Chance Operations – an extract from Dźwięki elektrycznego ciała

This is an extract from Dźwięki elektrycznego ciała, an exhibition catalogue accompanying this show at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. There is a review in Polish here and another from the August edition of The Wire here.

John Cage’s advocacy of indeterminacy and Fluxus’s interests in events were matched by new conceptualizations of modernist aesthetics that emerged in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Stalinism. In Poland for instance architect and artist, Oskar Hansen was the author of the Open Form (Forma Otwarta) theory published in 1957.[i] In this short manifesto, he argued for spatial forms which were incomplete and, by their incompleteness, required the creativity or participation of viewers or users. Space, according to Hansen, should be considered in terms of movement, whether in terms of a synchronic potential to be reorganised by those who occupy it, or in its diachronic capacity to change over time. In engaging their audiences/users, open forms had the potential to remind audiences of the fact of their own embodied being. They would also make the individual more attuned to the ordinary: ‘As Dadaism in painting broke the barrier of traditional aesthetics, so the Open Form in architecture will also bring us closer to the “ordinary, mundane, things found, broken, accidental”.’[ii] This was fundamentally a social and decentred conception of space and creativity. Hansen’s theory also offered new ways to conceptualise modern architecture. Buildings designed as ‘open forms’ would be positively ‘incomplete’, leaving opportunities for occupants to shape their environment in meaningful ways. Promising universal application, Hansen saw it as a way of rethinking public memorials, housing estates and works of art.

Hansen had close contacts and professional relations with composers and musicians, not least Patkowski, the founder of the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio. He conceived the My Place, My Music (Moje Miejsce, Moja Muzyka) pavilion for the Warsaw Autumn festival in 1958, the most important international forum for experimental composers in Eastern Europe. (figure 13) Working with Patkowski, Hansen experimented with the ‘spatiality of music’ – what he called an ‘audiovisual space-time’. A large fabric structure was to be suspended in a park – like a shirt with sleeves, each equipped with a speaker at its end. Viewers were to be encouraged to move through the space. In Hansen’s words ‘each could walk their chosen path in relation to the music – almost as if they owned it … the spatial relativity of the music’s reception brought the listener closer to an intimate experience of it … integrating sound with the listeners’ movements as well as with the trees and clouds’.[iii] Hansen’s aim was not the stimulation of sensation but of the imagination.

Whilst the 1958 pavilion was not realized, other ‘open forms’ were. In September 1966 the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw hosted an ‘audio-visual performance’ created by composer Zygmunt Krauze and artists Henryk Morel, Cezary Szubartowski and Grzegorz Kowalski (recently one of Hansen’s students). After entering into the gallery through a narrow slit and along a bright canvas ‘sleeve’, the public – in groups of ten – found themselves in the darkened and indefinite space of the gallery. Below their feet, the floor was lined with a bed of broken glass under sheet metal whilst the space itself was filled with metal objects gathered from a scrap-yard including massive springs, bent panels and broken barrels. The final space before the exit was filled with nets ‘trapping’ the visitor. Entitled 5x, the installation was the setting for five happenings organized over five consecutive evenings. The first night featured a 45-minute performance by Cornelius Cardew, David Bedford and John Tilbury of a La Monte Young composition featuring long sustained tones. Other ‘instruments’ were introduced on different nights including a microphone, a transistor radio and an amplified music box. The key role was not given to these British musicians who were in the city for the Warsaw Autumn festival. Each performance depended on the interaction of the visitor with these instruments or the objects and lights in the space (to make this clear the invitation carried the words ‘this entrance card authorizes participation and co-creation’). The organizers of the event wrote:

From start to end, each performance was different for each participant. The start began at the moment of entry when the installation was set in motion and the moment of departure was dependent on the decision of the individual. Irregular exchanges between participants took place throughout the performance. Their actions caused situations of variable intensities.[iv]

This emphasis on the agency of the individual was not simply a compositional technique for the generation of new art. It was the expression of a philosophy which rejected the determining role of the expert or the authority. (This was paralleled in Cardew’s thinking behind the Scratch Orchestra which the British composer formed in London with both professional and untrained musicians in spring 1969).

