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.
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.
Programme booklet for ‘Non-Objective Brass’, a performance of ‘anti-music’ from the SLAVE PIANOS archive, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 26 July 2000. ↩
The piano and string quartet music forms the primary focus of the present discussion. ↩
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’). ↩
David Toop, ‘Sonic Boom’, in Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound (London: Hayward Gallery, 2000), p. 15. ↩
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. ↩
Darren Knight Gallery (Sydney, Australia) press release for SLAVE PIANOS performance, 15 May 1999. ↩