The Hand Listens

Contemporary Art, Music
She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018

Aura Satz, She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018

This short essay was published in the publication accompanying Aura Satz’s recent exhibition in the Fridman Gallery in NYC (November 2018). The images are taken from the Gallery’s site.

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She Recalibrates, Aura Satz’s new series of drawings are portraits fashioned from details. Most derive from publicity for electronic music presenting a composer at work in a studio surrounded by banks of dials, switches, tape reels and faders. Satz’s gallery of immortelles features Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Suzanne Ciani, Wendy Carlos, Beatriz Ferreyra, Else Marie Pade, Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux and Tara Rodger. Some were ‘pioneers’ of electronic music from its early days in the 1950s and 1960s, and others are still active today. All are women.

Satz’s portraits include many women who enjoyed little public acclaim, even within the rather recondite field of electronic music. Only occasionally did they occupy centre stage (Wendy Carlos attracting the brightest lights). Their recordings were only rarely issued at the time of their creation. A 1970 ‘Electronic Panorama’ of new music from around the world was issued on the Philips Label: not one woman featured among the 26 contributors to the four LP box set. And yet, as Christoph Cox notes, women ‘have been much more than a token presence within the experimental tradition and have produced work as significant as that of their male counterparts.’[1] In a one sense, Satz’s She Recalibrates forms part of a larger recuperation of these women and their work in recent years. But this drawing cycle asks more of its viewers than simply to pay homage.

Satz’s drawings are presented behind magnifying lenticular sheets and in precise circular frames. The optical effect of the grooves on the transparent disks is an invitation to the viewer to move to the find the point at which the image resolves (not unlike the pleasure of turning a CD in the hand to see diffractive patterns on its surface). In effect, the viewer has to tune in to the visual signal of Satz’s circular dials. The drawings record a repertoire of gestures involved in the work of the composer in the studio: the turn of a dial to change the frequency of a pulse; the careful splicing and editing of magnetic tape to combine sound clips; or the depression of keys on a keyboard to effect tempered pitches. Working the instruments of the studio, the hands also signal close listening. Hands and ears sculpt disembodied sounds – either generated entirely electronically or abstracted from concrete sources – to form acousmatic compositions. Working as a producer and composer of soundtracks for Danish Radio from the mid 1950s, Else Marie Pade returned to the studio ‘after hours’ to work on her own compositions. They include early experiments like ‘Seven Circles’ (1959) in which a serial pattern of notes is shifted, accelerated and layered over seven cycles according to a careful set of calculations. Its score is an exercise in geometry and tabulation. Pade relished the ‘microscopical precision’ afforded by the studio’s instruments: ‘The possibility to achieve the exact pitches you want to manipulate, so that they match fully with your own perception of pitch. The sounds that I’m looking for can have an airy character, but still be very concrete.’[2] Others stressed the improvisation which was required in the early years of electronic music. Éliane Radigue worked as a voluntary assistant for Pierre Henry in Paris at the end of 1960s. In return, Henry gave her two first generation tape recorders which, though limited, were ‘tough enough to support feedback experiments’. Radigue set up a small home studio, working intensively with tape techniques of speed manipulation, overlaying and feedback. ’Sometimes,’ she recalls, ‘it was enough to touch one of the recording or playback potentiometers to develop a sound. In this way, I discovered the pleasure of a work made with the tip of the fingers.’[3]

By centring in on the hands, She Recalibrates allows for a kind of pulling back too. Where else have we seen these hands? Where are these gestures also made? The image of the hand operating the console was one of the key signifiers of the information revolution of the second half of the twentieth century. It was the harbinger of both dreamworld and catastrophe: push button technologies promised ‘miracle kitchens’ and, at the same time, Cold War command and control centres threatened planetary annihilation. In the ‘third industrial revolution’, the dial inferred new relationships between people and machines based on automation and cybernetic regulation. The role of the human in future manufacturing, agricultural and transport systems was to become that of an overseer in a clean, frictionless world. This promise was also underscored by existential anxiety: the image of the fallible human being replaced by new forms of automata was the subject of doomy prophecies in the 1950s and 1960s. In his essay ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’, Norbert Wiener, for instance, reflected on the threat to humanity posed by cybernetic machines: ‘It is quite in the cards that learning machines will be used to program the pushing of the button in a new pushbutton war’.[4] In this scenario, a thinking machine commands the console; in other words, it commands itself.

The potencies of utopia and disaster were also invoked in discussions of new electronic music. In 1970, French writer and composer Maurice Fleuret, described the turn of the dial in euphoric – even cosmic – terms in publicity for the ‘Electronic Panorama’ box set:

 

Time and space shrink. Tokyo can hear what is happening at any instant in Paris. Turn a knob and you can be at the ends of the earth, or even on the moon. …  The walls dissolve, the ceiling vanishes, and we are released on the flying carpet of the sound-dream; all kinds of geographic, historical, and acoustic perspectives are open to us. Fiction outstrips reality at the gallop. The eye listens, the ear sees: a new sense is given us.[5]

 

Electronic music would not only expand human capacities, it was, it seems, even capable of recalibrating the senses.

Writing two years later, British composer Daphne Oram was more circumspect, warning of a ‘world where freehand, empirical, human control is withdrawn and everyone (and everything) is submitted to total permutated “logical” control by computers. It appears an arid, cold, inhuman world to me and not what I would choose; but others may prefer it and certainly in the 1950s it looked as if the world was heading in that direction.’[6] She welcomed the spread of aleatoric techniques in the composition of music in the years since, whether the ‘spin of the coin’ or ‘the random number table housed in the computer’. Such techniques would ‘keep much of the responsibility out of the freehand human control but escape the regimentation of total serialisation’. They would ensure ‘a feeling of individuality which is not arrogant, not conceited, but is based on inner conviction and faith, based on what lies beyond.’[7]

Oram, like other composers and musicians portrayed by Satz, pulled away from the carefully controlled world of precise instruments towards New Age thinking – to what lies beyond. Else Marie Pade imagined ‘that the stars and the moon and the sky uttered sounds and those turned into electronic music’.[8] American musician and composer Pauline Oliveros, celebrated for her ‘sonic meditations’ (group listening exercises) and ‘telepathic improvisation’ techniques, began her work in electronic music. Her sense of the beyond began there. Experimenting with signal generators working beyond the range of human hearing to create electronic music from ghostly combination tones in the mid 1960s, Oliveros was accused of ‘black art’: the director of the studio where she was working unplugged her amplifiers.[9]  Perhaps the director found something unnerving in the composition. Certainly, Oliveros’ recordings from the mid 1960s – often created live in the studio – have qualities which challenge description. Music critic Frances Morgan writes: ‘Sometimes when I listen to Oliveros’s early electronic works, I think about how I can only explain certain audio phenomena or functions on a synthesizer by gesture – by demonstrating on a machine or, in the absence of something with dials and knobs, by waving my hands around, drawing shapes in the air.’[10]

For many of these composers, electronic music seems to have been less a way of producing calculated sonic effects than a kind of unstable threshold between worlds. Oliveros, Radigue or Oram at the console call to mind German sociologist Georg Simmel’s brilliant essay ‘The Handle’ (‘Der Henkel’, 1911).[11] Reflecting on those things like vessels which invite holding, he came to the conclusion that for all their purposefulness, these ‘interfaces’ act as a kind of portal between worlds of utility and fantasy, and between ordinary material and ineffable immateriality. Simmel was drawn to organic forms, imagining the ceramic stem of a handle as a kind of extrusion of nature and of the body. Potentiometers and mixers – clad in plastic and accompanied by gauges and numeric scales – don’t lend themselves to this order of naturalism. Nevertheless, for Oram at least, they opened up a kind of posthuman imaginary: ‘We might now perhaps wonder further – wonder whether the human body is one vast “tuned circuit” embodying within it all these millions of smaller tuned circuits. (Maybe the spinal column is the coiled wire; maybe the brain … (the frontal lobes?) … and the solar plexus (with the sexual organs?), are the plates of the capacitor?)’.[12]  Rather than being simply instruments managing electric and sonic flows, perhaps the studio dials and switches – which have drawn Satz’s attention – might be understood as valves for the body too. Composer Annea Lockwood said something similar when she wrote these words to Oliveros: ‘Seems possible to me that however intensively we compose with them and process them, sounds process us much more deeply. And so far I know so little of the changes which go on when sound goes through me.’[13] These composers embraced the kind of disordering – of music, of themselves, of spaces, and of the social world – which these electronic thresholds invited. These effects were not merely accidental or impetuous. After all, she recalibrates.

 

[1] Christoph Cox, ‘A La Recherche d’une Musique Feminine’ in Her Noise, ed. Anne Hilde Neset and Lina Dzuverovic-Russell (London: Forma, 2005), pp. 7–13.

[2] Pade interviewed in the Ja Ja Ja (4 November 2014) https://jajajamusic.com/magma/else-marie-pade – accessed August 2018.

[3] Radigue interviewed in ‘A Portrait of Éliane Radigue’ (2009) issued on DVD by Institut für Medienarchäologie, Hainburg, Austria.

[4] Norbert Wiener, ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’ in Science, vol. 131, no. 3410 (6 May 1960), p. 1356.

[5] Maurice Fleuret’s sleeve notes fort he ‘Electronic Panorama’ 4 LP box set, issued by Philips, 1970.

