Christian Marclay Graffiti Composition

[Dog W/A Bone; 2010]

Styles: guitar improvisation, experimental
Others: Derek Bailey, Oren Ambarchi, Jim O’Rourke, David Daniell, Fred Frith

Note: There are at least two humans with the name “Elliott Sharp” in the world.

In 1996, as part of Berlin’s month-long Sonambiente: Festival für Hören und Sehen arts festival, composer, visual artist, and innovative turntablist Christian Marclay plastered 5,000 blank sheet music posters throughout the city. The public was invited to fill the staff lines — whether with music notes, words, graffiti, or indecipherables — and over time the posters evolved to take on a scattered, schizophrenic life of their own. Marclay’s objective was to create a “citywide musical composition” that emphasized spontaneity, chance, and ephemerality. In 2002, 150 photographs of this communal project were presented at NYC’s Paula Cooper Gallery, and as Marclay himself does not read music and has always been motivated by the complex relationships between the visual and the aural, he made his selection on visual rather than musical grounds.

In 2006, composer and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp was asked to select images from this collection to be performed by an ensemble of guitarists for a one-off performance at The Museum of Modern Art, NYC. The guitarists selected for the challenge were Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Living Colour-founder Vernon Reid, downtown composer Melvin Gibbs, and quickly-rising jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, with Sharp both conducting and playing. Sharp’s process for determining which images would act as the visual score for the concert was motivated by his familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of each player, namely how particular images would lend themselves to the artists’ diverse approaches to their instrument.

Graffiti Composition, released in August, 2010 by the Paula Cooper Gallery’s Dog W/A Bone imprint, and coinciding with the currently underway three-month-long Christian Marclay: Festival at the Whitney Museum of Art, captures the quintet’s improvised sonic interpretation of the visual scores created by Berliners 10 years prior. Through six pieces and 40 minutes, the five guitars chaotically dash about the space, producing an array of sounds as wide-ranging as the backgrounds and techniques of the guitarists making them. The tranquil phrases are clearly translated from the minimal segments of the score — where only a few lines or perhaps gentle splatters of color appear for the players to interpret — and these moments unpredictably and radically morph into frantic bursts and blasts of sound — where a tear in Marclay’s poster might have revealed the one that it concealed or a plurality of random and divisive lines, colors, and textures overloading the image.

For those not deeply familiar with the language of each guitarist — and almost all of us fall into this category, for the work of each of these prolific artists is varied — it is impossible to connect sounds with players. Given the concept, though, such a project is, in addition to being a fool’s errand, seemingly antithetical to Marclay’s vision. Further, even though Sharp chose images based on his understanding of the guitarists’ styles and trajectories, the task is not to isolate the sounds and place them in a vacuum. Rather, the playing is meant to express the drastic shifts and chance juxtapositions of the images and the disharmony and transience that underlie them.

While most conceptual sound pieces using visual scores leave many scratching their heads in absolute puzzlement, Marclay’s project works. One question instantly arises, however, concerning why the pieces should be performed — at Marclay’s request — by artists using the same instrument. What makes his initial posters so compelling is the plurality of “instruments” Berliners used on the blank pages — pens, pencils, and markers of various colors; dirty hands; smashed beer bottles — and the many textural disruptions that appear — rips, other posters pasted atop the original ones, and so on. The many “instruments” and competing media that the blank posters encountered would seem to lend themselves musically to an ensemble composed of a more diverse arsenal of instruments. The fact that these five guitarists each approach their instrument from a unique perspective, and that they mostly play using non-traditional idioms and extended techniques, is not enough to put to rest such a line of questioning.

Links: Dog W/A Bone

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