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Musical Events

from issue 5

minute operas _ 1.jpg


from Minute-Operas by Frédéric Forte, in Peripheries 5

Folio of Musical Events: An Introduction

by Rebecca Lane and Martine Thomas (Senior Sound Editors)

How can language be used to initiate a musical event? In this folio of twen­ty-four artists, a variety of linguistic modes are utilized in the creation of musical scores, from the poetic (Ione) to the technical (Chiari), from the everyday form of a list (Akama) to the erasure of language (Wolowiec). These sit alongside pieces by musicians whose practice encompasses po­etry (Christer Hennix) or poets who embed musical references in their writing (Mee Choi).

         To begin, we include original manuscripts from John Ashbery’s The Art of Finger Dexterity, courtesy of the John Ashbery Estate and Da­vid Kermani. Ashbery’s relationship to music is well known – in an in­terview with Craig Burnett for Frieze Magazine in 2004, Ashbery said, “I think of music first and poetry second. I think of the space in my poetry as a kind of musical space.” In The Art of Finger Dexterity, a musical ref­erence is immediately at play in the title. According to Emily Skilling’s introduction to the recent publication of this manuscript, Ashbery played Carl Czerny’s piano etudes from The Art of Finger Dexterity as a child and owned several recordings of them. In fact, Skilling tells us, Ashbery often listened to classical music as he wrote. His husband David Kermani doc­umented this in dated lists of the accompanying piece of music to which Ashbery listened as he wrote. A handful of these lists from the Ashbery archive at Houghton Library are published here for the first time. For an illuminating discussion of Ashbery’s library of recorded music, readers should consult Karin Roffman’s 2021 article in Evergreen: ‘John Ashbery’s Music Library: A Playlist’.

         Talking with musician Sarah Rothenberg for Frieze Magazine in 1992, Ashbery stated, “I try to shape it [the poem] so that it’s open-ended, so that different people can make different things out of it according to the set of experiences they bring to reading it.” In his essay John Ashbery: The One of Fictive Music, writer Geoff Bouvier calls Ashbery’s readers “player/readers” who are “invited to ‘fill in’ what is ‘left out’”.

         The autonomy of the player/reader (performer) is particularly activated in a text score. A text score – a term that can be used to describe many of the scores printed here, or elements of them – uses language as the medium by which a potential sound event is initiated. Using language as the primary tool of communication, instead of musical notation, opens up a gap for the performer to “fill in” what is “left out” and make unique interpretative decisions. The language may be plain, distilled, or oblique; poetic forms may describe an atmosphere or a quality of attention, but the instrumentation or placement in time and space of the sounds may remain undefined. Decisions may need to be negotiated within a group of performers, and anyone could be a performer, as nearly everyone can whistle or use their voice, and any object can make a sound.

         Text scores’ democratisation of the musical event originates in the Fluxus “event score”. Alison Knowles and Yoko Ono come to mind as Fluxus artists who work with sound, but the scores of Italian artist Gi­useppe Chiari are less well known. Appearing here is the first English translation for Chiari’s “method,” The Breaking (1963), which outlines the different sonic characteristics of breaking objects as a possible musical event.

For a handful of the scores presented here, the musical material is derived from a pre-existing text. In a performance of Mark So’s Girls on the Run, Ashbery’s poems can be heard quietly across an open space; the ten performers also enact “images” conjured from the poetry. Joe Kudir­ka’s Below*, dedicated to So, instructs performers to create sounds, ac­tions or activities that are underneath other sounds, actions or activities, whether environmental, performed, or simply perceived.

         In Antoine Beuger’s not wind, fire, a solo performer silently reads the opening poem of Rumi’s Masnavi, The Song of the Flute while whis­tling musical pitches that appear in each word (for example, the notes f, e and d from the word “friend”) and making a noise (x) when none appear. Similarly, in Nomi Epstein’s Text Score #3, a group of vocalists are instructed to silently read a text and, when they encounter certain words or punctuation marks, to make corresponding vocal noises. In AIR, Artist Audra Wolowiec erases an original text altogether, leaving only commas that, when read as musical notation, indicate places to breathe.

