Footsteps ping from floor to ceiling in Gallery 175 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but they aren’t distracting King Britt. He is focused on the artwork in his line of sight, and the musical gear at his fingertips.
The Philadelphia electronic artist, producer and DJ is composing a new piece in the museum, stationed at a long table covered in an array of gadgetry – synthesizers, samplers, and a laptop plugged into a mixing console. Stereo speakers are set up on the floor, and a cascade of warm electronic notes and slight rhythms bubbles out of them. The texture is appropriate, given the artwork facing Britt on the other side of the table: Seine by American minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly.
At first glance, the piece is a grid of pixels: black and white squares of oil paint strewn across the wood surface, concentrating with a thick vertical line in the center. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that the scene is not entirely abstract, but topographical – this image is Kelly’s rendering of the Seine River in Paris.
“It looks digital, right?” King asks me. “But this is from 1951, man. Pre-digital.”
He speaks excitedly about how Kelly composed this painting using the philosophical concept of chance. The wood surface started out as a numbered grid, and the artist pulled numbers from a bucket one by one to determine which fields to fill in.
Also by chance, the painting remarkably resembles the interface of the GlitchDS, a handheld sequencer King uses to brainstorm ideas and test out new sounds. It’s one of his favorite musical tools, and the visual similarity is what initially drew King to this painting. But the connection doesn’t stop there. The Glitch, King explains, was based on Conway’s Game Of Life, what’s known as a cellular automation system designed by British mathematician John Horton Conway that constantly generates new visual patterns on a black and white grid.
The Game of Life is based on chance; in a similar way, the Glitch is based on chance, where “You set up parameters, but there’s all this chance that happens within the parameters,” explains King. And the painter Kelly was friends with composer John Cage, who pioneered the idea of chance music in the mid 20th century. “So in some weird cosmic way, the Glitch does relate to that painting, through those ideas of chance,” King says.
We pause, and take it all in. Clearly a lot of heady concepts and deep thought went into the mesmerizing sonic textures we hear percolating out of the speakers and into the reverberant room. But that’s what happens when you write music in a museum.
When we met up in January, King was on day three of composing in the presence of the Kelly piece, while visitors came and went through the museum. King would hear their footsteps in the hall, would hear the security guards’ walkie talkies switching on and off, and try to conceive ways to incorporate it into the music. He also strove to make the music representative of the visual – knowing the story of the painting’s process, knowing what it visually represents.
“I know what the painting’s about, so I add sounds or elements that put you in the mood,” says King. “Like if you’re in Paris, walking by the river, what would that sound like to you?”
King says he, and many of his musical peers, are inspired by visual art constantly. “I’m in this museum all the time,” he says. “I go to MoMA all the time. But nobody ever says ‘What influenced you in the museum?'”
Which is why he jumped at the chance to curate the Missed Guided Tour, an immersive event happening tonight at the PMA’s Final Friday event.
When the museum approached King in the fall to curate a night, he drew inspiration from another museum – the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, where a GPS audio tour gives visitors a sonic companion to the ornate gongs and player pianos and other instruments on display from around the world.
“But that’s a music museum, right?” King says, pondering what a similar musical experience would be like in an art museum.
For Missed Guided Tour, he selected three composer peers – singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos, tabla percussionist Suphala, and sound designer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste — to write new music in the presence of a self-selected work of art. Visitors tonight will get to listen to an audio tour on their cell phones, hearing the resulting musical pieces as they view the corresponding artworks, along with voiceover narration about process and inspiration. In the mix, a youth poetry workshop will be led by Ursula Rucker, and a production workshop will be led by Jabair, with a culminating event where all four musicians perform their pieces in the Great Hall.
Speaking on his collaborators, and why he chose them, King called New York’s Toussaint-Baptiste “a sound scientist, man. He’s really into sound, but he’s also into using the space as part of the show or presentation.”
He’s been a longtime supporter of the Connecticut-born, New York-based Xenia Rubinos, and shared a concert bill with her at Johnny Brenda’s in 2016. “We talk all the time and I knew she loved art and museums,” King says. “So it just made sense for her to be a part of it.”
