Though I have been interested in the creative intersections between the arts for many years, I’ve always been extremely wary of programatic music- composing that is designed to describe or support something else instead of itself. Which is why the artistic exchange between John Cage and Merce Cunningham was one of the most successful collaborations I can think of- the dance and the music coexisted in the same space at the same time, as equals.
Usually, when music is used in conjunction with other work, it ends up like most film music- as a background that wants to tell you “how to feel.” There are exceptions, however, and Hannah Arendt’s excellent introduction to the collection of Walter Benjamin essays, Illuminations, explained to me how those exceptions work. It is through Benjamin’s conception of metaphor; this is different from the conventional definition, where one thing is compared or presented as analogous to something else. From Benjamin’s perspective a metaphor is the thing itself, represented by another form, “for a metaphor establishes a connection which is sensually perceived in its immediacy and requires no interpretation.”(1) Arendt uses examples from the Iliad to illustrate her point: as when the Achaians grief corresponds to the onslaught of winds across the water, or when the lines of an army moving into battle correspond to the waves of the sea hitting the shore. They are equivalents, the army is the sea in motion as much as the sea is the army in action.
I apply Benjamin’s idea of metaphor to explain why the music of the Rite of Spring was not programatic- Stravinsky’s music did not illustrate or support Diaghilev’s ballet, it was the dance. Or, in another example, why Ennio Morricone’s music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is unlike a conventional soundtrack- because it is synonymous to Sergio Leone’s film. The music is completely disconnected from any relationship to the time period (electric guitar?) or previous examples of soundtracks for Westerns, and no one who has seen that film can hear the opening moments of the score without being suddenly thrust into Leone’s world. This idea of metaphor, as Walter Benjamin conceived of it, is what I thought about when trying to compose the music to celebrate the artists and work represented by the Monster Roster exhibition, currently on view at the Smart Museum in Chicago.
I am not suggesting that the music I wrote was able to successfully realize the type of metaphor I’ve described. But I am saying that I was absolutely disinterested in trying to compose material that would try to suggest to someone how they should feel while looking at Leon Golub’s, Colossal Figure. My goal was to examine the variety of work represented by the exhibition- and the social and political environment in which that work was created- to discover a way to represent those specifics as clearly as possible when applied to music and, in doing so, find out what the result would be.
As an improvising musician and composer, these words of George Cohen’s from the Monster Roster exhibition catalog had a significant impact, “To achieve an ever-present moment is a kind of artistic triumph but one can ask more. Paintings can reach beyond the limits of immediacy to evoke recall and prophecy.”(2) The “ever-present moment” is key to the nature of playing and experiencing improvised music. And in recent years the ideas of “recall” and “prophecy” have had greater significance for me in my approach to organizing written material. The need to challenge the restriction of chronological time on music- a restriction that is like the the borders of a canvas for a painter, or gravity for an architect- has become paramount to me.
As a musician who focuses on non-commercial work, I often hear that it’s easier for audiences to deal with challenging visual art than with music. A piece of art doesn’t always tell you where to look, and you can always look away. However, with music, an individual is forced to contend with an experience that won’t stop until it has run its course in time (though it’s always possible to walk out of a concert or turn off a stereo, just as you can close your eyes in front of something you don’t particularly want to see). But listening, like looking, also has a gaze. I’m hoping that Momentum 3 allows members of the audience the chance to shift their focus as they choose, and to follow a narrative that they create out of the material, that is particular to them.
I thought a lot about the shattered world that the artists included in the Monster Roster had encountered directly or indirectly during World War II, and after, the existentialist nature of their work in response to those experiences. What were the sounds of those times? Music included jazz, serialism, the New York School (which included Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff); information was disseminated by radio and newsreels at the cinema. There were turntables and the LP. When I looked at Nancy Spero’s, Homage to New York (I Do Not Challenge), the pairs of letters in the image made me think about codes- without knowledge of the artists she referred to, the initials indicated would not have had the same meaning- and codes made me think about the Cold War.
By chance, when I was invited to the opening of the Monster Roster exhibition, I was reading Hannah Arendt’s, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The book is devastating, as is the history it recalls, and it was hard for me not to think about our current political times, of Trump and Cruz, as I finished the text. And then to consider her (perhaps) unintentional prophecy. When looking at Golub’s paintings from the Monster Roster period, I find it difficult not to think about how they anticipated the politics and visual content of his later paintings. The “ever-present moment” captured by the work created by this group of artists- their contemporary experience- is something that we now recall; their prophecy feels like an anticipation of our own time.
There is no question that this is a very discouraging period, and on an international scale. So was the time connected to the Monster Roster- before, during, and after. But some of the most powerful artwork made during the 20th Century was created in response to the horrible circumstances connected to and surrounding the second World War. When faced with so much devistation the answer quite easily could have been, “What’s the point of art now?” Considering the present socio-political circumstances across the globe, the same question could be asked.
“In the life of every human being there comes the terrible, wonderful moment that forces its way into the consciousness of some like a lightning bolt and into the subconscious of others like a sacred pain, the moment when you recognize the finitude of your own existence… this recognition of the ultimate meaninglessness and actual fortuitousness of every existence- indeed of every existence from that sacred moment of recognition on, which should confer meaning on it again in free decision and great strength in the fight for something wonderful, possible, meaningfully conferring meaning in the midst of meaninglessness- is not taught as enjoyment to be experienced, not as pleasurably liberated pleasure, but as fear, which in pleasureless pleasure makes absence of freedom palatable.”
-Rainer Werner Fassbinder (3)
The title for this piece came from the series of Momentum art exhibitions held in Chicago from 1948 to 1957, which is the time period I focused on when composing the material for tonight’s performance. The range of artists and jurors who participated in those exhibitions is astounding and inspiring. Since the beginning of 2016 I have worked on a series of projects in the United States that include a diverse range of musicians who I feel are among the most exciting people working in this country- a week residency at the Stone in New York; a recording session that took place in Nashville which combined members of a group of mine, Made To Break, with Nate Wooley and C. Spencer Yeh; now this concert celebrating the artists and work represented by the Monster Roster exhibition. Tonight’s performance is the third in what I feel will be an ongoing series of events, and stealing Leon Golub’s idea and title, “Momentum,” as the name for this succession of collaborations seemed appropriate.
-Ken Vandermark, April 27, 2016, Chicago
My thanks to the other musicians:
Tim Barnes (drums, percussion)
Nick Macri (acoustic bass)
Lou Mallozzi (turntables, CDs, microphones, mixer)
Mars Williams (saxophones, toys)
Jessica Moss (Smart Museum)
Richard Born (Smart Museum)
John Corbett (Corbett vs Dempsey)
Jim Dempsey (Corbett vs Dempsey)
Michael Christiano (Smart Museum)
John Harness (Smart Museum)
Erik Peterson (Smart Museum)
Theaster Gates (Rebuild Foundation)
Kate Hadley Toftness (Rebuild Foundation)
Amy Schachman (Rebuild Foundation)
Jessica Gaynelle Moss (Rebuild Foundation)
Cassaundra Bails-McLeod (Rebuild Foundation)
Ken Stewart (Rebuild Foundation)
(1) Hannah Arendt, from her introduction to Illuminations, (Pimlico: 1999), a collection of essays by Walter Benjamin, edited by Hannah Arendt, pg. 19.
(2) George Cohen, from the exhibition catalog to Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago, (Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago: 2016), curated by John Corbett, Jim Dempsey, Jessica Moss, and Richard A. Born, pg. 104.
(3) Rainer Werner Fassbinder, from The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, (The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1992), edited by Michael Tötenberg and Leo A. Lensing, pg. 174.