New Music at Duke Gardens: The Color Of There Seen From Here

Jonathan Bagg, violist in Duke’s Ciompi Quartet and chair of the Duke Music Department, will be presenting the premiere of The Color Of There Seen From Here, a mixed-media piece for flute, violin, viola, cello, and piano on July 9 in Duke Gardens. This special performance, created by composer Eric Moe and visual artist Barbara Weissberger, features live video. It is part of this summer’s Ciompi Quartet Presents series in the Kirby Horton Hall at Duke Gardens.

The show’s creators, Moe and Weissberger, are longtime partners. This is their first artistic collaboration, despite being married for fifteen years and eminent in their respective fields. “When Laura Gilbert and Jonathan Bagg asked us if we would be interested in a joint project,” says Moe, “we were flattered and excited…, but had some concerns, chief among them the problem of how sound and image could be equal partners in the enterprise.”

A way forward emerged from a shared interest in landscape and conversations about Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which is also the source of the work’s title. “You’ll hear and see the movement titles play out in the images and music, at times literally,” says Weissberger. “At other times you might find that the image and music are a bit contrarian.”

The blue of distance, image courtesy Barbara Weissberger.

One movement, for instance, addresses Solnit’s idea of “the blue of distance”—the more air between viewer and object, the bluer that object appears. The visual theme of the movement is a tightly cropped image of a hand holding a blue card. Much of the music, Moe says, has “a lush neo-Romantic texture,” with solo instruments occasionally emerging “like individual actors stepping briefly to the front of the stage to address the audience.” Eventually, though, “distance [is] evoked through high, quiet, far-away sounds,” bringing the music into alignment with the imagery.

The piece is about the sense of displacement and dislocation even in familiar surroundings; intensely desired things both personal and social; a longing for a place never to be reached. The abstract and the recognizable mingle in sonic and visual landscapes. A video of altered and collaged spectacular and mundane landscapes avoids literal narrative to excite deep examination and reflection. Both music and image explore tensions between foreground and background, intimacy and distance, solitude and desire.
The Color Of There Seen From Here, Program Excerpt


Two days after the performance in Durham, the same musicians will perform the piece in Peterborough, New Hampshire, as part of Electric Earth Concerts, a concert series founded and directed by Bagg and Gilbert, currently on its eight season. I recently spoke with Bagg about the new work and his approach to programming classical music.

Jonathan holding his viola
Jonathan Bagg

Q: How did you come to commission this new piece?

A: I first encountered Eric Moe’s music a decade or so ago when I commissioned him to do a setting of the poetry of Richard Wilbur. His music is bracing and virtuosic but has an underlying lyrical quality. From then on I have been an admirer, and in fact have commissioned him two other times, most recently in A Forest Unfolding, a large collaborative work involving four composers performed at Duke this past December.

He gave us the music for The Color Of There Seen From Here in December and it turned out to be a substantial twenty-minute work in three movements. We start rehearsing together this week at Avaloch Farm in New Hampshire, which is a place created specifically for chamber music players to come and work on projects. It doesn’t have a large performance space, but it has lots of studios and a big central building with a kitchen. And the food is amazing! That’s one big perk of the program—they have a great chef and serve you three meals a day.

This piece is very hard and covers a lot of musical ground, but we have really good players. It’s such a luxury to have that five-day period to focus on it and coordinate with the technician who will be playing the visuals.

Q: What else is on July 9 program?

A: We start with Mario Davidovsky’s Quartetto for flute and strings, which is a single movement about nine minutes long. It’s in a modernist idiom but really colorful and surprisingly voluptuous. Then we’ll play the Fauré Piano Quartet, Opus 45, which is an absolutely gorgeous piece. It’s deeply romantic in feeling, but there’s a certain kind of purity or austerity to it.

One thing that we’re not doing in this concert is sandwiching the contemporary piece between the opener and the big romantic work at the end. That formula is okay—it works—but as I get older I’m more and more inclined to put the new piece after intermission, if it’s substantial enough. And in this case, because of the visual component, there’s going to be some set-up required—another reason to put the new work after intermission.

Laura Gilbert with flute
Laura Gilbert

Q: I’ve been struck over the years by the programs you create for the Ciompi Quartet Presents series and the way they’re always reaching into surprising corners of the repertoire.

A: Programming, for me, has a kind of alchemy to it. I don’t think that there are any rules, but I feel like when a program is good, you just know it. Contrast is always a good thing. The length of the piece and the intensity of focus that the performers and also the audience have to bring to it also come into play.

Most of the concerts that I’ve given in this series have been well attended and well received, so I think it’s an opportunity to push the envelope a little bit. I feel like in summer, the audience is a little hungrier for music because there’s less going on. And the setting is really nice, in the gardens, early on a summer’s evening. Everybody’s relaxed and in a receptive mood for music that’s less familiar.

Q: How much different is it to program a Ciompi concert?

The string quartet has an incredible repertoire of music from the past. Our quartet—especially with our new cellist, Carrie Stinson, in it—is probably going to skew more towards the new then we have the past years, but we’re always going to draw on the entire history of the quartet. We love that music, but we also like to push the envelope.

I feel like there’s often an impulse with audiences to just want to hear the stuff that’s familiar. When they think of going to a concert, they remember that beautiful performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet that they loved so much. They want to duplicate experiences like that.

But audiences do like to have new ground opened up, and have their ears opened up. And if new music is presented well—if the rest of the program highlights the new piece, and it’s presented with the same polish as the ones they know—it can be a wonderful experience.

My goal is for that to be what audiences want and expect when they go to a concert—the excitement of something new and exploratory. A lot of it has to do with changing the expectations, and you can’t do that if you give them a lousy concert. You have to deliver on the promise.