“There are many alchemical tropes in the pieces you’ll be hearing tonight.” So said composer John Zorn last Friday in New York, in the midst of a two-evening presentation of music written in tribute to the mystic artist Hilma af Klint. The setting for his sounds was the same as the home right now for many of af Klint’s paintings: the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum, spiraled up in an ensorcelling shape similar to a temple envisioned by the Swedish artist as an optimal setting for her work. That was never realized before she died in 1944, but it has been for “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” a retrospective with much to say about the recognized conventions—and lacunae—in the history of abstraction.
Not unlike the compositions that Zorn presented around Agnes Martin’s paintings at the Guggenheim in 2016, the program—performed on the museum’s ground floor before moving upward at the end—featured seven pieces for different arrangements of classical ensemble music and voice. The Unseen was performed by the Jack Quartet via violins, viola, and cello that coalesced around spectral, silvery tones, throwing off sounds like the glint of tinsel twisting in the sun. Some parts were fast and full of squalls, like something out of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtracks for Alfred Hitchcock; others were distended and quiet to the point of near-inaudibility. (Introducing the piece, Zorn, looking like an atypical composer in his trademark camouflage pants and hoodie with crossbones on its back, said, “This is very quiet—there is air conditioning and we can’t turn it off, so you might have to lean in.”)
OO O OO, an all-vocal piece for four singers, wavered between breathtaking beauty and occasional strangeness (by way of fleshy humming and throaty gulping sounds) that made it hard to reconcile the music’s origins in the human voice alone. Altarpiece mixed clarinet with electronics (played by longtime downtown New York mainstay Ikue Mori) and vibraphone, an instrument well-suited to af Klint’s amorphous forms for the way its sound warbles and floats and falls.
As Above, So Below, a piece for solo cello, followed after Zorn switched up the sequence printed in the evening’s program notes. (“You never know what’s going to happen at a Zorn concert,” the composer said.) The rest of the night ventured into more and increasingly varied sounds, with a finale presented in the Guggenheim’s High Gallery, given over in the exhibition to formidable af Klint works known collectively as The Ten Largest.
Painted by the artist in 1907 in her mode as an otherworldly spiritualist medium, the giant canvases hover and loom, burning with a brightness and intensity that evokes a simmering sense of calm and quietude, too. As Zorn explained to the audience peering into the room, the title of his composition—another new vocal piece known as The Book of the Angel Amaliel—alludes to the name of the angel that spoke to af Klint and aided in the creation of paintings with more than mere paint to see.