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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Looking at Music



This small, three room exhibit at the Moma is probably one of the most overlooked in the museum, especially with artists like Joan Miro and Van Gough currently on display. This is unfortunate because it is also one of the most interesting.

Looking at Music chronicles some of the art that emerged as a result of the 60’s/70’s experimental sound revolution, a time when musicians were starting to use digital effects, dissonance, and minimalism in their work. Painters, composers, filmmakers, and writers began to take notice and were eager to implement these same elements into their own work.

The first thing you see when you enter the exhibit is a haunting projection of John Lennon on the wall. He’s looking at you from under a dark mop of hair while he stands in the center of a courtyard. You can hear the crisp sound of cars and birds in the background. Slowly, he starts to open his mouth. “Hi,” he says, in a long drawn out growl. And you just feel like you spoke with John Lennon.

It’s a piece by Yoko Ono, which is surprising of course, because her name is associated with the breakup of The Beatles and not interesting thought-provoking art.

Also besides the entrance are a series of compositions by composer John Cage. At the time he was greatly influenced by eastern music, so he tried experimenting with obscure forms of musical notation. One “piece” is notated with a series of dots and circles spread across a graph paper. Two music students staring at it were able to make some sense of the thing, “well, that dot must be a staff, and that speck has to be a quarter note,” they observed.

A contemporary of Cage’s, composer Nam Jan Paik, turned a mini television set into an abstract musical instrument. A bright white line is projected running diagonally across the TV screen. It stays this way, shining through the black. According to Paik the bright line is akin to what a single note of music would be like if it was sounded forever.

There is a clipping from a 1965 issue of The Village Voice. A dark chalked drawing of a woman walks across the page, obscuring the article. The paper was printed that way, with a portion of the story almost impossible to read. This piece signifies how widespread the energy and excitement for experimentation was at the time. Even publications were willing to try something new.

The last portion of the show examines the emergence of experimental music videos. In the “Penny Lane” video, by the Beatles, the band is shown roaming around London, traveling through gardens by horse, and finally having tea in the middle of a park. Strange stuff. In another music video, “Secret Agent Man,” by Devo, the band is shown wearing disturbing Ken Barbie-like masks as they rock out in a dingy factory basement.

The best part of the exhibit however, is watching peoples’ reactions. A pleasant old lady, for example, put on headphones to listen to Steve Riech’s piece, “Come out,” from 1966. The piece consists of a looped voice, which is then slowly sped up to produce a blurring warbling trance. The lady started off with a smile, which then slowly turned into a bemused grin, with then turned into helpless confusion, and she was forced to take the headphones off.

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