IHM Comp IV disc 1

The fourth compilation of music from members of the i hate music community has just been released. As always it is a net release that can be streamed or downloaded in its entirety from the IHM Comp IV page. I’ve submitted a track for each of the IHM Comps to date and once again a piece of my music has made it in. I almost always try to submit something that is representative of current directions in my music for these comps and my piece for this more or less continues in that direction. More or less as I’d think of it as a transitional piece – I’m not likely to do something quite like this again.  It also follows on directly from the piece I did for the last comp and is the middle piece of a proposed trilogy of pieces.  Anyway give it a listen along with the rest of the comp which was brilliantly put together by Alastair Wilson. Thanks to Al and all those who participated in making  the music, imagery and site.


AMM October 13th 1995

In the autumn of 1995 AMM engaged in their first tour of Japan, details of which seem to have escaped much documentation on the Internet.  The only two confirmed dates are October 13th at the Nagoya City Art Museum in Nagoya which is the bootleg in question and October 22nd at the Egg Farm in Fukaya. This later concert was released as From a Strange Place on PSF Japan. It is interesting to have these two documents from nine days apart, to compare how AMM is sounding at this point in 1995. Any additional information on the Japan tour would be appreciated.

From a Strange Place begins immediately with piano work from Tilbury and a restless working of the strings on the guitar from Rowe.  Taps and hits of the drums from Prévost interject here and there but are not dominate. He does move through objects signifying the full percussion setup, but unlike the previous. The beginning of this piece is rather helter-skelter with a worrying behavior as a dog at a bone. Sounds come in and stop but aren’t developed for long without a gap or a change. Rowe seems the most persistent, working his strings again and again without manipulating the electronic aspect, but with a wide degree of variance. When it does build into a denser structure it includes Tilbury’s arpeggios and grumbles and percussive string manipulations from Rowe’s guitar along with more vigorous drum work from Prévost. While overall this is a restless piece of music and it varies from silence to aggressive outbursts as a whole it seems less dense then the show from the week prior. There is a great section of a sustained spoken radio grab that Prévost responds to with more aggressive drumming, both rolls on the drums and singled pounded events that demonstrates the effectiveness of more muscular drum work (in contrast to the set under consideration today).  The center of this piece is a long, spacious very tentative feeling section, made of squeaky bowed metal, oscillating but low intensity guitar feedback interspersed with string manipulations and chording from Tilbury whose decay takes far more precedence then the attacks. The weakest part of this show though was a Prévost led assault on the drums, but here (and again in contrast to the boot) Tilbury and Rowe match him in density and volume.  But the gesture, that of a jazz drum solo, pulls you out where pure sound, however loud or ugly does now. But this event was short lived and the ending of this set, culminating with a Kabuki like clapped object amidst far away scrabbles on Rowe’s pickups, softly grinding metal and rumbled chords is among the best in its uncompromising yet stunningly beautiful nature. Here it feels as if all the musicians are finding their way, working through something which I think is characteristic of the best AMM sets.  In that regard this recording is a think a nice example of a “typically great” AMM set if not as transcendent as the absolute top tier pieces.  It also has my favorite of Keith Rowe’s painted covers 🙂

AMM October 13th 1995
Nagoya City Art Museum, Nagoya Japan

AMM has always been about searching for the sound in the performance.(5)

