The Nassau Exhibit is a Love Song to the Art of Music

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What inspires you? If it’s art, music, video, rock stars, pop culture, or even the sound of silence, the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn has it. In a rare museum-wide takeover, “Songs Without Words: The Art of Music,” which runs until March 6, fills every gallery with paintings, drawings, photographs, sheet music, manuscripts and instruments related to music from around the world.

Co-conceived and developed over more than two years by director Charles Riley and associate curator Jennifer Haller, the exhibition brings together works from six continents spanning hundreds of years. There are photos of musicians; concert posters; paintings by Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Tony Bennett and Joni Mitchell; a sculpture by Paul McCartney; a work of art turned into performance art by a pop star and theater maestro; and a custom-built coin-sized instrument.

Don’t expect a concert, although several are planned during the course of the show. Rather, they are intricate and sophisticated works of art – from cubist paintings to iconic photographs – that are stunning, often fun, and always tied to sound.

“You have pockets of very, very quiet places, and then you’re drawn into a space where there’s music,” Riley said, describing the exhibit.

DRAW LOCAL TALENTS

One such space attracted multi-Grammy Long Island singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb and his wife, Laura Savini, when they visited in December. The couple, who lent several pieces to the exhibit — including a Webb self-portrait and one of his Grammy awards — found resonance in Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s “Gamelatron,” a hand-crafted kinetic sculpture. Shimmering circles of hammered metal reflect light from the museum grounds while computerized, self-playing gongs fill the gallery with soothing, meditative sounds. It is a contemporary version of the gamelan, an ancient instrument used in ceremonial and spiritual practices in Indonesia.

“I just found it incredibly beautiful to listen to, watch and experience,” Webb said. “The room is all about this array of instruments which are beautiful. I could have stayed there all night and just sat and listened to it.”

He added, “In these tumultuous times when everyone is just a little pissed off, walking into this room was a bit like therapy.”

GUITARS AND GAGA

For a faster beat, rock and roll royalty are hailed in a sort of throne room that features the Les Paul guitar Keith Richards played when the Rolling Stones first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 and the Gibson “Flying V” Neil Young toured with in the early 1970s.

“Lady Gaga: Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière” is a life-size video by famed East End director Robert Wilson that requires a longer look. In this one, Lady Gaga is costumed and posed as the subject of a painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. She moves lightly and slowly (watch her eyes) – just enough for the viewer to perceive that this is a performance rather than a photograph. Riley noted that for hundreds of students who visited the exhibit, this work seemed particularly captivating. Museum board member Savini agreed, noting that “it really shows how music has progressed to become an electronic form, and we see how art can also become electronic.”

Such harmonies and echoes are neat curatorial constructs. “We have music as a building block of sound and a building block of time,” Haller said. “There are instruments from the Silk Road, things that artisans’ hands have touched, and we’ve tried to build how that resonates with the visual work.” She compiled a playlist to keep the music alive, via QR codes at the museum and a link on the museum’s website.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN

One aspect intended to make visitors think is a gallery devoted to artists whose work considers those who do not experience sound, having no hearing. “We knew from the start that this would be the period at the end of the show’s sentence. At the end of the sentence, the silence,” Riley said.

Look for pieces by David Hockney, Jasper Johns and rising art star Christine Sun Kim, who had a breakout moment at the 2019 Whitney Biennial and then performed the national anthem in American Sign Language at the Super Bowl 2020.

“It’s all there,” Riley said. “It’s loud, and it’s quiet. It’s punk, and it’s classic. It’s music from all over the world. It’s like a huge jukebox. Whatever you want, put on your quarter in. You’ll get it.”

WHAT “Songs Without Words: The Art of Music”

WHEN | OR Through March 6, 11:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, advance ticket entry required; Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Dr., Roslyn Harbor

NEWS $15, $12 for 62 and over, $5 for students and ages 4 to 12, free for children under 4; 516-484-9338, nassaumuseum.org

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