Discovering an immersive art installation

Monday, July 13, 2015

An immersive interdisciplinary installation

Catherine Wagner, Artist
Thomas Kelley, Architect
Eric Nathan, Composer
Loretta Gargan, Landscape Architect

From the premiere installation of LUMEN for "Cinque Mostre: Time and Again” at the American Academy in Rome
On Saturday, July 11, 2015, Yellow Barn presented Eric Nathan's Omaggio a Gesualdo, preceded by the musical element from LUMEN. Following the performance Yellow Barn installed LUMEN in its entirety at the Brooks House in Downtown Brattleboro (see map), where it will be on view until July 26. This is its first installation since appearing at the American Academy in Rome last year. Visitors are welcome between the hours of 9am and 9pm, Monday-Saturday.
LISTEN below to a recording of LUMEN/Omaggio from the July 11th performance.
The following essay is reprinted from the catalog accompanying the exhibition “Cinque Mostre: Time and Again” at the American Academy in Rome, January 30, 2014 – March 2, 2014.

On March 19, 2013 Pope Francis was inaugurated as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, signaling a crucial break from the weight of the past and an eye for a hopeful future. His first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), disseminated throughout the Catholic world, is infused with the overwhelming potential for humans to flourish during timorous times. He states with a modicum of severity, “[I]n the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.”[1]

Inspired by the new Pope’s affinity for light as a metaphor for change, LUMEN aims to abstract and re-contextualize an act of spiritual contemplation. Driven by a secular regard for the Pope’s palpable sense of hope, renewal, and greater acceptance of outsiders, the installation sited in the Cryptoporticus at the American Academy in Rome incorporates a minimalist redesign of the pew, a long bench with a prayer stand typically used in a church for seating a collective. As a multimedia installation, the rows of white pews are planted with beds of thyme that invite the viewer to participate in an multisensory installation.  These multiple elements are coupled with a musical score choreographed to play in dialogue with the projection of shifting light.

Upon entering the Cryptoporticus the procession begins. The white of the painted brick walls establishes a visual corridor remnant of a single-point perspective.  The rows of sleek white pews, topped with thyme, glow and enliven the space to create a conversation between two and three dimensions. Looking further, the viewer’s eyes track a video of moving light as sound initiates the immersive experience. Each element of LUMEN functions individually and as part of the larger whole. Like the congregation of persons who come together to bear witness at an event, the parts sing as a group.

The minimalist design of the pew recalls the monumental shift in art, philosophy, and consciousness exemplified by modernist artists such as Donald Judd. The original design placed emphasis on several factors that include posture, close attention, and orientation towards an object-relic. Taking a utilitarian approach to form and finish, the redesigned pew’s standard elements are at once familiar and not. The traditional time worn wood of the bench that is etched in our collective memory is now given over to a pure white lacquer finish that transcends the patina of time and brings the sculpture into a contemporary context. Form and function establish the objecthood of this elegant icon, while the remembrance sparked by familiarity initiates connection to inner spirituality. While the pew remains iconic in scale and orientation, it no longer demands the observer to acknowledge any singular belief, but rather commences a new and open contemplation.

To deepen the experience, the prayer stand of the pew has been replaced with a thyme garden that initiates the first act of the immersive environment: smell. As memory is most deeply recalled through the olfactory sense, the scent of this herb is one that transcends time. As Marina Heilmeyer, author of Ancient Herbs, recounts, “What truly mattered in antiquity, however, was the scent of thyme rising from altars to please the gods. The intensity of this aroma, heightened by burning, may also account for its name, because the Greek word thymon refers not only to this plant but also to heart, flame, vital energy, passion, and smoke.”[2]

The video is a six-minute meditative loop of gradually shiftng light. The camera remains absolutely motionless as a slight, illuminated line maps where two walls meet. It comes together; it separates; it vanishes only to reappear anew. The ceiling of the room can be seen as an almost-black joint forming a room that appears to be at once approaching and receding. The slightest shift of magnitude in the band of light throws the room jumping between shades of gray. As this band moves back and forth, the grays of the walls seem to react in their own volition, flowing between deep, cool and light hues. The pacing is hypnotic on a level akin to watching the sun rise or set; one cannot look away. Like that ritual of the constancy of the Earth’s rotation, we are reminded of the permanence of light. In the last seconds, as the source of illumination closes with comparative rapidity, something unexpected happens in the wake of the receding light: the room begins to brighten. The deep shadows that were cast in the wake of the blast of light soften and give way to a glow as the last hint of brightness flits in a line.

The accompanying composition brings to the installation a haunting suite of strings and ambient shifts that aims to invite the viewer to become a participatory member engaged through mind and spirit. Listening to the light slide back and forth is at once both calming and exhilarating—sitting through multiple loop-cycles, one cannot help but create narratives guided by mystery and change. The unknown is presented, explored, and left for perpetual contemplation by the viewer.

LUMEN presents an invitation: to share in a space that transcends history and physicality. The vast experiential differences between this installation and the rites it draws upon are left to the participant. The interaction between the viewer and the installation begs contemplation without the imposition of a specified authority. Through an interdisciplinary approach to installation, LUMEN revaluates contemporary spirituality in the production of culture.

—Peter Cochrane


[2] Marina Heilmeyer from Ancient Herbs. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007.

Yellow Barn Wall Programs

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Wall programs have been a tradition since the first Yellow Barn concerts, when programs were not printed but rather posted on the wall for all to see. In 1998, artists Bill Kelly and Michele Burgess transformed wall programs into works of art, inviting musicians, staff members, and Yellow Barn family members to create hundreds of wall programs over the ensuing decades.

Michele and I have been making wall programs with Yellow Barn for 17 years. We have watched musicians grow wiser, more finely tuned. We have made posters with their children who have grown up to be amazing young people. In other words, there is a history here. The musical discoveries and visual ones are never ending. Wall programs have stretched my work—some have turned into paintings. Some have been torn up in disgust—a parallel to consider. There have been performances I still play in my head. There have been many things I will never forget. Artists live by their prior convictions. History is such a funny thing. In the bigger picture are all the little gestures, the moves, so to speak. Yellow Barn is seriously one of the most profound things we have been involved in.

—Bill Kelly

Improvisation for all

Friday, June 19, 2015

David Weininger writes about Battle Trance's performance for The Boston Globe:

Travis Laplante was 10 when he made what would turn out to be one of the most important decisions of his life. He was a fourth-grader in Woodstock, Vt., and it was time to choose an instrument to play in the school band. He didn’t know what he wanted to play, though he’d thought about the drums since that was obviously the coolest option. So he asked his mother — not, as far as he knew, a terribly musical person.

“I remember her looking at me in the eyes and saying, ‘You know, Travis, I just really love the saxophone,’ ” Laplante says in a phone conversation. “There was something about that — I can’t really talk about it in terms of logic, but I said, OK, Mom, I’m going to play the saxophone.”

It turned out to be an auspicious choice, since Laplante, 32, has built a career as a tenor saxophonist whose musical acuity encompasses both avant-garde classical compositions and free jazz. Yet he seems to move forward, open up new projects, less by conscious choice than by a kind of intuition — almost as if someone else were making the decision through him.

Take the formation of Battle Trance, the saxophone quartet that will be performing at the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Brattleboro on Friday. Late in 2012, Laplante was working a part-time job when he had what he calls “this very strong feeling” that he had to form a band with three other tenor players: Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner.

A quartet of tenor saxophonists would be unusual enough, but for Laplante it wasn’t about the specific instrumentation — it was those three people. This despite the fact that while he “sort of” knew Breiner from New School University, which they had both attended, he had met the other two only in passing. He had no idea what they were like or what their musical proclivities were. But they were, unquestionably, the guys for the band.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Laplante says, laughing, when the basic outlines of this unlikely scenario are repeated back to him. Even he didn’t seem to quite believe it. “There was a side of me that was like, You’ve got to be kidding me – a quartet of tenor saxophones? I’d never thought of that before. It was quite . . . unusual.”

