Click for less information?
This text is designed to be read aloud.
If this is not possible, try to hear it in your head, in your own voice, as you read it.
or CLICK for Essential Information
What is it, this that I am doing?
A little context
Sol LeWitt is an artist best known for his wall drawings. When commissioned for a new work, rather than presenting the gallery with a finished painting, he would present instructions on how to create his painting. Between 1967 and 1969, he wrote two small texts: Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art. These texts have become some of the most important manifestos for conceptual art and are today an essential reference point for those working with concepts in the field of music.
At the end of Sentences on Conceptual Art (which comprises 35 sentences on LeWitt’s own practice as an artist), he states: ‘These sentences comment on art but are not art.’ In the same work he also remarks, ‘If words are used and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature, numbers are not mathematics,’ thus creating a new paradigm. Is writing or talking about artistic ideas art or not?
… Let’s say for now that it could be.
‘Composition is an approach to art-making grounded in organisational concerns.’
John Cage famously defined music as the ‘organisation of sound’. Perhaps, though, reflecting on the Latin origin of composition — componere, meaning to put together, or the organisation of things — may provide a more suitable definition. Not only sound, but all elements of a performance could, or perhaps should, be organised, put together, or composed.
My work Paganini Caprice (re-construction) is, I feel, a good example of a composition concerned predominantly with the organisation of things. I took the score of a piece of music that already exists, Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice Number 24 for solo violin. To my mind, this is the most famous solo violin piece, but I realise that this is probably not true; it may be that it is simply the one I heard first. I printed out the score for Paganini’s Caprice and taped it together to make a single large sheet. I then followed, to the best of my ability, the steps described on a website for how to construct a violin, only adapting the instructions so I could use the taped-together score instead of wood. By taking the score and re-constructing it into a paper violin I was able to organise it in a new way. The next step was to consider how this new paper violin would best function as both score and object. Collaborating with violinist Simon Goff, we developed the idea that every remaining scrap of music left on the violin would be played somehow. This was then recorded and, in the performance, was played back though a small speaker placed inside the paper violin.
Next was to decide how this new self-playing instrument would be presented to an audience. In other words, I had to organise the space. I hung the instrument in a concert hall, at just the right height and position so that Simon could stand underneath it to comfortably play. I then lit the concert hall just as it would be for a traditional solo performance. Then, using velvet ropes and poles, I secured off the area around the violin and the seating. I placed signs on the ropes that said ‘please do not touch the violin’ and ‘please do not sit on the chairs’. My intention was to highlight the space and the concert as a spectacle, a historic museum piece to be looked at. The audience were then invited in and, due to the nature of the hall and my positioning of the ropes and poles, I was able to choose, to an extent, which elements the audience would see first, meaning I could also organise what information they were given and when.
The whole event was organised with compositional intention, or to put it more simply: the whole event was composed. Each decision, and each instance of the organisation of things, was part of the work’s composition. However, in this type of event where more than just the sound is organised, the audience are directly and joyfully caught up in being organised themselves. Unlike the paper violin, furniture, lighting, sound and even the sonic performance and recording, the audience can never be neatly organised: they have choice. When an audience sees a concert of traditional music, in a concert hall, there is a set of understood parameters that are rarely challenged. Although, in theory, there is actually nothing to stop someone bending or breaking those unspoken rules. When, as in one of my works, the audience is organised differently and according to compositional means, the rules are blurred. The audience’s choices become very present.
In Paganini Caprice (re-construction), the audience members are free to come when they like, stay as long as they like, look at the things in any order, look at the other people, talk or listen, and do essentially whatever they see fit. The choice of actions is, however, limited by the compositional framework, but it is also limited by the laws of the land and the social conduct of what might be seen as appropriate behaviour. People don't usually walk down the street naked, but, aware of the consequences, they could do if they wanted. So with this presence of choice from the audience, we are led to a situation where each audience member is organising themselves within the performance. To me, this organising is in every way compositional. To one degree or another, the decisions made will have an effect on what is communicated during the performance. The audience thus become a necessary, intriguing, and unpredictable part of the composition in performance.
I am very much aware that I seem to have drifted quite far from Sol LeWitt’s question: is writing or talking about artistic ideas art or not? However, thinking of composition as 'an approach to art-making grounded in organisational concerns,' I ask you to consider for a moment a different situation, in which an audience member's decisions matter. Specifically I would like you to think about an audience of readers, reading a text that has been written about art. Think about a moment in this situation in which your organisational decisions matter. Maybe it’s as simple as deciding whether to read the text or look at the given example first. These decisions matter, they affect what is communicated and when, what knowledge or assumptions are carried, and for how long. These decisions are thus meaningful and compositional in nature. This establishes a new question over and above ‘Is writing about artistic ideas art or not?’ Is all reading compositional?
… Let’s say for now that it could be.
Before you internally answer that question on one side or the other, I’ll ask you to remain with me in the position of ‘maybe’, agreeing that ‘it could be’ for a few moments longer. In support of that position, I would like to give another example:
On the subject of distraction
Distraction is for me a persistent and crucial element of live performance that cannot be ignored. For example the age-old problem of coughing in the concert hall, as written about in countless newspaper articles (such as the particularly scathing ‘Critic's Notebook; On Coughs, Beeps and Wrappers, The Bane of a Performer's Life’ by New York Times critic James R. Oestreich). A more complicated negotiation with distraction is afforded by having the audience share the stage with performers or participating. When we consider this undeniable potential for distraction as part of the composer's toolbox, everyday experiences can feed into compositional and conceptual elements.
