Monday, January 22, 2018

Immersive Experience

This past weekend was a busy one at the North Carolina School of Science and Math. We had a number of performances and the weekend finished up with the magnificent lecture by our current featured guest visual artist, Heather Gordon.

Heather Gordon is a magnificent, scholarly visual artist who's work centers around complex origami patterns based on a variety of data sets. Her lecture last night served to explain her current installation at NCSSM entitled "Elements." Her work centers around the concept of alchemy and features 4 large works which are made out of tape on two dimensional wall surfaces. They are titled, "Sun," "Moon," "Sulfur," and "Mercury." She explained the significance of these 4  "elements" as part of her lecture and went on to describe her creative process and the highly sophisticated mathematical equations that are required to complete this type of work.  The artwork is simply magnificent and inspires me every day when I walked into the building at the school. 

As part of her lecture, she introduced a couple of concepts that I can't stop thinking about today.  One is that "ideas + material =  transformation." The other is her commitment to what she referred to as "Immersive  Installation."  That is, that the consumer of her art is immersed in art. They are literally inside the art. This is achieved by creating an actual space that the consumer walks into. Obviously this requires large spaces and large artwork. The installation at ncssm is an example of this very thing. When viewing this exhibit, the consumer is literally in the middle of Sulphur, Mercury, Sun, and Moon.  The experience of being immersed in this exhibit is quite powerful. I was moved by her explanation and commitment to the immersive art experience.  (There is a great deal more to the implied metaphor here. I will stop short of explaining all of it now. But, if you are interested in it, there is much to learn about alchemy on the all powerful Google machine.)

Stay with me now as I draw a strong connection between these ideas and my experience of preparing for an orchestra performance and performing as part of an orchestra.

This past weekend, my Orchestra performed Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, No. 41. As we came to the end of the final movement, I found myself disappointed that the process was over. My students had been immersed in and in preparation for this performance for the past 3 months. To see it come to an end is certainly part of the process. Albeit, a somewhat melancholy aspect of the process.

As part of her lecture, Heather talked about the process of taking down her installations. She pulls this copious amount of tape off the walls of the exhibit space. Someone asked her what that process of tearing down the exhibit is like. Her response was,  "Well, at the end I have a big ball of tape." And that too is part of the artwork. It's part of the immersive experience.

This is not unlike the final release of the final note of a great musical work. In the end we have our memory of the experience. We have a "huge ball of tape," one that will last and stay with us forever in our memory and in our heart.

Another event of the past weekend was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Southeast Honors String Festival. My youngest son, who is 15, participated in the ensemble as a string bassist. Now, it is important to know that his primary passion is not the string bass. Nor is it orchestra music. His primary passion is baseball. Given the opportunity to choose to do anything with his day, he would prefer to be on the baseball field. I love that about him. He is passionate about his sport and all of his activities. But, this weekend he was a bassist in a wonderful Honors Orchestra conducted by my dear friend Alex Jimenez from Florida State University. The concert was magnificent. They played works by Hovhaness, Kirk Mosier, and C. Armstrong Gibbs. On our way home from the performance, I was able to articulate to my son how important it is that he participate in this kind of activity. He, in fact, had the opportunity to be immersed in an artistic work. As a bassist he was part of the ensemble that created this incredibly beautiful sound. Sometimes that is lost on our students. The aesthetic opportunity to be immersed in a large ensemble making beautiful sounds is rare. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do this. I'm so happy that he has been exposed to these ideas and the materials and has this opportunity for transformation.  He will be a more complete human (husband, father, partner, teammate, friend) for having experienced this.

Which brings me back to that phrase, "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." Many of you know that I've been involved in KidzNotes, an El Sistema USA program in Durham, NC. This is a classic example of this concept of ideas plus materials equal transformation. Through the generous support of individual donors, kids notes provides both the materials and the ideas for underserved children in the area to be transformed. We have seen over and over that families and individuals, through the infusion of classical music and opportunities to experience and create art, are transformed.

Teachers do this every day. I think of my many colleagues around the United States who are providing ideas and materials to so many students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to participate in ensemble music. They are all experiencing the immersive art of the orchestral experience on a daily basis. They don't always realize this rare opportunity in the moment. But, as they move on to various careers, cities, family obligations, and environments, they will look back on their school orchestral experience as a transformative time in their life. I have seen it time and time again.

So today, I share with you these two phrases: the concept of "Immersive Installations and "Ideas + Materials = Transformation." I encourage you to consider these today and never lose sight of the fact that we are instruments of transformation in the lives of our students.



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