“The café con leche soul of the Colonel flies out the window” (or something like that) F. Garcia Lorca, stage direction from Buster Keaton’s Stroll, 1921.
As we charge recklessly yet optimistically forward into the 21st century, how do we make sense of our role as performing artists after the all the slapstick and slapdash fun of the 20th century? Lets face it, of all the centuries, the 20th was the most fun century by far. The running leap into all the craziness started in 1879 with Thomas A. Edison and his invention of the first practical, long-lasting light bulb which meant that no-one had to go to bed at a reasonable hour anymore. Instead, people stayed up to all hours drinking and painting crazy paintings, writing absurd plays and incomprehensible poetry and just basically thinking up any crazy thing they wanted. Lobsters were placed on telephones, appliances were exhibited in art galleries, a mustache was painted on the Mona Lisa, artists locked themselves up in cages, nudes were no longer nude. Also, Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in 1905 had revealed the interdependence of space and time and dissolved the notion of spatial versus temporal arts. Poems began to sound more like music and music sounded more like skyscrapers. And of course, somebody invented the movies, which confused everyone by showing events happening in the wrong order. Then, as if things weren’t crazy enough, halfway through the century suddenly teenagers became the most important and influential people on the planet, wreaking havoc on decent society with amplified electric guitar sounds and dances that mimicked bugs.
“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the world is imploding,” Marshall McLuhan pointed out in 1964.¹ Time and space had been abolished by the extension of our central nervous system via electric technology, resulting in a melting down of specialization and a need for inter-disciplinary thinking. “Today serious artists everywhere are seeking the precise points where the nerve endings of each art stretch out to touch those of the other arts. Thus we have stereophonic compositions, graphic poems, kinetic sculpture,” R. Murray Schaeffer said in 1967 ².
One thing that I continue to find baffling about “serious music”, in Vancouver anyway, is the lack of attention to visual concerns in performance situations. As long as I can remember, my own experiences of music have been inseparable from and uniquely informed by my related visual experiences. In the 90’s when I first started attending “serious music” shows with any frequency, there seemed to be (in contrast to my usual experiences of punk rock shows) almost a disdain for visual elements in musical performance, as if they somehow cheapened a purer experience of just “listening to the music alone”. There was a prevailing negative idea of “superficiality” placed on visual concerns that makes me think of puritanical religeous organizations that disdain any kind of ornamentation as the devil’s work.
In Richard Kostelanetz‘s book Conversing with Cage, John Cage is asked for his definition of theatre; musical performance being after all, a form of theatre. His only real criteria is that theatre should engage what he calls the two “public senses”, that is, seeing and hearing, and he adds that he would like his definition to be as broad as possible to include the idea of everyday life as theatre ³. These two central ideas were both strongly present in my early (positive) experiences of music which first entered my life via the mystical object of the transistor radio, (a beautiful thing to behold) and later my older brother’s rock’n’roll record album collection.
In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, “The power of radio to involve young people in depth is manifested by its use during homework by youngsters and many other people who carry transistor sets in order to provide a private world for themselves amidst crowds.” ⁴ The transistor radio was first introduced to me around 1969 by Terry Smith, the tomboy next door, immediately presenting an exit from my parents’ world of standardized behavior (and classical music) into a glitzy technicolor theatrical world of where anything was possible. The music that my parents’ generation saw as self-indulgent nonsense perpetrated by “a bunch of phonies” who wore makeup and strutted around in ridiculous pants had for me the power of a fairy tale, and even a reassurance that “real life”, as my parents called it, was something that could be avoided.
“Beginning in the late 1950’s, the transistor radio gave young people the means to orchestrate their lives, to carry the beat anywhere they wished, no matter what their parents said” ⁵. Besides being private, they were beautiful and stylish, available in pop-art colors and cool space-age design, like the brand-new music that came out of them. As a young person, I took it for granted that my experience of words, sounds and colors as inseparable from one another was universal. I could not understand why my parents only liked music in dreary shades of brown and taupe. From a very early age, classical music had already been seriously compromised for me by the fact that I was I growing up in a house which was stuffed with nonsensical furniture and painted all the wrong colours. My dad routinely blasted Beethoven records at top volume and I have never found it easy to separate this music from the claustrophobic listening environment of my parents’ house. The power of this association was demonstrated for me when I saw Jaques Demy’s Lola ⁶ at the Cinémathèque some years ago. In an opening scene of this gorgeous black and white (I love black and white) film, a wayward son returns to his hometown in France, cruising the the Atlantic seaside in a long white Cadillac to a soundtrack of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I couldn’t believe all of a sudden how good Beethoven sounded in the proper visual context.
