If you were walking by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art last Saturday evening, you were treated to the sound of a cellist on the sidewalk singing while accompanying herself pizzicato, while closer to the entrance another cellist conjured feedback from his instrument that would have made Jimi Hendrix proud. A few feet away from this hypnotic squall, another player raked his bow cavalierly across a cello decorated with bright strips of paint to resemble Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, while in the shadows behind him another figure banged away on an amplified, “amputated” cello with robotic toys.
This compelling mix of sounds was actually the tail end of Helen Gillet’s Constellation of Cellos, a musical art installation of 20 cellists organized to guide museum patrons from deep inside the Ogden, out onto the sidewalk, and into the museum’s annual gala event, titled “O What A Night.” Ogden music coordinator Libra Lagrone approached Gillet — a renowned cellist in her own right — to create the installation.
“The basic concept was to line a pathway for patrons of an art museum to get from point A to point B,” says Gillet. “And I am point B, in the [gala] tent. Both Libra and I naturally thought of getting cellists to pave the way.”
“I was calling people and putting out feelers for cellists, and people were really interested in being part of something a little more experimental. So I decided to create a ‘constellation’ of cello players and position them all throughout the Ogden, with the musical focus being from old to new, or a somewhat chronological manifestation of my own creative path as an improvising cellist. So we began with Baroque music, Bach, and morphed into some more improvisatory music, getting into the jazz, popular music, noise music, and then song, both singing and playing cello at the same time.”
Gillet’s hope was to accompany patrons through the Ogden’s space on a wave of sound that would spark their curiosity while playing against expectations.
“And then when they get to the atrium it sort of explodes sonically and visually into a lot of cello players. When they go outside, two more cello players playing traditional jazz and Beatles tunes welcome them on the front stairways. Three experimental ‘non-cellist’ cello players (a local improvising flautist and two guitar players, who were given my electric cello, custom-made ‘Van Helen’ cello, and bare bones cello with toys) take them around the corner. There they meet another singing cellist before entering the tent for my performance, also on cello, this time with a loop pedal, electronics and voice. So it’s really a continued effect, where usually in an art gallery or an art exposition you have just one cluster of music and then you walk around and look at the art. Here the music takes you through the experience.”
The appeal wasn’t intended to be just musical, as Gillet reveals she delighted in finding locations for each player that would take advantage of the physical landscape of the museum.
“Each of these was like a cello exhibit. And it’s something that I’m pitching to art museums in other cities, as a cello exhibit – an extended sonic painting that takes people through the space. ”
Overall, however, Gillet was attuned to an even more subtle effect, one likely appreciated by the many respected visual artists in attendance. Notes Gillet, “When you physically move people away from each other and you have to listen to someone far away, you can’t help but have space, and work with space in that way. I was encouraged to think about a visual artist’s perspective on space, and how to set up an exhibit and have people move through it and still feel like they can mingle .”
“There are plenty of talented, progressive thinkers in this city that you can have a dialogue about these kind of things with and it’s something I’d like to see happen more and more. And the artists that are here just need a chance to express their ideas.”
Photo gallery above: Cellist Helen Gillet has her way with space and sound at the Ogden (Photos by Jason Kruppa except where noted). Fashion, fine art and portrait photographer Jason Kruppa writes about the stories behind his work for NolaVie. Catch more of his work at kruppaworks.com.