But when he tracked down the other three by e-mail and told them what he wanted to do, they all responded quickly and affirmatively. When they first got together, Laplante didn’t have any music written, nor did he even know precisely what he wanted the band to do.

“I just wanted to get everyone in the room and see what would happen,” he says. “And we ended up mostly talking, getting to know each other, but in a very intimate, vulnerable way where I wanted to express to them what matters to me, in life and in music, and to just have an open conversation to make sure that that resonance, that feeling I had at work, was really true.”

That rehearsal ended with the four of them holding a unison B-flat, the lowest note on the instrument, “for I don’t know how long. A half-hour, maybe 45 minutes. Just to really be together, in sound.” Not long after that, Laplante began writing “Palace of Wind,” the 45-minute work that pretty much forms the entirety of Battle Trance’s repertoire.

Or, as he puts it, “the piece started writing itself.” Almost nothing was written down; Laplante transmitted the music orally to the other three musicians, who memorized it. (A notated score was prepared later.) It was, Laplante says, “the most effortless process I’ve had writing music. . . . It felt like we were on completely fertile ground, and that there was this freshness, or this innocence, to almost everything we were playing.”

“Effortless” is not the word that comes to mind when listening to “Palace of Wind.” The work’s technical and expressive range is astounding: eerie chords with multiphonics, driving repeated notes, screaming melodic lines, and gripping moments of calm. The waves of sound are relentless, as there are almost no breaks in the piece even for the saxophonists to grab a breath; they use a technique known as circular breathing to sustain the piece over its duration.

It may sound forbidding, but when “Palace of Wind” was released last year on the New Amsterdam label, it won a host of plaudits, including mentions for best album of the year. One of the most insightful reviews came from Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller, who wrote about the disc for the music website The Talkhouse ( “[T]his is Battle Trance’s first album and they are definitely onto something. . . . There is so much energy here. The newness of ‘Palace of Wind’ lies in the order and structure that contains that energy, and allows it to burst forth into your mind’s sky.”

In addition to performing “Palace of Wind,” Battle Trance will also work with musicians in Yellow Barn’s Young Artists Program on improvisation. It’s tempting to view this as a different side of Laplante’s artistic persona, one that runs through free jazz and the later John Coltrane records he devoured as a teenager. “But the fact is, I believe that everyone is born an improviser,” he says. “That’s something that as we go along in life sometimes gets a little bit closed off.” Part of what he wants to do with the students is “to relieve a certain fear that seems to have been instilled upon many classically trained musicians,” who view improvisation as foreign ground.

“A lot of it is equally about unlearning certain things,” he continues. “Like right now, as a musician, I feel like I have to unlearn as many things as I have to learn — actually undo particular conditioning and habits that I have, particular patterns of my mind, when improvising or playing music in general. So I’m hoping that some of that can be passed on — that it’s actually possible to play your dream. That is possible.”

Palace of Wind

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Since many of the techniques used in Palace of Wind are nearly impossible to notate in traditional form, the piece was transmitted via oral tradition. The rehearsals were much like martial arts training: intricate sounds were rigorously copied and repeated by the ensemble members until they perfected the techniques. Many hours were spent building the sheer strength required to sustain continuous circular breathing for extended periods. Likewise, a steady focus on physicality was required to repeat rapid note patterns for long periods without sacrificing speed. Palace of Wind is such a demanding composition that there is a high risk of physically burning out before the piece concludes, as once it begins there is no opportunity for rest or even a quick drink of water. There was also extensive training in dissolving the distinct individual identities of the players into the greater collective sound: The band did various long-tone exercises, similar to group meditation, the purpose being to blend together into one sound, so that the origin of the collective sound's components is completely impossible to discern - even by the members of the ensemble.

Palace of Wind does embrace both the cerebral nature of composition and the visceral act of performance, but immediately locates itself, the musicians, and the audience in a purely spiritual space. It is a new kind of music and therefore modern, and yet it's absolutely primordial, the transformative act of human beings blowing air through tubes and producing something timeless.

"Mesmerizing...a floating tapestry of fascinating textures made up of tiny musical motifs, and a music that throbs with tension between stillness and agitation, density and light."—The New York Times

Read a conversation with Travis Laplante

Find out what others are saying about Battle Trance and Palace of Wind at Travis Laplante's website

O Moon of Alabama: A Kurt Weill Cabaret

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Actor and creator Walter Van Dyk speaks about the work he will do at Yellow Barn during an Artist Residency this May:

The idea really started way back in 1980 when I saw Alvin Epstein and Martha Schlamme perform Kurt Weill together at the Loeb Drama Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alvin had just directed me in the American Repertory Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and I also stayed on to do Brecht and Weill's  Happy End in the same season. It took about 10 years before I decided to put my own compilation show of Weill's songs together, and it kicked off a relationship with performing Weill songs over the past 20 years. 

Originally the Kurt Weill Cabaret which I devised was with a pianist and three other actor/singers, and the first performance took place on the London fringe in a suitably grotty pub theatre. We received such excellent notices by the London press that we ended up being asked to perform it by David Thacker at the Young Vic and taking it to Amsterdam for a three week run at the Stadsschouwburg.

After we disbanded, I met Liza Sadovy when we performed a German cabaret together called Send for Mr. Plim by Mischa Spoliansky (a contemporary of Kurt Weill's). At the time, I had said to Liza that I wanted to revive the Kurt Weill, and would she be interested in joining me as a duo. To my delight, she accepted and we ended up performing it in the West End, and also most recently in the UK at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Every time Liza and I come back to the show, we enjoy discovering new layers. As we've always performed the evening with just a pianist, we were completely thrilled at Seth Knopp's suggestion of doing this compilation show of Kurt Weill songs with a full ensemble comprising nine Yellow Barn musicians. Michael Haslam, our pianist and collaborator over the years, is currently making arrangements of all the songs specifically for this ensemble of musicians. We are all extremely excited at the prospect of mounting this performance of O Moon of Alabama: A Kurt Weill Cabaret in the United States, first in Putney and then in Dallas. We hope that as many people will come from miles around to celebrate and appreciate these stunning songs by one of the truly great cabaret composers, Kurt Weill.

Find out more about this residency performance

Song list:

Overture to The Threepenny Opera
Mack The Knife from Threepenny Opera
Barbara Song from Threepenny Opera
Liebeslied from Threepenny Opera
Tango Ballad Threepenny Opera
Alabama Song from The Rise and Fall of the House of Mahagonny
Herr Jacob Schmidt from Mahagonny
Pirate Jenny from Threepenny Opera
My Ship from Lady in the Dark
September Song from Knickerbocker Holiday
That's Him from One Touch of Venus
Tchaikovsky from  Lady in the Dark
Moon Faced—Starry Eyed from Street Scene
Surabaya Johnny from Happy End
Lonely House from Street Scene
Sailor's Tango from Happy End
Bilbau Song from Happy End


From Vermont and Baltimore, to Dallas

Sunday, February 1, 2015

This month FD, the lifestyle magazine of the Dallas Morning News, profiles Yellow Barn's Artistic Director, Seth Knopp, who also serves as Artistic Director of Soundings: New Music at the Nasher. Now in its fifth season, Soundings is the cornerstone of an ongoing collaboration between the Nasher and Yellow Barn.

If you put together the words serious music and Dallas, the first things you may think of are the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in the acoustically perfect Meyerson, or the Dallas Opera in the lipstick-red Winspear.

Try to think a little differently.

