Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sounds Are Like People: works by Morton Feldman and Heiner Goebbels at MAC, Lyon

“It’s a funny story, actually – ” A portly, bespectacled New Yorker in his late fifties is addressing a bemused crowd in Frankfurt. It’s 1984. The title of the talk is ‘The Future of Local Music’ but it’s a title the man on stage is barely even paying lip service to. 

“Stockhausen asked for my secret. ‘What’s your secret?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have a secret, but if I do have a point of view, it’s that sounds are very much like people. And if you push them, they push you back. So, if I have a secret: don’t push the sounds around.’ Karlheinz leans over to me and says: ‘Not even a little bit?’” 

“I’m not like Stockhausen,” Morton Feldman insisted that day in Frankfurt, “I’m not creating music, it’s already there … ” Feldman’s not-being-like Stockhausen is one of the perennial themes of the now-famous Frankfurt lecture. “What really makes a composer distinguishable from another composer,” he says later, “is one’s orchestration,” – before adding, “ – except for Stockhausen…” 

This un-Stockhausen-ness of the great Brooklynite composer is illustrated by a diagram sketched on an A4 sheet, one of thirty recently acquired by the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon, in which we find two columns headed up ‘Stockhausen’ and ‘Feldman’. In between the two we read down the parameters ‘Logic’, ‘Continuity’, ‘Climax’, ‘Tension’, and so on. Beside each of these traditional musical values – twelve in all – there’s a little tick in the column marked ‘Stockhausen’ and a little cross in the other.

Feldman’s felt-tipped notes from that Frankfurt lecture, spread across the walls of the MAC for the exhibition Listen Profoundly (which finishes today), show a sprawling and erratic sensibility. Skewed underlinings, crossings out, scarcely legible scribblings and multiple exclamation points abound in a selection of scribblings that resemble the exact opposite of the Powerpoint presentation your colleague gave at the lunchtime meeting the other day. 

We find strange diagrams with an oblong grid here, a few marked pizzicato there, dots, staves, the word ‘JERK’ in block capitals. They resemble impromptu scores as much as lecture notes – and maybe they are. This is a composer, after all, for whom sounds themselves seem just “intuitively to do things” and ideas are like “children … yearning for attention.”

It’s all about orchestration, he insists. That, and listening. “One of the problems about functional harmony is that it hears for us, see,” Feldman says. “We no longer have to hear. We are the found object, you see, where it’s listening for us. Harmony is like going to a public accountant to do certain work.”

“Listen profoundly” Feldman wrote on one of his A4 sheets, with a circle and a square below. The shapes recall the windows of the main hall in the Genko-an temple in Kyoto. “There are two differently shaped windows with views to the same garden,” Heiner Goebbels explains in the notes accompanying the exhibition, “a square window – the ‘window of confusion’ – and a round window – the ‘window of enlightenment’. More than twenty years ago I could encounter these two perspectives on a concert tour through Japan and in 2008 I started a series of installations freely adapting this experience.”

Genko-an 69006 (2014) takes us into a blackened room divided by a pillar. Taking a seat on a bench at the back of the room, we are presented with a choice: sit one side of the pillar and face a large square in neon, sit the other side, and you will face a neon circle. Everything else is blackness and – thanks to the pillar – there isn’t anyway of sitting such that you can see both.

Out of the darkness come voices, some familiar, some strange. Each voice – Alvin Lucier reading the instructions to I Am Sitting in a Room, Gertrude Stein reading from The Making of Americans, Marina Abramovic and Ulay assuring us repeatedly that “everything will be alright”, and a whole host of ethnographic recordings from around the world – comes and goes, scarcely overlapping or crowding each out. None of the sounds are being pushed around here. Feldman, doubtless, would approve.

The bright neon lights of the circle and the square seemed to me to tremble a little or to fluctuate in intensity from time to time but I was never sure whether this was simply an effect of staring at them for so long. I spent some time in this darkened room, watching and staring at these shapes, facing sometimes the circle, sometimes the square, sometimes trying – and failing – to see both at once. But I couldn’t honestly say that I felt more enlightened looking at the one or more confused looking at the other.

I could certainly say that I enjoyed my time in Goebbels’s ‘garden’. Having spent the previous hours, before arriving at the museum, soaking up the botanic gardens next door, I found these acoustic ‘flowers’ as perfectly placed, as harmoniously balanced, as those releasing their perfumes outside.