When looking at the history of notated composition, one can ultimately sum up the basic role of musical notation as conveying how to set a sound-producing action of some sort into motion. In classical terms, this can be seen through how various dynamics and articulations, in conjunction with given notes, force performers into motion with their instruments. Of course, in the 20th century and onward, this realization/reduction of the “score” led to its manipulation, and everything from graphic notation to text scores and process music developed out of a desire to play with these ideas of action and sound.
However, one particular facet of this notational aesthetic that hasn’t yet been explored enough is the potential for all things visual/literary to be interpreted as a score. Technically, almost anything could turn into a musical score when certain parameters are applied to it, and with his latest cassette, Reading Illuminations/ A Book of Palms, Mark So showcases two of his compositions that do just that.
“Reading Illuminations” takes Robert Ashley’s notion of text/speech being a form of music in and of itself and carries it to a completely new level. The piece utilizes John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s “Illuminations” as a score of sorts, combining cassette recordings of So and the always awesome Julia Holter reading the text with brief field recording snippets into a dizzying tapestry of monolithic lo-fi sound. The constant flickering of the tapes turning on and off is reminiscent of So’s Wind Measures release with Patrick Farmer, but the motion’s far more active this time around. And with Ashbery/Rimbaud’s text being used to determine duration in both reading and sound production, the work takes on an effect similar to that of Ashley’s operas.
Also on the cassette is the mesmerizing “A Book of Palms,” which uses drawings of palm trees on graph paper with note-heads as the basis for what turns out to be a very beautiful solo piano work. When taken together, the two compositions show that, despite the highly conceptual methods used to create these works, So still excels at creating beautifully spare music.
Reading Illuminations/A Book of Palms is out now via Recondite Industries. You can stream “Reading Illuminations” in its entirety below: