Mussorgsky's 'Pictures' Goes Multimedia Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and visual artist Robin Rhode are out to reframe Modest Mussorgsky's classic suite for solo piano, Pictures at an Exhibition. For the upcoming world premiere, the pianist will be surrounded by seven video screens as he plays the music.

Mussorgsky's 'Pictures' Goes Multimedia

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But before you do that, listen to this. It's from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

(Soundbite of song, "Pictures at an Exhibition")

SIEGEL: This new recording of the piece is worthy of our attention in itself. It's by the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

Mr. LEIF OVE ANDSNES (Pianist): This is an iconic piece of music. It's possibly the most famous Russian piece for solo piano ever written.

(Soundbite of song, "Pictures at an Exhibition")

SIEGEL: And it's about as programmatic a composition as has ever been written. The work was composed in 1974. It is a promenade through a gallery, stopping at the pictures Viktor Hartmann, an artist and architect, a friend of Mussorgsky's who died young. The exhibition was a memorial to Hartmann. Each movement was inspired by and named for a picture.

Mr. ANDSNES: It's unbelievable that it's written in 1870. It's such a modern concept. It's also a piece of theater. It has this narrative of this person walking into an exhibition space, and you almost hear his reaction to what he has seen. So it's emotionally very strong.

SIEGEL: Now, Leif Ove Andsnes has added a new dimension to the Mussorgsky piece that actually undoes the visual associations we have with the names of the Hartmann drawings and watercolors: So much for "The Ox Cart," "The Old Castle" or "The Tuileries." When Andsnes performs "Pictures at an Exhibition" at Lincoln Center in November, he will share the stage with seven large video screens showing images created by the South African artist Robin Rhode.

Mr. ROBIN RHODE (Artist): I did not spend a great deal of my time listening to classical music. So I had a very limited understanding of classical music, and especially the Mussorgsky. I'd heard of promenades before, but only on Disney cartoons.

SIEGEL: Rhode's closest association with classical music until now seems to have been his drawing of a piano. His images are inspired by Mussorgsky's music, but not literally by the pictures that are the music's inspiration. For example, the movement called "The Ox Cart," Rhode has added images of a Johannesburg train station.

(Soundbite of song, "The Ox Cart")

SIEGEL: This musical-visual collaboration, it's called "Pictures Reframed," culminates in video of Andsnes playing the movement, "The Great Gate of Kiev," ankle deep in the harbor at Bergen, Norway.

(Soundbite of song, "The Great Gate of Kiev")

SIEGEL: At the end, the piano drifts off into the water. Andsnes says the idea here is to keep both music and visual images in the foreground.

Mr. ANDSNES: I was introduced to Robin's art through a curator in Paris, and I saw some of it, and I thought it was very intriguing and very musical. And when there was then talk of doing such a project, we approached Robin.

SIEGEL: And Robin, did you say, oh, Leif Ove Andsnes, or some Norwegian pianist is asking me to do a project with him?

Mr. RHODE: Thank goodness for YouTube because I had the chance to then do some research online on Leif Ove. And I was immediately captivated by Leif Ove's performance and by the piano, just the idea of the piano concert because I had, in my own artistic practice, was developing ideas around incorporating music and visual arts. And at the same time, I was developing this idea around trying to kill or murder my drawing of a piano. So it was really perfect timing.

SIEGEL: You have some murderous impulse toward a piano. This precedes the project. What do you have against the piano exactly?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODE: You know, it's not that I have something against it, it's just that I've been very intrigued by the piano as an object and through murdering or trying to attempt to kill this object, I could find a way to deconstruct its history.

You know, I think just as an object, the piano is so, so beautiful, and to somehow remove its beauty and its history out would attempt, in a very humorous and playful way, try and kill it. Try and strangle it or suffocate it with a pillow or something.

SIEGEL: And being made of wood, it should naturally float, as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODE: Yes, and this idea of mine to murder the piano led us to drowning it in Bergen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Leif Ove Andsnes, did you also harbor long desires to murder a piano?

Mr. ANDSNES: Not at all.


Mr. ANDSNES: And I'm very glad it wasn't my piano. But yet there is also a lot of humor actually in the "Pictures at an Exhibition" as a musical piece. You know, there are two or three of the movements that are clearly written to be humorous music - and that's something we often forget in classical music.

SIEGEL: Is there a possible pitfall here, Leif Ove Andsnes, that the novelty and the attraction of the multimedia presentation might in some way - well, does it take the pressure off of you to bring something fresh to the music alone, since many people will only experience this as your recording of the Mussorgsky piece?

Mr. ANDSNES: Of course there are many challenges with such a project. And it's not without its difficulty, also, to be an audience member because you have to listen and look so actively at the same time. And to use these both senses so actively, we are not used to that, and especially not in a concert. And I think this experience, therefore, will be different.

I think sometimes music is foreground, other times visuals is foreground. We have wanted to create something where both art forms are very strong. The worst thing that could happen was if the music becomes background music, or if the visuals would be a kind of light illustration. We want both things to be strong. And then I think there will be meetings of these two - where? We will create a new expression. And I have found, working with this, that it has enhanced my appetite for this piece as music.

SIEGEL: Well, Leif Ove Andsnes and Robin Rhode, thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. ANDSNES: Thank you.

Mr. RHODE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes performs Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" with Robin Rhode's video images at Lincoln Center in New York City on November 13th. You can see a video and hear more music at

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