Redrawing Old Times, New Times

Monday 25 June 2012

I can’t put it off any longer. I’m going to talk a bit about the Collected Collaborations exhibition at MUMA last year.

My part of the show was an eight-page newspaper, compiled along with similar contributions by the rest of the Redrawing collective. This was the follow-up show to the original Redrawing exhibition back in 2008.

Redrawing included the audio-visual installation version of my String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta). For the Collected Collaborations show I went into greater details discussing aspects of the piece’s creation, and the consequences of making the piece which had arisen from participating in the show.

At the end of my newspaper segment, I wrote a brief article about my future plans for works art and music which build on the lessons I learned from the exhibition. It’s a bit of a blur now, so let’s see what I wrote:

Besides the projected series of visual works based upon the spectrogram of String Quartet No. 2, two more musical compositions are planned in a similar vein. In one, following the principle of technical and conceptual distortion, an attempt will be made to reverse the process used to render the sound as a spectrogram. By producing a computer-synthesised soundfile that reproduces the frequency profile of the spectrogram as closely as possible, it is expected that the resulting music will diverge significantly from the original music on which the spectrogram is based. What this music may sound like is open to speculation.

Speculate no more! Here it is, with accompanying video.

The other composition is one which gets closer to the original conception to some aspects of the piece, and yet further away from others. The work in progress, titled Symphony, is based on a single pitch but uses a large array of different instruments. The sounds used will be subjected to the exact same processes as those used in String Quartet No. 2. This new piece will therefore have less harmony (and become closer to my original understanding of Niblock’s music) but greater timbral diversity (unlike Niblock’s pieces for multiples of the same instrument). For me, the interest in making this piece is to discover what is lost and gained in the trade-off between timbre and harmony, and to find out which of these two unfaithful copies is closer to the model they seek to imitate.

I just finished this piece on the weekend, and I’m pretty excited about it. I think I’m a bit tight on server space but will try to upload some more about this asap.

Both of these works are planned for completion in late 2011.

Close enough.

I intend them to form part of an ongoing series of compositions made with the aim of producing two or more works which are all but indistinguishable from each other, whether in relation to the music of another composer or not. Again, although this is an accepted practice in the visual arts, in music it has been confined to questions of execution and interpretation, and not of composition.

Why I am still not a painter

Sunday 17 June 2012

I first posted this many years ago. I’ve now started a new painting, for the first time since this last effort described below. The new painting will be a copy of the old painting, as I kind of miss it now. Someone in Melbourne has it, I think.

My last attempt to make a painting was not entirely happy. Having promised to paint something for an exhibition due the next day, I found an old box of cheap Chinese foil tubes of oil paints. Most of them had partly or completely dried out, and split open when I tried to squeeze some paint out of them. At least I got blue and yellow, two thirds of the primary colours. Also, I found a brush, which was useful. It was sufficiently frayed at both ends to make me spend a few seconds figuring out which was designed for applying paint. When I started painting I remembered that (a) oil paint needs thinner and (b) I don’t have any thinner. It was a very thickly-textured painting, and may still be drying to this day. The next revelation was that when you need to change colours, the brush has to be rinsed out (cf. points a and b, above). A solution of Sard Wonder Soap does the job nicely, but don’t expect it to improve the consistency of your paint.

I Want To Believe (in the Richter Code)

Tuesday 29 May 2012

The back of the loyalty card for my friendly local coffee chain is plugging Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition at the Tate, as if London isn’t sufficiently riddled with Hirsts for the well-caffeinated. Earlier this year Hirst’s dealer held simultaneous exhibitions around the world of his spot paintings, with Hirst goosing the punter’s interest in the mundane canvases by dropping suggestions of a hidden message encoded in the grids of coloured spots. Because Damien Hirst totally has a lot to say.

Amateur. A real artist lets the mysteries and conspiracy theories accumulate around him or her, like an inverted pearl. I saw this in all the bookshops in Cologne:

Could someone have actually published a crime novel called The Richter Code, enthusiastically ripping of the title, perhaps even the premise, of The Da Vinci Code, basing their murder plot upon the premise of a secret message hidden in the supposedly-random coloured panes of Gerhard Richter’s window for Cologne Cathedral?

