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Time, Work, Discipline: The (Not) Music Of Bruce Nauman
Robert Barry , December 10th, 2016 13:09

With the release of a new vinyl record of the soundtrack to Bruce Nauman’s first violin film, Craft/Work considers the artist’s place in the development of a new music aesthetics

In the winter of 1967-68, Bruce Nauman was in his mid-twenties, fresh out of art school, and living in San Francisco. Everything seemed possible – but a great many things seemed tired, hackneyed, phony. Painting, for one, was out. What next? “If I was an artist and I was in the studio,” he reasoned, reflecting on this moment years later for the PBS show Art in the Twenty-First Century, “then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.”

He set about producing a series of short films, with himself as the star. In each case, the films would last as long as a single reel of 16mm film (about ten minutes); they would consist of a single, static shot (not always flat, square on, or the right way up); and the action would comprise Nauman himself performing one simple, repetitive task: bouncing a ball, painting his face, stamping his feet, or bowing a violin.

At the time, Hilton Kramer from the New York Times dismissed Nauman’s films for “offering images that somehow manage to be both boring and repugnant.” (Was Hilton, I wonder, thinking of Black Balls, 1969, in which the artist carefully and studiously tars his own testicles in extreme close up?). By 2009, when Nauman’s work bestrode the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the New Yorker’s Calvin Tompkins declared him “the most influential living artist.”

But with the release by Milanese label Die Schachtel of a limited run vinyl record containing the soundtracks to three of Nauman’s late 60s films, a different question is raised. Not so much, ‘are these images art?’; rather the tangential, ‘are these sounds music?’

Bruce Nauman was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1941. The son of a General Electric salesman, the family moved around a lot: Schenectady, Wisconsin, Wauwatosa. A succession of small towns and suburban neighbourhoods. At primary school, he took piano lessons and later picked up guitar and bass. “I remember it was a secondhand piano,” he said in an interview with Michele De Angelus from 1980, “and I never practiced enough, which is probably why I never stayed a musician because I’d never had that discipline.”

Still, for a time, at college and immediately after, he made some kind of living playing in dance bands and jazz groups. At the University of Wisonsin he studied mathematics first, later taking more and more music theory classes (with a particular interest, apparently, in the work of the Second Viennese School), before abruptly and almost inexplicably deciding over the summer after his sophomore year, to switch to art.

MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Did you know people who were artists?


MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Had you read artists’ biographies or –


MICHELE DE ANGELUS: There wasn’t, like, people’s work that you were familiar with?


MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Did you have any feeling as to what prompted you to this? It’s so curious, isn’t it?

BRUCE NAUMAN: I think about it a lot, because it’s hard to – I don’t know what went through my brain at the time.

But asked, later in the same interview, which artists had influenced his equally precipitous switch, upon leaving art school, away from painting and towards film and video, Nauman replied, “I think what was important more than the work and other artists, was the number of musicians I knew that I’d known before, but most of them were living on the East Coast, Phil Glass, and Steve Reich, and I knew La Monte Young’s music although I’d never known him, but I used to spend time with him at the studio.”

Listening for the first time to a work like ‘Soundtrack from first violin film: Playing all four strings on the violin’, it is probably this group of composers – along with fellow travellers, contemporaries, and collaborators like Dennis Johnson, Charlemagne Palestine, Terry Jennings, and especially Tony Conrad – that will most immediately spring to mind. Over the course of its nine minutes and twenty-two seconds, we hear a repeated sequence of arpeggios as Nauman draws the bow back and forth across all four strings in a continuous flurry of legato strokes. If it had been written down as a score, you can imagine one long slur, swooping over the staves from the start of the piece to the final double bar line.

But ‘Soundtrack from first violin film: Playing all four strings on the violin’ contains several elements that would remain outside the scope of any score: moments when the music slows down and speeds up, when Nauman’s hands tire and then redouble their efforts, when strings are missed or played so hard that they squeak and grate, other times when the artist seems to be fighting off a cramp by almost stabbing at the strings determinedly.

Watching the film itself, shot in grainy black and white in the artist’s studio, we see Nauman take a break at one point, walk out of frame, then come back and carry on sawing away for a few more minutes, until finally having to give up completely. We see him rubbing and stretching his aching hands at the end of the film. None of this is on the sound recording. But still we can hear the artist’s body taking its effect on the soundtrack in a way that would have placed this record some distance outside most of the accepted aesthetics of music circa 1967-68.

The seismic event represented by John Cage, his music and ideas about chance and silence, had exerted a somewhat paradoxical effect: on the one hand, opening up many new paths, making all sorts of things suddenly seem possibly that had been almost unthinkable before, liberating composers and performers alike; on the other hand, reinforcing and solidifying the power of the score and the authority of the composer. Even as 4'33'' flung open the doors of the concert hall to let in the sounds outside, it buttressed the domain of music ‘itself’ from its many presumed ‘extra-musical’ others – the body of the performer and its frailties chief among them.

Cage was notorious for his distaste for improvisation, his contempt for those interpreters who regarded his indeterminate procedures and graphic scores as an opportunity to presume that “anything goes.” Far from it. By the mid 1960s when Nauman made this film, Cage’s own compositions had moved from the supremely laid-back 4'33'' to forbiddingly virtuosic works like the Atlas Eclipticalis. In 1974, his assessment of the future of music was simply, bluntly: “work”.

