Sonic Histories

Artist David Hartt brings multimedia installation to a Frank Lloyd Wright synagogue

The Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, opened just five months after Frank Lloyd Wright's death. (Darren Bradley Photography)

David Hartt will be the first artist to intervene in the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Beth Sholom Synagogue, located just outside of Philadelphia, when he installs his multimedia work into the National Historic Landmark this September. Using music, video, sculpture, and other materials, David Hartt: The Histories (Le Mancenillier) will interrogate the histories and presents of Black and Jewish diasporas in the United States and across the world.

At the center of the exhibition is the 19th-century American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Born to a Jewish father and Creole mother, Gottschalk left his native New Orleans for Paris to study music at just age 13. Blending European classical musical training with American traditions and Afro-Caribbean song, Gottschalk’s hybrid music predated ragtime and jazz by over half a century, and though relatively little known now, is foundational to music history both in the Americas and globally.

An interior photo of a temple, with a large stained glass triangle and glass walls extending upwards

You can hear the synagogue’s structure contract and expand with heat from the sun. (Darren Bradley Photography)

Hartt will be traveling to New Orleans and Haiti to capture video and photography in an attempt to understand the impact of Caribbean culture on the music of Gottschalk, who lived across the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Hartt will also be appropriating the visual styles of contemporaneous painters like Martin Johnson Heade, who painted tropical flowers and birds, to create large-scale landscape tapestries that will both change the space visually and acoustically. Video monitors will be set up like figures in the space, with content engaging the synagogue’s architectural peculiarities, and tropical plants will be put into extant planters while orchids will be arranged to capture the leaking rainwater that now filters through the 60-year-old glass-topped sanctuary. It is fitting, then, that the parenthetical part of the title, names a tropical plant—the manchineel tree, nearly every part of which is toxic to humans (the “Histories” portion of the title is after the work of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus).

“David’s poetic approach to the built environment reframes familiar ideas about site, history, and identity,” explained Cole Akers, the curator of the exhibition. “His installation in Beth Sholom’s Frank Lloyd Wright–designed building will offer unexpected ways to experience the National Historic Landmark and reflect on the site’s capacity to hold a generous, porous, and speculative concept of community.”

Ethiopian pianist Girma Yifrashewa—who, like Gottschalk, trained in Europe and blends multiple global sonic traditions—will be scoring the exhibition with compositions by Gottschalk that will be played throughout in order to, according to a release from the synagogue’s preservation foundation, “transform the space and invite audiences to linger in the immersive environment.” There will be additional musical performances by other artists throughout the exhibition’s run.

Hartt’s installation will be up from September 11 to December 19, 2019.

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