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Artistic Intersections

Honors Seminar Explores Connections between Art and Music

What do a Russian futurist painting and a music theory class have in common?

As it turns out, quite a bit. Dr. Inessa Bazayev’s class, HNRS 2021: Intersections Between Music & Art, explores the ways in which, throughout the course of the 20th century, art and music have paralleled each other in various avant-garde movements. The small class size and conversational setting allow for students to investigate the different characteristics of modern art and music –  all with an associate professor of Music Theory as their moderator and guide.

Bazayev’s research spans Russian and Soviet music, Russian Futurism, the history of Russian music theory, and voice leading in twentieth-century music. These interests inform Bazayev’s Honors course, an immersive, discussion-based seminar that covers everything from Profokiev’s Peter and the Wolf to elevator music.

“The recurring theme is ‘what is modernism?’” Bazayev said. “And the answer is not short.”

To illustrate the connections between different art forms, she begins one class by showing the students Natalia Goncharova’s The Cyclist (1913).

The painting draws the eye in immediately. Through the precise arrangement of angles, monochromatic colors and shapes, a man riding a bicycle emerges as the focus of the image. Reverberations surround both his form and the various mechanisms of his bicycle, with the man himself silhouetted against the backdrop of a drain. A series of letters and numbers are just discernable on the ‘walls’ behind him and within his own figure.

“It’s actually complete gibberish,” Bazayev says with a laugh. “The words and numbers don’t mean anything.”

She tells the class that this painting – indecipherable as it may seem – is one of the best representations of the Russian futurist movement.

“The reason I chose art as a backdrop to talk about avant-garde music is that art is representational. It’s easier to talk about art by looking at color and shapes,” Bazayev says. “It is challenging for students to take the nonrepresentational art of music and to make sense of the dissonant, cacophonous sounds of the 20th century movements. But when you juxtapose it with a modern painting, you can visualize that cacophony. And understand it on a deeper level.”

After giving the class a chance to discuss the interesting futurist aspects of The Cyclist, including its depictions of movement, the middle class, and industrialization, Bazayev moves on to music. The students were assigned to listen to Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry the night before.

“This was my favorite piece of music we’ve listened to so far,” says one student. “You can really see what he was trying to do as a futurist composer.”

The student describes how he loved the way the violins depicted steam and hissing, how the cellos sound like a factory line – all key machinist elements of the futurist movement.

The class takes a few minutes to listen to the piece together before discussing it further, while Bazayev provides important historic background along the way.

“We started with difficult music right away,” Bazayev explains. “I think they were intimidated by the expressionist music, the atonality of composers like Schoenberg.”

Honors seminars offer students the opportunity to further explore their field of study or to expand their cultural and critical thinking background by taking a course outside of their chosen subject area. Around 95% of the students taking this section of HNRS 2021 are in a science related field, a new experience for Bazayev as a music theorist.

“Their interpretations are actually very rich,” she says. “I think because their backgrounds are scientific, they really want to pinpoint what in the music is interesting, what caused them to feel discomfort.”

Bazayev says that the goal of the class is not to make these students like modern music, but to get them to develop an appreciation for it. She hopes to create for her students an understanding of why a piece of music was revolutionary, what historical elements enriched it, what political implications it had.

By bringing in other media such as paintings and sculpture, the class becomes, in addition to an exploration of avant-garde musical movements, a look at the historical events of the 1900s from a compelling new viewpoint.

According to Conservation Biology senior Sarah Thomas, she loves that she can incorporate this class into her educational experience. As someone who has no background in music, Thomas says that it was overwhelming at first to absorb everything, but that Bazayev invested time and energy in helping her students to understand.

“It really makes you look at history in a different way,” Thomas says. “When you look at history or political movements, you don’t always think about how it affected the art world. But it totally did.”

Sophomore Political Science and Sociology major Sebastian Brumfied Mejia says that he enjoys the class because it gives him exposure to new ways of appreciating music and art.

“I really like the political and historical aspects,” he said. “I’m interested in the dynamics between Eurocentrist composers and their subjects.”

Bazayev says that she is looking forward to the twists and turns of the rest of the course.

“In the 20th century, art movements are so short lived. The 20th century was full of cultural revolutions. We have to change years and movements each week.”

As her first experience teaching with the Honors College, Dr. Bazayev is excited about the opportunities to share musical education with students of all disciplines. She hopes to develop more classes like this one in the future that are designed for both music majors and non-music majors alike.

Story by Jordan LaHaye.