Flux, movement and uncertainty

Flux, movement and uncertainty

Today, the exact sciences must leave their laboratories, wrote the physician Prigogine and the epistemologist Stengers (The New Alliance 1979-86). The period of pure phenomena will be succeeded by one of hybrids; an era of selectivity replaced by one of cross-pollination. The prevailing impressions will be of flux, movement and uncertainty.

…cited by Laurent Bayle about 25 years ago

Since 2001 I’ve been working with Tate Modern on events that connect music with practice in the visual arts, tapping into the lively attention paid to visual innovation and trying to include contemporary music in the mix. In devising and presenting performances, I’ve explored some classic cross-media conversations. Most of them belong in one of two categories.

First, there are agreements between creators who are familiar with each other’s aesthetic, people who know each other and share a perspective, which is then developed in response to each other’s production. A strong example of this was the relationship between Brancusi and Satie, both pairing their materials right down to what they perceived as the essence of the object.

Close friends, Brancusi’s polished abstract head of Socrates has been interpreted (by expert Sidney Geist) as also representing Satie (it’s the big ears, apparently) and the sculptor was deeply moved and influenced by Satie’s symphonic drama Socrate. Later, Brancusi was an executor of Satie’s estate and designed a tomb for the composer, which was never realized. Their aesthetic may now seem dated, but that shared “white and immobile” vision aimed high.

Second is another type of conversation that starts with a shock or an unexpected discovery. It jolts into activity a shared exploration across media. Again the best example I can cite is one of the oldest that comes to mind, that very fertile and well-documented interchange between Kandinsky and Schoenberg during the Blue Rider period.

Schoenberg’s musical ideas when absorbed by Kandinsky’s deliriously synesthetic imagination convinced the painter that a totally abstract art, freed from the obligations of representation, was possible.

In November Tate Modern assembled, for the first time in 32 years, the elements of Earle Brown’s Calder piece, which employs a Calder mobile “Chef d’orchestre” (especially built for this work) as an instrument, as a member of the ensemble, and as an embodiment of a shared technical approach. This concept leapt over as many boundaries as I could have hoped for, so for me the unity of the work occupies a unique category.

The performances formed part of a retrospective of Calder’s output that focuses on the movement inherent in his sculpture, which is Calder’s big contribution to the medium. “Chef d’orchestre” was key to Tate’s presentation of Calder’s ideas. The mobile is played as an instrument during Brown’s composition, an odd-sounding set of gongs. Of course when it is struck it doesn’t stay still, so as it rotates the players return to their four playing stations (amounting to some 100 instruments) to “read” the mobile; the position of the hanging elements of the mobile indicates a part of the score to be played, and also cues when it should be played. This metal object functions as a member of the ensemble, in conversation with the metal percussion.

TateShots’ rehearsal report gives a taste of the ingenuity and resource that Brown and Calder brought to bear in this dialogue, as well as how we managed its practicalities.

Additionally, the structure of the mobile (13 fixed objects floating within a loose hierarchy around a central axis) embodies Brown’s Open Form, his method of grouping his musical material (fixed phrases) into unpredictable combinations. So the integration between sound and vision is achieved on many levels, notational, spatial and physical.

More information and some score examples are available on the Earle Brown Foundation’s website and Thomas Fichter, the Foundation’s director, has detailed the history of its commission in the exhibition catalogue.

The following video is of the November 10 performance on the Turbine Hall bridge, played by graduate students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

I enjoyed getting to know this work enormously. In a time of Immersive Site Specific Events which invoke layers of authority by being inserted into obscure venues, or galleries that think their exhibition’s opening is enriched by the addition of a low bass drone and some lukewarm DJ-ing the integrity of Brown’s and Calders’s vision was refreshing.

Their collaboration didn’t occur over night. Brown was involved in Calder’s language before they even met in 1952 (have a look at Folio online) and by the time they collaborated ten years later their relationship was one of equals, both at the top of their game.

In performance, the method of exchange is multi-layered. You’ll see in the video performance how movements of the sculpture are paralleled by the performers’ trajectories; how improvised passages played on the sculpture italicize the more notated percussion solos; how the integrity of the concept on a multiplicity of material and sonic levels creates continuity despite some surprises along the way. Though unfixed in some of its detail, the concept is clear and far from arbitrary. Brown and Calder demonstrate that flux, movement and uncertainty can indeed be positives.


Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture runs at Tate Modern until 3 April.

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