The recording begins with applause, presumably as the musicians took the stage. It begins quiet, with Prévost bowing some object and then rubbing on the surface of a drum. Apart from maybe some occasional moans from Rowe’s electrics the beginning sounds are all Prévost and move on to include short snare rolls, the occasional taps on a larger drum and at one point the shaking of some object.  Even so it is spacious and tentative with good gaps as Prévost’s stops or switches objects. Tilbury eventually comes with a a very prepared piano sound, chords on strings that have been muted or had objects on them. A few of these and it goes silent again, followed by Prévost stroking a metal object and letting it ring. He seems to have had a kit here as he seems to be playing a kick drum with a pedal whilst scratching the surface of another drum and bowing something – rather active if still a bit subdued for a short burst.  A very quiet, very thin electrical sound come from Rowe and the single piano notes from Tilbury on heavily muted strings. This is really one of the more exploratory openings with severe restraint from Rowe and Tilbury and Prévost almost seeming as if he is playing head down in his own space, not worrying or listening to anyone else, not concerned with sudden flurries of sound widely spaced out.  A near drum solo comes from him, in that scattered jazz style that is all drums, but seems to just skitter over surfaces. Of course being AMM there is no obvious rhythm.  Rowe is now letting a ripping static come from the radio, sometimes resolving into garbled speech, but all at a super minimal volume, just barely present.  And then with a rip of feedback it all explodes, with Prévost pounding the skins and several abrupt big chords from Tilbury. More volume and more active now, it is still quite stilted though Prévost seriously flirts on drum solo territory rolling across all of his drums and even working a cymbal at the end of some of these gestures.  Rowe is more aggressively attacking the strings, but in short bursts.  The spaces between events widens a bit but with no decrease in intensity for a minute or so and then it becomes spacious and soft.

Oscillations on prepared strings from Tilbury, skittery bowed metal from Prévost and a warbling sound from Rowe, perhaps a knife under his guitars strings all of this allowed to run for a bit a kind of sickly stasis. Low end radio added to the mix, plus additional groaning sounds, purer bowed metal and tapped drums from Prévost with almost buried repeated gentle high registered piano chords from Tilbury continue this queasy miasma, that even a few big drum hits from Prévost can’t resolve.  Most of this slowly fades away, leving a dentist drill wine and gentle piano playing, almost music box like from Tilbury. Finally it all fades away.

From a short gap, piano notes, now more mid-register and some of them prepared return joined shortly with brushes on the drums. A quiet electronic grinding whine whirls in and away, followed by gently tapped drums. Mallet work on the drums now, picking up the pace and as Tilbury begins to roll out big arpeggios on the ivories Prévost begins to work the cymbals, back in drum solo mode.  The occasional roar and groan from Rowes electronics are buried under this assault, which even as it drops in intensity does not reveal it any clearer. Short, spaced out events now, squeaks from Rowe’s strings, shorter spaced out drum assaults and a tenacious working of a few piano keys all stops and now a whine, thin and upper mid-range from Rowe dominates the nearly empty soundfield. Prévost begins to rub a drum head, contrasting the higher pitch whine with short, low interjections, Tilbury works the piano strings directly.

Everything fades away leaving just Prévost working a drum head. After a bit of this the sound of Tilbury striking the pianos strings with an object is heard along with  a low, quiet oscillation from Rowe. This continues apace until as it all fades away Prévost returns to gently and then not so gently pounding a floor tom. The brings Tilbury back to the keys, restless working a few bass notes. An uneasy tone come in, almost more felt then heard, just at the threshold of audibility amongst the other sounds. When it goes it away its absence is more obvious then its presence.  As Tilbury rolls chords Rowe returns now with a more persistent buzz, restless and more at a volume with the others. Things become wobbly: the bobbing sound of a spring or utensil on strings, Prévost drumming arrhythmically, fragments of chords from the piano. This fades out, almost into a false AMM style ending, with Tilbury’s chords getting quieter and quieter, Rowe’s rumbles being turned down, and very soft bowed metal.

But the bowing of the metal picks up a bit in intensity and the piano chording is still quiet, widely spaced but persistent. Tilbury now playing quiet fragments of little melody’s and Prévost adds the odd strike of the drum to his bowing.  Background roars and amplifier hums from Rowe come in and out, very widely spaced and then a grinding sound. Things keep pausing, as they seem to struggle to bring it back up. Now its that hurky-jerky style that is so oft driven by Prévost – start/stop little rolls on drums, hitting of other objects, short gestures. Rowe, as also is pretty common, with turn up a guttural roar and just as quickly cut it off sometimes seeming to work these sounds in parallel with Prévost’s staccato style. Vigorous rubbing of the guitar strings now and definitely the most aggressive from Rowe as Prévost now vigorously works the skins in true drum solo mode. This section played blind for most people would just sound like a jazz drum solo, not very AMM like at all. Prévost eventually backs it out, fading away on a long roll, Tilbury and Rowe now silent. A very quiet sound, perhaps a rubbing on Rowe’s strings, or a metal object of Prévosts is all that remains.

