Rob Adlington Taking soundings: music, non-music, and SLAVE PIANOS, 2001

Taking soundings: music, non-music, and SLAVE PIANOS

The programme booklet accompanying a recent SLAVE PIANOS performance declares that ‘SLAVE PIANOS is a preservation society devoted to the collection, analysis, performance and recomposition of works in sound by visual artists’. 1 An audio archive of such works forms the basis for SLAVE PIANOS’ own performances, which feature original material from the archive reworked for computer controlled piano, string quartet, and, more recently, brass ensemble, DJ, jazz ensemble and other instrumental combinations. 2 New life is thus given to works that in some cases no longer exist in their original form, or are half-forgotten; the sounding component of each work is brought into particular focus. Not everyone has viewed this treatment as entirely sympathetic to the originals. In a review of SLAVE PIANOS’ February 2000 exposition at China Art Objects in Los Angeles, Charles LaBelle argued that ‘the convoluted process of “recomposing, arranging and translating” the source material ultimately consigns a lot of anarchistic noise to the prison-house of “music” and leaves formerly biting works toothless’. 3 LaBelle’s critique has since been incorporated into SLAVE PIANOS publicity, as if to confirm his depiction of uncritical consumption and distorting reprocessing. Putting LaBelle’s somewhat unimaginative response to one side, we may still feel perplexed at the paradoxical nature of the SLAVE PIANOS enterprise. The content of sound recordings of existing artworks are seized and transplanted into instrumental and performance contexts that are often completely divorced from the original. The declared motivation is to preserve, yet the effect is to alter. If we are to understand the music of SLAVE PIANOS, we need to move beyond its putative archival intentions and consider its relation to other ‘strictly’ musical practices. It will then transpire that SLAVE PIANOS has as much to tell us about the ‘prison-house of “music”’ as it does about the renegade noises that seek to escape it.

The twentieth century witnessed a convergence of the visual arts and music. Artists such as Kandinsky, Klee and Duchamp laid the ground for later artists in looking to music for guidance and inspiration; modernist music, in its turn, turned away from the literary impulse that had shaped musical Romanticism to concern itself instead with ideas of structure and colour. This convergence brought an inevitable questioning of traditional artistic categories. The principle of collage, for instance, revolving as it does around the combination of heterogeneous fragments of found objects, makes the incorporation of sound into otherwise visual artworks a logical development. Similarly, the cinema has worked to incite visual art into developing a temporal aspect; the growth of the importance of the performative in the visual arts -with ‘finished’ artworks becoming ciphers for the actions that lie behind them -again points towards an eventual accommodation of changing sound. The term ‘intermedia’, coined by Dick Higgins as a description of the activities of the Fluxists, thus has a more general applicability to late twentieth-century art. The activities of many of the artists featured in the SLAVE PIANOS Archive testify to the demise of the old hard-and-fast categories. Schwitters, Tinguely and Beuys viewed their sculptural forms in terms of process, flow and even aurality. The work of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy flits effortlessly between different media -installation, painting, video and performance. The food works of Dieter Roth address themselves to the viewer’s mouth and nose as well as the eye.

However, visual artists interested in sound have often been as concerned to critique music’s conventions and standard practices as to emulate them. Rigid distinctions between musical and non-musical sounds are overthrown, as works are devised that attempt to exploit rather than shut out ‘the richly clamorous environment in which we are now immersed’. 4 The erstwhile confinement of artistic sound to the concert hall, with its legislated modes of engagement and physical separation from all other realms of life, is also rejected. A gallery setting gives an audience greater power to dictate the terms of their engagement (i.e. from which locations, and for how long); but often even more informal public spaces are preferred. Ideas of virtuosity -be it compositional or performative -are frequently dispensed with in favour of either a radical democratising or a focus on the unpremeditated and improvisatory. Many of the works transferred to the SLAVE PIANOS archive were created as moment-and place-specific actions and were never intended to be revived.

It is with these developments in mind that the SLAVE PIANOS project can seem somewhat at odds with the motivation of many of the works on which it draws. Their renderings of these sources reimpose the defining characteristics of ‘music’ which the original artworks sought to dismantle. An exclusive focus on the sounding element of each work results in a variety of forms of partiality. We can no longer tell, for instance, whether the source work is a multimedia creation (as in L. Budd’s Studies for Existence, Chris Burden’s Velvet Water or Bill Viola’s Buried Secrets) or is itself purely sonic (John Nixon’s Two Greys Becoming; Jean Dubuffet’s _Coq a L‘oeil_); nor whether the sound is a largely self-contained component within the source work (as it is in the Budd, Burden and Viola works) or merely the accidental trace of a particular action or performance (as in Daniel Malone and Martin Popperwell’s The Strike Church and Martin Kippenberger’s New York-Auschwitz). Similarly, musical and non-musical sounds alike are interpreted as ’music’. So, the sonic emissions of frogs (Fritsch), bubbles (Burden), fax machines (Kersels) or a comb (Brecht) are indiscriminately filtered through the regimented increments of the piano’s chromatic scale; the aural distinction between these and the more obviously musical sounds that feature in some of the other sources becomes a tenuous one and the conceptual importance of extra-musical sonic reference for many of the original works is thereby minimised. The identity of the source sounds is sometimes better preserved in the reworkings for string quartet (ironically, given this ensemble’s strong associations with the ‘autonomous’ classical music tradition): witness the traffic noise and jews harp on Gunter Christmann’s Audio Plastik No. 4. Even here, though, the virtuosity of the performers in precisely rendering these effects, and the virtuosity of the arrangers in conceiving of them, is at odds with the contrived artlessness of the original performance. The trappings of specialist musical skill are everywhere in evidence in SLAVE PIANOS performances (albeit of a virtual sort in the case of the transcendental feats accomplished by the computer controlled piano): the point of reference is the classical music tradition rather than the untutored sound art that strives to keep that tradition at bay. This also applies to the performance setting, which, in the case of the string quartet performances at least, adheres to the time-honoured rituals of the classical concert: fixed running order, explanatory programme notes, and negligible audience participation.

