The Cincinnati Symphony Offers a Radical Vision This Weekend

Partnering with FotoFocus and taking cues from BLINK, the CSO’s “Sun Dogs” program pairs modern filmmakers and composers with the live orchestra at Music Hall.
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Images courtesy Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Amid all the excitement of this weekend’s BLINK light, art, and projection mapping experience, it’s easy to underestimate the significance of Sun Dogs, the overlapping programming that Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is offering at Music Hall Friday through Sunday. It isn’t officially part of BLINK, but rather is affiliated with the current FotoFocus Biennial of photography and lens-based art.

Not taking anything away from the ambitions and pleasures of BLINK, but Sun Dogs might be more significant in terms of what this weekend could mean for Cincinnati’s traditional arts institutions—because it offers a vision of the CSO’s future. Not the vision, mind you. It’s safe, I hope, to say this symphony orchestra and others will be playing Bach, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and other venerable giants of classical music well into the future.

But Sun Dogs is radically different. Avant-garde, even. The CSO, with conductor Matthias Pintscher leading, will world-premiere the recently composed original music for three new short art films that will screen simultaneously with the orchestra’s performance.

Working with Liquid Music, a Minneapolis producer of special projects in new music, CSO commissioned internationally respected filmmakers and composers to create Sun Dogs. American director Josephine Decker (Shirley) worked with co-composers Arooj Aftab and Daniel Wohl on Rise, Again; composer Rafiq Bhatia collaborated with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Memoria) for On Blue; and French/Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop and her collaborator, French filmmaker/publisher Manon Lutaine, worked with composer Devonté Hynes on Naked Blue. The CSO is trying to advocate for change in “classical” music and in the image of orchestras through Sun Dogs and the concert series it falls under, CSO Proof.

“CSO Proof carves out space for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to do things we haven’t done before,” says Vice President of Artistic Planning Nate Bachhuber. “As we look ahead, we need a place to collaborate with people who don’t fit into the standard boxes we create with symphony orchestras and subscription concerts. We’re acknowledging that what it means to be a symphony orchestra 50 years from now is not going to look like it did 50 years ago. We need to be leading the industry in meeting the effort, discovering along the way, and learning.”

Crucially, the CSO wants people who attend BLINK and respond to the exciting newness and experimental nature of light projection as art to also give Sun Dogs a try. To make it easy to attend, there will be five performances in Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium: 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 6:30 on Sunday. Tickets are just $5 per performance. The films are 10-15 minutes each, and all three will play with the orchestra at each performance.

The title Sun Dogs is meant to symbolize the overall theme of the commissioned works—acknowledging the mysteries of the natural world in ways that are visual. A “sun dog” colloquially refers to the optical, atmospheric phenomenon that occurs when ice crystals cause sunlight to refract, forming bright sun spots. “I think having a term like this is a way to let the audience imbue it with their own meaning,” Buchhuber says.

Key to this commission is that the composers and filmmakers work together on a finished artwork from the start. That was what composer Wohl and Minneapolis-based Liquid Music’s owner and artistic director Kate Nordstrum had in mind when initially conceiving this project some five years ago. “Daniel and I (were) thinking about how most often when composers have a chance to work with filmmakers it’s usually a handoff by filmmakers for the composers to score,” Nordstrum says. “And vice versa. Composers and musicians sometimes choose filmmakers to create music videos for their songs.” Either way, she explains, that makes the music or the film a mere response to the source material.

“We were interested in pursuing a project in which the filmmaker and composer could be commissioned and build something together from ground up,” says Nordstrum. “They’ll think about the story they want to tell and build it together, instead of in response to each other. So this project allows them to work in a unique way not really possible through commercial means.”

Nordstrum says the CSO was eager to work with contemporary composers with diverse backgrounds. And the Sun Dogs musicians certainly fit that bill. Wohl is a Paris-born, L.A.-based composer who works with both acoustic and electronic music. The Saudi Arabian-born (to Pakistani parents), Brooklyn-based Aftab is a singer and composer whose 2021 album, Vulture Prince, netted her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. A song from the album, “Mohabbat,” won a Grammy for Best Global Music Performance. Bhatia, also Brooklyn-based, is guitarist with the experimental rock band Son Lux as well as a composer and producer. And the British-born, New York-based Hynes is a singer, songwriter, and producer who also uses the name Blood Orange. All have the chops for this commission, Nordstrum assures.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In a Zoom interview from Thailand, filmmaker Weerasethakul says he was attracted to the challenge of this project partly because he likes what he’s heard of Bhatia’s music. His On Blue short, he explains, is a kind of continuation of his own 2018 film Blue, in which a woman trying to sleep slowly seems to catch fire.

But On Blue is different from its precursor in an important regard— Weerasethakul isn’t the sole auteur of the finished work that will premiere in Cincinnati. “It’s a collaboration, and I’m just doing my thing,” he says. “I’m curious to see how the film will transform with this orchestration, because I never use that in film. I mostly rely on natural sounds. So it’s new to me.”

Actually, the CSO commissioned a previous project with Liquid Music, the mesmerizingly far-out Meta Simulacrum Vol. 1, created and composed by William Brittelle with a cast of contributors that included Bhatia on guitar and as a co-producer. Because of the pandemic shutdown, it debuted as a digital livestream production in 2021. Described as “a collective memory of the future” and a “tour of an alternate reality,” it won praise from those who saw it, and Nordstrum says there are plans for its future. And she hopes there will be plans for further collaborations with CSO. “It’s a rare orchestra to be open to these ideas from outside,” Nordstrum says.

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