An electronic buzz comes up, a broken chord. Steady bowing now, quiet and thin. Rowe’s background hum. The last 8-10 minutes of this piece are beautiful – very spare with low end rumbles coming in and out, Tilbury putting in these deep chords that seem to come from the very depths and lots of space and silence. Out of this a little Feldman like broken chord, or a single stroke on the metal edge of a drum, or the the buzz of Rowe’s electronics. Very, very nice ending to what overall is a pretty mixed set.

This set is one of those that rather defies the ethereal floating nature so oft ascribed to AMM in the 90s.  Taken along with From a Strange Place one can see that this is fairly typical for AMM at this point. The trio in fact constantly worked with eruptions of volume and density even in this configuration. The sounds are just a lot more recognizable, usually being piano chords or big drum assaults then the more pure noises they’d have used in the 60s.  While I enjoy the roller-coaster nature of this period of AMM, I find that whenever Prévost has a full kit there is often a bit too gestural drumwork for my taste. When it becomes like a typical jazz drum solo, my interest wanes a bit.  Interestingly the other members tend to just let these events play out,  laying out (as it were) until space opens up again. I do feel that I should note that it is quite possible that Rowe was lost in the mix as I’m not sure what the sourcing on this one is.  However being pretty familiar with AMM boots at this point I do listen for his playing as opposed to its relative volume and it clearly was not present at many points.  Tilbury was pretty audible when he chose to be and I can more confidently assert his more withdrawn performance.  As always when the music seems the most ego free it was immediately familiar as AMMMusic and as powerful as ever.  As the decade would wear on it would seem that Prévost would pare down his tools and this I think would lead to the more austere final phase of the trio AMM.

1) AMM From a Strange Place (PSF Japan) 1996
2) Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent, Copula, 1995
3) The AMM page at the European Free Improvisation Home
4) Notes on AMM: Entering and Leaving History Stuart Broomer, CODA Magazine no. 290. 2000
5) Keith Rowe Interview, Paris Transatlantic, Jan. 2001

Strategies of realization for the more abstract Musical Patterns

No 46 from the Book of Musical Patterns
No 46 from the Book of Musical Patterns

Yesterday I made a recording of No 46 from my Book of Musical Patterns and I thought it’d be interesting to go over my process of realizing these scores.  The scores in the BoMP progress from rather regular patterns to increasingly abstract notation and yet the instructions for the scores remains constant (with the addition of rules at times, but never subtraction).  The musical patterns are always a challenge for the performer in how to take very minimal information and transform that into music. A lot of leeway is given to the performer and yet the instructions are rather rigorous. So apart from the basic challenge present in all of the scores, how to apply these instructions to the more abstract scores is an additional hurdle.  To illustrate the issues of interpreting the scores I shall examine two realizations: No 3, the first one I ever performed and the above No. 46, which would be the most recent.  Since I’ve written about my ideas behind the BoMP on its site (mainly on this page) and also on IHM (in this thread in which I discuss the Pools of Sound in particular)  I’ll jump right into the analysis here and suggest checking out those links if one is unfamiliar with these scores or my ideas behind them.

A quick note on media. I’ve included an embedded player with my realizations of the scores under discussion. It can only play mp3s but I’ve also added download links that include an Apple Lossless version (playable with iTunes).  Additionally all of my BoMP recordings can be downloaded from the Downloads page on the Hollow Earth Recordings Book of Musical Patterns sub-site. The images of my performance scores were taken by a digital camera which is not ideal but my scanner seems to have shuffled off this mortal coil. They have been uploaded at full resolution to Flickr and by clicking on them you can access larger versions of them if you want to examine any aspect of them. They are all collected in my Hollow Earth Recordings Images Flickr set if you want to see them all together. The scores themselves as well as the instructions for them can downloaded here if you want them for reference.

