February 11, 2014

Pattern De-Control, or...

...how relating stuff to other stuff can make us less speechless

Rug-making was fashionable when I was a child and families still had unimaginable amounts of time on their hands. I remember making my own little rug, wearing out my patience and learning the valuable lesson that all aesthetic endeavour must come with such compromise as to take all pride out of it. For a while my rug hung over the sofa to humiliate me, until a parent made a really ambitious one to replace my faulty effort. I also remember my mother knotting a floor rug over months that was really huge and was said to follow traditional Turkish design. Only the colours were too fresh and the material had too much bounce, it would take a hundred years of nervously pacing back and forth to make it look good and valuable.

I think back to all of that now as I listen to Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? (1978), his first work famously inspired by a fascination with antique Anatolian rugs. I’m trying to recall the bodily memory of my own knotting and my faded knowledge of the woolly texture from inside, and apply it to the music. It sure doesn’t sound like rugs. Comparing versions, I prefer the interpretation by California Ear Unit, which has a collective nervousness as if wearing a rug down, but Blum, Vigeland and Williams with their more individual voices following separate lines along sometimes symmetrical, sometimes ornamental contours sound much more as if the rug association made sense... And still, while the composition unfolds, their small adjustments to the coherent vibe, each knot its own situation, become stretched out so far that the thread threatens to loosen.

Sadly, I am not qualified as a listener to connect to my rug-making experience. The only memory I retain of music that happened a mere minute ago is one of mood and density, and the shape of the patterns and how they build one onto the other is lost already. In fact I can think of few musics where I follow the tide – somewhat different, somewhat the same – so contently and think less of a return of distinct patterns or situations. I needn’t feel bad about it, though, since Feldman is fine with me just listening for the sounds. He criticizes that “the preoccupation with making something, with systems and construction, seems to be a characteristic of music today. It has become, in many cases, the actual subject of musical composition.” (Surprisingly he’s not taking a swipe at Cage here, whose systems and construction are probably even better known than the sounds they brought us to hear, but at Boulez and his hardcore implementation of serialism.) “Of course, the history of music is, in a sense, the history of its construction,” Feldman goes on (this is his essay “Predeterminate – Indeterminate” by the way). “Music has always been involved with re-arranging systematized controls, because there seemed to be no alternative.” He describes how through the centuries control got tighter and tighter, to which twelve-tone music again offered no alternative, how systematics took over until complexity could no longer be handled. “What was emphasized was the unifying of all new musical elements into significant form. An emphasis on this more evasive element – sound – would have upset the precarious balance of the ‘ideal composition’.”

And how could it have come to that, how could sound become sidelined by the forces of history? “The evolution of music is comparable to the multiplication of machines, which everywhere collaborate with man. Today, the machine has created such a variety and contention of noises that pure sound in its slightness and monotony no longer provokes emotion. In order to excite and stir our sensibility, music has been developing toward the most complicated polyphony and toward the greatest variety of instrumental timbres and colours.” That in fact was Luigi Russolo talking, whose take on civilization was more positive, but they’re discussing the same thing. Now Feldman is stuck in the middle of the century, with music at a total deadlock as compositional taxonomists immediately file away all innovation until, finally... “between 1950 and 1951 four composers – John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and myself – became friends, saw each other constantly – and something happened.”

What happened was a “concept of music in which various elements (rhythm, pitch, dynamics etc.) were de-controlled... Only by ‘unfixing’ the elements traditionally used to construct a piece of music could the sounds exist in themselves – not as symbols, or memories which were memories of other music to begin with.” Feldman speaks as a maker of music here, such freedom of memories of other music cannot be demanded of the listener, who will perceive that the sounds actually reaching his ear have the same degree of fixedness that any other sounds mindfully listened to would have. It’s true that, say, if I knew the Cage piece I listened to was following systems of carefully calibrated chance procedures, and the notes were not meant to form a kind of musical composition in the traditional understanding, it would let me off the hook as I would not expect from myself to make sense of the musical incidents as they fly by... Yet no matter if born from chance or inspired by graphic notation, the sounds would still be intentionally produced or controlledly communicated, precise utterances of an artful concept or organizations of previously existing but usually unperceived sounds within SilenceTM.

