By Annette Hinkle
By their nature, artists revel in process. Which means they generally aren’t afraid to take on new challenges when it comes to the exploration of creative expression.
But what happens when artists are asked to step out of their comfort zones and express their creativity by taking a musical instrument in hand and stepping out in front of a live audience?
Welcome to GE Smith’s Portrait Series, song filled evenings in which painters, photographers, actors and various artistic souls are lured away from their normal field of expertise and asked to show off their musical chops on stage.
The brainchild of famed guitarist and Saturday Night Live bandleader GE Smith and his singer/songwriter wife Taylor Barton, the series debuts this Saturday at the Bay Street Theater with a trio of artists each taking the stage in turn — painter Dan Rizzie, photographer Ralph Gibson and composer Carter Burwell.
“Taylor really came up with the idea,” says Mr. Smith of the new series. “We had done something at Bay Street before, but this is more of a refinement. It’s people who aren’t known as musicians who come do music.”
“We thought since it’s the first one that we really should show off the idea,” he adds of this weekend’s line up. “We’ll do three not very long sets of very different kinds of music by people who live here and do their work here much of the time.”
“I’d say Dan’s songs tell a story,” explains Mr. Smith. “Ralph does instrumental music and leans a bit more toward a modern electric guitar, but not rock and roll. He’s very NYC downtown loft music.”
“Carter has done so many major films. We’re doing a piece of music he did for ‘Twilight,’ adds Mr. Smith. “We’ll also do a piece from ‘Blood Simple,’ the first film that Carter scored.”
The instruments for the evening will include acoustic guitar for Mr. Rizzie, electric guitar for Mr. Gibson and keyboards for Mr. Carter. Though the song selection will largely be determined by the guest artists, all three can count on Mr. Smith to be on stage playing right there alongside them.
That has Mr. Rizzie feeling a little nervous.
“This is a completely new thing for me. It’s extremely exciting and more than anything absolutely horrifying,” admits Mr. Rizzie. “I’m a serious player. I have lots of instruments in my studio and I play and listen to music all the time. But thinking of me playing guitar with GE is like getting asked to go on the space shuttle.”
“Of course you say, ‘yes,’ but will there be any oxygen on that stage,” he wonders.
Fortunately, Mr. Rizzie has known Mr. Smith for nearly 40 years and has jammed with him on several occasions, including at the Stephen Talkhouse. A big fan of country music, Mr. Rizzie has a number of original songs, self parodies included, that he can bring to the mix.
“One of the songs I’ll play is about a guy whose wife is leaving him,” says Mr. Rizzie. “It’s called, ‘If you leave me, can I come too?’”
Also sure to be in the line up is at least one Conway Twitty song, Mr. Rizzie’s favorite.
“I’ve always been a closet musician,” says Mr. Rizzie who began playing guitar in high school. “My studio is filled with guitars, programmable keyboards and acoustic guitars. I collect them and love them.”
He also plays them when he needs to take a break from painting.
“‘Waiting For the Paint to Dry’ is what I’d title an album,” he says. “Instead of getting on the computer, I’ll pick up a guitar and start playing. It’s a nice combination for me. You’re still in that creative place but you’re giving yourself a break.”
“That’s the good part of it,” says Mr. Rizzie. “The bad part of it is I probably play as well as I did when I was 16.”
While music has become a way for Mr. Rizzie to step away from his art, for photographer Ralph Gibson, it’s become an integral part of it.
“I’m using music to counter balance my visual work,” he explains. “I have 30 guitars, not that I play them all. I’m always recording, composing and writing. It’s really completes my day.”
Mr. Gibson, who first picked up the ukulele at age 12, has been a guitarist for decades. But 10 years or so ago, he realized he wasn’t making the kind of music he wanted to make — music that, like his photographs, treads a fine line between reality and abstraction. So he set out to study in-depth music theory and harmony with Avant garde musician Brandon Ross. Today, both his photography and his music are about walking that fine line.
“The best way to describe my aesthetic as a photographer is I’m connected to reality, but you can make a photograph abstract and then you’re challenging the medium,” says Mr. Gibson. “I’ve wanted to be on the cusp of photographing the abstract in realty.”
“Music’s chief characteristic is melody – you can have music without melody but then it’s just sound,” he explains. “So I’m trying to be right on the edge where I want to keep melody but also function as sound.”
At this point, Mr. Gibson doesn’t play the songs of other people and instead is focused on making his own music. He has performed live in many countries, including France, Germany, Canada, Brazil and, just a couple weeks ago, Korea, most often at venues where his photography is on view.
“If I’m invited to play, I’m understood as a photographer, and they apply the perception of my photography to the music,” he explains. “At this point it’s impossible to separate one from the other.”
“I’m good enough as a photographer to know how good I really could be… and I’m good enough as a musician to know how good I’ll never be.”
GE Smith’s Portrait Series with Dan Rizzie, Ralph Gibson and Carter Burwell. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 17, 2015 at Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Tickets start at $35 at www.baystreet.org or by calling (631) 725-9500. The series continues October 30 with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (sold out) and on November 7 with actor Ethan Hawke.