Dialogues between Art and Music/Soundings: New Music at The Nasher

Excerpted from Arts & Culture Texas

By Steven Brown

Listen to music in a roomful of visual art, and your eyes and ears may pick up parallels thanks to sheer serendipity. The resonances don’t necessarily depend on someone planning them out.


“The collection at the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the way it’s exhibited, always has a wonderful dialogue between art of different eras. This is what I find profoundly moving. And it’s also deeply helpful in giving people an emotional access to music,” says Seth Knopp, artistic director of Soundings: New Music at the Nasher. Audiences pick up affinities on their own, so he sees no need to contrive programs that have hard-and-fast links to the sculptures on display.


“Similarities between artistic voices … really give people a different and deeper perspective on the Nasher’s collection, and on what’s presented in a single (concert)–or what’s presented over the course of a season,” Knopp says. “That gives me freedom.”


Soundings’ Jan. 4 concert will feature a work created in part at the Vermont retreat: Some Favored Nook by Eric Nathan, a composition professor at Brown University in Rhode Island. Nathan’s 45-minute song cycle grows from the quarter-century correspondence between poet Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist, military commander, minister and prolific writer.

“It tells a story that’s really not well-known,” Knopp says. Higginson, in his role as a late-1800s literary figure, encouraged the then-unknown poet to pursue her calling. After Dickinson’s death, he co-edited the first collection of her poetry.


Using a text drawn from their letters and other writings, Nathan’s cycle casts a soprano as Dickinson and a baritone as Higginson. The two share their views about topics ranging from war and human rights to love and death.


Nathan “writes music from a quiet but very passionate place,” Knopp explains. Thanks to the existential topics Some Favored Nook explores, it “resonates in such large ways. Yet it’s also so intimate and personal. … It very quietly seeps in. When it was premiered–in a house concert at Yellow Barn–people were weeping at the end.”


Nathan’s songs will share the program with two other vocal works rooted in the Civil War’s upheavals. Four Walt Whitman Songs by Kurt Weill, the German-American best known for his The Threepenny Opera, includes a setting of O Captain! My Captain! Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is the basis of Apparition by George Crumb, a pioneer of coaxing new and subtle tone colors from instruments.


“In many ways, there’s a real aesthetic link between (Nathan’s) music and George Crumb’s music, just in the fact that there’s very little histrionics in either one’s approach to their writing,” Knopp says. “But there’s an incredible emotional undertone to what they do.”


Read full feature in ACTX here.