Feldman is not enamoured with the conceptual side, so he thinks less of silence and more of the chance pieces. In his essay “Crippled Symmetry”, he explains the systematics: “What Cage did was to compile a table of sound events – some just a note or two, others arabesque-like figures of different proportions. Included in other charts was information pertaining to the gamut of musical parameters. Through the tossing of coins and consulting the I-Ching as oracle, the ordering and subsequent combination of all this material was arrived at. The music was then ‘fixed’ through the same method of tossing coins into a non-progressive, rhythmic ‘spatial’ notation, not unlike a distance scale on a map.” It is difficult to read about events of this complexity and still believe in de-controlling forces at work (except “fixed” is in scare quotes), since even composerly intent will have no wriggling room once the system is in place. Feldman’s explanation for why this still is sound-centred music accordingly comes from an unexpected angle: “Because this music is subject to the multiplicity of disciplines inherent in its detailed assemblage, its musical shape is only discernible at the moment of hearing – like images in a film.” (While that’s sloppy, as we don’t hear images, and most films are more like listening to our memories of the Moonlight Sonata than anything very chancy at all – we still note that his focus is again on the making, to the point of calling the work an “assemblage” of processes taken ready-made from other disciplines... it is as if the multiplicity of alien intentions were obscuring the raison d’être of the sound itself until it became pure, and that purely in the moment.) “It is not involved with the grammar of design,” Feldman says about Cage’s music, and it is noteworthy that he does not suggest, like Cage himself, it were free of intention, but free only of the language of intent. (And of course Feldman himself at that point was not interested in freedom from intention as a composer at all, he posed more like a patient craftsman, when e.g. in conversation with Cage he said: “I do it one way and then I do it another. I do it with four notes, I do it with three notes. I put it here, I put it there… and then when you’re really saturated I take C and I put it against A and it sounds like a million dollars.”)

But back to the essay “Crippled Symmetry”, back to stories of rugs and, I’m afraid, more systems again. The text is from 1981, three years after Why Patterns?, and the process still sounds fresh to him: “A growing interest in Near and Middle Eastern rugs has made me question notions I previously held on what is symmetrical and what is not. In Anatolian village and nomadic rugs there appears to be considerably less concern with the exact accuracy of the mirror image than in most rug-producing areas. The detail of an Anatolian symmetrical image was never mechanical, but idiomatically drawn...” (Here Russolo’s evolution of music as a multiplication of machines can again stand as the opposite position on the same development towards mechanization, which Feldman as a connoisseur of craft abhors. I do remember from my uncle, who also collected rugs, that asymmetries and off-colours would generally mean more ethnic handicraft and therefore more value, but that such looseness of pattern was often faked in semi-industrialized wares at least since the early 20th century. But back to the composer staring at rugs:) “I’m being distracted by a small Turkish village rug of white tile patterns in a diagonal repeat of large stars in lighter tones of red, green and beige. Though David Sylvester is right in commenting that our appreciation of rugs as this was enhanced by our exposure to modernistic Western art, still this ‘primitive’ rug was conceived at almost the same time that Matisse finished his art training.” Is it not the measure of a true aesthete that he is able to judge the most diverse arts after one set of high-strung aesthetic values, and beyond that expect the same perfectly precarious off-balance of detail from his everyday? “One day I studied that Oriental rug over there in reflected light, and followed the silver gleams which fell on its web of plum violet and opaque yellow. Suddenly it struck me how much it would be improved if I could place on it some object whose deep colour might enhance the vividness of its tints. Possessed by this idea, I was strolling aimlessly along the streets, when suddenly I found myself staring at the solution. There, in a shop window on Eighth Street, lay a huge tortoise in a large basin. I immediately bought it and brought it home. Then I sat for a long time, with eyes half-shut, studying the effect. Decidedly, the Ethiopic black, the harsh Sienna of this shell dulled the rug’s reflections without adding to it. The dominant silver gleams in it barely sparkled, crawling with lacklustre tones of dead zinc against the edges of the hard, tarnished shell. I bit my nails while I thought about a method that might remove these discords and reconcile the opposition of tones. I finally discovered that my first inspiration, which was to animate the fire of the weave by setting it off against some dark object, was wrong. In fact, this rug was too new, too petulant and gaudy. The colours were not sufficiently subdued. I had to reverse the process, dull the tones and extinguish them by the contrast of a striking object, which would eclipse all else and cast a golden light on the pale silver. Seen like that, the problem was easier to solve. I decided to glaze the shell of the tortoise with gold.” A connoisseur of rugs, a somewhat Esseintes-like aesthete (yes, that last passage was from Huysmans) – symbolists studying handicraft of the middle ages, cubist studios full of African sculpture, Feldman’s rugs and Cage studying the I-Ching – connoisseurship often inspires an avant-garde to productively misuse alien aesthetic systems of differently coded knowledge and transfer them to their own doing.

But we’re not through Feldman’s collection of rugs yet: “There is another Anatolian woven object on my floor, which I refer to as the ‘Jasper Johns’ rug. It is an arcane checkerboard format, with no apparent systematic colour design except for a free use of the rug’s colours reiterating its simple pattern. Implied in the glossy pile (though unevenly worn) of the mountainous Konya region, the older pinks, and lighter blues – was my first hint that there was something there that I could learn, if not apply to my music.”

