Arts, Music, Arts Features

From Song to Sculpted Shadow

For a studio art major who incorporates music into his art, dropping a music minor in the second semester of senior year might seem counterintuitive. But not for Stevie Gleason, MCAS ’18. He is dropping his music minor, “ironically, to play more music.” In doing so, Gleason can avoid getting too bogged down in the required classes that focus on music theory. Proficient when it comes to playing music, Gleason has already figured out how to apply his musical talents to his artwork. The classes he would need to take for the minor are fairly difficult, and for Gleason, his artwork takes priority.

This precedence is very important, too, especially as it applies to the type of art that Gleason creates. It’s very complicated, as evidenced by the great deal of time he took to explain it.

Gleason begins with music.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to music and you get chills from it,” Gleason said. “Or if you dance to it and it’s like ‘Damn, this is so good,’ and I start with that.”

The song he chooses has to speak to him, to inspire him, and to fascinate him. For his most recent piece, he chose “Hideaway” by Jacob Collier, a tour de force of musical talent. The song features dozens of instruments (all played by Collier) and multiple voice layering (all sung by Collier) along with chord progressions and time signature changes—all written by Collier. In Gleason’s opinion, Collier is one of the most talented musicians working today. Gleason chose this song because the structure appeals to him on a deeper level: Gleason can use the intricate details of this song to construct his intricately crafted artwork.

Everything about this song is what inspires Gleason. He cites “the architecture of the music, down to even the frequency of it.” Gleason takes into account the space in which he listens to the music and the people with whom he listens to it. All of this raw data—frequency, structure, instrumentation—is what Gleason uses to make his art.

And he does it all with paper.

Admittedly, translating musical structure into paper-based artwork sounds difficult, but Gleason has created a system in which he can do this with relative efficiency.

“This is where it gets a little more dense,” Gleason said. He’s not wrong.

“It’s basically a translation process. Once I get this distilled version of the song, this very mathematical version of the song, I try to translate it into something that’s very visual.”

Gleason uses paper for a very specific reason. He is fascinated with the interplay between light and shadow, and white paper does a good job of reflecting light in different ways. Gleason uses this quality of luminosity—how bright the light is reflected—as one axis of a graph. The other axis is the frequency, or hertz, of the music. By plotting these against each other, Gleason can move from music to sculpture and back. Gleason devised this correlation between hertz and luminosity. By folding huge sheets of paper at different angles, Gleason can change the luminosity of various sections (from small to large) of the paper in accordance with the graphical representation of the song.

Gleason’s sculptures end up stretching to 20 or 30 feet in length. He suspends them from the walls and ceilings in giant rooms in order to fully display his art. But even in the physical act of creating these giant sculptures, Gleason is moved by music.

“It’s kind of a dance in itself,” Gleason said. “Folding a piece of paper that’s 22 feet long requires you to move a lot.”

The musicality of his art is helped along by Gleason’s “blasting” of music in the art studio while he makes the sculpture. He compares this undertaking to the interplay between three different languages: the language of the dance he does in creating the sculpture, the heavily visual language that is created by the paper, and the auditory language of the music he uses.

While Gleason’s work might appear mathematical and rigid, he finds that art is a spiritual process for him. In fulfilling his core requirements, Gleason had to take theology classes where he was introduced to Paul Tillich, a Christian philosopher who, in Gleason’s words, described the presence of God as “being radically amazed by something.”

“And I’m radically amazed by light and very physical beauties in the world, like a beautiful sunset,” he said. “I remember driving back from New Hampshire a few weeks ago with my friends in the car and I was literally so enthralled by the beauty of the sunset, which sounds weird.”

But while a spiritual appreciation of the earth’s beauty in light and shadow and a mathematical representation of musical frequencies may sound incongruous, Gleason has folded them together to create stunning and complex works of art.

In the most concise way he can put it, manipulating light and shadow is the closest he can get to accessing that “ineffable” force that permeates existence. He isn’t religious, but his art is an exercise in spirituality as much as mathematical precision.

In terms of time commitment, most of Gleason’s work is done in the design and translation. Folding the paper to actually create the sculpture usually doesn’t take Gleason more than five days, but he has dedicated his entire second semester to the research of one piece. This entails the conceptual work he does in figuring out how he wants to sculpt the music. He plans to ask a physics professor how he can translate certain aspects of the luminosity component to his artwork.

Gleason initially chose “Hideaway” as the song on which he would base a sculpture construction for a few reasons. First, he had a little help from Spotify. When Spotify released its year-end summaries of the top songs that people listened to, as well as the songs that were most listened to by individual subscribers, “Hideaway” was at the top of Gleason’s 2017 list. He had played it so many times, it seemed like the next logical step to make a sculpture from it.

