Jesse Stewart generates combination tones, reflecting the art behind him. Painting: "Voice of Fire"  by Barnett Newman,  1967  National Gallery of Canada. Photo © Brett Delmage, 2011
Jesse Stewart generates combination tones, reflecting the art behind him. Painting: "Voice of Fire" by Barnett Newman, 1967 National Gallery of Canada. Photo © Brett Delmage, 2011
Artist Jesse Stewart's desire to not play music in smoky bars has led him to perform with the most (in)famous artistic fire in Canada, “Voice of Fire”.

On July 27, 2011, in Gallery C214 of the National Gallery of Canada, Stewart placed himself between Barnett Newman's 5.4 m tall Voice of Fire and a seated audience. He then presented a powerful, austere, improvised performance in which he worked to bring the audience closer to Barnett's painting through his musical references and interpretation. The concert was also Stewart's opportunity to speak back to art that has influenced his own artistic development.

National Gallery of Canada staff gave him the freedom to choose the art he would perform with. Stewart chose Voice of Fire. “I wanted to create a piece that was specifically a response to this painting,” he said. “It is such a monumental work. In a weird way it has become a kind of iconic work in terms of abstract expressionism in Canada because of the controversy surrounding its purchase.”

Indeed, Voice of Fire had a fiery start. It was first exhibited at Expo 67 in the U.S. pavilion. After the National Gallery announced its purchase in 1990 – for $1.8 Million – a public and political controversy erupted over the cost, for what the public saw as a very simple painting, or possibly not even art. (Today the painting is estimated to be worth many times the original purchase price.)

While acknowledging that Voice of Fire's controversial past could make it more engaging art to publicly perform with, Stewart had strong artistic reasons, and perhaps even a physical affinity that drew him to the large piece. At 6 foot 3 inches tall, his stature puts him above many musicians, yet he has played for many years with even taller collaborators (Kevin Breit at 6”5 and Matt Brubeck at 6”8) in the Stretch Orchestra, formerly called the Tallboys.

“I wanted to be in this space because a lot of the abstract impressionists, Jackson Pollack in particular, but a number of them, drew inspiration from improvisation, and from jazz improvisation specifically. That's less true in Barnett Newman's case, but certainly for some of his contemporary abstract impressionists, that was a very important model for what they were doing. Certainly, Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin and Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack – that's a period in history that has been influential in my own work,” said Stewart.

Prior to performing among the sculptures and paintings at the National Gallery, Stewart studied sculpture, media art, and music as an undergraduate at the University of Guelph. He is now a professor in the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, as well as maintaining an active musical career with several groups and doing improvisation with found objects. Earlier in 2011, he curated an exhibit at the Carleton University Art Gallery. With one hand in the visual arts and another in music, that eventually led him to start playing his own music in art galleries.

“About 10 or 12 years ago I decided I didn't want to play in bars much anymore. At that time, people could still smoke in bars. I'd come home smelling like an ashtray. So I thought 'I'm not doing this anymore.' I started playing in art galleries, mainly. When I started playing less bebop-oriented stuff and started stretching out more, I actually found the visual art community more interested in what I was doing. It seemed like a natural fit.”

His first solo concert in an art gallery was in 1995, part of the Guelph Jazz Festival's second year of programming at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre (MSAC). In 2003 he presented his first solo visual art exhibit, “Wheels of Time”, crossing the boundaries of music and visual art, again at MSAC. He has played at almost all of the Guelph Jazz Festivals, and in 2011 presented a new music performance and visual art installation, “Pulses”.

“I enjoy engaging with creative work,” Stewart said regarding performing in art galleries. “It's a real luxury to go into a space that is a clean kind of space designed to accommodate works of art, but also a space that is very quiet - designed for contemplative reflection on creative work. The audiences tend to be very attentive.”

Art galleries may have their benefits as performance spaces, but they certainly aren't concert halls. They are normally acoustically very hard and generate considerable, and for most music too much, reverberation.