Yes, yes, yes!

George Rubin, Cologne’s most ambitious journalist, learns in the investigation into a murder case of an encrypted message hidden in Richter’s window of Cologne Cathedral. Will the Cathedral really be destroyed on election day? Rubin does everything possible to decipher the “Richter-code” and prevent the disaster.

I love the idea that an artwork barely five years old is already being put to work in mythmaking. Even more, I love the idea that an author has decided that Gerhard Richter is somehow involved in both a murder and a plot to destroy the cathedral containing one of his most famous artworks. It neatly combines Richter’s 4900 Colours and related works with his habit of destroying paintings as part of his ongoing artistic practise.

Not mention that the book is part of a publisher’s series called “Köln Krimi”. You know your city’s made it when you can boast an entire literary sub-genre about your home town being a hotbed for ingenious serial killers.

Mystery Package

Sunday 20 May 2012

I’ve been writing up my notes from the intense weekend in Cologne for Acht Brücken, but I just got home to find this had arrived:

What could it be?

Hooray! It’s the Redrawing newspapers from the Collected Collaborations show. I wonder if the one I wrote and designed is there?

Yep. Okay, I’ll write about Acht Brücken next, then give an exact rundown of what the deal is with the newspapers.

More half-arsed thoughts about music, art and technique

Sunday 13 May 2012

I forgot, the thing that set me off the other day about music, art and craft was seeing Marco Fusinato play at Cafe Oto. It was impossible to hear his music and watch him play, and not think of it in terms of his painting practice. As he worked with distorted loops of heavily processed electric guitar, it inevitably conjured up images of layers, surfaces being stripped back and laid over with new material.

This in turn reminded me of what was probably going to be my original point: my previous visit to Oto to see Lionel Marchetti & Jérôme Noetinger. Noetinger was not with his usual tape deck setup, instead working with different types of live electronic signals, such as from feedback, RF or D/A interference. The two of them had a beautiful control of their material, guiding and blending stray bits of electronic sound the way that Jackson Pollock controlled the flow of paint across his canvas. We could see and hear the skilful use of craft, in this case to produce an artistically and aesthetically satisfying mix of musical technique and artistic experience.

Half-formed thought about music, art and craft

Tuesday 24 April 2012

I’m thinking about music made by visual artists. It’s so interesting, and seems to shed so much light on their artistic thought and methods. Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Martin Creed, those fluxus guys.

I’m thinking about visual art made by composers. It’s a struggle to think of anything really interesting, that extends or adds a new dimension to their body of work. Arnold Schoenberg, Carl Ruggles, it’s hard to see any connection with their music. It seems like the paintings would have happened anyway, with or without a head full of musical thinking attached.

Of course I can think of one exception straight away, but otherwise it looks like art has a lot to say to music, but music doesn’t have a whole lot to say to art. Once again I’m repeating Morton Feldman’s question: is music an artform? Or is it all just showbiz technique?

Monochrome Grey-Off!

Friday 13 April 2012

I missed the Gerhard Richter show at Tate this winter, but was lucky enough to catch it on my holiday in Berlin. One of his grey monochromes was in the show, something like (or exactly) this one:

Michelle Vaughan declares Richter’s grey monochrome superior to this grey monochrome by Henry Codax, recently discussed by Greg Allen:

For the sake of competition, I’d like to throw in another contender that I spotted on the way back to my hotel after a long night on the booze taking in the Richter show, on the platform of Hermannplatz U-Bahn station:

The Richter is still a better painting, but I’m not sure how well the Codax would stack up against it when compared in reality.

I only want everything.

Thursday 12 April 2012

I like those artists who can focus on just one thing for the rest of their lives, working this one particular angle without ever running out of things to say (Feldman, Morandi).

I like those artists who refuse to be pinned down to one style or subject, letting their curiosity take them into new creative territories (Tenney, Richter).

