Phillips Music Goes Virtual (Part I)

All of the concerts of our 80th season of Phillips Music are being presented online. In this two part series, Director of Music Jeremy Ney shares the trials and tribulations (and perks!) of presenting our acclaimed Sunday Concerts virtually for the first time. Read Part II here

Recording Stella Chen and Albert Cano Smit in the Music Room. If you missed their performance, you can still stream it on the concert page.

Tell us about the transition to virtual events. What were some of the challenges you faced/are facing?
2020 was a hard year for the performing arts across the board. The goal posts kept shifting, and so one of the primary difficulties was when to decide to go virtual. Everyone across the country, and even arts organizations in DC, were doing things differently, finding solutions to their own unique challenges. However, it was important for us at The Phillips Collection to continue to present our series, and not abandon it until we could have in-person audiences again. This season is our 80th anniversary, which aligns with The Phillips Collection’s centennial year—these are major milestones and thus, it was important to pivot toward new ways of presenting.

It has been a hugely enjoyable process to go digital this year, though there are definitely some pitfalls. If you don’t already have the infrastructure in place to support filming and presenting online concerts, then the learning curve is pretty steep. You have to identify funds for new equipment, look at staffing capacity and skills gaps, negotiate new issues around concert logistics, onsite protocols, music licensing, which online platforms to use, ticketing—the list goes on. You also have to look at how to do this sustainably for your institution without over-stretching budgets at a time when all organizations, cultural or otherwise, are having to respond to the impacts of the pandemic.

Lastly, the digital realm presents lots of new opportunities in terms of format and reaching new audiences. When you only have a small performance space like we do at the Phillips (our Music Room has a capacity of 140 people), then digital platforms can really help drive interest in the work we do. Despite the difficulties of changing everything you have done before, this is to be embraced. Even when we return to some version of “normal,” the digital element is not going away—so it’s best to understand and get to grips with that landscape now.

Tell us about your process for presenting digital concerts at the Phillips?
I think the Phillips is in a unique position; we have an intimate space surrounded by outstanding visual art. It was important to capture the special nature of the Music Room as faithfully as we could. That meant: high quality equipment. Working with local videographer Dominic Mann we invested in three Canon C200 cameras, which have the capacity to film in 4k. We also got to grips with the software and hardware needed for live-streaming events, which is becoming the norm. Luckily we already have outstanding audio engineering from our long-time engineer, Ed Kelly, who has recorded concerts at the Phillips for many decades.

Editing Stella Chen and Albert Cano Smit’s performance in Adobe Premiere Pro

In three months our small team has created work that I’m personally really proud of. A typical concert day first entails our Concerts Manager Abigail Winston and I getting the artists here safely and ensuring protocols are followed onsite. We record performers in the Music Room during a 4-5 hour session (typically). Ed Kelly then masters the audio, usually working on it late into the night, having it ready for the next day. Videographer Dominic Mann then starts to synchronize the audio to the video footage using Adobe Premiere Pro. Dominic puts the major scaffolding of the project together for me to then begin the editing process. The editing process is usually very involved, switching camera angles as “musically” as possible to create a visually rich experience. Sometimes the most minute edits are required, stitching together small fragments of music from one cut to the next. Color correction, graphics, cross-fades, pacing—all key to giving a performance the best look and feel that you can. When you have outstanding performers doing what they do best, you feel a keen duty to capture that in the highest possible quality.

How as the engagement been?
The initial signs of growth in audience engagement have been very encouraging. For January and February, there has been a 300% increase in concert attendance for digital performance vs in-person performances. In seven concerts we have had over 3,000 people sign up to attend—if those concerts were in-person, we would have been able to welcome 900 people max. We’re also able to engage global audiences, with over 1,000 views from countries around the world. The digital realm has also allowed us to expand our partnerships locally and globally—in February, the London Symphony Orchestra published a Phillips Music performance on their YouTube channel that reached 1,400 viewers in a week. We’ve also managed to increase our social media footprint, with almost 25,000 views on Instagram for our concert clips.

Stay tuned for more from Jeremy Ney about Phillips Music going virtual.

That Long Distance Call: Renée Stout and the Blues

Director of Music Jeremy Ney on Renée Stout and the blues. Visit our InstagramFacebook, and Twitter August 10-30 to learn more about the intersections of art and music.

