Tuesday, September 27, 2005

symphonic pop-art by Kenji Bunch

This past weekend our orchestra performed Kenji Bunch's Symphony no. 1, "Lichtenstein Triptych," a piece inspired by three paintings by the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein - the last movement is based on In The Car, the image shown here.

Understanding the pop art aspirations of the Bunch piece explained a lot of its seemingly cheesy tendencies. Just as Lichtenstein coopted the styles and cliches of advertising and comic strips, Bunch borrows from cartoon music and film soundtracks. When we first rehearsed the piece, you could hear the orchestra let out a collective groan as one corny stereotype after another emerged, from the percussion whistles and chimes to the silly brass riffs. It was easy to overlook the clever orchestrational touches, and some genuinely beautiful melodic viola writing, and see the piece as hopelessly derivative.

I think Kenji Bunch's piece is worth a second hearing, though - he's taken on an artist in Lichtenstein whose work is incredibly subtle and multi-layered, despite its surface appearance of familiarity. This could be taken as ambition to develop an original, engaging voice, not just to write a few pleasingly hummable tunes. I don't know if he's found that original voice yet in this symphony, but he is still a young composer and he's at least raised some interesting possibilities.

I love the idea that art does not have to forged in the 700-degree heat of some genius mind, that it can be found all around us by anyone curious and enterprising enough to look for it. This is my impression of Roy Lichtenstein's work - he's created images that might be indistinguishable from the many images that bombard us every day - except he's challenged us as viewers to distinguish, to look deeper and question and discover the hidden meanings for themselves. To find meaning amidst the chaos of everyday life - isn't this the oldest and highest imperative of all art? Except Lichtenstein does it in a completely new and fresh way.

I'm not sure if Kenji Bunch has challenged his audience in quite the same way. Certainly there were some puzzles for the orchestra to figure out, strange rhythmic figures which interlocked with other voices to form a typically cheesy dance rhythm, but I wondered if the audience had anything to keep them similarly engaged. Perhaps there is some miraculous leap of genius necessary to refine the vernacular ingredients into something clearly, directly powerful. Following the Bunch Symphony we played a work by another brash, ambitious young composer who somehow got that recipe right: the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein!

To read more about Kenji Bunch and hear an excerpt from the "In The Car" movement of his symphony, visit his Meet the Composer website. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation is a great resource to see more of that artist's work. And our performance of Bunch's "Lichtenstein Triptych" was reviewed in a Palm Beach Post blog by Greg Stepanich.

No comments: