Musicians venture into Wriston galleries

Sonia Emmonsa

For one hour the evening of Sat., May 12, the Wriston Art Center Galleries were transformed into an intimate concert hall for the revealing of Dis/Illusions.
A unique collaboration between the Department of Art and Art History and the Conservatory of Music, Dis/Illusions combined a live performance of Franz Schubert’s “Schwanengesang” song cycle with digital videos inspired by the songs.
The 11 songs in the posthumous collection of Schubert’s last works were performed by Assistant Professor of Music John T. Gates, bass, and Linda Sparks, piano.
Professor Rich Frielund of the Department of Theatre Arts also contributed to the project. The videos were created by the students of ART 340 Digital Processes, taught by professors Julie Lindemann and John Shimon.
Lindemann explained that the artists wanted “to stage the show in the context of an art gallery, with the elements of a live performance.” To create this effect, the videos were projected onto a fabric screen, behind which Gates sat at a stark wooden table in a white undershirt.
Throughout the performance, the richly voiced singer moved around behind the screen, switching a single bulb on and off to effect varying levels of transparency of the screen.
At times he was seated and fully visible. Other times, the audience saw only the impression of his hands pushing against an opaque screen, as though he were trapped inside the bleak landscapes captured in the videos.
Many of the videos depicted water and other natural scenes. Three videos featured Gates in an undershirt identical to the one he sported behind the screen.
Gates had the idea for a collaborative art-music project last April. He cited his interest in the way that “images affect music and music affects images.” He was inspired by 13 years of opera performance in Germany, where much of the music was new and experimental.
The art students spent no more than a month brainstorming and creating their videos.
Gates chose to perform Schubert’s “Schwanengesang” song cycle because it has many ties to Romantic dualism, the abstract idea that two contrasting realms of reality exist alongside each other, such as sorrow and happiness, or darkness and light.
Gates tried to impart this idea to the students who were creating the videos, and he was pleased with the outcome.
“The students caught the sense of the songs,” he said. “The videos reflect a psychological state of being that lies at the core of the songs.”
A number of them contained elements of the absurd.
One such video, created by junior Kat Kaegy, was inspired by the cycle’s penultimate song “Der Doppelg„nger,” a German word that refers to a person’s ghostly double.
In the video, Gates sits at the wooden table, with the same lamp, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt over his undershirt. As he aggressively washes his face in a bowl of water, the real Gates, now also hooded, walked out singing from behind the screen, his face covered in a dripping white paste. He walked up to the screen and proceeded to sing to his own image.
The question the viewer must ask is, “What if the man seen on the screen is the real Gates, and the man singing in front is actually the doppelg„nger?”
The project’s title, Dis/Illusions, has similarly mind-bending properties. As Gates explained, “Disillusions are like revelations. You become disillusioned as a result of losing an illusion. It is really the same as a revelation, in the sense that something is revealed to you. Yet ‘disillusioned’ has a negative connotation, while a ‘revelation’ is a good thing.”
He continued, “It is truly a philosophical question, because it implies that we live in a false world, and that perhaps there is something better out there.” The songs and videos of Dis/Illusions all explored this idea, along with its connections to Romantic dualism.
For the last song, Gates remained in front of the screen, mimicking the motions of a traditional Japanese dancer shown on the screen. The video’s creator, senior Cline Vaaler, found it remarkable “how well the woman’s motions were in time with the music of ‘Die Taubenpost.'”
Vaaler compared the collaborative project to the parallel motions of the singer and dancer. “Things move fluidly between music and visual art. Once the two art worlds meet, it just works.”
Senior Emily Saltzman, who used the Mac’s iMovie program to change the color and distort the image in her video, also enjoyed the interdisciplinary collaboration.
She reflected, “It’s difficult because you have put together something that pleases both the artists and the musicians. You have to impress two professors!”
Dis/Illusions beautifully revealed the strong connections between music and visual images. Professors and students are all hoping for the creation of a similar class that blends the two. Perhaps then the College Avenue divide might function more like the bridge that it really is.