Mentors: Q&A with SVA Student Steve Shilling about Working with Composer Nico Muhly

March 27, 2013

“Mentors,” the latest exhibition of work inspired by BFA Photography students’ relationships with leading figures in New York City’s art and media worlds, is on view at the Visual Arts Gallery (601 West 26 Street, 15 floor) through Saturday, March 30. This year’s pairings include such notables as artist Charles Atlas, New Museum curator Lauren Cornell, photographer Ryan McGinley, and composer Nico Muhly. Recently, SVA Close Up talked with Muhly’s mentee, Steve Shilling, about their partnership and the multimedia piece it inspired.

How did you and Nico Muhly connect?
All the students who are invited to be part of the Mentors Program are asked to write a list of five people they’d be interested in working with. Since my interest in art is more about the viewers’ spiritual connection or emotional response to the work—more about evoking a sort of synesthesia—I wanted someone in a non-visual field and suggested composers and phenomenologists. Stephen [Frailey, chair of the BFA Photography Department] suggested Nico and it was a good matchup.

Were you familiar with his work beforehand?
No, but I did the whole Google, You Tube thing and checked out some of his scores. He composed the score for a film called The Reader that’s quite good. He doesn’t just lay his music down over a scene. He’s very conscious of how people are moving around in a space and of pairing the music with the visuals.

How did the mentorship work?
We met at his apartment in December. I’d been emailing him my work beforehand, but I brought a physical portfolio with me. [At the time,] I’d been using a scanner to create compositions that I’d thought of [in musical terms]. And Nico went through and said, basically, “These are boring, because I get [the idea] real quick. These other ones, however, are interesting, because I don’t know what’s going on, and I like that.” He introduced me to composers I’d never heard of, gave me some music that’s almost impossible to find, and showed me some visuals that struck him, and we compared our criteria of when we think an image is musical and when we think it falls flat….

We spoke about how sound had to be a part of [the work] and initially talked about a performance. But I’m not too keen on being a performer and I wanted some kind of audience interaction. So I spent time just sitting and thinking about it, and decided I wanted to make a sculptural piece that was also a musical instrument of sorts…a marriage between photography, sculpture, and music. I emailed him [the idea] and within five minutes he wrote back. He was really cool with it and excited about it.

The resulting work is a large, framed digital print with gloves hanging next to it. Can you explain how it works?
The gloves have rare earth magnets inside of them, and if you put them on and swipe them across the print, you’ll trigger magnetic relays [behind the print] that will play notes, or tones, that correspond to that section of the image. I was hoping that the way the viewers moved their hands would be based on the composition…. I’d never built a frame or designed an instrument before, but I did some research and worked closely with my mother’s husband, who studied as an engineer.

Are you still in touch with Nico?
Yeah. We still keep in touch and I think we’re going to plan to get together sometime soon.

For more information about the “Mentors” exhibition, click here.

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