Christian Marclay at the Whitney
On Saturday 7/17 I went to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City to see a performance by Christian Marclay and Shelley Hirsch. Marclay is an artist, musician and composer, who most famously has been using turntables to manipulate sound since the 1970’s. He comes not from the hip-hop dj traditions of Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, but rather in the vein of the experimental art and compositional techniques of John Cage, Nam June Paik, and The Fluxus movement. He has performed with Sonic Youth, John Zorn, and many others.
The show itself will be up until September 26th, with numerous performances and events. There is also an enormous chalkboard wall, where vistors may contribute to writing a ‘score’, multiple sites for the musucal performances, video works, and collages/collections of Marclay’s. One piece consists of clothing he has collected that has musical notes on it, and a bottle of nice whiskey with glasses. when performed, models put on the clothing, share the whiskey with some musicians, and they play the notes the models are wearing. A collection of LP album covers bearing musical notes on the covers in another piece. With these pieces, Marclay is taking musical notation that is being used for illustration or decoration, and asking musicians to make it functional again, by interpreting this as a score–a task that will require mental flexibility, imagination, and a proabably a good dose of humor as well.
In the back corner of the exhibition was a room with couches, and a sound system playing Marclay’s manipulations of vinyl records. A case in the corner showed records that had been broken or cut, and then put together with fragments of other records. These sound collages were instruments that Marclay has played in performance. Other records had marking and stickers, much like those of a hip-hop turntablist. I’ll try to put up images of these records here soon. I found these objects utterly fascinating, perhaps because they destroyed objects I’ve been taught to revere and preserve. By breaking them and making something new, Marclay has managed to continue the Dada aesthetic tradition in a powerful manner.
For the performance on Saturday, vocalist Shelly Hirsch performed Marclay’s score, which consisted of a slideshow of photos of onomatopoetic words from production packaging and other such advertising/signage. “Zip”, “Zoom”, and “Bang” etc were performed by Ms. Hirsch in a improvisation that consisted of pop-culture references to songs, jingles, as well as reactions thoughts, and just sounds. she used three different microphones, each treated differently. one was very straight, un-treated sounding, one had more reverb added, and the third had a variety of effects that I believe Mr. Marclay, seated across from here, was manipulating via laptop.
From the perspective of a theatrical sound designer, it was an interesting scenario. The performer was reading a score/script, which the audience was reading at the same time, and improvising her performance, while the composer/sound designer/artist, was improvising his treatment of the performance. Ms. Hirsch did have the option of choosing which microphone to address… It might have been more interesting (to me) to have Marclay choosing/mixing the sounds, rather than her choice… this would have been more akin to the jamaican dub style of mixing, which can be done live as well as in the studio.
I did have to set up a live vocal effect years ago, for the production of an adaptation of Timon of Athens entitled Beggar to The Air. This was turned into a one man show, except for an otherworldly offstage voice that we ran through an effects processor (my elusive Stanton/Vestax DDG-1 stereo delay unit). Live it was performance. had we recorded the voice, effected it, played it as a sound cue–would not have been the same thing.
I hope to get back to see more of the performances at the Whitney, before the show is over in late September. If you have the opportunity, it is an eye ear and mind opening experience.