Meet The Commission 2016 Artists

French visual artist Anne Ferrer and American composer John Nichols III are the winning team for The Commission 2016. The two met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) this fall when they were both in residence.

Known for her exuberant inflatable sculptures made from ripstop, a heavy-duty nylon material used in sails, Ferrer, is the winner of VCCA’s Wachtmeister Award (presented bi-annually to a prominent writer, visual artist, or composer whose significant achievement in the arts is widely recognized and who has never been in residence at VCCA.)

Ferrer arrived at VCCA the Tuesday following the Bataclan Terrorist attacks. Ferrer, who is French and lives in Paris quite close to one of the attack sites, was at home on November 13. "The day I arrived at VCCA I decided to make something that was happy and playful in reaction to the Paris attacks. I needed it. I was miserable.” So Ferrer got to work and a sculptural “garden” soon was blooming in her studio. The piece is a commission for the Allentown Museum in Pennsylvania.

Ferrer received her B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and her M.F.A. from Yale University. When Ferrer returned to France, she settled in Paris. Living in a city obsessed with fashion, food, perfume and the luxury culture fascinated and amused her and she started to play with these ingredients as materials for her work, which uses bold, insolent shapes and colors. Direct and efficient to construct, Ferrer’s sculptures give off a feeling of joy with a touch of subversion. The rapidity of the work’s construction, its easy transportation (her pieces fit into a suitcase or even a purse), and installation became part of the creative process, offering a performative work that inflates, breathes and invades the space.

Ferrer begins by making shapes with fabric on the floor. Once she’s gotten the general idea figured out, she does drawings inspired by these shapes. “The drawing is very important because it starts to give me what I want.”

Ferrer says of the piece she worked on at VCCA: “I wanted to do something where there was happiness, but also anger and strength. Anger in a good way—something constructive and powerful. I decided to make flowers. I think flowers have that power to make people happy, but also to give them energy to say: Hey, I won’t give up. Let’s not be depressed because that’s what they want. Life goes on and we have to make the best of it.”

About VCCA, Ferrer has nothing but praise. “I love this place so much. Oh my God, it’s so inspiring. I saw the space, I saw the light in my studio and I said: I've got to do something ambitious here. I’m having so much fun. It’s insane how much I’ve gotten done. I’ve been here seven, eight days… The really nice thing about being here at VCCA, is being around the other artists. I’ve had long talks with them, they came to an open studio I hosted. I have already started a collaboration with one of them (composer John Nichols), so my piece will literally breathe with his amazing sound. “

Ferrer’s playful approach is a welcome salve on the wounds inflicted by those who use terror to prey on innocents. Her pieces speak with joy and optimism about the indomitable mettle of the human spirit.

Ferrer’s work has been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou and the fashion houses of Sonia Rykiel and Nina Ricci. In this country, Ferrer’s work has been exhibited at the Taubman Museum (Roanoke, VA) and the the Telfair Museum (Savannah, GA). It is the collection of many international collections.

John Nichols III’s compositions are incredibly complex featuring a wide diversity of sonic phenomena melded into a profoundly expressive form. The work is bold, loud and ornate with cascading arpeggios, crashing chords and extremes of timbre from deep bass to fragile tinkling of notes at the upper register.

Nichols composes acousmatic and electroacoustic music. Acousmatic music is written for loud speakers and is sometimes performed in the dark. During performances, the loud speakers are arranged in a configuration around the audience. Many times it’s eight loudspeakers, but it can be more. Last year, Nichols won the ASCAP/SEAMUS Student Composer's Commission Competition that was presented this year at Virginia Tech’s Cube, an electronic marvel boasting over 100 loudspeakers on four different levels.

Nichols’s focus on electronic music was a gradual evolution. He began composing pieces at age 12 for his first instrument, the trombone. He turned his attention to the piano “rather late”, at age 16. He then moved on to orchestral instruments, a high school rock band and jazz ensembles. “Gradually, I began experimenting with electronics, although they were always an influence.”

Eventually, Nichols realized the potential for electroacoustic sound design. “When you stop to consider what the instruments of our time are, it’s clear, they’re loudspeakers. These are sounds that would be entirely impossible with instruments, and most wouldn’t be imaginable even 30 years ago." 

While at VCCA, Nichols was busy at work on his doctoral dissertation in music composition (from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, a leader in the field of experimental music)) focusing on the Yamaha Disklavier’s abilities and limitations. VCCA acquired its Yamaha Disklavier in 2007 thanks to a generous gift from the Charles Jacob Foundation.

The Disklavier is a computerized "hybrid" piano that features an acoustic piano with an electromagnetic mechanism that gives users the ability to record and play back performances note-for-note, with the piano keys, hammers and pedals moving up and down, like an old fashioned player piano. Introduced to the U.S. in 1987, the Disklavier was originally conceived of as an aid for education and recording virtuoso performances. In recent years, Disklaviers have been embraced by composers like Nichols.

As part of his dissertation, Nichols composed a large-scale work for the Disklavier and electroacoustic sounds and Nichols soon discovered that while mostly miraculous, the Disklavier presented some problems depending on the number of notes and how rapidity they are played. “I discovered that if one exceeds six notes simultaneously playing at a certain speed things start to malfunction. I wanted to figure out how fast can one repeat 16-note sonorities. Ten note clusters are too many notes, but it shouldn’t be because the instrument is supposed to accommodate 16.” Nichols’s dissertation explains how to work within the limitations of the Disklavier to accomplish the desired effect.

In addition to the Disklavier, Nichols uses the Digital Instrument for Sound Synthesis and Composition: DISSCO to generate sounds and also records sounds in the studio and outdoors.

Nichols has received international recognition for his electroacoustic works and has had compositions performed at Gaudeamus Muziekweek, International Computer Music Conference, and Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States –among others. Nichols' compositions have won numerous prizes including the Grand Luigi Russolo Prize and 1st Luigi Russolo Prize in the XXVIII Luigi Russolo International Sound Art Competition (2014, France, Spain), First Prize Absolute in the “Città di Udine” International Composition Competition (2014, Italy) and First Prize in the WOCMAT International Phil Winsor Young Composers Competition (2013, Taiwan). His compositions are published on Musique & Recherches, SEAMUS, Monochrome Vision, and ABLAZE

The winning The Commission 2016 team is awarded residencies at VCCA to help them with the project. Ferrer and Nichols will be in residence in May to prepare the piece ahead of its installation.

We are very excited to see their piece: Composites installed at Pharsalia! For information and tickets for the event:


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