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Moving <em>Pictures</em>

(Ilya Repin/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Moving Pictures

New albums are strong examples of art about art

It’s said that art imitates life and that life imitates art.

But life has also been known to imitate life. And sometimes art imitates art.

Consider, for example, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Mussorgsky based most of the suite’s movements on paintings and sketches by his late friend Viktor Hartmann. That one was a costume design for a ballet based on a short story actually makes Mussorgsky’s corresponding piece (“Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”) an example of art imitating art imitating art imitating art.

Warner Classics has recently released two striking new Pictures at an Exhibition recordings. And, conveniently enough, they’re on the same album.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition by the Italian pianist and conductor Filippo Arlia begins with a solo performance by Arlia of Mussorgsky’s original 1874 piano version and concludes with an Arlia-conducted performance by the Orchestra Filarmonica Della Calabria of Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestral arrangement. The chiseled severity of the former and the sumptuous majesty of the latter come through with an arresting vibrancy.

They also serve as a reminder that art about art can take on a life of its own apart from its source(s) of inspiration. It seems unlikely that a listener hearing Pictures at an Exhibition for the first time nowadays would give much, if any, thought to the music’s mimetic details. (The recurring “Promenade,” for instance, is intended to suggest a viewer’s perambulation through a gallery.) The work, in other words, has not depended for its popularity on listeners’ being familiar with art galleries or with Hartmann’s subjects for quite some time.

It’s just as well. Some of Hartmann’s pieces are lost. And, their merits notwithstanding, the pieces that have survived lack the unity and dramatic power of the music that Mussorgsky based on them—and that Arlia, whether as a pianist or as a conductor, has faithfully conveyed.

Further validation of Mussorgsky’s art-about-art concept comes via the latest album by the American saxophonist Darryl Yokley (pronounced “yoke-ly”). Officially credited to Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation, Pictures at an African Exhibition (Truth Revolution) is, in Yokley’s words, “loosely based” on Mussorgsky’s Pictures.

How loosely? The music is entirely original. Also the aural inspired the ocular instead of the other way around. Upon completing his “pictures,” Yokley commissioned the London-based artist David Emmanuel Noel to create visually and emotionally analogous paintings.

Such a reverse-Mussorgsky approach has the advantage of freeing listeners from feeling obligated to listen for visuals. It also more or less behooves them to look for points of intersection between the paintings—each of which is viewable at—and the music.

If they do, they’ll notice that, in the majority of instances, both media share a bright, swirling quality suggestive of spiritual vitality. Yokley’s portion of this accomplishment derives from the augmentation of his quintet with a 12-member wind ensemble that supports and enhances, without overwhelming or dissipating, Yokley’s bold melodic through lines or the Sound Reformation’s intuitive swing.

Not that Yokley’s music-first-paintings-second approach robs the former of mimetic properties. The titles alone of compositions such as “Migration,” “Stories from the Village Elder,” “Ominous Nightfall,” “Genocide March,” and “Echoes of Ancient Sahara” color one’s perceptions. Still, the interplay among dynamics-sensitive musicians who’ve learned how to listen closely to each other is fascinating in its own right.

On the whole, Yokley’s Pictures seems less an homage to Mussorgsky than a tribute to the large-scale suites of Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis. Only 36—a relatively young age in jazz years—Yokley couldn’t find himself in better company.