This emphasis on interpretation and free expression was also evident in the way in which artists and composers approached musical notation. Composers in pursuit of new sounds needed new notation systems. The score for Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) – a sonoristic piece for forty-eight strings – contains numerous symbols of the composer’s own invention. As a composition written to achieve particular timbral effects, Penderecki instructed the musicians to play the highest note of the instrument with a black triangle above the staff (the precise pitch of the note not being critical). This was one of 21 idiosyncratic signs published in the 1963 score issued by Moeck Verlag. Another mark directs each performer to tap his or her bow, or to strike the chair with his or her heels with the effect of producing disturbing rattling effects through the auditorium. The most striking feature of the score is the arrangement of distinct instrument lines, featuring jagged peaks and troughs, to signify a sound mass of unbroken sliding pitches. Some are thicker than others to indicate a tone cluster (a chord composed from adjacent tones). These graphic oscillations originate in electroencephalograms of patients at a Krakow medical center where Penderecki was working as a volunteer. He arranged for their brain waves to be measured whilst they listened to a recording of his earlier and best-known composition, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (Tren ofiarom Hiroszimy, 1960). Polymorphia offers its audiences a truly chilling experience; some passages sound as if the instruments are being dismantled, stripped back to their raw materials, whilst in others the violins swarm like an unhappy spirit.

Innovative graphic notation systems were not simply created to provide better, more ‘accurate’ interpretive tools; some used the score to reassess the relationship between the composer and the performer. Cage, for instance, developed unconventional techniques for generating ‘his’ music: the score for Variations I of 1958 takes the form of six transparent squares, one with points of various sizes and the rest with five intersecting lines. The performer combines the squares in any fashion; the points are signs for sounds and the lines function as axes for various characteristics of these sounds such as lowest frequency and simplest overtone structure. Any number of performers on any kind and number of instruments can play the piece. Composition, in such works, was no longer just the business of the ‘composer’ alone.

In the context of the technocratic ideologies of Eastern Europe, this attack on authority had clear appeal. And, like Hansen’s Open Form theory, it also served the dream of restoring agency to the individual (an imperative which was widely expressed during the destalinising Thaw of the late 1950s and was revived in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring). ‘The function of an interpreter is not to reproduce,’ announced Slovak musicologist and cellist Milan Adamčiak in 1969, ‘but to take a productive, creative approach to composition. A composition is only a suggestion, a program, a guide for the greater self-realization of the interpreter. […] The interpreter should not reproduce the work or ideas of the author, but to continue to develop them or even form them from scratch.’[v] Adamčiak was good to his word. In the same year, he organised The First Evening of New Music (Prvy Večer Novej hudby) with Robert Cyprich and Jaroslav Vodák in Ružomberok. Adamčiak played a ‘three-dimensional score’ (‘trojzmerná partitura’) which was thrown like a dice during the performance.

Adamčiak had a kindred spirit in Milan Grygar, an artist based in Prague. From the mid 1960s he began producing what he called ‘mechanical acoustic drawings’. Laying out a sheet of paper horizontally, he would conscript a range of ordinary objects as drawing tools. Combs, springs, cog wheels, spinning tops and wind-up toys would be dipped in ink and then spun or dragged across the surface of the paper. A degree of chance was involved, as the mechanical toys knocked into one another. To create another type of drawing Grygar inserted lit matches into the beaks of pecking toy birds. These instruments were not selected just for their mark-making potential: they also made noises as they moved the surface of the paper. Grygar would record the process of making the drawing on magnetic tape, thereby producing a sonic record of each acoustic drawing. When exhibited together today, the viewer is asked to reconstruct the drawing as an event or even a performance. At the end of the 1960s Grygar brought some of his preoccupations with chance procedures to the production of drawn scores for performance. His colour scores from 1969–70 feature clusters of coloured dots organized in grids on a page loosely suggesting – but not prescribing – music. His Finger Score of 1972 was generated by tapping inky fingers on 26 pages which had been prepared with staff lines. In 1981 it was given to percussionist Alan Vitouš who freely interpreted these liquid blotches on ringing cymbals.

