The Song Remains the Same

Hamza Walker, 1995

If proof of progress were demanded, at what would you point? A bottle of aspirin, or better yet ibuprofen, a skyscraper, a laptop computer, a car with a cellular phone, a convenience store? For better or perhaps worse, this list could go on for quite a while until one realized that the history of our immediate environment has become synonymous with progress. An optimist would hardly hesitate to sum up the present as the fruit of a past in which the seeds of improvement were firmly planted. History is proof that things will get better because things have gotten better. Progress then allows for the justification of the present not only by means of the past to which the present compares itself but also the future into which progress has written itself like divine providence. In short, progress has somehow entangled itself with history past and history future. The projection of progress on to history, however, occurred during the Enlightenment, an 18th century philosophical movement which stressed rationalism over traditional social, religious and political ideas. Progress was born of the many revolutions which dot 18th and 19th century European history, the most prominent of which are the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1793. But the further these points recede in time, the more apparent it becomes that progress, in addition to being distinct from history, itself has a history.

To rephrase the initial question, of the many things which could serve as proof of progress, could one point at a work of art? The answer is “yes.” If progress and history are blurred, that is. If they are not, and it is accepted that progress is an historical phenomena rather than history itself, then it might be wiser to look not between works of art for a measure of progress but instead to look within works of art themselves for manifestations of the idea of progress. Of all places to begin looking, Vancouver-based conceptual artist Rodney Graham has chosen music.

The word most often used to describe Graham’s artistic practice is ‘interpolation,’ the alteration or corruption of text by inserting other text or foreign matter. Since 1983, Graham has been interpolating texts based on authors as diverse as Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville, Dr. Seuss, and Ian Fleming. Graham has also extended his practice of interpolation to include other art forms such as film, photography and in this case, music. His interpolations far exceed a critical interpretation of their source by exposing and amplifying an unconscious yet undeniably essential element ultimately responsible for the ironic dismantling of the original material. Whether its reductive, as is the case with his interpolation of Georg Buchner’s novella Lenz, in which Graham creates a loop based on a phrase which recurs in the text after the first 1,434 words; additive, as in his supplement to Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams; or tautological, as in Rome Ruins, a series of photographs of Roman ruins taken with pin-hole cameras made from discarded materials, the form assumed by Graham’s method of interpolation is always dictated by the source material. This is no less true when Graham applies his methods to music.

Graham’s School of Velocity which dates from 1993, is derived from a score of the same title by Viennese composer and piano virtuoso Carl Czerny (1791-1857). Czerny is best remembered as an instructor and his most lasting contributions to music are his numerous piano studies, some of which are still used today. As an instructor, Czerny had an affinity for studies which he saw not only as tools for greater dexterity but as works worthy of the same merit accorded to other forms of composition. Not surprisingly, studies constitute the majority of his vast output. School of Velocity has as its companions School of Practical Composition, School of Legato and Staccato and The Preliminary School of Finger Dexterity. Czerny devoted most of his professional career to fixing the forms of classical music so that knowledge of their construction and execution could be properly taught. Among his most famous pupils is Franz Liszt. In large measure, Czerny is responsible for mastery not only as it was required to play 19th century romantic compositions, but also mastery of music history and technical facility as we understand them today. Following Czerny’s teaching methods, one could climb through the ranks of distinction, from amateur, to expert, to professional, and finally virtuoso, at which point, nature willing, genius could show itself. Future development depended upon a complete mastery of the past. In an open letter to young ladies learning to play the piano, Czerny, on mastery, writes:

Every composer as well as every player founds his art and science on what his predecessors have already done; adding to that the inventions of his own. By these natural steps in advance, it is evident that the compositions of the present distinguished pianists are in many respects much more difficult than those of times gone by; and that whoever desires to study them must already possess great knowledge of music and a very considerable degree of execution.

An individual’s progress, however, was to be mirrored in a larger historical process involving the public. At the close of volume one in his School of Practical Composition, Czerny writes:

As language, in its progressive cultivation, must continually become more laconic and pure, and avoid all useless verbosity; so also musical composition. The public is ever asking the composer: “Do you then really require half an hour in order to unfold your ideas to us? Could you not do this as well in a quarter of an hour; or still less?”

According to his scheme, the engine of progress was not simply in motion but was accelerating under the pressure of an increasingly music-literate public demanding ever-greater satisfaction. School of Velocity, with its emphasis on acquiring greater technical facility, particularly speed, then takes on symbolic proportions, making it especially ripe for an intervention by Graham.

