At the Borders of Music, Art and Text

Exploring an interdisciplinary approach to composition
A research project by Caitlin Rowley

Blurring boundaries (continued)

  1. Amateur activity/Professional practice
  2. Music as art

Music as art

While I have worked with visual art as a stimulus and creative tool within my composition process for several years, committing to including amateur activity in my composition as an equal partner with notated music has led me from thinking about art as a tool for creating music to considering it as an independent (albeit sometimes intersecting) strand of my creative practice.

While this development is visible in several works I have produced this year (e.g. the inclusion of my own photography in the Crossing Dartmoor score, the video works of the HearSee series), three pieces – parksong, the line of my voice and i sing myself a circle – take an entirely new approach which blurs the boundary between music and art.

These pieces function on three planes simultaneously:

These three planes are inseparable, manifesting what Seth Kim-Cohen has described as recursion in the creative process.(fn25) Discussing visual artist Robert Morris’ text piece Blank Form and sculpture Box With the Sound of Its Own Making: ‘Both works are simultaneously the product of a process, the documentation of that process and a set of instructions for the replication of that process. Both might be seen as an example of what could be called “retrospective composition”, in which the act of composition follows the act of performance’.(fn26) This relates to ‘the intrinsically problematic nature of the idea of a score’(fn27):

The investigation of this problem, initiated by Cage, reveals the implicit a posteriori ontology of the score, which must always follow from some material realization of itself (even if that realization is immaterially located in the mind’s ear of the composer). The score as a founding document of re-creation has no temporal status. It is both precedent and descendent of realization. The score always arrives after the fact, to dictate the fact.(fn28)

Performance is both the starting point and the final intention of the parksong series. Without performance, fundamental aspects of their form would not exist. Instructions could have been created, but the visual elements and the details of the text are reliant on the performance experience: parksong’s wandering line which traces an approximation of the descent of my pitch level across the performance (from about F- sharp4 down to a sharp E4), its placement on the page reflecting the position of these notes on the piano keyboard; the lines of the line of my voice which directly correspond to number, tone colour, volume and duration of the notes sung; and the circle of i sing myself a circle, representing the shape of my mouth as the line of thread traces the number and relative placement of the pitches I sang.

As scores, these pieces explore an idea I developed relating to Richard Long’s textworks. While reading John Lely’s article ‘On the Use of Grammar in Verbal Notation’,(fn29) it occurred to me that, even though the artist declares that his work is not performance, the textworks often include all the information to recreate the work, couched in an objective language presenting this information as a record of a completed event. For example, A Cloudless Walk(fn30) consists of the following text: ‘An Eastward walk of 121 miles in 3 1/2 days from the mouth of the Loire to the first cloud / France 1995’

My reading of this, from the perspective of someone immersed in a performance- centric artform, is that this text contains an implied score. There is no instruction and no intent to instruct as no reperformance is envisaged or encouraged; yet it is nevertheless clear that the ‘score’ Long himself was following was: Start from the mouth of the Loire on a clear day. Walk East until you see a cloud.

HearSee represents my first experiment with this idea of an implied score, something that provides all the information to perform a piece but which lacks any invitation (either through explicit statement or context) to do so. The concept was developed and the pieces constructed in such a way that the terms of their construction should be clear to anyone watching them: Drop something. Film it. Play the sound first, then the silent video. Nothing is obscured, even if no ‘official’ score exists.

