Stephen Vitiello and Marina Rosenfeld

The Look of a Musical Performance

STEPHEN VITIELLO: I was thinking about your work and this idea of having a signature work. I always think of the Sheer Frost Orchestra as the first, immediate vision when someone mentions your name, even though you have a large body of work and other ways of performing.

MARINA ROSENFELD: That’s another thing that happens partly through your own agency and partly as a consequence of varying degrees of interest by presenters and so on of different works that you have. For the purposes of this conversation I guess I’ll say, for those who haven’t seen it, that the Sheer Frost Orchestra is my 17-woman electric guitar improvising orchestra with a score and playing system that I developed for it using nail polish bottles on floor-bound guitars. It initiated a whole series of works about a set of issues that I’m interested in having to do with the idea of virtuosity and skill, and the lack thereof, or what the history of an individual needs to be to enter a piece of new music—not just as a listener, but also as a player. Also the idea of where musicianship is inside of a human being, what can coax it out, and also engaging histories of instruments within pieces, so that the electric guitar operates both sonically, and then floating over the piece as a signifier.

The piece was first done in 1994. There have been many versions though this decade, always with new scores and new players and new scenarios. I recently premiered a new orchestra called the Emotional Orchestra.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: I think I read a blurb or a press release.

MARINA ROSENFELD: You may have also read what I would call an emotional attack on it from Allan Kozinn in The New York Times. He came to cover it and was absolutely aghast about everything about it from beginning to end. [laughs] But the level of his reaction and the things he attacked were really very telling. The salient issue in the piece really, really upset him.

The new work is for an all-female orchestra, 20 players this time. A mixture of really hardcore improvisers and complete novices were all playing bowed instruments—all the string instruments, harp, the percussionist, electric guitar, a quasi-electric bass, all working out the idea of emotion through a graphically notated system of stripes of different varieties and densities around the idea of bowing.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: And each with a violin bow or a cello bow?

MARINA ROSENFELD: Yeah, everyone with a bow. Another element of the piece that really, really upset him—perhaps no one else, but I don’t know that [laughs]—was the fact that I worked with the fashion collective As Four to do a sleeve that sheathed the arm of each performer in a kind of gaudy, golden, architectural—differently shaped in each case—single sleeve. Everyone had street clothes and this extravagant structure on their bow arm, this extraordinary looking protrusion on one limb of each performer, highlighting the fact that this piece was about bowing and repetition. Again, trying to go from this set of concerns that I’ve developed over almost 10 years in the earlier work, into a new piece.

I’m really interested in developing the new orchestra and some of the visual ideas in it. It seems to be quite taboo, but I actually am really interested in the relationship of fashion and clothes to new music. Not in a magaziney, what-are-they-wearing kind of way, but in the sense that this is an unspoken element. It’s quite customary to speak about the body, but the body is actually not a naked body and it’s also not a clothed body. So what body is that? I’m interested in making real what body that is. So looking at this garment is sort of an entry point into this whole discussion. I’m really interested in going in that direction and finding ways of making that relationship more explicit.


Marina Rosenfeld's Sheer Frost Orchestra
Marina Rosenfeld’s Sheer Frost Orchestra

STEPHEN VITIELLO: It is interesting because of [how we think of] frames for work. New music really has avoided staging to such an extent, coming out of a classical setting, wearing black. Now it’s just, be as invisible as you possibly can.

MARINA ROSENFELD: It probably is the most controversial element in my work. Since the nail polish bottles… I’m attracted to continuing in that vein.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: I can’t think of anyone else who is.

MARINA ROSENFELD: It’s very exciting. I’ll be doing it again in Germany during 2004, but this was a first run-through at Deitch Projects. It was great doing it here in New York. It was the first time I did a first of something in New York. Usually you bring it to New York after you’ve perfected it. We just did this really punk rock. It was very exciting.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: Is there also a commodity that Deitch sells out of this in the gallery?

MARINA ROSENFELD: Right now this was a piece that was documented in video and some photographs. But I am interested, as I’ve said, in extending the play of materials and histories and bodies and people in this piece. One element that I love is selecting people to come inside and be the artwork. That in itself is a kind of curating.

STEPHEN VITIELLO: It’s also a kind of composition.

MARINA ROSENFELD: Yes. It’s really an upsetting notion—I mean it shouldn’t be. We have so many composers who have explored and extended the relationship between improvisation and authorship: there’s the entire history of jazz for one thing. But it still rankles some people, especially if you’re using classical instruments. Someone who has a very strict Western art music classical training, and a musicology degree from Harvard, going in the direction that I’ve gone… You’re either supposed to be part of that world or you’re not.

In the context of talking about histories and trying to rewrite and redefine lineages for ourselves as individual artists—the Times reviewer was completely was upset by the presence of Laurie Anderson. I invited her to play and she agreed to do it and I was thrilled. It connected us with one of the pioneers of the avant-garde and unconventional use of the violin in a kind of transmedia context, and this reviewer made a remark, “What was she doing there?” Somehow the presence of fashion in this sacrosanct new music domain poisoned the whole environment for him and thus for her to be there must have been some kind of a fashion statement. It made it so ridiculous. But it doesn’t matter ultimately, because Laurie was so open minded about coming down with all these young people that she didn’t know and it was great!