[6] Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electricity (London: Gaillard, 1970) p. 58.

[7] Ibid

[8] Sleeve notes on ‘Else Marie Pade. Electronic Works 1958-1995’, CD, Important Records, 2014.

[9] Pauline Oliveros, ‘Some Sound Observations’ in Software for People. Collected Writings 1963-1980 (Baltimore MD: Smith Publications, 1979) pp. 26-7.

[10] Frances Morgan, ‘Diffuse, open and non-judgmental: Frances Morgan on Pauline Oliveros’s early electronic music’ in The Wire (December 2016) – https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/Pauline-Oliveros-Frances-Morgan accessed September 2018.

[11] Georg Simmel, ‘The Handle’ (1910) in The Hudson Review Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn 1958), pp. 371-385.

[12] Oram, An Individual Note of Music, p. 121.

[13] Annea Lockwood letter to Pauline Oliveros (9 May 1970) in Martha Mockus, Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 57.

Études with a camera – Dóra Maurer’s films and photoworks

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

 

What can one do with a cobblestone?

Cobblestone

What Can One Do With a Cobble-Stone? 1971

This was a question asked and answered by Dóra Maurer in 1971. It is the title of a series of photographs in which she documented a cobblestone being obliged to participate in various activities. After tethering it with string for one photo, in another she pulls it along a run of marshy ground like a reluctant animal. Later in the sequence, Maurer washes and caresses the stone cube like a child. Then, after wrapping it in a sheet of paper, she sets fire to the package; the cube survives its ordeal. She then casts it into the air, as if attempting to rid herself of an encumbrance. Organized in a grid of 15 photographic prints, both the first and last images suggest different discoveries of the same cobblestone. It is an object that seems, at least in this arrangement, to keep reappearing like the proverbial bad penny.

Maurer was not the only Hungarian artist thinking with cobblestones that year. Film-maker Gyula Gazdag had just completed his movie, Sípoló macskakő (The Whistling Cobblestone), the story of a group of Hungarian teenagers at a KISZ (Young Communist League) work camp on a collective farm. Their listless summer is interrupted by a visitor from Paris who has a toy cobblestone dangling from the rear-view mirror of his Citroën, a ‘souvenir’ of the events of May 1968 in the French capital. The visitor encourages the students to follow the lead of the Les Enragés in France, to little effect. The taboo subject of the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956 – when cobblestones had been loosened to impede the progress of Soviet tanks – haunts their conversation. As one student notes, the cobbles in Budapest are now covered in Tarmac

In March 1972, inspired by Gazdag’s film and in support of demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (and the War of Independence in 1848), Hungarian critic and curator László Beke called for artists to make works featuring cobblestones (and, tellingly, gravestones[1]). In fact, this idea already had its proponents: Gyula Pauer made replicas of cobblestones incapable of bearing the weight of traffic (1971–72), and Gyula Gulyás fashioned a portable paving block with handles bearing the words ‘Made in Hungary’ (1972). Unlike, perhaps, the works of some of her colleagues, Maurer’s ‘What can one do with a cobblestone?’ expresses a cautionary view of revolutionary politics and of political art. This is not surprising. Under the influence of the Soviet Union, art in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the end of the 1940s had been turned into a tense zone of censorship and propaganda. Even the liberalization of Hungarian culture in the late 1960s was accompanied by prohibition, with officials identifying three types of art: that which could be supported and so can be called official; that which might be ‘tolerated’ (a category which included expressive forms of Modernism); and that which remained prohibited. Maurer was a central figure in a close and resolutely independent community of artists, musicians and poets that strove to create its own culture outside of this grading system. They organised their own exhibition spaces in apartments and, famously, a disused chapel in the resort town of Balatonboglár, over 80 miles from the capital;[2] they commissioned each other to make work with common themes; and they issued samizdat (self-published) journals. Usually described as ‘conceptual artists’ (or, sometimes, ‘concept artists’), this loose community is estimated to have created more than 50 such collective ‘actions’ in the first half of the 1970s.[3]

Writing in 1972, Béla Hap described the attitude of ‘unofficial’ artists to power in Hungary:

It is an artistic ‘movement’ that neither supports not attacks the establishment, but remains outside of it. Any attack on the establishment would acknowledge its existence. Being a real organized movement is another form of engaging in the game of the superficial world. The underground does not forbid its supporters from political subjects, as it does not forbid or order at all, but the appearance of such subjects is the private business of the artist.[4]

Demonstrating his point, Hap’s words appeared in Szétfolyóirat (Writing that Flows Apart), a short-run samizdat edited by Maurer in February 1973. Featuring experimental art and poetry, art criticism and philosophy, Szétfolyóirat was as much a concept as a magazine. Five copies were made of each issue (each edited by a different person) and then passed on to a trusted recipient who would add in at least 15 more pages and then send the augmented publication on to five new recipients. Szétfolyóirat not only put uncensored ideas in circulation, it knitted together a community of readers and writers.

‘Hungarian_ issue of SchmuckWhile Maurer has been resolutely independent in her career as an artist, she has often worked closely with others, most regularly her husband, Tibor Gáyor, a Hungarian who escaped the country after the political repression that followed the Uprising. The couple met in Vienna in 1967 when Maurer was in the city on a Rockefeller Scholarship. Their marriage brought dual nationality, which meant that she could travel between Austria and Hungary with relative ease, becoming a key means of contact between unofficial artists in Hungary and their international counterparts. Maurer has also enjoyed productive exchanges with figures active in other areas of the arts. She has curated many exhibitions and edited anthologies including a ‘Hungarian’ issue of Schmuck magazine (in collaboration with Beke), which was published in Britain in 1972. With Miklós Erdély and György Galántai, Maurer developed a series of experimental workshops at the Ganz-MÁVAG Cultural Centre in the mid 1970s that were later known as ‘Kreativitási gyakorlatok’ (Creativity Exercises). Rejecting conventional art training and encouraging collective activities, participants were given playful group exercises, sometimes using video cameras – a rare resource in Hungary at the time.

‘The Form-language of film art’

Reversable

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.4, 1972

With its grid structure, What can one do with a cobblestone? expresses Maurer’s interest in motion and change. The vigorous and full-body actions documented by this work were, however, soon replaced by a focus on small human gestures. Her ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series of 1972, for instance, examines mundane activities such as throwing and catching a ball, the demeanour of a face or common hand signs. The first work in the series concentrates on interactions between a hand and a stone. Here the reproducibility of the photographic image allowed a small number of images – in this case, just three – to be placed in many different permutations. Like the syntax of words in a sentence, some of these image combinations – when read left to right – seem meaningful (a hand puts a stone in the corner); others do not (corner, corner, corner). When the order of the sequence is reversed, the meaning of the gesture changes (puts down becomes picks up). Highly systematic and accompanied by terse instructions or even diagrams, these works have the aura of a scholarly semiotic investigation into the logical relations of words.

Maurer was by no means alone in her interest in the operations of language. Conceptual art had kindled in others an enthusiasm for logic and linguistics, as well as systems and experiments. In 1973, the young film-maker Gábor Bódy established an experimental film-making programme at the state-run Balázs Béla Studió (BBS), which commissioned artists and composers to explore ‘film language’. The intention was for the techniques and tools of film-making to be put under scrutiny by creative artists using the resources and professional expertise of a well-equipped film studio. Later known as K/3, the programme provided remarkably unfettered opportunities for experimentation, even if its output was rarely screened. ‘K/3 was established,’ according to Miklós Peternák, ‘with the ambition of becoming a Bauhaus-like centre for research in the audiovisual area’.[5] In fact, Bódy imagined László Moholy-Nagy, the Modernist artist, film-maker and Bauhaus teacher, as an ally from the past (Bódy once planned to make a film in which Moholy-Nagy would appear on screen).[6] One of the greatest theorists of the modern image, Moholy-Nagy was only – and somewhat belatedly – being rediscovered in the People’s Republic after the prohibitions on Modernism had been relaxed.

DV-0105_MAURER_DORA_Relativ_lengesek_03

Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973)

Maurer’s three-part film Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973) was a product of the experimental programme at BSS. The ostensible subjects of her film are a cone-shaped lamp and a simple cylinder (like the elemental volumes that were the trademark of so many Bauhaus artworks and designs). Suspended from the ceiling, they are swung in horizontal and circular movements, as is the 35mm camera that films them. Maurer systematically explored the full range of combinations of swinging camera and swaying subject. Sometimes the image of motion is produced by moving the lamp and sometimes by moving the camera. Later in the film, all three elements are in motion, the light from the moving lamp creating different effects on the moving cylinder. To demonstr

Reversable 3

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.2, 1972

ate the techniques involved in conducting this set of experiments into the nature of perception, this film is accompanied by another that shows how Maurer and the cameraman, János Gulyás, achieved a range of subtly different perceptual effects.