No 3 from the Book of Musical Patterns

No 3 from the Book of Musical Patterns. (download: mp3lossless)

The best way to consider approaching the more abstract scores is to first examine one of the early regular scores.  Above is my performance score for No 3 along with the recording that resulted from it. This was the very first of the patterns I recorded (though obviously the 3rd one I wrote) and this performance score comes from about two years before I completed the book. You can see that I amended some of the symbols by hand, changes that were then applied to the master document.  As I’ve said before the early scores in the BoMP are more akin to John Cage’s Time Bracket notation as opposed to purely abstract scores such as Treatise. Time Brackets indicate a range in which a (usually notated but not always) sound was to be performed. The BoMP does not provide such precision, instead is gives you the distance between when an event should occur.

To the left is an example of Cage’s Time Bracket Notation (Five (1988), image from Wikipedia). The topmost figure is a good example, it shows playing a note starting at the performers choice between one minute and a minute forty-five seconds and ending between a minute thirty and two fifteen.  So looking at No 3 how does it compare to that?  Well the distances between events can easily be translated into time and the space a symbol uses into duration.  As the instructions indicate that you are supposed to set a fixed amount of time for a realization, which translates to a fixed amount of time for each row for piece like No 3, it isn’t too hard to break it down in that way. It should be noted that based on the sounds chosen there may not necessarily be a direct correlation between the size of a symbol and the duration of a musical event. There can be, but it is only a requirement where mulitple symbols differ in such a way that it is clear that one should take up more time then the other.  The indeterminacy in the BoMP is twofold: one that the time for the piece is up to the performer (thus the structure itself is indeterminate)  but also in the degree of accuracy to which the player works out the timing. In the example above I worked out the starting times of events precisely, but only the absolute length of the long optional events.  To put this in something more like time bracket notation the first two line would read like this:

0’10” –  s2
0’55” – s1
0’55” – 1’0″ – oe1

2’15” –  s1
2’0″  – s2
2’05” – 2’50” – oe1

In the BoMP notation s1 is sound source 1, s2 is sound source 2 and oe1 is optional event 1.  The optional events in this piece stretch over an amount of space that can be translated into time whereas the symbols for s1 and s2 are not so easily translated into time, with the caveat that s1 is clearly longer then s2. If you were playing this on a piano (say) you could pick fixed notes for the symbols and probably create a pretty standard score of it in time bracket notation. However the instructions do not force you into that degree of rigor regarding time, nor does it force you into that degree of rigor involving the sounds sources.

The choice of sounds used in these scores are vital, I spent quite a bit of time working out which ones to use for No 3 and likewise recorded a number of versions of it before I settled on what I used. The sounds that used for this were fixed sources but included those that I was able to create variations within.  For s2 I used a turntable cartridge that was wired directly into the mixer that I manipulated with several different objects (tape, bubble wrap and an emory board are three I remember). For s1 I used a radio tuned to static and for oe1 I used a pure sine wave from an old test tone generator. The cartridge was the most varied in sounds while the others (especially the test tone) were fairly constant.  There were several takes that I did of this piece with different sounds, or different combinations of these sounds that while accurate to my realization just weren’t compelling to me as music. Thus I learned the great lesson that for music made up of few sounds, the choice of those sounds is vital.

No 46 performance score
No 46 performance score

No 46 from the Book of Musical Patterns (download: mp3, lossless)

For quite a few of the early scores that sort of interpretation works perfectly, but the scores become increasing abstract, first abandoning the confines of rows of events and then eventually even the discrete nature of the symbols. So how to approach these more abstract scores, especially those without additional instructions? The first thing of course is to examine the score carefully, noting the elements it contains and trying to work out a basic structure. No 46 is a solid black oval, with twelve white blobby pools of varying size unevenly distributed throughout its area. The pools contain additional black elements of varying size, quantity and complexity. The first thing to decide is which of these elements are to be considered as part of the structural nature of the piece and which are the sound events.

