Last Saturday, I had the great honor of participating in a concert held at the Lijsterbes Kraainem in Brussels that combined music, painting, and literature. The idea came from my good friend and favorite contemporary classical pianist, Philippe Raskin. The story goes something like this:
In 1874, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition, a ten movement piano suite in honor of his recently deceased friend, Viktor Hartmann. Each movement is inspired by one of Hartmann’s paintings. Of the original ten Hartmann paintings, only five are believed to still exist today (though there are some doubts as to the authenticity of these remaining works). Listening to the piece, you have the sensation of walking through an exhibition at a museum – hence the name of the title.
With this in mind, Raskin hoped to recreate the spirit of the Mussorgsky composition through the joint collaboration of music, painting, and literature. To do this, he first asked the artist, Magda Calleeuw, to paint the five missing Hartmann works. Next, he asked me to write ten vignettes inspired by the corresponding movements and paintings.
We then all set out to work both individually and collaboratively. For example, for my ten pieces, I first listened to the music a few times and looked at the original paintings. I then came up with some basic notions of what story I wanted to tell for each. Then, I sat with Raskin and discussed the music. He literally read the sheet music out loud and explained the different voices throughout each piece. For the missing paintings, Raskin and Calleeuw followed a similar methodology. I then received drafts of Calleeuw’s paintings and came up with storylines very much inspired by her paintings’ depiction of the music. (I also received excellent input and feedback from my wife, Sana, and my friend, Waya). And finally, Raskin adapted his interpretation of the music based on Calleeuw’s paintings and my writings.
Finally, for the concert, we were very fortunate to have Geert Segers, Flanders’ leading voice on radio and television, as the museum tour guide through the Pictures at an Exhibition.
Thus, the concert was divided into two parts. For the first part, Segers presented each movement and painting, with Raskin playing a sample of each, followed by me reading the corresponding vignette. Then, after a brief intermission, Raskin concluded the concert by playing the entire composition all the way through.
This structure, we hoped, would enable the audience to see how each piece of the pie – the music, painting, and writing – all fit together, were inspired by each other, and could tell a coherent story. What was amazing was how each medium played off the other live, altering the tone and feeling of each. We can only hope that the audience was equally moved.
Now, our intention is to replicate this structure in other fora around Europe.