The Ghosts of Eleanor Cully:
DeMaterialization of Sculpture/ReMaterialization of Music
Hanging around various Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) venues some audience members found themselves participants in an artwork most mysterious. Mysterious because those few who even noticed that an artwork was present in the space simultaneously had to confront the paradox that objectively nothing was there at all. Well, next to nothing. Or rather next to nothing was a title card. Nothing had a title, in this case, rather than a duration, as in
some famous works by a certain post-Fluxus American composer.
The title took the form of an object. The object being the aforementioned title card containing the name of the artist (Eleanor Cully), a title for the work, a list of materials, and the appendage “Private Sculpture Series“. Little information was given, save a small quote on a piece of paper available from the information desk, announcing the installation, and explaining that the Private Sculptures “…are a series of disembodied artworks inviting observers imagine private sculptures. The works are articulated only by title cards within a space.” No other explanations or instructions were given.
Cully’s title cards were installed in various festival venues including three large churches, one tall winding staircase, another cavernous stairwell space at the entrance to a post-industrial mill building, and outside a concert hall. The title cards were present for the audience to contemplate before or after concerts by Evan Parker, Simon Fell, Laurence Crane, ensemble asamisimasa, Agusti Fernandez, Peter Evans, Phil Minton, the ensemble PULSE and many more. It is interesting to imagine the sculptures as huge, floating, objects hovering above the concert space, perhaps occupying the whole space as with certain large, space-filling sculptural works of Anish Kapoor. The music played in these concerts lasted only for a specific duration, vibrating through a given time and then gone, but these private sculptures can be (literally) imagined to last as long as the space itself does.
Can a completely dematerialized work of sculpture even be said to exist? If one accepts that the sculptures could exist, and further, if one actualizes them by imagining them -as suggested by the artist in the quoted text above- then another paradox emerges. These works become not only extremely radical works of sculpture in that they occupy a variety of forms simultaneously (a separate form for each patron who imagines one), but also they possess a permanence only dreamed of in classical sculpture – in that they can exist for as long as there exists a mind to imagine them. Indeed, if John Cage wished to frame such a nothingness, it would require a longer duration that 4’33”, a duration approaching the infinite.
It is, of course, probable that many people who had perhaps paid 20 pounds to see the amazing HCMF concerts (which featured the previously mentioned artists and others such as Ryoko Akama, Kathryn Schulmeister, Sten Sandell, Deigo Castro Magas, playing compositions by Feldman, Finnissy, Skempton and many others) fighting the weather, and standing in lines, might have missed the very subtle alteration Cully had made to the Festival venues. It is unfortunate that in doing so they also missed out on some of the most radical work being presented by this year’s Festival. Yet amongst those to did “see the works” one question can be imagined to have hung and to remain hanging in the air along with the imagined sculptures, occupying a virtual critical space in a dimension next to Cully’s virtual physical space. That question is both the bane and the hallmark of the musical avant-garde: “yes, very nice…but is it music?”
Despite the work’s being presented by one of the most important contemporary music festivals in the UK, if not in the whole of Europe, that question remains important for some critically-minded viewers. Is it a problem that the work requires for its own existence a great deal of mental projection from the audience? A brief look at some compositional tendencies of the last 100 years should suffice to allow such critical impulses to relax at least enough to allow themselves permission to enjoy this work as they might enjoy a new score by Brian Ferneyhough. Many a contemporary music aficionado might enjoy such music in written form alone, apart from the musical performance itself. Could a parallel be drawn by that sort of mental musical experience and the mental formal (“private-sculptural”) experience Cully invites us to participate in?
In many historical works of music or process-based visual and performance art, such as those featured in Jackson Mac Low and La Monte Young‘s An Anthology of Chance Operations (1963), in the early works of Milan Knizak, or in great deal of past and current work by Pauline Oliveros, many aspects of are left to mental projection. Although projection has been used by Cully in previous visual art works, it is a good idea to look at and listen to some of Cully’s actual music in order to connect her Private Sculptural approach with her compositional approach. Cully’s Private Sculptures may identify themselves most readily as part of a dialogue with Visual Art, yet like Mumma, Mac Low, Brecht, Paik, and others known for controversial intermedia (in Jim Dine‘s sense of the term), Cully’s background and continuing practice is that of a composer, vocalist, and instrumentalist. Interestingly, if she has produced a dematerialized sculptural work for HCMF, she is also producing increasingly materialized music.
