The work of the musician and artist Robert Blatt is rooted in explorations of expanded sonic situations through varying frames and gradations of environment, notation, object, performance, text, and tone – a practice between the borders of experimental music, visual arts; between installations and happenings. As a composer he works in different mediums of (dis)association with music. »I often think of framing my work as a score – but it is a complex thing, therefore I sometimes like to ask myself – what is a score?«
Summer’s here and the time is right (2016),
while driving from the Smith’s parking lot in Brigham City, Utah,
to Robert Smithson’s The Spiral Jetty, 28 June 2018
Schlosspost: To begin, we could talk about one major happening in the history of art of modernism, where the traditional notion of a score was challenged: The Wiesbadener Festspiele Neuester Musik. In West Germany in 1963, George Brecht presented his Drip Music (Drip event) (1962), score cards, and one of the earliest Fluxus boxes to be produced, for the first time.
Robert Blatt: Scores operate on different levels of being. At their simplest preconception they are understood as instructions, a scheme for enacting some sort of outcome. Music in general takes all of this for granted, but this practice belies its complexity.
As we are speaking somewhat historically, let’s take the less often discussed and so-called renaissance practice of Augenmusik. Baude Cordier’s two manuscripts within the Chantilly Codex (ca. 1395) come to mind, where the arrangement of musical staves form a heart in a love song or concentric circles in a canon. It is common place to consider these scores a visual reflection of the music, but that is just too easy of an interpretation. There are simultaneous levels of distortion and clarification, questions arising regarding purpose and a diverse set of functionalities at the level of the reader, viewer, and performer, which do not strictly serve another, but coexist in degrees of intertwinement, functioning beyond simply achieving a performative musical end.
A score occupies an elusive, multifaceted space: itself and its realization, revelation and concealment, where even itself may be a realization as such. A score contains many layers of functionality: the possibility of instigating a multitude of action, sound, thought, perception, and imagination; but also its transmission through a variety of modes of agency, such as physical handling, reproduction, means of communication – oral and written transmission as just two such cases. Yet in the end, a score is something to be read, and I mean reading in a very inclusive sense. However, what is read should constitute its whole. Therefore, reading occurs at its linguistic level, such as text or the well-known geometric abstraction of musical notes, which always occupy a gradient of precision and ambiguity, what is written and left unwritten; however, its sensuality is less spoken of, or its materiality, or perhaps even ephemerality, which can have profound implications on itself and act upon the world. Likewise, a score occupies its own history and position, where the score and reader enter into an encounter implicating each other, always anew.
»It is important to
me that a score can
enter the world.«
The more time I engage with notation, the greater its inclusivity becomes – to the point where its representation as such simply becomes somewhat unrecognizable, at least at certain states of encounter. Interestingly enough, at this point a certain turn occurs, and oddly a score’s own ambiguity, concealment, becomes a self-reflexive act, and if anything, highlighting itself as such even more.
Everything can and may be a score.
Cycling back to the specific content of this question, I find the Fluxus event scores to be crucial to the development of notation in the twentieth century, and for me it was quite impossible to not be radically affected by the ramifications of their practice. On the surface it was the simplicity of the notated gesture, quite contrasting to the ink-filled pages of most Neue Musik of its time, but more so the various ambiguous, liminal spaces this work began to hint at: between score and object, event and encounter, poetic and instructive.
Schlosspost: Another early example of an event score is Proposition Number 2 by Alison Knowles from 1962.
RB: Yes, the Knowles work you reference, consisting of a score-card with the instruction to »make a salad,« is of course more than just a witty three-word proposition. I recall discussing this work in particular with Alison when we were walking in the open-air mall of Lincoln Road to grab a drink on Miami Beach. She related the domesticity of the work, a not-so-hidden reflection on the high amount of masculinity of her cohort, by bringing an everyday feminine gesture to the stage, certainly relevant today as in 1962, and I mused over one of my main attractions to the piece, that it just happens all the time. Of course, the work does not need a stage, the score creates the framework for its existence anywhere, at home perhaps upon just a simple acknowledgment while making a salad. In what it leaves undefined, the score allows for this sort of occurrence to transpire.
Schlosspost: Yes, Fluxus set out to erase the traditional boundaries between linguistic and visual production, between text and object, but also between the institutional and the non-institutional space. One crucial part of Fluxus was to think about the institutional frame and the distribution form. Therefore Fluxus was influenced by John Cage’s model of the chance of options – an aesthetic of the everyday, and a new type of artistic production: the aesthetic of the universal event as a new paradigm. Can your artistic practice – which includes various activities like concerts, linguistic performances, sound installations, card boxes, publications, and ephemeral events – be contextualized with regard to Fluxus and Cage’s concept of chance of options and the aesthetic of the universal/everyday event?
RB: For me, chance operations, as important as they were historically as a radical opposition to a host of culturally constructed formalistic tendencies common to early twentieth-century art practice, is in the end a strategy – another type of formalism. Of course, the unique poetic and conceptual sensibilities it brings cannot be denied. However, I feel that in our contemporary context, chance operations have become both historicized and, in a way, academic. Which of course is fine; this is the arc of history. But I feel there is often an unfortunate tendency within experimental music to work with chance as a default modus operandi, without a clear gaze onto how it functions as a reference: postmodern, intertextual, etc.
For instance, in my change series of work (2011–16), whose only real unifying characteristic is currency and chance, I attempt to reveal these formalistic tendencies, or even historicize/theatricalize in a way. The final work in the series consists of 64 pieces for orchestra, in which each piece involves a text-based algorithmic score with a random number generator achieved by the performer flipping a coin, reifying the actions of the individual as an aleatoric system. The work’s set of variations reference the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching (Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese divination text used frequently by Cage. Additionally, my work contains very simple instructions, such as to play a note, rest, or to do so with some modification, higher or lower for instance, depending on the landing result; however, I define the vocabulary for the language in the scores with a high degree of openness and ambiguity, another level of chance which has resulted in realizations ranging from performances with an assortment of instruments and objects, to, on a few occasions, a method for placing bets in a casino.
This dovetails more into the heart of your statement, as this work can occupy itself very easily in the staged and everyday situations, yet still taking advantage of chance as its formalistic strategy. And since we are still speaking somewhat historically here, I think it is good to take note of an interesting thing that happened to Cage in the 1970s, and to be frank, a number of artists as well, in that they tended to return to the institutional framework – to the concert hall and the museum – that much of their earlier practice was distancing itself from. I think an ontological distinction can be made between the two developments you spoke of, chance and the everyday event, where chance functions as a general organizing and formalistic strategy, the everyday is nebulous in its formal role. It implicates a much more radical framework for a work, in that the work can in a sense be anywhere and anything. It’s not so much an organizing principle as more a means of expanding the form and context for the aesthetic experience in general.
»I have a rather inclusive idea for what a recording can be. This partly stems from a critique of contemporary musical practice, a sort of fixation with the CD, for instance.«
My work, Beach Bums (2016), is an inexpensive paperback book to take to the beach. Each page contains a text score spanning one line across the page, describing an occurrence of some kind at the beach. The texts range from the performative acts of things to do, such as »opening a book,« but also those to observe, listen, recall, imagine. The notion is that one can read through the book, picking pages as one sees fit and to realize with what’s at hand, but also to see other activities, those by the environment, the inhabitants, the situation, as realization of the work as well. Allowing personal choice and moments of specificity, amongst oneself and perhaps a group of friends, in a totally casual manner, to coincide with the unpredictability of the site, as lived actualizations of the project, always in flux as to how each is possibly identifying itself with the work.
The work and its situation of occurrence are both precise and ambiguous, totally fragmented and porous, coming and going, active at various levels of the lived situation.
Schlosspost: You created a massive number of scores, small publications, and printed matter that you either give away or people can download for free on your website and experience them in a non-frames setting. Your text-based works often do not need an actual material institution, your work has an autonomous life besides the gallery, the concert hall, the museums. Some works function as an activity, like Beach Bums.
RB: It is important to me that a score can enter the world. For a certain part of my work, a score being accessible online is more than just a practicality. By doing so I believe it implies how the work can happen on one’s own time, with one’s own environment. To realize a work in various situations, inclusive of all possible situations, institutional or not, which may arise as one wishes, allows for a range of encounters, realizations, performances, whether lived, casual or formal. Doing so feels necessary, as otherwise the project becomes a purely academic pursuit.
For instance, while living in Miami, I often found myself driving long stretches from my home in the outskirts of the city to various locales. Rather than treating these as simply lost moments, I started considering the car as a possible performance situation, and specifically work which is responsive to this circumstance and could be realized by anyone, understood simply and without anything but one’s self and the car. I created a small collection of scores in response. In Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio (2016) the car radio is specified to play from an AM frequency tuned to (mostly) static. When driving in this situation, the noise from the radio changes in a number of unexpected ways, seemingly caused by the electromagnetic interference present when passing such things as utility poles or under bridges. Such a work, an activity as you mentioned, simply does not function in a concert or museum setting, so distributing the work allows for it to be realized in this particular, private environment.
I have additionally become increasingly concerned with the materiality of the score, where its physicality, design, and historical or conceptual references implicate itself in its functionality, meaning, interpretation as a score. When a score includes no guide or traditional linguistic strategies for notation, suddenly its existence as such begins to offer clues as to how to read it, where even the choice of binding or paper can implicate attempts at a realization. As such, creating my own publications has proven necessary in terms of distributing scores of a unique material quality.
In the end, yes, this is work not directed for nor toward institutions, but is for people to make sense of, encounter, within their coexistent environment.
Schlosspost: During your open studio at Akademie Schloss Solitude, the day erased (2018), you showed the work, partitions (no. 3) (2018). Lines taken from paper for writing a score of a classical musical notation were drawn onto a window facing the sky. Both works are phenomenological studies. When we talked about the day erased, you said: »What I like about a window is how it can enter the room.« Can you specify the expanded space you’re talking about?
RB: I have an interest in working with and revealing environmental conditions, creating work that’s responsive to its environment as a means of revealing the situation, the world, and in a way, revealing a more fundamental understanding of the aesthetic experience, that it lies beyond a traditionally defined or contained art work or ideal means of reception: dissolving its borders, so to speak.
In the partitions work you mention, the environment becomes the score, which is always changing, but how to read it as such is not clear, and at what level. Of course a musician may attempt to read the score, but it just as well functions without that, as a visual and conceptual frame for observation, a set of scored occurrence to be translated even in one’s mind. The sky is of course a continually changing occurrence, but the movement of the sun is far more predictable, and of course how this light enters the space, and casts shadows of the staff lines onto the interior of the space, is also an important corollary to the work.
Windows are a sort of framing mechanism, knowingly just one such approach.
I believe the first work I created involving windows was interior/exterior from 2015. It is a performance that occurs in a home with a piano and one or more windows to the outside. The piano very slowly and softly ascends/descends a series of scales while windows are opened and closed at different points in time, allowing the domestic, musical parlor space to interact with whatever outside environment may exist.
This December I installed the work some sweet beautiful drag (2018). Its title is a quotation from a Cole Porter song, consisting of 15 loudspeakers attached to each window along the long corridor outside of my studio. From each window sounds a pure tone, where each subsequent window rises in pitch. A lot of strange things happen when walking along this corridor due to the characteristics of the space, caused by distance, reverberation, and resonance. An assortment of subtle harmonic interactions occur while walking through, entering, and leaving.
Most recently I have made a small collection of portable boxes containing five sheets of glass. The work is called places (2018), and each sheet of glass contains one word: anywhere, elsewhere, everywhere, nowhere, and somewhere. With these sheets of glass, the environment is seen through and reflected by the glass, yet is of course always engaged in some unidentified encounter with a different engraved textual description of place.
