Chamberfest: The sound of Rob Kapilow’s Après Maman

Rob Kapilow. Photo: John Johansen

When you are thinking about making a piece of music that in some way captures the essence of a piece of iconic visual art, one thing you might consider is location.

Rob Kapilow certainly did just that when he sat down to write a score about the Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman. There isn’t a more famous piece of public art in Ottawa. The giant arachnid stands outside the National Gallery of Canada

One of the things that became clear in the initial conversations that took place about the piece, including at a public town hall in Ottawa, was that the music should somehow reflect the physical setting of Maman.

That idea has become a recorded soundscape that will be part of the Chamberfest world premiere of Après Maman on Aug. 4.

“We spent several hours over several days recording sounds from the site,” Kapilow said.

The sound artist who captured the sounds and who has created the recording is Andrew Ascenzo, who is also a cellist with the Bedford Trio.

Ascenzo, Kapilow said, has spent a lot of time on recordings such as this. He is, for example, working on a dissertation at the University of Toronto on recorded music and the cello.

“We have been working for year and a half on this recording that will be an important part of this piece. We have gone through some 50 iterations of the soundscape.”

Louise Bourgeois’s Maman. Courtesy National Gallery of Canada

The soundscape has basically two different components, he said.

There is an opening recording with honking horns and other ambient sound from the location, such as the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral.

The other part is the voice of Bourgeois herself, which Kapilow gained access to through the Easton Foundation and the Louise Bourgeois Archives in New York City.

The foundation was very open to the project, he said. They gave him tour of her house. He got to see her studio and they provided him with enormous amounts of archival material a lot of which can be found on YouTube.

“Her voice is extremely distinctive,” Kapilow said. “It’s a wonderful voice, perfect for Ottawa because she speaks French and English with French accent.

“I began to research her life and I listened to these interviews. Some just jumped out at me and I felt they had to be in the piece.” So there are quotes from her sprinkled through the works.

He has completed the written musical score that will be played by an octet including NAC Orchestra players Carissa Klopoushak (violin/viola), Joanna G’froerer (flute), Sean Rice (clarinet) and Joel Quarrington (double bass) They will be joined by
Zac Pulak (percussion) and the Gryphon Trio composed of Annalee Patipatanakoon  (violin), Roman Borys (cello) and Jamie Parker on the piano. The program will also feature Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 43 in C major, Glières Deux pièces pour contrebasse et piano, op. 32 and Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major (The Trout). In addition to the concert, there will be a panel discussion about Bourgeois and Maman and music on Aug 4 at 2:45 p.m. at the National Gallery with Kapilow, Maggie Wright, the executive director of the Easton Foundation and the Louise Bourgeois Archive and the gallery’s associate curator of contemporary art, Jonathan Shaughnessy.

But Kapilow says he expects to be fiddling with the soundscape until just before the performance.

“We are working on version 90 and I would say we’ll have 91 versions in the end. It’s been interesting to see how much work is involved in creating a one minute excerpt.

“We are taking some of her words, stretching them or adding echo to them, stuff like that.”

Unusually for a Chamberfest performance, there will be a program note that will handle all the acknowledgements for help in completing the project. And, Kapilow said, “the piece itself requires explanation. Where are the quotes coming from? What’s the soundscape about? I talk about all that.”

He also explains why it’s called Après Maman.

“It’s not an attempt to depict the sculpture in music rather it’s a reaction to it and to her.”

Bourgeois’s story is striking, Kapilow said. Her beloved mother committed suicide when Louise was at university.

The artist said when talking about the spider sculpture: “My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me, by refusing to answer ‘stupid,’ inquisitive, embarrassing, personal questions.”

Her father was a philanderer, whose mistress was Bourgeois’s nanny and the entire family knew of the affair.

Bourgeois once wrote an ode to her mother in which she describes the spider sculpture and why it is a description about her mother and motherhood.

Kapilow has set that ode for a vocal trio. It has been recorded and will be part of the soundscape.

Kapilow explored Bourgeois’s life deeply with her assistant Jerry Gorovoy who was with her for some 35 years.

“He talked a lot about Bourgeois and how intimidating she was. She said once that ‘It is really the anger that makes me work.’ She was difficult, volatile and touchy; she would be angry at one moment and kind the next.

“The piece is like that. That volatility was a key for me,” he said.

Kapilow believes that Bourgeois needed that anger to make her art. In the music the anger is a pounding, driven presence.

“When you first look at Maman you see this clear image. You see a spider. You probably wonder why the heck is a spider called Maman. The more you research it you see the mother, you see what the mother meant and you see her childhood. You see the anger that made her work and you see the 70 years that she kept the anger alive.”

There is also a time in the piece, he said, when the spider is left alone and it dances in the moonlight.

In the end, Kapilow says the soundscape serves to “enlarge the world of what an octet can be by using a medium that is available today.”

Kapilow has evolved a definition of music as “organized sound that is intended to be heard” and within that broad statement, he said, any kind of sound is fair game.

“This is largely a piece of composed music in a way that no one would doubt that it was.”

One of the things that makes Maman the sculpture so popular, he believes, is that on one simple level it’s “gettable. You know what it is, but it also has depth.”

“One of final quotes I use from her is ‘I turn hate into love’. In end what you see is pain that is turned into art,” he said. “I see all of this when I look at the sculpture now.”

Kapilow is always thinking about where to take a project next and it is his hope that Après Maman — along with the separate Mother’s Day project done around this effort — will be performed at all the other sites where Maman is on display.

Chamberfest presents:

Chamber Chat: Après Maman
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: Aug. 4 at 2:45 p.m.
Free admission. For information:

Après Maman
Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Aug. 4 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.