A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Several years back The New Yorker published a cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan: a nondescript, middle-aged couple wearing overcoats is standing in a museum or large art gallery looking at a wall-sized canvas which is empty save for a single black dot placed slightly below and to the left of center. The caption indicates one person is saying to the other, “Where does he get all his ideas?”

On first thought, it seems that the cartoon is yet another variation on the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome – the joke is on the trendy, gullible bourgeoisie taken in by the sham charlatanry of modern art. It massages the superiority complex of the reader; after all, even the museum – an “official,” if self-proclaimed, arbiter of cultural values – was hoodwinked into validating this meaningless pretense as Art. And we know better. But on reflection the message could be somewhat more subversive. If we accept the premise that the artwork is not devoid of ideas, but rather fits into a well-established artistic affirmation – that is, “Less is More,” if it suffices to engage a critical and/or emotional response in the viewer – the tables may be turned. In Wassily Kandinsky’s 1926 text “Point and Line to Plane,” he explains how compositional tensions and resolutions, and their philosophical, aesthetic, formal, and spiritual resonances, are affected by the artistic gestures of placement in space, time, and sound, beginning with a single isolated point (in essence, the subject  of Kaplan’s cartoon) and leading to a more complex combination of details.

In visual art, music, dance, literature, and even the culinary arts, creation through subtraction is not necessarily evisceration; all art proceeds from degrees of inference. From 1949-51, thirty-plus years after the precedent was set by the monochromatic Russian Suprematist paintings of Kazimir Malevitch, Robert Rauschenberg painted several all-white and all-black canvases, not as a Dadaist exercise in reductio ad absurdum, but, he said, in order to “see how far you could push an object and still have it mean something.” When his friend, John Cage, saw the all-white works, they immediately gave him the “courage” (his word) to compose the most infamous reductivist work of the 20th century, 4’33”, music which offers none of its own sounds but inevitably borrows those that take place in the environment at the time of performance. In response to this, Rauschenberg devised an even more audacious conceptual tact – to create a new work from the removal (in this case, the erasure) of an image. But in order to differentiate this technique from merely the erasing that may take place as part of the process of self-editing a work, he determined it necessary to make use of something of value, something not his. He convinced the famed abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing which he could deface. It is said to have taken Rauschenberg two months to eliminate the original figurative image, and the result (Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953), nearly blank but retaining some faint impressions and indentations on the paper’s surface, is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His action influenced subsequent artists in photography, video, mixed media, and other genres, and exhibitions of Erasure Art have taken place from Dublin to La Crosse, Wisconsin.

By then, and quickly thereafter, similar examples of what could be called elemental music (if, from the dictionary, we mean “relating to or being the basic or ultimate constituent of something”...in this case, that which supplies or even suggests the minimal conditions to experience sound as music) appeared. Composers in Europe and the U.S. began designing a wide variety of graphic scores, employing images or symbols ranging from scribbles on music paper to elaborate geometric systems as indications of potential, if undefined, musical responses (certainly, Cornelius Cardew’s 193-page visual score, Treatise, is the most ambitious and ambiguous of these) – and which today are commonplace in classical and jazz circles. Artists involved in multi-disciplinary groups such as Fluxus conceptualized texts as events that could result in implied, incidental, indeterminate, or only imagined sounds – for example, La Monte Young’s Compositions 1960 includes the now well-known direction, “Draw a straight line and follow it,” while Nam June Paik’s absurdist (one can only hope) Danger Music instructed the performer to “Creep into the vagina of a living whale.” As vague as these may seem in terms of musical substance, they share a fundamental essence with more “accepted” abstracted scores like Cage’s Cartridge Music or Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen – that is, while providing no actual musical material, they initiate actions which can result in sounds with an implied musicality. The equivalent of Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing may be the unexplained blank page of sheet music, signed by Charles Ives, collected in the book Notations edited by Cage in 1968 (Something Else Press). Was this one of Ives’ characteristic jokes, merely a composition-to-be (not just unfinished but unbegun), or an attempt to engage the listener’s imagination by subtracting the notes?