I first came across the parallel inspiration of rugs and Johns’s so-called crosshatch paintings on Feldman’s later work in an essay by Steven Johnson (in the otherwise lacklustre book The New York Schools of Music and Visual Arts). To illustrate this, Johnson takes the first painting completely given over to the crosshatch motive, Scent (1974), and starts analyzing its structure as something inherently musical (for elementary class): the painting is in three vertically divided parts – encaustic, oil on unvarnished canvas, oil on varnished canvas – and the crosshatches follow a repeating structure ABC CDE EFA. Then Johnson offers a structural analysis of Why Patterns? to prove the similarity of events with diagrams that look a lot like multi-panel paintings and so forth. And when I read this, most of all it struck me that here a painting’s musical properties served as the inspiration to a piece of music, and so it was more abstract than the music, while the music would reference both rugs and abstract painting to the point of threatening its own non-objectivity. (So much for Pater’s notion of music as the most abstract art the condition of which all other art constantly aspires to.)

Feldman goes on to relate what inspires him about Johns’s art, though reading the words one might suspect he talks more about his own work than the painter’s: “Rug patterns were either abstracted from symbols, nature or geometric shapes – leaving clues from the real world. Jasper Johns’s more recent paintings cannot be placed into any of these categories. Johns’s canvas is more of a lens, where we are guided by his eye as it travels, where the tide – somewhat different, somewhat the same – brings to mind Cage’s dictum of ‘imitating nature in the manner of its operation’. These paintings create, on one hand, the concreteness we associate with a patterned art and, on the other, an abstract poetry from not knowing its origins. We might even question in Johns whether they are patterns at all. When does a pattern become a pattern?” It is a common move in the Johns literature at least since the artist’s painting Flag (1955) to posit that e.g. this flag is not a flag (in the tradition of Magritte’s pipe not being a pipe), or even altogether non-objective. Here Feldman’s interpretation sounds like pretty average artspeak. Still it becomes clear that he was not in fact inspired by any music-like qualities, but rather by the opaqueness of the underlying systematic (which for him equals poetry), and so felt Johns’s work was occupied with similar questions of crippled symmetries and pattern variations as his own.

Further reading reveals that art historians generally seem uncomfortable with the crosshatch paintings when they try to reach beyond a structural analysis. In the standard catalogue on Johns’s work since 1974, Mark Rosenthal starts the relevant chapter by stressing how bewildering the paintings are, then quotes Barbara Rose, who called them “pseudo-abstractions – impersonations of an abstract style” (an abstraction that isn’t an abstraction like Magritte’s “pipe” again)... and somehow nobody thinks to have a good look back at Sol LeWitt’s four kinds of basic straight lines from 1969, which had delivered all the necessary clues even before the fact:

(Here’s Barbara Rose analyzing Johns’s Untitled from 1975: “1) Where edge meets edge, the brushstroke may continue in the direction it began, or it may be diverted in another direction, as if refracted by the edge of a square; 2) the direction of the stroke may remain constant while it changes colour; 3) both the colour as well as the direction of the brushstroke may remain constant across the boundary of a square; 4) in addition, the entire content of a given square may be mirrored in an adjacent square; 5) or the square may be repositioned or ‘flopped’ in the way that a reproduced image can be projected or printed backward; or 6) another possibility is that the medium may change from one square to another.” Morton Feldman analyzing Why Patterns?: “Example 1) is characteristic of a vertical pattern framed by silent beats; in this instance the rests on either end are slightly unequal. Linear patterns are naturally more ongoing, and could have the ‘short breath’ regularity of example 2) or anticipate a slight staggered rhythmic alteration such as in example 3). Another device I use is to have a longish silent timeframe that is asymmetrical, or a symmetrical frame around a short asymmetric measure.”)

In his structural reading of Johns’s Scent, Rosenthal sounds strangely tentative: “The flickering pattern of orange, violet and green brushstrokes is distributed across the canvas, and an overall compositional structure is present.” For anything marginally more complex he needs to quote an authority: “Thomas Hess noted that each panel is divided into three vertical subsections of about 12, 17 1/2 and 12 inches wide and that some of these repeat in a rhythm that can be described as a, b, c, c, d, e, e, f, a”... and from here on the analysis moves into the interrelations between patterns, panels and groundings. But once the canvas has been measured and he attempts the move into exegesis, all that Rosenbaum has to go on is the title. Pollock had painted a canvas also called Scent, and though Johns expressly forbade the connection, still Rosenbaum borrows a thought from David Shapiro, that Johns here gave “structure and permanence to Pollock as Cézanne has given to the Impressionists”. Which is very 19th century and the “fixing” (structure and permanence) does not have the required quote marks. Then Rosenthal closes with his own thought: “The only literal fragrance of scent is the paint medium itself. Yet the title suggests the presence of something masked in the lush brushstrokes, perhaps the structure that is hidden but sensed, as if a characteristic smell... Although he might otherwise be reluctant to suggest anything beyond what is literally given or literally implied, by giving Scent its title, Johns directs the viewer elsewhere, suggesting that the marks may in fact mean something.”