Ostensibly Maurer’s serial photographic works and structural films from the 1970s seem systematic, objective and rational. And in many ways they are. But images are not words, and bodies are not abstract symbols. The stuttering repetition of images or the viewer’s capacity to compare one sequence with another in the grid seem, perhaps inevitably, to point to human associations and limitations. Maurer also interrupts her own systems. The second work in the ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series (1972), for instance, combines three photographs of a male figure in a field, in three different phases of the act of sitting. Like other works in this series, the piece explores all the permutations of these phases. A pattern logic seems to organize the composition until a ‘rogue’ image appears in the last frame: a photograph of a chair. Once the viewer becomes aware of this interruption, Maurer’s study suddenly seems to acquire existential associations – this is not just a chair but an empty chair. There is also something of this ineffable quality in her attempts to measure natural materials in works like Schautafel 3 (1973), which Maurer called ‘quantity boards’. Laying a cord grid of tidy squares over straw and sand gathered from a river bank, the piece is an invitation to count the infinite. Later – in 1976 – Maurer made a simple experiment with a piece of paper that was as long as she is tall. Folding the sheet four times, she created a proportional system for measuring her own body. Unfolding her new yardstick on the ground, Maurer then attempted to assess the span of her outstretched arms, the roll of her shoulders and other dimensions of her body against this new proportional system – an improvised version of Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man or Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The video documenting this action – entitled Proportions – records both a bodily ideal and the ‘failure’ of a system.

 

Film music

While most of Maurer’s works can be – and often are – described as experiments, it is not always evident what is being tested or measured. In some, such as Relative Swingings, one can trace the outline of ‘the scientific method’: an experiment is set up in controlled conditions to test a hypothesis; the results of that test are recorded, ideally by an objective instrument, and then repeated as a ‘proof’. But increasingly over the course of the 1970s, Maurer’s films and photographs seem to be less documents of her activities than experiments on the viewer. Perception itself is being tested. Here one might sense a connection with the utopian Scientism that underpins Moholy-Nagy’s monumental and posthumously published book, Vision in Motion (1947). In this study, the former Bauhausler set a new agenda for progressive art that emphasises the body as much as the machine: ‘It is the artist’s duty today to penetrate yet-unseen ranges of the biological functions, to search the new dimensions of industrial society and to translate the new findings into emotional orientation.’[7] But rather than extend human potential, Maurer’s experiments seem to draw attention to the limits of human perception.

This focus on perception owes a good deal to her training and practice as a printmaker in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but also has much to do with Maurer’s interest in ‘displacements’, a term which she adopted as the title of her solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Graz in 1975. Shifts in the placement of regular forms create associations with spatial depth and movement even in static, flat works. Many of these investigations into displacement take the form of abstract paintings. Maurer’s ‘5-from-4’ works, for instance, are painted boards that combine a series of four squares and five rectangles, as well as empty spaces between the reliefs. Organized as a horizontal band, the squares are ‘displaced’ onto the next relief in these works. Maurer points to the uncertainty that these combinations produce, writing ‘the interference of the two series trouble the viewer in concentrating on one single form’.[8]

Kalah182This idea of presenting the viewer with irreconcilable perceptual effects perhaps reached its apogee in Kalah, a 1980 experimental film made in creative partnership with Zoltán Jeney, one of the founders, tens years earlier, of Budapest’s celebrated Új Zenei Stúdió (New Music Studio). The structure of both sound and images in Kalah was provided by the traditional Arabic game of the same name that is 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 Studio in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the film and Jeney’s music, itself ‘composed’ from existing recordings on magnetic tape. The same aleatory system, derived from the way numbered stones are used in the source game, governed both sound and image. 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 simply to be seen but to be experienced: Maurer and Jeney imagined viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

The fact that Maurer calls some of her photo works ‘études’ and has read Anton Webern’s writings on serial music is significant. Meaning ‘study’, but usually describing a composition that is used by musicians to practice technique, an étude conventionally features a set of variations on a theme. Embraced by the 20th-century avant-garde, the form was extended to include experimental compositions that explored the structures and formal qualities of music itself. Famously, in his Quatre études de rythme (Four Rhythm Studies, 1949–50), Olivier Messiaen allocated numerical values to pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre. Maurer’s analogy becomes all the more vivid when one imagines a relationship with the work of American composer Steve Reich (a visitor to Budapest in 1977, where he performed and gave a lecture, and again in 1985 where he supervised recordings of his compositions by the Hungarian new-music ensemble 180-as Csoport (Group 180)). Reich’s minimalist compositions often involve subtle phasing of rhythms and musical phrases. In his works for ensembles of two, four, six or even 18 musicians, one player will follow another, playing the same material perhaps a quaver later each time, or slowly speeding up while the other remains at the same tempo. ‘Displaced’ in this way, simple musical elements – such as the single chord of Four Organs (1970) or the rhythmic pattern of Drumming (1971) – come to produce a huge diversity of unexpected rhythmic and harmonic possibilities; moreover, they generally follow a kind of cyclical structure as the musicians wheel through the phases. As in Maurer’s ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ photo series, repetition in Reich’s compositions is often combined with other expressions of restraint. Pieces like Six Pianos, as the title makes clear, achieve their mesmeric effects using the musical colour of a single instrument, albeit in phased layers. Tuning into the ever-shifting patterns, the listener becomes aware of the subtlest modulations of rhythm and harmony.

Triolák

Triolák

The musical qualities of Maurer’s art are more than mere analogies. Affinities between the worlds of experimental music and conceptual art were stronger in the 1970s than perhaps at any other time, as Maurer’s creative partnership with Jeney in making Kalah testifies. Perhaps the work that in its attention to displacement comes closes to Reich’s employment of the phase is Maurer’s Triolák – 18 variáció 3 objektívre és énekhangra (Triolák – 18 variations, 3 objectives and a singer), a BBS film made in and around Maurer’s studio in 1980–81. The film is divided into three horizontal bands, each of which features a one-second camera pan in opposite directions. Each pan has been shot with a different lens (standard, wide angle and telephoto), which adds to the sense of multi-perspectival space. The movement of the film camera starts relatively gently and the displacement of the image is minor. Thereafter, the sweep of the pan extends and the camera moves faster. Some of the variations combine elements that feature different viewpoints – looking into and out of the studio, or at Maurer’s face and that of her cameraman. The effect is one of growing perceptual disorientation as the viewer struggles – and fails – to reconcile the three moving images. Each camera pan is accompanied by improvised vocal glissandos by the singer Eszter Póka. Rising and falling as if produced by the movement of the camera (or as if the camera had a voice), these shifting pitches create unexpected and sometimes jarring harmonic effects. Maurer’s work is a remarkable experiment into audio and visual perception.

As Reich’s music makes clear, striking differences can be created from subtle shifts within a framework of repetition. What is required is remarkable focus on the part of those playing the music. In both her resolute individualism and her close and productive relationships with other artists, as well as in the remarkable consistency of her ideas and interests over a wide range of media, the same can be said of Dóra Maurer. Above all, displacement – the concept which she developed more than forty years ago – remains fixed at the centre of her practice as an artist.

 

 

[1] See Dékei Kriszta, ‘A szabadság szele’ in Beszélő (October 2008) – available online at http://beszelo.c3.hu/cikkek/a-szabadsag-szele

[2] See Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasvári, eds., Törvénytelen avantgárd. Galántai György balatonboglári kápolnaműterme 1970–1973 (Budapest, 2003)

[3] See Miklós Peternák, Concept.hu. The Influence of Conceptual Art in Hungary (Paks, 2014)

[4] Béla Hap, ‘Halk magyar underground-kiáltvány’, Szétfolyóirat (February 1973) – available online at http://www.artpool.hu/Aczelkor/Hap.html

[5] Miklós Peternák, ‘A Short History of the Avant-Garde in Hungarian Cinema’ in Undercurrent 18, (Autumn, 1989), p.34

[6] Miklós Peternák,’Gábor Bódy. Film and Theory’ in Bódy Gábor, 1946–1985: életműbemutató, exhibition catalogue (Budapest, 1987), p.25

[7] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (Chicago, 1947), p.12

[8] Dóra Maurer, ‘Über die ‘5 aus 4’ – Arbeiten (QUAD 1, Maarssen, 1980) cited in Dieter Ronte and Lászlo Beke, Dóra Maurer Arbeiten Munkák Works 1970–1993 (Budapest, 1994), p.116

Notes from the Underground

Cold War, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

In September, Daniel Muzyczuk and I curated a show entitled ‘Notes from the Underground’ for the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz which explores the intersection of art and music in Eastern Europe under communist rule. Rock, punk and new wave were not only embraced by young musicians in the 1970s and 1980s, they shaped the visual arts too. Fashion, graphic design and video were animated by these new sensibilities throughout the so called Eastern Bloc and former Yugoslavia. Of course the idea of the underground was a kind of myth but one which, nevertheless, had tangible effects – and often quite brilliant ones too. Take a look at this video by the East German absurdists, AG Geige.

Between the official sphere and dissident culture, this zone has been somewhat overlooked and so the show in Lodz is an attempt to provide some kind of map to this phenomenon. In fact, the show covers a lot of ground from Prague to Moscow and from Vilnius to Belgrade.

The exhibition closes on 15 January 2017 but we hope that it will travel to other venues in Europe in 2017-18. A 450 pp book published by MSL / Walter Koenig accompanies the show.

Press shots of the show can be seen here.

Karol Sienkiewicz wrote a thoughtful review here and there is a good overview text from Odra by Monika Pasiecznik here. Stach Szablowski’s Dwutygodnik piece reflects on the place of the avant-garde in the museum. He asks what happened to the underground after 1989 – perhaps a task for another curator .. And Waldemar Kuligowski is far less happy with the show in Czas Kultury.