         Sarah Hughes’s Surreal Imaginings of Men draws from surrealist Leonora Carrington’s book The Hearing Trumpet to create a graphic/text score that summons two parallel sound worlds – “The Actors” and “The Mise-en-scène”. In Minute-Operas, Oulipian poet Frédéric Forte con­structs a topographic view of the operatic stage and wings, separated by a line, where characters, narratives, set locations, sounds and poetic forms collide in a series of internal dramas. In Purely Illustrative, poet Don Mee Choi explores the political implications of song and speech in war. Com­poser Joy Guidry utilises text and graphics to create a musical situation that illustrates, through sound, the silencing of Black people.

         Floating in the background of many of these compositions is the influence of experimental composer-performers John Cage, Christian Wolff and Pauline Oliveros. According to Knowles, many of the Fluxus artists attended Cage’s 1958–59 class at The New School. For Wandelweis­er composer-performers Antoine Beuger, Eva-Maria Houben and Man­fred Werder, the silence of Cage’s 4’33” was a new starting point for their compositional practice. And the influence of Wolff ’s Prose Collection (1969–1985), easily accessible online, can be felt in the work of Epstein and Kudirka.

         Partner and collaborator of Pauline Oliveros, Ione continues their shared exploration of Deep Listening in The Memory of Now. Deep Listening is best understood by practicing it, but in a guide to Deep Lis­tening Oliveros observes that “deepest listening is for that which has not yet sounded / Receiving that which is most unfamiliar / learning its space time sound silence dance / Interacting with that which is most familiar / Listening until the newest is learned.” Traces of Deep Listening prac­tice are apparent in The Archipelago by Anya Yermakova, Ganavya Do­raiswamy and Rajna Swaminathan, particularly in the prompts to listen from different bones of the human body.

         While many of the folio’s text scores and musical pieces involve collaboration in their performance, The Archipelago and On the Phases of Water by Jonathan Leal and Michiko Theurer bring collaboration into the score-making process itself. Yermakova, Doraiswamy, and Swaminathan approach collaboration by asking a question that also resonates with this sound folio: “What emerges when we explore the profound fluidity of the spaces within, between, and around us?”

         The breath of this field is vast and this small collection does not pretend to be comprehensive. This folio is rather a personal glimpse into the ever-expanding relationship between words, sound and image, taken from our individual bookshelves and shelves of scores, from the musi­cians we have come to know and whose music we’ve played. We would both like to thank Editor-In-Chief Sherah Bloor for the invitation to edit this folio for Peripheries 5.

Five Poems from The Art of Finger Dexterity
Playlists and an Envelope

John Ashbery


Frédéric Forte

Girls on the Run (Other Dreams)
[readings 37]

Mark So


Surreal Imaginings of Men
Sarah Hughes


the o the a of water
oo o o
Audra Wolowiec


The Memory of Now

Rajna Swaminathan
Y'all don't wanna listen
Joy Guidry
Purely Illustrative
Don Mee Choi
Bits of Metal in a Jar
Joseph Kudirka
No One's Memorial (Numbers)
Black and Wh
ite Algebra & Color Algebra
Catherine Christer

à l'unisson II
Eva-Maria Houben
Text Series #3
Nomi Epstein
Phases: Two Tracks and an Invitation to Move
Jonathan Leal and Michiko Theurer

Inner Sounds
Miya Masaoka
The Archipelago
Ganavya Doraiswamy, Rajna Swaminathan, and Anya Yermakova
Manfred Werder
Giuseppe Chiari's Method for Breaking
Chiari Saccone and Deborah Walker
Il Rompere
The Breaking

Giuseppe Chiari

not wind, fire
Antoine Beuger
A List
Ryoko Akama
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