Graham arrived at his interpolation of Czerny’s School of Velocity after having read an article in Scientific American Magazine, by Galileo scholar Stillman Drake. According to Drake, Galileo’s observations regarding laws of free fall were greatly aided by his knowledge of music, which he inherited from his father, Vicenzo Galilei, a composer and music theorist. Graham’s School of Velocity involves the inversion of Galileo’s calculation of the force of gravity which corresponds to the geometric progression of squares; 1,4,9,16,25, etc. The following is an excerpt from Graham’s project description:

Taking the first 1,116 note events (the first three exercises and a portion of the fourth exercise in Czerny) I placed these note events on their squares according to the Law of Galileo. That is, while the first marked beat (or beat on which notes fall) of Czerny’s School is the first marked beat of my School, the second marked beat of Czerny becomes the fourth marked beat of my work, the third marked beat in the original becomes the ninth beat in my work, and so on until the 1,116th note of Czerny falls on the 1,245,456th beat of my (greatly expanded) work. The musical spaces that my composition creates are filled with rests. I limited my work to the squaring of the first 1,116 notes of Czerny because the performance of these notes according to my system takes exactly 86,400 seconds - or one mean solar day of 24 hours - when performed at M.M. - 864.9, a slight modification of the original tempo indicated by Czerny.

My School of Velocity may be seen as a simple musical demonstration of the Law of Galileo, according to which each sounded note is an analog for the successive points of descent occupied by a pianist performing Czerny’s original exercise while in free-fall. Or the work may be perceived as a kind of reversal of Galileo’s Law, since it effectively introduces a uniform deceleration (increasing silence) into the performance of the original, and this deceleration is inversely proportional to Galileo’s Law.

But of course we can only speak of the effect of deceleration since this work is performed within a strict governing tempo. The only time is clockwork time - that of Maelzel’s Metronome. If the time can be expanded by slowing down, this can only be done through the interpolation of rests. Slowing down as such is only a matter of the distribution, according to a particular numerical principal, of a number of discreet silences, each of which may be seen as comprising a quantum of absolute rest, a “withered remnant of the ‘promesse de bonheur’” (R. Linsey) and a foretaste of that time when the virtuoso will no longer be required to play.

The School of Velocity has been sequenced by Gary Bourgeois for perpetual performance on a Yamaha Disklavier. The complete score of the work in conventional musical notation is displayed on 1,443 individually framed pages. Each page contains approximately 1 minute of music. The bars on which Czerny’s original note-events fall are highlighted in red. A second version of the work has the pages bound into 24 volumes of approximately one hour of music each.

Graham’s School of Velocity, by subjecting progress to an inversion of Galileo’s Law, suggests that progress is a phenomena whose time may pass just as it came, in which case we may have experienced progress like the rush of a passing train. But Graham is not a cynic; rather, he is skeptical of the historical momentum achieved by certain ideas of the previous century. While his School of Velocity may spell a certain planned obsolescence for the idea of progress, it is the idea of progress as we have inherited it from the 19th century. Mastery, in Czerny’s sense, of any field, including music, is impossible. The breadth of activities which constitute a field of study are simply beyond the mastery of an individual. The more we have learned, the less we know. However, Czerny’s strain of progress, largely centered around the individual, pales in comparison to those who placed notions of progress on a much grander scale. With respect to music history, the most notorious example is Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813 -1883).

Wagner and Czerny share an interesting link by way of Beethoven. Czerny was Beethoven’s pupil. Consequently, Czerny regarded Beethoven as an historical figure who demanded all the skill and devotion of future composers and musicians if further developments in music were to be made. For Wagner, Beethoven assumed mythic proportions. Beethoven’s accomplishments were nothing short of the end of symphonic music. The chorus at the close of the Ninth Symphony was not a mere innovation but was human transcendence into the realm of ‘pure tone’. Regarding Beethoven, Wagner in his treatise entitled The Art Work of the Future, wrote:

After Haydn and Mozart, a Beethoven not only could, but must come; the genie of Music claimed him of Necessity, and without a moment’s lingering — he was there. Who now will be to Beethoven what he was to Mozart and Haydn, in the realm of absolute music? The greatest genius would not here avail, since the genie of Music no longer needs him.