What does it mean that music is being “materialized” in this waiting-room of the information age that we currently find ourselves in? It does not mean, certainly, a recorded object. Music is, by nature, a difficult thing to pin down. Try asking a group of people at a bus stop, or a group of art or music students what music is, and you will receive a wealth of definitions in return. Xenakis tells us it is “organized sound”, Cage that “everything we do is music”, others will tell us that music is clearly NOT what Cage does, but rather what Wagner or John Phillip Sousa did, or what the Rolling Stones still sort of do. Others will tell us that it is a language for expressing feelings or concepts. Composer David Behrman reminds us that “whatever you do with a surfboard in the surf remains a part of surfboarding”. Cully enters this discussion in her usual spectral way, and taking an approach that Behrman might appreciate, she lays hands on the surfboard, and points us to the physicality of the sound itself, through the interface of the sound-making touch. It is not the melodic gesture, or the extended instrumental technique alone that Cully uses to focus our attention on the physicality of the musical material, but rather the ability of a performer to touch flute with their breath, or the piano with their fingertips.
Cully’s technical requests for the performer exist on a gradient of radicalism. Some works from the recent past, for example, Caprice #1 (2013) for solo C flute head-joint explore the possibility of discovering pitch and melodic relationships between fingertip and flute head joint, in the manner of string instrument lightly touched to excite harmonics. Sound relationships take the forefront, but clearly the fingertips are important. In another solo for flute, Coextensive on the Surface (2014), a middle ground is reached in which the act of breathing into the instrument itself starts to become the focus of the work. In more recent works, such as the piano works Everything located on the surface; skin or Movements in Two Positions (2014) begin to focus more completely on the interface between instrument and body, even more than the actual sound produced. In fact, in these works the sound produced could be drawn from any number of techniques, yet the technique Cully specifies brings touch to the forefront of the experience, and this experience exists for the performer alone.
Cully, with her special mixture of Dadaist wit and theoretical gravity, illustrates the importance of touch as musical material in Fixations #1-7 (2014). In these largely silent works, the performer is asked to use hand positions and techniques developed for one instrument on another instument. A guitar, for example, is momentarily fingered like a piano, a clarinet is bowed like a viola, and a violin recieves the breath into it’s f-hole with a flute embroucher. By composing scored instrumental and vocal music that increasingly emphasizes a tactile and materials-based approach to composition and performance, Cully brings a physicality to music-making entirely absent from a great deal of current musical production. Not only is her approach a direct confrontation with the Roland Groove-Box based performance of many contemporary electronic musicians, it offers a humanistic view of the materialization of sound and music absolutely separate from consumerist concerns with the musical object as something for sale.
With a recently composed work, Cully extends her apporach by combing material awareness of the instrument body with a process of self-reference. I, as mouth (2014) for Juliet Fraser and Maxime Echardour, composed just recently, will be premiered in Huddersfield at St. Paul’s Hall in 2015. Here a reductive yet powerful vocabulary of vocal techniques draws attention to the instrumental physicality described above. Now, however, it is applied to the voice, the most intimate of instruments. Cully here takes the situation still a step further, and thus enters an at least one-hundred year old discussion initiated by Marcel Duchamp in In Hidden Noise (1916) and subsequently adopted by Robert Morris‘ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961). In I, as mouth the voice of Fraser will be literally articulated using a system of transducers through the percussive skins of Echardour, with a text describing this process. Yet true to her ghostly humanism, the process is not described literally, but rather figuratively, with a great deal of information witheld and a great deal more suggested. Rather than asking whether or not Cully’s production is music, the question should be re-framed as to what is being revealed in her productions, and what she keeps hidden. The form we are faced with after all, even when we are asked to imagine it, is clearly her own.
Check out more of Cully’s visual and musical work on these websites: