harpsichords, and trombones. The performance, set in the site of its inspiration, included members of the Cleveland Chamber Choir, the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Children’s Choir, three harpsichordists, and four trombonists, scattered throughout the atrium during its May world premiere.

Japanese composer and sound artist Aya Nishina will be the third Creative Fusion artist to create an original piece for the series. Welsh says Nishina was drawn to the museum’s Asian art galleries, specifically Korean and Japanese art, and where the two intersected. There was also something else that caught her attention in the collection. “She made a curious observation,” says Welsh, “that everywhere she went in the building she found artwork depicting animals with their mouths open.” What she does musically with that observation, Welsh says, “is up to Aya.”

The premiere of this work is planned for November in the museum’s Gartner Auditorium. But, unlike many one-and-done world premieres, this work is scheduled for a second hearing, in the atrium in New York City’s Lincoln Center. “One of our goals is to see the work live on and be performed again,” says Welsh. “We want these pieces to live in the world.”

The series continues into 2020 with three final artists.

Welsh says that Aleksandra Vrebalov, a composer from Serbia whose work has been championed by the Kronos Quartet, was delighted to find an icon of the Serbian orthodox church in the museum’s collection. Her work, to be performed in the spring of 2020, will revolve around something in that tradition, for which she plans to bring to Cleveland orthodox monks from Serbia.

Luciano Chessa, from Sardinia, was inspired by the museum and Cleveland itself, particularly the organs he found throughout the city. He was also interested in Cleveland’s manufacturing roots and plans to have his work performed in May, 2020 in the industrial space of the Transformer Station in Cleveland’s Near West side.

Sophie Nzayisenga of Rwanda,  the final artist of the two-and-a-half year series, still has her inaugural visit to the museum ahead of her and the dates of her performance have yet to be determined.