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A painting with a reflection of people

U students have crafted original music compositions in response to art works in the Weisman Art Museum's permanent collection.

Musical sights

Weisman uses iPods to help patrons interpret art

By Danny LaChance

June 30, 2008

For some, iPods are a sign of detachment, a symbol of how we're increasingly cutting ourselves off from one another in public spaces. But when Colleen Sheehy, the Weisman Art Museum's program director, sees museum visitors wearing iPods, she smiles rather than cringes. For her, those white ear buds are proof of a novel form of engagement. The iPods, she explains, contain the winning music compositions from the museum's ArtSounds contest, an annual competition that she launched with School of Music faculty member Doug Geers two years ago. CLA music faculty encourage students in their courses to craft original music compositions in response to art works in the museum's permanent collection. Winning compositions are then recorded, uploaded to museum-owned iPods, and lent to patrons, who then can take in a painting's visual call while listening to a student's musical response. Sheehy is excited about the music's potential to encourage museum goers to give pieces a second--and third, and fourth--look. "There's a famous maxim in museum work: visitors only look at a piece of art for five seconds," Sheehy says. But if patrons are looking at artist Wesley Kimler's painting "Hunter/Prey" while listening to the four-and-a-half minute percussion solo it inspired University undergraduate Joe Millea to create, they may give the piece more attention than it would otherwise get. "I have walked by that painting and looked at it briefly hundreds of times," Sheehy says. "And it wasn't until I was in the gallery and he was playing his piece that I really looked at it. He really made me aware of its conflicting elements." It also, she notes, helps communicate to patrons that you don't need a Ph.D. in art history to interpret art--and that interpretation can take many forms other than the authoritative commentaries often posted on placards next to sculptures and paintings. Museum patrons can check out the iPods for free at the front desk.

Music students, of course, are thrilled to have their work made available to the general public. But they also gain important skills. Beginning students learn to think about how music interacts with physical, visual, and emotional sensations. "The core idea is that we want them to translate a physical art object and the psychological, emotional experience they have looking at that object into a musical response," says Geers. "It's engaging their brains in a significantly different way" than writing an analytical essay on a symphony or painting might, he adds. Advanced music students, meanwhile, are challenged to grow artistically. One of last year's winners, Josh Clausen, who earned his M.A. last spring from the School of Music, says that he was accustomed to beginning compositions with concepts, emotions, or even fictional characters in mind. This experience, he says, was different. "It's a concrete object. It's a different platform for discourse, a somewhat more articulate one," he explains. Since graduation, Clausen has been drawn increasingly toward this newer platform, creating compositions in conjunction with images and video. Ultimately, Sheehy says, programs like ArtSounds serve as an important reminder that the museum remains rooted in an educational institution, with particular ties to the College of Liberal Arts. They communicate the ethos that museums aren't just for Picassos of the past. They're also for Mozarts of the future.