The Sound and the Theory:
Intermedia as Construct, Intermedia as Category
by Peter Frank
Excerpted from a paper given at the Sound Art conference, Neues Museum Weserburg, Bremen Germany, Fall 2005
Intermedial artwork does not exist in a form divisible by its components. There is no music, no sound to be taken out of a sound sculpture to allow the object to stand on its own. Like any musical instrument, there is no artwork if the object is not operating, there is only equipment. Nor is there any artwork if there is no experience of the object. In a work of sound poetry, the sound is the poetry, the poetry is the sound; everything else is notation on the one hand, just un-organized sound on the other. Intermedia requires not simply co-dependency of effects, but the thorough integration of disciplines, that is, of formal practices.
Indeed, intermedia is, if anything, a formal rather than a subjective condition. Intermedia dissolves traditional disciplinary praxis, and only incidentally confounds the sensate response of the audience. The graphic score, for instance, cannot be heard until it is played, but it inheres the tradition of musical notation at the same time as it inheres the praxes of drawing, writing, and/or graphic design; it is thus an intermedium because it manifests visual and musical praxis and infers the production of sound. Concrete poetry conflates the praxes of formal verbal and visual disciplines – and, of course, can also function as a score for sonic realization.
In his Projections of 1950-51 Morton Feldman was the first composer to devise a graphic notation relieving performers of responsibility for playing precise sounds, giving them instead the responsibility for choosing sounds within generalized parameters. Earle Brown was the first to give the performers responsibility for defining what those parameters themselves might be, by presenting an entirely instruction-free image as a score, “December 1952” from Folio. The score bears no instructions, only marks, and can in fact be played in any direction (although the presence of the composer’s signature in one corner betrays the score’s double life as a drawing). John Cage, however, was the one to determine an overarching method and philosophy out of this condition of indeterminacy, engaging extensive chance methods (especially incorporating the I Ching) and a broad vocabulary of non-traditional notations. Cage’s scoring methods ultimately came to straddle the boundary between score and visual artwork.
Cage’s first ventures into non-traditional notation predated his friends’ by several years, with the new system of marks he needed for his prepared-piano compositions in the 1940s. His further extension into graphic scoring coincided with Feldman’s and Brown’s in the early `50s, but – except for the radical notation employed for 4’33” of 1952 – it was in the mid-1950s that Cage created his first entirely note-free scores, appropriate to his first investigations into electronic music, his increasing interest in extra-musical gesture, and his residencies in Europe. Cage opened up even further in the 1960s to non-musical graphic sources, including poetry, cartography, astronomy, and other visual and quantifiable disciplines.
As theorist and practitioner Cage provided the post-war avant-garde with the clearest philosophical and practical model for the expansion of artistic disciplines into full cooperation and even fusion with one another – within, that is, a context of coherent formalization. Cage’s most notorious composition does precisely that. As its instrumentalist is not supposed to produce any sounds, 4’33” effectively superimposes a strict chronometry – two very short outer movements and a long central movement, all of which are defined by precise timings – on the sonic (and by extension visual and kinetic) phenomena that happen to occupy the same time and space as the presentation of the piece.
The development of the graphic score after the innovations of the group around Cage quickly took on international scope, especially as interest in aleatory compositional methods emerged in Europe (in dialectical antithesis to the serial methods derived from the Second Viennese School). By time Cage first visited Europe in the later 1950s he found a network of composers and musicians, and artists and writers, sympathetic to the indeterminant approaches and graphic methods he and his New York colleagues had developed.
The emergence of concrete poetry and its sonic equivalent demonstrably paralleled and intermixed with experimentation in musical notation, particularly in its parallel and equivalent forms in France, including Lettrism and poésie sonore. The Franco-Italian movement le Nouveau Réalisme, with its concentration on the object, would seem to have little practical commonality with these other early manifestations of intermedia. But a strong performative aspect running through New Realist praxis, and a strong intellectual bond with the gestural social radicalism of the Situationists, brought the New Realists close to the expansive intermedial projects of the Americans. By time the New Realists emerged as a group around 1958 they had already forged notable associations, collaborations, and cross-practices with their sound-poetry and electronic-music counterparts.
