The World Music Institute in New York Museums

By Alejandro van Zandt-Escobar

We recently had the opportunity to revisit Storm King Art Center, a 500 acre sculpture garden in the leafy Hudson Valley, to hear Indian classical musician Ikhlaq Hussain perform on top of a hill overlooking the grounds on a majestic and breezy summer afternoon. Hussain, a highly expressive and virtuosic sitar master, performed alongside his frequent collaborator, tabla player Anirban Roy Chowdhury. The duo played for close to two hours, their sounds delicately travelling around the hilltop, drawing passers-by towards them and enthralling the audience seated before the stage.

 

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Courtesy Storm King Art Center. 


Courtesy Storm King Art Center. 

 

Intrigued by the decision to put on an Indian classical music concert in such a unique location, we arranged to meet with Par Neiburger, Artistic Director of the World Music Institute (WMI), the organization which presented the show in collaboration with Storm King Art Center. Just two days before, WMI had put on a historic concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Ethiopian vibraphonist and jazz innovator Mulatu Astatke performed in the famed Temple of Dendur.

 

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Mulatu Astatke in The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Stephanie Berger

 

Now in his second season as Artistic Director, Neiburger shared his perspective on WMI's two latest concerts, putting them in context and explaining how their collaborations with museums and other visual art spaces are conceived of and executed. He described WMI as a "roaming presenter", a characteristic which allows for a particular level of flexibility and for the creation of unique experiences. For each concert, they ask themselves, "How can we create a unique experience for our audience?", a question which they can answer in much more exciting ways than if they were a traditional venue. "Different music can be augmented in different settings", Neiburger explained. At Storm King, we found ourselves in one of the most spectacular sculpture gardens in the world, a peaceful and extremely contemplative space in which the music seemed to seamlessly integrate, simultaneously impressive and moving yet not cognitively overbearing, much as the large-format works by artists such as Alexander Calder, Maya Lin, and Richard Serra may be - to name a few.

 

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Courtesy Storm King Art Center. 

Courtesy Storm King Art Center. 

 

When asked about Mulatu Astatke's show at the Met earlier that weekend, Neiburger described the event as, "one of the the most amazing concerts I've seen in my entire life." Pausing to consider the potential conflict of issuing such a statement about a performance which he had such an integral part in putting on, he stressed the unpredictable outcome of such large scale events: "You never really know how it's going to turn out. Magic takes hold of the situation." Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more exciting setting for the legendary 72-year old vibraphonist and his band to perform in than an ancient Egyptian temple that just, "happens to be erected and intact in New York City," as Neiburger put it. The audience was sitting inside the temple, with the band at its edge, and a diagonal glass ceiling coming down at an angle above providing a view of Central Park. The concert began at 7pm, when there was still daylight flooding into the temple (a calculated start time), and progressed into the night, powerfully combining the strength of the music with the delicate transition from dusk to nighttime. "Mulatu performing anywhere else may not even have been as special", Nieburger concluded. For his first concert in New York City in over a decade, New Yorkers had the privilege of hearing a living legend perform in one of the most spectacular sections of one of the world's top museums.

 

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Mulatu Astatke in The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Mulatu Astatke in The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Stephanie Berger

 

 

According to their mission statement, "WMI is committed to presenting the finest in traditional and contemporary music and dance from around the world with the goal of inspiring wonder for world cultures. WMI aims to enrich the lives of people living in New York by promoting awareness of other cultures and their traditions. WMI collaborates with community organizations and academic institutions in fostering greater understanding and appreciation of the world's cultural traditions and presents at venues throughout the city." One of the unique opportunities of bringing their events into museums, rather than traditional music venues, is that of accessing and building new audiences. At some concerts, Neiburger explains, the audience is made up of constituents of the museum rather than of WMI - some Met patrons who may not have been interested in a given artist had it not been something that the Met had presented in collaboration with WMI.

Looking around the setting for Ikhlaq Hussain's performance, Neiburger shared a personal story about his own discovery of "world" music, at a restaurant in Baltimore with his grandparents. "I was 12 or maybe 13 years old, and there was a record of traditional music from The Gambia playing, from the Mandika and Folani tribes." His fascination with what he heard, which was at the time completely unfamiliar and surprising, led to further exploration, and ultimately such a chance encounter may be what planted the seeds for the career he is now in. Although such spontaneous discovery may be less likely in the Temple of Dendur, where tickets for the concert started at $50, it certainly seems built into the fabric of the event at Storm King, a family-friendly institution with its own regular audience and a vast, open landscape which welcomes exploration.

 

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Courtesy Storm King Art Center. 

Courtesy Storm King Art Center.  

Mulatu Astatke's concert was not the World Music Institute's first event at the Temple of Dendur - they produced a performance by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in 2015 - and it hopefully won't be the last. They are looking towards a small festival at the Met in the fall of 2017, which would incorporate academic talks around the performances, helping to further contextualize the music. In crafting their concerts, WMI opens itself to dialogue with and adaptation to the needs of museum curators and other partners. "Most concerts are a partnership in one form or another," explains Neiburger, suggesting ways in which the musical curation can complement the museum's curation, particularly around temporary exhibits. Generally, this collaborative approach appears to be central to WMI's artistic direction, as Neiburger discussed the thinking and dialogues that go into concerts that pair artists from different cultures (such as Nepalese singer and nun Ani Choying Drolma and American composer and singer Meredith Monk), in order to explore artistic connections that are both explicit and implicit. In many ways, the World Music Institute's work reflects that of museum curators, in an effort to organize a complex and diverse cultural landscape in a way that makes sense to a diverse audience and can generate meaningful artistic experiences. Bringing the two types of curation together can produce particularly compelling results.

The World Music Institute has events planned throughout New York all the way through March, including a performance in the Grace Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Malian superstar singer-songwriter Boubacar Traoré, and will be announcing their Spring/Summer schedule in January.

 

 

Cover Image: Courtesy Storm King Art Center. Photo by Jason Reinhold.

All Images are ©Museeum unless indicated otherwise.