You can be in the Arts District and skirt the glamour of the big venues and their more traditional programming. Seth Knopp, of the chamber music and piano faculties of the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and of the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Putney, Vermont, is a pianist. He is also a distinctly un-Dallas-like fellow. Soulful, Jewish, intellectual: He’d be more at home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side or in Brooklyn than in Dallas’ glitz. But since 2010, Knopp has been the man behind the most innovative, quirky music series in this city. Soundings: New Music at the Nasher blends the tried and true with the avant-garde — and it continues to play to packed houses. In November, the superb young cellist Alisa Weilerstein played solo works by Bach and then 20th-century masters. This month, and in April and May, “Music From Yellow Barn” will involve percussion and string quartets, the harmonious and the dissonant.

Knopp, 55, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, a math professor, was besotted with music; his mother was an amateur pianist. He studied with the master pianists Leonard Shure and Leon Fleisher and, while in Philadelphia, played classical cocktail piano at a restaurant near the University of Pennsylvania campus. By 1987 he was ensconced in Baltimore; in 1998 he took over Yellow Barn. The center for chamber-music study and concerts was founded in 1969, and now hosts more than 4,000 people who come to hear more than 100 musicians yearly. Just last month, Yellow Barn was presented a prestigious honor, for the second time, with a telling name: the Adventurous Programming Award from Chamber Music America and the American Society of Composers and Publishers. All this — plus classes, studios, workshops and residencies — amid 100 rolling, idyllic acres in southeastern Vermont. (Yellow Barn’s eight studios are there on the campus of the Greenwood School, for boys with dyslexia and other learning differences. It also makes use of the Big Barn performance space, in downtown Putney, just three miles away.) Knopp is Yellow Barn’s artistic director.

He certainly obsesses over music. “One reason to do [it],” Knopp says, “is to understand life better and to bring you in touch with other people. But it’s also a fact that music is a window to the world.” That missionary zeal is part of what brought Knopp together with Jeremy Strick, the director of the Nasher Sculpture Center. Yellow Barn and Nasher patrons Charles and Jessie Price — the music supporters keep a low philanthropic profile in Dallas, very much off the radar — made the connection. “I indicated,” says Strick, “that we needed a brilliant programmer to organize” a new-music program. “Charles suggested Seth, whom he’d met years earlier when Seth performed in a concert at the Nasher.” When Soundings began, both Strick and Knopp had no idea whether people would come. Now, the 200-seat Nasher auditorium, about the size of Yellow Barn’s main Big Barn performance space, is usually sold out for each program, well in advance. The concerts, says Strick, “engage and challenge audiences in [the Nasher’s] intimate space — something Dallas is clearly eager to experience.” No matter where it’s heard, Knopp is building audiences and making people realize there is no reason to fear new music. In fact, he doesn’t think about his programs geographically: His only goal is that the performers and their audiences “lose themselves in their listening.” He says he loves the Texas openness about collaborations between groups, the cross-pollination that comes out of — and then feeds back into — a sense of community. A different kind of community is, of course, the very essence of the chamber works and other small groupings that the Nasher presents, nothing so large as a full-scale orchestral program. For Knopp, acutely alert to the transcendent power of music, the greatest pleasure comes in these small groups. What he likes best is working with singers, and in May he will collaborate with the soprano Lucy Shelton in a performance of Arnold Schönberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, on a program that will also include theater and cabaret songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.

Yet for all the public aspects of music and music-making, Knopp remains, like many performers, instinctively private. For the public, he relishes performing Beethoven — but in the solitude of his own room, it’s Bach and Chopin. He performs and has teaching residencies all over: Toronto, Austin, Chicago and Washington state have been recent stops. At home in Baltimore, he administers, creates programs and works with chamber ensembles and pianists at Peabody. I ask how long he can go without practicing, especially when he’s on the road. Three days without playing for himself, he says, induces twitchiness. “Practicing becomes a home. It’s not a chore. It’s where you find yourself. When I’m at the piano, I know that’s where I’m meant to be.”

By Willard Spiegelman