In this regard the most notable, not to mention ambitious, New Realist was Yves Klein, whose fearlessness and restless imagination led him to realize some of the most spectacular public manifestations of his day. Among his best known are his “nude paintbrush” demonstrations, which were usually accompanied by a musical ensemble playing a single held chord. This 45-minute-long Symphonie Monotone was evidently conceived by Klein himself, but composed by the ORTF-associated composer Pierre Henry. Klein, and Henry, regarded the one-chord “symphony” as a serious musical work, in the vein of Cage’s 4’33”. But the fact that the musicians (and for that matter Klein himself) were dressed in full concert regalia – tuxedos, black gowns – clearly indicates that the conditions of performance parodically mirrored those of the concert hall. In this, the Symphonie Monotone also anticipated Fluxus.
Fluxus was not an intermedium like concrete poetry; for that matter, neither was Nouveau Réalisme. Rather, these movements can be seen as rubrics under which the process of intermedialization could more easily and coherently be undertaken. The movements coordinated the efforts of diverse artists who shared common aesthetic goals and overlapped in their techniques, but differed in their means. Their intermedia may have been different, their attitudes towards intermedia may have been different, but their purpose remained the same: to expand artistic practice by interfusing the disparate disciplines, precisely and skillfully, so that the original disciplines were not betrayed, only reinvented.
While Le Nouveau Réalisme was defined by a critic and theorist, Pierre Restany, the Fluxus movement was organized by an erstwhile architect and art dealer, the Lithuanian-American George Maciunas. It was in Europe that Maciunas introduced Fluxus as “neo-Dada in music.” From the start, Maciunas conceived of Fluxus as a global phenomenon, and as a musical phenomenon with resonance in the other arts. This was true equally in the work of Fluxus and Fluxus-related artists who were trained as musicians -- LaMonte Young, Benjamin Patterson, Yoko Ono, Philip Corner – and those who were not – George Brecht, Al Hansen, Alison Knowles, Robert Watts. Performances more often than not took the form of concerts rather than proscenium displays; musical rather than theatrical or literary conventions were more likely to be burlesqued; and even the terminology of musical scores dictated the wording of the brief verbal instructions that typically functioned as notation for Fluxus events. Thus, purely verbal notation was introduced as common graphic practice by Fluxus composers. The 1962 George Brecht composition Concerto for Clarinet, for example, consists entirely of a single small card on which is printed the title and the one-word instruction, ”nearby.” This “score” functions not as a delineation of action or sonic organization, as do Cage’s or Earle Brown’s scores even at their most open-form, but as a provocation to interpretation. To judge from actual Fluxus practice (of Brecht and others associated with the movement in the 1960s), the performance of Concerto for Clarinet need not even rely on the implied parameters of “concerto,” “clarinet,” and “nearby,” it need only evoke them. A verbal or even optical reading of the score could constitute its performance.
If Fluxus musical performance continued the liberating mode of musical thinking set in motion by Cage, it also extended Cage’s expansive influence on the practice of musical notation into typographic structuring that derived from or at least suggested theatrical, poetic, or prosaic rather than musical models. This directly anticipated the more or less purely verbal propositions of conceptual art, and modes of interpretation associated with Fluxus and Cage alike helped give rise to the varied conventions of performance and video art as developed in the 1970s. At the same time, Cage’s practice, and that of Fluxus, encouraged the dilation of the sound-producing instrument, expanding the source and the arena of sonic experience into the room, the air, and even the airwaves.
The legacy left by the Cage circle, concrete poets, the New Realists, the Fluxus artists, and other groups of intermedialists came to full fruition in the 1970s. This decade was dominated not by isms or styles, but by modes of intermedia –praxis-oriented rubrics such as video art, book art, installation art, and performance art that presumed a conflation of traditional artistic disciplines into new intermedial forms that, finally, could only be delineated by their physical components. Painting need no longer be just painting, and when it was, it was notable as such. Theater was no longer limited to the stage, or poetry to the page. And musical characteristics – the generation of sound and the formal practices of music-making – were to be found throughout artistic practice, thanks to the universal appeal of rock, but also to the liberating example of Cage and his acolytes. Everything we did in the 1970s was, among other things, music. And, despite the resurgence of praxis in traditional disciplines, which is not at all unwelcome, theater still takes place, all the time, wherever one is, as Cage once said. It can be a theater of the ear, or simply of the performative gesture. But everything we do now is still at least music.
Yves Klein and Pierre Henry, Symphonie Monotone, 1961. Score.
Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum; art critic for Angeleno Magazine and the L.A. Weekly; and a published poet (The Travelogues, Sun & Moon Press, 1982).