Sounds for Sculptures

Sculpture as a starting point for music – we talked to musician Christian Tamburr about this crossing of genre boundaries and how he got inspired to compose music for specific works by sculptor John Seward Johnson.

(You can find more information about the artists at the end of this article. Please click on the button below the pictures to open a new window and listen to the music)

You were thoroughly impressed by the artist John Seward Johnson. Which aspect of his personality fascinated you the most?That this artist changed any room he entered, not only with his sculptures but his sheer personality. He inserted a piece of himself into the artistic works, created a relationship to them departing from a place in his own past or connected them to a story he himself had experienced. Yet, he never pushed that to the center of attention, just seemed to be contemplating. Before his career in arts, he worked at Johnson&Johnson. He started working as a sculptor when he was 40 years old and lived his passion for art and sculpture with big success. He really was inspiring.

As a well-traveled person, he had seen numerous fabulous and exotic places. This is where he found beauty in simple things, what he later captured in his own sculptures. Many of his works display day-to-day events, like a conversation among friends or a sleeping person on a park bench, which was due to his ability to see beauty in simple things, everyday things the had experienced on his travels.

John Seward Johnson Crack the Whip cast bronze 67 x 40 x 59 inches 
©1980 The Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc. Photo: Gregg Felse


Music by Christian Tamburr: Crack the Whip

Which of his works affects you the most?​​​​​
I love his work Awakening the most. It is huge and therefore expresses a grand feeling of strength, endurance, power, hope and battle. The music I composed for this sculpture equally awakens this statue – and should be seen as a symbol for the breakthrough of an artist who dares to take a next step.

John Seward Johnson  The Awakening cast aluminum 204 x 840 x 360 inches 
©1980 The Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc. Photo: Ken Ek


Music by Christian Tamburr: The Awakening

How would you describe the atmosphere at the sculpture park Grounds for Sculpture?
Each sculpture more or less inhabits its own division of the garden. Some are tall, rising high up and are already seen from afar. Others are at first hidden from the visitors’ view. These ones first need to be discovered and explored which takes the intrigued visitors back to their childhood days because they don’t know what lies hidden at the end of the path. The suspense and excitement they experience is all due to the placement of the sculptures in the park.

I always went to look at the sculptures alone. This gave me the opportunity to thoroughly explore them, feel them, sit down with them, absorb them, so I felt like I were a part of them. It felt as if entering a frozen scene in a movie, the story on hold. Yet there was so much movement in them, telling ever new stories. And then I heard the music that would emphasise these movements and stories, if the sculptures were released from their rigidity.

John Seward Johnson Double Check: 9/11 Survivor cast bronze 48 x 30 x 12 inches 
©1982, 2014 The Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc. Photo: Ken Ek


Music by Christian Tamburr: Double Check


Which difficulties did you encounter during this project?
It wasn’t easy to make a selection of sculptures that I would compose music for. He produced more than 450 works of art. I had taken pictures of many of them and was sitting at the piano with the photographs. I experienced either an immediate connection with them or felt a big inner struggle that made me encircle the sculpture with my music to tighten the grasp on it. I started out with the art works that sparked an immediate inspiration. From there, I slowly worked towards the more challenging compositions, that have become my favourites by now.

I wanted my music to be good enough for the sculptures, to describe them as precise as possible. That put a lot of pressure on me. I hummed the melodies and found that the songs also worked by themselves, that the combination of music and plastic work had an over-stimulating effect. This discovery made me relax, so the compositions almost assembled by themselves. Seward’s art had inspired me, but the compositions are complete in themselves. This first felt very challenging, but is also very fulfilling. 


John Seward Johnson Embracing Peace Styrofoam 300 x 156 x 156 inches 
©2004, 2005 The Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc. Photo: Ken Ek


Music by Christian Tamburr: Embracing Peace

Thank you very much, Christian Tamburr, for the insightful interview.
Now listen in to the impressive compositions, have a look at the sculptures, and enjoy this unique interplay of two so very different art forms (click on the button below the pictures to open a new window and listen to the music).

About the artists:

The oeuvre by sculptor John Seward Johnson Jr. (April 16, 1930, New Brunswick, NJ, USA – March 10, 2020, Key West, FL, USA) depicts day-to-day scenes in a lifelike fashion. Johnson’s scenes and statues are generally life-size and often cast in painted bronze, elevating the impression of standing in front of a real-life person. Johnson was the founder of Grounds for Sculpture, a sculpture park and museum located in Hamilton Township, Mercy County, New Jersey. He started out working for Johnson&Johnson, a multinational corporation for health care products owned by his family, until, aged 40, he found an interest in arts and music, especially sculpting. 
For the execution of his art, Johnson often employed computers and machines, transforming pictures or sketches into three-dimensional works. His sculptures often depict scenes from art history or three-dimensional versions of other artists’ paint work. Consequently, his sculptures were then and again subject of disputes about copyright infringement and artistic appropriation. His oeuvre has caused controversy among critics; his works have been labeled “kitsch” and found unworthy of display in a renowned art museum. 
Among other things, Johnson founded the Sculpture Foundation, that aims to make his works accessible to a broader public. He was equally engaged in other associations dedicated to the promotion of the arts.

The musician Christian Tamburr is a multi-instrumentalist, accomplished on the piano, trap set as well as world music and orchestra percussion, though his instrument of choice is the vibraphone. He is the current leader of the Christian Tamburr Qaurtet, a four-piece acoustic jazz group, while also working with several other music groups, such as the Grammy award winning Dazz Band. 
Tamburr, now aged 25, started performing jazz at the age of 14. He has since had the opportunity to play with many jazz legends and is considered an outstanding musician by critics. Tamburr is the artistic curator of The Acoustic Confidential, a boutique concert series performing in special locations all over the world. As music director and pianist, he has worked for vocal legend Julio Iglesias and the Cirque de Soleil in Macao, China. Tamburr has been engaged for private concerts by basketball legend Michael Jordan and performance at the glamourous surprise birthday party for actress Julia Roberts.


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Author: Dr. Eva Daxl

Eva Daxl studied art with a focus on sculpture. In her PhD thesis she wrote about ceramic materials in art criticism. She is therefore familiar with three-dimensional works of art in theory and practice. 


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