Music set in stone: Classical compositions reimagined as sculptures

Viv Astling RBSA examines the relationship between Sculpture and Music through two of his recent sculptures.

Goldberg Variations

I have been thinking about the relationship between Sculpture and Music. This arose after attending a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the pianist Joanna McGregor during Hay Festival 2017. Whilst I would have gone for the music alone, I was intrigued that she would be working with an artist who would demonstrate drawing at the same time. Unfortunately, I found this part of the performance a disappointment. The artist produced facial portrait sketches from memory for each of the variations which bore no relationship to the music.

I made sketches and notes during the performance, then set about designing a sculpture to reflect the music. The completed work, titled Goldberg Variations, was in the RBSA’s online exhibition, Remote Access. 

white stone sculpture

Goldberg Variations, Viv Astling RBSA

The sculpture is 75cms long, 25 cms high and 21 cms deep and is carved in Portland Stone sourced directly from the Quarry. It stands on a granite base and weighs over 35 kilos. At either end of the work are bass clefs to denote a musical score, one of which is upside down. Bach composed 9 sets of 3 variations hence the 9 groups of 3 similar forms carved over the work. This is where photos have their limitations as the work needs to be seen physically to follow the sets of forms.

The final set of variations is based on German folk songs, one of which is about a cabbage, which hopefully is identifiable in the photo above. On the other side of the sculpture, as shown in Remote Access, the pattern of the first eight notes as they appear on the score has been carved. This is the theme and has a strong influence throughout the work so is suitably prominent.

Other musical references include the double stop of the Repeat Sign and a hint of the pianist’s crossed hands, required frequently in the playing of the work.

I have called this style ‘Narrative Sculpture’ and tried to discover whether other sculptors have developed the relationship between Music and Sculpture. Whilst there appear to be many examples of works including musical instruments, there is little evidence of sculptors finding inspiration from compositions.

Reimagining Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony

In pursuit of the Narrative Sculpture concept, I started some drawings on paper and stone for a sculpture about Gustav Mahler’s 1st Symphony with another interesting piece of Portland Limestone from the Quarry.

As the dimensions are 75cms long (a coincidence!), 48cms high but with a thickness of only 5cms, I carved a double-sided relief but with a few elements in 3D. Part of the stone is so thin it could only be carved on one side.

large piece of limestone rock

The stone before carving

The First Symphony was composed by Mahler over a period of 4 years and was premiered in 1889. He revised the score four times, finally publishing it in 1899. The composer’s endeavour was to create an audio representation of the re-awakening of Spring in the first movement. This, to my mind, is the core of the work.

I imagined Mahler waking up in a Tyrolean meadow to the sight of birds, trees and flowers. Mahler is represented in the sculpture by his feathered hat whilst a butterfly (not to scale) hovers nearby. On the same side, the bell section of the Cor Anglais instrument blows seeds out. On the other side, it blows out flowers and a bird enjoys the morning air. Ten different types of leaf blow from the French Horn. When you listen to the first movement, it is uncannily close to the sounds of Nature.

Mahler (hat side), Viv Astling RBSA

Mahler (flower side), Viv Astling RBSA

The second movement starts with a Ländler, a waltz-like Austrian dance, and is represented on the ‘flower side’ by a swirling skirt form. The third movement is a Funeral March to a tune not dissimilar to Frère Jacques, and the large uncarved rectangular form on both sides with incised crosses represents the coffin. This movement features both the double basses and cellos, hence the latter being carved between two tree forms on the flowers side. The fourth and final movement is life-affirming and opens with a tremendous clash of cymbals prominent on both sides and carved as separate forms from the top of the sculpture. I left some of the stone uncarved, adding to the natural element of the work.

My practice during isolation

Due to surgery in January, the first three months of the year were unproductive for my practice. However, I completed the carving during the first 4 weeks of Lockdown at home by working almost every day. I started with a list of a dozen design or carving issues that needed resolving. For example, what would the background texture be? How could I simply represent the coffin on both sides? As I progressed, I reduced the list, but new smaller issues arose. Gradually all were ‘resolved’.

Although the sculpture is now finished, I haven’t yet sourced a base as my suppliers are not currently working. It will be in Welsh Slate as I have fortunately found a purchaser for the work who lives on the Herefordshire/Wales border.

So does Narrative Sculpture work? Every sculpture probably needs an explanation, which can be problematic. I am looking to test further the concept of the relationship between Sculpture and Music through Narrative Sculpture possibly with a work based on a Beethoven Symphony.

Note: Both Goldberg Variations and Mahler 1 (hopefully with brief musical extracts from each movement) will be displayed in the RBSA Gallery 3D Space if the Gallery re-opens mid-July 2020.

Viv Astling RBSA 26 May 2020

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