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression of complete unfaithfulness. Every effort is made to find a treatment appropriate to the particular sonic material in hand -and this can include giving attention to its function and context within the original artwork. Source recordings are adhered to closely and alterations -beyond those made necessary through the transcription process -are eschewed. Even the relatively standard concert presentations of the works in their new guise retain something of the irreverent spirit that informed so many of the original artworks. At one level, then, SLAVE PIANOS simply presents us with ‘arrangements’: reworkings for different media, involving a certain amount of translation work but no independent creative input. The centrality to the enterprise of the piano -and, specifically, a piano performed by machine rather than human being - encourages us to dwell on this perspective. The arranging of pre-existing works for piano became an enormous industry in the nineteenth century, the arrangements becoming the principal means by which musical amateurs would gain acquaintance with the symphonic and operatic repertory. In the early twentieth century, this function was largely usurped by player (or ‘reproducing’) pianos, which at one stage in the 1920s were outselling standard pianos. Famed virtuosi recorded the romantic piano repertoire for reproduction in this way, and piano-roll manufacturers also churned out vast quantities of light music, turning the instrument into an early version of the juke-box. Subjecting the works of avant-garde artists to the player piano treatment 5 may appear like an incongruous anachronism, but a number of works in the SLAVE PIANOS archive play on the association: John Nixon’s Intermezzo and Dieter Roth’s Der Akkordeon Fluch, for instance, would readily find a home on a bar pianola; Thomas Lawson’s short untitled work, meanwhile, also evokes the classic idiom of the player piano, but suggests that the mechanism of the instrument is prone to malfunction.

The player piano has another claim on the attention of music historians however, and that is in terms of its interest for twentieth-century composers. Composers were keen to record their existing music for the new medium, but they were also interested in exploring its potential for composition. Hindemith and Stravinsky both wrote works for the player piano, and the latter famously contemplated including one in his ballet Les Noces, attracted as he was by the mechanical exactitude it offered in performance. The interest of these composers can be seen as a manifestation of the more general shift in attitude towards the traditional piano: once the epitome of grandiloquent Romanticism, the instrument was increasingly viewed as a ‘machine’ for the production of sound, and thus entirely appropriate as a vehicle for musical modernism. This conception was partly due to the growth in popularity of player pianos, and it finds its most celebrated manifestation in George Antheil’s Ballet mechanique (1926), in which eight pianos and a pianola accompany the actual machinery of doorbells and aeroplane propellers. (Antheil’s original scoring, which involved sixteen pianolas, proved impracticable.) The reams of quasi-automatic neo-baroque piano music churned out by European composers between the wars - aptly referred to as ‘sewing machine’ music in some quarters -provide somewhat less spectacular testimony to the same idea. The sounds of machines remain prominent in the works of visual artists represented in the SLAVE PIANOS Archive. Jean Tinguely and the Fluxist Joe Jones were both renowned for their sound-making machines; Christian Marclay, Dennis Oppenheim and Ricky Swallow focus more specifically on the mechanical media for music -specifically, the record player. Works by these artists are particularly suited to the disembodied performances of the player piano. More generally, there is a sense in which the piano versions of SLAVE PIANOS repertoire represent a refraction of the ‘anti-music’ of late twentieth-century visual artists through the prism of the ‘anti-music’ of early twentieth-century musical modernists. Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculpture Relief Meta-mechanique Sonore I (1953) perhaps symbolises the meeting-point of these two traditions mid-century: the automatism and abrasiveness of pre-war mechanical and noise music here mutates into a multimedia artefact of the sort that anticipates much later sound art. The loops and insistent repetition that we find in more recent works (Tony Clark’s The Living Rococo; Bruce McLean’s Limpo-Wristo-Poncho-Rocko; Peter Tyndall’s 6) reflect this ongoing interest in the topos of the mechanical.

