How Sound in Sculpture is combining art and music like never before

Returning for its fifth year, “Sound in Sculpture” has become an innovative campus tradition combining art and music. Every year as a part of the Fusebox Festival, student composers from the University of Texas create music inspired by art on campus and perform it on site. This year, composers are finding inspiration in José Parlá’s vibrant new mural, “Amistad América”, a 2018 Landmarks commission.

Timothy D. Rogers founded “Sound in Sculpture” in 2014 in partnership with Landmarks on campus. In addition to organizing the program, Rogers composes a piece for “Sound in Sculpture” every year. Rogers has been composing music ever since earning his Master of Music Composition from the Butler School of Music in 2008.

“I knew that getting performance opportunities was important and thought that could be a great asset to current students,” Rogers says, “I remembered a piece that Composition Professor Donald Grantham had written when the current Blanton building opened, and thought that idea of performing music inspired by art with the art was a cool idea.”

“Amistad América”Rogers works as the Student Engagement Coordinator at Texas Performing Arts, a position where he creates opportunities for UT students to engage with the arts. The decision to have all student composers in “Sound in Sculpture” was no accident.

“Since my job is about creating artistic engagement opportunities specifically at UT, that is where the focus will be for the foreseeable future. We have had a few future and past students as performers over the years, but we want it to be an opportunity for and showcase of UT students,” says Rogers.

Because of its accessibility to students, “Sound in Sculpture” has developed a reputation for completely filling site-specific performance space as much as it can. In its third year at the Health Learning Building of the Dell Medical School, saxophonists and whistlers descended down a staircase performing a piece written by a fellow musician. The spectacle was a work of art itself. This year, Parlá’s massive mural “Amistad América” offers a new challenge for the composers.

The 4,000 square foot mural resides in Robert B. Rowling Hall where its intricate lines and complex pigments capture impressions of Austin through Parlá’s eyes. The intense colors and elongated brush strokes symbolize the complex geopolitics of Austin and brings them under an optimistic title: “Friendship America.”

In a 2018 interview done with Studio International, José Parlá describes “There is so much inspiration that comes from sharing a work that is about history, hope, geography, people, race, migration, ethnicity and knowledge and, most of all, the imagination.” The inspiration Parlá felt creating the mural reflects in the new compositions for this year’s “Sound in Sculpture”.

Although art is created for everyone, it seems difficult to be able to hear music in a mural. How are the composers able to translate the nuances of the painting into an orchestration?

“Some of the composers think about the meaning behind a specific work, some think about the way the artwork was created, some pay attention to the physical materials,” Rogers says, “There isn’t a single right or wrong way to respond to art. That transfers to there not being one right or wrong way to artistically respond to art.”

It’s fitting that Parlá found inspiration for “Amistad América” in knowledge and imagination. As an institution, “Sound in Sculpture” relies on both values. Thanks to Landmarks, the privilege of having a growing collection of art on campus allows for new art – like “Sound in Sculpture” – to cultivate.

“The Landmarks collection is constantly growing so there should always be more and more work to respond to. Even the years where we make a suggestion, if the composers weren’t inspired by the piece, we would shift somewhere else,” Rogers says.

With the emphasis site-specific performances, the increasing popularity of the program poses many questions about the future of “Sound in Sculpture.” What changes will be made in the coming years to accomplish developing goals?

“As this is our 5th year, we are already fairly well established,” says Rogers, “but maintaining that is a major goal. I would like to see this continue to happen every year, with both the site-specific premiere and then a concert hall encore, ideally in the McCullough Theatre, each year. Then of course having attendance continue to grow would be wonderful.”

Each composer’s take on “Amistad América” develops a different glimpse into what the piece of art means to them as a musician. Parlá’s mural brings together many aspects of Austin culture, and “Sound in Sculpture” is responding in song.

“Everyone responds to the art differently, and I think that is part of the fun,” Rogers says.

“Sound in Sculpture” will take place on April 19 at 6 pm and 7 pm in the Zlotnik Family Ballroom in Robert B. Rowling Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

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