Suphala, another New York artist, is also a lover of museums, King says. He’s also drawn to her style: “[she uses] traditional instrumentation with futuristic production, then being in a museum environment? What is it gonna sound like?”
For Suphala, the space she chose to work in is very much dictating the sound. She wrote a piece using tablas, synths and a laptop surrounded by the gaze of statues in the Pillared Temple Hall in the museum’s Gallery 224, pieces from Madurai, India dating to 1560. When I met with the composer in the space, she said she knew coming into the project that the PMA has the biggest South Asian collection in the country, and she was excited to work with it.
Suphala’s family is Indian, and “I go back and forth a lot and, so there is the feeling [in this room] of ‘okay I’m right at home.'”
But, she continues, it’s not the same. “These beings that have been sculpted have been taken to a completely different place and all of the color, the sound, the culture that normally surrounds them doesn’t exist.
“So I’ve been thinking about what are they thinking about,” Suphala concludes.
In contrast to the grand pieces in the Temple, Toussaint-Baptiste chose the most modest piece in Gallery 155: Study of Three Heads by French painter Henri-Georges-Alexandre Regnault: a rendering of the busts of three black men in an abstract greyish white field. The fact that the piece left so much undefined in a gallery of grand paintings of European landscapes their inhabitants gave him pause.
“You can tell that that’s a woman leaning out of a window,” says Toussaint-Baptiste. “That’s a beautiful lake side scene somewhere, there’s a person playing a lute. Whereas these three heads are without context. There’s a stark contrast between what these bodies are — these are three Black men and every other thing in this space is a depiction of white bodies — so it absolutely just caught me off guard.”
Toussaint-Baptiste is composing on the floor with an array of sequencers, samplers, keyboards and effects pedals sprawled around him, all patched into a controller – he’s even got a tape deck for handmade sound loops. Research about the painter told him that Regnault was enlisted in the French military during the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 just before his death, and spent time traveling in Morocco and Tangier. This painting dates to that time period, so in the mix with phasing ambient tones, Toussaint-Baptiste mixes in military rhythmic cadences with sound inspired by YouTube videos posted by present-day tourists in Morocco – tourists who, in 2018, are essentially filling the role Regnault played in 1871.
“I found this nice expansive video of two Berber men playing percussion in the desert in Morocco,” he says, “and part of the installation you’re hearing right now is a repetitive loop based on it.”
Loops are a big part of what he does, and once Toussaint-Baptiste triggers the piece on his laptop, it morphs and changes based on what he does with the controls – it’s not a piece he could ever play the same way twice.
“I come from a very improvisatory place,” he says. “Not necessarily in a sense of free improvisation or like free jazz, but I do not like to create something that is static. So working with loops, and restrictions sort of forces me into finding this richness in repetition and…the tension that comes with that.
Rubinos is down the hall, in Gallery 168, writing in the presence of Vasily Kandinsky’s Little Painting with Yellow (Improvisation). The abstract work from 1914 is a lively mix of colors and shape, with bright yellows and deep greens and warm reds dissolving into a spiral in the center of the painting. It looks like a whirlpool and it looks like a flower.
“I have just like a connection with Kandinsky’s works,” says Rubinos. “My father was an admirer of his, and one of the last times we ever went to a museum, it was to see the Kandinsky Show at the Guggenheim. He taught me about Kandinsky and how musical his pieces are, so every time I see one of his pieces, I think of him.”
Rubinos worked with two keyboards stacked alongside a laptop, and worked out ideas based on gospel and blues ideas, fused with lyrics a poem that Kandinsky composed for an opera. Asked about her own experience creating across mediums – in this case, writing music with visuals in mind – Rubinos says it’s not something she really does.
“When I first moved to New York, I used to do some shows of improvised music and a painter that would come with us and actually paint on stage like while we were playing,” she says. “It was kind of an interchange between us and painter, but I wouldn’t say I was composing based off of that.”
