American Gothic Project

American Gothic _ Grant Wood
Five Tuner Alley

5 Turner Alley featured the world premiere of American Gothic Suite, a new work from Red Cedar Chamber Music’s new composer-in-residence, Andrew Earle Simpson. Red Cedar Trio artists, flutist Jan Boland, violist David Miller, and guitarist John Dowdall performed this rhythmic and entertaining work which celebrates the famous painting American Gothic by Iowa artist Grant Wood.

The 5 Turner Alley project celebrated the newly renovated studio at 5 Turner Alley in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where Grant Wood painted American Gothic in 1920. This tiny Grant Wood Studio was the very special site of a concert preview attended by 20 lucky souls. The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art hosted the MainStage concert on June 4, 2005.

The concert project also served as a prelude to the return of the famous painting to American Gothic by Grant WoodCedar Rapids, where it served as the centerpiece of an exhibition called Grant Wood at 5 Turner Alley (Cedar Rapids Museum of Art: September – November 2005).

5 Turner Alley is really a concert celebrating American creativity. The art of Grant Wood communicates with a directness and simplicity that capture our imaginations and make American art known and loved throughout the world.

Sponsors: 5 Turner Alley and the commission of American Gothic Suite were sponsored by the children of Joan Lipsky, in her honor, and presented in collaboration with the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. It celebrated the generous contribution Joan has made to her community.  Additional was provided by the Iowa Arts Council. A reception, hosted by Julie & Bill Taylor followed the concert in the Carnegie Wing of the museum on the evening of the premiere.

Simpson’s American Gothic Suite is record to compact disc on the Fleur de Son Classics (New York) label.

About the New Musical Work

The Back Story:  Composer Andrew Simpson visited Iowa in 2002; we took him to see the countryside south of Anamosa where Grant Wood grew up, and also to Stone City where Grant Wood launched an arts festival. And of course, we took him to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art which houses the largest Grant Wood Collection in the world. We also climbed the stairs to the tiny carriage house studio at 5 Turner Allley in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where Grant Wood lived for more than a decade in the early 1900’s – it was here that he painted American Gothic. Andrew loved seeing Grant Wood’s front door and the “Lilies of the Alley” which came to influence his composition. Andrew Earle Simpson is Red Cedar’s 2004-2006 composer-in-residence and is Associate Professor of Music at Catholic University in Washington D.C.

American Gothic Suite (2004)
Front Door
A Farmer and His Wife
A Farmer and His Daughter
My Dentist and My Sister
Back Door

What the composer has to say: American Gothic Suite draws upon Grant Wood’s 1930 masterpiece for its primary point of departure. Andrew Simpson said, “In writing American Gothic Suite, it was particularly fun for me to create musical contrasts reflecting the difference between viewing the painting as portraying a dependable and not particularly-pleased-to-see-you farm couple, or a farmer and daughter where the farmer’s stern expression and pitchfork mean something else again! American Gothic Suite is thus a celebration of the unique artistry of Grant Wood, and pays him homage by infusing his irony, his humor, and his irreverent sense of joy into this music.”  (You will find extended program notes at the end of this current page.)

John Dowdall, Jan Boland, David Miller, Andrew Earle Simpson, Terry Pitts, Grant Wood

Pictured are violist David Miller, John Dowdall, Jan Boland, composer Andrew Simpson and museum director Terry Pitts at the Grant Wood studio.

Recording American Gothic Suite

Jan Boland, John Dowdall Andrew Simpson

 The American Gothic Suite  was recorded in King Chapel on the Cornell College campus. It is featured on the compact disc recording titled Fireflies: Chamber Music by Andrew Earle Simpson on the Fleur de Son Classics label.

Reviews of American Gothic Suite

“American Gothic Suite was inspired by a picture of a stern man holding a pitchfork and a young woman severely dressed. The music cleverly depicts various interpretations of the painting, exploring possible relationships between the two figures, a farmer and his wife, or maybe a farmer and his repressed daughter, and even one variation portraying the actual models for the picture, a dentist and his sister. The performances are vibrant and full-blooded, capable of ironic humour as well as exuberance and melancholy, as this unusual music demands.” Alison Uren, Pan – The Flute Magazine (London) 2009

“It must be a considerable challenge to take such a well-known painting and create a piece of music “about” it. But it works. There is a bit of bite to this piece, a sardonic edge that fits well considering the source of inspiration.” Christopher Chaffee, American Record Guide (2009)

Additional Concert Venues

GRANT WOOD STUDIO: The tiny Grant Wood Studio at 5 Turner Alley, Cedar Rapids, IA, was the very special site of a concert preview attended by 20 lucky souls.

GRANT WOOD HOUSE PARLOR CONCERT: Jim Hayes now owns the Iowa City home in which Grant Wood resided in the 1920’s. It is full of Grant Wood’s artistry, as seen in the architecture and furnishings. Red Cedar previewed the American Gothic Suite in a parlor concert in this historic home on Saturday night, May 21, 2005.  A tour of the lovely historic home and refreshments were included.

RURAL OUTREACH CONCERTS: Rural concerts are among Red Cedar Chamber Music’s most popular programs. (These rural concerts are frequently the musicians’ favorites!) The 5 Turner Alley project took us to three rural communities.
•   Ainsworth, IA at the Ainsworth Opera House on May 31, 2005. An exhibit of original Grant Wood art was mounted at the Opera House.
•   Delhi, IA at the Delhi United Methodist Church on June 1, 2005.
•   Stone City, IA at St. Joseph’s Church on June 2, 2005.  A reception was followed at the Stone City Barn. Stone City was chosen by renowned artist Grant Wood and his colleagues as the site for the Stone City Artist Colony. This concert was presented in partnership with the Jones County Historic Preservation Commission.

