"Bright Arrows" by Michiko Theurer. Watercolor and ink, 11" x 15". 

“Water pours down the runnel of my spine. Bright arrows of sensation shoot on either side. I am covered with warm flesh.” (Woolf, The Waves)

About the Project

Circling the Waves is a multimedia performance designed by violinist and artist Michiko Theurer. It interweaves the music of six composers around a central series of paintings created by Michi and inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves.

Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves is told through multiple perspectives—the voices of six characters who speak in interwoven soliloquies, and a narrative voice that anchors these soliloquies in a series of vivid vignettes. At its heart is the capacity of art to provide a space for multiple experiences. The edges between different experiences are the novel’s lifelines: each character is isolated within his or her perspective, and yet the lines that demarcate their separate experiences also join them. 

Circling the Waves is inspired by the form of Woolf’s novel. Six composers— Katherine Balch, Sunbin Kim, Melody Eötvös, Phil Taylor, Phillip Sink, and Michael Small— have each written independent fragmentary responses for solo violin to a series of paintings that I created. Each composer responded to Chrysalis, the first painting in the series, as well as to one or more of the other paintings. The result is a collection of musical soliloquies framed by a common visual trajectory, similar to the written soliloquies of the characters in Woolf’s novel. These musical responses may be listened to in many different orders — straight through each of the responses of a single composer, or interwoven in a conversation among several or all of the composers. 

As Circling the Waves took shape, I kept coming back to the idea of waves as edges, traces of the boundary between water and air. Each character in Woolf’s novel pushes against the boundaries that define his or her experience. Despite the separation between these perspectives, much is communicated between characters and projected across the edges of the novel to the reader. Circling the Waves uses a shared space to explore the edges of individual musical perspectives. Like the ocean, its form emerges through the shifting junctures of its many trajectories.


The Paintings

I was drawn to the rhythms and structural shifts in Woolf’s writing, which reminded me of the patterns of ocean waves. When I began working on the art for this project, I went to the coast of North Carolina, near where I grew up, and spent a week sketching directly on the shore. The small size (7”x11”) and on-site execution of these sketches allowed me to react to the rhythms of the waves rather than to photographs of their frozen forms. 

One idea that stuck out to me in The Waves was a shift in the language and style of the soliloquies over the course of the novel. At the beginning, following the “dawn” interlude, the characters (young children at this point) speak in short fragments, one or two lines long at most. The language is vivid and open:

“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”

“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”

“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep chirp; going up and down.” [. . .]

“Stones are cold to my feet,” said Neville. “I feel each one, round or pointed, separately.”

The words convey sensations directly; the skin on which the stones print their coldness and sharpness is thin and un-calloused—it is as though the characters have not yet hardened the edges of their individual identities. Later, as the interludes describe the crisp definition of the noonday sun, the characters’ soliloquies lengthen and become more distinct. The final chapter, in the shadow of the interlude describing the darkened shore after sunset, is spoken entirely by Bernard, who attempts to “sum up” the lives of all the characters and also to let go of some of the ideas by which he has defined his own life. 

My paintings translate this journey into visual form. The first painting, Chrysalis, is open-edged and based in the raw interface between transparent color and empty paper. It suggests possibilities without outlining them or building up their solidity. 

The second, Nets of Wings, begins to explore the edges and rhythms of line as the basis of pictorial identity. Its form emerges through an accumulation of rhythmic motifs, like little habits in life that begin to acquire the weight of character. 

The third, The Stone, crystallizes around the central focus of an earring. It reacts to a persistent theme of the novel, which is the capacity of a central object, space, or person to gather surrounding fragments into a cohesive form. It is the most saturated and dense image in the series, as if drenched in the midday sun or midlife confidence of Woolf’s novel. 

Fractures, the fourth painting, begins unraveling the clarity of form through line, mirroring and reversing the function of Nets of Wings

The final painting, The Moths, is executed in oil and mixed media, a medium that makes it possible to revise and layer ideas more naturally than in the water-based media of the previous paintings. Like Bernard’s final chapter, which recapitulates the lives of each of the novel’s characters, this painting reinterprets earlier ideas in a medium that reaches toward permanence while acknowledging the unavoidability of revision. It also exposes the vulnerabilities and limits of forms as they are drawn into a chaotic relation with their own edges.  


The Book

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The multimedia gallery for Circling the Waves is a flexible, virtual conversation between six composers, directed by you. The book is a gesture toward your own physical space, and a way to anchor the musical conversation in high-quality prints of the five central paintings. It is meant to accompany and augment the website, serving as a physical stage for the virtual performances.

The first limited edition (50 copies) hand-stitched book will feature 9x13" prints of the five central paintings in Circling the Waves, introductory material discussing the project’s inspiration and creative process, and interviews with each of the composers.

If you would like information on ordering a book, please contact Michi .