“Still,” the solo piano piece that Professor of Piano Studies Ashlee Mack performed in Kresge Recital Hall on Friday, is a tribute to painter Clyfford Still. However, the title could also easily refer to the unrushed, contemplative mood of the composition. Mack’s performance was deliberate and thoughtful. The piece itself was both unconventional and moving, evocative of Still’s radical use of space and color.
Still was a prominent member of the first wave of abstract expressionists, a group of artists who used ingenious techniques to confront universal human themes and experiences in the wake of World War II.
Still began experimenting with abstraction in the late 1930s, long before the movement gained popularity. One of the more anti-establishment artists in the abstract expressionist movement, Still withdrew from the art world completely in 1951. After his death in 1980, 95 percent of Still’s work was stored away in a barn in Maryland. In 2004, these paintings formed the basis of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colo.
Abstract expressionism invites the viewer to investigate works of art on their own terms. Composer James Romig wrote “Still” with the intention of conveying the feeling of wandering through an art gallery. While the performance is anchored in time and place rather than examining an exhibit at one’s leisure, there are certain commonalities.
The use of multiple variations on the same 24 notes contributes to a unique listening experience. Through repetition, the audience notices the intricacies of the composition in the same way that a person standing in front of a painting might notice new details with each visit.
The composition itself consists of 43 unique sequences, each 75 seconds long. Each sequence is made up of just 24 notes. Mack performed the piece as an unbroken progression, lasting around 55 minutes. The iterations of notes are revealed progressively, weaving together in an increasingly intricate design.
From sequences of 24 notes, a picture of Still gradually emerges. The accents in the composition are reminiscent of the artist’s sparing, striking use of light.
Still’s paintings are heavily influenced by nature, a theme that is also important to Mack. She has served as an artist-in-residence at Wupatki National Monument, Everglades National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Centrum at Fort Worden State Park in Washington. Mack has also studied the intersection of nature and art extensively. Nature is represented in “Still” by complex, meter-obscuring rhythms, which produce an untraditional texture. This texture is compelling and varied. It builds from sparse to dense, evoking the vastness and complexity of nature.