What is important for me about working with space is not so much the space itself, regardless of any supposed sublime or banal potential; it is this phenomenological character of experience with space, our embodied potential as an idiosyncratic element at the level of perception, mind, presence.
Schlosspost: Your work not only expands in space, but in time, like the work gnomons (2018) …
RB: I am interested in dissolving and questioning the various distinctions and states of engagement we have with time, confounding the normalized role of musical time with that of diverse modes of temporality.
A gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow.
On the March Equinox of 2018, I arranged a day-length realization of my work gnomons, lasting from sunrise until sunset at a canopied park in Florida. The work essentially directs attention to observing and marking the changing characteristics of sunlight through the day. I organized five artists in addition to myself to respond to a score for the work, without any advanced guidance beyond providing them with a copy of the score. Each artist was welcome to arrive and leave at any point in the day, and the score was also freely available, so that anyone who attended was able to take part as well, in any way they felt fit.
Responses ranged from sketches of shadows, the dispersion and movement of reflective surfaces, transcription of light/shade into musical tones, photographs, audio recordings, and just simple observation. At relatively equally spaced intervals throughout the day, I placed a stone at the point on the ground where a tree branch cast its shadow, running a line of string from the stone to the tree branch, and repeating this action with a new stone until sunset.
When we speak of time, we also speak of death.
For a number of years, I have been engaged in a series of works involved with the concept of decomposition. The idea was first developed for a short text score I wrote for a Twitter feed I was participating in with a handful of friends/artists, @textscoreaday. This has grown into the decomposition series (2012 – ongoing), a series of works essentially (de)materializing the concept of time within music as an engagement with score, site, and temporality.
Schlosspost: For your work Trapped in the Clouds, Pondering the Night (2018), an installation you did in collaboration with Jon Paden, you used text fragments taken from the Chapter 10 »Different Types of Clouds« from the book International Cloud Atlas. The texts were projected on to a cloth canopy. Text fragments from this particular book were also reused for another work. Text fragments of the chapter »Photometeors« were starting point for your work a luminous phenomenon (2018), in which you fabricated cyanotype prints with sunlight outside. In the 1960s, American Conceptual Art transformed the spectator into a reader. What role does language play in your work?
RB: I am drawn to language because of its multidimensionality, its precision and ambiguity, its various means of sounding.
When writing text scores, I am very careful with tense, word choice, grammar, not at all for readability, but to develop a certain framed world of occurrence. Cycling back to Cage, it’s very much a play with chance by introducing degrees of ambiguity within notation – saying something occurs, may occur, or must occur are entirely different. This actually contradicts a lot of the training I received as a composer. Notation should be clear, above all other things. I intentionally subvert this principle. Doing so has opened up my approach to »performance« in general. When a score’s temporality and subjectivity is ambiguous, the possibility for realization at the level of medium, imagination or historical reflection expand, allowing for new distinctions of a performance to arise.
Additionally, language serves as a means of notation, which does not require professional training, allowing a score to be approached and realized by nonmusicians. So in response to your analysis of the spectator as reader, I affirm with a slight reorientation: to transform the listener into a reader, or is that reader into a listener?
»I liked that you said:
Everything is a record!«
I have created works that directly implicate the reader/participant as both performer and listener, environments where language activates both a sounding verbal space as well as a reflected and heard mental space. For instance, experiments in alternate reality (2016) is a work consisting of 60 index cards of text, each a sort of narrative score to be imagined, yet also a reflected commentary on the situation at hand: people quietly reading these cards out loud together. Or Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2017), another work with text on index cards, this time 40 of them, with only one or two letters centered on the page. Again, everyone reads the cards, but instead doing so a few times while one’s hands are covering one’s ears, alternating between hearing oneself in one’s head and the murmuring mass of others.
But there is another multidimensionality of language at work, full of cultural-historical distinctions, of different systems of knowledge, of diverse relation to discourse, poetry, authority, identity, power.