(“He had long been skilled in the science of smell. He believed that this sense could give one delights equal to those of hearing and sight; each sense being susceptible, if naturally keen and if properly cultivated, to new impressions, which it could intensify, coordinate and compose into that unity which constitutes a creative work. And it was not more abnormal and unnatural that an art should be called into existence by disengaging odours than that another art should be evoked by detaching sound waves or by striking the eye with diversely coloured rays. But if no person could discern, without intuition developed by study, a painting by a master from a daub, a melody of Beethoven from one by Clapisson, no more could anyone at first, without preliminary initiation, help confusing a bouquet invented by a sincere artist with a potpourri made by some manufacturer to be sold in groceries and bazaars.”)

Now what makes a reading of the crosshatch paintings so difficult, except that the artist never gave his own interpretation to guide the critic? (Johns only ever told the anecdote that he caught a brief glimpse of a car with this kind of pattern on it.) Is form all there is because in Johns we cannot trust even the abstractions? As I look down at the books strewn around my feet it strikes me that the way out of such speechlessness might lie in the much more trustworthy abstractions of Malevich, which are the mothers of all impaired symmetries and patterns abstracted from geometric shapes...

Indeed, Malevich has delivered several readings of his square that wasn’t a square. Browsing through his book The Non-Objective World it becomes clear that this artist’s more immediate connection to the abstract image has lost none of its usefulness: “The black square on the white field was the first form in which non-objective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling. Yet the general public saw in the non-objectivity of the representation the demise of art and failed to grasp the evident fact that feeling had assumed external form. The suprematist square and the forms proceeding out of it can be likened to the primitive marks (symbols) of aboriginal man which represented, in their combination, not ornament, but a feeling of rhythm.” Primeval mark-making as emotionally abstracted rhythm – this also takes care of the crosshatch paintings! Wayward geometric figures not identical with themselves, so not to be seen as themselves (and not as crosshatching, i.e. the ornamental rendering of volume) but individualized markers of time.

Malevich’s 1915 Black Square has another, similarly inspiring imperfection, and that is the maze of craquelure, which grew because Malevich had overpainted an earlier motif on a canvas in use.

Rather against the intentions of the author, who would later paint more glossy (though still skewed) squares for exhibition, this has allowed viewers to identify the work as classical painting in the sense of Joshua Reynolds’s dictum: “All good pictures crack.” It is a lo-fi square, the bad technique and visual side noises reinforcing the basic shape and idea, carrying a suggestion that the shape might in fact mean something, might form a subject. (Instead of the incident of the making as the subject, like reading the Black Square as not a painting but the illustration to an art-historical event.) From here we might think of Cage’s SilenceTM as a lo-fi silence, the crackle of the everyday reinforcing the idea of us learning to be receptive to no intended input. It is one of Cage’s most famous words: “Music is all around us. If only we had ears. There would be no need for concert halls if man could learn to enjoy the sounds that envelop him, for example, at Seventh Street and Broadway, at 4 p.m. on a rainy day ...” An idea that had been around for some time... here is an earlier connoisseur of the everyday, Russolo again, in my favourite text from him, “The Noises of Nature and Life”: “Are we not surrounded by strange and curious noises in our own home, by the most indefinable timbres and the queerest variations of pitch, emanating from the various pipes for drinking water, gas and heat? Who can deny that these noises are less annoying than those made from morning to evening by the neighbour’s piano?”

Cage took the Rosenthal article quoted above, extracted the original Jasper Johns sayings from it and made them into a poem: “the idea of background / (and background music) / idea of neutrality / air and the idea of air / (In breathing – in and out) / Satie’s ‘furniture music’ now / serving as background for music...”

Silence being the new furniture music, which serves as the background to our connoisseurship of everyday noises. But that, as we’re out of rugs to stare at, is for another occasion...


  1. That's a beautiful piece, Lutz. Absolutely worthy of Feldman and Johns. Just wonderful.


  2. I'm most proud of the analog scissorwork. The next post will probably be about otters in music, you might enjoy that, too. Thanks for stopping by!