Grant News The Iowa Arts Council announced Red Cedar Chamber Music’s June concert project 5 Turner Alley as a grant winner in the amount of $7,500. This project, sponsored by the children of Joan Lipsky in her honor, celebrates the opening of Grant Wood’s tiny studio where he painted American Gothic.

Audience Comments

“I am new to the area and am astounded at the quality of the music I heard tonight, both the new composition and the ‘classical.’ What a treasure for Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa!” B.E.

“Music-making of the highest artistic level. The sizable audience at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art was spellbound by Red Cedar’s playing. Lovely programming tied in wonderfully with the historic event of the upcoming Grant Wood exhibition.” M.K.

“Beautiful presentation. I wonder if Grant Wood would like the musical contribution to the art work as much as this audience does? I think so!” M.C.

“I enjoy listening to you play and watching you grow into a vibrant musical voice in our community. Thanks too for all you do to bring music and beauty to so many people of all ages.” J.L.

An Aside

Capacity audiences filled the Grant Wood Gallery at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art on June 4, 2005 to hear 5 Turner Alley. The concert celebrated artist Grant Wood and honored Joan Lipsky for her service to the Museum and to the community at large. Andrew Simpson’s new work, American Gothic Suite, had the listening audience exploring the relationship between the two figures in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting –and anticipating the dentist’s drill of Dr. McKeeby! The evening’s reception was hosted by Julie & Bill Taylor who continued to serve wine and canapés as lingering guests were escorted to the narrow hallways of the museum’s basement during a late night tornado warning!

Extended Composer Statement:
American Gothic Suite draws upon Grant Wood’s 1930 masterpiece for its primary point of departure, but it also involves other Wood pieces in capturing something of that artist’s quirky, dryly humorous style. Many of my pieces have extra-musical connections, and before composing I do a great deal of research in order to learn about the topic and to create an intellectual and artistic context for the resulting work. In doing research for American Gothic Suite, I was surprised and pleased to discover that many of Wood’s seemingly placid, innocent, quasi-rustic mature artworks conceal what is in fact a quite sharp and biting humor and sophistication. Hiding complex things beneath apparently artless surfaces – “art concealing art,” in other words – has been an ideal of artists for centuries. Wood follows in that tradition, and his connection with ideas and topics external to his own paintings finds resonance in my own compositions.

The present suite is a set of theme and variations interrupted by interludes, the variations representing different ways of viewing American Gothic. The music in each variation differs according to what relationship the two figures in the painting, a man and a woman, have to each other. In researching the initial reactions to American Gothic, I learned that the nature of this relationship was – and still is – a serious debate. Personally, I had always assumed that the two figures represented a farmer and his wife, and so the Theme is based upon this view. The viola is the farmer, the flute his wife.
It then came to light that many people seeing the painting for the first time in 1930 objected to the perceived age disparity between the two figures (although this would not have been unusual in real life), and so the relationship of farmer and daughter was proposed. In Variation II, “A Farmer and His Daughter,” then, the instruments change roles: the daughter is not represented at all, but is guarded by her father, the viola. The flute in this variation is an imagined passionate suitor, whose advances are sternly held at bay: in fact, if you listen closely, you can even hear the three tines of the father’s pitchfork.

Thus the central controversy of American Gothic: if the relationship is the first (farmer and wife), then you have a dependable and not particularly-pleased-to-see-you farm couple. If, on the other hand, you see the second relationship (farmer and daughter), that is quite a different matter, and the farmer’s stern expression and pitchfork mean something else again!
Variation III represents a third way of seeing the painting, and identifies the actual models for Wood’s painting. Wood’s dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby, and his sister, Nan Wood Graham, were the models (Dr. McKeeby was in fact quite reluctant to pose, and only consented after much persuasion). Thus, “your dentist and your sister” takes the view of reality, external to the world of the painting. Each of the instruments takes a turn at role-playing: the dentist’s “drill” motif and the sister’s jumpy, jazz-like tune are continually traded among the players.
The three variations are interspersed with two very brief and whimsical interludes, named “a lily” and “another lily” in homage to Wood’s “Lilies of the Alley,” flowerpots filled with found objects. “a lily” is gestural, and meant to sound improvised, thrown together, much in the spirit of Wood’s lily. It is also the only atonal movement in the piece; fortunately, it lasts for only 35 seconds!
“another lily” is mechanical in nature.   Flute, viola, and guitar, with the help of specific sound effects, trade machine-like ideas which coexist rather than interact, suggestive of the random pieces of tools or machinery sticking out of one of Wood’s flowerpots.
     American Gothic Suite also has a prologue and an epilogue: a Front Door and a Back Door, both employing the same material.   Overly serious, deliberately pompous, these movements evoke Wood’s own highly developed sense of irony (as evidenced, for example, in his monumental and ridiculously overblown painting, “Cedar Rapids”). Grant Wood worked as a designer as well as a painter, and many fine examples of metal, wood, and glasswork are in his catalogue. The image suggested for the Prologue and Epilogue of this piece was Wood’s design for the Turner Mortuary gate in Cedar Rapids (the Turner family were Wood’s great patrons).
     American Gothic Suite is thus a celebration of the unique artistry of Grant Wood, and pays him homage by infusing his irony, his humor, and his irreverent sense of joy into this music.”


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