Modernism: Unlearning with Forecast Music at Reynolda House

I thought I knew what music sounded like until I went to see Brooklyn Sounds: Copland Meets the Moderns presented by Forecast Music at Reynolda House this past Saturday. In my world I thought that there were several elements that music needs to be, well, music; like rhythm, a beat, harmony and chord progressions.

So I’m at this concert and while the musicians are tuning their instruments, I’m thinking this is going to be something like Beethoven’s Minuet in G minor; I was wrong. Before I knew it, the players seemed to not only be out of tune, but they were also striking their instruments creating harsh and abrupt sounds. Clearly I had no idea who Aaron Copland was or what he did for music, but I think I do now.

In brief, Aaron Copland set the stage for Modern music in the United States starting in the 1920s. From his music came subsequent experimental composers, such as Timo Andres, John Corigliano and Derek Bermel, all of whom were performed at Brooklyn Sounds. Each of these composers created music to move people out of their comfort zones during a transformative period in United States history.

This concert was in conjunction with the current exhibition at Reynolda House: The Brooklyn Museum’s American Moderns, 1910–1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell, where over 53 works are on display by American artists apart of the Modern movement, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis and Max Weber. The exhibition depicts the many cultural upheavals during the twentieth century — Great Depression, WWII, color TV and Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement just to name a few.

Now, I’m an art history lover so I at least like to think that I know my fair share about Modernism, but this concert really furthered my understanding. For me, Modernism is about changes in response to previous ways of being or practicing. It was a movement about pushing societal boundaries.

When asked how Modernism in music compared to visual arts, James Douglass, pianist for Forecast Music and assistant professor of collaborative piano at UNCG, says that, “A painter has complete control over the structure and expression of a painting, where music takes another layer; the players actualize that structure and expression in the piece”.

An example from the concert is Orbit Design by Derek Bermel, where players are to perform the piece while walking around as if in orbit. The music provides 5 indications for how to rotate, but beyond that there’s not much more instruction. The performers are free to interpret and express how the music is to be played, hitting whichever note they feel is right at whatever time.

I walked away with a new and continued understanding of Modernism, learning that nothing is concrete because times change, norms should be questioned and we should push the limits. I had an experience of unlearning, if you will, where my norms were questioned and broadened.

American Moderns will be on display until May 4, 2014 at the Reynolda House of American Art in Winston Salem.

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