It is a relatively short journey from the mechanical reproduction of the player piano to the more general phenomenon of Western culture’s technological appropriation of other musics. More prevalent now than ever with the growth of digital media, there is of course already a rich history of transcriptions and arrangements of non-Western, folk and early musics that more or less distort the originals by submitting them to the measured norms (scales of discrete pitches; absolute durations) of Western notated music. SLAVE PIANOS declares openly an adherence to the methods of ethnomusicology, 6 and the process of transcribing from sound recordings ‘made in the field’ (so to speak) does indeed closely resemble one of the principal research activities of the ethnomusicologist. Ethnomusicology has been marked in recent years by an acute self-consciousness of the way in which different methods of transcription unwittingly distort or misrepresent musics of other cultures. In the case of SLAVE PIANOS the transforming nature of the transcriptions is patently evident, rather than subtly hidden. The parallel might nevertheless encourage the feeling that, in attempting to force sound works from other traditions into the moulds of our own culturally dominant forms, the overriding motivation is the assertion of the transcendent value of the category of ‘music’; viewed as such, SLAVE PIANOS would be performing the same cultural work that can be discerned behind early and now discredited ethnomusicological efforts. But it is more productive -and truer to the spirit of the project -to view it as a celebration of transformation and renewal. For all the referentiality to traditions of arrangement and faithful transcription, then, the source materials need to be seen as the point of departure for new compositional acts, rather than fragile artefacts demanding careful preservation.

What distinguishes arrangement and composition? The drastic transformation wrought by SLAVE PIANOS’ chosen media might lead us to view the new works as compositions rather than arrangements; yet this chafes against Western culture’s prevailing belief that the essence of a work lies in its raw pitch and rhythmic material rather than who or what plays it. Many musical cultures do not make such clear conceptual distinctions between arrangement and composition -or indeed between composition and performance. And it remains the case that most of the musical works of Western society have their origins in other music, a fact against which the rampant individualism of modernism has fought valiantly but ultimately futilely. SLAVE PIANOS takes its place in the age-old tradition of rethinking received materials. Where generations of composers have eked out creative spaces for themselves by passing material of their own devising through pre-existing genres and media, SLAVE PIANOS simply reverses the situation and passes pre-existing material through various unexpected media. The compositional work comes of trying to reconcile the two. In the case of the Beuys/Paik In memoriam, the SLAVE PIANOS string quartet version is a straight-forward transcription of the recorded piano music. But elsewhere the reliance upon sound recordings as the principal source material forces more creative solutions. In Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate for instance, in addition to speaking the words indicated in Schwitters’ original score, the string quartet is required to reproduce the precise rhythm and registral fluctuations of Schwitters’ voice in his 1934 recording of the work; these are notated in both conventional and graphic form. With regards to the slave piano, the challenge of converting natural and urban environmental sounds is obviously considerable; but musical instruments may pose as many problems. Notable in this respect are the guitar-saturated textures of Nixon, Tyndall and van Hout. Insistent iteration is offered as the piano’s best substitute for the guitars’ continuous sustain, but the resulting textures are more than just a pale imitation and have a hectic oppressiveness that holds its own appeal. It is interesting to note that no work in the SLAVE PIANOS archive has gone untouched by some composerly intervention: this applies even to those Fluxist scores that could quite readily be performed as they stand. SLAVE PIANOS’ string quartet version of Imants Tillers’ Queue Actions reinterprets the original in musical terms; instead of literally forming a queue, the performers glissando their way, in suitably perambulatory fashion, towards a consonant ‘queue chord’.

Viewed as openly derivative composition, the music of SLAVE PIANOS can be read as an explicit rejection of the individualism of much avant-garde art -a thumbing of the nose at the originality complex and the fetishisation of authorship that continues to touch the contemporary art world, in spite of protestations (by both artists and commentators) that such conventionally modernist preoccupations have been left behind. It is entirely consistent with this outlook that works from the SLAVE PIANOS archive, rather than being allowed to harden into definitive versions, should be treated to further reinterpretations, alterations and transformations by other performers and composers. Appropriately for this age of instant information exchange, the concept of the ‘original’ is decisively exploded.

One may perhaps discern a kindredness between this downplaying of authorial possessiveness and the Fluxist emphasis on the creativity of all and the indistinguishability of life and art. Indeed, in spite of its affinities with ‘music’ as conventionally conceived, the compositional element of the SLAVE PIANOS project could almost be encapsulated as a Fluxist event: ‘Without the presence of an audience, rewrite the sounding element of a work by a visual artist for player piano. Preferably, remain as faithful as possible to the sounds or the spirit of the original work. Second version: replace player piano with string quartet or other ensemble.’ It is possible to identify further underlying affinities between SLAVE PIANOS and the works on which it draws. Specifically, SLAVE PIANOS’ apparent attempt to colonise their sources in the name of music actually serves to draw out those parts of music that are not really ‘music’ at all, in the strictest sense. For instance, the conversion of recorded sounds to classical instruments has the effect of focusing our attention upon the hardware of musical performance. Normally regarded as means to an end rather than an end in themselves, SLAVE PIANOS brings the assemblages of wood, metal and other materials on which musical sounds are produced to the fore. The player piano, in making music without any apparent human intervention, will of course always draw attention to itself. But something of the same phenomenon accompanies the string quartet arrangements. This is presumably a result of the perceived lack of fit between the instrument and the material it is expected to play; hearing a violin imitate passing traffic highlights the status of the instrument as a physical artefact more effectively than hearing it play Brahms does. The possibilities and constraints of the four instruments are comprehensively delineated by the variety of (sometimes extreme) demands made upon them - from the grainy bowed intensity of Solver’s 3, to the rhythmic fingering of the body of each instrument in Marclay’s One Thousand Cycles, to the noisy application of rosin in Knowles’ Nivea Cream Piece.

