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There's A Soundtrack For Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Sculpture Park, And It's On Your Phone

Drone photo by Don Ipock
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Christina Butera's 'Suite for the Passersby' app doesn't include music for every piece in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's sculpture park, but it does cover the whole area.

If there was a soundtrack for the sculptures on the lawn at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, what would it be like?

Christina Butera thought about that a lot while writing her dissertation in composition at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance.

"I lived really close to the Nelson at the time and I’d walk by the sculpture park every day, so it was always on my mind, in my field of vision," says Butera, who now teaches at Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia. "It made a lot of sense — it's a staple of Kansas City — so it was a great place to start with this idea."

The idea was to compose music based on the sculptures and create a smart-phone app. "Suite for the Passersby" is now available as a free download for Androids and iPhones.

"It's really simple," Butera says. "You just open it up and there’s a little paragraph that tells you about what the experience is, what the app is, and then you just hit start. It will tell you your GPS location, it will tell you the sculpture that you’re near, and the piece that is playing, and that’s about it."

The music change sfrom sculpture to sculpture, triggered by changes in the user's GPS location. The work is in seven parts, each for a different solo instrument or voice and electronics, as well as a "Promenade" that plays between various zones on the lawn. Butera also incorporated field recordings of the lawn's bird sounds and children playing.

Credit Christina Butera
'Suite for the Passersby' composer Christina Butera earned her Doctor of Musical Arts at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. She now teaches at Spellman College in Atlanta.

"With the interactive electronics, I can pull out pieces of the instrument's timbre, expand them in sort of a fantastical way that's not possible with just an acoustical instrument," she notes. "So it gave me ultimate control over choosing the sound world for each sculpture."

Though the work can be performed in concert (the Nelson-Atkins hosted the world premiere in June), Butera wrote for specific individuals who are featured on the recordings: Sascha Groschang, cello; Michael Miller, bass clarinet; Maddy Tarantelli, horn; Elisabeth Stimpert, clarinet; Jessica Salley and Liz Pearse, sopranos; and Jeff Borowiec, piano.

There's no defined order, no structured route. The piece is a continuous audio experience, looping if you stay in one zone longer, or melding from one zone to the next as you move around the lawn. If you return to a zone, the app remembers where you left off and picks up there again. That means that every user ends up with a unique experience.

"It's kind of a choose your own adventure," Butera says.

That did create a structural puzzle.

"I had to make sure that each location, whatever was happening there, could transition in a number of ways, depending on which direction the person goes," she explains.

Though the piece doesn’t include every sculpture in the garden, it does cover the whole area, from Magdalena Abakanowics's bronze "Standing Figures" on the northwest to Mark di Suvero's "Rumi"; along the green roofs of the Block Building down to the south hill, where Roxy Paine's silver dendrite reaches for the sky; and along the winding path in the southwest corner.

Butera used different concepts to develop each movement. "To Cast Four Motives," inspired by a series of Henry Moore sculptures, considers the casting process required to make these works. "Broken," based on Roxy Paine's "Ferment," was determined by fractal structures, similar to how Paine develops his own work. In other cases, the subject of the sculpture inspired Butera, as with "Love is a Madman," for cello, taken from a poem by the 13th century poet Rumi.

Butera was especially inspired by the Shuttlecocks. She wrote two movements for the Kansas City icons  designed by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

"The Shuttlecocks, there's a lot there," she says. "They represent recreation in the sculptures themselves and the way that they are placed across the lawn and I wanted to include the idea of being at the sculpture park on a weekend afternoon and having a good time."

The pieces inspired by the Shuttlecocks aren't just about those sculptures, she says, but about being in the museum's big front lawn.

"So I took into account also the architecture of the main museum building and the Bloch Building, the way that Bloch Building kind of glows at night, so light plays a big role in these pieces as well," she says.

One piece, called “Lightning Bugs in the Garden," is an homage to being on the lawn at dusk.

"When all the lightning bugs come out," Butera says, "it's really magical."

There aren’t that many permanent, publicly accessible sonic art installations in Kansas City. Installations require hardware, wiring, and permissions to install and maintain. None of that matters with an app.

"The idea was to make it really accessible, really affordable, and really sustainable," she says.

In that way, "Suite for the Passersby" is laying new ground for sonic art in Kansas City.

KCUR contributor Libby Hanssen writes the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich. Follow her on Twitter, @libbyhanssen.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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