Music in Circles

On November 18, during their Sunday Concert at the PhillipsTrio Zadig performed a program of piano trio works by Maurice Ravel, Benjamin Attahir, and Leonard Bernstein (arranged by Bruno Fontaine). Director of Music Jeremy Ney reflects on Asfar by Benjamin Attahir, composed in 2016 and given its DC premiere at The Phillips Collection.


The 29-year-old French-Lebanese composer Benjamin Attahir trained in composition at the Paris Conservatory under teachers Marc-André Dalbavie and Gérard Pesson. His music received early support from the late Pierre Boulez, whose encouragement was formative to the composer’s development. Attahir’s already mature compositional voice does not, however, fit within a neat continuum of the generation of French composers after Boulez whose music is so closely embedded within the technological high-modernism and experimentalism of IRCAM (the musical research institution Boulez founded in Paris in 1977). Rather, Attahir’s music is more fluid, exploring the Middle Eastern influences of his own heritage, a broad tableau of French music old and new, and gestures toward 20th-century Russian neoclassicism. Impossible to pin down precisely, Attahir’s sound world is hybrid and elusive, interwoven with influences yet never divisible into discrete categorization. His diverse musical imagination has been championed by figures such as Daniel Barenboim, who premiered the composer’s 30-minute orchestral work, Al Fair, in September 2017 during a concert that marked the opening of the Pierre Boulez-Saal in Berlin.

Asfar for piano trio is emblematic of Attahir’s inventive collage-like approach to composition. It begins forcefully with an unsparing separation of the ensemble; powerful chords in the piano are set against coarse unison string statements. These two sonic densities—one percussive, one melodic—seem to be locked in a struggle to find a common voice.  Attahir sustains a hard-edged, jagged quality to the opening of the piece, which never falters in its consistent, driving pulse. A two-note melody, traded between instruments, tries to sustain a singing quality above an unsettling ostinato. Yet this fragment—barely melodic at all—cannot find a foothold within the relentless march of rhythmic intensity. A sudden stream of notes (repeated at octave intervals) moves down and then up the piano’s register, seemingly indicating a new direction. Yet it gets stuck, circling in on itself in a musical short-circuit. Attahir then creates an even wider closed loop, shocking the piece back to its origins in an unrelenting Attacca statement of the opening material.

The perpetuum mobile nature of Asfar then begins to fragment further, its rhythms becoming taut and constricted, with silence as well as sound beginning to mark the work’s sense of inner struggle. The episodic nature continues toward a central section that becomes more hushed and subdued, with flashes of what sounds like melodies inflected by Middle Eastern tonality. But what are they? Attahir’s gestures are so ambiguous and subversive that they resit being deciphered. The piece seems to conceal itself within a dense web of different ideas and motifs, each one vying for significance. The whole effect feels like a vast constellation of scattered memories, layering on top of each other in an aural palimpsest.

Attahir briefly draws the music toward a barely audible whisper, with the piano’s bass timbre flooded with the dark hue of reverberant harmonics. Drawing downward appears to bring us closer in, away from the shock and awe toward something more intimate, fragile, and revealing. Yet it proves merely a conceit as the inevitable, obliterating effect of the opening material returns. Bringing the piece to its close, Attahir toys with a final four note theme, which loops and eddies like a child scribbling circles on a page, or (perhaps) spirals around itself with the gestural ductus of artist Cy Twombly’s famous red Bacchus paintings.

Cy Twombly (1928-2011), Untitled, 2005. 128 x 194½ in (325.1 x 494 cm). This work was offered in the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York.

Cy Twombly (1928-2011), Untitled, 2005, 128 x 194 ½ in. This work was offered in the Postwar & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on November 15, 2017, at Christie’s in New York.

—Jeremy Ney, Director of Music at The Phillips Collection

Listening to The Dandy

We appear to know what we see in Nils Dardel’s 1918 painting The Dying Dandy: an impeccable and cultivated young man in the throes of an apparent death, albeit an indulgent and luxuriously choreographed one. It must be death, for the Dandy—the very epitome of vanity and frivolity—to be unable to gaze upon his own self-image is an aesthetic negation. The mirror is the Dandy’s portal to the sublime—as Baudelaire writes, he must “live and sleep” before it. An opulent death is thus the only way; adorned in silk and fastidiously dressed, death is the final act of performance, a means to preserve one’s image and reputation, without any of the vulgarity of the act itself. There is an irony to Dardel’s Dandyism too: an artist who flirted with Cubism and Surrealism and steeped himself in the ferment of the Parisian avant-garde. Do we read the painting biographically, as a symbolic snapshot in time of his own ill-health? Or is it less literal and more detached—a metaphor for Romantic individualism or a cipher for the artist’s dislocation from society? The rich, idle, indolent fakery of Dandyism? Or the witty, bohemian aesthetic of Wilde? Dardel seems to play with the paradox, rendering a series of possible meanings. Why not—it is art after all—not life.