Wanting to explore this idea further, I started work on the parksong series. Shortly after creating parksong, I discovered Seth Kim-Cohen’s deconstruction of Robert Morris’ Box With the Sound of Its Own Making. His example involves the creation of a hypothetical notated score for Box which would ‘[concretise] the specific values of the resulting sound (pitch, duration, dynamics, placement in time, etc.)’(fn31) rather than direct recreation of the work following the more open textual score extrapolated from it (‘something like “Record the sound of building a walnut box and play the recording back from inside the box’)(fn32) but he also presents a valid point regarding the reception of recreating a visual artwork versus performing a score intended as music:

Such a secondary score would actually be revealed as merely a recording and any performance following such a score would be revealed as an act of mimicry, of ‘covering’ – in the musical sense – the original. Performing a score on the other hand, is not seen as an act of covering an original, but of reanimating inert matter. Each act of performing a score is seen as a new, if second order, act of creation.(fn33)

Considering Richard Long’s statements regarding performance (or rather the absence of performance) within his work, to attempt to recreate A Cloudless Walk would then not only be ‘an act of mimicry’, but also a transgressive act as it decisively contradicts the artist’s own statement.

Reinforcing my ideas about performance as transgression, and the associated concept of permission-to-perform, was the different approach of Michael Parsons’ text score Echo Piece at Muddusjarvi(fn34). Like the Long textworks, Echo Piece details a particular completed event; but unlike Long’s work, Parsons’ documentation explicitly permits reperformance through the following paragraph at the end of the score:

The general principles may be adapted for performances in other situations. The essential features of the piece are that the players explore changing relationships between outgoing and reflected sounds as they move in relation to the source of the echo, and that they observe the changing rhythmic relationships between sounds played and heard at different distances as they move in relation to each other. The piece may also be adapted for performance by more than two players, and in situations where there are multiple echoes from more than one sound- reflecting source.(fn35)

The parksong series treads a line between these two examples. Like Echo Piece they are simultaneously a recording of a performance at a particular place and time and a score to enable reperformance; but like A Cloudless Walk, they are presented as visual artworks and there is no explicit invitation to reperform them. Using a mode of presentation that implies that recreation would be ‘an act of mimicry’ and lacking an invitation to reperform them introduces a slight transgressive element to the prospect of reperformance. There is implied permission but not explicit invitation, and a small act of daring is therefore needed to perform these works.

In place of invitation, I have worked with language with the aim of piquing the viewer’s curiosity. parksong (the earliest of the series) aimed to do this by describing the meditative effect of performance on the performer. However, initial responses from friends indicated that while they enjoyed the piece and the experience of imagined performance, they felt little or no inclination to perform it themselves. Correspondingly, the line of my voice incorporates a subtle challenge to the viewer (‘Maybe one day my breath control will be better and I will reach the end of the paper before I reach the end of my breath and my song’s length will be dictated by the intersection of drawing speed and paper dimensions rather than the length of my line being dictated by my need for air’) while i sing myself a circle is deliberately vague about the nature of the sound produced (‘An oddly consonant-shaped sound for such a vowel-like action’) with the intention of encouraging viewers to try it for themselves.

Encouragement to performance is important for these pieces because the private, physically internal aspects of performance are more important than the sound heard by others. parksong is about the meditative experience of trying to maintain pitch for an extended duration in a public space; the line of my voice about the physical correlation of breath and drawn gesture; while i sing myself a circle explores the relationship of sound with the physicality of creating it – and the frisson of potential discovery while doing something odd in a public place.

Continue reading: Crossing boundaries: 1. Constructing public situations


25. Kim-Cohen, Blink, 49.

26. Kim-Cohen, Blink, 49.

27. Kim-Cohen, Blink, 49.

28. Kim-Cohen, Blink, 49.

29. Lely, ‘Grammar’, in Lely and Saunders, Word Events, 3-74.

30. Richard Long, A Cloudless Walk, 1995. Published in Richard Long, Walking the Line, London: Thames & Hudson, 2002, 23. Also on the artist’s website at <> (accessed 3 June 2014).

31. Kim-Cohen, Blink, 49-50

32. Kim-Cohen, Blink, 49

33. Kim-Cohen, Blink, 50.

34. Michael Parsons, Echo Piece at Muddusjarvi, published in Lely and Saunders, Word Events, 50-1

35. from Parsons, Echo Piece, 51.