Hannelore Fobo has made a short film, focusing on the works of E-E Kozlov in the show here.

There is an interview with Daniel and myself here.

A Little Music: Sound Works by Wojciech Bruszewski

Eastern Europe, Music

This essay will appear in 2015 in a book reviewing the work of artist Wojciech Bruszewski.

In 1982 Wojciech Bruszewski compiled a number of experiments with sound that he had been making since 1976 in a short VHS compilation called ‘A Little Music’ (‘Trochę Muzyki’). Short films like ‘TV Music’ (1979), ‘Sternmusic’ (1979) and ‘Behaviour Music’ (1982) documented the improvised instruments which Bruszewski had made that converted images into sounds or notes which could change pitch and dynamics, and featured rhythmic effects. Described by Bruszewski as musical works, they were, however, indifferent to the conventions of artistry and personal expression on which music has relied for most of its history. Rather, these works – many produced using hacked electronic devices like televisions and video cameras – set out to explore the ‘gap’ between sound and image.

The ‘A Little Music’ pieces were not, however, Bruszewski’s first explorations into this intermedial zone. Bruszewski’s celebrated film ‘Yyaa’ (1973) – a key work in the history of the Workshop of the Film Form – was, it seems, a kind of cool, even ironic response to the illusion of synchrony which was central to cinema. As film theorist Rick Altman wrote in 1980:

The fundamental scandal of sound film … is that sound and image are different phenomena, recorded by different methods, printed many frames apart on the film, and reproduced by an illusionistic technology. Voices are uttered by cardboard cones, by mechanical instruments, by machines designed to meet the challenge of a world in which cities are too populous to be addressed by a single unaided human voice. Cinema’s ventriloquism is the product of an effort to overcome the sound-image gap, to mask the sound’s technological origin, and to permit the film’s production personnel to speak their sub-conscious mind – their belly – without fear of discovery.[1]

In ‘Yyaa’, Bruszewski filmed himself in a room in which the lights were switched on and off: occasionally, the image cuts to a close-up before switching back to a wide-view. Lighter, darker, closer, further … these edits provide a rhythm for the soundtrack, a seemingly unceasing scream: when the scene darkens, the pitch of Bruszewski’s scream alters; and when the camera closes in, the pitch changes again. Five minutes in duration, it soon becomes clear to the viewer that this is not an endurance test (in the manner, perhaps, of Marina Abramovic’s 45 minute attempt to exhaust her vocal chords, ‘Freeing the Voice’, performed in Copenhagen in 1975): Bruszewski’s long scream was in fact spliced together from a series of recordings. ‘Yyaa’ announced Bruszewski’s anti-humanism and anti-naturalism through an act of ventriloquism. It takes what is often understood to be the most ‘authentic’ forms of human expression, the howl, (which, as Altman says, seems to be the product of the sub-conscious mind or even the belly) and renders it strange. In ‘Yyaa’ the voice seems to be separate from the body, less a human capacity than a thing.

Similarly, in ‘Time Structure’ of 1977, Bruszewski filmed a stop watch over three minutes. Whilst its long hand counts the seconds, an electronic pulse can be heard. After half a minute the pulse slows, and so, it seems, does the long hand. This was an illusion of synchrony created in the mind: the rhythm of the stop watch was unaltered. Bruszewski was, in effect, conducting a visual experiment into ‘the ventriloquist effect’ – a phenomenon first investigated by research psychologists Ian Howard and W.B. Templeton in the 1960s – which demonstrated that when a viewer is presented with images and sounds which might possibly be construed as sharing the same source (like movement of the hand and the tick of Bruszewski’s stopwatch), they assume it must be so.[2] In other words, sounds seem to have the capacity to change our perception of images.

‘Time Structure’ and ‘Yyaa’ were self-consciously experimental films which examined human perception. The cameras and editing tools employed by Bruszewski were instruments with which a test could be made. But his works were not just quasi-scientific experiments: they were provocations too, designed to upset the humanist sensibilities which dominated Polish art (and elsewhere) in the 1970s. In 1975 he described his approach to making art as a matter of laying ‘Traps’:

WHAT EXISTS – exists outside me.

WHAT EXISTS is knowledge of what exists.

The knowledge exists from cultural pressure.

WHAT EXISTS – IS A CONVENTION

What I do in film, video or in the area of other techniques consists in nothing more than laying traps for WHAT EXISTS (1, 2).[3]

Bruszewski was particularly scathing of the existential, humanist currents flowing through Polish art. Writing in Warsztaty Formy Filmowej (August 1975), the group’s periodical, he attacked the ‘tendency of poetic involvement in art, or, defining another aspect: emotional and expressive: focused on the expression of an artist’s inner emotions, his ‘anxiety’; happily using any uncontrolled – and therefore ‘authentic’ – impulses as a means of expression (hence the favorite criterion of ‘truth’).’[4] Similarly art critics were equally blinded by their humanist mindset: They effectively replace knowledge with sensibility.) By contrast, Bruszewski and his Workshop of the Film Form allies saw themselves as being engaged in a rigorous examination of the film medium and the apparatus of human perception.

What then are we to make of the works which Bruszewski declared to be music in the late 1970s? What kind of conception of music did they offer? Or might the designation be one of his ‘traps’? In ‘TV Music’ (1979) Bruszewski added sensors to the surface of a conventional television. Each converted light into to sound played through a speaker. When the light intensity changed on the screen, the pitch of the note altered too. Three sensors produced something like a chord although the harmonic relations of these changing notes was changing and arbitrary. One way of interpreting ‘TV Music’ was to see the broadcast image – news reports and feature films – as a kind of score which is generating an indeterminate piece of music by chance, a long-standing preoccupation of experimental composers like John Cage.

The stochastic qualities of TV Music (and other ‘A Little Music’ works) mark a key difference with the dispassionate experiments like ‘Yyaa’ made in the early years of the Workshop of the Film Form. ‘TV Music’ restores a kind of synchrony which his first explorations into the sound-image gap had opened up. In a recording documenting ‘TV Music’, Bruszewski’s television plays a melodramatic period drama – perhaps set in the Middle Ages. A woman is abducted, her scream muffled by her assailant’s hand. Nevertheless, men nearby are alerted by the commotion and rush to her defence. A loud fight ensues, in which the attacker is thrown headfirst – in the Hollywood cliché – along a long table set with pewter dishes. Conventionally, synchronized effects like screams and fights like these are enhanced by foley and voice artists, who provide sounds which are added to the image in post-production. Music too is usually an after effect. They are added to heighten the emotional ‘depth’ of the film (or, as Altman put it, to allow the ‘production personnel to speak their sub-conscious mind’). Although direct sound recording brought a kind of gritty authenticity to film in the 1960s, romantic and horror movies still called on the foley artist’s skills long after. In ‘TV Music’ this symphony of illusions is switched off, literally: instead, Bruszewski’s sensors, fixed onto the screen with trailing wires and stimulated by light, deliver a new soundscape. This is a real time synthesis of sound and image.

Christian Wolff’s words from 1958 – much influenced by Cage’s thinking – might be used to describe Bruszewski’s ‘TV Music’:

What is, or seems to be, new in this music?…One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity – sound come into its own. The ‘music’ is a resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expressions of self or personality. It is different in motive, originating in no psychology nor in dramatic intentions, nor in literary or pictorial purposes. For at least some of these composers, then, the final intention is to be free of artistry and taste. But this need not make their work ‘abstract,’ for nothing, in the end, is denied. It is simply that personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like are not part of the composer’s initial calculation: they are at best gratuitous. [5]

Wolff’s characterization shares much with the anti-literary ethos of the Workshop of the Film Form. Whether the group’s films, Bruszewski’s ‘A Little Music’ works, or in fact, any form of experimental music, could slough off expression, drama and psychology is, however, up to judgment. Much depends on the context of their making and reception – here ‘TV Music’s’ engagement with broadcasting and television is perhaps rather more important than its claims on music.

Bruszewski’s ‘A Little Music’ works might well be understood in terms of a longer history of artists adapting and modifying television. Cage’s former student and close associate Nam Jun Paik’s distortions of television broadcasts in the US in the 1960s using electromagnets to disturb the image are the most obvious precursors. As Norman Bauman observed in 1968:

Mr. Paik takes a huge horse-shoe magnet straining under its weight. He places it on top of the television set. The original image is completely destroyed and turned into unique electronic shapes. He turns on an electromagnet. Bzzzzz! The shapes dance. Here and there a disembodied hand is visible, a vestige of the original programme.

