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In 2004, when Ben Harrison began calling agents to inquire about musicians performing at The Andy Warhol Museum, he received some perplexed responses.
“A concert inside a museum?” Indie rock bands usually played in smoky nightclubs in New York and Chicago, not pristine museums in Pittsburgh.
But The Warhol isn’t just any museum. It’s a vital arts center that showcases varying artistic disciplines in the spirit of the Pop art superstar. Harrison wanted to build on the experimental legacy of Andy Warhol, who produced multimedia shows for The Velvet Underground, complete with music, dancing, strobe lights, and films.
Soon enough, Harrison, the museum’s curator of performing arts, was able to attract independent musicians to play inside the place best known for silkscreen paintings of Campbell® Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. In the process, he built the Sound Series into a prestigious yet intimate showcase for independent musicians from around the world. For artists who would attract a bigger crowd, the shows take place across town at the Carnegie Lecture Hall and other venues.
Harrison thinks the diversity of Sound Series artists contributes to the “contemporary vibe” of today’s Pittsburgh. “You’re not in Chicago or New York, but maybe you don’t have to travel to those cities to see the kinds of artists you’re interested in,” he says. “And it really helps we are strategically located between those two cities.”
After the pandemic silenced concerts around the country in 2020, Harrison became even more creative in bringing live music back to The Warhol. In the summer of 2021, the Sound Series returned with its first-ever block party along the banks of the Allegheny River, featuring a lineup of bands. In the fall and winter, some Sound Series concerts returned to the museum. He also worked with musicians who preferred to perform from home by helping them produce seven-minute videos called Silver Studio Sessions, which are typically recorded at The Warhol when artists perform there. These short performances are available on YouTube. “I could reach out to people in their living room or their kitchen table, and we could help keep their music out there,” Harrison says.
Outside of work, Harrison has been busy writing and producing more music for his own band and recording project, Stutter Steps. After releasing two well-received albums and an EP, Harrison added a two-song 7” record during the pandemic through a collaboration with producer Anthony LaMarca that involved each of them recording remotely and sharing files online.
His own experience as a composer and performer has made him empathetic to the plight of musicians struggling during the pandemic. Sound Series has always been artist-focused.
“I don’t have the same level of experience of these folks in terms of touring and performing, but I understand how the pandemic disrupted everything,” Harrison says. “Their bread and butter is getting out and touring, not record sales necessarily. It’s been really hard, and we’ve been trying to reschedule as many performances as we can.”
“There are so many great promoters in town. What Ben has done with The Warhol’s Sound Series is up there with the most impressive music curating.”
– Jesse Ley, Pittsburgh Musician and DJ
Chuck Helm, former performing arts director at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, says Harrison has been one of the pioneers in bringing contemporary music to museums and elevating it to the artistic level of the paintings on the wall. “Some curators might think, ‘Oh, this is a way to get young people into the music or have a fun evening.’ But Ben puts it on an equal plane. He is saying, by putting this music in the building, it is contemporary art.
“Without Ben and the reputation he has built, a lot of these bands would have probably bypassed Pittsburgh,” Helm notes. “Ben’s the reason they come to Pittsburgh.”
In his 17 years overseeing the Sound Series, Harrison has channeled the uptown-downtown, high-low vibe of Andy Warhol. Warhol is famous for being enmeshed in the ‘60s rocker music scene, hanging out with The Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and Blondie. But lesser known is his appreciation for experimental composers such as David Tudor and La Monte Young.
Harrison’s similarly eclectic tastes have resulted in a series that has included punk bands such as Television, rock bands such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Fatoumata Diawara, the musician from Mali who electrified the audience in 2018.
Among the shows scheduled for 2022 are the Da Capo Chamber Players (co-presented with the Music on the Edge series at Pitt’s Department of Music) at The Warhol theater on March 26; a rare appearance by the underground electro-rap icon from Ghana, Ata Kak, at The Warhol entrance space on March 31; and Resistance Revival Chorus, performing at PNC Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse on April 3.
“Warhol could bring these two worlds together, uptown-downtown,” Harrison says. “I’ve always been inspired by that on a music level—it’s both indie rock and the more avant-garde. It broadens the palate and brings all sorts of music under the Sound Series umbrella.”
Jesse Ley, a musician and DJ in Pittsburgh, says Sound Series events are among his most memorable concerts. “There are so many great promoters in town. What Ben has done with The Warhol’s Sound Series is up there with the most impressive music curating. To bring wide-ranging, interesting musical performances from all over the world but to keep it in the spirit of the Warhol image requires curatorial finesse. Ben’s contribution to the independent music scene will be etched in stone.”
The Sound Series is generously supported by the R.K. Mellon Foundation.
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