Dan Steeves teaches printmaking at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick and Kevin Morse teaches musical composition at the same institution. They came together in this exhibition to create a unique collaboration of visual art and music that was part of the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the university’s music department. The result was a suite of twelve large etchings and a musical composition for quartet in twelve parts that relates thematically to the visual images.

The two artists, who are friends, worked as equal partners from inception of the project to its conclusion. The result is quite beautiful. Although either can stand on its own, as a suite of prints or musical composition, they gain from the partnership. One might think of precedents like Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano work that was based on ten pictures by his friend, the artist and architect, Victor Hartmann. However, it was an homage rather than a collaboration as Mussorgsky’s friend had recently died. In the case of the Steeves — Morse collaboration it was more of a chicken or egg question. Which came first the prints or the music? Printmaking and composing are very different creative processes.  Here it was the prints, but Morse was aware of what Steeves was doing and the music was forming in his head as the prints were in process.

Dan Steeves is one of Atlantic Canada’s foremost printmakers. A friend had told me that his prints in this exhibition were lighter, less dark in mood than his usual work. I certainly don’t agree, but I guess it is all in the eye of the beholder. There has always been seriousness in his imagery that I have admired and these prints are no exception. Look no further than the titles of the prints such as , or. (The case use, upper and lower, in the titles is correct.) Most of the prints, according to the artist, are about travelling up and down and, most important, the space in between. Hence, the title of the exhibition. To me the voyage, particularly the down, was rather like that of my namesake, Virgil, who was the guide in Dante’s, but I have a vivid imagination.

When I first heard the number twelve in relation to the movements in Morse’s music I thought of the twelve-tone music of the serialists — Arnold Schoenberg and his students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. These composers of the first half of the 20th century invented a new form of music that revolved around the number twelve and atonalism that remains difficult to listen to even this day. Morse told me that there are influences of serialism in the guise of tone clusters in, but they are disguised in an overall more tonal approach in the piece. He told me that he wanted his composition to be more listenable to the general public. Here he has succeeded. Each of the twelve movements, around about two minutes each, relates to a Steeves’s print. The movements follow classical music conventions such as prelude, canon, scherzo, sarabande and so on, and are written to be played by a traditional string quartet. 

When taken together, the music and the prints work as one while having the ability to function individually. When the music is preformed live, as it was on the opening of the exhibition, Steeves’s prints were projected behind the quartet playing on stage. The projected prints followed the order of the musical score from its prelude, part I, to the final chorale, part XII. In the gallery setting the actual prints were shown in an order dictated by the artist, and the music, in a slightly abridged form, was recorded. The idea, as I was told by Steeves and Morse, was to get the viewer to move through the exhibition in a non-linear way rather from print one to print twelve, partially directed by the recorded music. The order of the prints in the Saint John exhibition will be different than it was in Sackville as will be the recorded music. The ordering of the exhibition, wherever it is shown, will be dictated by the shape of the gallery where it is displayed and configured by Steeves and Morse.

As someone who is drawn to both music and visual art, I found this exhibition to be a very satisfactory and interesting experience. The idea of programmed music, that is music used to describe something be it a painting or river, has a long history and is in opposition to what is termed absolute music which is music in more abstract terms. Sometimes when I look at an artwork, I think of a piece of music. I actually hear it in my head.

The Space Between has made this easier, as Kevin Morse has provided the music for my viewing of Dan Steeves prints and he has done an excellent job of it. Architecture has been described as frozen music. I think a better case can be made for visual art and music. It is the silence between the notes that defines music, just as it is what we imagine when we look at an artwork that makes it art. How wonderful it is when both processes works together. 

The Space Between Kevin Morse and Dan Steeves
Owens Art Gallery, Sackville
24 March—21 May 2017

Saint John Arts Centre Saint John
6 November—20 December 2017