Overall Structure
My first approach was to lay a 9×9 grid over the circular area and considered playing in in a left to right, top to bottom approach such as I took for No 3.  This approach raised a number of concerns though: there would often be parts of the discrete pools in a grid, sometimes more then one which vertically would be encountered simultaneously. This approach would make it hard for a solo realization without discarding a significant amount of the elements. It also minimized the circular nature of the dominant component of the score, something which I felt must be handled in some way. I had played this score before with my friends in the Seattle Improv Meeting (download an mp3 of it here) in which we did a sight reading of the piece. In this take I had worked my way from pool to pool following the shortest distance between them. This I felt was an adaptable approach, using the distance between the pools. For this realization I chose to follow the pools in a circular pattern, spiraling inward. I started at the bottom where the arrow and X are and went clockwise around the pools. Each of the pools I labeled from A to L so by following those alphabetically you can see the route that took through the score. The bottom shows the distance between the pools and the amount of time I assigned to those distances. Following this notion I furthermore measured the pools and assigned a duration for each of those, which is notated on the right hand side of the sheet. I fiddled with the values to get to the Forty-Five minutes that I had alloted to the piece but they are consistent.

Individual Elements
The next bit of analysis I did pre-performance was on the content of each of the pools. These vary per pool but each of them is made up of a number of discrete elements, most of which are constructed from clusters of smaller elements (you may have to look at the larger images to see this). On the left hand side of the score you can see a rough count of the discrete elements and also a shorthand symbol for the elements basic nature. I decided that in general I’d consider these as discrete events but that since each one is made up of clusters, that they’d generally be of more complicated sounds. That is to say sounds that are themselves clusters of events, like say sliding a rock around the strings as opposed to plucking a single string.

Overarching Elements
The final structuring element now was how to treat the black and white elements. The main circle is solid black and the pools are negative space within it. The most obvious interpretation is sound for the black, silence for the white.  One could of course invert that without any compunction, the difference would be sound events widely seperated in silence versus silence puncturing more continuous sound.  I chose the first interpretation, though I’d kind of like to do an inverted realization of the negative space version. Of course there are a lot more options then just this binary approach, but these are the ones that I considered for this particular realization.

The network instrument and my prepared wire strung harp
The network instrument and my prepared wire strung harp

Finding the sounds
As I had learned from No 3 the sounds chosen for the realization were vital.  In that case it was because there were few sounds across the duration, but in this case it was because there was going to be a continuous sound played for over half of its total duration.  Now what this continuous sound is constructed from is of course the key, it need not even necessarily be all that continuous. It could be made up of a a wide variety of micro-events that in the whole come across as a unifying whole. Or it could be a single static sound that runs unmanipulated. Between those two poles there are of course limitless shades and there are options beyond these poles as well.  What I chose to do was to work with a continuous non-linear electronic sound. That is I setup a system that was inherently non-deterministic so that it subtly varied under its own accord and perhaps had features that could be slightly permuted as it came and went, thus providing a unified sound that had details for those that chose to focus on them. I tend to think of these things more like kinetic sculptures – they are fixed in their elements but as they move, can be viewed from different angles and  never appear the same, but viewed from a distance are always recognizable as a discrete entity. I setup a version of my network instrument using interconnections  that were right on the edge of feedback as well as inputs from the entirety of my setup that could push it into near chaos.  The way this was setup I had to manually manipulate to pots on my mixer to turn this source on or off and this in itself provided some of that variance I desired as the interaction between the two channels was rather variable depending on their relative volumes.

