Interview with ‘TRIPTYCH’ Composer Robert Sirota and Collaborating Artist Deborah Patterson by Jane Coyne

Composer Robert Sirota will be in Baltimore next Sunday, September 9, 2012, to attend a concert featuring a performance of his work, TRIPTYCH, a hauntingly beautiful piece commemorating the victims of September 11, 2001. Joining him will be Baltimore artist Deborah Patterson, with whom he collaborated on this commission. The concert will take place at 3 PM at Mount Vernon Music Space and will feature The János Quartet.

Robert Sirota

Sirota and Patterson have strong area connections. Prior to becoming the President of The Manhattan School of Music in 2005, the prolific and critically acclaimed composer served as the Director of the prestigious Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University. Patterson is native of Baltimore, an award winning painter, and the Founder and Director of ARTblocks.

I caught up with Bob and Deborah on Monday asked them about their collaboration.

Jane: I’m sure our readers will be curious about your collaboration. How did the two of you meet?

Bob: We first met in the early 90s, when Deborah was artist-in-residence at Yale Divinity School, and my wife Vicki was a professor there. We subsequently had a “chance” meeting on the Greek island of Paros (I don’t believe in “coincidences”), where Deborah was teaching painting. When I moved to Deb’s hometown of Baltimore in 1995, we reconnected.

Deborah Patterson.

Deborah: Our meeting was rather extraordinary, actually.  Immediately following graduation and receipt of my masters in Religion and the Arts from Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music and the Arts – where Bob’s wife, Vicki, was a professor – I came home one day to find Vicki visiting my roommate. She asked what my plans were, not knowing that I had spent the previous year teaching watercolor painting on the island of Paros in Greece and was preparing to the same that summer. When I told her, she said, “That’s funny, my husband and I are going to Greece in two weeks.” In that surreal way of knowing that you are entering the land of serendipity, I knew instantly that they would be going to Paros, and sure enough, they were. When she discovered that I taught watercolors she said, “My husband has always wanted to learn how to paint in watercolor! Would you be willing to give him a lesson?” The answer, of course, was ‘yes,’ and we immediately called Bob in NY, where he was Dean of Music at NYU. I told him what supplies to buy at Pearl Paint, and our friendship began on a painting odyssey by the Mediterranean Sea.

The following year, I was an artist-in-residence at the Institute and worked closely with Vicki to develop artwork for the Divinity School Chapel. While painting the Stations of the Cross, I decided to ask Bob if he were interested in doing a painting and music collaboration based on the Stations. He agreed, and we had planned to do it in NY, where he was based and where Vicki was planning to move, possibly at St. John the Divine.

Several months later, Bob was asked to become director of the Peabody, which in turn brought me back to Baltimore, my hometown that I had left in 1974 for college (and subsequently Philadelphia and Italy), never planning to return. The collaboration, The Passion of Jesus Christ: A Visual Oratorio, became a rather complex piece – eight large oil paintings with music for organ, piano, percussion, three soloists, and a large choir – and was completed several years later.

How long after 9/11 did you first discuss a possible collaboration on this work?

Bob:  Very soon thereafter. Like many artists, we felt the need to process this tragedy through our work. We had already collaborated on another project in 1998: The Passion of Jesus Christ: A Visual Oratorio, so we had already developed a way of working together.

Deborah: After 9/11, I immediately began expressing my grief through my painting. When Bob found out, he said, “What a coincidence; I’ve been commissioned by the Chiara Quartet to compose a commemorative piece.”

The title of your work is TRIPTYCH. How did this title originate and what does it mean?

Deborah: I don’t remember who came up with the title, Bob or me, but it was definitely chosen for its symbolic meaning. Consisting of three separate but unified panels, it was the most common format for medieval and renaissance altarpieces, with the central panel depicting the primary theme, often – even in our case – a scene of suffering, known as a lamentation scene or “pietà.” The titles of the movements are liturgical as well, and as a result carry greater symbolic meaning.

Bob: A triptych is a 3-panel painting, common in the iconography of the Orthodox Christian Church. Both the paintings by Deborah and my string quartet follow this three-part form.

‘TRIPTYCH’ – a commemoration to the victims of 9-11 by Deborah Patterson.

