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Pictures Reframed

Artist Robin Rhode and composer Leif ove Andsnes come together in a radical and stunning interpretation of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition

At first glance, the South-African artist Robin Rhode and leading Norwegian composer Leif ove Andsnes seem like a pretty unlikely pairing, one of them has a back-history of creating politically-charged street-art while the other is one of the most respected classical pianists of the modern age. Despite the cultural differences that supposedly set them apart, the first thing that strikes me when I meet them both is how similar they seem, sharing an unpretentious affinity for good-natured ribaldry ("classical pianists are like football players – they have a break after 45 mins") and a passion for creating art shot-through with social conscience.

In a time when the far right are seeking to carve divisions in our society, their radically creative collaboration Pictures Reframed seeks to unify seemingly disparate artistic practices, transmitting a powerful and culturally relevant vision of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition – a piece of music conceived as the soundtrack to a gallery visitor's experience of the paintings of Hartmann, an artist who did not shy from commenting upon the political arena of his day. By creating video works that literally breathe and pulsate to the tempo at which Andsnes performs, Rhode has helped to create a throroughly modern evocation of the piece and brought the concept of music responding to image full circle. We were lucky to get to talk to the two at all considering Rhode (who is one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo show at The Hayward Gallery) was strip-searched at Heathrow just one day before our meeting. The reason? An unspecified Al Qaeda threat. Unsurprisingly, he was tempted to call the whole thing off – "They went through my wallet and they even looked at my sketches and asked me what the meaning of my drawings were! They said it was because of an Al Qaeda threat, I was like, 'What?! Al Qaeda in South Africa? They wouldn’t give me any more information. The borders are clearly closing and sadly that will affect cultural production in this country." We kicked off by apologising on behalf of the British Goverment and then asked them both what their intentions were in Pictures Reframed.

Leif ove Andsnes: My initial idea was to try and bring it back to visual arts where it originated from and complete the circle. Hopefully it’s a new expression we are creating by combining these two art forms, and everyone will have very different experience depending on whether they know this piece very well from before or whether they are more familiar with the visual arts. I became even fonder of the musical piece because you have brought layers to the existing idea in my head of this gallery visitor walking into the exhibition space. The film together with the music creates its own rhythm, which I think is very interesting and new.

Robin Rhode: It's interesting for me because it’s only through this project and our dialogue that I have realised the inherent tempo and rhythm of the drawing process. The process of drawing evokes a kind of musicality that I wasn’t really conscious of in the past. We have taken these points of consciousness within each other’s own practice, and I think there are moments where the visual component and the musical component are totally parallel.

LA: When I see your work it seems to me that you prepare in quite a similar way to a musician, in that you approach work like a performance, very often in a limited time-frame. I mean, concerts are amazing because you feel an intense adrenalin about the fact that there are 1,000 people looking at what is happening in the moment – you can’t look back, you just have to go for the next thing. I feel with you that it is kind of the same, you are also going with the tempo and the rhythm, I mean I’ve seen you in action and it’s like, wow, you are really on!

RR: But I feel somewhat divorced from that process in Pictures Reframed, because it functions very differently to my live aspect. It became something else… It became an extension of what I am known to do in a live performance or in drawings.

LA: You mean that some of these pieces were planned meticulously?

RR: Exactly. And the tempo of the music really influenced the movement of the visual or the narrative of the form. I think just in terms of the process, I had to really change aspects of my artistic practice to develop the visual component of Pictures Reframed. I would like to take this process into my own working practice… I mean, I don’t think it was so far away from what I normally do but there were artworks that I probably would not have created otherwise. It really inspired certain visual languages in my work that it would have taken a longer time for me to reach in my artistic trajectory – I would like to internalise that.

LA: It is exciting. I am speaking to a lot of people who find this project intellectually engaging and interesting – they will come to this when usually they wouldn’t come to a classical music concert and that’s great!

RR: I want this project to be relevant. I want it to be relational, and I want to touch on ideas about economy and identity. I want this to be political because when I create my artworks outside of this project there is a political consciousness – I'm not making political art, I’m making art political. Certain drawings of Hartmann’s had a very social or political critique, and I could feel a certain social consciousness in his relationship to Mussorgsky. The Great Gate Of Kiev is a perfect example as it was an architectural sketch for the Gate of Kiev that was rejected, because the intention of the artist was to create a structure that would collapse, as a critique of the government. That is interesting, contemporary and somewhat conceptual. I think it is important for classical music to be relevant to our time.

LA: (Laughs) In The Great Gate of Kiev you murdered a piano… Not my piano, thankfully, quite an old piano.

RR: Over the last few years I have been obsessed with this idea of killing a piano! I’ve always been fascinated by the way it embodies such an intense history. I felt that if I could murder it I could deconstruct it’s meaning in a very avant-garde way.

LA: There are certainly some bad signs about the relevance of classical music. I am worried about the lack of education in schools because if you don’t get any contact with music when you are young – if you don’t play an instrument, if you don’t sing – then you are not in contact with it at all. In that case, music becomes so abstract, and it’s hard later in life to want to go to a classical concert because it seems so foreign. On the other hand, there are other countries where it's much healthier – I am going to Venezuela in January where hundreds of thousands of kids are playing instruments on a high level, and it’s the same in China. Maybe the great Austrian and German composers will be adopted by Asia and forgotten in our society. If I play in Seoul for instance, young people are at the concerts and it’s a completely different atmosphere. I feel like Elvis in the lobby!

RR: (Laughs) I have certainly developed a deeper appreciation of classical music and come to understand the psychology of the music better – your Grieg CDs have overtaken my Jay Z collection. It’s no more ‘Sweet Jigga’, now it’s Schumacher!

Pictures Reframed will debut at New York's Lincoln Centre on November 13 and be performed at The Queen Elizabeth Hall at The South Bank Centre on December 4. Pictures Reframed then goes on to tour major cities all over the world. A DVD of the preview performance in Norway is available from EMI Classics. Below is a section from The Gate of Kiev.

For more details check out Pictures Reframed

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