Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes


Xerox of a xerox of a xerox: isn’t that degradation and smudge, loss of detail, loss of use, what one sees too often in academic writing, zombie-no-lilt reiteration of second and third hand-me-down lingoes deracinated and pluck’d, nearly void of meaning? That’s how I read Carla Harryman’s writing about “poets theater”—in a combo of horror at the sentence by sentence vacuity (“Conceptualism’s attention to materiality, frame, context, and space influenced all the arts” or “I am interested in the ways text and performance make contact within ensemble and rehearsal situations”), jaw hanging befuddlement (“Conceptualism’s purposelessness becomes also an affect of social history”), and sheer just tie my ass to the bumper of a car and drag it out of here repetition-fatigue (“it’s how I, as audience, understood the work: its meaning-making system encouraged the viewers to produce their own readings”). In a rather aimless romp, Harryman considers: Robert Smithson’s Pours (interlarded with Sol Lewitt and Lucy Lippard); Roland Barthes’s S / Z (“popular with young eggheads and cultural workers”—“eggheads”?) (with Alain Robbe-Grillet—“privileges perception”—endlessly and pointlessly examining an “object” nearby); Jock Reynolds’s and “movement artist” Suzanne Helmuth’s performance of Hospital (it “referred to rather than cited a hospital environment”) at the Magic Theater in 1977; and offers three “short pieces aimed at rehearsal situations.” Here’s one of the pieces, titled “Event for Any Duration”:
Fake things.
Emphasize the real time of the event.
Nothing behind the acts.
Notation cracks this open.
Everything becomes mise en scène.
Movement at the service of props.
Harryman procceds to instruct one in the use and interpretation of all that:
Unlike my other writings for performance, the exercises . . . don’t require vocalizing the words, even as speaking the text would be an option performers might choose. Performers might, for instance, take “nothing behind the acts” to be an instruction to invent a depthless scene. They could create this scene as silent action, and then they might choose to add to it “notation cracks this open” as a spoken line.
Differences pegged to Harryman’s own work that inevitably (one frowns, thinking) must needs lead to a general clamor for similarities. Harryman, never a disappointment, concurs:
Like my other works for performance, these three exercises suggest an open-ended method of performing: the result can’t be anticipated until decisions are made and provisional approaches are put into play in a rehearsal or performance situation. Metatheatrical, metatextual, and conceptual, the content is predominately abstract . . .
And that “putting into play” in rehearsal’s result? “The rudiments of a collectively arrived-at language for performance.” Undoubtedly. Opera aperta or not, the nature of performance—Shakespeare, jazz, Cage, a sorry piece of saloon melodrama—is that of collaborating, negotiating, finding a language. For Harryman to claim that “dynamics of repetition, change, interaction, moving forward, cutting, composing, looking backward or around, and pausing will also serve as aspects of this foundational language” is correct enough—it’s just hardly new. Just as the “meaning-making system” of, say, Hamlet’s “encouraged . . . viewers to produce their own readings” for some four centuries, troupe after troupe’s had to work out “the rudiments of a collectively arrived-at language for [its] performance. The difference: a tangible slew of material—musical, spatial, gestural—to work with in Hamlet; a indeterminate bundle of “bits and pieces of language events” hardly compelling enough to attend to in “Event for Any Duration.” In both cases, though: “the performance itself and performers themselves have to interpret [each] on its (their) own terms.”

All in all, a meagre stew of approximate idées reçues. As Sol Lewitt puts it somewhere: “These sentences comment on art, but are not art.” (It occurs to me—peeking at the next Pianist, Lyn Hejinian, who begins with “‘The obvious analogy is with music,’” quoting My Life, that the “motif” of The Grand Piano 7 must be “music.” Kit Robinson wrote lengthily and interestingly about guitar-playing, jazz (particularly Thelonious Monk) and Afro-Cuban clave rhythms. Harryman barely mentions music: sense of the old sophomore trick of recycling something written for some other course, fingers-cross’d it’ll somehow go unnoticed, or suffice.)


Art unsullied by
reckless mergers with
dubious fits of

principle—who’d like
to accompany me
to the company

picnic? A meager
seismic event just
made my chair

“tilt” back of
its own accord.
Snow makes noise

like sand hitting
a tarpaulin stretched
out with guy

wires and pegs
to barely cover
a woodpile nobody

can get at
without permission handed
down by the

superintendent, uh, curator.
My “material” is
the ordinary act

of writing down
what the angels,
burnished by raw

copper-colored fire-
light, sing, emergent,
audient, formal, slow.

Poets Theater