This focus on the physical attributes of the instruments is paralleled by the attractive printed scores produced as a more concrete record of the transcription process. These scores have on occasion been displayed during performances. Ostensibly another reflection of SLAVE PIANOS’ classical music orientation, this showcasing of musical notation discretely underlines the importance of visual media to classical music’s practice. Ever since music was first written down, the score has carried aspects of a composer’s conception not conveyed by the music’s sound -be it a title, a musical code, a visual pun for the enjoyment of the performer, or a complex tonal or thematic structure. The fact that, in the case of the computer controlled piano, the scores are neither meant for playing nor, for that matter, are they often actually playable, makes all the more pointed their reference to the visual surplus that accompanies this outwardly purely sonic art form. On occasion, this potential for difference between sound and sight in music is dramatised by oddities in the transcribers’ notation. The score for Tony Clark’s untitled work places the notated downbeat a quaver later than the heard downbeat -encouraging a reappraisal of the sort frequently stimulated by study of a musical score. The complex metric notation of Marco Fusinato’s EP in E appears at odds with the source, which comprises a rhythmically regular loop, until it is realised that the score merely faithfully reproduces the almost imperceptible hesitation prior to each downbeat and its anacrusis. Similarly the notation of the first section of Oppenheim’s Broken Record Blues accurately captures the slight durational discrepancy between each half of the phrase. The incorporation of such minutiae into the written trace of the piano’s renditions alerts us to the potential of musical notation for embodying difference even as it strains for the most fastidious accuracy.

Music is thus revealed as a multimedia art form, touched by sculptural and graphic considerations even in its most outwardly ‘pure’ manifestations. To the extent that we engage with music simply as sound, we engage with it only partially. In conceiving of non-music as music, SLAVE PIANOS paradoxically alerts us to music’s own ‘non-musicality’. The abrupt encounter of musical media with non-musical or more-than-musical material shatters the illusions we indulge regarding music’s very nature. In this respect also, SLAVE PIANOS is very much a creative rather than an archival project. Its overriding kinship is with other compositional endeavours of the twentieth century that have sought the reappraisal of the category of music. Far from bolstering the prison walls within which noise is supposedly ‘safely’ reformed, SLAVE PIANOS suggests that they are less impregnable than we tend to imagine.

Robert Adlington
Dublin, April 2001.

Robert Adlington is a Lecturer in Music at the University of Nottingham. He is author of The Music of Harrison Birtwistle (CUP, 2000) and writes regularly on contemporary music for The Musical Times and Tempo. He is Assistant Editor of the scholarly journal Music Analysis.

  1. Programme booklet for ‘Non-Objective Brass’, a performance of ‘anti-music’ from the SLAVE PIANOS archive, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 26 July 2000.

  2. The piano and string quartet music forms the primary focus of the present discussion.

  3. Charles LaBelle, ‘Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas’, Frieze, 53 (June-August 2000), pp. 122–3. LaBelle slightly garbles SLAVE PIANOS’ mission statement, which refers to ‘recomposing, arranging and transcribing’ (not ‘translating’).

  4. David Toop, ‘Sonic Boom’, in Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound (London: Hayward Gallery, 2000), p. 15.

  5. SLAVE PIANOS in fact use a machine placed over the keys of a standard piano, rather than the traditional player piano driven by punched paper rolls. The underlying principle remains the same.

  6. Darren Knight Gallery (Sydney, Australia) press release for SLAVE PIANOS performance, 15 May 1999.

John McDonald Slave Pianos: Pianology, 2001

Slave Pianos: Pianology

Melbourne, mid–1999 and that fin-de-siecle feeling hung in the air. The city that featured on the first page of De Chirico’s novel, Hebdomeros - the city he imagined but never visited was witnessing an astonishing feat of musical archaeology. In the Glenn College Studio of La Trobe University, the ensemble known as Slave Pianos was busy immortalizing the musical ephemera of a late twentieth century avant-garde an avant-garde obsessed with history, but clueless when it came to a score. Over the past two years, Slave Pianos have taken this repertoire to venues in Europe, Russia, America, Australia and New Zealand. Continually pushing the boundaries, like the artists they draw upon, they have explored an astonishing range of musical forms, including brass band, string quartet and chamber opera.

The earliest piece in this collection is Jean Tinguely’s Relief Meta-mechanique Sonore 1, (1955), with its cascading waves of notes, originally generated by an anarchic, ingenious mechanism. At the other end of the spectrum there is the fidgety ambience of Lillian Budd’s Studies for Existence (1998), which makes me think of fingernails scratching at a pane of glass. The group’s geographical range is no less impressive, juxtaposing works by well-established Euro-artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Katharina Fritsch, with those by Antipodean heroes of the avant-garde, such as John Nixon and Anthony Clark.

