Brancusi's Studio

A Composer's Travel Journal (4)

- Brancusi's Studio -

I usually work at a table in my small kitchen. I also have a room with a large desk and my instruments (a kayageum, a komungo, an ajaeng, a changgo, and a piano) and many books and recordings. I rarely work in this room though and, when I do, I work on the floor, not at the desk. When it rains, I work in the solarium. I like the sound of the rain on the glass ceiling. These three rooms are connected by two doors.

The Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi, had a four-room studio in Paris. These rooms were filled with his sculptures, which integrated a variety of subjects with a few basic shapes: oval, sphere, column. He made platforms for his sculptures to rest on and placed them in front of large monochromatic canvases that he’d painted. The rooms also contained tools hanging on the walls and objects used in everyday life: a walking stick, a guitar, photographs, a set of golf clubs.

For my piece "Brancusi’s Studio", I made a translation into music of the arrangement of objects in his studio (the studio has been preserved near the Pompidou Center in Paris). I wanted to write a piece that could be played and listened to in the same way that you might walk through the rooms, encountering sculptures and objects unexpectedly. You would notice how the juxtaposition of objects varied depending on where you stood. I even tried to include some music for the air and space itself within the studio.

Nobody knows exactly what this piece will sound like until each time it is played. There is a melody that continues throughout the piece that any one of the seven musicians can play when they want to. Although I wrote parts for seven musicians in addition to the ongoing melody, only six of these parts – possibly a different combination for each performance - will be played at any one time. There is no break between the tuning of the instruments and the beginning of the piece. Any one of the players can begin playing the written music when they are finished tuning. The rest join as they become ready. So the piece begins without any division between “everyday” time and “performance” time. Even I don’t know exactly what the music will sound like before it is played. Tomorrow I’ll go to Sacramento to attend rehearsals and the first performance of the piece by Music Now, the group that commissioned the work.

At rehearsals, the players inevitably ask many questions. When a piece like "Brancusi’s Studio" is being rehearsed, instead of answering their questions, telling them exactly what to do, I try to help them understand the situation and the possibilities of their part in this particular piece. I know that, with classical musicians who are used to playing exactly what they see on the page in front of them, co-ordinating precisely with the beat of the conductor, it's best for me to attempt to put them in the right frame of mind to listen to sounds they've not heard before and to play differently from the way they played in the last rehearsal. Brancusi himself said that, it’s not the work that is so difficult, but rather keeping oneself in condition to do it.

Much can happen in a rehearsal. Many minds are working at the same time, each differently. Things can be misunderstood. A musician listens attentively to the music and something new happens, things are seen differently. Best of all, when the music allows, we hear something we didn't expect, and are surprised. Then we might begin to understand the possibility of Brancusi’s words: Once rid of the religion and philosophies, art is the one thing that can save the world. Art is the plank after the shipwreck, that saves someone.
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