The New Environment: Improvisation In Music & Art At Bergen Kunsthall

Curated by Steinar Sekkingstad, an exhibition in Bergen explores the links between improvised music and visual art from the 1960s to the present day

Moki Cherry, Organic Theatre or The Living Temple, 1972. Courtesy the Estate of Moki Cherry, Tågarp, Sweden and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago. Photo: Tom Van Eynde

On Tuesday 3 September 1968, the artist Moki Cherry, wife of Don Cherry, wrote to the prominent Norwegian jazz critic Randi Hultin: “Thank you very much for pictures and cuttings. We send you this material from last night’s concert hoping you will be able to help us come to Oslo to perform.”

“It will be wonderful to stay some time before,” Moki continues, “to rehearse and work on the new environment. We would also like to find out about using one or two dancers and possible voice (Karin Krog?) Yes, so many ideas and lots of energy and love.”

This word ‘environment’ here provides a pointed clue towards the direction that Don and Moki’s performances would be taking over the next few years, away from the more-or-less straight presentation of Cherry’s music in a relatively familiar concert setting and towards the mix of environmental activism and multimedia performance, involving brightly coloured psychedelic paintings, tapestries, and canvases, that would be variously known by the names ‘Movement’, ‘Organic Music’, and ‘Organic Music Theatre’.

The letter, currently on display as part of Bergen Kunsthall’s exhibition File Under Freedom is practically a work of art in itself. Its cursive lettering weaves around Moki’s drawings of clouds, stars, and the sun, with several sentences arranged fanning out from the sun like beams of light. She signs of with a little sketch of a curly-haired child, “Neneh, 4 years” and a baby “Lanoo – Eagle-Eye, 4 months.”

In amongst vivid canvases in which images of swans and dragons burst out of rich saffron and cerulean backdrops, a bulbous hanging foam sculpture resembling the broadly contemporary soft sculptures of Yayoi Kusama or the udders of a patchwork cow, we see pictures of the Cherrys’ home in Tågarp, Sweden, the walls erupting with swirls of colour, and of Don and other musicians sprawled out on blankets on the grass at the Molde International Jazz Festival in 1968, playing flutes and generally kicking back in the bright Nordic sunshine.

Milford Graves, Hand-painted drums, c. 1970s. Image courtesy Artists Space, New York and Ars Nova Workshop, Philadelphia. Photo: Filip Wolak

Don Cherry had first visited Norway the year before Moki’s letter, in 1967 and we see him there playing with Jan Garbarek, the neatly coiffed Norwegian looking studious on his saxophone beside the waistcoated Cherry. For the Kunsthall’s curator Steinar Sekkingstad, Cherry’s trips to Norway around this time seem to be a pivotal moment in the development not just of the Scandinavian jazz scene but also for the country’s visual arts.

Across the hall from the vibrant, particoloured hang of Cherry’s photos and Moki’s visual art, we can find a monitor showing an old film made for Norwegian TV around the same time called Lydbilder featuring the music of Garbarek as the soundtrack to a extended pan through a sequence of paintings and collages by the Oslo-born artist Sidsel Paaske. More of Paaske’s thrilling work adorns the walls close by. Sounds seems to leap off the pages of Paaske’s paintings in their expressive lines and repeated motifs, some of which recall the the sunbeams in Moki Cherry’s letter to Hultin.

When I interviewed Roscoe Mitchell at last weekend’s Borealis Festival in Bergen, after a talk by him upstairs at the Kunsthall, he told me, “I develop my themes in painting the way that I develop my music.” If there is a secondary thesis to File Under Freedom it may be just that. That the same impulses, the same processes of thought and imagination underlie the explosion of creativity bursting forth from improvised music in the late 1960s and early 70s as the visual art emerging from the same milieu.

Several of Mitchell’s paintings line the walls of the Kunsthall and they display a remarkable continuity. Hi Panoply from 1966 looks like an exploding city block with clear, sharp lines like skyscrapers bisecting florid patterns resembling Nigerian ankara print fabrics, cartoonish faces at right angles in marshmallow colours poke out of foam-like splotches and hasty geometries. The much more recent Inner Worlds (2020) has a similar energy, contrasting sharp diagonals with dots and curves, now rendered in an even more lysergic day-glo palette.

Roscoe Mitchell, The Third Decade, 1970, Oil on canvas, fabric, wood, and fringe. Image courtesy the artist. Photo: Wendy L Nelson

In comparison, Peter Brötzmann’s three cloud sculptures are resolutely dun. They present as little wooden boxes with cut-outs in browns and greys with odd little quasi-mechanised features. The earliest, Sound Cloud, form the 1970s, recalls some of the early visual art of David Lynch, with its lumpen metal clod poking out of a charcoal-coloured background like scorched wood.

The stark simplicity of Brötzmann’s is is sharp contrast to six works by Matana Roberts, which fel almost like scraps from a diary or a more manic, angry riposte to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. Old photos abut thick smudges of black and grey, fragments of music manuscript and plastic wrap, newsprint, a stamped CND logo, and in one work, a painted audio cassette stuck to the board together with a torn postcard of the Mississippi river levee. Much like Roberts’ music, there are layers upon layers of montaged meaning and historical reference in these works, assembled with the same care and finesse that make her Coin Coin records so enchanting.

The final room of the exhibition features a film by director Eric Baudelaire about the composer Alvin Curran. In a voice-over, Curran describes meeting the Italian composer Franco Evangelisti of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (alongside Ennio Morricone, Egisto Macchi, and others). Curran was in his mid-twenties at the time, and Evangelisti closer to forty and its clear the American composer regarded the older man as one of the most important composers of his day. “When I met Franco Evangelisti, he said to me, ‘You’re a composer, right? … Don’t you know that there’s no more music to write?’ And of course I didn’t know that there was no more music to write.”

The news came as quite the revelation. Curran describes finding himself at “the apocalyptic end of music” to which his response was to form the improvising group Musica Elettronica Viva with Frederic Rzewski. But the bright suns and vivid swirls of Moki Cherry’s letters, tapestries, and paintings suggest another possible motivation for creative explosion in avant-garde music at that time. Not so much the apocalypse; perhaps something more hope.

File Under Freedom is at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, until 27 March 2022

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