A studio visit and interview with artist, theorist, and musician G Douglas Barrett (US), who discusses contemporary art, music, and sound art along with his forthcoming book After Sound: Toward a Critical Music (Bloomsbury, 2016). He also describes his ongoing artistic practice of transcription, which includes his recent work Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg (2013), an LP that explores questions around authorship and transgender.
Judith Engel/ Paula Kohlmann: Your recent art project Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg (2013) brought together questions related to music and transgender. How did the project start?
G Douglas Barrett: Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg began with what can be described as a formal question: What does it mean to perform a piece of music? To what forms of authority must a performer submit to execute a musical score? What are the limits of performing a composition? I was interested in how such questions could open onto broader cultural and political problematics, specifically related to the subjects of history, identity, and gender.
I conceived of the project after I had discovered the 1951 letter Arnold Schoenberg wrote to Los Angeles record producer Ross Russell, wherein the composer vehemently objects to an LP recording of his Ode to Napoleon (1942) sung with a woman’s voice. »Mister, you, in spite of my protest,« Schoenberg begins, »you have published Leibowitz’ performance of my Ode to Napoleon with a woman’s voice, which I find terrible.«
JE/PK: Where did you hear about Schoenberg’s letter?
GDB: I had originally heard about the letter (appropriately enough) through another artist’s work, Peter Ablinger’s A Letter From Schoenberg (2007), a player-piano installation that uses Schoenberg’s voice recording of the letter as source material. I became interested in the letter’s subject matter, particularly the controversy around Schoenberg’s disapproval of the Ode to Napoleon performance. Why, in this case, did Schoenberg so adamantly contest such a performance based on the vocalist’s gender? What would it mean for a transgender performer to realize Ode to Napoleon?
JE/PK: So that was the beginning of Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg? Can you explain the rest of the process?
GDB: Yes, I then asked my friend, Los Angeles-based transgender performance artist Zackary Drucker (who some may recognize as the associate producer of Amazon’s recent series Transparent) if she would be interested in performing the vocal part to Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon. I have known Zackary since our time as MFA students at CalArts. She had been producing films, like her 2011 work with New York drag queen Flawless Sabrina At Least You Know You Exist, that contain spoken-word voice-over parts that Drucker performs herself. Upon viewing that work at MoMA PS1, I thought she’d be perfect to sing Schoenberg.
I imagined this style of speaking as a kind of variation on the Sprechgesang (»speech-singing«) technique Schoenberg uses in Ode to Napoleon. This would serve as one »side« of a new record. The other side would be performed by my friend and collaborator Theo Baer, a transman-identified musician based in Brooklyn. As a gifted performer, Baer was already familiar with works like Pierrot lunaire, and the speech-singing came without difficulty. As for the instrumental parts (which were performed by the Flux Quartet), Drucker’s side contains my own reworking of the 1950 Russell recording while the other simply re-uses Schoenberg’s original score as a kind of musical »ready-made.« I consider each side a unique »transcription,« hence the title, Two Transcriptions.
JE/PK: Have you presented the record publicly? Was there some kind of record release?
GDB: I organized a panel discussion in 2013 around the project together with Baer, transgender activist Che Gossett, and musicologist Ben Piekut for a record release event presented by the New York gallery Audio Visual Arts and performance art organization Franklin Furnace. (There’s more on the project in my recent Schlosspost article, (Re-)Transcribing Composition: Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg.)
»As a form of both writing and composing, transcription reframes and re-presents historical moments. Although mechanical, and even machinic, these recording processes are also performative and involve the body.« –G Douglas Barrett
JE/PK: The practice of transcription seems to be very prominent in your work. Can you talk about this practice and how it relates to history?
GDB: Transcription, by its very nature, deals with history; in order to transcribe something, it must have already occurred. As a form of both writing and composing, transcription reframes and re-presents historical moments. Although mechanical, and even machinic, these recording processes are also performative and involve the body. (As a visual art parallel, recall Michael Fried’s famous objection to the way Minimalism had purportedly inscribed the viewer’s own »temporality« into the work.) In music, transcription’s historical dimension may seem unspectacular (after all, one could argue that performing any pre-composed musical work similarly invokes the problem of history). But transcription makes explicit such reference to the past in an art form that has, by many accounts, programmatically eschewed referentiality as such. In my own art practice, I subject existing artworks, pieces of music, historical texts, and performances to various transcription processes.
JE/PK: And what about appropriation, quotation, citation, and even plagiarism?
GDB: I’m interested in the ways transcription – as a process of scoring and composing – includes a different but related set of formal considerations. Composition can invoke, for example, the question of a performer’s »fidelity« to a score, as in Two Transcriptions. That project could be viewed in line with the appropriation art of the 1980s and ‘90s, related philosophical debates around authorship (Barthes, Benjamin, Foucault), or art-world precedents like Douglas Crimp’s Pictures exhibition. But its governing problematic can also be traced to what is called, in German, Werktreue (or »historical authenticity« in the Anglo-American literature), which established the contractual character of the »work-concept« in the late 1700s.
I’ve argued in a recent essay how the group Ultra-red’s »performances« of John Cage’s 4’33” alongside statements made by HIV/AIDS activists similarly cut across the contexts of appropriation and composition. I’m interested, you could say, in the mining of these kinds of formal problems – which lie notably beyond any »specific« medium like »sound« – for their historical and critical potential.
»Before the introduction of absolute music in the early 1800s, in fact, music was understood as harmonia, rhythmos, logos – or harmony, rhythm, and language or rational thought. Note the presence of language in that trio and the absence of ›sound‹.« –G Douglas Barrett
JE/PK:What’s the difference between sound and music? What’s »new music«? How do you distinguish between »sound art« and a broader conception of music?
GDB: Music and sound are independent forms with distinct yet intersecting histories. For me, music is a historically mutable, contingent, and ultimately revisable art form that, when radically conceived, exceeds any strict adherence to specific mediums or material forms including sound itself. Nevertheless, sound studies and sound art theorists often see the relationship between music and sound as inclusive. Music, they contend, is a special case of sound formalized through an essentially autonomous, even hermetic syntax. Meanwhile, musicologists and other scholars criticize sound’s epistemological construction as disciplinarily biased (e.g. Brian Kane’s »musicophobia«) or ahistorical (e.g. Georgina Born’s »year zero« phenomenon). I’m interested in a more fundamental distinction between the sonic and the musical.
»Sound art,« as illustrated by the subtitle of the 2012 ZKM exhibition Sound Art: Sound as a Medium of Art, is typically understood as a medium of contemporary art. Importantly, the term sound art began to appear in the 1960s, just as conceptual art began its radical challenge to the privileged status of medium. Sound art thus represents the re-emergence of a medium-specific logic in a contemporary art otherwise marked by the progressive destruction of art as an ontology of mediums – that is, painting, sculpture, video, and, yes, sound. In the wake of medium – and following Rosalind Krauss’s critically termed »postmedium condition« and its recent rejoinders (especially those from David Joselit, Peter Osborne, Craig Dworkin, and Juliane Rebentisch) – »sound art« appears anachronistic if not regressive. Music, I argue, remains productively problematic.
»New music,« the universally accepted heir to Western art music, is formally homologous to sound art. For new music uncritically inherits an unreconstructed concept of absolute music: the equating of music with (nonconceptual instrumental) sound. But music has not always been understood this way. Before the introduction of absolute music in the early 1800s, in fact, music was understood as harmonia, rhythmos, logos – or harmony, rhythm, and language or rational thought. Note the presence of language in that trio and the absence of »sound.« Ultimately, artists working today are left with two versions (new music, sound art) of the same limiting category: sound.
As an intervention into the deadlock that has emerged through the conflicting contexts of »new music,« »sound art,« and »visual art,« I have proposed the concept of critical music, a category that I elaborate in my book, After Sound: Toward a Critical Music, which will be published this year. Critical music, I argue, breaks from the formal adherence to sound encountered in sound art and new music, and expands to engage with a broader social, political, and artistic universe. Ultra-red, Pussy Riot, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, Hong-Kai Wang, Peter Ablinger, and Anri Sala: beyond sound, these artists use social practice, conceptualism, and activist strategies that radically refigure the notion of music as autonomous sound.
»Is criticality possible today? In the historical present, in which everything up to and including thought itself has proven commodifiable, is the notion of a critically engaged practice itself a naive and outmoded concept?« –G Douglas Barrett
JE/PK: How does this relate to critical or political (art) practices?
GDB: For me, criticality is important. But we might try considering it first as a question: Is criticality possible today? In the historical present, in which everything up to and including thought itself has proven commodifiable, is the notion of a critically engaged practice itself a naive and outmoded concept? I do see contemporary art and its related discourses as an area in which the problem can, at the very least, be posed. I’ve written about the recent calls from figures like Suhail Malik for an »exit« from contemporary art. Still, I think that certain practices that take from the legacy of conceptual art, along with the strategies of critical negation inherited by the historical avant-garde, become – at best – capable of intervening in a broader cultural and political field.
Contemporary art, as Peter Osborne has argued, is postconceptual art, an art beyond medium that is constituted by (and an instantiation of) concepts and language. Here I suggest that forms found in music – long considered the nonconceptual art form par excellence – prove to be, paradoxically, worth reconsidering. Again, composition might be thought of as one of these forms. Borrowing from Bruno Latour, we can think of composition, especially in light of the artists listed earlier (Pussy Riot, Ultra-red, Boudry–Lorenz), as a process of assembling radical forms of commonality.