Trapped in the Clouds, Pondering the Night, a work you mentioned, is a rather sprawling performance-installation containing fragmented passages from the World Meteorological Organization’s International Cloud Atlas, a comprehensive catalog of the various meteorological phenomena of the sky. The excised fragments, one to a few words, were chosen for the multiplicity of reference they could have in isolation, ignoring any specific scientific language for things such as appearance—colors, texture, degrees of opacity—times of day, phrases of possibility, and a number of serendipitous metaphorical comparisons, such as »like a comma« or »a honeycomb.« The text was overlaid in a three-channel projection as you mentioned, and layered in the space from a changing four-channel reading, this reading itself a performance of my work the free air (2018), recorded in ten different outdoor environments in San Diego. This superimposition, along with a number of other elements incorporated within the work (point-cloud animations, falling pill capsules and blowing fans), created an environment conducive to a certain hallucinatory experience.
While at Akademie Schloss Solitude, I have been working on a manuscript, unbranded range animals, and by extension, anything dishonestly obtained (2018), consisting of names of observable birds in Maverick County, Texas, taken from a pamphlet I acquired while driving through the area. I have isolated the beginning of each bird’s common name and listed/compiled them onto pages based on the birds’ genus and the order they were printed in the original pamphlet. It’s an entirely simple and procedurally conceptual approach, but by doing so revealed an assortment of characteristics about the language we use for classification, bringing forth an unexpected complex and often uncomfortable web of issues surrounding ownership, identity, landscape, race, culture, history, and violence.
Maverick County is positioned along the Rio Grande river bordering Mexico, and centrally located between the east and west coast of the United States. The name »maverick,« casually used in the arts to describe what seem to be North American artists with a sort of unorthodox distance from traditional European conventions, has of course a more complex history. It also refers to unbranded and unowned cattle freely roaming the open range. However, as was the custom, a cow found in a such a position could be branded and claimed by any rancher that discovered it, giving the word a connotation of that which is acquired dishonestly, metaphorically, and perhaps not so subtly at all, revealing a dark complexity to the history of the United States.
Schlosspost: You use sound, language, and visual patterns as trigger points. Observation is one immediate and core practice of your work. Sometimes it can just be about observation, like in the piece Heads in the Cloud (2016). It is a score that functions as an instruction for a group of two or more people, laying down and observing the clouds. In some means this is a translation from Trapped in the Clouds, Pondering the Night (2018) into a more collaborative experience in an outside environment observing the actual natural phenomena instead of the description of the phenomena.
RB: There is all too often an unnecessary disconnect between performer and audience. I am interested in dissolving these distinctions, not so much to turn the audience into the performer, but to create something else, a work say without a clear audience or performer, a new type of performative situation. In the work Heads in the Clouds (2016), and its more recent incarnation, more heads in the clouds (2018), the sky becomes a place of observation, but also a score to be read, or in the later work, indirectly the work’s site/concept/score for enacting its realization.
At the start of 2018, I created a map for any space, a type of cartography (2018), which, beyond distributing to various people for use in locales of their choosing, I have shown on two occasions, both incidentally at night, having given each person a headlamp to aid in reading/navigation. This occurred once within a patch of banyan trees in the center of a historic golf course in Coral Gables, and secondly within the courtyard and woods of Akademie Schloss Solitude. The main contents of the map are 100 short lines of text scattered across an opened, folded sheet of paper and printed in different directions. The text, which as a map corresponds in some individually decided way with the environment, are these sort of ambiguous descriptions to the conditions of the situation, somewhere between prompt, description, score—a map for observation/being part of the world.
Anything can be a score, thus the world is a score; of course anything can in turn be a realization, and thus the world itself is its realization. Observation is a way of highlighting this paradox
Schlosspost: Lately you were doing a road trip in the United States. While you were driving across the country you collected receipts, soil, fluids, and audio recordings. The receipts function like a map, they inform about places where you stayed and stopped. This collection of objects references back to places, times and situations. They are recording traces. I liked that you said: »Everything is a record«!