“How can you capture a wail in an artwork, which is basically a silent thing?”[1] This was a question posed by artist Renée Stout in an interview from 1994 with art historian Marla C. Berns. The wail Stout refers to is the vocal and guitar sound of bluesman Robert Johnson, who was the inspiration for Stout’s 1995 installation project Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads. In the blues folklore, Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for becoming a virtuoso blues guitarist. Johnson’s short life (he died in 1938 at the age of 27) is full of such legends and metaphysical encounters, and his raw, soulful blues is captured on only a handful of recordings taken at the end of his life when he was a traveling musician performing in and around the Mississippi delta in the late 1930s, enduring—like so many others—the extreme trauma of segregation.

What is it about the sound of a musician like Robert Johnson that Renée Stout seeks to “capture” in “silent” art objects like paintings or sculptures? This kind of synthesis is not a question of semiotic transference between one material domain (the aural) to another (the visual), but is more about a sense of shared emotional territory, a question of affect, feeling, and mood. Music is often thought to possess the most direct and emotive effect on our senses; music is visceral, it can transform the way we feel. This is what Robert Johnson’s music does, it speaks of pain, suffering, and hardship, but also joy, hope, and creative spirit. Renée Stout describes how, “When I first listened to Robert Johnson’s music it really hit me because it was clear this man was in pain and needed to sing about it. I’ve heard other blues singers I like just as much, but his music hit me differently. It made me want to see what it was that he saw…I just have this need to ‘illustrate,’ as best I can, the music of a man that I’ve become so fascinated with.”[2]

Thinking through music—both in the way that it “hits” us and the historical associations that underline its social meaning—can help reveal rich conceptual depths in the work of an artist like Renée Stout. Stout’s visual explorations of the “blues aesthetic”[3] (a term coined by art historian Richard Powell), are inextricably linked to her parallel interest in African history and the diasporic traditions that have shaped the musical, social, and spiritual origins of the blues as the “first completely personalized form of African American music.”[4] Two works recently acquired by the Phillips exhibit Stout’s ability to recall elements of African culture, spirituality, and mysticism, and set them in dialogue with the African American experience, generating contemporary objects that are suffused with what theorist Paul Gilroy has called “diasporic intimacy.”[5]

The 2015 mixed media sculpture Elegba (Spirt of the Crossroads) invokes the complex trickster deity of West African Yoruba culture. Elegba (or Eshu or Èsú in other African cultures) is god of the crossroads, a spiritual location where an individual must confront difficult decisions in life. The crossroads metaphor simultaneously signals a site of danger or opportunity, and in West African culture Elegba was believed to hold the spiritual potential to effect change. Through ritual and divination, where music, dance, religion, and spirituality where united in an indivisible network of social practices, the Elegba deity could be drawn upon by humans to influence events in their lives and in the world. The Elegba deity features prominently in Stout’s explorations of the legend of Robert Johnson.

Renée Stout, Elegba (Spirit of the Crossroads), 2015–19 Mixed media, 39 x 17 x 13 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the artist and Hemphill Gallery, 2019

Renée Stout, Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), 2017, Acrylic and latex on wood panel, 16 x 20 x 1 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2018

But the powerful Elegba symbol also appears elsewhere. In Stout’s 2017 painting Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters), the shape of the Elegba sculpture seems to manifest itself with a bright orange light that appears to signal a path forward, perhaps indicating a choice to make at the crossroads. In the song Mannish Boy,” bluesman Muddy Waters sings, “I’m a hoochie-coochie man,” invoking a veiled double meaning: the sexually provocative 19th-century dance and the hoodoo spiritual traditions that connected enslaved Africans of the Mississippi Delta (the birthplace of both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters) to their ancestral homeland. The “diasporic intimacy” of these traditions, as scholar George Lipsitz has observed, allowed “displaced Africans in the American South to keep alive memories of the continent they came from through a wide range of covert practices.”[6] Stout’s deployment of the Elegba icon in Mannish Boy Arrives (for Muddy Waters) is similarly covert and coded, and the image of the crossroads serves a blues-tinged metaphysics, an imagined transitional and transcultural site where African ancestry and African American experience meet. Renée Stout’s sculptures and paintings thus perform the cultural memory of the blues, conjuring a space in which an acoustic past resonates in the visual present. Far from being “silent” objects, they vibrate with sonic potential, calling out to us to look, listen, and respond.

Adapted from the forthcoming catalogue Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (D Giles, 2021), published on the occasion of The Phillips Collection centennial.


[1] Quoted in in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 38.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Richard Powell in “Introduction: The Hearing Eye,” in The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, ed. Graham Lock and David Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

[4] Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 221.

[5] Paul Gilroy, Ain’t No Black in The Union Jack (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 156.

