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Inaudible Music

In the early 60s as a boy barely graduated to long trousers I spent long hours in the garage of my parent’s house agonising over large black marks I had made on the biggest pieces of white cardboard I could find. I was obsessed by the work of Franz Kline and was involved in a passionate search for that illusive moment when the 4-inch wide strokes of black house paint would begin to speak to me. Those few little reproductions of the Klines I could find had cut across my solar plexus and awoken unnamed and unnameable driving emotions in me.

Years later I read of a 1960 panel discussion between Harold Rosenberg, Ad Reinhard, and Philip Guston (amongst others) where Reinhard attacked Guston’s mark making — his “wiggly lines”

“There are no ‘wiggly or straight lines’” replied Guston, “or any other elements. You work until they vanish. The picture isn’t finished if they are seen.”

This begs the question of course; when do the lines disappear? And the answer must be: when an image emerges.

The question of imagery in abstract art and in music has long fascinated me – especially in music, where there has been little discussion on the subject. Is there such a thing as an image in music, and is there a distinction to be made between an abstract image and a figurative image in music?

I think part of the answer to the first question lies in memorability.

A collection of notes or marks becomes an image when collectively they form something which, for some reason, is immediately recognised and memorable. An image must be more than the sum of its parts, an extra element which arises over and above the material which produces it, something which matches a pattern hidden in the recesses of brain. The interesting thing about abstract images, is that they cannot be named. Jürgen Partenheimer has said:”I believe we need art as a spiritual home.” Does an abstract image speak to us of this place? Is that why we recognise it? Do we remember it because it has some unnamed meaning?

The gift for producing memorable images in music or in art is elusive. And it is a gift which is often overlooked in discussion of an artist’s work. For example, Stockhausen’s recent death has stimulated discussion about his contribution to the development of music, his pioneering work in electronic music, stereo and quadrophonic sound, expansion of serial technique, large scale form, logorhythmic tempos, oversized theatre pieces, messianic aspirations etc. but I have seen little comment on one of his greatest gifts: the abililty to create instantly recognisable and unforgettable images. Nearly all of his most important works, heard only once, are easily named when even a small fragment is heard again. By contrast, one could be forgiven for mistaking some Boulez pieces for others, or even perhaps for the work of another composer, like Pousseur. Or to give another example from figurative art, Leonardo versus Raphael. I recall Brian Sewell’s lengthy and amusing hatchet job on Leonardo, and his favouring almost all of Leonardo’s contemporaries over this ‘universal genius’. But, like him or not, one has to acknowledge that almost every drawing or painting Leonardo made can be recalled and adequately described by most people who have seen them, whereas I think most art aficionados even would be hard pressed to give more than a vague account of, say, Raphael’s School of Athens.

When I first came to Partenheimer’s work, I was struck by the familiarity of its imagery. I knew this work. Not that I had seen it before, or seen work like it, but somehow I felt it had always been there. And the interesting thing is that the shapes are not unusual – often they are simple collections of irregular rectangles or circles. I realised that, for me, most of the significance of the work lay in the colour, the scale of the work, the choice of materials, the ‘touch’ of the artist – what I could describe globally as the resonance of the work. The pieces are often small and quiet, yet somehow fill the space around them, no matter how large, with their presence. Just like inaudible quiet music.

When working on the piece to accompany this exhibition, I was especially concerned that I should not destroy this music. And I was also concerned with imagery – how many notes, or how few notes could make an image?

To some extent, Partenheimer works in the same way: when working on the painting Joining up the Dots – coincidentally the same title as a piece I wrote at the same time – he made a number of marks on the canvas and then looked at them every day until an image suggested itself and he connected the marks with lines, revealing it.

My first considerations were practical. The scale of the piece was inspired by the beautiful and large spaces of the Kunstmuseum in Bonn. The exhibition was to be spread over a number of spaces, so I decided to do the same with the music – 3 ensembles playing in 3 different spaces, but each able to be overheard by the others. To avoid the clutter of TV montors and the like, I also decided that they should play without a conductor and at independent speeds. This presented me with a few coordination problems, as I felt the need to control the flow of the music – not to let one ensemble obscure the material of another; to get them to complement each other, not clash. Also I decided to write quite different material for each ensemble, only allowing one or two moments when they would come together.

To begin with, I wrote the music of one ensemble from beginning to end, then cut it up and stretched it out to 150% of its length. Then I composed the music of the other two ensembles around this, with long gaps where they didn’t play. In this way I tried not only to avoid filling up the space with sound, but also to draw the listeners from one space to another – to entice them to move around the galleries.

The choice of three different ensembles also reflects Partenheimer’s use of different media: works on paper, oil paintings, and sculpture (including ceramics). I chose one string ensemble (2 violas and 2 cellos), one wind (mainly brass) ensemble (clarinet, 2 trumpets 2 horns 1 trombone) and a piano and percussion duo, to give me a maximum contrast of texture and materials.

I decided to create as many different images as possible, and to use very little repetition. This proved to be a challenge in itself, firstly as it precludes working with any musical system whatsoever. Musical systems are defined by concepts, and we are reminded by Henri Bergson that we can think in images or concepts. Secondly, trying to find roughly 60 images per ensemble proved exhausting. It rather like trying to write 60 small pieces of music, or 60 drawings, while keeping an eye on the flow of one idea to another. (Fortunately, I only had to open a book of reproductions of Partenheimer’s work to start a new musical image forming in my mind)

Having three ensembles playing simultaneously at different speeds had a few unforseen but nevertheless welcome side effects. The overall tempo of the piece was slowed – somehow the whole work moves at the lowest common denominator of the respective tempos. The result is almost symphonic in its pacing. Also unexpectedly, the distance and nearness of the various ensembles created a quasi cinematographic effect.: hearing one ensemble from afar over the foreground of another has a kind of drama – one can’t but help wonder what the others are up to – rather like background action glimpsed behind a closeup. Or maybe like a tantalising piece of underpainting – a history of events which defines the present moment, while remaining forever out of reach.

© 2008 Kevin Volans
Catalogue Essay: Ikon Gallery