How Music Becomes Magic in an Art Gallery: A Q&A With Artist and Composer Ari Benjamin Meyers

'When you come from the concert hall or opera house, the white cube feels a lot like freedom,' he says.

Composer Ari Benjamin Meyers in his Berlin studio. Courtesy of the artist and gallery.

Trained as a composer and conductor, the Berlin-based New Yorker Ari Benjamin Meyers has made it his mission to challenge the way we think about music. But rather than seeking to revolutionize the discipline from within and shed a new light on musical composition, performance, and reception, Meyers wants to change the stage entirely. And what better place to subvert deep-seated conventions than in the art world, where experts from outside fields are freer to push the boundaries of their discipline?

Having made the crossover from music to art early on in his career, Meyers collaborated with artists like Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Anri Sala, and Tino Sehgal on works for Performa ’09, the 55th Venice Biennale, and Documenta 13, respectively. It was only natural that Meyers would go on to create music-based works that form the basis of his own artistic practice.

This year is proving to be a pivotal one for Meyers, who is participating in the upcoming Lyon Biennale, and has recently opened his second solo show at Esther Schipper gallery in Berlin. It’s also the year that marks the formation of his ambitious institutional project, the Kunsthalle for Music.

Co-founded together with Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam and Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, the Kunsthalle—whose complex roving format is explained in more detail in this interview—was first announced in November 2016. It was then workshopped during Art Basel Hong Kong 2017, and a conference at Witte de With this past May. The first iteration of the Kunsthalle will take place with a series of new commissions at the Rotterdam institution in January 2018.

artnet News caught up with Meyers in Berlin during one of the busiest weeks for the artist/composer. He had just come back from Munich, where he staged a groundbreaking concert at the Lenbachhaus museum with one of Germany’s most respected orchestras, and was in the midst of making the final preparations before his opening at Esther Schipper, where he’s showing a mesmerizing project centered on one musician, the violinist Ayumi Paul.

How did the idea of the Kunsthalle for Music originate?

The Kunsthalle for Music, to put it very simply, is a contemporary space for music that is not a concert hall. The Kunsthalle started from thinking about how live music can take on so many shapes and forms.

Where do we go to hear live music? Most of the time, it is in a concert hall or a club, a theater, which are all quite similar: There’s a stage, a clear definition of performer and audience, a set duration, a beginning and end time, and the economic model is quantity-based—how many tickets have you sold?

I was making an analogy to the way contemporary art is shown and the idea of an exhibition, where the duration is not so fixed—you can come and go, have a more active part, decide what you want to listen to and see, etc. Taking the idea of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, or Guy Debord’s notion of the dérive and applying it in terms of music, I was thinking, what could a space like that be?

Aren’t you worried about what happens when you display music in a museum? It was one of the flaws of documenta 14—presenting scores behind glass vitrines, musical instruments as dead objects when they’re not being played. Why should music be made to fit into a white cube?

When I finally decided to name this thing, it was interesting to me to pick something a bit provocative. Kunsthalle is almost a generic term for a space for art, and music can be part of that space. Context is important here. I come from the performing arts, from opera and theater, and especially in music, we haven’t really had our “institutional critique” moment.

I have these situations all the time, where I would talk about the white cube in positive and euphoric terms, and people in the art world are over it, but if you come from the concert hall or opera house, then I have to say that the white cube feels a lot like freedom.

And this is where it gets interesting: once you bring one mode into another, some things get turned on their head, even something like the very idea of a gallery.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by that sense of freedom?

From my perspective, even the fact that admission to a gallery is free is a big deal! Artists tend not to think about that, but if you’re a composer, you have a premiere in a setting that you have no control over—you can’t control how musicians look, no control of the lights, maybe there are ugly flowers on stage, and everyone there has paid perhaps many euros to come. And if you want to experience the piece again, you have to pay again. These comparisons are not necessarily fair but they’re illustrative.

If I imagine presenting a new work in a gallery context, it’s very different: now it means you didn’t pay, so I don’t owe you anything in that sense, and if you don’t like what you hear or see, leave. And if you do, you can come back the next day, next week, and actually have a relationship with the piece and experience it unfolding over time.

So it turns things on their head and I sometimes wind up singing the praises of the white cube and the gallery. Of course I’m not naïve, I know a gallery will have its own kind of rules and there are people who don’t feel welcome or comfortable there.

Besides being free of charge, what else can you say about how the Kunsthalle will function? Is it linked to a specific space? 

