Performers reinvent Matisse's cut-out collages with music

The Matisse Jazz Project visited Old Main Chapel last Monday to deliver a translation of Henri Matisse’s artwork into musical form.

The concert was performed by composer and pianist Christopher Bakriges and violinist Zach Brock, while it was narrated by SU student Denice Lovett. 

In addition to the concert at which they both played, the two also presented a lecture at 2 p.m. in Old Main Chapel.

Matisse was an accomplished French artist who lived through World War II. Toward the end of his life, Matisse had several complications with cancer that led to him being unable to paint. Instead, he chose to express himself through the cut-out collages that Bakriges transformed into music.

Not only was the performance a translation of art into music — there was an important element of history behind Matisse’s life. The various collages had symbolic names and themes that told stories of themselves.

“Nightmare of the White Elephant” played on the archetype of the white elephant, which is symbolic for civilization. It also represented circuses, which are fun and playful. Another piece was “Horse, Rider and Clown,” which was a cheerful dance with a bouncy feel. 

The two played several other pieces before arriving at “The Wolf,” a collage that showed a helmet-like snow-white canine’s head. This was made during the time of the French Vichy, the satellite government of Nazi-controlled France. 

Being an artist, Matisse was not a fan of Adolf Hitler, who he meant to symbolize with the coarse cutout of the wolf. The music itself was a quick-moving and rapid piece — similar to Hitler’s aggressive “blitzkrieg” tactics in World War II. 

Bakriges and Brock have a synergistic relationship that started at the beginning of 2018. Bakriges composes and plays the piano, while Brock is responsible for virtuosic lines of improvisation.

The show was composed by Bakriges. 

“I know as I’ve gotten older, I’ve got some of the synesthesia thing going on,” Bakriges said. 

Synesthesia is a blending of the senses where one can see colors in abstract symbols that would otherwise not be associated with colors, with letters and numbers, for example. 

“Color jumps out at you and I hear something and say, ‘that’s orange,’” Bakriges said. “I found that it translated really easily for me, and it was the first time I really wrote away from the piano.

“There are so few people that do the kind of work that Zach has been doing throughout the course of his career,” Bakriges said. “There’s so few string players that can do that globally. It was a real delight to be able to have him come in and be able to enjoy this.”

Brock, as described by Bakriges, has an ear for spontaneous composition and improvisation. He frequently bounced his shoulder-length hair along to the music as he improvised a select portion of the concert. 

“How far is it going to be cool to push the envelope?” Brock said. “There’s some stuff that gets locked in, but you can create deliberate tension to juxtapose the sour and sweet. And he likes that!”

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