What was the process of your collaboration? In terms of concept, did one of you follow the other artistically or did you mutually decide on the idea of a three movement/three panel work communicating “Desecration,” “Lamentation,” and “Prayer?”

Did you share your progress with each during the creation of TRIPTYCH, or did you work independently and then reveal your respective contributions to this project to one another in finished form?

Bob:  I describe our process as “parallel play” Although I seem to recall we decided fairly early on the three-part form of our individual artworks, we did not show each other a great deal during the process. However, we carried on a pretty intense conversation about the work and its subject matter throughout their creation, checking in with each other periodically.

Deborah:  It was a very organic process. As with The Passion, although we worked independently, we talked regularly. For me, the most exciting part of both experiences was in fact our conversations. Although my paintings are overtly representational, there is a lot underlying symbolism going on. Bob was able to see and understand this, and, by analogy, articulate to me, a non-musician, what he was doing in abstract musical terms.

As compared to creating a work based on a new fictional concept, a famous story, or a long ago piece of history, did you find it more difficult or draining, or did you feel  more pressure to ‘get it right’ because of your personal knowledge and/or connection to the tragic and heart-wrenching events of 9/11? 

Bob: This was one of the most difficult and emotionally draining experiences of my creative life. I was very concerned with the issue of being true to the subject matter, and creating something that both captured the sheer horror of the event while allowing the listener to process it and hold onto hope.

Deborah: It was extremely draining, and I cried the entire time I painted it. With the first panel, “Desecration,” I attempted consciously to put myself at the event and to experience the pure hell that it was. The central panel however depicts its contrast, true focal point, and principal reason for the underlying religious symbolism of the piece: the extraordinary heroism of the people who literally sacrificed their lives to help others. It is not known what happened to the firefighters depicted, but it is known that in his life and in his death, Father Mychal Judge was a Christ-like figure. It is said that the firefighters laid his body on the altar at nearby St. Peter’s Church [depicted in the background], and whether apocryphal or not, these were exceptional human beings. The third panel, “Prayer,” completes the eternal death/life circle by bringing us out of the ashes and begin the ascent towards the light and the promise of hope.

When you are involved in or in attendance at performances of TRIPTYCH, do you find any personal peace in knowing that you created a work that pays lasting tribute to the people who lost their lives in this tragedy?  

Deborah: This is a particularly difficult question, as we all know the unspeakable horror families and loved ones faced, and probably continue to face as a result of this event. They have my deepest sympathy, and I don’t presume to suppose that I will ever know what they went through. That said, if Bob and I are able to bring the slightest amount of comfort, consolation and peace to anyone who experiences TRIPTYCH, then as an artist, and a human being, I am very grateful.

I am assuming you have had the opportunity to speak with audience members who survived 9/11, and to families and friends of those who did not. What have their reactions been? Do any of their comments regarding this work and the way they connected to it stand out in your mind?  

Bob: I have received a number of comments from people who are 9/11 survivors, or who lost loved ones that day, who have told me that they have  been comforted by our work. I have also been pleased that several string quartets, including the Chiara, American, and Blair quartets, have given multiple performances of the work,  and have all commented on the powerful effect it has had on them and on their audiences.

When there are no words, there is music and there is art. I encourage you to be a part of this beautiful concert by the János Quartet which, in addition to TRIPTYCH, will include Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18, No. 6. I hope to see you there.

János Quartet.

TRIPTYCH will be performed by the János Quartet on Sunday, September 9, 2012, at 3pm at Mount Vernon Music Space – 1015 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets here.

Deborah Patterson’s website and work.

A video of the Chiara String Quartet performance of’ TRIPTYCH at Trinity Church on Wall Street.

János Quartet website.

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Jane Coyne
Jane Coyne has been involved in the arts for all of her life. As a singer, she has toured the country as a soloist, appearing at major venues throughout the United States, performing with musicians including Duke Ellington, Johnny Coles, Paul Gonzalves, and Tyree Glenn, and she has appeared in many musical theatre productions. She has managed the careers of a number of a number of international conductors and composers and previously served as the vice president of the National Philharmonic at Strathmore, executive director of the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras, and associate director of Washington’s Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts. Jane directs the National PTA Reflections Program (one of the largest arts education programs in the country). She is also one of the founding directors of Young Artists of America, and manages the career of her son, composer and violinist Joshua Coyne.


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