Better Know A Weisslich: Cathy van Eck’s Music Stands

Music stands evoke, well, music. To evoke music is to evoke a wide and connotative range of social, cultural, political, and aesthetic associations. Music stands complicate, they: conceal, render actions opaque and subservient, trigger imagination (and make the mind’s eye anxious to glimpse beyond the veil), assert status, are practical, signify practice and rehearsal (and if your experience with practicing was anything like mine, music stands can also signify immense frustration!), suggest reenactment and repeatability even when challenged, focus the gaze of those who chose to stare at them, imply reading or review, separate, distance, and otherise, can (but do not necessarily) turn performers into musicians (or performers into actors playing musician), indicate something like duration (especially when placed in a row of ten!), induce ways of listening and codes of conduct, populate a scenography… the list could go on.

[an exaggerated representation of Andy Ingamells’ Long Piece. Photo credit: 840 concert series]

From conception, the WEISSLICH series has worked to extend and blend experimental music practices into and alongside performance art practices. And while, on the one hand, music stands are a familiar object within experimental music contexts, on the other hand, in more purely performance-focused work, music stands are less common. Music stands have the ability to instate barriers between performer and audience, creating a division that runs contrary to what I regard as a commonly held (if not misguided and/or illusory) tenant of performance art, namely, its experiential immediacy. As curators, this tension leaves the music stand in an uncomfortable position; it is something that we often discuss when thinking about the work we programme, and thus far we have maintained an equally ambivalent (at best), and, quite candidly, uneasy relationship with music stands.

Regulars at our events will note that we have used music stands in the past, and because of the blurry space that our concerts occupy, we do not take a dogmatic position with regards to inclusion or dismissal of this object. Reflecting back on instances where music stands were used, it is my feeling that the music stand occupied either a rather traditional role, which is to say that it was not terribly difficult to imagine what might be on the stand (most typically a piece of musical notation of the pitched variety), or an extremely practical role (as seen in the video of Stephen Crowe’s Tenvelopes linked above). However, for our upcoming concerts in London and Manchester, the music stand’s role becomes somewhat more problematic.

For both concerts we are programming and performing G Douglas Barrett’s A Few Marlenes (Where Have All The Flowers Gone?) which involves three performers copying facial movements based on screen-captured images from a filmed performance of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone? given by Marlene Dietrich in London in 1972. While we will be writing more about Barrett’s work in the coming days, I want to briefly mention this work here for the fact that we have made the decision to perform the piece using music stands. Although a realization of the piece does not necessitate the use of music stands, it is our feeling that the music stand signifies an act of reading on behalf of the performer, conveys a sense that some series of instructions are being followed, processed, and translated, and that, beyond the historically influencing factor of Barrett’s music emerging out of experimental music practices, the performance of reading is as fundamental to an appreciation of the piece as are the movements that constitute its realization.

In the instance of Barrett’s work, the music stand proves more problematic as an object of inclusion in a concert merging together fields of experimental music and performance art; the stands are not purely practical and there exists a more dramatic kind of disconnect between that information one might imagine the music stand (with)holding as compared with the actions of the performers. For this reason, and in resonance with the way that Ben Jameson’s Construction in Metal questions the associative and evocative dimensions of objects embedded in musical cultures, our concert in London addresses issues of how and what music stands stand for in two ways.

The first is in our new and experimental approach to what we are calling “incomplete programme notes” (another facet of reception we have thus far excluded for similar concerns of affording disengagement between audience and performer). During the London concert, audience members will be given a programme note/card containing the complete programme listing, but with only one item from the programme highlighted and an image on the flip-side that offers some insight into the respective piece. For Barrett’s programme note in particular, we are reproducing (in all its blurry goodness) an image of Marlene Dietrich taken from Barrett’s score, allowing an audience member the ability to peer beyond the music stand and see some part of what the performers are looking at.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 18.03.56
[Screen capture + timing from Barrett’s A Few Marlenes]

The second way we are addressing our inclusion of music stands to hold and read an, effectively, choreographic script that results in no intentional sound is by programming a new version of Cathy van Eck’s Music Stands – the sound behind the score – a piece that instrumentalises and musicalises music stands, that gives life (through movement and electronic prosthesis) to the excessively silent, and almost always still, frame of music documentation.

While reviewing the field for works that creatively confront the music stand, van Eck’s work stood out as an obvious candidate given the fact that she has written five pieces to date that feature music stands in some manner. Two interconnected pieces of work from 2009, Das Quartett oder Schumann in Netz and Ein Oktett für das Quartett (which recycles recordings from performances of Das Quartet), use music stands as part of larger theatrical productions. In Ein Oktett für das Quartett the music stands take on a particularly interesting role: loudspeakers are placed on the backs of a quartet of performers’ bodies and on a quartet of music stands, with all eight loudspeakers reproducing sounds created during performances from Das Quartett. The music stands become sculptural and fixed/objective reflections of the performers’ bodies – through presentation, the sonic outcomes of past performances are rendered into scores on display.

As an extension of this work, van Eck’s 2015 installation piece, Breeze, turns five music stands into a stationary choir sensitive to proximity. Creased and worn pieces of paper placed on the stands and gently rustled by small fans give way to vocal-like metallic singing as visitors draw closer to each ‘choir member’. Upon extremely close proximity to the stands, the choir of voices fades away and the visitor is drawn even further into the individual as a calmly frantic whispering emanates from the stand as evidenced in the following video documentation around 01:23.

[Coming close to a music stand in Breeze]

Music stands are ‘given sound’ in these works. This concept is taken to the extreme in van Eck’s two 2011 pieces for music stands, Music Stands – the sound behind the score and Stumme Diener. Here, the music stands are presented as the primary instruments of a piece and the sole resource from which sounds are derived. Both pieces are very similar, with Stumme Diener deviating ever so slightly from the exclusivity of the music-stand-as-instrument by including other implements/means of activating the music stands. In both pieces a set of music stands are each wired up such that a contact microphone attached to the music stand sends signal through a Max/MSP patch that live-processes the signal and sends it back through a small loudspeaker. The loudspeaker is variously attached to the music stand at different times to create subtle and oscillating feedback patterns whilst a few humans set the stands into choreographic motion by unfolding, readjusting, stroking and eventually contorting the stands into increasingly entangled sculptural formations.

music stand sculpture
[Music stands entwined at the end of Music Stands. Photo credit: Cathy van Eck]

Music Stands is a piece that enacts what van Eck terms “performative sound art” – art that “combines elements from performance art, electronic music, and visual arts.” In concert with an evening featuring highly choreographic work, the aspect of movement in van Eck’s Music Stands seems to me to be an intriguing complement to Barrett’s A Few Marlenes and gives sound not only to the silent music stands used in the Barrett, but also the silent facial movements that are part and parcel of the work. By programming Music Stands before A Few Marlenes, I have the sense that van Eck’s treatment of the music stand casts an aural shadow on the performance of the Barrett and potentially casts an even longer and wider shadow, affecting how one appreciates and contemplates music stands outside the confines of the event.

Come see Music Stands – the sound behind the score performed in London at the Hundred Years Gallery on the 23rd of April as part of Weisslich 6.

– Michael Baldwin

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