Guitar Heroes and Clinking Bowls

Its title sounds like a film score or background music, but "Soundtracks" at SFMOMA wants art-goers to let themselves get uncomfortable.

A guitarist plays for an art-goer in SFMOMA’s “Live Personal Soundtrack” by the artists Chris Kallmyer and Mark Allen. (Photo by Katherine Du Tiel)

The new “Soundtracks” exhibit at SFMOMA arrived with a mandate — to analyze “the role of sound in contemporary art” — that effectively means anything goes. Have guitarists play private sessions for art-goers as they view paintings on the second floor? Sure. Have two Brazilian composers create odd, self-playing wooden instruments that resemble something from Alice in Wonderland? Yeah. And have a French artist create a swimming pond with bowls that float and clink and swirl around? Definitely.

The sounds that usually fill SFMOMA and other major art museums are a cacophony of disparate, disjointed noise — from security-guard warnings (“Sir, please don’t touch that sculpture”) to art-goers’ conversations about the artwork or even the humdrum of their lives (“Hey, I forgot to tell you about the quiche I had for lunch”). Certain artworks and exhibits showcase music, as in Shirin Neshat’s Passage at SFMOMA, for which Philip Glass provides an unforgettably emotive orchestration, and the de Young’s “Revelations: Art From the African American South” exhibit, where Lonnie Holley’s songs fill a gallery space with the kind of beautiful, haunting music that is entirely appropriate for art that was birthed in the shadows of the mainstream art world. But big, expansive music exhibits are rare in prominent art institutions. Rarer still: Exhibits that invite art-goers to exit their comfort zones — to really exit, and enter a level of possible discomfort.

That’s what Live Personal Soundtrack does. Chris Kallmyer and Mark Allen’s art piece gives art-goers the chance to view SFMOMA’s second-floor paintings and sculpture with a guitarist in tow. The art-goer wears headphones that connect to the guitarist’s instrument. The guitarist also wears headphones and follows the art-goer around, performing music that interprets the different art on view. The guitarist and art-goer are literally tied together, in a temporary arrangement that can be thought of as a kind of impromptu art date. The experience is intense — and not for everyone, since Live Personal Soundtrack puts the duo on display for everyone in the gallery. Only the guitarist and the art-goer can hear the music as they walk around and become objects to stare at. Other art-goers can sense that the duo’s art date is either going well — it usually does — or going to hell, which sometimes happens. On opening night, some people took off their headphones within seconds.  

“You’re providing a scenario where there can be an intensely intimate experience with a stranger,” Kallmyer tells SF Weekly, “and it can be also intensely intimidating and awkward, and it’s just not your vibe.”

Kallmyer, who also participated in his own exhibit on opening night at SFMOMA, says that the guitarist’s music changed the way he saw artist William Allan’s boxed multimedia work from the 1960s, which incorporated old books, wood, eyedroppers, and other objects.

“I was looking at one of those, and they were so sad. They were so much sadder with the soundtrack I received,” he says. “It colored the whole experience. I had a much more emotional relationship to the work than I had previously. The guitarist helped me take a deep dive with the work. This is what happens when you’re with another person looking at art. Anything can happen. It’s no longer a solitary act. It’s a together act. In this case, it’s really a together act.”

Kallmyer and Allen first did Live Personal Soundtrack in 2010, at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum. Its recommission at SFMOMA is a boon not only for art-goers and the guitarists but for the art on the second floor, like Ruth Pastine’s Witness 5-V9048, (Blue Orange Light), a Mark Rothko-ish painting from 2016 whose vertical yellows and oranges seem more frenetic and cosmic with musical accompaniment; and Elliott Hundley’s massive pin-and-print collage called Agave, whose epic interpretation of a Greek tragedy turns downright operatic when accompanied by guitar chords.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes, SFMOMA art-goers take the guitarists on an unexpected route. On opening night, one art-goer took guitarist Giacomo Fiore from the second-floor gallery into SFMOMA’s second-floor lobby, where instead of walls with paintings or sculpture, Fiore had to interpret the people milling about, talking to each other, munching hors d’oeuvres, drinking alcohol — everything but the art. The art-goer zigzagged for many minutes, so Fiore had to zigzag, too.

