William Eggleston's Music, Much Like His Photography, Thrives Off Ambiguity

Jan 3, 2018
Originally published on January 5, 2018 4:13 pm

In the 1970s, William Eggleston shocked the New York art world when the Museum of Modern Art exhibited his color photographs (Until then, most
serious photography had been black and white). Eggleston's pictures of the everyday established color photography and turned him into an art star. At the age of 78, the Memphis native surprised people yet again by releasing his first body of original music last October, an album titled Musik.

NPR reporter Rick Karr speaks with Eggleston and Memphis writer Robert Gordon about the parallels of Eggleston's inventive nature in both photography and music.

"In the way that you hold a shotgun at your waist and point it — y'know,
you're not looking through the sight? He liberated his camera from his
eye," Gordon says. "To me, that's very improvisational."

"I can easily see a very close connection. But I cannot explain it," says Eggleston.

Click the audio link for the full All Things Considered story and hear Eggleston's piano improvisations.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

William Eggleston shocked the New York art world in the 1970s when the Museum of Modern Art exhibited his color photographs. Up to that point, most serious photography had been in black and white. Eggleston's pictures of everyday scenes from the Deep South - a tricycle, the red ceiling of an eccentric's bedroom - established color photography and turned him into an art star. Now as Rick Karr reports, at the age of 78, Eggleston has released his first album of original music.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: William Eggleston started taking photography seriously when he was 18. He started playing piano when he was 4 in the parlor of the house in the Mississippi Delta where he lived with his well-to-do parents. He says he still plays pretty much every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

KARR: Eggleston's sitting at the keyboard of a Bosendorfer grand piano in its distributor's showroom in New York City. He says he mostly plays his own music. But after nearly 75 years, he's still turning for inspiration to the composer who excited him most as a child.

WILLIAM EGGLESTON: Sebastian Bach is obviously my hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

EGGLESTON: I love to improvise, so there's a lot of Bach in these improvisations.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

KARR: Eggleston's no purist. In the 1990s, he bought a Korg synthesizer.

EGGLESTON: I think the synthesizer's a brilliant invention. It'll make about a billion different sounds. And it's fun to use as many as one can. And it usually has a lot to do improvisation ability.

KARR: The sound itself inspires what you play.

EGGLESTON: It must.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KARR: The Korg synthesizer also allowed Eggleston to record his improvisations to floppy disks. He says he never intended to release his music, but a producer at an indie record label persuaded him. The two of them went through about 60 hours' worth of recordings at Eggleston's Memphis home to select the 13 pieces on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT GORDON: It's a very literary technique. You know, it's working with an editor.

KARR: Memphis writer Robert Gordon says it's the same way Eggleston approaches his photography - by going through hundreds of photos to find the perfect few.

GORDON: In all of Bill's art, it takes the collaboration with an editor to turn it into a cohesive piece.

KARR: Gordon played that role himself when he edited documentary video footage Eggleston shot of the Memphis underground scene into a film. No matter what the medium, Gordon says, Eggleston shoots from the hip - sometimes literally.

GORDON: In the way that you hold a shotgun at your waist and point it, you know, you're not looking through the site. He liberated the camera from his eye. To me, that's very improvisational.

KARR: Gordon also sees a parallel between the emotional ambiguity of Eggleston's music and the emotional pull of his photographs.

GORDON: Because you want to know what's beyond the frames, and you want to know who just left or who's about to enter, and you concoct stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

KARR: Eggleston agrees that there are parallels between his photographs and music.

EGGLESTON: I can easily see a very close connection, but I cannot explain it.

KARR: The closest he can come to explaining the connection, Eggleston says, is by referring to quantum physics.

EGGLESTON: I love the fact that in the end, quantum physics is what is probable, not at all what is precisely accurate but what probably happens. What else would improvisation be? You don't know - or I don't or one doesn't - whether this note...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTE)

EGGLESTON: ...Should follow that note...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTE)

EGGLESTON: ...Or not. You think maybe probably they work together (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

KARR: William Eggleston says now that he's released his first album, he'd like to record and release another one, this time at the Bosendorfer grand piano in his Memphis home. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York.

SIEGEL: Complete versions of the piano improvisations William Eggleston performed during the interview and his take on the Lerner and Loewe song "The Street Where You Live" are at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.