PRINT March 2009


Stefan Tcherepnin

A writer and performer of acoustic and electronic music, Stefan Tcherepnin is a 2008–2009 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Music Composition. He has recently performed at the Kitchen and the Knitting Factory in New York and at the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts.


    My first visit to France took me to Fontainebleau, where I studied composition at the American Conservatory. About an hour away, deep within the forest, was Le Cyclop, a monstrous mirrored sculpture conceived in 1969 by Jean Tinguely and executed in collaboration with Niki de Saint Phalle and at least a dozen other artists. The structure, with its accumulations of gears and levers, seems to possess a metallic circulatory system. A heavy metal ball rolls throughout the skull’s various inner chambers, activating mechanical processes along the way that cause its frame to rock and sway. While exploring the interior of this colossal cranium, one is surrounded by the unsettling sound of steel scraping steel, accompanied by the oversize marble’s warbling roar.

    *Jean Tinguely, _Le Cyclop_ (The Cyclops), 1969–89*, mixed media. Installation view, Milly-la-Forêt, France, 2008. Photo: Simone Pacini. Jean Tinguely, Le Cyclop (The Cyclops), 1969–89, mixed media. Installation view, Milly-la-Forêt, France, 2008. Photo: Simone Pacini.

    When I was a kid and thought classical music was boring, my father introduced me to the music of Scriabin. This turn-of-the-century Russian composer’s innovative approach to dissonance and harmony, culminating in the creation of a “mystic” chord, emanated from his compliance with idiosyncratic, self-imposed principles. Many of his works contain “secret harmonies” that do not appear in the written scores.


    Amacher’s fascination with aural phenomena and human hearing has led to extensive research into the ways our ears (and brains) produce tones, pushing the limits of technology all the while. In 2005, she created a forty-eight-channel sound installation—at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes—using cave recordings she made beneath the two-thousand-year-old Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán. The massive scale of the resulting work, TEO!, prevents it from being reduced to a conventional recorded format; on the second volume of her Sound Characters (Tzadik) recordings, however, the composer offers a special stereo mix of TEO!, resulting in a composition that seems to reveal the inner “voices” of the pyramid’s walls.


    Last year, Portuguese artists João Simoes and Ana Cardoso staked out this former factory space in Lisbon and began inviting artists to work there. Amy Granat and Emily Sundblad soon shot Factory, one of their “Lisbon Films,” on location, while composer Henry Flynt gave his first public performance in decades. This past summer, artist Rich Aldrich and I had the chance to create and present the latest stage of our ongoing music/noise collaboration with free rein to use the (borrowed) custom equipment and to explore the superb acoustic properties of TEST’s cavernous spaces.

    *Amy Granat and Emily Sundblad, _Surf_, 2008*, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 6 minutes. From the series “Lisbon Films,” 2008. Amy Granat and Emily Sundblad, Surf, 2008, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 6 minutes. From the series “Lisbon Films,” 2008.

    Built in 1937, this one-of-a-kind synthesizer—named in homage to Scriabin (his initials are A. N. S.), who had conceived of music for a “color organ” some three decades earlier—was created in an attempt to “translate” images into sounds. Compositions for the machine require an artist/composer to etch lines, shapes, letters, etc., onto a square piece of glass coated with a tarry substance; this object is placed onto a hand-crank-operated track and scrolled over a photo-optic network that “reads” it. Light passing through the etched portions activates electronics, which select pure tones from a microtonal cluster. I encountered the ANS a few years ago in Moscow’s Theremin Center, where the synthesizer then resided. (It has since been relocated to the city’s Glinka Museum of Musical Culture.) The unintentional beauty of this instrument lies in its wonderful obsolescence.


    I especially admire Fats Waller’s expressive calliope interpretation of the tune “Lenox Avenue Blues,” which can be heard playing in the distance throughout David Lynch’s film Eraserhead. Somehow, the weird sonority of the steam-powered pipe organ—generally associated with novelty spectacles such as carnivals and circuses—is at once charming and grotesque, soothing and unsettling. Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey made some significant recordings using an electronically simulated calliope. The strangely whimsical yet transfixing nature of his playing makes me suspect that he used his music as a vehicle to gain direct access to people’s minds.

    *Lithograph of a circus poster showing a calliope by Gibson & Co., 1872* Lithograph of a circus poster showing a calliope by Gibson & Co., 1872

    “I’ve been here fifteen minutes and still see no art!” Upon hearing this enthusiastic statement from a bystander at Schultz’s opening, I realized the artist had succeeded, if only for a moment, in making work that exists only as “thought energy.” Over the course of the exhibition, pipes, ropes, and boat-docking supplies were rearranged and replaced. For a later performance in the gallery, Schultz, assisted by a few volunteers, revealed these materials’ unexpected functionality, transforming, for instance, a wooden bench into an amplified seesaw printing press. The resulting “prints” of crushed charcoal on sheets of cheap plywood were eventually assembled by the performers into a three-dimensional replica of the bench. In the end, what had materialized was not only “art” but also a new notion of what we should be looking for.


    When I met Perkins this past fall, at the Emily Harvey Foundation in New York, he had just given a performative presentation of snapshots from an early 1970s encounter with John Ford and John Wayne. Only later did I learn about his legendary light performances with customized strobing slide projectors. There is no way to save the projections’ analog sequences; thus, to witness one of these performances is to be in sync with Perkins’s own process of discovery.

    *Jeffrey Perkins performing at the Emily Harvey Foundation, New York, November 5, 2008.* Jeffrey Perkins performing at the Emily Harvey Foundation, New York, November 5, 2008.

    One of my first LPs was Wiseblood’s 1985 hot-rod death chant, Motorslug (Wax Trax!). I eventually found out that the mastermind behind this recording was J. G. Thirlwell, better known for his projects under the name Foetus. Last September, I caught his chamber-music project, Manorexia, at John Zorn’s venue, the Stone. The program—consisting of eight pieces scored for two violins, viola, cello, percussion, piano, and (the composer’s) laptop—exhibited Thirlwell’s rare musical sensitivity, fluency in extended instrumental techniques, and keen ear for orchestration.

    *J. G. Thirlwell, May 2003.* Photo: C. Taylor Crothers. J. G. Thirlwell, May 2003. Photo: C. Taylor Crothers.

    This 1963 book, published by poet Jackson Mac Low and composer La Monte Young, made a significant contribution to the evolution of music composition, though it is often overlooked or entirely disregarded. Its entirely performable contents include word-based and graphic scores by Young, John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Terry Riley, and Christian Wolff, along with Henry Flynt’s essay “Concept Art” and Dick Higgins’s exercise in reading mirror-image texts. In a way, this anthology achieves in book form what Tinguely’s Cyclop does with materials in space—so many intensities and ideas sewn together and acted on in different ways.