Here, in one blinding epiphany, is an apotheosis for an avant-garde that prophets of doom have seen as well past its expiry date. Here is the kind of globalization that even those protesters who riot at international economics summits could appreciate. Here is a mystical union of visual art and music, and a solution to the age-old problems of centre versus periphery in world art. For the featured artists, Slave Pianos offers a form of ego-gratification that might repay all the hours spent scheming in coffee shops, sitting around being bored in studios, flipping through old issues of Flash Art, and waiting anxiously on the result of grant applications sent to unfeeling, phillistine bureaucracies. Yet such is the dedication and integrity of some Australian avant-gardists that they have staunchly resisted this tribute.

In this resistance one recognises a familiar avant-garde tactic. It appears in the notes that accompany the libretto of The Broccoli Maestro, a Slave Pianos chamber opera of 2001, based on the works and writings of Anthony (‘Tony’) Clark. In this scenario, “issues are articulated by a deliberate amateurism whereby the concept of failure is built into the work, not only for the organic and uncanny possibilities it affords, but also to offset the lofty and transcendent values characteristic of Classicism.”

It is part of Clark’s own uncanny genius to recognise that Classicism represents an ongoing threat and challenge to the ideal freedom claimed by the contemporary artist. This drive to embrace artistic failure as a means of subverting latent Classicism, is only too evident in (The Living Rococo), Clark’s contribution to this recording - a deliberately simple, deliberately insipid progression of notes, with all the drama and verve of a cheap music box. Nothing could be more effective in exorcising the Classicist menace, its rickety repetition banishing all thoughts of Greek temples and Doric columns lurking in the recesses of the listener’s unconscious. To achieve this feat in Melbourne a long way from the centre of Attic civilisation, but with the second biggest Greek population in the world seems even more remarkable. Small wonder that Clark has risen so effortlessly to the top of the local avant-garde.

There is a similar strategy at work in Domenico de Clario’s From the Opaque, which represents a small fragment of a much longer work which unfolded over many hours, as the artist sat, blind-folded and free-associating, at the piano. Slave Pianos celebrated this seminal work by publishing a transcription of the performance, under the title Dom de Clario’s Pensive Piano Moods. In doing so, they highlighted the aleatory, open-ended qualities of De Clario’s work its propensity to go on and on for vast amounts of time with no special goal in sight. The goal as such, lies in the performance itself and the quality of pensiveness that the artist brings to the occasion. Pensiveness is the key-note of De Clario’s art whether he is sitting on a boat with a plastic bucket on his head, or letting his fingers wander across the keyboard of a piano. Little by little, this feeling of pensiveness is communicated to the audience, which may begin to feel overwhelmed by the experience, and flee the room.

The apparent aimlessness of De Clario’s piece is in contrast to the relentless repetition beloved of artists such as Clark, Nixon, Tyndall, and Fusinato whose EP in E may be taken as an avant-garde riposte to Ravel’s Bolero. Yet if we consider the effect of both kinds of work on the listener, we are left to ponder the wisdom of a line from The Broccoli Maestro’, that “the making of a very beautiful thing out of nothing is a very Melbourne phenomenon.” There is beauty in this music, but a very dangerous beauty. Although each piece may be said to advance the standard avant-garde project of tearing down the barriers that separate art and life, there is also a sense in which these musical projects insist on their own unique status as works of art. For this, we must thank Slave Pianos, who have rescued these pieces from their makers’ own reckless disregard for posterity. It is brought home to us that the avant-garde is not just an artistic category, but a state-of-mind and a way-of-life. It is a calling, almost a religious passion for a group of artists who are willing to go precisely where others have gone before, and if necessary, bring back exactly the same results. But transfer those blunt results, wrested so boldly from the recent past, into intricate piano transcriptions and another dimension emerges. This is the Unconscious of the avant-garde, the primal aesthetic urge that simultaneously undermines and embellishes their most uncompromising efforts. Slave Pianos has brought that buried treasure to the surface, and we can only marvel at what they have found.

John McDonald
August 2001

Rob Adlington Taking soundings: music, non-music, and SLAVE PIANOS, 2001


John McDonald Slave Pianos: Pianology, 2001


Giovanni Intra Slave Artists of the Piano Cult: An Introduction, 2001


Mark von Schlegell Slave Pianos: A Schema & Historo-Materialist Pro-gnostic, 2001


A Sedimentation of the Mind


Text by Chris McAuliffe.


The Sedulur Gamelan plays compositions based on drawings by American artist Robert Smithson. Each composition is a displacement, a conversation with art conceived—but not necessarily made—over forty years ago.

3 small vortexes, 1965 (Hobbs1981, 62)

… are hollow triangular columns, lined with angled mirrors forming an inverted pyramid generating endless internal reflections.

Mirror vortexes are baffling and unbalancing perceptual experiences. They seem bigger on the inside than on the outside and deeper than the floor should allow. Looking into a mirror vortex triggers mild vertigo.

