The beat danced. One rhythm played with another, high over low, rolling, swinging, pattering and leaping. Four Afro-Cuban musicians with international stature came together on a fall afternoon at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown. They played smooth, spare wooden sculptures — held them, sat on them and ran their hands over them like drums.
Eliel Lazo, Regis Molina, Onel Matos Samoza and Marvin Diz filmed their performance as part of David Zink Yi’s “Being the Measure,” a commissioned work he created at the museum at the invitation of Lisa Dorin, curator of contemporary art. The film plays now at the center of an installation of separate elements: the bronze-cast arms of an octopus, a film camera circling young trees in a planned forest in Cusco, a black and white photograph of the bare feet of Cuban dancers.
“The most exciting thing is Lisa encouraging me to do something brand new and experimental,” Zink Yi said by Skype from Berlin.
Born in Peru, he has studied music in Cuba over many years, and he lives and works in Germany.
When he first walked through WCMA, he said, he found the long octagonal room beside the rotunda, and he began to imagine a new work that would blend together long-held loves and dreams: Afro-Cuban music and polyrhythms, a growing wish to cooperate with another artist — and an intense interest in octopuses.
Cephalopods have fascinated him for many years. He had the memory of a chopped octopus on a kitchen table, he said, from his childhood home in Peru. A creature out of nature looked to him like something from another planet, and the appearance of it stayed with him, seductive, organic and strange.
Later, as an artist, he thought of and the knobs on the tapering arms as sculptural forms. He read and thought about the ways a mollusk moves, the radial symmetry of its eight arms. An octopus has no spine. The skin is carrying everything together.
“Their muscles don’t contract in only one way,” he said. “They contract in all ways.”
They can change shape and color dramatically. They can generate different spectrums of light to communicate anger, fear, desire.
“They light when they want to see something,” he said. “They live in darkness, thousands of meters in the sea, and they just light.”
This fascination brought him in touch with artist and writer Angie Keefer, co-founder of the Serving Library arts journal and nonprofit, who has collaborated with him intensely on this new work. He met her through her essay on the mind and motion of the octopus.
And Zink Yi connected that movement in his mind with the many years he has spent learning and studying Afro-Cuban percussion. The musicians who taught him can play complex rhythms with many parts of their bodies and improvise faster than thought.
Their skill awes him.
“I would need five lives to be able to play like them,” he said.
For this work he has gathered four musicians born in Cuba, but three now live in other countries, and they all have international reputations.
Eliel Lazo, a percussionist and conga player, has worked with Zink Yi and now lives in Denmark. He encouraged Zink Yi to invite Marvin Diz up from New York to join them. Diz often specializes in the Timbales, paired drums, or bells, or claves, thick dowels.
He and Lazo have performed together, Lazo on conga drums and Diz playing patterns overlapping.
Onel Matos Samoza is Zink Yi’s good friend and teacher. He is a sacred drummer, Omo Aña, on the Tambor or Batá drum and plays many Yoruba instruments, West African instruments familiar in the Caribbean — the guiro (notched gourd) and violin, and wood cajons, box-shaped instruments played at rituals.
A Batá is a double-ended drum like an hourglass, Zink Yi said, and the drummer holds the drum on his knees so that he can play both ends, one with each hand. He can keep several rhythms overlapping.
“The music is very sophisticated and hard to play,” he said. “They have to learn by heart all of the different rhythms and variations, and they improvise depending on the contest.”
He also plays in jazz ensembles, and Zink Yi invited saxophonist Regis Molina, a good friend of his and a jazz musician in Berlin.
Timbales, saxophone, voice and percussion came together quickly and surely, Dorin said. Zink Yi gave them a structure and asked them to improvise within it. He meant the music meant to be minimal and abstract.
He spoke quietly under the music, a text Keefer had written for him. Sometimes the music would rise, and sometimes it would grow quiet around him. In the rehearsal, two of the musicians began to sing, Dorin said, and at first it surprised Zink Yi, but he felt he had chosen these men, who came out of these traditions, and their improvisations made the work his.
They were playing wooden sculptures Zink Yi designed — colorful, smooth-planed shapes. Two lean, tapering forms stretch as long as canoes. Several are stacked like interlocking wooden blocks.
He wanted abstract wood sculptures that could stand alone, he said, and he wanted to create a playground for these musicians to discover. Some of his cajon-like shapes give different tones in different places.
He considered the contrast between these minimalist, disembodied forms and the organic nature of tentacles, dancing feet and this whole-bodied music.
In minimalism, he said, some artists want a work to have no reference but the shape itself, but he is not looking for complete abstraction. People bring their own stories and associations with them, and even a simple shape or a material can tap them. His grandfather was a barrel maker, and Zink Yi grew up walking through rooms full of hollow wooden vessels.
So these wooden shapes may have as much resonance with his own past as the trees from his home country in the film playing near them. On the screen, light touches the ridge as Keefer says the lines she wrote for him. She wrote them to bring these many elements together, he said.
He gently repeated a part of her text.
One: a living thing inside-of-a living thing;
Two: in a room inside the infinite inside;
Three: without rocking;
Four: a number of endings;
Five: being, the measure of them all.
Those lines gave them the title of the installation: Being the measure.
When people play music together, he said, one can set the time and define the beat for the whole group.
“That’s what you’re doing,” she told him.
What: David Zink Yi’s ‘Being the Measure’
Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown
When: Through Feb. 12
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, closed Wednesday
This story originally ran in the Berkshire Eagle. My thanks to A&E editor Jeff Borak. In the photo above, Cuban musicians perform on David Zink Yi’s wooden sound sculptures at the Williams College Museum of Art. Image courtesy of WCMA.