Rubinos admits she rarely thinks about visual ideas while writing music. “I have fun thinking about what I would do,” she says. “I have some ideas about short films or photo projects that I want to [pair with my music], but I wouldn’t say that part of my regular composition process. It’s really foreign to me to do something like this.”
By contrast, Suphala feels that for her and many musicians she works with, the process is very visual.
“When I’m thinking of a rhythmic pattern, for example, some visual is happening in my mind,” she says. “So they’re all linked to all of our senses when we’re making art of any sort.”
Toussaint-Baptiste often composes scores for dance and theatrical performances, something he considers among the visual media, and working that way comes naturally to him. “I’ve always started from a personal image or color or theory. I’ve never been able to compose from a place of thought,” he says. “The thought always has to be in relation to something or influenced by something, and I always try and work from a palace where I’m just composing around what I see versus trying to create a narrative that fits upon the work. So it was very important to work from what I’m seeing and what I know about this work historically, which I think is rich enough to guide me.”
King says not only does he often have visuals on his mind with songwriting, he is thrilled at the chance to work in an environment filled with visual stimuli. “It’s out of the studio,” he says. “It’s in a different atmosphere, you just get different inspiration.”
He can be loud, but not too loud – so there’s certain sound he chooses with the space in mind. And there are certain sounds he chooses because he wants to hear them in this space.
“I won’t pick heavy drums, if I even use drums, so the composition part of it is just a lot different,” he says.
Suphala experiences the same ting in the Pillared Temple Hall. “Generally, it’s not the ideal situation for acoustic instruments where you can control how the sound is going to go,” she says. “But we can adjust accordingly. So it’s good to know the sound of the space.”
Rubinos says the natural sound of the museum is a limit of the project, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. “If you wanted to record something acoustically that’s not reverbery, you can’t do that in this space,” she says. “So it’s a limit, but limitations are good.”
In that sense, Rubinos says the experience of working on Missed Guided Tour has been exciting, purely for getting her out of her comfort zone.
“These three days, I’ve been thinking about music completely in a completely different way,” she says. “I had not been thinking about music language as much until today, when I started writing the song. But the other days I was thinking about visual language, like shapes and textures. Just trying to not think about what I would normally think about when I’m writing. It was a really cool exercise, it kind of blew my mind.”
Toussaint-Baptiste says there’s something special about working in a museum environment and making noise of various sorts in a space where being loud is sometimes frowned upon. “For kids to come in here and recognize that ‘oh, you can make sound’,” he reflects. “I hope that there was some recognition, especially by kids of color that we can be in these spaces, doing these things. We can be loud in the museum, and have it be meaningful, and impactful.
“And, not for nothing, It’s just important to have brown kids seeing brown people making things in the museum,” he adds. “And that’s not to say that this is a conservative museum by any means, because it’s not, but I think it’s important to have those kids see brown and black faces doing things in the museum.”
King says that the idea of cultural perspective was an important one for him in doing this project, and he chose his collaborators with that in mind. He and Tourssaint-Baptiste are both African American men; Suphala is a woman of Indian heritage; Rubinos is a Latina woman.
“So these are voices that need to be represented in a kind of academic environment and also giving our point of view,” King says.
Toussaint-Baptiste also appreciates the disruptive element of the project – the idea of having instruments spread across the museum floor, speakers pointed in every direction, during open hours as visitors pass through. It’s rare, he says, “So I think that really speaks to the larger culture of this institution, and the city. I think there’s a certain joie de vive that you don’t see so much in New York, or elsewhere.
“It seems really simple to have three speakers and some guy set up making sound,” Toussaint-Baptiste continues, “But the National Gallery would never pull this. To their detriment. So I’m just really appreciative of the museum and the risks they’re taking.”
The Missed Guided Tour happens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art tonight, February 23th, beginning at 5:30 p.m.; performances in the Great Stair Hall begin at 7. The event is free with admission; more information on the event can be found here. Below, listen to a Spotify playlist compiled by the artists.
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