Where many musicians have painted or turned their hand to sculpture with varying degrees of success, modern and contemporary artists have in turn strayed into the realms of the ancient Greek musical hero Orpheus, usually in order to question rules and boundaries. Such artistic adventures pose a sometimes violent challenge to our prejudices as music lovers.
As early as 1913, the Futurist artist Luigi Russolo advocated, in his manifesto ‘The Art of Noises’, the opening up of the classification ‘music’ to all the noises of everyday life, and to this end invented a series of instruments (cracklers, hooters, sparklers, gurglers, etc) designed to reproduce the din of industrial cities. Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters invented a sound poetry where language collapsed in on itself. Between 1922 and 1933, he composed the “Ursonate”, a poem that follows the structure of a sonata and consists of vowels and consonants chosen purely for their sonic beauty. Such experimentation was taken up by the Lettrist movement, including Maurice Lemaître.
Marcel Duchamp, inventor of the ‘Readymade’ art piece, is less well known for being the first to have composed music that is properly conceptual – in other words, music invented not for its sensitive and expressive qualities but for the ideas and processes behind it. To compose “La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires même/Erratum Musical” (1913), in what might be described as a sort of sound lottery, the artist used vases filled with balls upon which were inscribed the eighty five notes of a piano keyboard. However, it can be argued that Duchamp failed in his quest to remove all the emotion from his work as the resulting music is unbelievably expressive!
This approach, flirting with chance, would have a major influence on John Cage. Is he an artist or a musician? His famous piece “4’33” is still the alpha and omega of a conceptual approach to music. When you hear this interlude of Cagian silence, listen – with the same curiosity as when listening to your favourite piece of music – to the sound of your breathing, the singing of birds, the sound of cars, the vibrating of your telephone. You will see that the artist’s music is not so much intended to be ‘beautiful’ as to invite you to perceive your daily life differently. In a manner of speaking, everything becomes a composition, anyone can claim to be a musician, and what separates art and life is diluted, even erased, in celebration. Theatrical humour is never far away, as you will discover when listening to “Untitled for Solo Voice” by Charlemagne Palestine.
Here there is no need to adopt the serious looks one often sees in art galleries! Instead, dance to the raw, wild music of Jean Dubuffet, drench yourself in blood like the Dionysian performances of the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, or carry out your daily tasks with utmost slowness to the ghostly groove of Christian Marclay.