Fiore, a veteran musician and music instructor who’s also an SFMOMA member, did about 20 walks with art-goers that night, telling SF Weekly that, “The tour ended awkwardly sometimes, with people saying, ‘OK, should I tip you?’ The weirdest one was this lady whose tour lasted maybe 30 seconds. We got to a room with a lot of large-scale contemporary works that were open and spacey, and there was a lot of light, and I was playing big, moody chords, and she took her headphones off and she said, ‘You’re making me cry,’ and she wouldn’t do it anymore. I was like, ‘That’s kind of awesome, and I’m sorry — I wasn’t trying to make you cry.’ ”

Marcos Moreira was one of the art-goers who enjoyed Live Personal Soundtrack that night, and he had a special appreciation because Moreira is one-half of the art-slash-composer group O Grivo, whose contribution to SFMOMA’s exhibit is the self-playing seventh-floor work called Cantilena. Like Live Personal Soundtrack, Cantilena is an eclectic piece that defies normal classification. Set up mostly on tables and a wall, Cantilena — the duo’s first analog, acoustic orchestration — incorporates lots of small wooden wheels that whirl and rotate. Violin bows get played. Bells get chimed. Wooden sticks go ’round and ’round. The result isn’t a recognizable piece of pop music. Instead, Cantilena is a kind of aural and visual funhouse that appeals to both the kid in people and to their appreciation of arresting, abstract music — somewhere in the neighborhood of Philip Glass, John Cage, or Charles Mingus. In fact, Cage is someone whom Moreira and Nelson Soares, O Grivo’s other half, had in mind when they created Cantilena.

“It’s very close to John Cage’s idea of experimental,” Soares, who plays drums, tells SF Weekly in a Skype interview with Moreira from the duo’s home city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Moreira, who’s a guitarist, adds, “Music in some occasion can be heard by the eyes without sounds. Something like a movement — a rhythmic movement. All the materials of the music, the rhythm, the harmony, the tones — but they’re not sounds, only the movements. With the movement, you can imagine the sounds.”

None of the many works in “Soundtracks” is related to any other in a musical sense. The exhibit is not like, say, an early Beatles album where you can hear the thematic similarities of every song. Instead, “Soundtracks” is more like the Beatles’ White Album, where each piece is its own world of sound. You don’t have to like every offering to appreciate the span of sonic creativity that’s on display at SFMOMA. I’ve met art-goers who say the absolute best part of “Soundtracks” is Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, a multi-screen offering that has nine musicians in an old New York state mansion who are playing in separate rooms but are essentially creating one song. Each musician plays a different instrument. Each one interprets the same lyric. Shown in a darkened gallery, The Visitors becomes a mystical experience — a kind of folk-rock-gospel piece where you can see and practically feel the devotion that went into it.

By comparison, Celeste Boursier Mougenot’s clinamen v.2, the bowls-in-a-pond piece, is beautifully quiet, apart from the sounds of white bowls shifting in the blue water and gently hitting one another. Both meditative and artistic, clinamen v.2 brings the sound of water into SFMOMA. It’s also about movement and color contrasts — and seeing patterns in art and music that are improvisational and unexpected.

Exploring the connection between visual art and music isn’t a radical idea, and any conversation on the topic has to include such artists as Romare Bearden, who was heavily influenced by jazz, and Wassily Kandinsky, whose love of classical music and opera were essential elements of his abstract art. Kandinsky envied music’s ability to speak to people’s souls and their inner feelings and lives, but he also said that painting had at least one advantage over music. “Painting,” Kandinsky wrote in his 1910 work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, “can present to the spectator the whole content of its message at one moment.”

“Soundtracks” extends those moments in a multisensory way on SFMOMA’s second floor. That’s what’s radical: Giacomo Fiore, Michael Ballan, and other guitarists are bringing a highly personal touch to the paintings and sculpture. Instead of SFMOMA headsets that give art-goers a private experience with recorded voices, Live Personal Soundtrack requires a very public connection. The guitarists aren’t trained docents. They’re young musicians who like art but aren’t experts in modern abstract paintings or the work of Nam June Paik, whose retrospective of video sculpture is being exhibited on SFMOMA’s second floor. The music that Fiore, Ballan, and the other guitarists are playing is unique — sometimes frenetic, sometimes moody, sometimes dark, sometimes uplifting. They aren’t playing hits. They’re creating music in the moment. And when the moment is gone, so is the music — until the next volunteer art-goer comes into view.

“There’d be so many people who looked at [the guitar and headphones] and say, ‘What is this? I don’t get it,’ ” says Ballan, who’s 30. “I’d say, ‘I wear headphones; you wear headphones. I play and follow you, and you walk around.’ They’d giggle and get all sheepish, as if though they had to perform. It’s like asking to have this little emotional artistic trip together. It’s cool.”  

“Soundtracks,” through Jan. 1 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or sfmoma.org.

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