A central aspect of the Kunsthalle is that it’s completely based on the idea of an ensemble. So the framework is not so much a particular space but the ensemble of performers who make the space into the Kunsthalle for Music. I’m very skeptical about the idea that we need the best possible sound or the best fidelity. That whole idea sprung up more or less parallel to the beginning of recordings and recording technology. Or just having better technology in general. So you can build a perfect acoustic—but in relation to what? Is the music you’re listening to meant to be performed in the home, in a concert hall, or where? It’s answering ex negativo, but the Kunsthalle for Music is not the idea of some perfectly tuned acoustical space.

The idea is that there’s an ensemble with shifting modes. One can compose for the ensemble but it can also be performative pieces involving music in the wider sense like dance, and opening up what can really be considered contemporary music. There’s an interesting situation we have in contemporary music, where a lot of its aspects can be not very contemporary at all: the concert is a format that goes back hundreds of years, as well as the format of writing usually for very specific groups, say, a string quartet, things like that. Even musicians who specialize in contemporary music usually come from a classical training.

Ari Benjamin Meyers, Solo for Ayumi (2017). Courtesy the artist, Esther Schipper

Ari Benjamin Meyers, Solo for Ayumi (2017). Ayumi Paul performing Ari Benjamin Meyers’ score in the exhibition space, surrounded by twelve diptychs consisting of her personal objects paired with letter-scores. Courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo ©Andrea Rossetti.

How is the ensemble created and who’s in it?

Well, that’s what we’re working on now. We’re casting the ensemble. We had one casting session already as part of the symposium we held at Witte de With in May. The call was quite open; we’re not only looking for trained musicians, it basically says all these things that we’ve been talking about here, and then states that if you think you’re this kind of person then please apply. We had classical musicians who are trying to develop their own practice, but also people coming from rock or experimental music backgrounds or who had some relation with a music element, like dancers who maybe studied music ‘til they were 18.

It’s also the idea of putting together an ensemble of different high-level skills, but where the musicality can be at many different levels. Meaning, we might have a highly trained violinist, as well as a dancer who played the violin for many years but is not a professional. By putting them side-by-side you start to question perfection. It’s not about amateurs, it’s about finding skilled people who are maybe switching their skills a bit to create something like a new idea of a contemporary music ensemble.

Will the ensemble have a repertoire that they’ll tour with?

The way I envision it now, it’s not like the ensemble is constantly moving but more that it can be temporarily in residence at different institutions; it takes over and that institution becomes the Kunsthalle. We’re in the process of commissioning new works, both from composers but also visual artists, and asking them to write pieces for this ensemble, with the very wide range of what that could mean.

Instead of thinking about what it means to curate a show, it is asking what it means to compose a show. And what does it mean about the show unfolding in time, since composing is the act of organizing time.

Going back to your earlier question, I think the contradiction of bringing music to an exhibition space can be productive. Music finds itself in a special situation: film, video, and performance are now completely a part of contemporary art, and even dance is very integrated. Why not music? And when I talk about music I mean music that’s composed, music as musical performance, something that’s different from sound art, which of course also has its place, but is very much related to sound as an object.

Music is the thing we all feel like we understand the most, but it’s the thing we understand the least. It’s totally ubiquitous, we all have our favorite bands, yet when we really think about how does it all work, how does a performance take place, how has it changed, we start seeing that it’s not so clear.

Ari Benjamin Meyers, Symphony 80 (2017). Exhibition view at Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, June 25, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo ©Andrea Rossetti.

You’ve just had a major concert in Munich, at the Lenbachhaus, where the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performed a piece you’ve composed especially for them. How challenging was it to work with an orchestra in an art context?

The opening at Lenbachhaus in Munich was a three-part, four-hour composition that I wrote for a symphony orchestra, in this case the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the best orchestras in the world. It’s a piece for 80 musicians, and it completely took them out of their comfort zone because it’s a classical orchestra, used to playing the concert halls of the world.

I come to them as an outsider. I’m classically trained so I speak their language but they don’t know me, or the art world, and I haven’t been in their world for a long time. And somehow they made the decision to trust me and this process. It was very intense.

It was also very risky for them. Some members have played with the orchestra for 30 years or so, and to suddenly put themselves in a totally new situation, performing in a museum, performing as individuals and not as one orchestra… It’s easy to forget that the orchestra is made up of individuals, and at that level it’s 80 plus world-class artists who are coming together. I wanted to show them as individuals and I think it was very scary for them at first.