RB: I have a rather inclusive idea for what a recording can be. This partly stems from a critique of contemporary musical practice, a sort of fixation with the CD, for instance. As a material, I think the audio recording can be a fascinating form to work with as an engagement with another situation for listening. But more often than not, it seems to be just an idealized embodiment of a performance, a simulacrum for the complex situation for what a performance actually is. Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad some particular recordings exist. It is just what feels to be a lack of self-critique, its sort of de facto existence.
From this perspective, I began to think around a concept for non-recording. At first I was concerned with Robert Smithson’s concept of non-site, »a three-dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site.« I was interested in the idea of a recording as a metaphor for a performance, the experience, the work – to avoid the traps of an audio recording’s almost inevitable incompleteness, and to instead work within a space where recording itself embodies a certain physical history, an abstract trace which in its divergent and complex references may speak more deeply or at least acknowledge its inherent limitations.
However, as this idea developed through the practice of making these somewhat odd non-recordings, I realized that they in fact were recordings, not abstract representations of a work/environment, but just simply a recording as such. A recording, like a score, is always occupying some space between revelation and concealment, between abstraction and the concrete, a thing in and of itself and a representation of something else.
In 2017 Hurricane Irma passed by Miami, I nailed five sheets of paper to my backyard fence two days before the hurricane hit. I left the city for Birmingham and when we returned about five or so days later, I retrieved the paper. One was pushed into the corner of the yard, and the four others were trapped below the fallen fence.
One of the more elaborate recording projects, memory studies (2016–17), was a collaboration with Maya Verlaak, with contributions from Ana Smaragda Lemnaru and Jorge Gomez Abrante, which took my aforementioned book Beach Bums as a score to be recorded, but doing so in a variety of approaches: videos, audio recordings, photographs, postcards, notebooks, chalkboards, objects, conversations and memories. It’s an obtuse work, as it is an archive of recordings on the nature of recording, documentation of an existing work, but also its own work as such.
Schlosspost: Cycling back, pieces of evidence of your road trip can be understand as an accumulation of recordings: Living in the memory of everything, America (2016), a recording in which you describe locations while the landscape passes by, playing it back, while silently concentrating on another location that passes by. The witnessed in loss of slurred memory (2017), a work that refers back to the book American Ones: Noise and Presentiments by Clark Coolidge, is also witnessing and reading the environment as it is. How to find a way to put a record/score together that deals with the intangible experiences and memories?
RB: This project comes directly out of the expanded concept of recording we were just speaking about, with a particular focus on field recording, a fairly common practice now of recording the sound of the environment, but also inclusive of its ethnomusicological meaning, that of recording music within an environmental situation.
So the project on one hand is focusing on field recording, again, inclusive of this expanded notion, such as the nineteen glass vials of matter and fluid you mentioned, collected at various sites while driving from Miami to Vancouver, or a collection of five sheets of paper dropped into the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and recovered after a few passing minutes, but really, just an increasingly large archive of recordings in a plethora of material: physical, textual, analog and digital.
Additionally, I am simultaneously creating an archive of my own scores, which engage with various notions of environment and recording, as work to be realized in situ, and recorded in various ways.
Lastly, while at Akademie Schloss Solitude I have begun researching the intertwined aesthetic history of the road and landscape, attempting to excavate a framework and body of intertextual references for organizing this archive of material, to create a non-narrative framework, a sort of non-libretto, for the opera. This framework both actualizes and fictionalizes the recording process and allows for a layered presentation, various constellations and configurations of traces, recordings, text, and realizations of scores, where in the end the presentation for the project itself, the performance of the opera, becomes another site for recording, expanding with each occurrence.
Of course, when I speak of opera, I am not at all interested in creating something that has really anything to do with the opera house or its means of presentation: orchestra, sopranos, props, set design, and so forth. What I am interested in is how opera by its very nature is a modular environment, an intermixing of practice and work, the textual and sensual, a multiplicity.
The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi