Notes on Space and Time: Sara Rodrigues explores the legacy of John Cage
February 2, 2016 | NME Internal Press
2016 sees no slowing of pace in the NME’s concert schedule. One week after their performance at Rich Mix, some members of the ensemble were invited to participate in John in a Cage, a two-day event in memory of the American composer, taking place at Chalton Gallery (London) from January 23rd to January 24th.
Curators Cristina Ramos and Helena Lugo accepted the hard challenge of dealing with such a multiform aesthetics as Cage’s without slipping into easy dogmatisation. The duo aimed for a wide-range exploration of the artist’s legacy under the sign of multi-mediality and cross-over practices.
The event followed on their Duchamp-dedicated exhibition, Duchamp is innocent (October 24th-30th 2015) and carried further their research about the heritage of avant-garde movements in the current scene. The NME composer Sara Rodrigues presented her Notes on Space and Time, performed by four performers from the ensemble: Roxanna Albayati (cello), Nicole Trotman (flute), Evie Hilyer-Ziegler (viola) and Gabriele Cavallo (clarinet).
Notes on Space and Time exhibited a two-fold artistic nature: on Saturday 23rd it took place as a live performance of variable duration, while its physical “remains” were maintained as a fixed installation which was available for viewing on Sunday 24th. The piece was intended as a critical reflexion upon many elements of Cage’s aesthetics and it proved well in achieving a convincing result avoiding clichéd solutions, which is a common risk among similar experiments.
The performance consisted of the construction of the piece itself, starting with the preparation of tickets that provided indications about “actions”, dynamics” and “pitches”, to be mixed in different containers. Through randomly-determined extractions, the performers collected the pitches in a row – and, through the process of an online twelve tone row matrix calculator, generated the complete pitch material to then be scored on a graph paper.
Following this, the four were asked to draw the table around which they were sitting and the floor plan of the space, intending the graph paper as a map of the room. After the first stage, the performers were asked to pick up a ticket in turn and to perform the action on it, which usually entailed movements in the space to find the things to be performed or recorded. The others drew the position where these were found on the graph paper, deriving the pitches to employ hereafter.
Actions included either recording objects or bringing them to the table, recording features in the room, or engaging with people in the audience. The objects, recordings, and even the people were to be performed musically for a certain amount of time, determined by the minute when each performance started, according to a series of dynamics randomly extracted from the last container. While each “action performer” was fulfilling their task, the others were asked to mimic them on their instruments, employing the pitch (or the range of pitches) derived from the row.
The process continued in a circular, clockwise sense, and each performer was assigned two actions over the whole work. All passages, selected actions and durations were scored down on a specific sheet, and all the materials – including tickets, graph papers and notes – were left on the table. The result was a sculpture-like installation testifying to the process of the work and constituting, at the same time, a physical outcome to be exhibited as an object.
Notes on Space and Time was an insightful attempt to deal with John Cage’s aesthetics, starting from his peculiar use of chance operations. No doubts, one of Rodrigues’s main inspiration is to be found in the Music of Changes, a piano solo work in four books that the American composed in 1951-52 for David Tudor. In this work, the artist recurred to the Chinese Book of Changes (Yi-Jing) to organise the material in a chance-generated musical form.
Rodrigues demonstrated a mature understanding of Cage. Without abiding by the reading of his work as an acritical employment of chance operation, she grasped the idea of randomness as a means for letting complexity rise. A tool for problematizing the composer’s authority through the refusal of a unitary compositional method. For Cage, this constituted a clear point of divergence from seemingly similar aleatoric experiments – such as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke – whose failure in overcoming the traditional concept of art was determined by the use of chance as an end in itself, still serving the composer’s personal expression.
On her turn, Rodrigues conveyed Cage’s ethos: Notes on Space and Time saw chance as one among other generative processes, employed alongside the composer’s indications and a good degree of agency from the NME musicians in deciding how to fulfill their tasks.
By asking the quartet to engage actively with the surrounding space, non-artistic objects and even other artists’ installations could be used as sources of sound for Rodrigues’s piece. This slackened the self-referential autonomy of the artworks and foregrounded the mutual dependence (and the mutual definition) of the aesthetic and the everyday.
Another remarkable element of Notes on Space and Time is the focus on the construction of the work, fairly in line with Cage’s interest in processes rather than results – partly due to the author’s study of Zen Buddhism, partly due to the cultural climate of the first decades of post-modernity.
Rodrigues demonstrates autonomy in synthetising this in an original way: while the performance on Saturday exhibited the live-creation of the piece as an act of performance, it was crystalized as a result in an fixed work, complicating even further the permeability of the aesthetic domains of music, performance art and installation.
The installation piece exhibited on Sunday remained as a document testifying to the artistic exploration of the gallery and its objects/features, accounting on Rodrigues’s intention to create a “note” of what happened when the performance occurred. The importance of these spatio-temporal determinations reveals the genuinely site-specific character of the work, being an event that was live-constructed within a particular environment and, at once, an analysis of the environment itself.
It is noticeable that the artist used the sonic materials without reducing them to the construction of a musical piece, but rather to generate a participative piece of performance art. Sounds, gestures, bodily movements and words were bounded together in an experiential object that escaped delimitations in terms of defined art practice.
This clearly resonates with Cage’s disdain of music as a closed notion – as it was construed according to the modernist idea of medium-specificity – and of his efforts to overcome boundaries between artistic domains.
Rodrigues’s attempt to addressing art as an organic and social source of creative expression, with fluid limits between its internal categories, certainly owes much to Neo Dada and Fluxus experiments. Alongside Robert Rauschenberg, George Maciunas and LaMonte Young, Cage was a main inspirator of the aesthetics of these movements.
On her turn, rather than dwelling on the achievements – and the manifest contradictions – of the past decades, Rodrigues seemed to question them from the aware perspective of a mature artist, able to articulate her work through a good degree of complexity and to balance the conceptual and experiential elements in a coherent piece.
In general, the NME fitted well in the framework of the exhibition, which featured performances by artists Richard Vartan Melkonian, David Somló&Alexandra Baybutt, Patrick Coyle, David Price, and Himali Sigh Soin. Participation, involvement, and also a touch of irony were the common traits of those works, coherently accounting to Cage’s art and his contradictory, often elusive aesthetics.
To play with words, instead of caging the author’s influence within strict categories the curatorship did well in framing it as an alive presence in today’s artworld. Something to engage with rather than subserviently conform to. For the members of the New Music Ensemble, it was another evidence of their artistic and intellectual skills and capability in being in active dialogue with the present.
Following on John in a Cage, curator Cristina Ramos, composers Sara Rodrigues and Richard Melkonian, and performer Gabriele Cavallo were invited to a radio interview on Resonance FM, January 29th. They discussed the art show and the importance of John Cage in regards to the contemporary panorama of culture at large. Live recorded on Friday afternoon, the talk was re-broadcasted on Sunday 31st. You’ll be able to listen to the show on the NME website soon.
Words and editing by: Gabriele Cavallo