The vortexes make minimalist sculpture into a hall of mirrors. Psychedelia meets postmodernism: forget less is more, more is more. Multiply into stylised excess. Let nothing rest on an even keel.

The vortexes set the pattern for Smithson’s work. Mirroring, reflection and repetition to the point of overload and implosion. Radiant, centrifugal effects that collapse in upon themselves.

Matisse said art should be like a comfortable armchair.

Slave Pianos say “Art should be like a bad trip in a Yogyakarta backpackers hostel”.

Enantiomorphic chambers, 1965 (Hobbs 1981, 66)

… is a lost sculpture in which two mirrors were positioned so that they reflected only their reflections.

Enantiomorphic crystals are pairs whose molecular structures mirror each other. And this is what the mirrors in the sculpture did.

So they didn’t offer any return on the act of looking. The spectator’s reflection was cancelled out.

The sculpture was an elaborate optical device designed to do your head in. To induce what Smithson called “infinite myopia” (Smithson 1996, 39), to engender the oxymoronic condition of “visible blindness” (Smithson 1996, 40). “The viewer doesn’t know what he is looking at”, said Smithson, “He becomes aware of the emptiness of his own sight”. (Smithson 1996, 327).

The gamelan is a physical model of the relationship of Slave Pianos to their sources in Smithson. A kind of musical enantiomorphic chamber.

When Slave Pianos reflect Smithson, what do we see. Smithson? Slave Pianos? Or do they cancel each other out?

Slave Pianos say, “Nothing to see here”.

Airport, 1966 (Tsai 2004, 125)

… is a drawing made when Smithson was working as an artist-consultant for an engineering firm designing an airport for Dallas-Fort Worth.

The engineers saw the airport as a complex of runways, hangars, terminals, concessions and administrative facilities … all planned, measured and quantified.

Smithson saw the air terminal differently. He called it “the Universe”. (Smithson 1996, 56)

Airport terminals sprout numerous radiating corridors and tunnels from central spines and hubs. This makes for a repetitive structure of lattices and tendrils … like crystals.

For engineers, airports are all about time and motion, coming and going … jetting off like people used to do in spy movies and cigarette commercials.

But Smithson thought time was winding down; it had stopping flowing like a river and had frozen into an array of suspended micro-universes … like crystals.

All of this makes sense if you substitute mineralogy for biology as your dominant metaphor for time. Or if you read enough science fiction. Or take enough acid.

Slave Pianos say, “Phillip K Dick makes more sense to us than Jacques Derrida”.

Terminal, 1966 (Hobbs 1981, 80)

… is a proposal for a monumental earthwork sculpture at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

Smithson abandoned the domestic scale of the art gallery and embraced the expansive vistas of the industrial landscape. Sculpture would now be visible from the air.

The airport terminal is a gateway to a dream world. You can join Sinatra’s rat pack. Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.

But a terminal is also the end of the line. At journey’s end, time and motion come to a standstill. Our holiday destinations are sci fi writer J G Ballard’s Terminal Beach and Vermilion Sands; a decaying resort with sweeping views of a world grinding to a halt.

Terminal parcels up time in repeating geometric forms, each a gradually diminishing crystallization of the one before. Smithson sees time compressing, with ever-increasing mass, into a black hole.

Terminal is a perfect, prison-house for time will be erected at the very site where the ecstatic traveller revels in his triumph over space.

Slave Pianos say, “In order to save time, we had to destroy it”.

Clear zone [asphalt spiral], 1966 (Tsai 2004, 128)

… is another unrealised proposal for the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. A kind of enlarged pathway, in which paving stones would be replaced by huge squares of asphalt. The path is a square spiral, curling in on itself, like a modern day version of ancient Greek architectural ornament.

Smithson’s spirals are the proverbial road to nowhere. You follow the path to a pseudo-destination. Not a climactic end point or resolution to the journey, just a finish. Kind of like a pedestrian version of a John Cage composition; do it until it’s done, then stop.

After that you turn around and retrace your steps. Just the thing for an airport. Amazing it was never built.

Slave Pianos say, “We want our landscaping down by Borges, not Bangay”.

Pulverizations, 1966–67 (Hobbs 1981, 75)

… is a set of instructions Robert Smithson wrote for the fabrication of five art works.

They would be made on the ground by pouring and spreading mineral material. It’s Jackson Pollock, Bunnings-style.

Spread a layer of stone, sand or concrete on the ground, within a square perimeter frame with 9 metre sides.

30 centimetres of material should be below ground, 30 centimetres above.

A secondary, central square perimeter frame will hold an island of different material.

Use sandstone, tar and volcanic ash to make geometric shapes formed from the primordial ooze. It’s minimal art for Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Use cement, coal and iron fragments to celebrate industry and technology. It’s minimal art for George and Jane Jetson.

Make a map of nature and culture. The raw and the cooked.

Chaotic, sedimentary, dedifferentiated material: an evocation of the unconscious mind.

Processed, refined, fabricated materials: the ordered realm of the conscious mind.

None of the five art works were ever made. But you could do it yourself. They just wouldn’t be Robert Smithsons.

Slave Pianos say, “Is that a problem?”