All of which is not to say that such extreme measures of artistic reductionism are a 20th century phenomenon. Consider The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman byLaurence Sterne, a flabbergastingly eccentric British novel (or anti-novel, as some would have it) first published in serial form between 1759 and 1767. As unorthodox as the work would have appeared at the time, from our perspective the fictitious narrative is really an excuse for Sterne to offer an amazing breadth of “postmodern” devices, including gleeful distortions of time and place and continuity; found material; oblique typographical inventions; a graphic representation of plot contours; and, yes, a totally black page and a completely blank page, the latter so that the reader could project his/her own thoughts on it. For that matter, it was Robert Browning, in his 1855 poem Andrea Del Sarto, who coined the phrase “Less is More” (and in the same dramatic monologue, concerned with the painter Del Sarto’s technical ability but lack of inspiration, expressed the creed “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”), thus defining the conceptual impetus that ultimately led to Ronald Johnson’s 1976 epic erasure poem Radi os, which, inspired by hearing composer Lukas Foss’ contemporary “perforation” of Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 12 (Foss opened gaps in the music by rendering phrases inaudible) in his Baroque Variations, set to uncovering what critic Guy Davenport found to be “a molecular intuition of the complex harmony of nature” within the 17th century phrases of Milton’s Paradise Lost (get it?). (The British painter Tom Phillips has, over several editions of his work A Humument, likewise reduced the Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock down to pages of pithy, haiku-concise text fragments, but the manner in which he obscures the remainder of each original book page with ingenious artwork transcends the concept of revealing an essence by means of selective subtraction of material.)

From here, the jump to Monk is not so daunting. Though jazz has been advanced chiefly as an art of elaboration via improvisation, there have been notable exceptions. Lee Konitz, the post-Parker saxophonist who through the decades has tended to phrase his solos in aphorisms, tells of the time when, very early in his career as a member of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, he was called upon to render a solo. As the band played he made his way to the microphone at the front of the stage and put horn to lips but, listening intently to the sway of the rhythm section, decided that anything he played would be superfluous to the perfection of the moment. So he stood, mute, for his chorus, then returned to his chair, satisfied. (An example of essence preceding existence?) But if all jazz musicians are existentialists – and exhibitionists – at heart, Thelonious Monk, working from a reductionist premise regarding rhythmic continuity, harmonic fullness, and melodic propriety, reconfigured the improvisational and compositional paradigm into a functional “Less is More” (not to mention “Wrong is Right”) perspective. The evidence, of course, is in “Evidence” (via “Just You, Just Me”) and “Bright Mississippi” (via “Sweet Georgia Brown”), or – if you can listen past Milt Jackson’s overbearing vibes – his surgically concise accompaniment to Kenny “Pancho” Hagood’s vocal on the 1948 Blue Note “I Should Care” (from the breathtaking ambiguity of his opening chords, the first attempting to conflate the tune’s harmonic spectrum into a single cluster, the second suggesting an emotional complexity not yet revealed, to the timing, tone, and pungent note choices [think Kandinsky] throughout), a lean, laconic point of view compared to the measured, introspective lyricism of his later solo versions for Riverside (1957) and Columbia (1965).

Monk’s reductionist premise was soon adapted, as best they could, by pianists far and wide, most strikingly in Ran Blake’s intensely personal, acutely distilled abstractions of song form and musical reveries. Unrelated to the spontaneity of improvisation, but equally hypersensitive to nuance and intuition, the silence-saturated, dramatically concentrated electronic and electroacoustic compositions of Thomas DeLio omit the conventional musical techniques of development, variation, continuity, rhetoric, and hierarchical relationships to celebrate the individual’s perception of the moment, when abrupt jolts of color or noisy events erupt and disturb the air around us. Or, even further metaphorically removed from the crass exigencies of reality, the unlikely confluence of the reductionist theories and practices of Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Zen detachment, and John Stevens’ philosophy of engaged listening during focused free improvisation, along with a few other less obvious sources (such as, perhaps, the deceptively placid paintings of Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman?), that crystallized into interrelated Tokyo, Berlin, and London cliques involving kindred spirits like clarinetist/composer Jürg Frey, trombonist/composer Radu Malfatti, guitarist Taku Sugimoto, harpist Rhodri Davies, and cellist Mark Wastell, among others, who release stark, isolated sounds, with specific attention paid to their tonal qualities, into a field of silence – not to heighten awareness of ambient sounds a la 4’33”, but in the all-but-empty canvas sense of the world encapsulated in a single gesture, a simple black dot. Which, viewed under the microscope of language, could have been described in the words of John Milton as revealed by Ronald Johnson:
         At once  
                                                                        to smallest forms
                                         their shapes immense, and

                                                                        far within,
                                 in their own dimensions


                                                                                 silence

Art Lange©2014

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