Note from an egocentric

Monday 5 March 2012

I’d much rather think about things than do them. Or rather, once I’ve thought of something, it seems largely redundant and pointless to go ahead and actually make it. This is why I make music, and why I make the type of music that I do: I don’t know what it will sound like until it’s done.

Imitation as Rejection

Monday 16 January 2012

Can you imagine after all these years if you asked John Cage, “Do you really believe in Zen?” and you get the answer, “No.”
Morton Feldman

I’m interested in John Cage but I’m not interested in Zen, so I don’t want to get too tangled up in origins. When reading the Pan Zen parables in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium I wondered at first if Mathews was using Cage as a source, or if the two of them had each read the same, common book of Zen stories. After the briefest of research, it was obviously the former case.

Next thought: why Zen? Was Cage consulted as a handy source of Zen parables, or would any thought suitably exotic have fitted Mathews’ purposes and Cage’s anecdotes made good material? Come to think of it, is there anything wrong with Mathews’ versions of these stories? The linguistic joke is a broken-English rendition of Cage’s English, transformed completely, yet still recognisable. What we have is a (fictitious) English translation of a (fictitious) Pan translation of Cage’s English interpretation of and English translation of…. What is the original? Cage’s retelling of Zen stories are impossible to pin down. They drift back and forth between China and Japan, and some of them must originate in India. Cage’s versions must be as alien as Twang Panattapam’s. Where is the Patriarch and where is the poem?

The inevitable cultural distortion produced by imitation is as much a voluntary act of rejection as it is a voluntary, albeit imperfect, embrace. These transformed Zen stories, iteration and iteration, reminded me of the frontispiece of Guy Davenport’s book of essays, Every Force Evolves A Form. He draws a design from a Celtic coin, and observes that it’s creator was

trying to make iconographic sense of others derived from a stater of Philip II of Macedonia, which bore a head of Hermes on one side and a winged horse on the other. Copy after copy, over centuries, provincial mints in Aquitania had already misread the face of Hermes as a lion’s head, as sun and moon, or as so many abstract lines and dots.

A quick google finds plenty of examples of imitation Philip II staters, with a multitude of variations on the single, original design. One blog on Bulgarian Celtic culture charts the various paths by which the designs evolved. The author argues that these designs were “the result of a conscious and deliberate rejection of Greco-Roman art and experimentation with alternative artistic ideas that would not resurface in European art until the modern era”.

Davenport concludes that in his example, the profile of Hermes has been transformed into a horse. Based on the many examples found on Google Images it appears that he goofed and is looking at the reverse of the coin. This misinterpretation, accidental or not, draws its subject to a conclusion (“All art is a dance of meaning from form to form.”) as fruitful as Cage’s study of Zen – however faithful, misguided or superficial it may or may not have been. It is all so much raw material for an active mind to work on.

Slowly now, 2012

Monday 9 January 2012

Hello. How’s your new year shaping up? One thing’s for certain, I’m never drinking again.

A blog post or something will appear here shortly. In the meantime, please join me in entertaining these positive thoughts.

John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day

Monday 19 September 2011

Sadly, I had to miss the John Cage concert on Southbank last Tuesday (I had a perfect excuse) but I did remember to see the exhibition it accompanied. This was the first opportunity I’d had, after all these years, to see some of Cage’s visual art directly.

I have to admit I felt a twinge of disappointment when I read the promo blurb which promised an exhibition “inspired by Cage’s use of chance-determined scores”, i.e. the artworks were arranged scattered high and low over the walls, their positions determined by chance. In other words, an imitation of Cage’s Rolywholyover A Circus exhibition in 1992. There’s a difference between being inspired by someone and imitating them.

Rolywholyover A Circus presented a changing mix of artworks and objects from a variety of sources. Every Day is a Good Day was supposed to be an exhibition of Cage’s art. The two shows had different aims and purposes. As a survey of Cage’s prints and drawings, the presentation did him a disservice, treating his work as so many props as part of a greater installation. Just because Cage did it once doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing to show that you “get it”. If you think his art is worth exhibiting, display it at least as well as you would any other artist and give the punters a chance to assess it on its merits by giving them a good look at it.

