Rather than just post recorded musical performances inspired by visual art, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Behind the Beat video series gives musical artists a place to talk through their creative challenges in the time of coronavirus.
“For all of us, time is abstract now. We are all somewhat adrift in every way. But for musicians and composers, who by their very nature control time, this is extremely heartbreaking. It’s painful, shattering” says Tom Welsh, the CMA’s director of performing arts and the host of the video series.
Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s new work Antennae was to have premiered at the CMA at the end of March, but the global pandemic closed the museum and sent her back to Serbia. Hers is the third of six compositions the CMA has commissioned for the Ames Family Atrium in partnership with the Cleveland Foundation.
In the isolation of this spring, Vrebalov world premiered a short excerpt from Antennae for the Kronos Quartet. On the first episode of Behind the Beat, Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington confesses it was “terrifying” to perform the piece remotely.
Welsh says, “The musical artists strongly desire to get together in a shared space with people again, for a collective expression and feeling. Behind the Beat is meant, in this unprecedented and unwelcome time, to give these artists a platform to share with us. You can really see these artists working through this in real time.”
In another episode, composer Cenk Ergün and members of the JACK Quartet discuss Ergün’s recent CMA commission, Formare. Ergün has used the time in isolation to create a new piece out of random sounds that he asked friends to send him.
“When I heard that tapestry composition, I was happy. I was given courage. That’s what new music looks like in this time,” Welsh says. “Some musical and sound artists have come to a full stop. But others are creating things. Every artist has to puzzle this out for themselves.”
Welsh gave a preview of upcoming episodes to Cleveland Classical but cannot guess when live performances will happen inside the CMA again. It has already been determined there will be no programming in the museum building through 2020.
“Like anything we do as humans, we slip into habits and traditions and routines. We have taken so much for granted. So I hope we will come out of this time with an appreciation for how much we really do need the shared musical experiences of concerts,” Welsh says. “I hope we will have a renewal of our commitment and our faith in these experiences, as a result of having been starved of it for so long.”
This week’s video is a Behind the Beat talk with bandleader Steven Bernstein, who performed in the museum’s virtual Spring Members Party this year. Bernstein also appeared at the CMA for our blockbuster The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s exhibition in the fall of 2017. Bernstein joins us again for a conversation about the roots of jazz in American popular culture.
In the videos below, check out a performance of Formare at the CMA before the pandemic, and a virtual performance of Antennae.