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These Gallery Walls Are Empty. Here, You Listen to the Art., Nina Siegal, The New York Times

January 24, 2018

A rehearsal for “Kunsthalle for Music,” a project led by the American composer and conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers, Credit Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

A rehearsal for “Kunsthalle for Music,” a project led by the American composer and conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers

Credit Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands — On a recent afternoon, between the bare white walls of an arts center, eight musicians were seated on folding chairs in a semicircle to conduct a musical séance. A violinist stood, walked to a hat on the floor, and took out a folded piece of paper to read the name written on it: “Amy Winehouse.”

She returned to her seat and the musicians all sat in silence for a moment, heads bent. An electric guitarist began to strike the strings of his instrument, slowly, methodically. A percussionist started to hum. Then a saxophonist howled a long, sharp single note with a kind of wild urgency. The other musicians, now all in a kind of musical trance, joined in, creating a crescendo of jumbled, inchoate sounds.

This is a rehearsal for one of 38 musical pieces that this ensemble will perform for four hours a day, four days a week, until March 3 at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, which is being given over to the American composer and conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers in what he described as “a friendly takeover,” as part of a project called “Kunsthalle for Music.”

The walls of the museum have been stripped of art, and the only visual part of the exhibition is the musical instruments — a piano here, a drum set there.

Depending on when they arrive, visitors might encounter the ensemble performing the musical séance by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, or playing a 1965 Yoko Ono composition, “Sky Piece to Jesus Christ.” Or they might stumble into a rehearsal for a newly commissioned experimental musical work by the American composer Jonathan Bepler.

“The walls are empty but the space is full,” said the art center’s new director, Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy. “It’s not only a takeover of the building, it takes over your full senses. You walk, you look, you listen and the music makes you vibrate internally.”

This “takeover” of an art space by an ensemble of musicians is an experiment to explore how contemporary classical music can be experienced as a form of contemporary art. Mr. Meyers and Ms. Chong Cuy hope that when experimental music is freed from its traditional settings and brought into the “white cube” of a gallery, both the musicians and the audience will experience it in a completely new way.

“If you think about the concert house, the opera house, the theater or even the club, these are spaces that have very specific rules that begin before you even enter the space,” said Mr. Meyers, during a break between rehearsals. Although these types of performance venues have been the norm for hundreds of years, he said, they may not always be the optimal setting for contemporary classical music.

“For the composer, these rules dominate the situation even before you step into the space, and sometimes even before you sit down to compose a piece.” About a decade ago, Mr. Meyers started to compose work for museum and gallery settings — large open spaces, usually with white walls and bare concrete floors, without fixed audience seating or even set performance times.

“I found that I could have a different relationship to the audience,” said Mr. Meyers, who is from New York and now lives in Berlin. “First of all, they had agency — they could come and go. If they didn’t like it they could leave, if they liked it they could stay. If they weren’t in the mood, they could come back tomorrow.”

He came up with the idea of a musical “kunsthalle,” the German word for a public building where art is displayed, and discussed it at length in an interview with Marie-France Rafael that later became the substance of the 2016 book “Music on Display.” Defne Ayas, who was the director of Witte de With until last year, read the book and became intrigued with the notion, deciding to try it out at the arts center, as a “test drive for a new type of institution.”

There is a long history of music in the context of visual art, from the Futurists in the early 20th century through 1960s conceptual art and John Cage, Ms. Ayas said in a telephone interview from Berlin, where she now lives. She added, however, that the exhibition in Rotterdam was “the first time we’re really looking in a keen way at the structures and processes and social situations that come with music.”

Mr. Meyers drew a distinction between music and sound art, which is often created specifically for art spaces. “I don’t consider myself to be a sound artist, I’m a composer,” he said. But the list of 38 musical compositions that he has put together for the exhibition contains both experimental pieces in the classical music tradition, and other works which have more to do with contemporary art.

The range of music on display begins with excerpts from Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (a single page of musical notation meant to be played 840 times) from around 1893, through Steve Reich “Clapping Music for Two Performers” from 1972, up to Mr. Meyers’s own “Elevator Music,” a 2016 piece that will be performed live in the Witte de With elevator by a cellist.

The musical séance, one of four new commissions, was created by Ms. Gonzalez-Foerster, a French artist who described herself as a visual artist with “a strong relationship to music” rather than a musician or a composer. (In one of her recent works, she appears in a projected hologram dressed as the opera singer Maria Callas.)

“A lot of music is made to be rehearsed and you think it’s only good when you’ve played it many times, but this is really the opposite,” she said in an interview between rehearsals. “It very much relies on this first moment. It also depends on the person who is watching how it works in an emotional sense.”

For her “Séance,” she gave the musicians only a few instructions: to enter the gallery space and to take their seats one at a time; that the last person into the room should pick one of the pieces of paper out of the hat. Rather than calling up a particular composition by the dead composer, she asked the musicians to channel the idea of the person. And she also told them “to forget about doing it well or doing it right.”

Halfway through “Séance,” the music had escalated into a pounding, rhythmic maelstrom of sound, with strains of blues and the saxophone wailing. The music swelled and dipped, swelled again and then waned, until the instruments stopped and only a few voices were left singing unintelligible words, breathy and prayerful. Then silence, while the musicians sat again with heads bent. Then they stood quietly and walked one by one out of the room.