If there is an overarching theme to the work of photographer Laurie Simmons, it might be the space between belonging too much and not belonging at all. The women, both real and artificial, who populate her photographs are never comfortable, nearly fading into the interiors which surround them in her Early Black & White or Color Coordinated series, which featured images of female dolls in domestic spaces, or absurdly diverging from “normal,” such as in her Walking and Lying Objects series, in which Simmons photographs objects like a camera or a dollhouse perched atop women’s legs.
On Saturday, Sounds Modern, an ongoing performance series hosted by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, featured a series of musical works celebrating the art of Simmons, whose exhibition Big Camera/Little Camera is on view in the upstairs galleries through January 27.
Sounds Modern, now in its twelfth year, is run by flutist and University of North Texas composition professor Elizabeth McNutt, a musician passionate about making connections between music and the visual arts. If that was not a unique enough proposition in North Texas, McNutt’s commitment to new music – all of the works performed Saturday were written since 2000 – makes Sounds Modern one of the more interesting places to hear new classical and experimental music performed live.
When putting together the program for Saturday’s performance, McNutt knew she wanted to represent women composers, but she also spent some time considering Simmons work stylistically.
“Her pieces are playful, but they are often darkly playful,” McNutt notes of Simmons’ work. “There’s also a great deal of everyday life in her photographs.” The musical works she chose to perform also incorporate the mundane or the unusual while evoking a sense of humor or surprise.
Just as Simmons photography operates on a fine line between playful and macabre, musical works such as Elizabeth Baker’s Command Voices 1919TX-MA features the absurd use of vibrators (yes, you read that right) to excite the strings of a piano. The vibrators, as humorous as their use seems, range from evoking a low drone from the piano’s strings, to inciting a more menacing resonance as more are added and moved inside the piano’s interior. Baker, influenced by the idea of the command voices or auditory hallucinations psychotic patients experience, aimed to explore the idea of eliminating the performer’s control, a theme apparent throughout Simmons photographs.
In another work, Brown, Party of Two, McNutt’s flute accompanied Andrew May on violin amidst a variety of distractions – grinding coffee, making salad, all of the general preparations of meal-making. Simmons’ photographs regularly thematize the confinement of women to the strictures of domestic labor. The intrusion of the same into the space of musical performance, when accompanied by Simmons’ photographs, takes on an aura simultaneously playful and disquieting.
A tribute to the Women’s Improvising Group, the first group of female improvisers active in Europe in the 1970s and ‘80s, also trod the uncomfortable line between art and mundane domestic activities, as Saturday’s group of five female performers attempted to improvise on their respective instruments while operating household appliances, applying makeup, or discussing their evening plans.
Then there were works that more subtly alluded to life as a woman in the 21st century. Sungi Hong’s Agonia/Grounded Orbit, performed in its world premiere by pianist Anatolia Ioannides and McNutt, with choreography by Ilana Morgan, explored how a woman’s relation to the world changes throughout her life. In Willingly, Alex Temple’s piece for piano, a series of recorded voices of Temple’s friends and family describing things they would never imagine themselves doing was especially poignant, the spacious music an interesting accompaniment to the recorded responses ranging from the trivial to the life-changing.
Sounds Modern will return to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth this August in conjunction with the exhibition Disappearing–California c. 1970: Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein.