In House: Notes from Crier composers

In House challenged the Criers to take on a completely new project: find an inspiration in the Gardner Museum and write a piece! From scratch! Many drafts, workshops, and cups of coffee later, we're proud to present this program that relates and reacts to the extraordinary collection in a deeply personal way. Here are the notes that each Crier composer has chosen to share: 

 

Les Fleurs

Philibert Delavigne (1690-1750)

Curated by Jason Fisher

Inspiration: Isabella’s courtyard and the museum’s greenhouse

Bringing Isabella's colorful courtyard into Calderwood Hall, we will feature curious combinations of Criers in a peppering of eponymous duets from Philibert Delavigne's early 18-century work, Les Fleurs.

 

Glass Portal

Alex Fortes

Inspiration: The glass corridor connecting the museum’s New Wing and historic Palace

Walking through the glass corridor that connects the Renzo Piano–designed New Wing to the original structure provides glimpses within seconds of Persephone, queen of the underworld, looming over the courtyard, blooming flowers, the John Hancock Tower peeking over the grove arranged to give the glass corridor a semblance of nature, and the sleek postmodern staircase up to Calderwood Hall. This piece imagines traversing this corridor in emotional and subconscious space.

 

Books of Isabella

Zenas Hsu

Inspiration: Pages of Book of Hours (early 16th century), Moore’s A Book of Day-Dreams (1883), Lear’s A Book of Nonsense (1846), Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea (1906)

Isabella Gardner was more than an art appreciator and artifact collector. Her literary interests are evident from her collection of letters from the world's poets, musicians, and public figures, and books from different cultures and eras. The latter are indeed on display at the museum, many collected in bookshelves framing doorways, complimenting sublime paintings, and even hidden behind velvet curtains in the Long Gallery.

I wrote Books of Isabella in search of how a few of these works could have had a hand in shaping Isabella’s whimsy and view of the world. Pages of an illuminated 16th century book of hours reach back to a burgeoning middle class coveting these devotional books. Charles Leonard Moore’s Book of Day-Dreams (1883) collects earnestly written sonnets contemplating love, life, and spirituality.

The opening lines of one of Moore's sonnets: 

A voice! Is it a voice? A sense of ruth
Or joy too mighty to be understood,
The unintelligible cry of Truth,
O'erwhelms and drowns out every other mood;

Following that, limericks of non-sequitur and deflected punchlines are tossed around in A Book of Nonsense (1846) by champion of the limerick form, Edward Lear.

A limerick from Lear: 

There was an Old Man with an Owl, 
Who continued to bother and howl; 
He sat on a rail, and imbibed bitter ale,
Which refreshed that Old Man and his Owl.

The piece concludes in meditation and reflection, in The Book of Tea (1906), by Okakura Kakuzo.

Dear Isabella

Sarah Darling

Inspiration: Gentile Bellini’s Seated Scribe (1479-81)

The genesis of Dear Isabella came from an artwork I've enjoyed at the Gardner for most of my adult life; Gentile Bellini's Seated Scribe. In fact, I remember purchasing a postcard of this painting in high school, just to have it around; I was utterly taken with the look of intense, relaxed, concentration on the scribe's face. What was he writing? And why does writing create that meditative state? In creating this piece, those inquiries blended together with another fascination of mine: the trope, explored in a certain genre of martial arts movie, that calligraphy and swordsmanship are one and the same. I wanted to see if the bows of our instruments could do what swords and brushes did, and I wanted to re-create that special kind of concentration that writing produces. 

So, the musicians of A Far Cry are in a literal calligraphy lesson during the course of Dear Isabella; experimenting with what our bow-brushes are able to produce; we are actually tracing letters and other shapes on our instruments! We begin by getting familiar with the equipment, and then learn, together, how to write the first words of a letter to Isabella. At a certain point, each musician will then take that basic knowledge and write a brief personal message to her. It may sound like utter cacophony - the scratching of a dozen pens as we all write simultaneously - but I am optimistic that within it, that certain special concentration that I spied on the face of the seated scribe may also come to grace us for a moment or two.