Speaking of which, the lighting: was that chance-determined too? If so, it appeared a bit too uniform to meet the Cageian aesthetic. If not, it was crap. I know Cage admired the idea of a painting that would not be disturbed by the action of shadows on its surface but that didn’t mean that shadows were mandatory, any more than he hoped there’d be one punter in the audience struggling with a bag of crisps at every performance of 4’33”. While I’m complaining, why was just the first part of his String Quartet in Four Parts playing on a loop the whole time I was there? If you’re playing just one piece, could you make it a complete one? Wouldn’t Ryoanji be a much more appropriate choice?

OK, enough whingeing. It was great that someone in the UK brought together a large collection of Cage’s art for display. The catalogue was worth it alone, as it can be tricky to find even reproductions of many of these pieces in one location. To stand in one room surrounded by works made over nearly 20 years was a wonderful immersion into his aesthetic sensibility, and even gave a partial sense of how the sometimes disparate tendencies of his music related to each other. Cage largely made these pieces as objects for contemplation, and no matter how beautiful they may look in reproduction, their lack of any conventional “content” draws attention to the subtleties otherwise barely perceptible when viewed at first hand: the texture of the paper, the impressions of the printing plate left on the surface, a stray trace of smoke.

Given that it’s so overshadowed by his music, the show was a useful start for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Cage’s art. A few pieces seemed facile, little more than school art-class exercises that present ordinary found objects as “beautiful” or “artistic”. More often, they used the same methods – traced rocks, smoked and scorched paper, washes of colour, lines and accidents – as a means to explore the materials and techniques of printing in unusual but sympathetic ways (Cage was never a confrontational “anti-artist”.) The methods I mentioned above are one and the same as the subject matter, for want of a better term. This unified approach succeeds in meeting Cage’s long-stated aesthetic of imitating nature in its manner of operation, creating beauty which is unintentional, but not accidental.

Speaking of String Quartets and Phill Niblock…

Wednesday 7 September 2011

String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta)

If I remember to go to Cafe Oto tomorrow night I get to hear Phill Niblock’s Five More String Quartets performed live by Apartment House. This is the piece that started the whole six-year-and-counting journey of my own String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta).

Incidentally, the latest iteration of SQ2(CB) is still on display at Monash University Museum of Art until 1 October.

The Vorticists at the Tate: The Losers of History

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Like the movement itself, Tate Britain’s exhibition “The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World” comes front-loaded with its biggest hits, then quickly trails off and is over soon after. The dominant figure, rightly, is Wyndham Lewis, who later defined Vorticism as whatever it was he was thinking and doing at the time. As the last couple of rooms drift into derivative works by fellow-travellers, Lewis’ drawings remain the one consistently strong current amongst increasingly insipid art; and yet it is clear that Lewis himself is already beginning to exhaust the material of his art and looking to develop his ideas further.

Despite the objections of fellow Vorticists who felt they were written out of history by Lewis’s later pronouncements, everyone involved in the movement quickly moved on and either succeeded or failed as artists independent of theorising from before The War. One of several large failings of this exhibition is that it does little to address the question of how much the Vorticists were a movement of like-minded artists, or whether they were little more than Wyndham Lewis’ gang.

Not much actual Vorticist art remains, so as with many stunted art movements we find ourselves judging Vorticism by its words more than its deeds. This inevitably pulls us back to Lewis, editor and main polemicist of the Vorticist magazine BLAST. It has become too tempting in retrospect to judge the entire movement from reading BLAST, picking out the names that appear in it and judging how well their art fits with the magazine’s contents, particularly those written by Lewis. This mistake seems to have been repeated in the Tate show.

