Art in The Middle of Nature – Southern Montana, U.S.A

The couple seem to be enjoying their creation enor­mously. Cathy bobs around, welcoming guests with a spray of pewter curls and a perpetual smile. Peter hur­ries over the grounds in a Tyrolean loden vest and a battered pink sun hat over his shoulder-length white hair. The job of keeping the place humming falls to its French-born executive director, Alban Bassuet. While working as an acoustician for the global engineering firm Arup, Bassuet became particularly passionate about the music room in Esterhazy’ Palace, in Hungary. It was there, in the late 18th century, that Haydn ele­vated chamber music from dinnertime entertainment to an art form. When the Halsteads ordered up the perfect rural music venue, Bassuet set out to create an Esterhazy Palace of the West, a rustic barn as acousti­cally exquisite as Haydn’s Rococo workshop.

Miraculously, the Halsteads found a team that could design and build such a thing: a Harvard- trained architect named Laura Viklund and her hus­band, Chris Gunn. East Coast refugees who now live in Powell, Wyoming, about70 miles south of Tippet Rise, the couple owns and operates Gunnstock Timber Frames. The old art of timber framing — assembling brawny beams using join-rather than hammering together two-by-fours — is a New England craft, and the barn looks as if it could have migrated from Massachusetts, as Viklund and Gunn did. Its sturdy frame and weathered-steel plates give it the necessary tough­ness to protect the pianos through the Montana winter. Inside, all is blond wood, friendly’, and climate- controlled. It is among the most seductive chamber- music spaces I have ever visited.

The barn lies low in a fold in the hills, where the cow’s and sheep graze among the oversize sculptures that now dot the landscape. Performers of global renown play for audiences of 150, ranged on creaky director’s chairs. The music ripples through the larchwood rafters and comes back down swathed in a plush acoustic haze. In this deceptively rustic environment, you can hear a pianist’s murmurs, the scratch of horsehair on catgut, the rubbing of one dissonant note against its fellows. It’s like listening through a magnifying glass.

Outside, the property’ stretches for miles. A few unobtrusive signs point down a long dirt road to a lonely gate and a parking lot with no visible buildings nearby. From there, electric vans shuttle visitors over gravel roads among the scattered sculptures, which dominate buttes or nestle within depressions against a backdrop of snow’-flecked mountains.

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Proverb, a metronome-like sculpture by Mark di Suvero at Tippet Rise Art Center

It takes a special kind of artwork to hold its own against such a mesmerizing landscape. Two of Mark di Suvero’s big steel contrap­tions lend a note of industrial muscle. Stephen Talasnik’s wooden Satellite No. 5: Pioneer looks like a timber-ribbed space capsule that landed in a grassy gully. Patrick Dougherty’s Daydreams is a one-room schoolhouse snarled in dried willow branches. The most con­vincing interventions come courtesy of the Spanish partnership Ensamble Studio, made up of Anton Garda-Abril and Debora Mesa. One morning, as a ring of mountains glowered on the hori­zon, I sidled up to Inverted Portal, a pair of immense concrete clamshells lean­ing against each other to form a kind of triumphal arch.

From a distance, it looked like a geological phenomenon, perhaps a hollowed-out peak that had wandered away from its range. When I approached, I found that I could caress its rough hide and polished interior, step inside and sing’ into its reverberant span, then reemerge to feel the wind whorl around its mass.

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Ensamble Studio’s Inverted Portal, with the Beartooth Mountains visible in the distance

Like everything else in this illusory wilderness, the sculpture was meticu­lously engineered and executed with a mixture of anxiety and ambition. A sister work, Bear tooth Portal — rough inside, with a smooth exterior — sits on a not-so-nearby rise. A third, Domo, forms an arcaded vault, like a prehis­toric ruin fashioned by giants. Actually, workers capped an existing hill with a mound of gravel, then scooped out three chambers and filled them with concrete. The result is a work of nega­tive sculpture: natural-looking voids created by clearing away loose dirt. And because music lovers conceived this wild arts center, the vaults of Domo are spacious and acoustically refined enough to accommodate an alfresco recital. Workaday Steinways are on hand for use at several outdoor perfor­mance sites.

One afternoon, I joined hundreds of audience members and musicians at Talasnik’s Pioneer for a performance of the nature-inspired composer John Luther Adams’s outdoor masterwork, Inuksuit. Bells, bangs, breaths, and whistles went ricocheting over the hills. A little ways away, a ranch hand in a Stetson sat atop his horse, listen­ing. As the piece ended, and the cry of a distant piccolo mingled with the wind in the grasslands, that hour of magi­cal noise seemed to distill the spirit of Tippet Rise: sound and sculpture mingling under the sun.

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