‘To What Degree Are We Really Improvising?’: Avram Fefer on Making Music With Richard Serra Sculptures


Avram Fefer


Together with a small group of spectators and a couple cameramen, I recently watched the New York-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Avram Fefer play music in and around a Richard Serra sculpture at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. The rust-colored sculpture, titled NJ-1, coils in on itself and took up most of the gallery floor, with the rest of the space filled with the reverberated sounds of Fefer’s improvised melody. More than a performance, the experience felt like the clash of two forces: the permanence of Serra’s metal meeting the ephemeral sounds of Fefer’s horn.

Fefer first played to—with?—a Serra sculpture back in 2012 at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. He has since travelled to the Princeton Museum of Art and London’s Gagosian Gallery to play beside other Serra pieces. Unsure how to define the exact nature of these collaborative interventions, Fefer eventually named the series “The Resonant Sculpture Project.” Fefer’s next performance is scheduled to take place once again at Gagosian in London in January.

Fefer’s foray into the music world came through his studies at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Shortly after graduating, he moved to Europe where he performed at various intervals as a street busker, session musician, and later in France as a member of a chart-topping acid jazz group. In 1995 Fefer moved back to New York, where he continues to perform today.

“Improvisation is an interesting idea because—to what degree are we really improvising?” Fefer asked me rhetorically, as we discussed his jump from jazz venues to art galleries. “Anything you’ve done before could potentially be a gimmick, but avoiding doing something you’ve never done before could also be a problem,” he continued. With that in mind, Fefer went down his current path.

In the conversation below, which has been lightly edited and condensed, Fefer elaborates on his journey as a musician, and what it has taught him about improvisation and the work of Richard Serra.

ARTnews: When did you first encounter the idea of playing music to artwork?

Fefer: When I moved to Paris I started hanging out with the wonderful soprano sax player Steve Lacy. He was a MacArthur genius who’d played with Monk and had probably recorded about 200 albums in his life. I arrived over at his place one day where he had set up six music stands with prints of paintings by Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Miró and some others. He was the one who first asked me to improvise to visual art.

How did that go?

I remember I got to the second artwork and Lacy said, ‘That’s great but you’re not getting the green.’ What do you say to that? I was like, ‘Green? I’m barely getting the red.’ But after that experience art really began affecting me as a musician in a way that felt different than learning to play licks in the jazz world.

Can you give me an example?

In 2006 there was a big Serra exhibition at MoMA that I went to. I’d seen his sculptures my whole life but I’d never given them much thought. But that rainy Tuesday I went and had such a physical experience. As I walked through the piece—it was called Sequence, I think—I started just testing sounds with my voice, which is a small compulsion of mine. I walked as close as I could, parallel with the structure, and experienced this almost seasickness when I was done because of what Serra does to you when you try to mirror the motion of his pieces. It was the first time I fell in love with Serra’s work, which I saw as this combination of math, art, and geography.

When did the idea occur to you, to turn that sort of experience into something you could combine with your music?

It happened on a trip I took in 2011. One of my music students has a house in the Hamptons he kindly lets me use. While I was riding a bike with my wife I saw this crazy house that looked like a boat on stilts. There were dogs barking on the property but me being me I rode my bike onto the grounds and it turned out to be a sculpture park named Nova’s Ark. After speaking with the owners of the place we decided to hold a spontaneous event, a concert with the sculptures. In the process of playing that show I began to interact with the pieces themselves. That was the moment I realized this was something I was going to do.

And what was it like the first time you played beside Serra?

It was a revelation. It was a life-changing event for me.

How so?

It was the immersion of the audience and just having to live the experience. I’m so tired of the hyped-up, neon lights, pump-up-the-volume, send a text message, multitasking, talk loud lifestyle that keeps us from depth, engagement, and authenticity. I felt like I’d finally found something that could create a spellbinding hour that people were either stuck in or transformed by. Either way they swam in it. You’re in the sculpture and the performance and it becomes one thing.

What does it feel like for you during the performance?

The sculpture is this very solid, immovable object that divides the space up and shapes how you experience the work. But then I come in and fill the rest of the space with sound, which sort of feels like I’m creating a companion for it—this other energy. And in that moment when I’m done, the sculpture sort of has this moment of vulnerability or loneliness.

Because it becomes alive, or activated for that hour?

Totally, it feels that way and then it’s sort of naked again. But then of course that’s only for a few minutes before it regains its normal dignity because it’s a Richard Serra sculpture.

Avram Fefer: The Resonant Sculpture Project @ Gagosian Gallery, London — Backdoor Pipeline (Serra) from Resonant Sculpture Project on Vimeo.

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