It is, in a sense, a question of discipline. The very discipline that Nauman felt he lacked as a child, causing him to give up the piano. And, perhaps, another sort of discipline too.

“I probably had the violin around for a month or two before I made the film,” Nauman said in an interview conducted at San Jose State College in 1970 with Willoughby Sharp. “I think I bought it for about fifteen dollars. It just seemed like a thing to have. I play other instruments, but I never played the violin and during the period of time that I had it before the film I started diddling around with it. … I wanted to set up a problem where it wouldn’t matter whether I knew how to play the violin or not.”

In fact, given that, as he says in the same interview, the piece is essentially concerned with that certain “tension”, a kind of “body response” sympathetic to the physical exhaustion palpable in the performance, in this respect at least, Nauman failed. It does matter whether he knew how to play the violin or not, as the whole point and purpose of classical instrumental tuition is to make that tension, that body response – to make, in fact, any sense of performing body whatsoever – disappear.

As far as the accepted aesthetics of music in its own time were concerned, Nauman’s violin piece could hardly be considered music – any more than could the many similar works from the same period, where he bounced his body against the corner of the studio or walked “in an exaggerated manner” around the perimeter of the square. The presence of the violin is irrelevant.

But everything was about to change.

In 1969, one year after Nauman’s experiments with the violin, the English composer Michael Parsons presented an extraordinary musical work entitled Walk. It is scored not for string quartet nor brass band nor male voice choir but “any number of people walking an open space”. Everything about the structure, the form of the piece is musical. But there is no sound. Or rather, there probably will be sounds – after all, as John Cage realised, there always are. But Walk is not, like 4'33'', a piece about listening to unintended sounds. It is a piece about bodies, moving through space and time.

Three years earlier, in 1966, Meredith Monk staged a work at New York’s Judson Church entitled 16 Millimetre Earrings. Combining theatrical props and movement with vocal and instrumental music, film projections, and spoken extracts from Wilhelm Reich’s book The Function of the Orgasm, the work was an indefinable mix of genres, as elusive as it was alluring. Commenting on the piece many years later, Monk noted “With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally … It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all … It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.”

Monk met Nauman in 1968, around the time he was doing his own performance films. “Well, the first time I really talked to anybody about body awareness was in the summer of 1968,” Nauman said in the aforementioned interview with Willoughby Sharp. “Meredith Monk was in San Francisco. She had thought about or seen some of my work and recognised it.”

“An awareness of yourself comes from a certain amount of activity and you can’t get it from just thinking about yourself,” he continued. “You do exercises, you have certain kinds of awarenesses that you don’t have if you read books. So the films and some of the pieces that I did after that for videotapes were specifically about doing exercises in balance. I thought of them as dance problems without being a dancer, being interested in the kinds of tension that arise when you try to balance and can’t.”

Speaking to curator Christine von Assche, Monk herself would recall “participating in a piece of [Nauman’s] that had a fascinating musical dimension. It was performed in the second floor gallery of the Whitney in the spring of 1969. Bruce, his wife at the time, and I stood with out backs to three corners of the room. Our task was to fall backwards against the corner of the wall, stand back up, fall again, stand back up, like that, for an hour. That was the piece. The thumping sounds of the falls and the rhythmic and visual configurations kept varying because each of us fell in a different way and at different intervals. Thinking about the piece now, the idea seems very musical.”

In 1969, Michael Parsons Walk was certainly not uncontroversial and Meredith Monk was far from the mainstream of contemporary musical aesthetics. But I know of very few composers working today who would fail to recognise the importance of both. If anything, their concerns – and the concerns expressed not just in Nauman’s violin film, but in all his performance films from this period – have become absolutely central to recent developments in contemporary music, in particular those centred around what Jennifer Walshe has been calling ‘The New Discipline’.

“The term functions as a way for me to connect compositions which have a wide range of disparate interests,” Walshe wrote in an editorial for Musiktexte in May of this year, “but all share the common concern of being rooted in the physical, theatrical and visual, as well as musical; pieces which often invoke the extra-musical, which activate the non-cochlear. In performance, these are works in which the ear, the eye and the brain are expected to be active and engaged. Works in which we understand that there are people on the stage, and that these people are/have bodies.”

In the context of Walshe’s statement here – and the thoughts and practices of the other composers and practitioners included in this issue of Musiktexte – Nauman’s films can hardly not be music. We are left teetering towards the perhaps surprising conclusion that these works may have been made not as music but have somehow become it, grown into it.

In one of Nauman’s most famous works, a large neon sign reads “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”. When asked about this statement, he called it “a stupid idea, but still I believe it is true or not true at the same time.” Cornelia Feye, in an essay about Nauman written for the Athenaeum in La Jolla, California, in 2013, noted “Many elements of Nauman’s work are true and not true at the same time.” Maybe the soundtrack to his violin film – and his stamping film, walking film, face-painting film, and ball-bouncing film – could be considered music and not music at the same time. After all, it is always these liminal works, those that both are and are not, that question the borders of the form, that will prove to be the most important for any art’s future development.

Bruce Nauman, Soundtrack from first violin film, is out now from die Schachtel