Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999, cast 2003. Bronze, stainless steel, and marble, 927 x 891 x 1024 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © The Easton Foundation. Photo: NGC

Louise Bourgeois' sculpture "Maman": a musical interpretation by Rob Kapilow

The marriage of Louise Bourgeois’ parents was not perfect, but the marriage of Bourgeois’ Maman and the American composer Rob Kapilow just might be. Since last year, Kapilow has been writing a piece of music that was commissioned by Ottawa Chamberfest and inspired by Maman, the French artist's monumental sculpture of a spider that stands outside the National Gallery of Canada. Like Maman, the music will be entirely accessible to anyone “no matter what your level of sophistication,” Kapilow says. It will also be filled with inherent contradictions, he says, just as Maman is, and as were Bourgeois’ feelings for her own mother. 

Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 and created Maman late in her career, at the age of 88. Through her decades of art making rippled a childhood trauma: She had discovered her father’s affair with their nanny, and witnessed her mother’s acquiescence to the humiliating infidelity. “It is really the anger that makes me work,” Bourgeois once said. “All of my inspiration comes from childhood.”

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999, cast 2003. © The Easton Foundation. Photo: NGC

That quote forms part of Rob Kapilow’s 18-minute composition, which – being for an eight-legged spider – is an octet (an idea that came from the audience at the Gallery last year, he says. “It seems obvious in retrospect.”) The piece includes Bourgeois’ “amazingly evocative voice” and a “soundscape” created by Kapilow and cellist Andrew Ascenzo, of the Bedford Trio, with sounds heard on the plaza where Maman stands — city bustle, traffic, the bells of Parliament. 

The premiere is taking place at the Dominion-Chalmers United Church in August, and on August 4 the Gallery will be hosting an on-stage discussion with Kapilow and Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. Before then, the Gallery is planning events for Mother’s Day on May 12, including "spider" activities for kids and talks about, and in front of, Maman.

Chamberfest director Roman Borys commissioned the work, which Kapilow has titled Après Maman, to mark the festival’s 25th anniversary. By chance, it is also the 20th anniversary of Bourgeois first casting Maman, and the 15th anniversary of the Gallery’s acquisition of the sculpture. Kapilow seems a perfect fit for the commission. He has been Chamberfest’s “unofficial artist in residence,” he jokes and has twice conducted the National Arts Centre Orchestra. He has also performed music at the National Gallery of Canada to complement pieces of art in the collection, such as “a Steve Reich piece in front of a Mark Rothko painting.”

Rob Kapilow. Photo: John Johansen

Perhaps most importantly, Kapilow is committed to making classical music accessible, to create in every listener that “aha” moment. When Borys proposed an anniversary commission, Kapilow and he decided that Maman was the ideal subject because “it seemed everyone had an opinion on Maman, and I had a strong reaction to it. It seemed like a symbol of the National Gallery, and … people all over Canada have feelings about that sculpture.”

He has done this sort of thing before. In 1996 he composed a piece inspired by Shuttlecocks, an installation of giant badminton birdies by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Bourgeois' Maman may be, after the Parliament Buildings, the most photographed thing in Ottawa. It has an almost magnetic effect on people of all ages, drawn by the intense contradictions that Bourgeois instilled within the embrace of those giant bronze and steel legs.

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999, cast 2003. © The Easton Foundation. Photo: NGC

Discontent and motherhood were regular themes of Bourgeois’ work. A major exhibition at the Gallery in 2012 included stark, wooden “personages” that she had made in the 1940s, not long after she had left her native France for New York City with her American husband, Robert Goldwater. She was a new and young mother herself, in a new city and new country and “filled with a lot of fear and anxiety in her life,” commented Shaughnessy.  Although fundamentally her relationship with her mother had been positive, she was determined never to be acquiescent as her mother had been. Her mother was “her best friend,” she once said. “She was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.” Those words are also heard in Après Maman.

In this ode to her mother, Bourgeois’ greatest achievement is how she used the thing many people hate the most to represent the thing we are naturally tuned to love the most — a giant spider and a beloved mother – cast together in an eternal struggle between instinctive revulsion and primal attraction.


Louise Bourgeoise's Maman is the central point for the National Gallery of Canada's talks and activities on Mother's Day, May 12, 2019. Rob Kapilow’s composition forms part of Ottawa Chamberfest 2019; join the composer and curator Jonathan Shaughnessy at the National Gallery of Canada for Chamber Chat on August 4, 2019. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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