While the song appears dauntingly complex, Gleason maintains that it is actually fairly simple.

“This song is literally just in D Major 7, it’s just one long chord pretty much,” Gleason said. “But it’s this overlapping sonic texture that almost has a physical presence when he plays it.”

The instrumental layering that Collier incorporates into the song made sense to Gleason, graphically speaking. This is something that Gleason doesn’t find often. He isn’t synesthetic—he doesn’t experience different sensory impressions when he listens to music—but listening to “Hideaway” left him with a visual feeling of the song that he felt he needed to put to sculpture.

When one sees pictures of his art, Gleason’s words start to coalesce into the understanding that, while this may sound very complex, he has actually accomplished what he has been describing.

One piece is a large rectangular frame of paper that surrounds dozens of peaked indentations and raised points of folded paper. These points are layered into each other, and the source of light casts them all into complex and different levels of shadow. Another piece is one huge ribbon of paper, with hundreds of folded marks that twist and wind around the twirled sculpture. Again, the contrast between the brightness and shadow of different areas works to convey the intricate frequencies of the music that inspired it.

Artistically, Gleason draws influence from artists, but more often, he’s inspired by architects. Rem Koolhas, Zaha Hadid, and James Turrell are among the artists and architects that Gleason cited as contemporary working creators that he admires and tries to learn from.

Gleason’s understanding of music has helped him in his past sculptures, like the one based on “Hideaway,” but for his next piece, he will be taking a more hands-on approach.

Gleason plays the guitar, drums, and piano—he has been known to jam with Boston College band staple Funky Giant when he can find the time in his schedule. In his upcoming artwork, he will be the one playing the music.

But he’ll be using the music in a slightly different way.

In Devlin Hall, there is a skylight that Gleason is enamored with. The way sunlight moves through the skylight and around the room as the day goes from morning to night is beautiful, and Gleason has chosen this interplay of light and shadow as the starting point for his new piece.

“I took a timelapse of how the light and shadows move within that skylight,” he said. “I’m building a sculpture that responds to it and writing a soundtrack that mimics it.”

Once this is complete, Gleason will be able to play the soundtrack that he has written, essentially having created a piece of music from the light of a room at BC. In this way, Gleason is “reversing” the translation process that he usually uses.

As of yet, it’s difficult to say what this might sound like, but genre or type of music isn’t much a problem for Gleason. He likes “everything.” In a stunning turn of events when taking into account the way BC students usually mean this phrase, “everything” in Gleason’s case includes country music.

“If it’s well done, and somebody else enjoys it too, someone that I’m with, I’ll enjoy it.” Gleason said. “That’s funny that you asked the ‘country’ thing, because for a while I didn’t like country, and it was partly because my mom loved it and was always shoving it down my throat, but as soon as I got away from my mom [going to college], I was like ‘I miss my mom’ and now I love country.”

There is one genre that Gleason rarely listens to, however. He doesn’t often find himself tuning to heavy metal, but Gleason cites an immense respect for the talent and precision that heavy metal artists use—he respects the genre more than he enjoys it.

In terms of playing music, Gleason tries to take influence from a variety of genres. He finds pop music very fun to play, and he enjoys listening to and playing music from genres like blues and funk. “Blues-y” stuff, as Gleason puts it, is great to listen to while playing the guitar, because it has a lot of opportunities to solo over the music.

“As much as I’d like to say jazz, because that’s what I try to study, it’s so hard,” Gleason said. “Claiming that I can play jazz would be a lie, because every time I learn something new in jazz, I realize how much I don’t know.”

He’s been playing music all his life—his parents got him a drum set when he was 8. In high school, he picked up piano and guitar. Gleason has also been working on incorporating singing into his music. He has been taking voice lessons from a coach, and he has been trying to sing in a falsetto. By developing his voice, Gleason can develop his musical flexibility.

Gleason is also looking to expand his artistic repertoire. Right now, he is using paper—it’s an easily and readily accessible medium. But he is excited by the prospect of moving into different materials—especially light itself. For a future piece, somewhere down the road, Gleason would be interested in using lasers and mirrors to create the crisp and clean interplay between light and shadow that would signify a musical composition.

While Gleason has a lot of ideas as to developing his musical and artistic enterprises, he doesn’t have a well-developed answer in regards to his art’s meaning.

“I was struck by how many people asked me ‘What does it mean?’ People expect it to have a meaning, it’s abstract art. It’s not important for me to have people really understand what’s going on, I care about these things [music, light, shadow, form] and so I build it. I don’t want people to think of my art as this pretentious heady thing, I’m just interested in these things.”

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor

March 25, 2018