Not all interpretations of graphic scores were as liberating, even when interpreted by their own composers. Katalin Ladik, a poet member of the Bosch + Bosch group in Novi Sad in Yugoslavia, created collage graphic scores for what she called Phonopoetics in the early 1970s. Slicing up material from glossy West German women’s magazines like Burda as well as other graphic materials including sewing patterns and stamps, Ladik produced powerful images for use in public performances, interpreting them in situ. Whilst occasional traces of traditional music notation were deployed in her collages, their purpose was largely associative, as was the reference to traditional song forms in their titles Pastorale (1971), Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1972), Aria in F Major (1978) or Sonata for the Woman DDR Leipzig (1978). O-pus, a 1972 film made by Attila Csernik and Imre Póth was used – like her collage scores – in her live performances. Ladik first improvised a live soundtrack for this film featuring numerous graphic expressions of the letter ‘o’ at a chapel in Balatonboglár, Hungary where György Galántai organized a series of actions and performances by artists in the early 1970s. Later, a version was recorded in the studio. With a dizzying range of vocal effects and tones, the sound of this vowel surges from hysterical screeches to orgasmic moans. As if employing the kinds of editing, pitch-stretching and duplicating techniques available in the studio, Ladik’s ‘natural’ voice seems strangely involuntary. In breaking language down to phonemes (as in the case of O-pus) or to curses (as in Milko Kelemen’s Yebell which she performed in 1972), Ladik accentuated the involuntary and even instinctual qualities of language.

Some composers turned to pre-existing texts and structures to generate new compositions. Like structuralist theories of language then being debated in the academy, these works broke with romantic ideas of originality and creativity. As we’ve seen, Penderecki created his composition Polymorphia by ‘reading’ the electroencephalograms made of psychiatric patients listening to his music. In the 1970s Hungarian composer Zoltán Jeney turned to different kind of systems found in games, texts, meteorological data and even telex messages to provide non-musical materials for his compositions. Impho 102/6 (1978), a minimalist piece played on shimmering antique cymbals, is, for instance, derived from the Telex address of a Tokyo hotel. In perhaps the most successful work of this kind, artist Dóra Maurer worked with Jeney to make a film, Kalah (1980). The structure of both sound and images was provided by this traditional Arabic game played with 72 stones. Maurer prepared coloured panels – which corresponded to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale – which she shot on film in the Pannonia film Studios in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the celluloid to correspond accurately with the rapid pulses of Jeney’s electronic music. The result is unsettling as the viewer struggles – and fails – to make sense of the rapid combinations of sounds and notes. Kalah captures Maurer’s preoccupation with the effects of the shift – the marginal movement or dislocation of a filmic image – on cognition. Kalah was not made to be seen but to be experienced and in fact, Maurer and Jeney imagined its viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

Other forms of creative coding had rather more critical inferences. In 1974 and 1975 Soviet artists Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid created cryptographic artworks under the common title of Codes. Using state documents like the passage outlining the rights to ‘Freedom of Speech’ in the Constitution of the Soviet Union, they produced geometric, seemingly-abstract paintings in which letters were replaced by blocks of colour. Organized as words and sentences, these ‘ideological abstractions’ evidently contained messages. The viewer had to act like a cryptographer to read them. These and other works attracted international attention and the duo were invited to exhibit at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. Denied the opportunity to travel to the USA by the Soviet authorities, Komar & Melamid rendered the contents of a Soviet internal passport as a music score (each letter corresponding to a note). Komar & Melamid then arranged for this notorious document – a symptom of the distrust of the communist authorities in the people – to be played simultaneously in February 1976 by musicians around the world whilst they remained in Moscow, denied the opportunity to travel. In the Feldman Gallery in New York, Fluxus artist Charlotte Moorman played this composition on the cello. (figure 24) A reporter in Art News charted the echoes of this performance on both sides of the divided world:

A Moscow, Idaho, audience consisting mainly of famers heard it over the radio, and called the station for hours afterwards to ask what it was. In Moscow, USSR, Feldman was told in a telephone conversation with the artists later in the day, a tape was played in an apartment. Also participating in the event were the Soviet police, who photographed members of the audience as they entered from the street.[vi]

The piece not only drew attention to Komar & Melamid’s plight but also to the techniques of allegory and what was sometimes called ‘Aesopian language’ used by artists and writers to evade censorship in the Soviet Union.


[i]            Oskar Hansen, ‘Otwarta Form’ in Przegląd Kulturalny no. 5, (1957) 5.

[ii]            Oskar Hansen in Oscar Newman, Ciam ’59 in Otterlo. Documents of Modern Architecture (Hilversum, 1961) 191.

[iii]           Oskar Hansen, Towards Open Form (Frankfurt/ Warsaw, 2005) 136.

[iv]            5x, a leaflet published by the Foksal Gallery (Warsaw, 1966), unpaginated.

[v]            Milan Adamčiak, Mladá tvorba, nr 10, v. 14 (1969) 27

[vi]           Amy Newman, ‘The celebrated artists of the end of the second Millenium A.D.’ in Art News, 75 (April 1976) 44.

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