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Playing With Eternity


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Rodney Graham

at the Renaissance Society, through November 12

This summer, Rolling Stone's Original Hot List selected "Doing Something You're Unqualified to Do" as 1995's hot career move, facetiously citing such achievements as the Fashion Cafe started by Elle, Claudia, and Naomi and the directorial debuts of artists David Salle and Robert Longo. The magazine might have a point, however: artists who experiment with unfamiliar mediums may flop, but they may also, out of ignorance or daring, arrive at novel and worthwhile transgressions.

A Canadian conceptual artist with a long history of manipulating texts, Rodney Graham showed his Lenz at the Art Institute's "About Place: Recent Art of the Americas" exhibit last spring. He inserted the first five pages of a German Romantic novella into a mechanical "reading machine" devised to create an endless loop of text. The resulting narrative, which was to be read on a carousel of pages, violated the conventions of storytelling because it had no beginning and no end. Seeing that the closed cycles and endless repetitions of his textual work would have a greater impact if he could transcend the page, Graham turned to different texts: musical scores. The concept in his installations Parsifal and School of Velocity hasn't changed, but the results are richer, and they make a composer out of Graham.

Although Graham has no musical training (unless you count his stint as a guitarist in a rock group that once opened for the Gang of Four), his fresh ears and natural inventiveness have enabled him to dream up compositional techniques for pieces that last all day long--or even for billions of years. Free of the pressure that professional composers feel to tailor their works to the duration of a concert--though many will never live to hear these works performed--Graham has composed two electronic pieces that are being played more or less continuously at the Renaissance Society through November 12. In Parsifal, based on Richard Wagner's opera of the same name, he takes a piece of musical filler written by Wagner's assistant Englebert Humperdinck and feeds it through a computer program that repeats portions and desynchronizes various parts, stretching the music out so that it won't come back in sync for 39 billion years. The computer runs 14 small speakers in the hallway outside the Renaissance Society's main gallery, each one transmitting the sound of one instrument.

In the gallery, a Macintosh drives a glossy, black baby grand piano in a ghostly performance of Graham's School of Velocity, a reworked version of Carl Czerny's piano exercises by the same name--Graham discovered the sheet music by chance. Fancifully, if not altogether illogically, he's introduced a sort of inversion of Galileo's law of free fall to the work, so that musical rests appear with increasing regularity during three such exercises over the course of 24 hours. School of Velocity begins at 9 AM each morning sounding like a conventional piece of music, but by 9:01 you can already hear it slowing down, and by afternoon the Renaissance Society is a silent chamber in which a shy note might peek out or a resounding chord burst forth every so often. Pages from Graham's score hang in black frames on the walls of the gallery, with measures containing one or more of Czerny's notes highlighted in red--an embellishment that reminds me of the treatment of Jesus' words in many Bibles, though Graham probably didn't intend any special reverence for Czerny.

Despite their obvious similarities, School of Velocity and Parsifal differ in important ways. School of Velocity is based on the work of a minor composer whose place is secure as a transitional figure between his instructor Beethoven and his pupil Liszt but who was not an innovator or memorable personality. It didn't take much chutzpah for Graham to impose himself on the finger exercises of such a composer--a man the novelist Richard Powers calls "Chopin without sex, Brahms with a bad conscience."

Wagner, on the other hand, is a musical titan who continues to fill concert halls and, because of his anti-Semitic writings, to incite debate over the relationship between ideology and art. And where Czerny attracted Graham largely because of his suggestive title, Wagner embodies an approach to music that's related to Graham's concern with time, eternity, and repetition. Wagner combined epic narratives with his music in order to make timeless statements and turn opera into an art of mythic proportions. "It is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful," wrote Nietzsche in his sarcastic The Case of Wagner.

In his quest for musical eternity, Wagner sought to rise above the fluctuations of taste, and such an objective might have been attainable back when culture evolved at a slower pace. But the cultural pluralism and high-tech revolutions of today mean that an artist can no longer dictate how a piece of music, for example, will be received and interpreted. A work of art, even what used to be known as a masterpiece, may not survive as the artist intended, especially now that the Western canon is no longer inviolate. Biological metaphors for art have been replaced by technological ones: art neither lives nor dies but is activated at the moment of its creation and then drifts into the limbo of a database (or a pile of sheet music, as in the case of School of Velocity), waiting to be rediscovered by another artist.

Graham's Parsifal, as opposed to Wagner's, depends on software specially designed for the project by Graham's associate, Gary Bourgeois. The program links the computer's internal clock with the mathematical formula that directs the composition, meaning that the equipment can be shut down in the evening and the speakers stowed away for reasons of security--this is Hyde Park, after all--and in the morning the music starts again just as if it had been going all night. Another advantage of the software is that the artist or Bourgeois can type in any date and time, and the music scheduled for that time will issue forth. The School of Velocity program isn't as sophisticated, but Graham plans to update it with a version of Bourgeois's software. And possibly another program will come along that will outperform the one that now drives Parsifal. In other words, what looks like eternity is really the product of computer technology, the very avatar of planned obsolescence. By means of a computer program that reduces eternity to an unspectacular binary code, Rodney Graham--a musical amateur--trumps a great master.

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