All Music Guide
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In an artistic sense, the word Coplanar refers to a certain object (or kind of objects) developed in a more-or-less independent way by two Argentine avant-garde art movements during the middle 1940s. These movements were the Asociaci?n Arte Concreto-Invenci?n (Concrete Art/Invention Association) and the Movimiento Madi (Madi Movement). The coplanar was a product of years of research by the members of these movements to formulate a non-idealistic, non-metaphysical aesthetic and, accordingly, to propose a new kind of artistic object.
In pursuing that goal, among the many problems to be solved by those artists were the exclusion from their works of the typical "representational character" and-even more difficult-to eliminate the "illusion of space" inherent to traditional paintings. In the view of these avant-gardists, a painting should not only not represent objects foreign to the identity of the painting as an object in itself (as artists such as Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and Theo van Doesburg, among others, had already done), but neither should it contain any trace of the representation of time, space, or depth in an illusionistic way. This is a very dense issue from a theoretical point of view, going far beyond the simple declaration of selfreferentiality of the work, or the formulation of an unconcerned, disinterested relationship with reality. On the contrary, these Argentinean artists wanted to achieve a genuinely realistic painting directly engaged with the time and space of our actual experience.
From the point of view of these Concretists and Madists, the precursors who made related attempts in the past (Laszlo Peri, Alexander Rodchenko, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Calder) had failed and were forced to subsequently attempt to solve with the creation of three-dimensional sculptures what they could not solve on the actual picture plane. After all, how could a painting not "represent" space and depth, when the canvas itself as a "background" suggests a threedimensional space in which the shapes are floating? (Think of Malevich's geometric paintings as an example.) These Argentineans, however, believed they solved the problem by reconfiguring the previously square or rectangular "window" of the picture plane into various, separated flat shapes subtly connected by metal rods or equivalent devices. All the shapes, even when they were separated by empty spaces, belonged to the same plane. Hence the name "coplanar." In that way, real space penetrated the painting, acquiring an equal importance to the painting itself.
The coplanar was presented, thus, as a genuine "invention," a real object interacting in real space at a real time within a universe of ordinary objects. We can understand now that these artists were attempting to erase the artistic boundary between "representation" and "presentation." Both the Concretists and the Madists considered that to represent on a flat surface a human face, a cow, or a mountain-that is, the "representation" of space and time through a familiar theme or anecdote "contained" by a canvas and a frame-was a supreme act of abstraction. In consequence, traditional representational painting was considered by them "abstract" and not realist at all. But at the same time they distanced themselves from the so-called abstract tendencies of the 1940s and '50s, because they simultaneously rejected the metaphysical pretensions of many abstract artists. Thus, in renouncing both the commonly accepted principles of representational and so-called abstract art, Madists and Concretists considered themselves realists par excellence. Therefore, only due to confusion generated by idealistic aesthetics and philosophies could they be called "abstract artists."
Many passionate discussions about those issues took place in the studios, cafes, and gatherings at private houses (the academy did not tolerate such heresies) of Argentina when I was still an infant. I discovered all about that at a much later time, when subsequent tendencies like "informalism," "tachisme," "abstract expressionism" and "action painting," "new figuration" and the beginnings of "pop art" were fashionable currents in the artistic milieu. But the questions posed-and the solutions proposed-by those pioneers from the forties captured my interest, since I felt that they had never been seriously considered, much less accepted, by the artistic community.
The Concretists (whose main mentor was the painter and theoretician Tom?s Maldonado) supported the "fixed" coplanar. In it, the active aspect resides in the interaction of complementary or contrasting proportions of the surfaces and colors, meticulously calculated. It seems that the first artist who produced this kind of object was Juan Alberto Molenberg, showing his "White Function" in 1946. Others who followed him were Raul Lozza and Juan Mele. The Madists, by contrast, invented the "mobile coplanar," whereby the viewer could alter the appearance of the artifact by manipulating it. The real promoter of this kind of hand-adjustable object was Carmelo Arden Quin, a pivotal figure of the Madi Movement, who since 1944 had been experimenting with various types of artworks with moveable parts.
Many of these artists ultimately abandoned that line of spatial investigation and faced different challenges. The subsequent experiences of Fluxus, "happenings," "space music," environmental installations, certain kinds of conceptual art, and improvised and "real time" electronic music accustomed us to deal with "real space" and "real time"-in an aesthetic sense-in unprecedented ways during the last decades of the twentieth century. In my personal case, Argentine conceptualism and politicized conceptual art during the sixties and early seventies (as practiced by Oscar Masotta, Juan Pablo Renzi, Leon Ferrari, and Roberto Jacoby, among others) constituted an exciting subject-more or less parallel with my involvement in what we could call Fluxus activities in Buenos Aires-as well as taking me far from those seemingly outdated theories developed by the masters from the forties. Nevertheless, the coplanars themselves always exerted a strong fascination on me and in some aesthetic way influenced my own artistic and musical evolution-very similar, perhaps, to the fascination and influence that Calder's mobiles exerted on the American composer Earle Brown-and for that reason I felt compelled to make this CD as an homage to those old masters and their attempts for a radical departure from the standards of conventional art.
What similarities could we find between this music and those principles and artifacts? Well, given the distinct experiential nature of visual art and music, perhaps to find these similarities would require a leap of faith on the part of the listener. However, I think that some clues could be discovered. First of all, I have long been interested in music as a concrete, sonic event engaged with real space. In 1963 I conceived a piece for piano where the physical situation of the piano-that is, its surrounding space and the objects filling that space-was a constitutive part in the work. Piano and surrounding space- room, furniture, glasses, ashtrays and so on- were the sources, then, of a "sonic continuum." The piano in itself was considered as "an object," as opposed to a musical instrument with a tradition, history, accepted technique, and so forth. (A recording of this piece, made almost by accident, as corresponds to such an event, can be found on the CD Otra M?sica: Tape Music, Fluxus and Free Improvisation in Buenos Aires 1963-70.) Thus, my interest in those "ontological" problems related to the artwork appeared at an early stage in my career.
Moreover, some years later, while I was looking for a practical way to connect notated parts of a composition through "segments" of variable durations of silence, I noticed that the resulting figure in the score resembled the shape of a coplanar-or, better said, to the projection of a coplanar on a plane! Absolutely enthusiastic about that, I imagined the silence as the interpenetrating space, and the segments as the supporting rods. Conceived in that way, the score itself and the parts for each musician achieved a kind of coplanar significance. When we performed my first "Coplanar" at the Chicago Cultural Center I asked for a magnified drawing on the floor showing the same shape as the scores. I placed a player on each of those shapes and called for the audience to walk between the musicians/shapes as in an installation. The resulting recording included the noise of footsteps "interpenetrating" the music.
I find it interesting that despite the initiative of those Argentine avant-garde visual artists from the forties, there was not an equivalent activity in music. The two composers most closely related to the above-mentioned artistic groups in Buenos Aires-as far as I can tell from my limited research-were Juan Carlos Paz and the Austrian-born Esteban Eitler. Paz was a friend of any innovative movement in art, and was known as an anti-academic iconoclast himself. In his career as a composer and educator we find the roots of Argentine avant-garde music. Eitler, at this time, was himself a member of the Madi movement in his triple role of composer, photographer, and painter. We could mention, as examples of their creativity, Juan Carlos Paz's "Second Dodecaphonic Composition," Op. 29, for flute and piano, written in 1934-35, or the superb anti-expressionistic "Music for flute, alto saxophone, and piano," Op. 43, composed in 1943, that evokes geometric Madi mobile figures. Esteban Eitler composed pieces of unusual instrumentation to be heard those years in the concert hall. But he also composed unconventional music heard outside of the concert hall, such as "Dodecaf?nico A" (1948), played by a jazz band at the Richmond tea room in Buenos Aires, and "Concierto 1948," played at the Bop Club Argentino.
In spite of their creativity and originality, neither Paz nor Eitler were at that time much beyond the limits of twelve-tone composition. The possibilities of electronic music and the "spatial sounds and rhythms, lines and planes of thematic noises" proposed by Carmelo Arden Quin in the first Madi Manifesto in 1946 were not yet a reality. Nowhere in the world did there yet exist a comparable music to the aesthetic aspirations of the Madists and Concretists. Perhaps the closest musical antecedents could have been contained in the 1913 manifesto "The Art of Noises" by Luigi Russolo; in the mathematical/constructivist "Inventions" (1934) and percussive "Constructions" (1939-41) by John Cage; in some pieces by Edgard Var?se. But the points of theoretical departure were very different from those of the Argentine painters. What could a "Madi music" have been like? That question and the possible answers have always been for me an exciting speculation. Over the years-I have to confess it-I harbored a desire to explore such issues in my own music.
Some of the music contained in this CD, Coplanar, is based on scores that allow the musicians to make decisions about the "direction" that will take them through the connections of thoroughly pre-composed parts, as an analogy to the Madi mobile coplanars. Other scores follow precisely notated itineraries or configurations, like the fixed coplanars of the Concretists. In both cases, space and silence interpenetrate the works. With the single exception of the featured soloist's role in Coplanar 5, which allowed spaces for bass clarinetist Ken Vandermark's spontaneous creative input, none of the music here is improvised.
In January 2001, I founded the Madi Ensemble of Chicago to perform my compositions, as well as historical scores that draw from the conceptual foundation of diverse Argentine avant-garde currents. The members of the ensemble are outstanding musicians very well known not only in the Chicago New Music scene, but also internationally. On strings are Fred Lonberg-Holm, violoncello, Jen Paulson, viola, and Michael Cameron, contrabass. Fred is a longstanding member of my different groups and my closest collaborator. He excels in both experimental and classical playing, improvising in any modality, and inventing all kind of sonic devices to attach to his cello in order to extend the timbral range of his instrument. He refers to himself as an "anti-cellist." I think that he is one of those few artists who have redefined the cello. He also likes to treat the instrument as an object, which is perfectly suitable to my purposes here. Jen and Michael are superb classical and New Music players, as well as brilliant improvisers. All of them are among the most daring and innovative string players available, for their versatility, immediacy of response, and mastery of multiple musical situations. Jim Baker is a valuable member of any creative project in Chicago playing piano, both avant-garde jazz and New Music. But he is also a remarkable live-electronics player of great subtlety and imagination. Kyle Bruckmann, who plays oboe, English horn, and accordion in the ensemble, has the ability to adapt the technique and instincts of a first-rate chamber music player to the most unconventional of musical concepts. John Corbett brings a very creative impulse and style to his guitar playing and his huge array of guitar "treatments"; as everyone knows he is also a writer and music critic, as well as a kind of musical archeologist with his Unheard Music Series record label. John's guitar and Jim Baker's analog ARP synthesizer are the featured "soloists" in Coplanar 1 + 2. All of the abovementioned musicians make thoroughly creative use of extended instrumental techniques, which is an important aspect of the "objectification" in these scores.
In conceptualizing the program for Coplanar, however, I decided to augment the Madi Ensemble with special guest musicians, who I felt could bring a particular interpretive character or instrumental quality to the variously structured scores. I first saw Steffen Schleiermacher playing piano in 1988 at the Musik Hochschule K?ln during a series of concerts in memory of Stefan Wolpe (another of my formative compositional figures). Since that time he has been one of my favorite pianists in the modern repertoire. His originality in selecting programs and rediscovering interesting historical figures from the twentieth century is displayed on recordings for several labels including hat HUT and cpo. In addition to being a virtuoso player, Steffen is a great composer, as you can hear in the selection of his compositions that the Wergo label released some years ago. Coplanar 3 is dedicated to him.
In 2002, composer and bass clarinetist Gene Coleman made me aware of the temporary presence in Chicago of a fabulous Swiss tuba player, Marc Untern?hrer, and I became very enthusiastic about working with him once I experienced his fantastic technique and inventiveness. At that time we performed the premiere of my Swiss Coplanar, so called because in addition to Marc the performance featured the Irish-born pianist/composer, now living in Switzerland, John Wolf Brennan, and also because the piece was composed on a poem by the Swiss Dadaist poet Hans Arp. (This poem is a part of a more extended work titled "The Pyramid Frock," which I originally found in a book by Moholy-Nagy.) We immediately decided to include him in our recording session, and in addition to Swiss Coplanar, his contributions to Coplanar 4 and the Construction with Coplanar were absolutely authoritative.
In the same recording session I was fortunate to have the participation of the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, who in addition to her compositional activities participates in many avant-garde vocal projects, and here brought her special talents and method of interpretation to the poem in a very relevant way. I encountered Warren Po playing cracklebox during a recording session for some of Cornelius Cardew's music, in which we were both involved. His inventiveness on that unusual instrument provoked me to combine its squeaky, sometimes ominously husky, sometimes sinister sound with the clarinet and viola in White Coplanar.
Several years ago, I was attending a session at the Chicago club The Empty Bottle and heard Ken Vandermark playing bass clarinet. Of course, I had often heard him on tenor saxophone, and I always liked his playing without reservation, but his bass clarinet playing intrigued me in a very special way. I asked him if he would like me to compose a piece for him, and he seemed very enthusiastic about it. So, I promised him the piece. Due to Ken's always-tight schedule and my own slowness, however, the composition never materialized. Finally I was able to compose the piece as part of the Coplanar program. My intention was-obviously-to give him the place of prominence as soloist, but at the same time to surround him with an ensemble sound that had obsessed me for a long time: the instrumental combination of three clarinets, three strings, and piano, used by Arnold Sch?nberg in his "Suite Op. 29" (1925-26). (No comparisons, please! I am only talking about the instrumental combination, not the compositional approach.) To that end I invited another eminent Chicago musician, Aram Shelton, to play the part for E-flat piccolo clarinet. In my opinion Ken is here at his very best. In addition to his written part, I left for him open spaces in which to improvise, and what he created was in a perfect symbiosis with the rest of the composition.
Finally, I have to mention the important role of Art Lange in this recording. He not only produced the studio sessions, but our long years of fruitful collaboration and exchange of ideas have had a tremendous impact on my music.
I want to thank all the guests and the members of the Madi Ensemble for making possible this recording. Coplanar is dedicated to Juan Alberto Molenberg.
-Guillermo Gregorio, Chicago, December 2003