Pictures at a 21st Century Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky/Stuart Diamond/Don Slepian: Impressions of an Exhibition
Electric Diamond: Stuart Diamond (Electronic Wind Instrument, Videos), Don Slepian (Electronic keyboard)
S. Diamond, C. Slepian (© Courtesy of the artists)
Why did the extraordinary Modest Mussorgsky drink himself to death? Perhaps because nobody ever left his music alone. Every composer, major and minor, took his excellent work, to re-write, re-orchestrate, fragment, dissolve and resurrect his inspiration into their inspiration. Rimsky, Cui, Balakirev, Borodin and Shostakovich were amongst the few who felt he needed a little “brushing up”, or erasing his well-meaning but primitive work.
To which this admirer has to say, “Hah!”
And when it came to that singular, inimitable piano masterwork, Pictures at an Exhibition, everybody thought they could give it an extra flair by setting it to an orchestra. Maurice Ravel was the most famous, of course, but Stokowski, Henry Wood and some Finnish composer have tried their hands. A Japanese artist plays the whole piece (quite convincingly) on his guitar. Next month at the 92nd Street Y, Gidon Kremer will play his own arrangement for string orchestra.
And last night, at the Firehouse in Brooklyn, that supremely prodigious composer Stuart Diamond played Pictures on an EWI, standing for Electronic Wind Instrument, a complete computer wrapped up in an instrument resembling a bamboo clarinet. And the sounds are–thanks to various machinations of the performer–well, like every instrument ever invented, with a range from lowest bass tuba to highest piccolo, and presumably beyond that.
This was the EWI, used in jazz and pop, and one of Mr. Diamond’s choices for electronic music. He was not alone, though. His duo “Electric Diamond” was filled out by another polymath artist, Don Slepian, artist-engineer-in-residence at Bell Laboratories and the original ambient sound painter for “Music from the Hearts of Space”.
So on this snow-swept evening in arty Williamsburg, a good two-dozen fans of Electric Diamond (as well as the merely curious like this scribe) came in to hear an explanation of the goals and instruments, samples of their music (including the medieval Tristan and a Native American series. Electric Diamond has been around for several decades, but they are always evolving.
Re-doing Pictures at an Exibition with two instruments, though, even with a universe of sound never dreamt of by Ravel, would not be especially interesting by itself. True, Mr. Diamond’s EWI can imitate any solo instrument and Mr. Slepian’s electronic piano can imitate Mahler-sized orchestras and tiny triangles. Both tools can sample music and play it back with infinite variations, things which Mussorgsky, even in his booziest dreams, could never imagine.
Still, both in ear and brain, one knows that a synthesized violin is not a Strad. That Mr. Slepian’s piano in Pictures is not Horowitz (though by itself, his technique is faultless). Added to this is that both instruments did minor variations to the original, both in harmonies and notes. Neither of them left the picture gallery by any means, but their little diversions were also a wee bit jarring (or dis-concerting) for those of us who love the original.
From S.Diamond’s Catacombs/Finale
(© Courtesy of the artists/Samuel A. Dog)
What made this evening very special were the videos of the music, created by videographer Diamond in his studio. From the very beginning, the images were startling, moving, both gorgeous and grotesque.
Often they were abstract figures intercepting each other, plunging into a NASA-generated globe. Often they riffed from the literal (skulls for Catacombs, pictures of fruits and vegetables for Market at Limoges).
From S.Diamond’s Bydlo/Unhatched Chicks
(© Courtesy of the artists/Samuel A. Dog)
Mr. Diamond deftly played around with Marc Chagall for The Poor and Rich Jew, though I personally would prefer to see the levitated couples static in the air rather than actually flying. He used a background for Munch’s Scream, and he used African masks, he used wriggling sperm for the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. He also used–and this was rare–an actual watercolor by the genesis artist of the music, Viktor Hartmann.
I would have been severely discomfiting knowing that a black-and-white image of a boy was that of Hitler, but only found this in the ending credits. And some of the more garish colors resembled early Technicolor Disney Snow White-style cartoons. Yet this too was appropriate. Fairy tales are an integral part of every Russian composer’s repertory.
By the finish, the grand climax of the music, this amalgam of paintings, landscapes, yawning catacombs, giant wheels, and three-dimensional globes from far-off space presented both hallucination, reality and a commingling of both.
Doubts still exist about whether the music produced by Messrs Diamond and Slepian did justice to either the grandest piano score or the most sumptuous Ravel orchestration. And while no video can ever do justice to Mussorgsky’s glorious conception, the pictures created here can certainly be added to the monumental agglomeration inspired by the original monumental creation.