How might a world-famous art collection—its components, its composition—inform a new piece of music? MacArthur award-winning saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark, whose new commission is a response to Philadelphia’s legendary Barnes Foundation, shares his thoughts.
I visited the Barnes Foundation this past February as a way to start my research. Before arriving, I was honestly expecting that any connection between my music and what Albert Barnes had assembled would be tenuous at best, because while definite correlations can be made between the visual and aural arts, these parallels are often tangential. When I saw how Barnes had organized his collection of art, however, I was immediately struck by how his system of display related to my current interests in the improvised music developed during the 1970s, particularly work innovated by musicians in organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago and the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, and by Europeans connected to the Instant Composers Pool in the Netherlands and the Free Music Productions record label in Germany. From my point of view, these sets of artists explored and, in some cases, interrogated the cultural and political ramifications of American jazz and how that history of music related to, or did not relate to, their contemporary creative context. I am not sure what Barnes’ particular agenda was in the organization of his collection and the way he exhibited it, but from my standpoint, a direct association can be made between the aesthetics of these musicians and what Barnes presented to the public and the students at his school. In both cases the staging of the material, whether aural or visual, creates and almost forces an inquiry of the artwork by the audience, either through suggestion or outright implication.