A portion of music history had come to an end and further progress was impossible. Written in 1848, The Art Work of the Future, however, does not read as an objective account of this dilemma as much as it does a justification for Wagner’s own artistic endeavors. The Wagnerian opera was born of the will to overcome music history, if not all history, through a unification of the arts. This collective artwork would form “a universal girdle” embracing the experiences of all mankind through myth. Completed in 1882, Parsifal was Wagner’s last work. Centering around the quest for the Holy Grail whose talismanic powers include life everlasting, Parsifal is already burdened with signification. Graham’s interpolation actually involves a supplement to the original made during the works premiere. Supplementing an opera by Wagner is in and of itself humorous given that his operas are notoriously long. Graham’s Parsifal, like his School of Velocity, has taken several forms, including a bound score and a version displayed in one of his looped reading machines. The Society is presenting the work in its audio format. Highlights from the piece as performed by an orchestra will be broadcast over speakers running the length of the corridor leading to the gallery. Taken from the artist’s project description, the origin of the supplement as well as the method of interpolation are as follows;

In 1882, while rehearsing for the premiere performance of Parsifal in Bayreuth, Wagner encountered a technical difficulty involving the synchronization of music and scenery during the so-called Transformation Scene in the operas first act. In this scene Parsifal ascends the rocky slope of Monslavat and the Temple of the Holy Grail to the accompaniment of a four-minute orchestral passage. The problem concerned the “transformation curtains ” comprised of four vast canvases painted with landscape scenery, and which, carried across the stage by means of rollers, were to create the illusion of Parsifal’s movement through a constantly changing landscape. It happened that the curtains were too long and the music too short — the latter invariably ran out before Parsifal reached the Grail Temple. When asked for the scenic designer for more music Wagner refused, reportedly replying, “I do not write music by the meter!” Fortunately, the composer Englebert Humperdinck, Wagner’s assistant, wrote some additional bars which (somewhat to Humperdinck’s surprise) the master accepted. Hastily written into the orchestral score, the interpolated passage served to coordinate pit and stage for the first few festival performances. Later, when the canvas was trimmed and stage machinery overhauled, Humperdinck’s contribution was no longer needed and was dropped from the score.

This large-scale musical work supplements Humperdinck’s supplement by introducing a system of epicycles within his loop. My method was to create a number of musical loops of incommensurable lengths using the fourteen prime numbers between 3 and 47. I began by adding to the 7 bars commencing at Wagner section no. 89 a total of 40 bars of rests to produce a “new” expanded 47 bar passage. Then working down from the top score at No. 89, I assigned prime number values in ascending order from 3 to 47 bars to each of the 14 instrumental voices of the orchestra. Thus I had the flutes repeat the first 3 bars of the 47-bar passage, while I assigned to the second oboe a repetition of 5 bars, and to the first oboe a repetition of 7 bars. The alto oboe repeated the first 11 bars (7 bars plus 4 bars of rests), while the first and second horns repeated the first 13 bars (7 bars plus 6 bars of rests) and so on.

Since each prime number is divisible only by itself and unity, it is easy to see that these asynchronous loops will “phase” over many bars. Indeed the whole orchestra does not join up with itself until 307,444,891,294,246,706 bars have elapsed.

This, however, will not occur until 39 billion years have elapsed. Graham has accepted the date his piece will conclude as Monday, June 18,38,969,364,735 AD. According to Alan H. Batten, an astrophysicist who disagrees with Graham’s method of assigning a date of completion, it hardly matters since the sun will have ceased to shine and the world as we know it will no longer exist. It is only at this point that Parsifal can resume his quest for the Grail and ultimately assume his place amongst the Grail Knighthood. For all practical purposes, Graham’s Parsifal is then the soundtrack to eternity.

The word progress seems a bit modest when used to describe the Wagnerian quest for the universal. Graham’s placement of the Holy Grail beyond Parsifal’s grasp, not to mention the lifetime of our solar system, questions the value of such a quest. Needless to say, the fruits of this quest are not without a price. Even an optimist would argue that the price certainly has not been a bargain. But it would be difficult for us to imagine a future without progress. While Graham’s skepticism hints at a less certain future, he is not asking us to do without the concept of progress as much as he is asking us to consider revising it. If progress is to avoid its own planned obsolescence, perhaps it is time for it to submit to the rules of its own making from which it may then re-emerge new and improved.