Writing Music Based on the Photographs of Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand: Interview with Duke Special


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946), Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, Platinum print, 11.7 x 9 cm (4 5/8 x 3 9/16 in.), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Georgia O’Keeffe, through the generosity of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Jennifer and Joseph Duke, 1997 (1997.61.25)

Words and interview by Jeanette O’Keefe.

Duke Special is a unique musician on a unique endeavor. Based in Belfast, he has a strong following in Ireland, the UK and Western Europe. He plays piano with distinctive undertones from vaudeville and the early twentieth century, and his timbre has the touch of a Northern Irish accent. Duke has often found inspiration for his music in the arts, and last March – after a show of his in NYC- we asked if he would be interested in collaborating with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Spectrum.

The special exhibition, Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand would be opening in fall 2010, and it seemed the perfect fit for an artist whose sound already harked from that era. Duke has spent the past year researching and contemplating the lives of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand- three greats from the history of photography – and has written twelve original songs inspired by photographs in the exhibition. He will be performing them this Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 7 p.m. at the Met, supported by the Orchestre de Chambre Miniature and the stage design company 59 Productions, who will be incorporating the images into projections. Tickets can be purchased here.

In this interview, Duke sheds a little light on his process of writing music based on photography and the stories and challenges that went along with it.

1) How did you go about researching Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand? How much research had you completed before you felt ready to start writing?

Whenever I am writing a song about a particular subject I like to immerse myself in that world, to read as much as I can about it and allow myself time to digest what I am learning and to be inspired. This applies even more so when approaching such iconic subjects as Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand. As well as spending time with the actual photographs and reading Malcolm Daniel’s accompanying book, I trawled the internet for information, read a book of essays by Stieglitz, watched a documentary about Paul Strand, several of Strand’s motion pictures and a movie about the life of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. Even then it felt like I was merely scratching the surface and each photo became a portal into a whole other world, a whole other story waiting to be discovered. I began to think about the photographs about a year ago and started writing in earnest about 2 months ago.


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946) Georgia O’Keeffe—Hand and Wheel, 1933, Gelatin silver print, 24.1x 19.5 cm (9 1/2 x 7 11/16 in.),, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Georgia O’Keeffe, through the generosity of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Jennifer and Joseph Duke, 1997 (1997.61.39)

2) Are there any particularly interesting stories about the photographers or photographs that you could share with us?

It seems to me there are three stories connected with each photograph in the collection: the story of the subject, place or object in front of the lens; the story of the artist’s intentions or aspirations in taking the photograph and finally there is the story of the viewer’s response to what has been created. The songs I wrote are a mixture of all 3 of these stories and whichever narrative comes to the fore in a particular song, the other two will have informed what I have written.

One story which springs to mind has to do with Steichen’s ‘In Memoriam’. While residing in Paris, absorbing and being infuenced by the art there, Steichen was photographing a young woman named Rosa, his muse at the time. They had a romantic relationship which eventually Steichen ended and after sometime he became engaged to someone else. On hearing this news Rosa tragically took her own life. ‘In Memoriam’ seems a strange foretelling of the events which were to come and for me, knowing these circumstances seemed to imbue the photograph with an extra layer of poignancy and sadness.


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946) Georgia O’Keeffe—Neck, 1921, Palladium print, 23.6 x 19.2 cm (9 5/16 x 7 9/16 in.),, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Georgia O’Keeffe, through the generosity of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Jennifer and Joseph Duke, 1997, (1997.61.19)

3) Could you tell us a little bit about your process of translating the visual material into music? How much of the music came to you immediately after looking at the image, and how much of it had to be developed further?

The first song I wrote was ‘Dancing Trees’ on which I collaborated with English songwriter Boo Hewerdine. We talked at length about why the trees were dancing, who the trees represented, what kind of emotions were caught up in the dance before venturing to our instruments. In songwriting, I find it is often about finding a way into the subject, a perspective lyrically although ‘Rita De Acosta’ started with a chord sequence, ‘The Hand of Man’ started with a rhythm. It was a slightly different process for each song. For ‘You Press the Button’, Neil Hannon and I worked for hours on the lyrics before we went anywhere near the piano.

Each photograph did suggest a mood and an emotion I wanted to get across and to that end, the music served what the picture suggested. For example, the image which inspired ‘Washerwoman’ had something both comedic and tragic about it which directed where the music and lyric went. It felt to me like ‘Cloudgod‘ needed to be something more poetic and abstract whereas, I wanted ‘Georgia O’Keeffe‘ to be beautiful and hymn like to try and reflect Stieglitz’s adoration and celebration of the painter and indeed the human form of woman.


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946) Equivalent, 1925, Gelatin silver print, 9.3 x 11.9 cm. (3 11/16 x 4 11/16 in.), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1928 (28.128.8)

4) What were some of the challenges you encountered during this project?

I think the main challenges have been logistical and cost related. I wanted to present the songs in a way which reflected the beauty and ambition of the photographs and therefore have chosen to perform with a string quartet and to use a visuals company to project the images while I am singing. I think it is worth the investment though. Besides, with the voices of Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand whispering in my ear I didn’t really have a choice.


Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946) Spiritual America, 1923, Gelatin silver print, 11.6 x 9.2 cm (4 9/16 x 35/8 in)., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.55.24)

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