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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, March 01, 2004

THE SOUND OF ALBUM COVERS

The musician and visual/conceptual artist Christian Marklay has a show at the Seattle Art Museum that the baby and I took in yesterday. I had first come across Christian Marklay’s name on a CD by the Kronos Quartet, where he played turntables on a piece by John Zorn. I have since learned that Marklay was the first turntablist, the first to scratch records to musical purpose pre-dating that of Grandmaster Flash and the founders of hip hop. (On further thought, perhaps not the first -- I’m sure I remember John Cage and David Tudor using amplified record-player needles as musical instruments back in the 1960s or maybe even ‘50s.) I came across Marklay’s name a second time on a CD by Sonic Youth, a 2-CD set devoted to compositions by experimental composers in the institutional European tradition such as Cage, Steve Reich, Christian Wolf, and others; Marklay is one of several guest performers on the collection.

The Zorn piece, which I intend to give more particular intention to, as well as the Sonic Youth collection, satisfy two musical cravings I frequently feel as a listener. First, a craving for garish noise. Second, a craving for new and unexpected sounds.

The second craving is a symptom of Faustian modernism, the quest for aesthetic novelty most pithily expressed by Ezra Pound’s commandment, “Make It New!” The quest for the new is famously paradoxical: If un-precedented-ness is all that recommends a creation, its only recommendation is destined for immediate obsolescence. What one might call Platonic capitalism, or the Idea of Capitalism, loves the immediate obsolescence of commodities, and inasmuch as I’m a consumer of commodified aesthetic things like CDs, the Idea of Capitalism loves me.

But phooey to such rhetorical blah-de-blahs as “the Idea of Capitalism.” It’s the sellers of records who love me. Very actual people.

A side-stepping aside: to a large degree I’m down with the Marxist description of how the bosses coerce profits out of the labor of the workers. But as Norman O. Brown has argued in writing about the French thinker Georges Bataille, capitalism is the mode par excellence through which we humans have expressed our excess energies creatively as well as destructively. Not to denigrate or de-value the creativeness of the aesthetic expressions of people living in (or, past tense, who lived in) non-capitalist societies, but for sheer variety of vibrant deep surfacy excess aesthetic thing-itude, capitalism wins. (Whether there’s a contest, and if there is, whether the contest is an on-the-whole good and whether it is the most important aesthetic contest, are open questions. Tentative off-the-cuff answers: depends on perspective; probably not; no.)

The phrase “Faustian capitalism” comes from Marshall Berman’s book “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity,” a book I haven’t gotten all the way through. The catchy part of Berman’s title, the part that comes before the colon, is a quote from Marx. Which leads to the next point (and I don’t know whether this comes directly from Berman, or from my friend Jake London’s description of Berman’s book): capitalism is more Mao than Mao. Mao preached the Permanent Revolution, and that’s what capitalism makes happen, that’s what capitalism *is*. All values constantly churning; “all that is solid melts into air.”

Therefore: It’s no surprise that for the last 100 years in the world of music, if you want to hear new or novel sounds, check out what the young people are listening to, in the most commodified and often mass-marketed of styles. The musicians creating musical worlds that are attractive to young people (attractive in sonic as well as visual senses) constantly create and discover new sonic wave forms and combinations, new sounds, new musics. Sometimes the novelty is of the most negligible quality, but the New is ever-changing and ever-happening, even as it subsumes, consumes, and builds on the Old.

The intersection of music and the representation of musical subcultures through visual style is something Christian Marklay’s visual and installation art explores. His shtick is exploring intersections of visuals and music. Lovely, witty, mind-pinging show at the art museum.

Some of the visual jokes made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any of those jokes. One that may have made me laugh out loud (I don’t remember!), but in retrospect is intellectually Nothing New -- well, let’s rewind the tape a bit. More context.

Many of Marklay’s works use old-fashioned LP covers. He alters them, collages them, paints on them, tears them up, fictionalizes them. He plays with them. (To use a pop music term, sometimes he even “covers” them.) A lot of his record-cover work, as well as a series of fictional concert posters, explores how visual cues and fashions create expectations as to what the music will sound like: how visual fashion signifies style and genre. The jokes that I remember laughing at all played with witty fictional album titles.

For instance: A ‘50s or ‘60s record cover of a presumably Swiss man with a moustache and wearing Swiss short pants and a Swiss-looking hat, standing on a presumably Swiss mountainside with a giant traditional Swiss horn several feet long. Marklay has taken this actual record cover and collaged in a fictional album title, with letters that fit the ‘50s - ‘60s visual style. The title: “Swiss Savage.”

Which probably doesn’t sound that funny when you read it, but that’s the point of visual art, right? You’ve got to see it to experience it.

The joke that made my head go “ping” and may have even made me laugh, but which in retrospect is intellectually Nothing New while still being visually engaging and happening: A quilt of classical record covers, at least 25 or 30 of them, “sewn” together with wooden screws, some records upside down, some sideways, some right-side-up, all featuring passionate-looking conductors waving their batons, hair-shaking optional. Pingy-but-in-retrospect-Nothing-New title: “Dictators.” The romantic capitalist cult of the conductor which dates back to the spread of industrial capitalism in the early 19th century -- Marklay isn’t the first to observe this. But seeing all those dudes in their black suits, with their batons, in the throes of passion -- it’s great.

The show’s loveliest piece is a wall covered with a few dozen small black-and-white photos of singing mouths. Not faces, just mouths, open wide in a singing posture. Such a lovely human variety! Some round mouths, many more oval. Some taller than wide, some wider than tall, some moustached. All distinctly different, all recognizably singing. “Chorus,” the lovely title. Not necessarily “in perfect harmony,” as Coke would have us, but affirming the beautiful wisdom of Coleridge’s great line: “No sound is dissonant which tells of life.”

The show’s tour-de-force is a video piece, 4 simultaneous montages shown on 4 separate screens taking up a wide wall. The montages are made up of clips from commercial films, all clips showing people making wordless sound. Many of the film sources show fictional musicians; many are documentary; and some show real musicians acting fictional roles (the real-life late great pianist Oscar Levant in “An American in Paris,” fictionally playing timpani and many other instruments in a fantasy sequence). Marklay doesn’t appear to have altered either the visuals or the sounds of the films, other than to edit and splice them together. It’s a beautiful piece, continually absorbing and surprising and lively. My 13-month-old son, watching from the backpack, dug it too. I know he liked it because usually he doesn’t abide stopping anywhere for long when he’s riding on my back, and he let me stand in the dark and watch it for several minutes.

I hope to see the show again. I don’t know how the jokes will stand up to repeated viewing (maybe I'll remember more of them!), but the video collage and some of the other pieces are calling me to take them in again.
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