“I started getting used to art gallery acoustics, which are certainly far from ideal for drums. Sometimes in large, boomy spaces, you sacrifice some definition. But in a space like this [gallery C214, where Voice of Fire is exhibited] in particular, it does become an integral part of the performance. That kind of reverberation becomes like another musician, an improvising partner in a way. I started to work with it.”

For the Voice of Fire performance Stewart brought his largest and loudest drum kit, chosen because he wanted to try to create “a very large, loud, monumental sound.” When he and his improvising partner, Gallery C214, performed, it sounded thunderous. One could imagine the huge painting speaking as a giant might. The original percussive sounds and their reverberations echoed the painting's stripes, over and over. The sound completely filled the roughly 24m long x 11m wide x 12m high gallery.

But the performance was quite varied; it was not all a monumental drum solo.

“In terms of the form of the piece I tried to refer to it at several levels: at the micro level with the beating (difference tones), at a slightly larger level rhythmically, and in terms of physical gestures. I was trying to draw inspiration from the work or reference it in different ways,” described Stewart.

He referred to the 1965 show of visual art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, “The responsive eye”, which presented op art, or optical illusions.

“I wanted to try to write a piece for the 'responsive ear'. When you look at this work for an extended period of time it starts to vibrate. We associate that kind of movement with op art. That vibration is another thing that really drew me to this space and to this work in particular, and trying to translate those vibrations into sound.”

For that, Stewart played on two other instruments he had brought for the performance: a vibraphone and his waterphone. Both had an immediate visual connection to the Voice of Fire with their strong vertical construction. Collectively they totaled three instruments, matching the number of stripes, or 'zips' in Barnett's piece. Stewart had clearly given considerable thought to many different ways to relate the visual art in his music.

“1-2-3 1-2-3. I kept coming back to the three-fold beat,” he said, while demonstrating on his drum an element of his improvised concert that tied it together musically and reflected the painting.

Stewart played the vibraphone simply, but with great impact. Two tones - again, echoing the two base colours in the painting - of similar frequency were sounded at the same time. What was heard was an immediate, and striking audio illusion: a third tone joined the first two: the difference in frequency between the two primary tones, like an optical interference pattern. It was a beat note or combination tone. The two-tone pattern was repeated in different pairs of frequencies.

Stewart also referenced the painting in other ways; for example, his repeated vertical “swishing” gestures with his wire drum brush, similar to how a paint brush might be used.

“I like the visceral and physical quality of drums. And for me that's something I also get out of sculpture,” Stewart said. “Also, a lot of work I do with sound, I think almost like sculpting with sound, more than traditional composition. If I find a sound, I think “how can I sculpt” with this sound. What can I do to sculpt the sound?”

While Stewart had been thinking about the composition for a few months (he had an unadvertised trial run a few months prior), a great deal of the hour-long concert was improvised.

“I had a kind of sketch in mind, in the motif. There were things that were improvised that were happening in the space, for example, footsteps on the gallery floor. I might respond to that and it becomes part of the gallery work. This piece today was maybe a little more austere than the last time I played here. But this is a pretty austere work. I kept coming back to the same kind of motif and then trying to develop it in other ways. In part, that's a response to this work and other works in the room.”

The response by the audience to Stewart was positive, with generous applause at the end. Most stayed for the complete performance, and some stayed to ask questions after the concert and examine the paintings and sculptures some more.

Stewart finally summed up the art and his relationship to it. “In terms of thinking about form and acknowledging that the canvas isn't a window onto some kind of picture...[these painters are] acknowledging the canvas for what it is. What some people would call truth to materials, I guess. It seems to me to be so central to abstract expressionism and it's an important part of what I do too.”

His performance was part of the National Gallery's new initiative to animate their art and galleries with music. Other performances have included Ottawa jazz/classical guitarists Roddy Ellias and Garry Elliott.

    – Brett Delmage

2013 June 24: corrected term "impressionism" to "expressionism".

All photos Copyright ©Brett Delmage, 2011

Painting credit:
Voice of Fire
Barnett Newman
1967  National Gallery of Canada