Variations on a theme: Neeko Paluzzi’s camera aims to capture Bach

The images in Neeko Paluzzi's exhibition The Goldberg Variations at Studio Sixty Six gallery. Courtesy the artist.

Both music and photography have a language. But how does one capture the other. That’s the task the Ottawa-based photographer Neeko Paluzzi has assumed. The result is a fascinating exhibition that opens at the Studio Sixty Six art gallery on Friday. The show is on view until Aug. 4. In this conversation with ARTSFILE, Paluzzi explains how he turned the music of Glenn Gould and J.S. Bach into photographs in the exhibition called The Goldberg Variations.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I grew up on the shores of Lake Erie in a village with only a few hundred people, so I spent a majority of my childhood alone with my own imagination to keep me company. After moving to Ottawa a decade ago for school, I have settled in the hills of the Outaouais, where my studio and four cats are.

Q. As an artist, what mediums do you explore and why?

A. At the heart of my practice is analogue photography. I work with film, chemistry, and darkroom paper — anything that I can tough and manipulate with my hands.

Neeko Paluzzi

Q. Your work is described as conceptual. Is that correct?

A. Adding the word conceptual to your art practice can be risky move because it makes people think of Duchamp’s Fountain piece (aka the upside down urinal). Conceptual artists are more interested in the idea of an artwork than the final product itself. I wouldn’t say that I am a pure conceptual artist, but I do swing that way from time to time. Give me an interesting idea — and a few glasses of wine — and I might wake up on Duchamp’s side of the bed. This might come from my academic background; I get more inspired by the philosophical readings of Kant, Deleuze, and Heidegger than I do wandering the streets. Perhaps this comes from my upbringing. I am not particularly interested in what other people are doing, but rather what is inside my own head.

Q. Do you also have a passion for music?

A. I have no music training, at all. Though I have tried to hold a note in few musicals …much to the chagrin of friends and family. My interest in music has always been a method of dealing with anxiety, though I wouldn’t have described it that way when I was younger. When I was in elementary school, I would use a walkman to isolate myself, and this only became more pronounced when I could add a thousand songs with my first iPod in high school. I can easily listen to the same ambient song on loop for days, and I often do … to the point that when I listen again to the song years later, I travel back in time to the physical and mental space that I was in.

Q. How do you turn music into art?

A. My music (art)work was born from the question of ‘Can you match photographic tones with musical tones?’ It was an experiment in the darkroom, really. It was more scientific and mathematical than any real interest in music. It took me nearly six months to find the algorithm that linked piano notes with movements in the darkroom. In other words, when a pianist pushes C4, I can create a particular grey colour that is specific to C4 using the lens, contrast filter, and time with a darkroom enlarger. If you’ve never been in a darkroom, it is hard to describe in words. Essentially, what I have done, is create a particular grey colour for each note on the piano, ranging from pure black (the lowest note) to pure white (the highest). For many of the greys, our eyes would not distinguish between them but there is a subtle difference.

Q. Why Bach and Glenn Gould?

A. With all the math and in this body-of-work, there is only one classical musician that I could start with — J.S. Bach. His work is threaded with mathematical equations — specifically, recursive loops, which I reference through my art practice. And Glenn Gould recognized that when he chose The Goldberg Variations to be his debut record, which was a risky move at the time because the classical world did not respect this patricianly Bach piece. However, Gould won everyone over with his clinical fingerings (the way he plays the piano) and the quick tempi he chose. He made the work his own by understanding the complexity of Bach’s original score.

Q. Can you describe the exhibition?

A.  There are 30 variations and 2 arias. Therefore, I made one photograph for each piece. Each photograph is divided in two: the top being Gould’s 1955 interpretation and the bottom being the 1982 interpretation. The main difference between Gould’s interpretations is the speed at which he played. In 1955, he was younger and more ambitious, so his played the pieces very fast; however, in 1982, he played the piece quite a bit slower. In my photographs, this is visualized by how dark and light the pieces are: fast tempo means a darker images, slow tempo means a lighter image.

Q. In general do you see a connection between music and art? Explain?

A. I’ve always considered art like language. Some people speak in painting and some in photography, just like some of us speak French and English. We are all trying to explore and describe similar themes and concepts, but we just have different vocabulary and syntax to say the same thing. For the past two years, while I have been developing this work, I have surrounding myself with music and its language; I am not fluent, but I think I understand more than what I did when I started.

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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.