Every Sound You Can Imagine

Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston

Closed December 7, 2008
by Allison Myers

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      John Cage
      Aria, 1958 (excerpt)
      9 x 24 inches
      © 1960 by C.F. Peters Corporation, New York

      View Gallery

      For those of us that can’t tell a piano from a forte, going to see an exhibition of musical scores might seem a fruitless endeavor. Having happened upon such a show at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, I was doubtful about my abilities to really appreciate the finer points of Steve Reich’s dense notations or John Cage’s delicately composed haikus. It was thus a pleasant surprise to find the exhibition, appropriately named Every Sound You Can Imagine, to be a fun and engaging presentation of the ways experimental musical scores have transcended the boundaries that traditionally divide the musically visionary from the musically blind.

      The show includes a whopping seventy-five composers and artists with works as early as 1950 and as recent as this year. Some of the works, especially the earlier ones, maintain the traditional medium of handwritten notations on music paper. These pieces do well to provide a framework for the rest of the show, which, without them, might be mistaken for a graphic design exhibition. Using digital illustration, video and even a computerized “algorithmic visual program,” these composers and artists question what it means to write, read and perform music by creating scores that use graphical images, maps and idiosyncratic notations in place of standard directions.

      This is especially apparent in Wallace Berman’s Untitled (Musical Score) (1974), which makes use of staff lined music paper and numerical notations but substitutes Hebrew letters for notes. Since the letters formally resemble eighth notes and have a rhythmic fluidity of their own, the substitution is not immediately clear. This subtle shift allows the work to succinctly address the literal and conceptual similarities between reading music and reading text. Since neither reading music nor Hebrew are ultra-common skills of the general population (at least in the U.S.), the illiterate viewer/performer must interpret the look and feel of the score – perhaps a fluid, calligraphic sound?

      Berman’s work is approachable as a score since it makes clean references to classical notation. Other works, however, throw off the crutches of the staff lines and key signatures entirely, relying solely on images. It is especially these works that, in the words of curator Christoph Cox, “envision the production of the score as a branch of visual art parallel to and partly independent from musical performance.” Though most of the graphically oriented works are stunning examples, Alison Knowles’ Song #1 of the Three Songs: Onion Skin Song is especially compelling. The score is simply a sienna blueprint of onion skins; performers are instructed to choose an instrument and interpret the prints as they please. Even if the viewer has never picked up an instrument in his or her life, it is impossible not to wonder, “what are the sounds of an onion skin?”

      Musical notation, at least to those who don’t deal with it frequently, seems like a closed circuit. The composer writes music and the musician reads it and performs it. But here, the composers write (or draw or paint or shoot) notes on a page often without any standard or specific instructions. Performers are thus encouraged, and often forced, to improvise the literal notation while reading the spirit of the score. This breakdown has two primary outcomes. First, the relationship between the composer and the performer is no longer dictatorial but symbiotic, as the score is simply a suggestion for a certain kind of improvisation. (This frees the performer from his or her traditional role as a glorified player piano.) In addition, it democratizes the music circuit by moving beyond the performer’s capacity to read music. Performers and non-performers alike can interpret the sound of onion skins. And this is the beauty of the show: it can engage viewers who know nothing about music just as well as it can excite professional musicians.

      Allison Myers is pursuing an M.A. in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.

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