Paik’s artworks and his Paik/Abe video synthesizer (created with television technician Shuya Abe in 1969-71) were widely interpreted in the US in the 1970s not just a way of making trippy images though this was part of their appeal.[6] They were also taken as an invitation to interrupt the one-way flow of television from the corporation to the viewer. ‘In its present form,’ wrote Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1970, ‘equipment like television or film does not serve communication but prevents it. It allows no reciprocal action between transmitter and receiver; technically speaking it reduces feedback to the lowest point compatible with the system.’[7] New portable video cameras like the Sony Portapak and cable television were imagined by the Counter Culture as a way of breaking the hold of the corporations on the airwaves and the means to produce ‘Guerilla TV’ or what Paik called ‘Participation TV’.[8]

Clearly circumstances in the Peoples Republic of Poland (PRL) were very different. Yet members of the Workshop of the Film Form – Bruszewski amongst them – took a keen interest in the operations of television and negotiated access to video technology owned by state media institutions.[9] In 1974 the Workshop of the Film Form was both the subject and the author of a programme broadcast on the second Polish channel, TVP2. In his contribution to the broadcast, ‘Spatial Transmission’, Bruszewski circled the studio on a bike within the field of vision of three cameras. One tracked his movement whilst the other two held fixed viewing points. Split screen, and featuring both Bruszewski and the camera monitors, the result is a looping image. ‘I wanted to make the film structure close to the chaotic, labyrinthine structure of life which we have to live whilst participating in the show called the world’ he said in a voice over which introduces the film. Although faint echoes of the Counter Culture’s avowal of participation and disdain for spectacular illusions can be heard in Bruszewski’s words, the democratization of TV in Poland in the 1970s was little more than a dream. Occupying a central place in Gierek’s modernization programme, TV was state property. Satellite communications and colour broadcasting (after 1971) and the affordability of TV sets did much to polish the image of state socialism.

Bruszewski, Gramophone, 1981

Bruszewski, Gramophone, 1981

Although Bruszewski and the other members of the Workshop of the Film Form had access to professional equipment and high quality film stock, most of his musical works are effectively ‘hacks’, adaptations and modifications of existing communication technologies. In 1981 Bruszewski created a remarkable device for the 9th Kraków Encounters exhibition, ‘The Gramophone’. This was Bruszewski’s own description, written some years later: ‘My GRAMOPHONE has 4 arms, 4 acoustic amplifiers and 4 loudspeakers. Each arm (each “needle”) plays independently of the remaining ones. If I remember correctly … my GRAMOPHONE played a record with the poetry by Norwid … Best results: Pablo Casals.’ In this way, the insistent linearity of Bach’s melodic lines and the romantic poet’s verses are disturbed by repetition and unpredictable forms of synchrony.

‘Sternmusic’ (1979) was another hack which turned an issue of the German news magazine into a score for a musical composition. This is Bruszewski’s own description: ‘Installation – a sound object using a specially made camera. The camera processes image into a stereo sound. Pointed at the magazine Der Stern, during the turning of the pages, it synchronously processes visual information of the subsequent pages into music.’[10] The turn of the page introduces a rhythmic effect as the wailing chords formed by the visual data on one spread, modulate under the influence of another. The ‘reader’ of the magazine is compelled to stand between two large loudspeakers fixed to the wall. In tone, the sound generated by this arrangement is unmistakably like a wailing alarm sounded at times of crisis.

Seemingly suspicious of the words which issue from the lips of actors and presenters on Polish TV or appear on the pages of a West German news weekly, it is hard not to see Bruszewski’s works as forms of media critique, even if they do not deliver explicit messages. And others made their point far more explicitly: fellow Workshop of the Film Form member Józef Robakowski was explicit when he wrote in 1976 ‘Video art is a form of opposition that discounts the use value of the institution (television): it is a creative movement uses its inherent independence to expose this mechanism and something that is used to control people’.[11] Robakowski’s later projects involving filming broadcasts on television such as ‘Homage to L. Brezhnev’ (Hommage dla L. Breżniewa, 1982-88) and ‘Moscow Broadcast’ (Transmisja z Moskwy, 1984) demonstrated his point. Others too held a critical perspective on TV. Opening with a shot of the First Secretary on a television screen in the empty hall of Warsaw’s Central Railway station, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1980 documentary film ‘Station’ (Dworzec), for instance, drew a connection between the propaganda function of television with the torpor of everyday life. Closed circuit security cameras survey the station’s passengers who, in turn, watch the hollow ‘propaganda of success’ on flickering, glitchy screens. Kieślowski’s Orwellian film makes a point about the darkest effects of the closed circuits of the PRL. Nevertheless, ‘TV Music’ and even ‘Sternmusic’ seem to anticipate a popular distrust of the media which gathered pace when Solidarity – the anti-communist Trade Union – formed in 1980 to hold Gierek’s programme to account. As the PRL stuttered to a halt, paralyzed by strikes and a stagnant economy, the official media distorted or simply ignored the events of the day. In response, Poles would pointedly take an early evening stroll when the main news broadcast appeared on TV to say ‘we are not listening.’

Using the same camera device which he had created to make ‘Sternmusic’ installation in 1979, Bruszewski turned the lens on himself in ‘Behaviour Music’ (1982). Standing before the camera and in a bright spotlight, the artist – wearing dark sunglasses and dressed in black – moved erratically, his movements triggering different sonic effects. In the video footage documenting the performance – made by the same acoustic camera instrument – the music sounds like numerous wailing sirens shifting pitch like an alert as Bruszewski twisted his body or moved his arms. Notwithstanding Bruszewski’s rejection of symbolism and expression, it is hard not to associate the sounds with the conditions of Martial Law which had been imposed by the state on the country when he made the piece. In the aftermath of the repression of the Solidarity Trade Union in December 1981, Police sirens were heard constantly in Poland. In this light, his gestures – turning away from the spotlight or moving his arms as if running – come to seem pathetic, perhaps unintentionally so. Here, the inescapable and tragic context of crisis forced drama, expression, drama and psychology into the work.

[1] Rick Altman, ‘Moving Lips. Cinema as Ventriloquism’ in Yale French Studies, no. 60, Cinema/Sound (1980) p. 67

[2] See ‪ David Melcher and Massimiliano Zampini, ‘The Sight and Sound of Music’ in Francesca Bacci, ‪David Melcher, eds., Art and the Senses (Oxford: OUP, 2011) p. 267

[3] Bruszewski cited in Janusz Zagrodski, Wojciech Bruszewski. Fenomeny percepcji (Łódź: Miejska Galeria Sztuki w Łodzi, 2010) p. 112

[4] Warsztaty Formy Filmowej, 7, (26 August 1975)

[5] Christian Wolff cited in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: CUP, 1999) p. 30

[6] Nam June Paik. Videa ‘n Videology 1959–1973 (Emerson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, 1974) p. 55.

[7] H. M. Enzensberger, ‘Constituents of a Theory of the Media’ in New Left Review, 64 (November/December 1970) p. 15.

[8] Nam Jun Paik interviewed in Radical Software, vol. 1, n. 2 (1970) p. 25.

[9] Michael Shamberg/ Raindance Corporation, Guerrilla Television (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).

[10] Bruszewski cited in Zagrodski, Wojciech Bruszewski. Fenomeny percepcji, p. 150.

[11] Robakowski cited by Ryszard Kluszczyński, ed., Warsztat Formy Filmowej (Warsaw: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, 2000), p. 71.

Echo Translation

Cinema, Eastern Europe, Music

In his book La voix au cinéma (The Voice in Cinema), Michel Chion coined the word ‘acousmêtre’ to describe a character that can be heard but not seen on screen. Rather than nail down his term with a comprehensive definition, Chion introduces his readers to various kinds of disembodied voices in the cinema. They include the ‘complete acousmêtre, the one who is not-yet seen, but who remains liable to appear in the visual field at any Moment’; the ‘already visualized acousmêtre’ – like a character who becomes a temporary narrator to explain an on-screen flashback; and, perhaps its most familiar kind, the ‘commentator-acousmêtre’, the disengaged speaker who provides a voice over, ‘but never shows himself [and] who has no personal stake in the image.’[1] The acousmêtre seems to derive special powers by eschewing visibility: these are ‘the ability to be everywhere, to see all, to know all, and to have complete power. In other words: ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence.’[2] When acousmêtre acquires a body, it seems to lose authority, even if – as in the case of the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 Hollywood movie – this power was never more than a matter of faith of others.

Disembodied, the acousmêtre cannot occupy a clearly demarcated place. Chion writes that it ‘must, even if only slightly, have one foot in the image, in the space of the film; he must haunt the borderlands that are neither the interior of the filmic stage nor the proscenium,’ thereby bringing about ‘disequilibrium and tension.’ Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) provides Chion with numerous examples of how the uncanny, haunting qualities of the acousmêtre can be summoned to produce dramatic effects. Norman Bates’ mother is foremost an off-screen voice, whilst her body is little more than a evanescent shadow flickering in and out of sight. When, at the end of the movie, and after a police psychiatrist has diagnosed Bates’ condition, we see Norman sitting in a holding cell, it is his invisible mother who speaks. ‘When we hear the voice over Norman’s face,’ writes Chion, ‘his mouth is closed, as if to suggest possession by spirits or ventriloquism.’[3] This, according to Chion, is the ‘triumph of the acousmêtre’.

Audiences watching Hitchcock’s film in the People’s Republic of Poland, when it was first screened on television there in 1980, heard a second, unique acousmatic voice, that of a translator. A single voice delivered the words of all the characters on screen. Both the actors and translator were audible, although the Polish voice was louder and followed a second or less later. The acousmatic voice of Norman’s mother which seemed to have buried itself in his body was now, almost certainly, voiced by a man. Hitchcock’s trashy Freudianism was undone by this act of gender reassignment.

Audiences in the Poland – like those in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the Soviet Union (where ‘Psycho’ was not shown) – were developing viewing habits which still shape the ways in which people like to watch foreign films and broadcasts today. The practices of subtitling and synchronised dubbing by using a cast of voice actors which dominate film translation elsewhere in the world were too costly. Instead, a single – or sometimes multiple – voice over translation was imposed over the original soundtrack of imported films and other foreign footage. In Russia this technique is known by various names including ‘perevod Gavrilova’ (‘Gavrilov Translation’ after one of the technique’s practitioners). The Poles call the voice over translator a Szeptanka (‘Whisperer’) or a Lektor Filmowy (‘Film Reader’).

Preferred by television broadcasters, voice over translation is largely scripted, recorded and added in post-production today but its origins in Eastern Europe can be traced to live acts of translation in the cinema, first of ‘trophy films’ which had been looted from Germany at the end of the Second World War (including prints of movies by the Allies) and, then, of a handful of imported films were which were shown under license in the Eastern Bloc from the late 1950s on. The appearance of films made in the West might be taken as a sign of the political ‘Thaw’, particularly in relatively liberal Poland – the Film Repertoire Council [Filmowa Rada Repertuarowa] established there in 1957 set out to achieve a tactical even balance of films from the two Cold War blocs.[4] Nevertheless, Soviet film censors remained wary of the influence of Western films on local audiences, cutting politically ‘incorrect’ scenes and censoring images of drug use and sexuality.

In the Soviet Union occasional film festivals and a few specialist cinemas were rare places were audiences could see international films which had not been approved for wide distribution. The Illusion cinema – which opened in Moscow in 1966 – was one such place. It was the official theatre of Gosfilmofond, the State Film Archive, and a key venue for the Moscow International Film Festival. Early screenings there included ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939), the Japanese art house classic ‘The Naked Island‘ (1960) directed by Kaneto Shindō, and the 1963 Oscar-winning Italian comedy ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ starring Sophia Loren. To support its international programme, the Illusion cinema trained and employed a cadre of professional translators who operated from a special booth equipped with microphones and headphones, as well as lecturers who introduced the repertoire to the public. And when prints were sent to film festivals in the Soviet republics they would often be accompanied by a professional translator from the Illusion cinema.

Translation and and interpretation were exercises in ideological alignment. Just as sexual scenes might be cut by the censors, vulgarity and slang would be suppressed by the translator at the microphone. The translators did not necessarily need to speak the original language of the film: often they would translate from the English, French or German subtitles which accompanied an imported title. Occasionally a foreign film would arrive without subtitles or any other kind of textual aids and so the translator would make a stab at interpretation. The spontaneous and even improvisational aspect of translation was, however, muted by repetition – a translator might relay the same film many times in a day and, in the case of the most popular films like ‘Casablanca’ (1942), many hundreds of times in a career. Nevertheless, the Illusion’s translators saw themselves as performers of a particular genre of live performance. Irina Razlogova has interviewed a number of them. One, Grigory Libergal who worked at the Moscow cinema from its opening until the 1980s, recalled: ‘When you are watching a film with a simultaneous translation, you, the viewer, have to clearly hear the original soundtrack of the film. If the translator is a master of his craft, he will not “dominate” the screen, speak on top of the actors. If he is a virtuoso, if he can feel the balance between the film proper and his own voice, after several minutes the spectator in the theater will forget about the translator, feeling that he himself can understand English, French, or Japanese.’[5]

Whilst Razlogova’s interviewees emphasise character and even artistry as valuable qualities, the ideal, as Libergal stresses, was for the translator to be ‘out of mind’. Henryk Pijanowski, a veteran ‘lektor’ in Poland, suggests that the words should disappear too: ‘Mastery of film translation is when the lektor strives to read so that the listener does not hear a thing’.[6] According to this doxa, the lektor’s voice seeks to bury itself in the mind of the listener, to become like thought. All on-screen words – whether titles, close ups of text, dialogue, voice over narration, or on-screen addresses to the viewer – are his. Moreover, they are unified by tone, colour and timbre. Intonation is to be steady and consistent, even when the original on-screen dialogue is delivered at a high emotional pitch; fast paced exchanges are compressed by judicious editing by the lektor; and those points where speech breaks down – like screams and moans – are left alone, as is singing (though lyrics are often relayed in monotone). This professional voice is never embarrassed by what appears on screen, or doubts the action. Nor does it listen to itself.

A World in Your Ear

Voice over translation would seem to be akin to the better known and more widespread practice of dubbing or what is sometimes called ‘voice replacement’. But the practices differ in crucial ways. In dubbing, for instance, the aim of the vocal actor is to present the illusion of synchronized speech by overlaying his or her voice over that of another. Gender and age should match, as should the sound with the movement of lips (at least in countries like Germany where the imperative to sync sound with image overrides the requirement of fidelity to the script[7]). By contrast, a lektor uses delay to distinguish his voice from those of the actors on screen: his words follow theirs.

The popularity of voice over translation in Poland may well be a product of the the poor reputation of dubbing, particularly in the 1950s when it was still the dominant way of translating foreign films. In 1955 Film magazine gathered the opinions of Polish viewers of René Clair’s ‘Les Belles De Nuit’ (Beauties of the Night, France, 1952) and Slátan Dudow’s ‘Stärker als die Nacht’ (Stronger than the Night, East Germany, 1954): ‘The dubbing in “Stronger than the Night”,’ according to one, ‘was primitive, and completely embarrasses the filmmakers with errors and awkwardness. The actors on the screen open their mouths, and there is silence. This lasts for a while until we hear a Polish voice … the same effect is also found in the scene depicting a clandestine meeting by the river when the mouths of those gathered is met by annoying silence on the screen – like a silent film.’[8] Even when the dubbing was well-synchronised, other cavils were raised. ‘I cannot accept the convention that the Frenchman on screen speaks Polish. This is something unnatural …’ remarked one viewer of the Clair film.[9] Unnaturalness is a familiar complaint in the history of sound dubbing (Antonin Artaud characterised dubbing as a form of possession and Jorge Luis Borges said that it produces monsters[10]). But the erasure of foreignness might well have been unwelcome too. Unlike dubbing (but like subtitling), voice over translation allows for foreign words and accents to be audible, and, as such, for difference to persist. During the Cold War, the gap between the original voice and its translation was also the gap between East and West or, for that matter, between East and East. In hearing Gérard Philipe or Gina Lollobrigida’s voices in ‘Les Belles De Nuit’, audiences were able to enjoy a little of the internationalism which the Soviet Bloc proclaimed so loudly in its propaganda but denied its citizens in life. Whether this was a wish for solidarity with working classes around the world or a desire to satisfy what Czesław Miłosz once called the ‘hunger for strangeness’ in the grey world of state socialism is hard to know.[11]

Another difference between dubbing and voice over narration is the fact that the lektor assumes responsibility for delivering all words heard or seen on screen. To contain this proliferating polyphony, the ‘best’ voice over is transparent, unobtrusive, lacking corporality. This tendency was amplified when voice over translation was imported into the expanding field of television broadcasting in Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Post-sync recording means that the infelicities of live translation are ironed out. Close-micing, producing a very ‘dry’ sound with little reverberation, erases all traces the space of the studio. Offering clear definition, close-micing also lifts the voice out of the space of the film. So close, this voice seems to be inside the ear. It is always there, always on, even, it seems, when the lektor is not speaking.

Almost always male, transmitted over the airwaves, and having the capacity to speak for all and to translate every language, the voice of lektor might seem to have the powers that Chion ascribes to the acousmêtre. But, unlike the narrator of movies, newsreels or documentaries, the lektor does not provide expert explanations of events, or insight into the inner thoughts of the characters on screen. He has no capacity for reflection or hindsight. His is, seemingly, an automatic voice, only triggered by the words of others. Rather than being the voice of God, the lektor is a servant of the speaker. His humble status is perhaps revealed by the ‘first’ voice over translator in the Soviet world, Ivan Bolshakov, chairman of the Committee on Cinematography of the USSR. In the 1940s Bolshakov would arrange daily private screenings for the generalissimo in his private cinema. These were both moments of private entertainment and, at the same time, a meeting of the most important film censorship board in the USSR.[12] Stalin’s displeasure would mean that a film would not be acquired for distribution. According to eyewitnesses, he was a particularly active viewer, delivering a running report of the ideological merits and failings of each film – a dictator’s commentary. He had a taste for cowboy movies as well as the films of Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable but according to Nikita Khrushchev, would also ‘curse them, giving them an ideological evaluation.’[13] A canny retainer, Bolshakov would usually arrange for a choice of films to be available at each screening to improve Stalin’s mood. This introduced a new problem – the prints of the films were not subtitled and so Bolshakov had to be ready to give his mercurial master an extempore translation of the dialogue on the spot. Speaking only faltering English, Bolshakov would prepare by spending hours with interpreters learning the story and lines. Even then, he struggled to keep up with the plot and dialogue of the many films he’d put at Stalin’s command. Stalin apparently enjoyed the deep discomfort felt by his subaltern. Such anecdotes are often relayed by Stalin’s biographers to illustrate his volatile and malevolent character: nevertheless, Bolshakov was a wily operator, successfully extending his role to become the first Minister of Cinematography in 1946.

