Ken Field still lives in the walk-up apartment in Cambridge he once shared with his wife, the animator Karen Aqua. The house is lilac purple with turquoise trim and an orange front door. Aqua chose the colors.
Field, an alto sax player who fronts the brass band Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, spent much of his career composing soundtracks for Aqua's animated films. When Aqua died in 2011 at the age of 57, he lost not just his spouse but his primary collaborator.
On Friday, Field will revive the couple's creative partnership in a live tribute to Aqua’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. At a special screening of Aqua’s animated films, Field and a small ensemble will perform the scores live.
Here's Field performing live alongside a screening of Aqua's films a couple years ago:
Field and Aqua met in Providence the 1970s, while he was a student at Brown University and she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. One summer, they carpooled across the country together.
"We were in the same car. She was going to visit her brother in Denver and I was going out to San Francisco, and I pretty quickly developed a crush on Karen. At the same time, she kind of quickly developed a crush on the driver," Field remembers with a laugh.
Needless to say, Field and Aqua didn’t get together that summer. But they did start dating back in Providence. Pretty soon, Field was composing the scores to Aqua’s films. In the course of their partnership, he created the soundtracks for seven of Aqua's independent films and 17 animated segments she made for "Sesame Street."
Aqua drew her animations meticulously by hand in colored pencil and pastel. She stuck to this laborious technique even after the advent of computer-generated animation.
"She really dedicated her entire life to animating in a really singular way," says Amy Kravitz, an animation professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. Kravitz says it couldn't have been easy for Aqua to carve out a career as an independent animator. Her films were nothing like Disney movies. They were abstract — no dialogue, no plot.
Yet Aqua was able to convey deep feeling in her work. "It's like music," Kravitz says. "Music can sometimes touch our emotions in ways that are nonverbal that we just understand within us." Aqua's animation, she says, had that power. (Aqua's films can be found in the Karen Aqua Collection at the Harvard Film Archive.)
In one of Aqua's short films, bright shapes float and flutter through space in an intricate dance. In another, dread is conjured in flickering MRI scans and a jumble of prescription pills — references to the cancer Aqua lived with for 10 years.
"After [the cancer] came back maybe the third time, it was pretty clear this was something that she was going to live with," Field says. Aqua did create a film about her illness, but she wanted her final work to be something whimsical and light. That ended up being a film called "Taxonomy," which featured one of Aqua’s great strengths as an animator — the ability to morph one image seamlessly into another.
In "Taxonomy," a butterfly wing melts into the shape of a flower. A beetle’s antennae become spines on a cactus. A grasshopper’s hairy leg transmutes into a caterpillar. "It was a way of bringing together the entire world and showing how everything was one," says Field.
On Friday, Field will perform the soundtrack for "Taxonomy" with a saxophone quartet and drums. He had to adapt the original score to make it work in a live setting — a bittersweet task, since Aqua always had the final say on the music for her films.
"At times it was challenging because in our life we were equal partners, and when we were working on a film of Karen's, we weren't," Field says. "But I have to say that in every case, Karen was right, you know. Where I came in with some idea and she didn't like it and I redid it, and it always ended up being better."
This time, Aqua wasn’t there to guide him. But after 36 years together, he knew her better than anybody. He's pretty sure she’d like what he wrote.
The animated films of Karen Aqua screen at the ICA with a live soundtrack by Ken Field's quartet on Friday, March 22.
This segment aired on March 20, 2019.