Musical tour offers new approach to exhibits at the Oakland Museum

Cornelius Boots stops to play in the Radical Acts exhibit in the art gallery. He is the first musician to performer in this year's In-the-Mix: Music Tour series at the Oakland Museum of California.

Cornelius Boots stops to play in the Radical Acts exhibit in the art gallery. He is the first musician to performer in this year's In-the-Mix: Music Tour series at the Oakland Museum of California.

With its new series, “In-the-Mix: Music Tour,” the Oakland Museum of California is offering a new way for lovers of the arts to experience the works of visual arts, masters, and musicians. Each part of the series is the musical tour of the museum’s galleries given by musicians who will stroll through them and interpret the objects and the experience for themselves. “They become sort of a Pied Piper, as people follow them and get a soundtrack of an experience and a different interpretation of the California artifacts,” said the museum’s assistant director of public programs, Cynthia Taylor.

The first program of the year was held in Saturday and will continue over the next several months with a new performance on second Saturdays. Cornelius Boots, a woodwind performer, composer and instructor in the East Bay for almost 10 years, was the featured musician, and led a tour through a gallery while improvising pieces.

“My approach to my instruments has been called animistic,” he said. “I just try to play what the instrument wants me to play.  Ten or 15 percent of the performance is weaving in pre-composed material or other songs that I know, but in general, it is the instrument interacting with the space.”

Playing in galleries is always a positive experience for solo musicians, particularly wind musicians who have the ability to be mobile, and the acoustics of the large museum space are usually great, Boots said. As an improvising player you have plenty to work with, he said—whether it is the artwork or the space or people walking around.

Boots began his performance playing the clarinet, stopping first in front of a statute created by Deborah Butterfield of a horse covered with wooden sticks. He was drawn to the piece, he said, pausing after playing several moments of music that seemed to beckon to listeners to follow the sound.

Boots continued his musical tour through the gallery, only pausing to switch from the clarinet to the Shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. Moving from one space to the other, Boots allowed the images to draw him in and dictate the rhythm and tempo of the music.  Soft and low, short and sharp or long and high, the notes from the instrument carried throughout the third floor, causing visitors to stop, take in the sounds and observe the images for a moment or for minutes.

“I thought it was really interesting seeing him walk from room to room,” said Jordan Evins, a student who is studying the way people interact with art.  “The way the music would change with each piece was great. It was a different experience. Sometimes you go up to a piece of art and you don’t have that sense of it, his music would set a tone for the piece, especially some of the abstract pieces. It would give them a different mood than maybe you would interpret otherwise.”

“To follow the music instead of being directed to something was a freeing experience,” said fellow student Lizabeth Trobitz. “I never felt that before in a museum. With this I had no expectations of how it was going to be. Usually I go to a museum to see a specific thing or to see a certain piece.”

Trobitz said her favorite part of the experience was when Boots stopped by the painting of a redwood tree. “I grew up near the redwoods in Northern California, so my emotions about growing up there and what I feel when I am out in nature like that at that time of day—I felt that was really reflected in his music,” she said. “If I closed my eyes I felt like I was right there on the side of the river.”

The students agreed that the music created a feeling of serenity and allowed them to see each image in different ways. “As I hear it what I am seeing almost starts to change and as he keeps playing what I am seeing continues to change,” Evins said.

In the Playing with Fire exhibit, which showcases works of art made from glass, the music became more intense as Boots stood before a canvas covered in glass of varying shades of gray. The tones from the flute became hypnotic. Everyone in the gallery and following along on the tour came to a standstill as they watched the musician play.

Boots said his hope is to always add a dimension to the experience without detracting from what would have been there. “It’s a little like film score composing,” Boots said. “I want to make it a multifaceted, multi-dimensional experience and keep people in the moment with me.”

Taylor said the idea for this program began as a dialogue series that was presented as part of last year’s 1968 gallery exhibit, when guests were invited to speak about the political atmosphere of the 1960s and ‘70s. This time, she said, “Rather than coming to a lecture and being talked at or being informed by, instead it becomes a dialogue with special guests based on themes that might be of interest to the visitors.”

Cornelius Boots will perform March 9 at the Christ Church in Berkeley with Laura Inserra, founder of Art in Nature: The Nature of Art Festival. The museum will present In-the-Mix every second Saturday of the month and feature a series of musicians from the East Bay and Oakland area.

All music arranged and performed by Cornelius Boots. The event was recorded with the permission of the artist and the Oakland Museum of California.

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