Mirage #2, 1968 (Hobbs 1981, 82)

… is one of three mirage sculptures Smithson made. But really, almost all of his sculptures involved mirages of some kind:

… mirrors with deceptive, vertiginous reflections

… perspectival constructions conjuring up absent spaces

… maps of voids and roads to nowhere.

For those of us who grew up watching westerns and adventure movies, mirages are the cruellest of illusions: the shimmering oasis promising cool water to thirsty explorers, staggering across the desert in rags, while vultures circle overhead.

But buried in the cliché is the grain of truth. Mirages are always projections of our desires. A desire so great that what we crave materialises before our eyes.

Which makes a mirage a telling thing to present in an art museum, where jaded eyes crave beauty and thirsty souls hunger for truth.

Slave Pianos say, “Vultures! Why didn’t we think of vultures?”

Leaning strata, 1968 (Hobbs 1981, 101)

… is one of a sequence of preparatory drawings for a sculpture consisting of seven tilted slabs, leaning against each other in a rough, pyramidal pile.

The sculpture at first looks like a model of geological strata; the product of sedimentation or lava flow, tilted onto the vertical by some ancient movement of the earth’s crust.

But the drawing shows that the sloping sides of each of the seven slabs recedes to a common vanishing point.

The sculpture suggests both the observation of natural forms—rock strata seen in the landscape—and the artificial generation of form in space through mathematical perspective.

This is the persistent rhythm in Smithson’s work. The duality between nature and reason, unconscious and conscious, the randomness of the world out there and the pristine order of the world in here, in the art museum.

Slave Pianos say, “NGV Federation Square is a poor imitation of a Robert Smithson sculpture”.

Gyrostasis, 1968 (Tsai 2004, 55)

… “refers to the branch of physics that deals with rotating bodies, and their tendency to maintain their equilibrium”. (Smithson 1996, 136) A metaphor for today’s artists, perhaps, globally connected, constantly moving, always on the lookout for opportunity … trying to maintain their equilibrium.

In drawings and sculptures, Gyrostasis is a curling spiral of diminishing, triangular, crystalline forms.

Spirals are revolving, decentered, unfocused forms … the inverse of properly composed and resolved art works and systems of thought.

Crystalline forms speak of frozen, rigid structures. Of time standing still, and the end of history. Of culture congealing into formula and convention. Of art chasing its own tail.

Gyrostasis is the oxymoronic form at the heart the gamelan. An object that moves while remaining static, that radiates in many directions without going anywhere.

Slave Pianos say, “You spin me round like a record, right round, like a record baby, right round, right round”.

Pointless vanishing point, 1968 (Tsai 2004, 151)

… looks like a sculptural representational of the receding orthogonal lines of mathematical perspective. The abstract concept of a spatial illusion structured around the recession of lines to a vanishing point was literally built, as if a cast had been made of a section of the space in a Renaissance altarpiece and set on the floor of a gallery.

Is there any such thing as a funny art work? If it were possible for a minimalist sculpture to crack a joke, it might look like this. Pointless vanishing point represents, makes visible, the abstract structure underpinning perspectival illusion. But you don’t see space, you see a schematic model of sight. A concrete illusion, a literal abstraction. The subject of the sculpture is a system for mimicking seeing … but there’s nothing to see.

Slave Pianos say, “Gertrude Stein was right, there’s no there, there”.

Crator [sic] with reflected numbers, or the hexagonal clock, 1968 (Hobbs 1981, 96)

… is a scrappy little drawing on graph paper with a circular grid, used for plotting polar coordinates. Typically, Smithson uses a sheet of paper on which one could map a world, or the stars, to chart mirroring, implosion and nothingness. Numbers are reflected and reversed, as if the clock is endlessly grinding its gears. Lines arrow in from the edge of the page, plunging into the blank dot at its centre.

It’s more a diagram of a black hole than a clock. Time is sucked relentlessly into a central void. Having disposed of space (vanishing points and perspective), Smithson then put paid to time. Not a lot of western science left after that, much less human experience.

Slave Pianos say, “No, let’s not do the Time Warp again”.

Asphalt on eroded cliff, 1969 (Hobbs 1981, 175)

… is a drawing of an event. A dump truck load of asphalt slides down the side of a cliff and, at the base, spreads in dark pools and rivulets.

Asphalt—also known as bitumen or pitch—is a petroleum by-product, often occurring in nature in pools.

Given our reliance on roads, asphalt is one of the world’s most important construction materials. Formed over millennia, large asphalt deposits—tar pits—are about deep, paleontological time rather than the here and now.

When you pour a viscous, elastic substance like asphalt down a cliff, you surrender to the laws of physics … to gravity, molecular bonds and surface tension. Asphalt will flow and ooze down the slope, finding its own path and coming to a halt when gravity cancels out mass and velocity.

The passage of the asphalt from motion to stasis, from the top of the cliff to the bottom, is one from potential energy to entropy … asphalt is a sign for time in a state of primal immobility.

Slave Pianos say, “I love the smell of asphalt in the morning. It smells of entropy”.