Set of manipulators for this realization
Set of manipulators for this realization

Having worked out the continuous sound it now fell on me to settle what would be performed in the pools. I decided pretty much right off that since the rather dominate continuous sound would be be pure electronics that I’d use only the prepared wire strung harp for the isolated events.  I set this up with a few preparations and four mics (one contact mic on the strings, the internal contact mics on the soundboard and two speakers on the soundbox used as mics). I laid out a subset of objects I’d chose from to manipulate the harp with (rubber tipped mallets, nail files both cardboard and steel, a bolt, an eBow, a rock, tuning key and the bow from a bowed psaltery). However I went no further then this in preparing for the playing of these events. I’ve played the prepared wire strung harp with these tools for many years now and have a wide array of techniques and approaches that I can take. I decided that to add an additional element of uncertainty to this performance that during the static parts I’d decide how to approach each pool.  I had more then enough options to approach each one uniquely which I felt was integral to the score. The wire strung harp I prepared with a minimum of preparations, ones that I knew would allow for a variety of options but also kept choices to a manageable amount. Limiting both the manipulators and the preparations I felt was appropriate considering that the score, while displaying a wide variety of disparate elements was still rather austere.  With all of the elements taken into consideration and setup it now just was a matter of performing the piece. You can listen to the recording to see how it went.

The Musical Patterns in many ways can seem to resist a musical interpretation and I hope that this shows at least one way that they can be approached.  It is worth noting that my approach is not necessarily as monolithic as looking at these two realizations may make it appear.  I have used a number of approaches on the various recordings that I’ve made of these pieces and these represent only a subset of those (see my description of No 33 in the IHM thread for an example of a different approach). Of course with my own realizations there are other concerns that I also address: those involving accidents, choice of sounds, issues with continuous sounds, process and so on.  These can lead to music that the listener may or may not necessarily find to her taste, completely apart from any issues arising from the score. Hopefully through discussion like this, notions of approach can at least elucidated perhaps inspiring those who’d like to hear these sound different to create their own realizations.  For more information on the score, to download pdfs of the score or any of extant recordings see the Book of Musical Patterns site.

Recent Art Viewings 3: SFMoMA

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960
Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

From the moment I rounded a corner in the maze of galleries on the second floor of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art the above Rothko constantly pulled my eye toward it.  It was three rooms down, rooms filled with great art, but every time I’d look down the center of the galleries I catch a glimpse of No. 14 and be momentarily sucked in. When I finally did make it to that room, where the Rothko stands alone on one long wall I spent probably a good forty-five minutes sat in front lost in its depths.  I’ve managed to see maybe a dozen Rothko’s in person, at MoMA, the Met, SAM and other galleries and this one is without a doubt the most powerful one I have seen. Don’t get me wrong, MoMA in particular has some great Rothko’s but this one is just utterly captivating. Of course I haven’t been to the really large Rothko installations such as the Tate or the Rothko Chapel, so I expect to continue to be blown away by further examples of his work.

I spent three days in San Francisco at the end of my recent bicycle tour down the Pacific Coast and the one thing I really wanted to do was visit SFMoMA.  I did so on my first full day there, Saturday July 23rd, arriving at the gallery not long after it opened for the day. SFMoMA has a big entrance hall, which was hung with some huge art pieces that honestly left almost no impression. At the ticket booth I’d been almost unable to make out what the agent was saying due to some fault in the speaker system so I ended up with a pass to their special exhibits. These were both photography based and were initially of little interest to me. I went right to the second floor where their modern collection was.  The first room, to the right of the stairs up was setup with an exhibit “from the collection” entitled Matisse and Beyond which featured paintings by Matisse paired with later works which you could claim some influence. I enjoy Matisse’s work quite a bit, but I don’t recall being too blown away by anything in this little show.  The next room though featured a nice Calder, Lone Yellow (1961) hanging from the ceiling, one of the larger mobiles I’ve seen, which was gently rotating in the museum atmosphere.

