Do you remember those days in your childhood when your school class would all board a bus and head out on a class trip somewhere? Sometimes it was to something really fun like the zoo, while other times it was more vocational minded-like police and fire stations, factories, and one that I remember for some peculiar reason- a trip to the water treatment plant. As good as any of those were at the time in the short term, my preferred destination was always to museums. It did not matter what type we went to-history, science, art. There was something about the institution of a museum that always made me excited. There were unforgettable trips to places like the American Museum Of Natural History, with its Hall Of Dinosaurs, the massive blue whale model hanging from the ceiling, and the wonders of the Hayden Planetarium, Or perhaps the Metropolitan Museum Of Art with the full scale Temple Of Dendur, and paintings that seemed to go on for miles. Places like these provided so much wonder and insight for me growing up. Ancient life and culture, and the development of art from prehistoric to modern encapsulated within the walls of a museum.
Years later the learning still continues, and to this day I remain fascinated by museums. There is really something very special about shutting out the distractions in your life and purposely deciding to go to a museum. It is a desire to want to be there, to want to be inspired by art, or to learn about dinosaurs or the cosmos or whatever it is you seek. Just like the hushed silence one encounters before entering a church or a temple, so it is when you step foot in a museum (well maybe after one pays admission that is!) that the sense of wonder begins. Over the years in those larger museums like the Met or the Natural History Museum I have learned to scale back on cramming too much in on one day, and instead focus on what I am feeling interested in that day. Perhaps it is a special exhibit, or perhaps something from the permanent collection that I don’t know much about. That is a great thing about those types of museums once you have been there a few times. Lately though, I have felt like I have more of a positive experience overall by going to smaller museums, where the focus is on a more specific field or subject matter. Luckily, I now have one such place just down the street from me.
Last year after my wife and I had settled into our new apartment, we finally began venturing out in the neighborhood to explore. Eventually we made it to a fabulous museum that is literally at the end of our block. A world famous museum in fact in the heart of our industrial looking area, squeezed between auto body shops, welders, and construction companies. Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese-American sculptor had been both living and working in a studio in Long Island City, Queens since 1961 decided to create a museum to house some of his essential works. Opened in 1985, visitors from around the world come to see all shapes and sizes of Noguchi’s stone sculptures, scattered throughout the museum. From the first visit, the main attraction for both of us has been the sculpture garden, which as you can imagine, is a bit of an oasis in the middle of all the city life surrounding the museum. Noguchi’s own sculptures positioned with precision, yet somehow feel organic, are interspersed between the trees, benches and bamboo plants weaving their way through the space. It is a gem of a space and we feel fortunate it is a place we can go regularly now.
On one visit a few months back, when the first touches of spring were beginning to tempt, we were witness to a new discovery at the museum. It was quite different because it was not a new sculpture, but a musical discovery instead. In one of the galleries that day was the pianist Sarah Cahill, performing solo works by the Japanese composer Mamoru Fujieda. Seated at her piano among the granite slabs carved by Isamu Noguchi were faintly Baroque sounds resonating throughout the galleries and out into the sculpture garden itself. After reading what type of compositions Sarah Cahill was playing was when we both became really intrigued.
The collective name for the work is called Patterns Of Plants and Fujieda composed them in collaboration with Yuji Dogane who had invented a device known as the ‘Plantron’. This device ‘measured electrical impulses on the leaves of plants’. Fujieda took those impulses and ‘converted the data he obtained into sound with the programming language Max, then identified musical patterns within the sound’, using them as a basis for the compositions. My wife and I were both immediately struck by this process, and if ever a music could be called ‘living’, then surely this was it. As a photographer, I of course am inspired by plants and trees as subject matter, and I have touched on them in previous posts. But this was something entirely new, for rather than being inspired by the color and textures of plants, this was effectively the sound of a plant. And what beautiful sounds they make as witnessed by this clip of Sarah Cahill performing one of the pieces.
The compositions as a whole do not have to be played in a particular order. Fujieda likened it to arranging a bouquet of flowers- ‘one’s perspective on each piece changes depending on how other’s surround them.’ With that in mind I felt it entirely appropriate to be hearing the music at the Noguchi Museum. Almost as if the masters own sculptures were shaping the atmosphere and mood of the pieces as well. Plants go through many stages of growth and those electrical impulses that were measured with the Plantron prove that they also have a language of sorts. So to does the music. There are the notes, defined by pitch, but it is in the way those notes are performed by the individual that gives us a musical language. A slab of granite on its own has little to say, but in the hands of artists like Isamu Noguchi, crafting and carving his work in unique patterns it too has a language to share. That is why I continue to go to museums. To keep that sense of wonder formed long ago on those class trips. To keep seeking, hearing and above it all, learning new things each and every day.
What new thing have you discovered in a museum recently?
Patterns Of Plants-Composed By Mamoru Fujieda
Quotes From The Program-Sarah Cahill Performs Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns Of Plants At The Noguchi Museum-February 24-28, 2016
The Noguchi Museum-http://www.noguchi.org/
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
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