Christian Marclay started as a visual artist, studied art in Switzerland where he grew up and came to the United States in 1977. While studying at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, he began to get interested in performance art, which in turn developed into an interest in playing music. He was intrigued by Duchamp and his idea of the ready-made and use of mundane things. Long before appropriation became de rigueur in music through digital sampling technology, Marclay noticed that artists like Richard Prince (the Panamanian-born American painter and photographer who started to re-photograph, deconstruct, and recontextualize magazine ads featuring the Marlboro Man) and seminal DJ artist GrandMaster Flash were doing the same thing in the early eighties, but with different media. Over the last 20 years, Marclay has also created a variety of mixed media sculptures, often incorporating familiar objects such as stereo speakers, telephone receivers, and magnetic tape. He has had solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern, London (2004), the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2001), and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2001), and has been included in many group exhibitions around the world.
Screen Play is a musical score realized as a video projection by Marclay in which found film footage, all black and white, is combined with general simple computer animation to create a visual projection interpreted by live musicians. As Marclay says, “Moving images and graphics give musicians visual cues suggesting emotion, energy, rhythm, pitch, volume, and duration.” Aside from layering the animations on top of the found imagery, mostly from Hollywood films of a bygone era, no processing or effects are added. However, considerable time and attention was given to timing and the editing of the clips shows a lot of sensitivity and skill. As a fixed object, the score provides the mechanism for guided free improvisation, much as a piece like Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise does, except live and projected for the audience to see and not just on the printed page for the musicians.
The presentation of Screen Play at Xujiahui Park as part of the Shanghai e-Arts Festival was organized and coordinated by Defne Ayas (curator at New York-based PERFORMA and adjunct faculty member of New York University in Shanghai) and Davide Quadrio (manager of BizArt Art Centre in Shanghai, the first not-for-profit and independent creative lab in China). They had the creative idea to present the 30-minute piece not once, not twice, but three times in succession, each with a different group of musicians providing very different musical contexts (or more precisely re-contexts) for the visual score.
In the first set, the popular local art-rock group Top Floor Circus used their own appropriation techniques as they layered venerable Chinese pop songs, ballads, and country western tunes in time to Marclay’s images. In part two, a more avant-garde sensibility took over as Ben Houge, Yan Jun, and Bruce Gremo took their shot. Houge is a composer originally from the Pacific Northwest who came to Shanghai to do audio work for videogames, with lots of granular synthesis-based Max projects on the side. Gremo is another US ex-pat who has been in China for a number of years. Based in Beijing, he concentrates on the flute family, performing on Western flute, shakuhachi, xun, and hybrid instruments that use flute-like interfaces as digital controllers. Yan Jun, also based in Beijing, is a sound artist and poet whose live performance “engages space feedback, loop and voice/language to make hypnotic noise.” His motto as stated on his (Japanese) Myspace page is “all sounds equal…” and further states that Yan Jun “uses concepts of recycling, feedback and reduction to creates sound art work, which related to field recording, installation, image, video, publishing and multiple forms.” This trio seemed to take the most precise timing cues from the video score and Houge especially made use of the animation’s hints and cues about musical velocity, pitch direction, and so forth. Stalwart of the New York new music scene Elliot Sharp arrived in Shanghai just a few hours before taking the stage for part three with award-winning guqin player Wu Na and Chinese opera percussionist Wang Li Chuan, both from Beijing. All three are excellent top-rank musicians, but as neither Wu Na nor Wang Li Chua are particularly attuned to the techniques and practices of free improvisation, it fell to Sharp to hold the set together with the skill of the long-time improvising maven that he is. Still in all, I felt it worked, and I would rank the entire evening with whatever the words are in Mandarin for “just gosh-darn fun.”
What do you think about the idea of combining improvisers with traditional musicians from non-Western cultures?
I’m off to London in the morning for a performance as part of a program called “The Art of Sampling,” which will include a set from Ms. Vicki Bennet, who goes under the moniker People Like Us, Ergo Phizmiz, and some younger artists whose work I am keen to discover. With luck and a good internet connection, I should have a report for you in less than a fortnight. See you next time!