Setting a priceless painting to music

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Violinist Kristian Winther. Photo: Peter Hislop

CIMF, Concert 21: “Blue Poles”. At the James O. Fairfax Theatre, May 8th. Rated by PERFOMANCE.

WHEN the National Gallery bought American artist Jackson Pollock’s painting “Blue Poles” for $1.3 million in 1973, it caused quite a stir.

To many observers it appeared as if paint had simply been dripped and thrown thoughtlessly onto a canvas, and their purchase was definitely not seen as a prudent use of taxpayers’ money.

Today the painting is one of Australia’s most valuable and priceless works of art.

The concert “Blue Poles” honored the artist and the painting with three musical works. It started with a short 2019 video directed by Alison Chernick to refresh our memory of the painting, its purchase and notoriety.

As Native American art caught Pollock’s early attention and remained an inspiration for his work, it was a brilliant idea that the music portion of the concert should begin and end with Matthew Doyle playing the didgeridoo.

His expert playing created a connection to the Australian Aborigines and provided the backdrop for the rest of the concert.

The Alma Moodie String Quartet, consisting of Kristian Winther (violin), Anna Da Silva Chen (violin), Alexina Hawkins (viola) and Thomas Marlin (cello), then took the stage for three works – one inspired by Pollock’s painting, one , which attracted controversy of its own and one reminiscent of the painting and its time.

The first piece “Andante for Strings” by the American Ruth Crawford-Seeger was composed in 1931 and is probably her best-known work. The piece’s long melodic line, moving from instrument to instrument, gives it a distinctive rise and fall that builds to a dramatic crescendo. It has been described as “very slow dripping”. The quartet did a good job.

The second item, the work of John Cage, 4’33”She is no stranger to controversy. It is written for any instrument or combination of instruments. It has three movements totaling four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and the score instructs the performers not to play their instruments for the entire duration. As polarizing as Pollock’s “Blue Poles,” this was the perfect concert for it. Whether this is a joke or a serious work of art is up to the listener.

The third work was a premiere by Brian Howard entitled “Blue Poles, String Quartet No 5”.

The work is abstract, dramatic, intense and unpredictable, just like Pollock’s painting. There’s a sense of randomness and controlled chaos, and it creates a comfortable springboard for the imagination. It was brilliantly played by the quartet.

This was an excellent concert that provided an additional glimpse into a well known and often misunderstood painting by an artist of increasing prominence.

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