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

Intern Spotlight: Jonah Conlin

In this series, we profile our interns. Phillips interns are an integral part of the museum and work that we do in several different departments: curatorial, education, music, communications and marketing, and more. Our incredible interns also help with our Sunday Concerts, Phillips after 5, and other special events. This semester welcomed our first group of paid interns, part of our institutional values and commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.

Jonah Conlin, photographed by Kabrea Hayman in front of Olafur Eliasson's "The Island Series" in Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018

Jonah Conlin, photographed by Kabrea Hayman in front of Olafur Eliasson’s “The Island Series” in Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018

 

Meet Jonah Conlin.

Which department are you interning for? I’m interning in the Curatorial Department with Elsa Smithgall (Curator, The Phillips Collection).

What is your internship project? My main project is collecting scholarship and visual resources for a potential exhibition on the representation of women in American art between the end of the Civil War and beginning of the first World War.

What do you do when you’re not at The Phillips Collection? I’m a senior at Georgetown, so a lot of my time is spent in class. Outside of that, I’ve recently gotten involved in the school’s Maker’s Space, which is community operated organization that allows students to learn how to use high-tech and low-tech tools for independent projects. I’m working on a woodworking project and am training to use the laser and 3D printers.

What is your favorite space/painting here? I love the spaces in the museum that allow visitors to look deeply at a single artist’s work. Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series and The Rothko Room both come to mind as thoughtfully developed galleries that allow visitors to really consider the artwork and the artistic decisions that went into it. I’m also a big fan of the Nordic Expressions show and Nils Dardel’s The Dying Dandy in particular.

If you were to describe The Phillips Collection in one word, what would that word be? Familial. I’ve been struck by how friendly and close the Phillips’s staff is and I think that translates into the visitor experience too.

What is a fun fact about you? I rowed for the past eight years in high school and college. I just stopped rowing this year because I’m going to be graduating this December. So, I guess another fun fact is that I’m graduating in December.

Why did you want to intern at a museum? I’ve found that a lot of academic disciplines are interesting in the classroom much less so in the professional sphere. After finding art history as a sophomore in college I got the sense that the professional opportunities in the art world would be well suited to me and interned this past summer with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After that experience, I was eager to explore the curatorial side of a museum and that brought me to The Phillips Collection. As a Curatorial Intern, I’m so happy to be working closely with artwork and art historical scholarship.

Anything else you’d like to share? Thanks so much to The Phillips and the entire staff for having me this semester; it has been great so far! Special shout-out to Elsa Smithgall.

Intern Spotlight: Sierra Humes

In this series, we profile our interns. Phillips interns are an integral part of the museum and work that we do in several different departments: curatorial, education, music, communications and marketing, and more. Our incredible interns also help with our Sunday Concerts, Phillips after 5, and other special events. This semester welcomed our first group of paid interns, part of our institutional values and commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.

Sierra Humes, photographed by Kabrea Hayman in front of Poul Gernes "Untitled"

Sierra Humes, photographed by Kabrea Hayman in front of Poul Gernes “Untitled” in Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018

Meet Sierra Humes.

Which department are you interning for and what is your internship project? I am the intern for the Public Programs Department. My main project is to design a Phillips after 5 for the upcoming fall 2019 exhibition about the Nabis artists. I also help with all Thursday night events!

What do you do when you’re not at The Phillips Collection? I’m a senior at George Washington University, so when I’m not at The Phillips Collection, I’m going to classes and studying. One of my classes is a painting class at The Corcoran, so often on weekends I’m working on projects in the studio.

What is your favorite space/painting here? My favorite space at The Phillips Collection is currently the third floor gallery with the skylight. I love the room and find the curation particularly fitting for that space.

If you could describe The Phillips Collection in one word, what would that be? Aware.

What is a fun fact about you? My dad owns a summer camp that I went to every year while I was growing up.

Why did you want to intern at a museum? My interest in museums has grown over the past year, ever since I took an anthropology class taught at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I loved the museum environment and was fascinated by its position and interaction with educating the public.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? Once for a class, we came to The Phillips Collection and I presented on Edouard Vuillard’s Woman Sweeping in French!