[6] George Lipsitz, “Diasporic Intimacy in the Art of Renée Stout,” in Marla C. Berns, Dear Robert, I’ll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Renée Stout (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press), 10.

“Before painting, there was jazz”

Director of Music Jeremy Ney on Sam Gilliam’s relationship to jazz. Visit our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter August 10-30 to learn more about the intersections of art and music.

“Before painting, there was jazz.”—Sam Gilliam, 2014

Sam Gilliam, April, 1971, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. The Phillips Collection, Bequest of Mercedes H. Eichholz, 2013

When we look at Sam Gilliam’s painting April (1971), what music might we imagine to accompany the image? In a 1985 local TV profile entitled “Sam Gilliam—Symphony of Color,” the segment producers chose an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Air on a G String as the musical backdrop to Gilliam’s canvasses. Slow and meditative may have been the intended mood, but you are more likely to feel as if you are on hold with your insurance company than you are to be acoustically stirred by the work of this singular figure in American art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What changes about a painting like April when we think about the music that Gilliam himself loves: jazz? Gilliam has spoken frequently about the influence of jazz on his art. When he moved to Washington, DC, in the early 1960s, he promoted concerts, bringing the Modern Jazz Quartet and Marian Anderson to the city during the era of civil rights. Painting in his DC studio, Gilliam listened to the vanguards of bebop: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, radical improvisers who pioneered a liberated Black musical aesthetic rooted in African and African American cultural history. Gilliam has talked about his associations with John Coltrane’s music and the aural impression of his “sheets of sound”—a conscious visual metaphor for Coltrane’s innovations in jazz harmony and rhythm. “Coltrane worked at the whole sheet,” Gilliam has remarked, “He didn’t bother to stop at bars and notes and clefs and various things, he just played the whole sheet at once.”

Gilliam has also identified with the performance of jazz musicianship, saying, “jazz leads to the acrobatics of art,” revealing his affinity with the bodily, affective presence of a musician like Coltrane in the “acrobatic” moment of improvisation.

As is well documented, Gilliam remained wholly committed to abstraction in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when the Black Arts Movement (BAM) sought to frame Black art through a “socially responsible aesthetic” that was rooted in figuration and realism. Gilliam’s abstraction allowed him to move more fluidly through questions of race and self-identity, and he chose to relate to them freely as one element among many, rather than as a matter of fate. His engagement with jazz was similar; it is not always explicit in his work, but it is central to the mosaic of his artistic identity. His statement that “before painting, there was jazz” is revealing in this context. As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has observed about the painterly process, “It is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface,” by which he means that the blank canvas is already filled with the ideas that the artist brings to the painting. He calls this “the painting before the painting.” Gilliam’s decisive “before painting, there was jazz” compels us to interpret the aural trace of jazz influence in his work.

The Phillips’s beveled-edge painting April reveals Gilliam’s intensely performative process, which—like jazz—requires a balance between structure and improvisation. At this time, he applied paint freely to canvases placed on the floor, folding the material while the paint was wet, a procedure that introduced improvisatory elements to the final composition. The title, April, signals a conceptual link to earlier paintings, April 4 (1969) and Red April (1970), both of which refer to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968), rooting the multiple April paintings in a shared, humanistic social consciousness. In 1971, Gilliam also produced Lady Day, an explicit homage to jazz singer Billie Holiday, which shares the same coloristic, sensuous lyricism as April. While the titles of the canvases flag their social, political, and cultural concerns, these are also rendered ambiguous through the process of abstraction. Within Gilliam’s process of defamiliarization through abstraction, he found a model in the experimental attitude of the practitioners of bebop, who recombined and transformed the elements of jazz through a process of hybridization and synthesis that created a new art form focused on individual freedom and agency. The radicalism of artists like John Coltrane formed the perfect analogue for Gilliam, who sought a similar individualistic style unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries.

So when Gilliam refers to himself as “more like a composer,” as he does at the beginning of the 1985 TV interview, we should think critically about how to interpret musical influence in his art. We might be cautious not to frame the metaphor of Gilliam the composer through the prism of Eurocentric Western art music, typified by a “universal” figure such as Bach, but engage with the musical culture and influences closest to the artists’ life and work. Such an engagement may reveal different layers of interpretive depth to a painting, sparking the questions: can music transform what we see, and could a work of art help us hear in new ways? To confront such an intersensory provocation, we would do well to heed the words of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who encouraged his audiences to “hear with your eyes and see with your ears.”

Adapted from the forthcoming catalogue Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (D Giles, 2021), published on the occasion of The Phillips Collection centennial.