 

PS 95

Megumi Lewis

Inspiration: 14th century choir book page in the museum’s chapel, two small Chinese frog sculptures, the feather in Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, Age 23 (1629)

This piece was inspired by 3 items in Isabella's collection: the feather in Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, Age 23 (1629), two small bronze Chinese bear sculptures, and a 15th century choir book page. The Rembrandt has always been incredibly moving for me. In this instance I was captivated by the parabolic shape of the feather in Rembrandt’s hat. It is an inviting shape, and one that has a beautiful sweeping motion. To me, this shape is echoed in the shape of the curve of the backs of the two bears. I am also intrigued by Isabella’s faith and her personal chapel, and as I thought about the shape, it felt like a voice reaching from darkness to light and vice versa, much the way that Rembrandt’s face and shoulder seem to be spotlighted, brought about by the fact that other parts of the painting are in shadow. This reaching feeling seems very vocal to me, and the most vocal piece I know of in the museum is the choir book page. This page seems to be waiting to be sung, but because it is in an old style of notation, people can’t actually sing it as they walk by. Many thanks go to Brother Matthew, who helped to translate both the words and the notation from this page. The middle stanza on the page is the Antiphon, what is sung right before the reading, for Psalm 95, which contains the verse "In whose hand are the depths of the earth, the peaks of the mountains are His also." Sweeping from the depths to the peaks has the same motion and reaching sensation that moved me in the Rembrandt and the bears.

 

Castles

Karl Doty

Inspiration: Dodge Macknight's Towering Castles, Grand Canyon (1914)

There's something special about bringing together elements of history with elements of something new. When I was a child, we went through several summers of heading out west as a family - to the Badlands, Yellowstone, Glacier, Black Hills. There's an element of the American west that sparks this sense of wonder even when it's a place we've been to many times. In a collection as refined as Isabella's to still come across a painting like Dodge Macknight's Towering Castles, Grand Canyon (1914) put a smile on my face. 

I wrote this tune after traveling to my home state of Minnesota for the first time with my son Pekka after his birth.

 

Empty Frames

Evan Premo

Inspiration: Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert

Empty Frames contains two musical responses to paintings stolen in 1990 from The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.  The music represents not only the paintings themselves but also their eery absence.  It is almost as if we're not seeing the paintings but remembering them.   

In the first movement, after Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, we are dropped into the story of Mark 4:37-41 moments before the scene Rembrandt captured. The narrative of the music moves through Rembrandt's scene with the sun breaking through the storm clouds untill after Jesus commands the sea: "Peace. Be Still." Twice during the movement this narrative is interrupted so the listener is left alone in the museum's Dutch Room standing before an empty frame.

The second movement is inspired by Vermeer's intimate musical scene entitled The Concert. As its source material, the movement uses a song by Dutch composer Constantijn Huygens, a contemporary of Vermeer. We can imagine hearing the subjects in the painting realize this melody. This, however, is haunted by an unsettling simple motive in a foreign key representing the absence of the painting from its home in front of Ms. Gardener's desk.

 

Sargent’s Gypsy Dance

Annie Rabbat

Inspiration: John Singer Sargeant’s El Jaleo (1882)

I remember the first time I entered the Gardner Museum, when one of the first things I saw was John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo. It was so striking and lively, and reminded me strongly of trips to Spain in my early twenties. When selecting a source of inspiration from the museum, for me the choice was a no-brainer. 

In honor of John Singer Sargent's beautiful canvas, Sargent's Gypsy Dance begins with a mysterious recitative-style solo in the double bass, which carries into a response in the solo viola. These opening phrases usher in the main dance theme: quiet yet brooding and charged in its minor key and 3/4 time, presented first by the cellos with viola counterpoint. The violins take up the dance in its second verse before introducing a more light-hearted dance, a playful scherzo section where nimble 16th notes pass around the orchestra. After all the scurrying and bustle comes a tranquil, spacious, balletic tune with ornamental violin flourishes, which leads back into the original dance theme. As the dance picks up steam, the lower strings of the orchestra imitate Spanish guitars. The dance whirls faster and faster until it comes to a sudden halt, where brief recollections of the opening return before one final dancing flourish.