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To see a video of To Painting, as performed at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, New York, click on the image below. Video courtesy of Bart Bridger Woodstrup and the iEAR Residency Program at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Music With A View:
To Painting by Jane Rigler and Bart Bridger Woodstrup
(Flea Theater, New York City, April 9, 2007) 

by H. Cecilia Suhr

To Painting refers to the poems “A la pintura” written between 1947 and 1967 by the Spanish poet and painter Rafael Alberti. These poems inspired paintings by Robert Motherwell that served as a stimulus for flutist and composer Jane Rigler, who states that “the intention of [her] work To Painting is to pay homage to all that art (from [her] past) that inspired [her] to be a musician/artist of [her] own.” Rigler’s performance thus encompassed two other artists’ visions and inspirations as they intersected with each other’s and her own. As Rigler told me by email, the poetic muse of Rafael Alberti inspired Robert Motherwell’s vision, and his vision inspired Rigler’s sound:

I looked at the paintings and read the poems for months before any performance images came to my own head. Once I started working with Bart [who provided interactive visuals], I had, by then, already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I could see separate movements each one with their own specific interactions, movement, colors, spaces, magnifying parts of the works and such. It all came to be rather quickly.

Rigler’s account of the way in which visual elements affect her music is noteworthy:

the visuals are like a score. I choose parts of it to “follow,” I obtain the feel of the work and I use the work to generate sounds by imagining what sounds are the best ones to emulate that color, texture, mood, rhythm, etc.

While Rigler’s process does not focus on bodily movement or on the improvisational drawing patterns of a painter, it does involve imagination. She uses the paintings as concrete guidelines (scores), but these scores do not determine directly what she plays. Rather, they serve as as starting points for her own aural imagination.

Rigler’s imagination requires a longer duration than that connected with immediate interpretation or interaction with an improvisational painter or musician. Rigler’s collaboration with Bart Bridger Woodstrup was carried out not as pure improvisation but, rather, as “an open form composition, incorporating elements of improvisation” (Rigler). Therefore mediation, rather than immediacy, seems to have been the major issue. However, mediation here does not necessarily mean computer electronics or the paintings; instead, it relates to the interweaving of the music with the myriad paintings and poems. Even though Rigler “emulates” the works of art, this emulation is not simply a thin interpretation of art, as she finds multifarious connections with life through the paintings and poems.


My intention is not necessarily to abstract parts of the art or the poems but to see them from various perspectives, vantage points. To get inside the painting. To see the poetry. To hear both from another angle, sound, place from which one can experience the life around us.


For Rigler, aesthetic experience does not always occur in a lofty place (e.g., heightened perception or consciousness), but can happen within our own surroundings. 

Sitting at a laptop computer, Woodstrup showed six slides of Motherwell’s paintings. As an audience member, I was unable to discern what exactly Woodstrup was doing during the performance. When I asked him about his role, he responded, via email:


The only movement that requires me to improvise to the sound is the fourth movement, which depending on the speed at which Jane is performing, I adjust the rate the images are flashing on the screen. This creates a call and response effect between the images and music.


According to Woodstrup, even though the electronic manipulation of the visuals by the sound is minimal, there is an interactive element in the visual display, as differentiated from a "normal" slide show. Woodstrup explained that the use of computer or video technology may change or enhance the performance as a whole:


[It can] transform the space that the piece is being performed in. For example, Jane intended for the video projection to immerse the space with the imagery of Motherwell's paintings. The scale of the paintings, the amount of light and color, has an important aesthetic effect.


Woodstrup also added that while the real paintings may be interesting to perform to for a musician, the slides Woodstrup and Rigler used could “match the immersive qualities of sound.” 

In my experience as an audience member, not only did the slides incorporate movement into the performance, they also, as Rigler intended, “immersed the space with the imagery of Motherwell’s paintings.” The images in the slides not only moved, but also expanded and diminished as the zoomed in and out. Together, sound and vision created a unique aura akin to the establishment of a virtual reality in the performance space. 

Despite Woodstrup's feeling that this performance entailed only a small amount of visual manipulation by sound, Rigler's performance revealed how interaction with electronic instruments may differ from that with acoustic instruments. Rigler pointed out that when she performs with electronic instruments, she has an additional aspect to consider; nevertheless, the effect she wants is the dissemination of oneness:


With electronics, I have two instruments to think about at once. It is complicated but once I am playing, I recognize that the end result is really only ONE instrument, and that is the effect I want. I want to create a hybrid voice.


As an audience member, I experienced this voice as a mysterious mixture of acoustic sound and electronic—the boundaries between the two blurred.

Finally, in regards to the interaction between audience and the performer, I received a different response from each collaborator. Woodstrup stated that the audience’s presence had no significant impact on his performance:


For this piece we were presenting abstract art and thus, were not directly communicating specific ideas. Such open communication doesn't require a dialog with the audience that would affect my presentation.


While Woodstrup’s role may not have been affected by the presence of an audience, it was different for Rigler:


Audience always has an effect on my performance. I feel them too, and can tell when they are with me or not. I depend on that...and have sometimes changed what I'm doing on the spot when I felt things weren't working for them...or gone into more "risky" places when I feel they are willing to accept that. . . .


Rigler incorporates audience response into her performance by gauging the audience’s reception and responding to it during the performance. Rigler’s musical influences come not only from the paintings and poetry but also from her attempt to explore multiple perspectives of life, thereby not isolating aesthetics to the realm of “the other.” On this note, I wonder, at what moment, do the performers feel the presence? Is it in the experience of awareness, or is it in the meditative state of mind? Is it a direct bodily touch, or is it the connection to everyday life? I pondered upon these issues as I left the performance.

H. Cecilia Suhr has a Ph.D. from Rutgers University (in media studies), and also a musician. 

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