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Installation By Nigerian Artist Inspires Musical Composition

In October, the August Wilson Center hosted the North American premiere of “Flying Girls,” an acclaimed sculptural installation by Nigerian artist Peju Alatise. The work is already internationally known – it was featured at the prestigious 2017 Venice Biennale -- and it’s been a highlight of the local arts season.

The room-sized work features the life-sized sculptures of eight winged African girls who stand in a circle inside a cloud of birds. Alatise is honoring children whose families rent them out as domestic servants; the girls’ wings suggest their dreams for another life.

This week, the Center expands on “Flying Girls” with a newly commissioned musical work. “Suite for Flying Girls” is a full-length piece by composer and trumpeter Sean Jones.

Jones says he was especially inspired by the central figure in the installation, whom Alatise calls “Sim.”

“She is basically, in her mind, landing on the moon, and all these images of the little girls are in her imagination, and what does that sound like?” says Jones. “What does it mean to leave your conscious thought and go into your subconscious, just as a means, a mode of escape?”

Jones says his composition also played off the audio component of “Flying Girls,” which features girls’ voices, as well as the drama in the faces of the other figures.

“Having those facial expressions that speak to freedom, laughter, imagination, all while they are subject to basically human trafficking,” he says. “Seeing that [Alatise] chose to exhibit these folks in the strongest light and show the best of their humanity while allowing [visitors] that really check out he piece to really formulate their opinion on their struggles.”

Jones is well-known to local audiences: He formerly taught at Duquesne University, and he performed here frequently. He now heads the jazz department at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, but still performs in Pittsburgh often.

Yet “Suite for Flying Girls” might be a little different look for those who know Jones’ more traditional work with groups including the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. The piece runs 75 minutes and is jazz-influenced, he says, but also incorporates electronic effects.

And “Suite for Flying Girls” will be performed not by a big band, but rather a quintet led by Jones on trumpet, and featuring local talent including James Johnson on drums and Paul Thompson on bass, a saxophonist and a keyboardist.

Because the concert is at the Center, visitors can check out “Flying Girls” in person before and after.