Imaginary Landscapes: UMMA concert explores the sonic side of abstraction


Jonathan Ovalle

U-M assistant professor of percussion Jonathan Ovalle compiled a program of music that complements the visual art in the exhibit Victors for Art: Michigan's Alumni Collectors -- Part II: Abstraction.

When most of us think about the word “abstract” our minds go directly to pieces by artists like Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso. But "Angles of Abstraction" will let guests see -- well, hear -- that the word abstract can apply to much more than just visual art.

Curated by University of Michigan's Jonathan Ovalle, "Angles of Abstraction" (Sunday, Oct. 22, UMMA) started to come together after the assistant professor of percussion was approached by a colleague over the summer and asked him to create a concert that tied into the themes of the UMMA exhibit Victors for Art: Michigan's Alumni Collectors -- Part II: Abstraction.

“The big buzz words were ‘abstract’ and ‘exploration,’” Ovalle said. “Both of those words are super intriguing to me.”

While the works in the Abstraction exhibit comes from 70 years of graduating classes and represent over 3,500 years of art making, Ovalle’s program focuses primarily on music from the 20th and 21st century. That's partly because more music started being written regularly for percussion over the last 100 years, especially solo and chamber ensemble pieces; the other reason is that when Ovalle thinks of "abstract expressionism," that’s the era his mind goes to.

“That’s a very 20th-century phrase in my mind,” he said. “I don’t think about 17th-century paintings when I think about those two words together. So it seemed like a natural marriage of the time frame of the art that we’re speaking of and the music also coming from that same time window.”

Ovalle ended up selecting six pieces for the show, most of which have a percussion focus. The program will also include instruments like piano, cello, and horn. When selecting pieces Ovalle kept a few things in mind, like making sure they were pieces that would play well in the museum’s space, that they were pieces he enjoyed, and how they would fit under the umbrella of “abstraction” and “exploration.”

The pieces he selected not only focus on abstract as a medium but also the abstraction of time and use. One example is Morton Feldman’s “De Kooning,” which fits under the idea of abstraction of time.

“He’s a composer who really made his name through music that moves really slowly and really soft," Ovalle said, "so very different from what we’re used to in terms of music having a very clearly defined key and meter. There’s this time-space continuum that gets lost a little bit in his music because its kind of one event from the next to the next while moving very slowly and quietly. There’s a bit of a lost sense of time listening to this music.”

Ovalle also considered the idea of abstraction of use, which can be heard in multiple pieces throughout the program, including John Cage's “Imaginary Landscape No. 3,” which uses everyday objects like tin cans and electronic buzzers as "found" instruments.

Another composition that fits under abstraction of use is Viet Cuong’s “Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine,” a piece where performers play objects that are definitely not traditional instruments.

“They are using the goblets, striking them together and doing different things,” he said. “This idea that we’re taking a goblet, something you normally drink something out of, and we’re using it in a different way.”

The program’s pieces will not only mix what fits under the abstract umbrella but configurations of performers as well. The largest piece will have six performers and there will be a few solo numbers during the performance. The evening will feature both students and facility from the U-M School of Music, Theater & Dance, including Ovalle.

For those thinking a show like this might be a little out of their wheelhouse, Ovalle suggests coming in with an open mind.

“I would say to come in with no expectations,” Ovalle said. “Just kind of really be in the moment, in the space, in the sound, and have your own sort of thoughts about it afterward.”

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Dana Casadei is a freelance reporter covering arts and entertainment in Michigan.

The "Angles of Abstraction" program will be performed at UMMA, 525 S. State St., on Sunday, Oct. 22 at 7 pm. Free. Visit for more information.