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No Translation Necessary: Interpreting the Sonic and Visual

by Lewis Achenbach

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Tonight marks the last night of jazz on our back terrace for the season. A regular attendee of the Tuesdays on the Terrace series, Lewis Achenbach—who will be documenting tonight’s performance—reflects on the inspiration found within as well as outside the museum's walls.

on Kerry James Marshall

Hours before I listened to and documented the Fred Anderson Legacy band (Mwata Bowden, Edward Wilkerson Jr., Tim Odell, Dushun Mosley, and Tatsu Aoki) during their Tuesdays on the Terrace appearance, I had the opportunity to walk through Kerry James Marshall: Mastry.

One cannot step away from the exhibition without having the phrase "Absolute Beautiful Blackness" printed on the mind. And this beauty of our now is equal to the term used when we describe a sumptuous Peter Paul Rubens painting (reinterpreting Marshall's spoken words). Marshall's monumental works gave me the biggest take-away; gorgeous, precise, with a dance of scumbled and dripping paint, inviting to both the exploratory eye and truth-seeking head. Much like standing at the Met in New York, sitting enveloped in a gold-framed Rubens, I was viewing a master painter.

My favorite KJM piece on view is the almost entirely black work, with hints of evening light and sheen that tease you as you move past the work. As your eyes adjust to this absolute beautiful blackness, you can just make out the bedside reading. There is much to learn by moving through the galleries here.

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The MCA has been my go-to institution for actuality, inspiration, and ancestral reverence, in terms of my process and getting lit (artistically). My sketchbook and charcoals (I have been documenting the Chicago creative music scene for five years now) serve as my tools of remembrance (attempting to capture the frequency in the room). Through my artistic process, I channel music into visual form.

Now let's take a trip back in time, to another MCA point of inspiration; to the sonic treasure of the Ewart/Lewis rainstick room of the Freedom Principle exhibition. If you were there, try and conjure the sounds of that space as I tell you a story.


Lewis Achenbach, Ewart and Orbit . . . , 2016

Lewis Achenbach, Roscoe Mitchell, Trios, 2015

Lewis Achenbach, Wadada Leo Smith . . . , 2015

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on Freedom Principle artists

I met Douglas Ewart at a Kidd Jordan AfterFest Constellation show a few years ago. We showed each other artworks in sketchbooks, and I invited him to exhibit in a Jazz Occurrence Art Exhibition where I curate the walls, and produce a sonic arts/visual arts event (he accepted). Since then, we've talked and did an art-trade. He received four drawings of an Ewart/Mike Reed/Wadada Leo Smith concert in exchange for a custom rainstick (I know, awesome, right?). The rainstick room in the Freedom Principle was like a tall, four-walled friend singing old songs and inviting me to sleep there overnight. I gained a lot of information from the entire exhibition as it surrounded me with a carnival of familiar sounds and iconic faces.

Roscoe Mitchell was also featured in the exhibition (along with artists Lauren Deutsch and Muhal Richard Abrams) and performed during the Freedom Principle's stay. I heard him say, standing before the percussion cage, that “sound is perfect.” When I repeated this philosophic phrase to him in an email, he corrected me by stating, “If I said sound is perfect, I meant to say that silence is perfect and when you interrupt silence with a sound you have to make sure the sound you make is on the same level as the silence.”

Inherently perfect; silence. What you say, do, and play had better be as good.

I’ve translated this truth to how I paint. The blank canvas is right on. It doesn’t need my intervention to be art. So when I start making marks, they had better be true, or show the struggle in the music, or be on point with the mission. I do let the music tell me what to paint. I let the musicians take the lead, and I respond with firebrand reverence that I trust is apparent. I’m documenting something intangible but real. For me, the music is physically there, as a patterned entity existing between myself and the sculptures of the music makers. The music emanates, then blankets back on the performers, then gets bounced around the venue, filling the room and ears and receptive minds.

Lewis Achenbach, Roscoe Mitchell at Constellation Chicago, 2015

Lewis Achenbach, Bowden/Wilkerson at the MCA, 2016

on Tuesdays on the Terrace and improv painting

This lands the time machine back to August 30, absorbing the sound of the Anderson Legacy band after viewing Mastry. Those musicians that sharpened their skills at the original Velvet Lounge gifted us a profound performance. Mosley rolled the thunder as Aoki tumbled the bass. Wilkerson, Bowden, and Odell politely interwove the reeds in slow build style. As words do often fail, I trust the drawings will speak. The MCA is certainly doing Chicago and the world a divine service—from Tuesdays on the Terrace during the KJM exhibition to hosting Roscoe Mitchell during the historic and archival rich Freedom Principle.

The artistic response from all this glorious stimuli is, for myself, to take a certain level of responsibility with me when I “improv paint.” Keeping lit the match from the torch of the ancestors, who figured this all out long ago; and holding in mind the importance of silence and sound in life, as in process. I used to think that the languages of the sonic and the language of the visual were two different tribes communicating and I was in the rush of mid-river, capturing the frequency. But I’ve learned that the two are in the same spectrum—layered forms of expression. Sound and form/color are in the same tongue. No translation necessary. And the ancestors (hopefully) smile from the corners of the room.