The instant I saw Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Shuttlecocks” sculpture, I knew I wanted to turn it into a piece of music. Sculptures that can make you laugh out loud are rare, and I was completely captivated by the boldness and wit of those four badminton birdies on the manicured lawn of the elegant Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. When I spoke to people at the museum about the work, the showed me a two-inch thick file of intensely emotional letters that people had written in response to the piece. This was equally thrilling. The work had truly reached people and touched something— positive or negative, it didn’t matter to me— and they felt compelled to respond. The city had been engaged.
The engagement that Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s “Shuttlecocks” produced has been one of the driving inspirations for me in writing this piece. The idea of composing a “citypiece”— i.e. writing a work with ideas generated from people throughout Kansas City— was an attempt to create a similar kind of artistic engagement with a piece of music. I wanted people to feel involved in the process and bring something of themselves to the project while allowing myself to be open to a completely new set of influences and ideas to see if together we would come up with something different than I could have done alone. Though for better or for worse I am responsible for the final musical result, I truly feel that the work is a three-part creation with the sculpture, all the people who suggested ideas to me throughout the writing process, and myself as co-creators.
On a specific level I took several things from the sculpture in writing this piece. First an idea. Oldenburg and van Bruggen take an ordinary object from everyday life— a badminton birdie— blow it up to 5,000 pounds and call it a work of art. The idea of basing a work on an ordinary object was a key starting point for my piece. Since there are four badminton birdies at the museum, I decided to take four “ordinary musical objects” from everyday life and use them as musical sources for my piece. Three of these were suggested by members of our partner audiences in the Friends of Chamber Music’s MusiConnection program.
The first one is the “Missouri Waltz”— the Missouri state song. This is the only musical source that is quoted exactly. It appears at the beginning in direct quotation as a “time setter” but is then completely reworked, varied and transformed throughout the first section of the piece.
The second is part of daily life for musicians— a Kreutzer etude. This is a simple study or exercise that string players warm-up with when they practice. In its original form it is just a melody line with no accompaniment. I used about 10 seconds of the etude, inventing accompaniments, contexts and completely new music generated from these core measures.
The third is the Kansas state song— “Home on the Range.” I use only four measures of melody from this song but this fragment flits throughout the piece. It is the badminton birdie in the front of the museum that we see the least often.
I will leave the fourth “ordinary object” unnamed. When it comes in to start the final section of the piece, I am sure everyone will recognize it, though perhaps not so clearly in its later transformations including a simultaneous four and three part canon that I was delighted to discover was possible with this simple tune.
Beyond the idea of using material from orfinary life as a source, I also took from the “Shuttlecocks” sculpture the idea that fun is a serious topic. Many of the negative letters about the sculpture seemed to think it was not “serious” enough for the museum— it didn’t belong. The tension between these irreverent shuttlecocks and the elegant, traditional museum is part of the fun of the work. Many people mentioned the rich history of Kansas City as a “jazz town” as I was writing the piece, and I loved the idea of writing some “jazzy” music for non-jazzy “inappropriate” instruments, a string octet, to play in a concert hall. I wanted the music to be fun in some way like the sculpture.
It takes tremendous confidence to make a clear committed artistic statement like Oldenburg and Bruggen’s “Shuttlecocks.” Their work takes a stand, makes a statement and lets the chips fall where they may. It is almost impossible not to have an opinion and a reaction to this fanciful piece, yet surprisingly the issues that come up— what is an appropriate topic for art, etc.— are anything but lighthearted. Oldenburg’s sculpture does what art is supposed to do. It challenges us to think about basic assumptions we take for granted and inspires us to explore how we think. Ultimately, this has been my goal in Citypiece: Shuttlecocks.
Throughout the year many people, myself included, have had an opportunity to think about issues raised in Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s work. Rather than simply stopping at “I like it” or “I hate it,” I wanted the piece to be an opportunity to move beyond opinion into creating something new, an opportunity to engage actively in the work and make something of it for ourselves. I would like to offer this piece as a tribute both to Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s vision which inspired me to start the project, and to all the people in Kansas City whose enthusiasm, creativity and year-long contributions to the work became finally as important to me as the finished piece.
— Robert Kapilow, 1996