Music, With Occasional Gun

Lulled into complacency by Christian Marclay’s video Screen Play looping right inside the street entrance I’m totally unprepared upon climbing the steps and entering New Langton Arts’ gallery proper on the second floor. It’s, well, it’s big, and the current show Every Sound You Can Imagine has a scope to easily fill the space. Presenting works that date back to 1974 (a little bit of uncertainty there, other sources seem to state that 1975 was when New Langton went live) the show broadly explores the interplay generated by conceptual collisions of music and the visual arts.
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Here’s a sampler of some of the pieces that caught my attention, leaving out so much that I’m afraid only a proper visit will give you some sense of how extensive the exhibit really is (hint, hint).

Always contrary, I attacked the show counter-clockwise rather than the path laid out for me which takes you first down a little cul-de-sac before doubling back to cut behind the front desk. First stop was Fluxus composer Dick Higgins’ Symphony #186 from The Well-Colored Symphony: part of the series A Thousand Symphonies, 1968/1997. 4 pages of orchestral paper are riddled with holes; the holes surrounded by nimbuses of pigmentation. At times they appear variously like clouds or galaxies except where the punctures have practically torn the paper apart (fittingly, these seem to correspond to notation on the score indicating percussion). The effect was achieved by machine gun, as employed by a New Jersey police officer who directed his fire at a paint can which contained the score sheets.

Stephen Vitiello’s approach also shows an inclination toward the element of chance in its composition. Overlaid upon the sheet music of Pond Set 1, 3 and 5 are images of thin reeds in standing water. Where the vertical lines of the stems cross the staff is presumably indicative of the usual presence of clefs and notes. Since so much of the composition relies upon uncertain variables (there is no telling where the vegetation will cross the staff until it is superimposed and the superimposition is the result of any number of accidental decisions like the position of the camera and framing of the plants) Pond Set performs the function of a mandala. Musical composition is a process of molding sound into a pleasing or remarkable sequence. It requires the human element of choice (unless you’re composing with machine gun) yet strives for something organic. There is a certain irony in the amount of work necessary to achieve a melody destined to be deemed “pastoral.”

Already it’s apparent how important the musical staff is to the artists as a conceptual starting point; a familiar structure to riff off of. Yasunao Tone has also seized on the importance of notation’s placement as a kind of trigger point. Anything crossing that horizontal plane at a particular point can constitute a direction for performance, whether conventional sign (F-sharp) or incidental like the lines of elevation in Tone’s Geodesy for Piano, 1962. The starting point is a topographical survey map this time, specifically one produced by USGS/USC & GS of the Thirteenth Lake region of New York, N4330-W7400/15 in 1954. According to the printed handout provided by the gallery “…the intersection of lines on the sheet of acetate with contour lines on the topographical map are used to determine the heights, angles, and positions from which a set of objects is to be thrown from a ladder onto a piano.” I wonder if Tone incorporated any of the names of prominent features in the region into his score? They’re wonderfully evocative: Balm of Gilead, King’s Flow, Kettle Mountain, Lost Creek, Siamese Ponds…

Steve Roden’s When Stars Become Words conjure up the pleasing aesthetics of an H.A. Rey book, yet from a few steps back look like the kinds of interplanetary fantasia that used to adorn the covers of old pulp magazines like Astounding Stories and Amazing Stories. But by the time I reach Douglas Hollis’ work I’m ready to see something that isn’t another improvisation on the musical staff. Thankfully Hollis’ Scored Bridge is narrative, conceptual, elegiac and steeped in memory. He recounts how the idea sprung from a structure from childhood reminiscence dubbed “the Singing Bridge” due to “the humming it made as we drove across its steel grating.” When he discovers that another beloved metal bridge is due to be superseded by a concrete replacement, he devises a score as if sung by the latter in memory of the former, the melody of a structure with no particular music of its own in dirge to another whose song was itself.

Stepping up to Alison Knowles’ offering of strips of onion peel fallen at intervals like leaves on a long strip of vellum I’m already mentally planning my Ode to Nicotine wherein a slow moving sheet will catch spent clusters of ash resulting from long drags on a Marlboro Light. But I imagine it would be better if I leave that endeavor to someone else- I really need to kick the habit.

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