This element of distraction is, for me, also very present when reading, particularly when I’m confronted with footnotes, whether they are traditionally presented or, as in this exposition, exposed by clicking to reveal a pop-up. Footnotes offer potential for play and highlight the performative nature of reading. There is something ‘other’ about them in a text. It’s not quite certain, to me at least, when they should be read, if at all, and their importance is often unclear. However, as a reader we must decide when or how to engage with them, whether that is in the moment or based on a previous all-encompassing decision. When I read, I embrace the fact that, in a moment of confrontation with a footnote, it is easy for me to lose my train of thought, and by following the footnote it is equally easy to lose my place in the text. To me, this sensation feels extremely similar to my reflections of being an audience member in Paganini Caprice (re-construction). As a slight aside, I would also like to note this same principle applies to the notes of a printed programme at a concert: when should they be read, if at all? Are they really important? Yet another potential cause of distraction.
Until now, although without saying it, I’ve been referring to the academic tradition of footnotes in non-fiction writing, some of my favourite examples are found in the novels of Terry Pratchett. Taking a playful approach in his book Guards! Guards!, we find footnotes within the footnotes.
This Research Catalogue exposition, in the context of ‘reading as a compositional act’, is composed. The various texts and images are placed within a conceptual framework and they require interaction (clicking) in order to extract more information. The framework offers some suggestions of order by nature of its design. Things tend to proceed from the top left and elements are positioned uniformly across the wide range of visual media of different styles. I have integrated further graphic connections that suggest a weaving engagement with the exposition and reflect my personal view on the connections that exist across and between works. However, the purpose of the framework is not to dictate, quite the opposite; the parameters of the exposition are kept simple to provide a launching point for a personal and distinct engagement from the reader. Exploration, testing the limits, getting lost, or even slightly confused are crucial and desirable elements of this exposition and of my compositional practice in general, especially when dealing, as this exposition does, with an actively participating audience. This exposes the essentially interpretive nature of performance, underlining that even the strictest rules can loosen when communicated via performance.
A few suggested parameters
This exposition is about choice and interaction. Spend about an hour looking around. This should be plenty of time; it is also, coincidentally, a very common length for a performance where audience participation is required. Don't be frightened to follow your nose and find your own logic about when to read or watch, when to move on, and what to leave unfinished. As you navigate this exposition you are making decisions, you are organising the material as you see fit and thus you are implicit in the composition of this material as a performance. Your decisions within the framework I have provided are meaningful and compositional and it is my intention that they will have an effect on what is communicated and when.
I am fully aware that I haven't made any conclusions about the compositional nature of reading. Perhaps the things I’m talking about are too simple. They follow along the lines of statements such as ‘anything can be art’ and questions like ‘what is art?’ These are notions so broad that they are practically useless. More useful to my practice are broad statements such as: 'if words are used and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art.' So too are equally broad questions: is writing about art art or not? Is all reading compositional? And to introduce one more: is all written text music? These words are just so full of tantalising and joyful potential that they are worth everything to me. At times, it is precisely in reflection of these words that I can know that what I do and what I am doing is composing.
A sort of conclusion
It is important to note that with this text I’m really not trying to make any grand statements. It is a collection of words and decisions that function more as a demonstration of how I think about composition. In one of my biographies, the one I use for funding applications, I refer to composition as ‘my way of trying to understand little bits of the world’. Previously I have written about the self-improvement games that I play, where I try to adjust my behaviour according to tasks. The one I have written about most recently has a simple rule: to never pretend to have heard of an artist or composer or researcher. This also excludes saying, ‘Oh, it rings a bell’ or other such easy lies.
Working with tasks, instructions, and game structures in this way is very much my strategy for composing. I’m realising that composing is deeply personal. It is part of my personality, manifest for others to witness, but all in a non-emotional way. My work gives the audience a glimpse into how I try to operate as a human being in the world: someone who is striving to be better and to leave a positive influence.
In stating that the act of reading could be compositional, it is my wish to leave open the potential that this is true. That by accepting this we can start to be a little more playful with our decision-making, letting fun, curiosity, and criticality guide us, resisting tradition for its own sake.
This is why, in 2017, I submitted my PhD thesis as 14 separately bound scores. This is why platforms such as the Research Catalogue, where I have a canvas rather than a page to communicate my research, excite me more than the format of traditional journal articles. I want space to compose the conceptual framework of everything I do, I want to support audience members in their decision-making, handing certain compositional decisions over to them. I want these things to become visible through performance and I want everyone I meet to make active and considered choices.
Perhaps, then, this is the point and the conclusion to all this writing. Can my fundamental and over-simple definition of the compositional act aid and progress my artistic research activity? Can it encourage me to keep being critical and investigative through my practice and to bring about subtle shifts in the territory and little victories and celebrations along the way? If so, then I feel it is perhaps through simplification that we can reveal an extraordinary and complex web of thoughts that can support long-lasting intrigue into the very essence of what it means to exist in the world as an artist and a researcher.
So I ask one final thing of you, and that is to embrace the not-knowing, remaining undecided about the broad questions I've proposed. Instead, perhaps carry a little of the piece Cheap Lecture by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion with you, as we say aloud together:
‘We don't know what we are doing and we are doing it.’
Click for less information?