“About 40% of synesthetes ‘see with their ears’,” ⁷ researcher Richard Cytowic and neuroscientist David Eagleman report in Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. But what comes first here, the chicken or the egg so to speak? Did I hear Beethoven in the shades my parents (“nature lovers” who thought everything should be “natural-looking”) chose to decorate their house or was it because the word Beethoven was (and still is) seen by me as brown (with certain unavoidable black and yellow stripes…)? Is the B in Beethoven brown because the word “brown” begins with the letter B? Then why isn’t it blue? I don’t know if I can blame my parents for my childish aversion to so-called classical music or not and as far as I know science has not yet provided a comprehensive answer. And why did the very different music coming out of the transistor radio trigger a whole new palette of colors that were far more interesting and exciting to me than my parents’ music? Is my automatic association of sounds and colors responsible for my inability to “just listen” to music without being distracted by “irrelevant” objects in my visual field? One woman, a synesthetic music teacher interviewed in Cytowic/ Eagleman’s book, speaks of her inability to cope with real life situations such as navigating a busy intersection: “Every one of my senses is being battered. I find it very difficult to keep control because I’m not sure whether what I’m seeing is what I’m hearing or what I’m hearing is what I’m seeing” ⁸. This is an extreme example, but it perhaps illustrates the interdependence and inseparability of our two “star” senses.
Famous composers such as Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Gyorgy Ligety, Amy Beach, Sibelius, Olivier Messaien, and Stevie Wonder all agree to hear music in color and use color as an important compositional tool, much as I always choose words according to their color when writing a poem. Relatedly, John Cage also talks about how visual concerns came to inform his musical compositions. “I put into the chart things that would produce not only sounds but that would produce actions that were interesting to see.” ⁹. He also says that he finds recorded music most interesting when there is something in the environment to look at. “If you are in a room and a record is playing and the window is open and there’s a breeze and a curtain is blowing, that’s sufficient, it seems to me, to produce a theatrical experience” ¹⁰.
Growing up in an oddball environment like Vancouver (beautiful setting/ dog’s breakfast of a few historic buildings and interesting skyscrapers mixed with junky, suburban sprawl, hideous “Vancouver Specials” and other cheap looking junk houses and buildings) probably started me off to a nervous relationship to my visual field. I think as a kid I took it for granted that I had to get used to a certain amount of ugliness in my environment, that “it didn’t matter” if the view from the car window when driving down Marine Drive with my parents made me feel sick to my stomach. Now this seems very sad to me. I think that every day we should make the most of our living and working spaces, to create and maintain a setting worthy of the idea of “everyday life as theatre”, including our sonic environment and making informed choices about what sounds to include in our ambient soundscape. Often performance spaces seem poorly conceived to me. If the acoustics aren’t frankly unbearable (sharp noises that bounce around the walls and chip pieces from my skull) there seems to be little attention to design and use of space, creating an overall experience that is both uncomfortable and jarring and I often find myself leaving with a headache. For me this is a representation of the muddled values of our time in which the wrong shortcuts have been taken, resulting in the poverty and pollution which constitute the intolerable global situation we have created for ourselves.
“I think art’s work is done.” John Cage said in the 1980’s ¹¹. “As far as I’m concerned twentieth century art has done a very, very good job. What job? To open people’s eyes, to open people’s ears.” He goes on to say that from now on we can do art for fun and frivolous reasons while turning our attention to the most important thing which is social change. Perhaps more adherence to the idea of “everyday life as a theatrical experience” rather than the “art-versus-real-life” nonsense that was perpetrated on me by society during my harrowing suburban childhood can be a force for this change.
“I think that people always hoped (the avant-garde) would be finished, but that the trouble is that it will never be finished. The reason that it won’t be finished is because the avant-garde is synonymous with invention, discovery and change; and these are essential qualities so that they will always be here to irritate people.” ¹²
¹ Understanding Media p. 3
² Ear Cleaning (no page number)
³ Conversing with Cage p. 107
⁴ Understanding Media p. 298
⁵ Something in the Air, p. 65
⁶ (France, 1961)
⁷ Wednesday is Indigo Blue p. 87
⁸ Wednesday is Indigo Blue p. 102
⁹ Conversing with Cage p. 117
¹⁰ Conversing with Cage p. 113
¹¹ Conversing with Cage p. 287
¹² Conversing with Cage p. 254
Works cited/ plundered/ plagiarized.
Cytowic, Richard E.,MD and Eagleman, David M., Ph.D. Wednesday is Indigo Blue. The MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 2009
Demy, Jaques. Lola, Film, France 1961
Ficher, Marc Something in the Air. Random House, New York, NY 2007
Fuller, Buckminster, Ed. K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller Starting With the Universe Whitney Museum of American Art, NY 2008
Kellein, Thomas Fluxus. Thames and Hudson Ltd. London 1995
Kirby, Michael Happenings.E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc. USA 1966
Kostelanetz, Richard Conversing with Cage. Routledge, New York, NY 2003
McLuhan, MarshallUnderstanding Media. McGraw Hill Book Company, New York 1964
Salzman, Eric and Desi, Thomas The New Music Theatre: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008
Schafer, R. Murray. Ear Cleaning: Notes for an Experimental Music Course
BMI Canada Ltd. Don Mills, Ontario 1967
Schafer, R. Murray. The Book of Noise. Commercial Press, Peterborough, On. 1998