In reality, three towering figures form the central pivot on which Vorticism turned: Lewis, Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It was Pound who named the movement, and indeed seems to have been the driving force behind forming a movement at all. He had form: a year earlier he had started the Imagist movement in poetry, and had a long-term liking of starting organisations of artists. This was done partly because Pound liked the idea of having a posse, but also to attract and support like-minded talents. So many of Vorticism’s central ideas are an expansion of Pound’s basic concepts of Imagism, and for the rest of his life Pound’s poetry and essays on culture refined, developed and elaborated upon the principles formulated crudely in BLAST. Lewis was the more effective polemicist, but his manifestos for BLAST contain idealistic imperatives and revolutionary zeal closer to Pound’s temperament. That may have been Pound’s influence, or perhaps Lewis’ idealism was knocked out of him by The War.

Gaudier-Brzeska, the youngest of the lot, produced the first physical and most tangible manifestations of Vorticism. His Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound not only unites the two artists: the bust exemplifies their common understanding of culture, history and creativity. They saw Modernism as a new Renaissance, in the sense that as their forbears had rediscovered the Classical world and remade it in their image, they were re-finding the forms of civilisations across the world, throughout history, and the impulses that drove them. It is a thread that runs through all modernism and postmodernism for the past hundred years, from the poetry of Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, down to its most debased forms of International Style and Po-Mo Playfulness.

Gaudier-Brzeska was the first to die, killed in the trenches at Neuville-St.-Vaast four months short of his twenty-fourth birthday. His absence defines Vorticism as much as his presence did. After The War, Lewis turned his talents for Blasting and Blessing to satire and grotesques, casting himself as The Enemy, the perpetual outsider. For Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska’s death encapsulated all that was futile and destructive in war, so he devoted his life to trying to understand the political and economic circumstances that allow such outrages to happen, and to making others understand. His efforts led him into obsessions over social credit, fascism and Jews, and into a mental hospital with an indictment for treason hanging over him.

The War killed Vorticism as surely as it spawned Dada, and yet in the Tate show it appears as little more than a timeline that leads you from the first room to the last. The exhibition gives no wider context to show how Vorticism was born or how it was snuffed out, or how it related to other art movements at the time. Jacob Epstein is included (because he’s in BLAST, natch) but more to bulk up the show than to demonstrate what is and is not Vorticism. There is not even a clear explication of the crucial distinctions between Vorticism and the superficially similar Cubism and Futurism. Pound pops up here and there like a special guest star, with nothing beyond assertion that he was an important figure in the movement. There is, indeed, no context at all to show how Vorticism did or did not shape the subsequent careers of its participants (not just Lewis, but other artists like David Bomberg, Jessica Dismorr, Christopher Nevinson, William Roberts, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth.)

Worst of all, there’s no sense conveyed of why Vorticism matters. Nothing is presented in a way that shows how Vorticism spoke to the world, and how it made its presence felt throughout the century: through Pound and his many disciples, Henry Moore’s bronzes, T. S. Eliot’s “One takes from history what one needs,” Mark E. Smith’s contrarian denunciations. All the Tate can give us is a funny little English art movement that came and went. They met in Soho but for all we understand of them, they may as well have lived in Petrograd.

Wandering Split: a new video

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Way back in 2002 I was asked to be part of a group exhibition of sound and visual art at West Space in Melbourne. The show, called Gating, combined artworks with sounds emanating from different parts of the room from four sets of speakers, overlaying 14 sound compositions, each containing significant sections of silence.

For my piece, I made a 5-minute spin-off of my long, spoken word piece The Slips. Using chance operations, a new, brief selection of slightly different phrases was made and recorded – one in English, the other in German. A musical accompaniment was made from a deliberately ruined cassette tape of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Neither voice nor music takes up more than half of the total playing length, allowing for silences to appear at various moments. The sound was passed through an electronic gate which would filter out lower frequencies whenever the volume fell below a certain level.

Last week I decided to make an accompanying video for the piece. Using the same principle of chance operations, selections were made from an old educational film available for free in the Internet Archive. Again, short fragments were selected and allowed to appear in the timeline without regard to the soundtrack, or to each other.

Personally, I’m interested in the way the piece creates its own, unhurried pace within such a relatively short frame of time.