It’s difficult to not feel the tremendous visual weight of artist Xu Longsen’s “The Law of the Dao Is Its Being What It Is” ink painting in the Kirkwood Hall of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The enormous painting spanning almost as long as two school buses depicts a vast and intricate mountain range with rivers and waterfalls, forests and misty peaks- which seem to go on forever into the background. Amidst the towering black marble columns of Kirkwood Hall, Longsen’s painting acts as almost a sort of window, creating a visual jolt that tears the viewer away from the Greco-Roman architecture that surrounds them.
This window, this painting was the backdrop of the Conservatory of Music’s second collaboration with the museum as part of the “Conservatory Connections” series. Bringing in UMKC graduate students to perform their own compositions, the aim was to create a blend of new and old to reflect the Nelson-Atkins’ own “Journey Through Mountains & Rivers” exhibit with both modern Chinese paintings like Longsen’s as well as extremely rare ancient 1,000-year old paintings.
The collection of instruments appeared at first to be an odd collection for such a small ensemble of only four people, but each had a specific purpose and role in bringing the entire performance together.
This collection has ranged from conventional instruments, like a bass clarinet, to a wide percussion section of congas, bongos, a glockenspiel, an ocean drum, and interestingly, two empty liquor bottles.
These together would serve to add both visceral feeling and nature sounds to the compositions. The greatest oddity to the ensemble was the electric banjo. During the last song, “Mantis” in which it is used, it is given an effect which makes it sound as if all the chords are being played in reverse.
The signature instrument in the ensemble was a 21-string guzheng, a Chinese string instrument resembling a long lacquered wooden box with strings stretching over it that the player plucks and strums with their fingers.
What made this performance truly incredible was the connection that was created between the musicians, the viewers, and the painting that loomed over each. After the first few minutes of each song, time begins to disintegrate and the listener starts to take a journey though the paths and over the rocky mountainsides of the vast illustrated expanse drawn before them.
The music became theatrical in this regard. There were moments when combined together, the musicians created sounds that brought life to the art which stood behind them. One song, “I Walk Alone,” was written as a solo by the guzheng, and was to illustrate the feeling of walking through this imaginary aesthetic mountain landscape. The walk the listeners made throughout this performance was not a walk of loneliness, but more a walk of contemplative solitude. A kind of solitude found only while in the presence of nature.