Avant-Garde Art \ Marcel Duchamp - Musical Erratum + In Conversation [LTMCD 2504]
This 74 minute album offers four spoken word extracts by Marcel Duchamp (in the English language), including The Creative Act, a fascinating lecture delivered in Houston in 1957, as well as a lengthy interview recorded in 1959. The remainder of the album explores Duchamp's remarkable musical experiments.
Devised in 1913, the Musical Erratum for piano forms part of the sequence of notes and projects which led to his celebrated artwork, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Batchelors, Even. Abstract, elusive and even "unachievable" according to the artist himself, the Musical Erratum consists of two scores. In the first, notes are replaced by numbered keys, with virtuoso performance is discouraged in favour of novel mechanical instrumentation. The second offers a form of chance composition, by which numbered balls are dropped into the moving wagons of a toy train. Two versions are included here, including a conventional (non-virtuoso) performance on piano, and another on which spinning rotary discs brush the piano strings to produce extraordinary tones.
1. Musical Erratum (La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même)/ prepared piano
2. The Creative Act
3. A L'Infinitif
4. Interview 1
5. Interview 2
6. Musical Erratum (La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même)/ piano
Available on CD and digital download.
"This disc is a reminder of how bold 20th century modernism could be. In his coolly lucid discussions on his theory and practice, Duchamp sounds like a kindly inventor of deranged systems and inhuman beings... He took for granted many of the ideas about the depersonalisation and dehumanisation of the creative act later passed off as radical by post-structuralists and postmodernists. His Musical Erratum of 1913 was less a 'composition' than an aleatory-mechanical system, and you might expect that this would make for a dryly academic exercise, devoid of sensual texture. But the two - vastly different - versions here are both compelling. The first, by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz, is a glistening drone track that resembles a hybrid of Eno and KTL. The second, by Tom Feldschuh, is ominous and inhuman in its refusal of expressiveness and spontaneity. There's something ironic about listening to Duchamp discoursing against art history on a CD beautifully compiled 50 years later. But his theories can still be put to use today, as escape kits we can use to dig out of our (dead) end of History" (The Wire, 01/2008)
"The disc is roughly half music, and half recorded talks and interviews - the latter highly revealing. LTM's CD is a pre-requisite for anyone wanting to get in touch with the work of Duchamp, but it is also a highly enjoyable recording in itself" (All Music Guide, 05/2008)
Born near Blainville (France) in 1887, Marcel Duchamp is recognized today as one of the leading artists and theorists of the 20th century. After early experiments with traditional styles, as well as Cubism, Duchamp abandoned orthodox forms and techniques, and in 1915 relocated to New York. There he worked on provocative 'readymade' artworks such as Fountain (1917), a porcelain urinal signed as R. Mutt, and promoted avant-gardism and Dada together with Francis Picabia and Man Ray.
Duchamp produced relatively few paintings, the best known of them being Nu descendant un éscalier (Nude Descending a Staircase) from 1912. The large stained glass window, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The bride stripped bare by her batchelors, even, often called The Large Glass), evolved between 1915 and 1923. Other notable works include 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14), L.H.O.O.Q (1919) and the unsettling installation Etant Donnés (1946-66).
Much more of Duchamp's work, and his influence as a theorist, is in the sphere of the abstract and conceptual. His readymades were utilitarian objects (bottle driers, bicycle wheels) which achieve the status of art through the process of selection and presentation. His pioneering achievement was to identify the important of context and 'appointment' for the evaluation (and marketing) of a work of art: "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution."
While not a composer in any conventional sense, Duchamp also conceived two pieces of music. Both are titled Erratum Musical (or Musical Erratum), and both appear to have been written in 1913. The first was a short vocal piece, to be sung by Duchamp and his younger sisters Yvonne and Magdeleine (musicians both), and composed par hasard. Duchamp included a facsimile of the single page score in The Green Box (1934), describing the creative act thus: "Each one of us drew as many notes out of a hat as there were syllables in the dictionary definition of the word: imprimer, picked by chance." Given that the title Musical Erratum may be construed to mean 'correction to a printed musical text', the choice of the verb imprimer (to print) offers a typically flippant pun.
The second Musical Erratum is sub-titled La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, and is a far more complex and open-ended work. Indeed in his marginal notes Duchamp variously describes the piece as "inachevable" (inachievable/ impossible to finish), and the component sections "interchangeable". Furthermore the artist discouraged any attempt at virtuoso performance, suggesting instead that the piece might be played on a mechanical piano or organ, or some other type of novel instrument. Tempo would "probably" be constant within each one of the eight sections, but might vary from one performance to another. In closing, Duchamp noted of his work, "execution is rather pointless, in any event."
On one interpretation, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même consists of two completely different 'scores', neither of which utilizes conventional notes or keys. Instead Duchamp numbered the individual piano keys from 1 to 89, starting from the left (ie the lowest note). The first score consists of eight parts (marked in Roman numerals I to VIII, but also sub-divided into sixteen parts marked A to Q), in which the numbers (ie notes) are written out in order across two sheets of music paper. Parts of this score are indeed inachevable, not least because the Duchamp's intent is occasionally ambiguous (part J in particular), while in parts N to Q inclusive the notes omitted seem more important than the notes actually played.
These ambiguities have tended to discourage performance or recording of the first 'score' in favour of the second, which occupies the bottom half of the second page. This offers a novel exercise in composition by pure chance, using a vase (or funnel) and toy train set, which translates thus: "An apparatus for the automatic recording of fragmented musical periods. Vase containing the 89 notes (or more: ? tone), numbers written on each ball. Opening A allows the balls to drop into a series of small wagons B, C, D, E, F etc. Wagons moving at variable speed, each one receiving one or more balls. When the vase is empty, the period of 89 notes (in so many) wagons is written and may be performed by the designated instrument."
Duchamp adds: "Another vase = another period - the result of the equivalence of the periods and their comparison a kind of new musical alphabet, allowing model descriptions. (To be developed)." In other words, a work in progress.
Ultimately La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même is an exercise in pure theory that defies definitive interpretation, or repetition. Of the two versions presented here, the first version is performed on a modified piano, on which the ordinary action with a small electric motor with a rotary disc, which moves against the strings to produce the tones heard. In this respect the performance reflects something of the form of Duchamp's Precision Optics and spiral Rotoreliefs, created between 1920 and 1935.
The second version is a deliberately non-virtuoso performance of the fixed, eight part score. In accordance with Duchamp's indication that the order of the sections is interchangeable, each of the eight parts (I to VIII) has been given a separate cue point, so that the tracks on the CD (6 to 13) may easily be played back in any order.
Execution being pointless, in any event...