Abusive Translations

Like many things in Eastern Europe, voice over translation may have originated at the command of authority but it eluded the control of the state. In the 1980s unlicensed copies of western films began to be made on video cassettes and traded (their illegal origins often confirmed by the legend ‘For Preview Purposes Only’ across the screen). These were accompanied by voice over translations provided by amateurs, many of whom were academics or professional translators who had benefited from language training. Leonid Veniaminovich Volodarskii recalls the process:

Everything was done using two VCRs, sitting on your knees, basically. One of them had to be stereo. You stuck the original [VHS cassette] into one VCR, a blank VHS cassette into the other VCR, and a mic into this other VCR, too. I translated simultaneously, and my voice was recorded by the second VCR. Then some techie – I’m strictly not technicallyminded – made a master tape of my voiceover. From that point on, it was ‘Full speed ahead!’ – multiple copies were made, and the voiceover hit the popular masses.[14]

Often idiosyncratic, these translations departed from the script in ways that appeal to both their viewers and to scholars of translation. One, Alexander Burak, stresses the fact that such translations were made without a great deal of preparation: often long passages of slang or idiomatic phrases would elude the translator and so he would have to improvise (an unintended echo of Bolshakov’s performances for Stalin).[15] Even skilled translators might well enhance the original with local colloquialisms and vivid profanities in an effort to capture what they believed to be the colour of the original. The creative translator of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ (1973) replaced New York’s street slang with that of Warsaw’s Praga district in a pirate version on sale in Poland in early 1990s. Widely acclaimed as the master of the genre in Russia, Dmitry Puckhov (aka Goblin), who acquired his English in the 1980s on a two-year course at the Dzerzhinsky Police House of Culture and by translating rock lyrics at home, achieved success and some degree of notoriety for his voice over translations which far exceed the principle of fidelity. In rescripting imported thrillers and crime films such as ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994), Puckhov incorporated the full force of Russian expletives as well as an urgent, highly distinctive tone of voice. These devices, he claims, capture the gritty qualities of the original films far more effectively than pious, literary-minded culture approach to translation promoted by the film studios.[16] His reputation, however, owes more to to his comic voice over translations of the first two ‘Lord of the Rings’ films made in the early 2000s which relocate Middle-earth to contemporary Russia. The principal characters were given comic Russified names:[17] Frodo Baggins became Fedor Mikhailovich Sumkin (a derivative of the Russian word sumka, or bag); the Ranger, Aragorn, was renamed Agronom (farm worker); Legolas became Logovaz, after the Russian car company responsible for Ladas. Puckhov also introduced new elements into the soundscape: courtly dancing at Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party, for instance, is accompanied by a well-known techno track by Ruki Vverh! (Hands Up!). Woven through the voice over narration are what remain topical themes relating to the rampant advance of capitalism in the country. The search story becomes something like a crime drama set in the Russian underworld. The tone is set from the outset when the main character, just returned to Middle-earth after years of wandering, announces: ‘The world is not much changed – people steal as before. MacDonald’s have cropped up everywhere – it is funny I don’t see them here.’ In effect, Puckhov’s versions of ‘Lord of the Rings’ are social satires which function as what Abé Mark Nornes calls ‘abusive translations’ – acts of rescripting which ‘tamper with language usage and freely ignore or change much of the source text’. What Nornes calls ‘abuse’ has the positive value when it ‘helps inject a palpable sense of the foreign.’[18] Freely available for download, Russian viewers would play Puckhov’s translations over imported films. As Vlad Strukov notes, ‘the sound of the original Hollywood movie becomes secondary as the movie is now meant to accompany the “translation” and not the other way around, as one would expect’.[19]

Deeply engrained listening habits mean that voice over translation continues to be the way in which Poles and Russians prefer to watch broadcasts of foreign material (though subtitling is on the rise in cinemas). As K.I. Donnelly notes, ‘it is conventional and thus naturalistic in its own way.’[20] But the attachment to the phenomenon runs deeper than that. In Poland and Russia today, considerable nostalgia attaches to the early translators of these black market releases (and in marked contradistinction to the characterization of voice over narration by Polish film critics in the early 1990s as an unwelcome hangover from the Soviet Bloc). The extent of the audiences for these illegally-traded copies was so great that their voices are still well known, instantly and comfortingly familiar.[21] Figures who would once needed to mask their activities with anonymity have become minor celebrities. Of Władysław Frączak, for instance, one on-line fan in Poland wrote in 2011 ‘This lektor stood out when I watched my first American film on VHS – ‘Mask’ with Jim Carrey. I can listen to him even when the film is hopeless’.[22] This listener was drawn to Frączak’s idiolect. That the voice over technique is known in Russia by the name of one of its chief practitioners, Andrei Gavrilov who began his work in the 1980s moonlighting from his work as a journalist in the European section of TASS news agency is itself evidence of recognition. Many now work in the mainstream media today. In recent years, the best-known in Russia, Puckhov, has developed a career as an on-line political commentator. (His ‘Goblin News’ sometimes accompanied, by a neat table-turn, with English subtitles). Increasingly visible and often valued for the vocal idiosyncrasies that they brought to the act of translation, these once-acousmatic voices have now acquired names and visibility.

Being visible and credited as the owner of a voice is a benefit of post-communism: it chimes with the principles of the freedom of speech, accountability and ownership which have been claimed as rights by opponents of the Soviet Bloc. Bylines are an aspect of professionalization too. Others include the representation by agents and the construction of commercial ‘voice banks’. Lektors in Poland now ply their trade as ‘voice over artists’ for advertising and radio. And when they provide voice over translations, they usually read scripts translated by others. Professional codes and standards – like those articulated by Libergal and Pijanowski above – have been set down. Expansion of the profession has also provided opportunities for a small number of women. But what, one might wonder, has been lost in these developments? Chion – the chief celebrant of the voice in the cinema – calls the process by which the acousmêtre acquires a body ‘de-acousmatization’. ‘Embodying the voice,’ he writes of fantasy, thriller, and gangster movies which feature powerful shadowy kingpins, ‘is a sort of symbolic act, dooming the acousmêtre to the fate of ordinary mortals. De-acousmatization roots the acousmêtre to a place and says, “here is your body, you’ll be there, and not elsewhere”.’[23] Brought down to earth, the acousmêtre is deprived of its off-screen panopticism and omnipotence. The voice of the Lektor in Eastern Europe has however never occupied this all-knowing, all-seeing realm. Instead, it spoke from the shadows, always echoing another, more authoritative voice. The gap between these two voices was the space in which sometimes fretful, occasionally improvised, and, at times, ‘abusive’ translations could be heard.

[1] Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) 21. Translated by Claudia Gorbman.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Ibid, 149.

[4] Marek Haltoff, Polish National Cinema (Oxford & New York: Berghahn, 2002), 78.

[5] Grigory Libergal cited by Elena Razlogova in ‘Listening to the Inaudible Foreign. Simultaneous Translators and Soviet Experience of Foreign Cinema’ in ‪Lilya Kaganovsky, ‪Masha Salazkina, eds., Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema (Bloomington, IN: ‪Indiana University Press, ‪2014) 169. Razlogova’s translation.

[6] Henryk Pijanowski interviewed in ‘Zawód Lektor (Lektorzy Magia Polskiego Głosu)’, a television programme made by Michał Jeczeń for TVP1, 2006.

[7] On national differences in the approach to dubbing see K. I. Donnelly, Occult Aesthetics. Synchronization in Sound Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[8] Cited in Czesław Michałski, ‘O dubbing dobrze i źle’ in Film, 50 (1955) 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Michal Yampolsky. ‘Voice Devoured: Artaud and Borges on Dubbing’ in October, 64 (Spring 1993) 57-77.

[11] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980) 69.

[12] See Grigory Mariamov, 
Kremlevskii tsenzor. Stalin smotrit kino (The Kremlin Censor. Stalin Watches the Cinema (Moscow: Kinotsentr, 1992).

[13] Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev: Volume 2: Reformer, 1945-1964, edited by Sergei Khrushchev (Philadelphia, PA: Penn State University Press, 2006) 115.

[14] Volodarskii cited by Alexander Burak, ‘Some Like it Hot – Goblin‐Style: “Ozhivliazh” in Russian Film Translations’ in Russian Language Journal, v. 61 (2011) 7. Burak’s translation.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See Carl Shreck, ‘Goblin Makes the Case against Demonizing Expletives’ in St. Petersburg Times (29 July 2003) 1-2.

[17] Natalia Rulyova, ‘Piracy and Narrative Games: Dmitry Puchkov’s Translations of “The Lord of the Rings”’ in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 49, no. 4 (Winter 2005), pp. 625-638.

[18] Abé Mark Nornes, Cinema Babel. Translating Global Cinema (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 179.

[19] Vlad Strukov, ‘Translated by Goblin: Global Challenge and Local Response in Brian James Baer, John Benjamin, eds., ‘Post-Soviet Translations of Hollywood Films’ in Contexts, Subtexts and Pretexts: Literary Translation in Eastern Europe and Russia (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2011) 242.

[20] Donnelly, op cit., 178.

[21] When Lucjan Szołajski died in Warsaw in June 2013, numerous obituaries recorded the fact that he had provided voice over translation for more than 20,000 films and television series over forty years.

[22] http://emil.ozorkow.net/2011/09/subiektywny-ranking-lektorow-filmowych/ -accessed July 2014.

[23] Chion, op cit., 27-8.

Sounding the Body Electric issued as CD!

