New Music and Globalization 4: Archipelagos

Few of these works can be experienced in their entirety, but that is partly the point; they act as a corrective to our uniquely modern assumption that—given advances in travel, communications, and media technology—we can know the whole world.

Written By

Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Norway islets

Photo by Sigfrid Lundberg, via Flickr.

In this series of posts, I have considered various models of globalization and how they might have influenced, or be read in, the aesthetics and techniques of various contemporary music practices. Having considered hybridization, networks, and flow, I would like to finish in more speculative territory, inspired by the late post-colonial theorist Édouard Glissant.

Born in Martinique in 1928, Glissant was one of the most important and original of Caribbean thinkers. (He died in 2011.) Drawing on the legacy of slavery, the experience of colonialism, and the geography of the Caribbean, he developed a theory of globality that not only celebrated diversity, but also emphasized the inevitable and desirable opacity of human and community interactions. Globality, in Glissant’s terms, was the contemporary experience of the world as “both multiple and single,” distinct from globalization, which he described as “uniformity from below,” driven by “multinationals, standardization, [and] the unchecked ultra-liberalism of world markets.”[1] Such a world prefers unpredictable heterogeneity to homogenizing synthesis.

Glissant refers to the Caribbean archipelago, a melting pot of local cultures within a wider shared identity, as a model for understanding this new global reality. The concept of the archipelago has subsequently been taken up within the visual arts to describe the phenomenon of works or exhibitions that exceed the bounds of a singular presentation. Tim Griffin, art critic and executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen, gives the example of Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Utopia Station.[2] Although originating at the Venice Biennale, where it was first shown in 2003, Utopia Station also consisted of interlinked yet isolated presentations that took place around the world and over subsequent years. It is an example, too, of the nomadic practices I mentioned in my previous post—the idea of the archipelago is closely tied to the idea of mobility. Comprised of such numerous iterations, each of them only partial, it was unlikely that any individual (other than the artists themselves) would ever experience the complete Utopia Station, giving the whole a structure comprised of isolated fragments that are not designed to form a complete whole. This, the artists suggest, reflects Glissant’s concept of globality not as a unifying force, but as a marker of plurality and difference that resists standardization and homogenization.

As well as plurality, then, the archipelago concept refers to a world that is too large and too multiple to be comprehended in its entirety. The idea suits the biennial and exhibition structures of the visual arts well, yet a trend within music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries towards works that are similarly large and/or multi-part in scale and form suggests that some of the same concepts are spilling over.[3] Robert Ashley’s operatic cycles (the only comparison in terms of scale I know of to Stockhausen’s much more commonly discussed LICHT cycle) are an example. The seven parts of Perfect Lives—themselves part of a trilogy of opera cycles that also includes the trilogy Atalanta, and the tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea—are structured somewhat like an archipelago in that each is self-contained, but also relates to a larger whole. When the New York City-based performance collective Varispeed gave site-specific restagings of Perfect Lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2011, they highlighted this dimension of the work. The cycle’s fundamental unity as a series of TV broadcasts was broken by relocating each episode to a different site around New York, with the associated ruptures in continuity, audience, and so on.[4]

Varispeed’s Perfect Lives adaptation connects its multiple sites along a linear—even narrative—trajectory. As with Utopia Station, the expectation is that few audience members will follow that path from beginning to end, but this does not affect the coherence of the work. Craig Shepard’s On Foot takes the same principle, but puts the journey closer to the heart of the conception. Between July 17 and August 17, 2005, Shepard hiked across Switzerland, walking for between two and nine hours a day for a total of 250 miles. Each day he wrote a new piece, which he performed outdoors at 6 p.m. wherever he was on a pocket trumpet he carried throughout the journey. Shepard’s walk was a wholly personal, private one: there is no expectation with a work like this of any continuous audience, even between two consecutive days’ pieces. In this way the world of the work is even more internally fragmented, even as its form as a journey from point A to point B is entirely coherent.[5]

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007) takes the union of time and space one step further. It is described by the composer as “possibly the longest composition ever written for continuous performance by live players.”[6] During a concert, one member of the ensemble must play a single note of their devising. This note is then “transcribed” by another player according to a structured form. A postcard description is also sent to the composer. For the next concert, the previous player of the single note becomes the transcriber, and someone else plays a single note. This process continues until 99 notes have been performed and transcribed. For the 100th concert the transcriptions are to be distributed among the players and then played simultaneously. Built into this fantastically rich concept is a conflation of space and time (as the 99 geographically and temporally distinct notes are compressed into a single performance event) and an acknowledgement of the impossibility of truly knowing the experiences of others through the bureaucratic yet inherently imperfect transcription process. It stands therefore as an ideal, if somewhat abstracted, representation of Glissant’s concept.