The first section is called Solo, where I composed a short one-minute piece, and every member of the orchestra came out and played this same piece. It lasted about 90 minutes. It’s a base-line reference, you see each of them come and play the same exact notes but of course their instruments sound very different, and once you start to know it, you notice that one plays it like this, and one like that. The piece begins slowly and during the second part starts to spread out throughout the house. Then, for the third part taking place in the Lenbachhaus’s atrium, they all come together for the first and last time, and perform the finale from memory.

For that last part they’re not in their formal concert dress, they come out in their normal clothes. I don’t know if I really heard a gasp but to see this great orchestra just come out as people, and then play by memory…. To be vulnerable like that! When it was all over one of the musicians said—and this is the best compliment I could get—“after this I don’t see how I’ll look at music the same way again.”

And it was a one-night-only performance. With all the effort that goes into staging it, is it not something you’d want to show more than once?

We have the score, and a score is instructions on how to perform a piece. As complex as a piece like this is in one sense, it is no more complex than a Beethoven symphony in that there’s also a score, and it can be performed by another orchestra. It can be adapted for a different space.

My work is often about being there; it is not recorded. You could record it but what sense would this four-hour piece with musicians moving make, what would you capture that would make any sense?

Ari Benjamin Meyers, Solo for Ayumi (golden bracelet) (2017). Handwritten score on paper, golden bracelet (framed). The delicate golden bracelet was offered to Ayumi Paul by an ex-boyfriend—a Russian dancer who had defected from his ballet company. Courtesy the artist and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo ©Andrea Rossetti.

You were working on the Munich piece almost simultaneously with your current show at Esther Schipper gallery in Berlin, where you’re showing Solo for Ayumi. It’s a very intense and intimate piece, composed specifically for the performer, the violinist Ayumi Paul, who plays six hours every day for the entire duration of the show. What was the process behind it?

I wanted to work with only one musician for this show, as opposed to an entire orchestra. And this show is as much about the scores, which are in fact displayed. It’s written for a specific person, about a specific person, and because of that I was able to go very deep into the idea of what it means to be a musician, where music is a part of one’s life and biography.

This particular musician is someone I’ve known for years. In a very extreme way it’s my portrait of her as a musician. Well, I also have a series called Portrait, where I portray people as compositions, but those are based on an hour-long conversation where we only talk about music. In this case with Ayumi, it’s much more than that. It doesn’t insert my portrait of her, but tries to create a situation where she’s performing her life.

What does performing one’s life mean in this context of a gallery show with scores and live music? How did you script it?

I asked her to write me letters basically, where she’d tell me about her life, and through that very personal correspondence I selected letters and started writing a composition for violin, Ayumi’s instrument. Because we’ve been working so intensely and the music is connected to specific episodes in her life, it’s not static like a portrait, it’s a lot about memory and music, which are similar: music is always in the process of becoming, the same as memories, which we’re constantly relating to something that’s just come before. I’ve always been interested in this relation of music and memory, and the memorization of music.

You see scores with texts from the letters and an object relating more or less directly to the letter. You’re surrounded by these as she’s performing her memory in a way. It sounds pretty esoteric but it’s about much more than just what something sounds like. It may sound absurd to say that the way the music sounds may not be particularly relevant—it’s almost illogical—but this show is trying to demonstrate that musical situations can go much deeper than just what you’re hearing.

Ayumi is always performing, for six hours a day, even if no one is there to see it. That’s when you start to enter something very different than a concert situation.

The work is shown in a commercial gallery, and the pieces on view are all for sale: the scores paired with items from Ayumi Paul’s life, and segments from her letters, personal and private though they may be. Does the commercial aspect of what you do ever pose a contradiction for you? How are your pieces sold?

If you purchase the score you’re buying the performance. It can be unique or an edition of six let’s say, and by buying the score you buy the right to perform the piece. The aspect that’s important to me is that they remain scores. Works are sold, and that’s necessary to produce work. All artists need some kind of functioning system to continue to make work. To me it makes much more sense to think of this type of economic model than the idea of selling records. I don’t believe in the idea of selling many copies. For me! For Kanye West it’s perfect but for me, it’s not what I’m doing. Especially for new music and contemporary music, there is no functioning economy! It’s subsidy based, and if those subsidies suddenly disappear, to some extent so will new music.

What I’m offering for sale here is a piece of something bigger. It’s going back to a performance that took place, and maybe refers to a future iteration.

Solo for Ayumi” is on view at Esther Schipper, Berlin until August 5, 2017.

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