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News . Feature Stories . CIA students explore sound art and contemporary music as they relate to the visual arts

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February 26, 2014

CIA students explore sound art and contemporary music as they relate to the visual arts

Adjunct faculty member will deconstruct sound in March 7 Lunch On Fridays talk

CIA students explore sound art and contemporary music as they relate to the visual arts

By Carolyn Jack

Christopher Auerbach-Brown helps you perceive art with your ears.

Though it might seem strange for the sight-centered Cleveland Institute of Art to include an expert musician and composer on its adjunct faculty, it makes great sense – or senses – when you find out that Auerbach-Brown is the ultimate crossover artist, starting with the structure of his brain.

Auerbach-Brown, who came to Cleveland years ago from his home state of New York to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music, has the trait of synesthesia, a kind of neurological cross-wiring or juxtaposition of brain regions that mixes a person’s hearing and/or visual abilities in ways that most of us don’t experience. For synesthetes, numbers or letters can become crossed with colors: Particular symbols appear to them in particular hues, such as a red numeral 4 or a green B.

But for Auerbach-Brown, musical tones are what appear in different colors, turning tunes into visual art right there in his head. Who better, then, to introduce CIA students to the richly creative idea that music and visual art not only work well together, but also resemble each other?

“I get them to sort of stretch their brains,” Auerbach-Brown said of his students.

With a background that includes mastery of at least 10 musical instruments; study with the renowned late CIM professor and avant-garde composer Donald Erb; the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ 1998 Charles Ives Scholarship, awarded to “composition students of great promise”; a regular gig playing alto sax and musical saw and also throat-singing with the local “avant-chamber” ensemble Trepanning Trio; collaboration with local visual artist and Creative Workforce Fellow Andrea Joki on the 2008 installation “Papersound” at Cleveland’s SPACES gallery; and a genius for electronic equipment that has gained him the additional job of media program manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Auerbach-Brown brings a unique spectrum of abilities to the courses he teaches at CIA.

When he began here in 2003, he recalled in a phone conversation, the first class he proposed was a music-appreciation course examining music inspired by visual art – and vice versa – over the last century or so. More recent courses include “Survey of Contemporary Music and Its Relation to the Visual Arts,” which he’s teaching this semester, as well as “Sound Art in New Media” and, in the past, “John Cage, His Life, Work and Influence.”

One of the values of his classes, Auerbach-Brown noted, is being able to develop a critical dialogue about art and music, and help students develop listening skills. He sets up what he calls a “listening paradigm” for students who want to incorporate music in an artistic setting – one that compels them to think about how they would actually use the music and about the correlations between art and sound.

And it works. “Chris’ classes certainly expanded my thoughts and perceptions of the relationship between visual art and music and sound art,” photographer and video artist Michelle Marie Murphy ’04 wrote in an email. “(They) helped me to understand where music and sound art was in parallel with the movements that we studied in visual-art history classes. It was his class, and (Professor) Gary Sampson's video-art class, that led me to ‘get’ and appreciate conceptual and nontraditional presentations of contemporary art.”

Emphasis on the nontraditional: Auerbach-Brown especially likes to introduce students to rigorous contemporary music. In this semester’s course, he is trying an exercise that requires students to listen to abstract, avant-garde music and then depict its progress in “graphic scores,” abstract visual guides to the progression of the music over time using, say, shapes and colors – a sort of personal artistic record of what each student heard.

“Some of them are really challenged by that,” he said.

Then Auerbach-Brown invites in musicians to play the graphic scores, allowing the students to see correlations between what they depicted and what they heard. The experience helps them to think outside the visual box, he explained.

So will “Sound Is an Onion,” a March 7 talk that Auerbach-Brown will give as part CIA’s Lunch On Fridays series. Where the graphic-score exercise encourages listeners to build a music-based artwork, “Sound Is an Onion” will help them deconstruct one. By slowing down their process of listening, getting them to note their subjective reactions to the piece, and then peeling away the layers of musical elements one by one, Auerbach-Brown said, he’ll give listeners the chance to analyze not just what kinds of sounds make up a whole work, but also what meanings the sounds have individually and in context, and how they fit together to create larger impact – just as different colors, shapes and contexts make up a work of visual art.

With all his extraordinary talents, that’s one realm of skills Auerbach-Brown hasn’t conquered yet: making his own pictures and sculptures. “I have lots of ideas,” he admits, but claims that his attempts to create them so far have been “epic failures.” You can almost hear the smile when he rates his level of visual-arts education. “I graduated stick figures,” he says.

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