Eastern Europe, Music

This is just a quick post to say that Sounding the Body Electric has been issued as a double-CD by Bółt Records. A copy can be ordered here. The CD includes some new material which was not in the show (but is discussed in the accompanying book) such as Rudolf Komorous’s minimalist ‘Tomb of Malevitch’, the first piece of electronic music composed in Czechoslovakia. it also includes Hugh Davies’ ‘Shozyg’ of 1964.

Signora Ladik

Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

This piece was published in the epiphanies section of the June 2013 issue of the The WireThe centre of Pest – Budapest’s Rive Droite – is dense and busy, packed with elegant buildings dating from the city’s heyday before the First World War. They feature in the elegant images of the Hungarian capital usually promoted by tourist offices. But as you head south along the river to its outskirts, the city loses its character, becoming a disconnected landscape of wide roads, billboards, red brick chimneys, decrepit factories and train tracks. The main drag, Soroksári út, is flanked by empty plots, flattened, perhaps, in 1944 when the Soviet Red Army laid siege to the city. A few nondescript 19th century tenement buildings still stand, but most seem to be boarded up.

I know this road well because I walked up and down it a few times a couple of years ago looking for Katalin Ladik’s home. Eventually I found it, and her, in a tenement organised around a crumbling courtyard, now an echoing playground for wild kids. I was then gathering material for an exhibition of experimental art and music from Eastern Europe before 1989 and wanted to include Ladik’s work.

You may well have seen her perform. Last year, she made an appearance in Peter Strickland’s eerie film, Berberian Sound Studio. Playing a resurrected witch, she is ushered into the Italian sound studio to supply explosive screams for a horror movie being overdubbed there. Budapest-based Strickland paid her the credit of having her introduced as Signora Ladik on screen, testimony to her unique voice.

A Hungarian from the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region of Serbia, Ladik has been active since the mid-1960s. As a poet, actress, visual artist and performance artist, she was an animated and controversial spirit in the neo-avant garde in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s. But she left the country in 1992 at the start of the Yugoslav wars. It was clearly a traumatic experience, and Ladik was still feeling the loss of her home when I visited her. Yugoslavia – despite the terrible violence and intolerance that erupted in the 1990s – had been a remarkably fertile space for art in the 1970s.

I knew her work in that way that occurs when you slowly notice that someone or something never leaves your side vision. Without realising it, she had been a point of connection for so many images and sounds that interest me. Her first marriage was to Ernö Király, the composer and ethnomusicologist who used folk instruments as the sound source for his tape music in the 1960s. She performed with Dubravko Detoni and Milko Kelemen’s experimental group Acezantez, realising one counterculture’s fantasy of liberation by appearing naked on stage. Later in the 1970s she played a central role as a vocalist in what must have been a truly monumental performance of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate. Conducted in Belgrade by Oskar Danon, it involved four vocalists, four orchestras and banks of tympany, all augmented – as if anything else might be needed Đ with Vladan Radovanović’s tape music made from samples of folk, electronic works and pop songs.

In 1973, when she was a member of Bosch + Bosch art group, Ladik crossed the border to Balatonboglár in Hungary, where young artists had rented out a disused chapel. 40 years on, long after the police had closed it down, the place has a kind of mythical status as a laboratory of conceptual art and what art historians like to call “the dematerialisation of the object”.

She performed O-pus there, an improvised sound poem exploring the register of intense sensations stored in the phonic O (“oh!” to “oooooooooooooooo”). Even then, of course, conceptual art was a specialist interest. But Ladik was also a celebrity, kind of. She often performed naked, treating her body like an instrument by running a primitive bow across her hair. When, in 1975, these performances attracted the attention of mass market magazines, she was expelled from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia for ‘immorality’. In the paradoxical fashion of Yugoslav socialism, she then became a star on state TV, appearing in one of its forays in erotica. Her science fiction and fantasy films from the early 1980s form a particular kind of late-socialist kitsch.

Ladik was never a campaigning feminist, and her performances always placed female subjectivity at the fore, often in uncompromising ways. In the early 1970s she created a remarkable body of graphic scores collaged from material sliced from West German women’s magazines, sewing patterns and popular music sheets from the 19th century. I knew that she had employed these artworks as graphic scores in live performances. There is a grainy photograph of her performing such a piece at the Belgrade Student Centre in the mid-1970s. But I did not know how they were used or what her interpretations sounded like. When I asked her, she took me to her kitchen where she stood in front of a score framed on the wall and began to sing. Her voice was and remains simply extraordinary – sweeping across an unnatural sonic spectrum from high frequency trilling to low rumbling tones. Expressing neither lyrics nor words, Ladik nevertheless seemed to draw on the full phonetic range of both Hungarian and Serbian, her two native languages in Vojvodina. Strangled plosive stops from Hungarian phonemics combined with the rattling cadences of the Slavic language. I had heard recordings of her voice before, of course, but what was so striking about this impromptu performance was the remarkable force of her breath. You could almost hear the air being struck, as dozens of different women tumbled out of her mouth. Patently being generated by Ladik, these sounds did not seem to belong to her. It was precisely this uncanny, even disturbing quality in her voice that Strickland celebrates in his film; I had the unnerving pleasure of being given a private performance.

Sounding the Body Electric. Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984 – II

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Music, Uncategorized

A new version of the 2012 show opened at Calvert 22 in London in late June 2013. it ran until Aug 26th. Here is a gallery of installation shots – courtesy of Calvert 22. There is also some footage of me talking about the show on the Calvert site here. You can download a pdf of the Calvert catalogue here. Here is a link to a review in Frieze magazine; another in Eye and a third review in Art Monthly. You can hear a talk presented at MoMA in spring 2013 here as well.

Singing with Beck

Graphic Design, Music, Uncategorized

This review was published in Eye magazine in summer 2013 ♦ 

Berlin's Haunted House, 1914

Berlin’s Haunted House, 1914

Just over a hundred years ago the music business experienced its first major crisis. The success of new gramophone records played on a hand-cranked turntable with an overbearing horn, sounded the beginning of the end of popular sheet music, the business’s most profitable product at the time. In their heyday, scores for sentimental tunes and patriotic marches printed between vivid illustrated covers, sold in tens of thousands of copies.

The graphic products of Tin Pan Alley offered musicians considerable latitude. In an age before sound recordings, there was no authoritative version against which the player in the parlour could judge his or her performance. When the gramophone, and later the radio, became a standard feature of the home, the decline was not immediate: sales of sheet music were given a lift by the popularity of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s, for example. Nevertheless, the fate of sheet music was, it seems, sealed.

beck-fullcoverToday, the music business faces another crisis as record companies and high-street retailers struggle to find ways to persuade people to pay for recorded music. The Internet has turned what the industry used to call ‘product’ into a stream of code for downloading. Artists try to turn fans into consumers by issuing deluxe versions of their albums, often packaging their LPs with weighty books and films. At the end of last year, American musician Beck Hanson issued his most recent album as a ‘Song Reader’, a collection of twenty songs. What makes his project unique (at least when viewed from the present), was that this album is only available as sheet music in a beautifully designed folding portfolio. Each score features cover artwork by illustrators, often picking up the wistful mood of the songs. ‘The Last Polka’, an angular composition for piano in a musical genre which has not been fashionable for at least a century, and ‘Why Did You Make Me Care?’, a plaintive song for a jilted lover, are both packaged with illustrations from Peter Gamelen, a young British illustrator living in the US. The melancholic atmosphere which Gamelen brings to his drawings of moonlit rooms and empty streets in the dusk of Depression-era America lends itself well to Beck’s nostalgic project.

Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ began life in conversations with Dave Eggers, the writer and founder of McSweeny’s, the marvelously idiosyncratic publishing house. But the project has deeper roots: Beck has a track record as pop musicologist. ‘One Foot in the Grave’, an early album, for instance, opens with a traditional black spiritual played on a steel-string guitar. But the ‘Song Reader’, as a musical and graphic project, is not an exercise in historical authenticity. Sensitive to the traditional form of sheet music – three or four pages contained within simple covers – Beck and art director, Walter Green (a McSweeny’s designer) also bring a touch of wry humour to the project. The back pages of each sheet features convincingly retrospective adverts for products for music lovers like the harmonically-tuned needles for seamstress and scores for ‘Instrumentals for the End of the World’. America’s love with its own ‘age of innocence’ – evident in Hollywood films and the hokey homespun rhetoric of her politicians – is gently mocked and celebrated at the same time. This places Beck in a long tradition of liberal artists including Bob Dylan, Robert Crumb, and Ben Katchor who find values and sentiments in the American past which are missing or distorted in the present.

By only issuing the ‘Song Reader’ as scores, Beck invites musicians to interpret his songs. In fact, in a thoughtful preface on the challenges of writing music which depends on other people to play it, Beck makes an observation which chimes with the recent fascination with participation in art and design: ‘There’s something human in sheet music’ he writes, ‘something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it – it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it. That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project.’ Perhaps Beck writes off technology a little too quickly, for the Internet has provided McSweeny’s with the means for the players of these songs to share their recordings with the world. Its Soundcloud pages have been filling in the weeks since publication with dozens of different versions of Beck’s songs. Some are recast as ambient house or chamber music, whilst others follow the ‘trad.’ piano and ukulele arrangements provided in the ‘Song Reader’. Neither is more or less authentic than the other. Beck and his many ‘song readers’ have achieved together an exceptional union of the material world of the printed score and the dematerialized world of digital music.