Alexander Calder Lone Yellow, 1961
Alexander Calder Lone Yellow, 1961

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

It was in this room that I was first able to glimpse, three rooms down, the Rothko and as I worked my way around the pieces here (most of which I’ve forgotten) I’d constantly be distracted by it in the distance. The next room though commanded my complete attention as it featured a number of absolutely stunning pieces.  As you walk in you immediately see Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) on a pedestal in the center of the room. This is one of four authorized replicas that Duchamp commissioned by the artist in the 60s (the original was stolen) and seeing it in person is definitely witnessing a bit of history.  This piece, which so shocked the establishment in 1917, is I think the poster boy for so much of art to come.  Contemporary art today almost seems exclusively derived from the notion that “art is what artists do” which traces straight back to Duchamp’s readymades.  The improv music that I love so much also in many ways leads straight back to Duchamp, with its random radio grabs, found sounds and extraction of sound from everyday objects.

Equally entrancing in this room was a series of 12 Cornell boxes, including a shelf full of his Sand Box series which lay flat and feature scattered sand, often dyed blue, as part of the piece. I’ve long been a Cornell fan, in fact I can trace my appreciation of art to almost beginning with a set of Cornell boxes I saw in an exhibit in Chicago in the late ’80s, and this collection had some incredible instances of his art. The Sand Box pieces seemed a lot more indeterministic and impermanent like a Tibetan Sand Painting (though these are fixed I believe). The one (rather poorly) photographed below was the most striking to me, though the picture doesn’t do it justice.  Along with the boxes were a number of non boxed colleges that demonstrated more of his range then I think he is oft given credit for. All in all this collection of Cornell’s rather had it all: the nostalgic fragments of dreams, complicated constructions, and indeterminate abstractions.

Joseph Cornell Sand Box series
Joseph Cornell Sand Box series

The room after this contained the Rothko, which as I stated early captured the bulk of my attention in that room and is probably the piece I spent the most time with in the entire gallery.  There was also a nice Guston and Stella in this room (I think) , but most of it slips my mind, which is dominated by that Rothko. The next couple of rooms had Albers, Stella’s and one room was solely filled with large pieces by Clifford Still.  But a couple of rooms down had the next piece that truly captured me, what was by far the most amazing Rauschenberg I’ve seen to date, Collection from 1954. It always sort of boggles my mind that there are galleries that allow picture taking and I hadn’t really been aware of it in this gallery until the room with the Rothko. I’d rather surreptitiously grabbed the pics of the Cornell and the Duchamp but after a few more rooms I realized that people were indiscriminately taking pictures. So I spent a bit more time trying to get nice pics of a few of my favorite pieces. As I was framing Collection a tour group came though and the guide, after quipping that they’d wait for me to take my photo, led the group in a discussion of the piece.

Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954
Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954

This I found pretty strange, he spent most of his time trying to get the participants to talke about what they see, what they feel which is I admit a way to engage the people in the piece. But it didn’t seem to really educate them much, or offer them any context for the piece. I sat there looking at this piece throughout that process and it kept my attention long after they had moved on, it was really a striking piece that rewards close attention. Finally escaping the Rauschenberg, there was some nice Johns including his iconic Flag (1958) and Land’s End (1963)  which stood in stark contrast to Flag what with its dark colors mostly blues with red/yellow/blue text written in it. The last couple of rooms on the second floor were more contemporary pieces none of which really captured much of my memory space. I was pretty saturated at this point and went for lunch after these last few rooms.

The special exhibits that I had paid extra for turned out to be: Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keefe Natural Affinities, which was paired photos and paintings from the same, or similar locals in New Mexico. I’m not really much into either artist so I merely did a survey oft his room, of which little stood out.  Adams I find too starkly realist in his photography and when he’d go more abstract (like in Foam, 1951 or Snow Sequence from the 30s) I felt the black and white photography distracting.  When creating abstracts with photography I think any artifice gets in the way be it forcing the palette in this way or the use of processing in development. The most effective abstract photos are archived solely through composition in my opinion. The other special exhibit was also photography in this case portraits:  Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004.  This had the largest crowds but was the least interesting to me. Mostly just portraits with no backgrounds of famous and ordinary people. For what they were they were striking but they don’t do much for me. However the collection did include some of his earliest work before he focuses purely on portraits and some of this were pretty fascinating.  Of his portraits he did take some of people that interested me: Merce Cunningham, Roy Lichenstein, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and a great sad picture of the old Groucho Marx.  All in all though I mostly just moved my way through this show, only spending a bit of extra time with the above mentioned portraits. One amusing note, is that I normally take notes in galleries on my iPhone but it was acting up so in this show I was using my Moleskin notebook. As I was jotting down some notes a guard came up to me and told me that pens weren’t allowed in the gallery and he gave me a pencil to use.  “Really?”  was all I could say but I took the pencil. Fortunately I was able to reset my iPhone and it was back in business but an odd deal you ask me.

