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ICYMI: The sound of brushstrokes

Multi-instrumentalist musician and producer Memory Pearl made an album inspired by seven works of abstract expressionism – one of which is held in the AGO Collection.

Pink, orange and beige abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler, Natural Answer, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, Overall: 243.8 x 335.3 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Morris Emer, 1985. © 2022 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOCAN, Montreal.

Art imitates life, but in the case of multi-instrumentalist musician and producer Moshe Fisher-Rozenberg (Memory Pearl), art imitates art. For his 2020 album, Music for 7 Paintings, Fisher-Rozenberg created auditory responses to seven works of abstract expressionism he encountered in galleries throughout North America.

As a previous member of several bands (including Alvvays, Fucked Up, Absolutely Free), Fisher-Rozenberg has spent a considerable amount of time touring, during which he would routinely explore galleries and museums in various cities. It was on these visits that the idea for Music for 7 Paintings was born. In his pursuit of artistic references, he even visited the AGO, eventually choosing to open his album with a song inspired by American painter Helen Frankenthaler’s Natural Answer – a work he first encountered here.      

Last February, we connected with Memory Pearl to find out more about the inception of this project and his artistic process.

AGOinsider: How and when did you come up with the idea for Music for 7 Paintings?

Memory Pearl: The idea evolved over many years. I used to spend a lot of time traveling with various bands. When there was time, I would try to get to know a city − and that would often include visiting art galleries and museums. Over time, I noticed that I was pretty consistently gravitating toward abstract work, especially abstract expressionist paintings. Like a moth to a flame, I’d wander around and find myself buzzing around these works in amazement. They would leave me inspired and raw, but I didn’t quite know what to do with the feeling. I fell into the idea of challenging myself to distill these experiences into sound. My vision was to create a body of work that was equal parts tonal translations (of the works) and personal love letters (to the works). I didn’t get serious about the project until about 2016, when I started traveling and visiting galleries with this very specific intention. 

AGOinsider: You start the album with a song in response to Helen Frankenthaler’s Natural Answer – a work held in the AGO Collection. Can you describe what you find moving about this painting, and about abstract expressionism in general?

Memory Pearl: What really struck me about Natural Answer was the innate magnetism and beauty. When I stood in a room with the painting, it drew me into a world of warmth, love and desolation. To me, it also read like a landscape in that it resembled an environment; like a terrain that I could imagine visiting and exploring. Generally, I find abstract expressionism to be so evocative and emotive while allowing copious amounts of space for personal projection. Engaging with this work seems to prime me for an introspective journey − setting the tone/mood/vibe but without spoon-feeding beyond that. Totally inspires me.

AGOinsider: Can you briefly walk us through your creative process when building an auditory response to a painting? Do you have a structured approach or does it differ each time?

Memory Pearl: The first part of the process involved traveling around to various cities in search of potent works of art. It was a really delightful part of the process. I’d essentially wander through galleries instinctively until a piece drew me in. I’d spend anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes taking in a work and filling a journal. My notes were more or less free associative, but they touched upon what I saw, how it might translate to sound, themes/energy/mood I was interpreting, and personal reflections. For example, here’s an excerpt from notes related to Natural Answer: “... warm collage of hum … the most delicate and beautiful drone you’ve ever heard … a blurred-out symphony.” If you listen to my piece, you’ll hear these represented in the second half of the composition. I’d then take my memories and notes into my home studio and treat them as a kind of blueprint. From there my creative process gets pretty nebulous − exploring sound palettes, harmonics, improvisation, and collage until I was satisfied. I should also mention an element of curation in the creative process. There were many pieces which I spent time with, but they had to make sense together. For instance, I was quite struck by Ray Mead’s Winter—which I had seen on display at the AGO—but ultimately it felt like an outlier. 

AGOinsider: Would you ever consider creating auditory responses to other art forms? Sculpture? Film? Performance? If yes, which would you choose and why?

Memory Pearl: Absolutely. In the past, I’ve made music for films, artist multiples, kinetic sculptures, installations, and gallery exhibitions. To me the art form is secondary, I am more or less drawn to any work that lights up my heart and mind. At this point, I’m realizing (thanks to your question) that I would love to create work in response to dance. The two pair together so naturally. I used to musically accompany weekly dance classes at a dance/art school in Toronto, but that was maybe more functional than it was creative. If there are any choreographers or dancers reading this, let’s collaborate on some shapeless, formless temporal work.

Listen to Memory Pearl’s Music for 7 Paintings, now streaming on all major platforms.

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