A contemporary of Dardel’s who similarly toyed with the fluid concepts of Dandyism was Erik Satie, whose Three Distinguished Waltzes of a Jaded Dandy, composed in 1914, was performed at The Phillips Collection during a Sunday Concert on October 21 by pianist Pedja Mužijević. Satie’s three waltzes are miniatures: little perfume bottles and buttonholes of music, titled “His Waist,”“His Spectacles,” and “His Legs.” To accompany each piece, Satie contributes absurd inscriptions: “He pays himself a nicely fitting compliment.” “A great sadness comes over our friend: he has lost the case for his spectacles!” “They’re nice straight legs…He wants to carry them under his arms.” The music seems to have everything and nothing to do with Dandyism; Satie approaches his supposed subject with the blasé attitude of a humorist, creating the bait of meaning through allusion but simultaneously withdrawing it through a surrealist’s sleight of hand. How can the music itself convey such specificity? Satie mocks the very idea. The irony is Wildean then in its sly and impish conceit, “jaded” about the very idea of music as anything other than the embodiment of itself. Satie’s Waltzes are very much like Dardel’s extravagant Dandy then, obsessed with the very purity of their own characteristics, stubbornly refusing to be reduced to words or to one single meaning.

Jeremy Ney, Director of Music at The Phillips Collection

Listen to Pedja Mužijević perform Satie’s Three Distinguished Waltzes of a Jaded Dandy:

And see The Dying Dandy at The Phillips Collection in Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018 through January 13.

Seeing Red: Color, Form, and Sensory Experiences in the Music Room

Music Room at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Duncan Phillips believed fervently in the intimate relationship between music and the visual arts. The Music Room has always been a unique gallery where this juxtaposition literally plays out during our Sunday Concerts series: melodies reverberating off the wood-paneled walls, the room packed with chairs, light filtering in through the windows, and an audience witness to this beautiful intersection of music and art. Frequently, artists well known in the museum’s collection, such as Milton Avery, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, John Marin, and Augustus Vincent Tack graced the walls.

With this inaugural installation after the re-opening of the original house galleries, the curatorial team saw an opportunity to change things up and feature some more recent acquisitions alongside old(er) favorites. The color red emerged as a guiding theme, allowing us to create some interesting conversations about color, form, and narrative between modern and contemporary art.

Joseph Marioni’s Crimson Painting, with its highly-saturated, monochromatic, luminous surface, conveys sensation over information and is narrative-free, focusing solely on the exploration and advancement of color and light, or as he says, “the liquid light.” Viewing the painting is a sensory experience. The color red, at its most intense and pure, appears to almost drip off the canvas onto the walls. Much like the live music played in the room during concerts, Marioni’s “liquid light” evokes a deeply personal, emotional response.

Contrast this painting with Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. 9 with Yellow and Red, to the right of the fireplace across the room from the Marioni, with its carefully orchestrated yet lively rhythm punctuated by primary colors. Its musicality derives from the intense contemplation of composition in relation to color and line. Whereas Marioni’s work echoes the emotional experience music provides, Mondrian’s pays homage to the rhythm and melody carefully composed in each music piece performed in the music room.

On the west wall, you’ll find Alex Katz’s Brisk Day I-III, 1990, with its repeated subject looking over her shoulder not only at the viewer, but also across the room at selections from Georg Baselitz’s La sedia di Paolo, 1988. Again, the visitor will likely pick up on the vibrant reds in both groupings, but there’s more to their inclusion. In the Katz lithographs, like the Mondrian and Marioni paintings, the subject matter is secondary to the formal properties (color, light) of the series, although the woman glancing over her shoulder could also be interpreted as a playful reference to the spectatorship during the concerts and of the visitors to the museum galleries on any given day.

The Baselitz works are a wink to the chairs that fill the music room during our Sunday concerts, but they also are similar to the other works in their formal focus of the physical and pictorial properties of their medium, and to the Katz in their repetition of forms.

Recently acquired sculptures below the Katz lithographs punctuate the installation, mimicking the focus on form and color. Fun fact: It is the first time we’ve installed sculptures in this space. We hope our visitors will enjoy the reenergized Music Room.