Justifying normal

Recital de Canto, on FlickrOne of the many things I love about studying composition at Trinity Laban is the attention paid to not only the music you write, but to how that music is presented. For Masters students preparing their final recital, this means consideration not just of organising players and getting programmes printed, but designing the performance space: how will the chairs be arranged? what lighting will be used? how will you use the quite vast space of Blackheath Halls and create an appropriate experience for what will probably be a small audience (because of happening at odd times during a weekday) in a large hall?

While nerve-wracking, this is a great process to go through. And there’s no falling back on a standard recital format because however you decide to approach it, you need to be able to justify your decision. And “couldn’t be bothered” just won’t cut it 🙂

And so, in the context of a general contemplation of visual aspects of Crossing Dartmoor, I came to consider performance presentation. I thought about the subject matter and the critical aspect of movement (walking) in Richard Long’s art practice: should my singer move around the stage? Around the whole venue? Should I specify that the scores should be set up at various points around the room and the singer to move around them, with the audience able to view the scores by wandering about the space or even looking over the singer’s shoulder as he performs?

That last idea felt a bit too ‘Stations of the Cross’ for my liking – it seemed contrived and at odds with the very natural-world focus of Long’s art. The other ideas also seemed to trivialise the aspect of walking in Long’s work, so I dismissed those too.

The answer I finally came to brought me right back to the standard recital format: singer in front of the piano, on a normal stage, using classic stances. Why? Why present what is turning out to be fairly experimental music in an overused, traditional format?

I was at the Tate Britain the other day, mostly ensconced in the library doing research on Richard Long, but when I emerged I did my customary wander around the gallery in the hour that remained before closing time. And I found Long’s A Line Made By Walking.

I hadn’t really noticed before how much of its “artiness” is conveyed by the way it is presented: its frame, mount and neat hand-lettered title.

When you examine the work itself, while striking, technically it’s not that great. A photographer intent on making A Photograph would almost certainly have done it differently. Not chopped off the tips of the trees at the top, for instance, or focused entirely on the line to the exclusion of its surrounds. But creating A Photograph was not Long’s intent when making this work.

Dieter Roelstraete’s book Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking examines the work and its genesis and impact in detail.[fn1] This piece was a turning point for Long. The photograph, developed at a London chemist shop, was not created with a view to gallery display, but instead as a mere archival document of work completed. Not created as ‘art’, it has nonetheless become art through its display in galleries, and by means of the constructs of frame, mount, white wall, etc.

The duality of Long’s work is one of the things I find fascinating about it, and something which I feel has very strong parallels with the work of composers of notated music such as myself. The artwork on the gallery wall is not the ‘original’ artwork: it is a representation, documentation, archival material that allows the general public to experience the original in some way. It is accessible archival material presented so that it is art. Similarly, for composers, is the score the piece? Or the performance? Long’s response (as mine) is that the answer is ‘both’, in different ways. The in situ sculptures and the walking are at the heart of his practice as the creation of a score is at the heart of mine – without them there would be nothing to look at or hear, but the representation shown in the gallery or performed in the concert hall is also, in its own ways, art.

Which brings me (finally!) to the point because, as I see it, the vast majority of Long’s created-for-display work – photographs, maps, textworks, mudworks – is designed specifically for the ‘white cube’ gallery space. Possibly this seems obvious, but there are many ways to display work, yet Long generally chooses presentation formats which embrace the white wall, the separation of works one from another, the enforced focus of the standard modernist gallery structure.

Brian O’Doherty, in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, says “The ideal gallery space subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art’. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself”[fn2].

In this, I see a reflection of traditional recital conventions: separation of performer from audience by means of a stage, formal clothing and standardised positioning onstage. Rituals of accepting applause, silences before and after performance. And the restrictive behavioural expectations of the audience: to sit in their seats, quietly listening, to applaud when the work is done, not to talk, not to sleep, not to get up and walk around or do anything to pull focus from the performers on the stage. This is our equivalent of the white cube of the art world.

And I think viewing Long’s work within a white cube gallery also highlights two aspects which are possibly relevant to what is turning out to be a fairly experimental song cycle. One is that his presentational preference to work with the conventions of the white cube does – at least in some measure – ‘legitimise’ the work presented as art. The frames, the positioning on the wall, these are things that clearly say to anyone familiar with convention that “this is art”. The other is that even while the work’s status as art is being reinforced by its display environment and mode of presentation, it is also clearly displaying its difference. This is not just a wall-painting, it is mud; this is not just a photograph, it is a record of something that was made somewhere else and this is the only fragment of that original work that I will get to experience.

To put these ideas in the context of Crossing Dartmoor, for one of the pieces, the singer does not sing but instead taps two small granite stones together, in reflection of a line drawn through a contour map of Dartmoor. If I asked the singer to tap his stones while walking round the performance space, it would probably seem quite normal – experimental music has often gone hand-in-hand with new and unusual approaches to the space of performance. However, if I stand him on the stage, by the piano in the usual manner and have him tap, what does this mean? If I align stone-tapping with artsong tradition rather than experimental-music tradition, how does this then affect how my piece is received? what does it say about traditional artsong? about our recital conventions? about our expectations as audience members and the way we listen?


Click on the footnote number to return to the text…
fn1: Dieter Roelstraete, Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, London: Afterall Books, 2010.
fn2: Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, expanded edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 14.

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