[16 March 2011]
Appreciation of Christian Marclay’s concepts can definitely increase enjoyment of his creations, but the concepts themselves are works of art. Graffiti Composition is another radical adventure to add to his several decades of record-playing, vinyl-shredding, album cover assemblage, dragging guitars behind trucks, and other mischief. In what sense he is the creator of this latest recording is a matter of perspective: Kip Hanrahan or Hal Wilner may have a different view to Negativland, U2, or Casey Kasem. In a grandiose sense Graffiti Composition was composed by the city of Berlin. More specifically, 5000 blank sheet music pages were posted across the city in 1986, harvested, and then selected by Elliot Sharp for inclusion. This recording of a concert of the selected pages is played by Sharp and (three other guitarists) Lee Ranaldo, Vernon Reid, Mary Halvorson, and (bassist) Melvin Gibbs during which (in a Cagean tradition) each musician was given a stopwatch to ensure the performance would last the required length of time; in this case, 40 minutes.
Marclay’s use of public citizens as source material probably isn’t intended to question notions of copyright or public domain. It adds, though, to the rich history of compositional techniques, including quills and parchment, tramps and tape recorders, the entire studio, drawing around stones, throwing dice, responding to a bellowing tone-deaf shotgun-wielding Welshman, remixing the sounds of various surgical procedures, and the I Ching.
The five musicians use guitars and electronics to play the selected sheets. Some passages are wild, as if guitar strings were strung across a cave and whacked with clubs. Others are plodding ruminations, and a few approximate what Mahavishnu Orchestra-era John McLaughlin might have sounded like had he ever been really angry. Elsewhere, the impression is oddly evocative of water drips electrocuting a string session or bongos wired to sound like a guitar. Brief sections suggest a rock “riff”, but it’s doubtful that the opening bars of “Smoke on The Water” would have made the cut if some wag had scribbled them on a sheet stuck to a Berlin bus shelter.
Mainly, waves of random notes are beautifully polished and positioned into something tantalizingly close to coherence. The tension is sort of erotic at times. Passages of near-silence seem a bit of a rip-off (unless they emanate from blank sheets) but do work as contrast to those which sound like a guitar falling down a fire escape or held out of a speeding vehicle. By attempting to infuse these pieces with the content of many of the walls, doors, poles and other surfaces of Berlin, Marclay perhaps also documents how the people feel since The Berlin Wall came down. Then again, your enjoyment of my review might be increased if you understand that it is comprised of words randomly contributed by other people. Mayonnaise.