Going up a floor I was at their contemporary art exhibit which they entitled Between art and Life Contemporary paintings and Sculpture. I was of course quite interested in this as I’m still trying to get my head around contemporary art.  Apart from a few pieces by 20th Century modernists who were still at work and still changing, such as Rauschenberg, I was as usual not that taken by the works on display.  Obviously with older pieces there has been a winnowing and selection process that come with time but I have to say of the vast amounts of contemporary art I’ve seen of late I’m rarely taken by much.  After all of the explorations of the mid 20th Century and the meaningless excesses of the 80s it seems that contemporary art now is somewhat at a loss. The interest of the public is gone, the big obvious areas of abstraction thoroughly mined, the natural areas of rebellion fully revolted arts today seem to either scrabble around the edges for an area to make their own or to simply retreat into the “Art is what I do” dead end. The best of those that I thought found a fruitful scrap of abstraction was Jim Hodges whose series of photographs  Even Here 1-12 (2008) of light on hardwood floors in an empty gallery was ghostly, beautiful and evocative (below picture not one of mine).

Jim Hodges  Even Here 1-12 (2008)
Jim Hodges Even Here 1-12 (2008)

The contemporary floor wended its way around to an indoor/outdoor sculpture garden which had a number of great pieces.  A nice Calder stable/mobile, Big Crinkly (1969), was the immediate attention capturing piece. Additionally there was a nice Barnett Newman Zim Zum I (1969 )- two W shaped prices if steel you can walk between that had a bit of the feeling of a small Serra.  The more recent piece by Mario Merz The Lens of Rotterdam (1988 ), a glass done with triangular rocks was interesting in that it was held together by clamps giving it a temporary or unfinished feel. The best piece in the indoor par was Louis Bourgeois’ The Nest (1994) a creepily interlocking steal spider like structure.

Louis Bourgeois The Nest 1994
Louis Bourgeois The Nest 1994

As I headed back down there was one final show I had skipped on the way up. This was an exhibit dedicated to Robert Frank’s The Americans, which I had skipped initially have just seen two photo oriented exhibits in a row.  I figured I’d run through and do a quick survey of this but in the end I got totally captivated and spent more time here then with any of the other photo shows.  It  began with his early pics some from America taken in the 40-50s which I found pretty uninteresting, they were b&w street scenes mostly. But once he finally got his concept and funding together for his epic road trips and took the pictures for his book documenting America I really got into it.  The quotes from Kerouac (who wrote the books preface) and his semi-candid photos seem to capture a genuine slice of America in the mid 50s with little of the distance, romance and distortion that dominates reflections on that era now.  The show had large prints of all of the prints from the book many of which I was familiar with from their place in popular culture now.  The Americans is back in print and you can buy an expanded version that more or less is this shows catalog. The final rooms were of Robert Frank’s work post this project, which was an immediate success, but which he never traded on. He went on to do abstract film and video work some of which repudiated and even destroyed some of this earlier work.

“…but maybe nothing is really true.” – Robert Frank

I left after this exhibit, overly stuff and saturated with art. As is always the case with these big museums I was totally overwhelmed and burnt out. I really should do them over a couple of days, but when traveling that is so rarely an option.  But I know that I’ll be back, to see what’s new but to delve deeper into their permanent collection.

Check out all of my photos from SFMoMA in this Flickr Set.