Wandering canal with mounds, 1971 (Smithson 1996, 154)

… is a proposal for a meandering tributary, a serpentine stream branching off from a river before tailing off into a spiral cul de sac.

Canals are thoroughly modern, instrumental waterways. Built in straight lines, flattening out the terrain, carving a path for commerce along the shortest, most direct route between two points. Time is money.

Art museums work a bit like canals. Whatever paths artists take are boiled down to the straightest path between then and now. There’s no time for meandering or drifting. No straying from the straight and narrow. No unfinished business, no loose ends.

Artists are resettled along a well-signposted art historical highway. They all live in town whose names end with “-ism”.

Smithson thought art museums were like prisons or asylums. Museums are places of cultural confinement, he said, where “the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized”. (Smithson 1996, 154–155) But, hey, that’s just the sixties talking, right?

Slave Pianos say, “Enjoy your journey, and don’t forget to pick up some souvenirs in the gift shop”.

Mangrove ring, 1971 (Smithson 1996, 260)

… is a circle of trees, about 30.5 metres across, planted by Smithson in a lagoon at Summerland Key, Florida. Why a circle? Maybe he was thinking of Pascal’s aphorism: “Nature is an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”. (Smithson 1996, 78)

Smithson often used materials that registered the passage of time, such as rocks formed over the eons. By planting trees, he was trying to use time rather than capture it. Mangrove trees take root immediately and grow rapidly. Smithson expected that, about five years after he planted them, the seedlings would have grown and their branches met to form a circle. “Mangroves are called ‘island builders’ because they catch sediment among their spidery roots.” (Smithson 1996, 261) Using the mangroves, and time, Smithson could build a tiny new world.

If you drift above Summerland Key using Google Earth you can spot a number of circular clusters of mangroves. One of them, a particularly neat circle, measures 30.5 meters across. (24°40’01.68”N, 81°26’54.28”W) Perhaps it should be named Smithson Island.

Slave Pianos say, “Is Summerland Key anywhere near Margaritaville?”

Aerial camera movement for Broken Circle, 1971 (Smithson 1996, 257)

For earthworks sculptors, aerial photographs are the money shot. Helicopters and airplanes give the elevation needed to show off the monumental scale of the earthwork within the vast expanse of a landscape.

From the air, twentieth century earthworks reveal their family resemblance to ancient precedents like the Nazca lines of Peru, the Great Wall of China and the canals of Mars.

Smithson’s precedents for aerial photography are more Hollywood than Chariots of the Gods.

In his 1970 film Spiral Jetty, there’s an aerial view of the artist running the length of the jetty, pursued by a helicopter. It always reminds me of the chase scene in From Russia with Love. This drawing demands that Smithson’s Broken Circle be filmed from a plane performing cloverleaf loops … the drawing looks like it was filched from Hitchcock’s storyboard for the crop duster scene in North by Northwest.

In July 1973, Smithson died in a plane crash while scouting locations for his Amarillo Ramp earthwork.

Slave Pianos say, “Our art is best viewed from a stationary gondola at the apex of the Melbourne Eye”.

Bog flight, 1971 (Smithson 1989, 125)

… is a drawing for an earthwork made of peat. A circular wall of blocks of peat: a couple of blocks high at one end, about 20 blocks high at the other. An ascending or descending wall, depending on which end of the entropy slope you’re standing on.

A peat bog is a sedimentary accumulation of dead plant matter. Dating back to the glacial period, peat bogs are an early stage in the formation of coal. It’s estimated that 8 billion terajoules of potential energy are locked up in peat.

In a peat bog, decomposition is slowed and time passes in ultra-slow motion. Peat grows at about 1 millimetre per year. There are about 4 trillion cubic meters of peat on earth. Do the math. Time and potential energy are trapped in a muddy, mossy quagmire.

Slave Pianos say, “Entropy is what happens when art peters out”.

Lake crescents, 1972/73 (Hobbs 1981, 222)

… is a proposal for an earthwork that would reclaim swampland and deliver a picturesque park to the residents of a brand new city outside of Chicago.

The primary material for the earthwork was to be peat harvested from a swampy bog on the site.

Smithson’s plan was to build high, sloping mounds of peat, in interwoven crescent-shapes. From the top of the slope, the view would be of an ancient quagmire, folding in upon itself. Frozen energy, mummified in an oozing mire—the very antithesis of a modern American city.

The slopes would be planted with fire bush, the red leaves of which might resemble flowing lava. The residents of Forest Park, Illinois, could leave their new homes to take their recreation in a brand new, primordial landscape.

Slave Pianos say, “We’ve got a great idea for an earthwork next to a burning open cut coal mine; call us”.


Hobbs 1981 Robert Smithson: sculpture (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1981)

Smithson 1996 Robert Smithson: the collected writings, ed. Jack Flam (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996)

Smithson 1989 Zeichnungen aus dem Nachlass: drawings from the estate (Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe, Munster, 1989)

Tsai 1991 Eugenia Tsai, Robert Smithson Unearthed: drawings, collages, writings (Columbia University Press, New York, 1991)

Tsai 2004 Robert Smithson (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/University of California Press, Berkeley 2004)

A Sedimentation of the Mind