On Chess: The musical imagery of chess | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: The musical imagery of chess

Jun 8, 2017

Wesley So and Akshat Chandra playing at the opening reception of The Imagery of Chess: Saint Louis Artists on March 23, 2017.
Credit World Chess Hall of Fame | Michael DeFilippo

Chess, music and art are pursuits from differing spheres but which have shared meaningful connections over time.

In 1944, chess master and Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, gallery owner Julien Levy and Surrealist painter Max Ernst set out to recontextualize the game of chess by inviting over 30 painters, photographers, architects, designers, sculptors and composers to create modern interpretations of traditional chess sets. The resulting works were featured in a groundbreaking 1944 exhibition, The Imagery of Chess, which illuminated the game as a lush landscape for artistic expression of all kinds.

Two composers, from opposite sides of the musical spectrum, were featured in The Imagery of Chess - American Modernist, John Cage, and European Classicist, Vittorio Rieti.  

Cage’s submission, entitled Chess Pieces, consists of a hand-painted musical score using alternating white and black ink to create a checkerboard pattern. The score was not performed for the exhibition but was instead hung as a work of conceptual art. Unperformed and excluded from Cage’s official catalogue, the work lay in obscurity until being rediscovered by independent curator, Larry List, for the 2005 exhibition, The Imagery of Chess Revisited. The score was subsequently transcribed into a playable work for solo piano by pianist and scholar, Margaret Leng Tan, and published by C.F. Peters.

By contrast, Rieti’s Chess Serenade is a traditional, programmatic work for solo piano that includes the following text above the score:

“The KNIGHT serenading the QUEEN on top of the CASTLE, while the KING confers with the BISHOP on the subject of the PAWNS.”

Inspired by the original exhibition, The World Chess Hall of Fame and chief curator, Shannon Bailey, created The Imagery of Chess: Saint Louis Artists, which features newly commissioned works by 20 local artists, designers, composers and musicians on display through September 24, 2017.

Local composers and musicians have joined forces in creating a culminating concert event for the exhibition to be held on September 20, 2017, at the World Chess Hall of Fame. The concert will include world-premier performances of three works inspired by the game of chess as well as performances of the Cage & Rieti works from the 1944 exhibition.

This collective effort was conceived by World Chess Hall of Fame music director and St. Louis Symphony cellist, Bjorn Ranheim, and jazz musician and composer, Adam Maness, in collaboration with Washington University composition faculty and 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Christopher Stark, and classical pianist and composer, Peter Henderson.

Henderson, an avid chess player, created a work for solo piano entitled Chess Suite. Each piano piece within the suite embodies a chess piece, represented by musical motives and rhythms patterned after its movement on the board.

Maness and Stark, by way of a digital chess board, captured move-by-move data from live matches played by attendees, including GMs Akshat Chandra and Wesley So, of the opening event of Imagery of Chess: Saint Louis Artists on March 23, 2017. They have each created works for chamber ensemble using this data; Maness’ work is yet-to-be-named, Stark’s work is entitled Sounding Strategies.

In presenting these works together, both old and new, we hope to shine a light on the rich musical works that the game of chess has and continues to inspire.

Bjorn Ranheim is the Music Director at the World Chess Hall of Fame.