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007)

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007): form for transcription.

Lisa Bielawa’s two Airfield Broadcasts work more like geographical archipelagos, with things happening in the same moment but dispersed spatially. The two pieces were written for disused airfields that are now public parks: Tempelhof in Berlin, the site of the Berlin airlift; and Crissy airfield in San Francisco. Each used hundreds of musicians, who moved around the spaces—both of them very large—according to Bielawa’s compositional plan, grouping and re-grouping as subsidiary ensembles throughout the course of the work. Both pieces used audibility, spatial distance, and ensemble coordination as parameters, elements that Bielawa has explored before in smaller site-specific works such as The Right Weather (2003–4), for members of the American Composers Orchestra distributed around Zankel Hall in New York, and Chance Encounter (2007), for 12 musicians in “a transient public space.”

In one section of Tempelhof Broadcast, for example, two groups of ensembles are arranged such that the ensembles within each group can hear one another, but far enough apart that they can’t hear the other group. From onsite experiments Bielawa calculated this distance to be about 250 meters, although this varied depending on the prevailing wind direction and whether the instrumental sounds were high or low. Both parameters extended into her compositional design. Each ensemble group had a lead ensemble, which gave audible cues for when the other ensembles should enter with their material (assigned from a list of possibilities according to the players’ proficiency). Although the two ensemble groups could not hear each other, anyone standing between them could listen to their antiphony, uncoordinated between the two groups. This is where a final ensemble stood, a group of trumpets, which gave a signal to both group leaders for the end of this section. Space, therefore, directly influenced temporal form.[7]

In between such sections, the hundreds of musicians followed Bielawa’s carefully pre-planned choreography, gradually spreading further apart and finally leaving Tempelhof park altogether and continuing to play in the surrounding streets. As they did so, the aural unity of the work gradually dissolved. The composer suggested at the time that one way to listen to the work would be to take to a bike and cycle around the park, like many of its day-to-day users, either following a single ensemble or sampling several in sequence.

Bielawa’s movement plan

Bielawa’s movement plan: Each dot is an ensemble, color coded by type. Screenshot from “Tempelhof Broadcast Animation.”

In all of these examples, our experience of contemporary globality is figured through the balance of the work’s internal heterogeneity and overall wholeness, the relationship between multiplicity and singularity, the diagonal intersection of time and space, and the state of continuous transition between spaces. Few such works can be experienced in their entirety, but that is partly the point; they act as a corrective to our uniquely modern assumption that—given advances in travel, communications, and media technology—we can know the whole world.

[1] Édouard Glissant, trans. J. Michael Dash, untitled fragment, part of Les périphériques vous parlent, available at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/english/edouard.swf; this quotation at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/french/anglais.html. Quoted in Tim Griffin, “Worlds Apart: Contemporary Art, Globalization, and the Rise of Biennials,” Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 11.

[2] Griffin, “Worlds Apart,” pp. 11–13.

[3] It may also be found in architecture, in Rem Koolhaas’s notion of “bigness”.

[4] Varispeed’s performances are detailed in Gelsey Bell, “The Story of the Huge Face of an Arrangement: Varispeed’s Adaptation of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives,” Tempo, no.268 (2014), pp. 6–19.

[5] Shepard revived the idea for On Foot: Brooklyn in 2012. Here, however, the walks took place weekly between February and May, and Shepard invited others to walk with him. The relationship between space, time, and reception is therefore different in this case.

[6] See: http://www.kim-cohen.com/projects/brevity_home.html.

[7] Bielawa explains this section in a short video produced as part of the supporting documentation for Tempelhof Broadcast: http://vimeo.com/57372658.