Microcompositions bring 60 seconds of music to select photographs

Although photographs are inherently silent, they can evoke all sorts of sensations in our minds, including sound.

An ongoing exhibition, In Focus: Sound, explores the sensory connections between what we can see and what we can hear. Images of musicians amazed in front of their instrument; interpretations of legends, dances and songs; as well as vibrant visual abstractions, all of which engage the eye to evoke sound.

To explore this crossroads of the senses, we asked composers to make one-minute audio responses, or “microcompositions,” to five specific photographs in the exhibition.

These composers are known for their genre practices that push traditional and popular music forms into dialogue with ambient, sonic and experimental strategies. They took up the challenge of writing music from a purely visual signal. Each musician was assigned a certain photograph that resonated with aspects of their signature style, but they were asked to respond however they wished. The result is a collection of sounds that goes beyond obvious or literal interpretation and instead constructs nuanced and evocative narratives around the world of image.

Social documentarian Milton Rogovin photographed scenes of daily work, domestic life, games and community gatherings. In the 1960s, he captured intimate church services in front of stores around Buffalo’s impoverished and predominantly African-American East Side.

Jazz musician Paul Cornish’s microcomposition begins with a piano that transports us to the moment frozen in this photograph. Halfway through the track, its melody begins to break down and dissolve into abstract sound waves that lift us from the keys of the piano to the psychological and physical experience of the pianist depicted in the image. His eyes are closed and sweat is running down his brow, as he soaks up the emotional and spiritual feel of the music flowing through him.

Paul Cornwall is a Los Angeles-based composer and pianist.

Microcomposition by Maria Chavez

Experimental record player Maria Chavez creates compositions by manipulating vinyl records, often stacking multiple broken records on top of each other to create sonic collages as the needle jumps between them.

The disc also served as material for experimentation by the Swiss surrealist photographer Florence Henri. His playful use of mirrors creates reflections that isolate and double the shapes of the discs amidst geometric voids. Light flickers off the grooved surfaces in different directions, adding a disorienting effect to the illusion.

For his microcomposition, Chavez wondered what music reflected in mirrors might sound like. She has arranged a collection of disjointed melodies and layered echoing sounds that bounce off the crackle of the needle, drawing us into a dreamlike space.

Maria Chavez is an improviser, curator and sound artist from Lima, currently based in Houston.

Microcomposition by C. Spencer Yeh

In preparation for his microcomposition, experimental noise musician C. Spencer Yeh dove deep into the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. The enigmatic, self-taught photographer often captured eerie Southern scenes of children and townspeople wearing carnival masks. He then enhanced his images with blurred multiple exposures and other forms of abstraction. This view shows no people, but a blur of trees and dark shapes. Looking at the photo, Yeh imagined that the enigmatic natural scene might be what is seen through the eyes of one of Meatyard’s masked figures.

Using only the human voice, Yeh echoed Meatyard’s vibrant visual effect in sound, layering repetitive tones that distort, expand and contract forms of speech. Maybe that’s, Yeh wonders, what the cloaked figure hears when someone tries to talk to him?

C.Spencer Yeh is a Brooklyn-based artist, musician, and songwriter.

Microcomposition by L’Rain

L’Rain is the musical nickname of Taja Cheek, composer and multi-instrumentalist. She uses snippets of found sounds glued into unpredictable song structures and other experimental techniques that push familiar styles of popular dance music into something avant-garde.

For his piece, L’Rain responded to Tap Dancer, a multiple exposure by Gjon Mili, one of the early pioneers of motion capture through stop-action compositions. He often photographed artists, musicians, athletes and dancers in motion.

L’Rain’s shimmering, cascading tones flow back and forth in atmospheric waves that evoke intersecting diagonals and ghostly impressions of the dancer’s moving legs. The matrix of intersecting lines in the photograph is doubled by the dancer’s fishnet tights. Mili’s photography and L’Rain’s sound use the familiar textures of popular entertainment but push them beyond recognition, bringing out complex visual and auditory sensations.

Taja Cheek aka L’Rainis a Brooklyn born and based musician and experimenter.

Microcomposition by Mary Lattimore and Emile Mosseri

The simple yet deeply evocative image by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron shows a woman portraying the mythical figure of Echo. She places her hand near her throat to indicate her loss of speech, which was taken away from her by the angry goddess Hera, who condemned Echo to only be able to repeat the words spoken by others. The melancholic emotion contained in this single gaze evokes a certain haunting beauty that harpist Mary Lattimore and film composer Emile Mosseri sought to capture in their whimsical, diffuse microcomposition.

Lattimore, who often composes from visual images or memories, altered the shimmering tones of the harp with electronic looping and decaying effects to evoke Echo’s presence. She sent her thoughts to Mosseri, who layered creepy, cinematic sound layers over a synthesizer. The final track is the result of their musical conversation without words.

Marie Lattimore is a harpist based in Los Angeles. Emile Mosseri is a Los Angeles-based songwriter, composer and producer.