rova:arts | monstrous units over the plateau

Monstrous Units Over the Plateau
for Larry Ochs

Jalal Toufic

Most music pieces take sounds ready-made. A few generate their sounds through an encounter with chaos, whether before they start, as their pre-history; or else along their endangered progress, presenting the origination of some or all of their already heard sounds. In music, chaos is less fundamentally some noisiness and nonpulsed sounds than the possibility of the generation of the sounds. In rare musical pieces, for example Triceratops, composed by Larry Ochs for ROVA's offshoot saxophone octet, Figure 8, one notices not only such an encounter with chaos within the piece, but also the construction of a sound plateau that is recognizable aurally by the effacement of the differentiation between the respective sounds produced by the various musicians, and functionally by the burial of the world it accomplishes. The sections of such music pieces where distinguishable sounds emerge above the plateau never function as an accompaniment music, since the world having been buried, the plateau is their only background. At the two ends of the spectrum, two sound relations to the background: that of John Cage, accepting so-called background sounds as music (4'33"); and that of music that establishes plateaus, and thus either totally excludes the ambient worldly sounds, or constructs its own aural background. Cage's proposal that there is no silence, that there are always sounds, usually ghettoized as background, non-musical ones, is an illegitimate generalization, since it holds neither in dance and death, with their frequent diegetic silence-over; nor in the works of musicians who construct plateaus. Any sound, however complex, that appears above this aural plateau, is, and effectively gives the impression of being, an unanalyzable unit, an element. Plateau-producing pieces often attain an extravagance in the form of monstrous elements. In not so rare limit cases, the whole music piece up to the construction of the plateau may appear again, this time having issued from the latter as an unanalyzable sound. The inability to resolve the merged sounds forming the plateau is less captivating than the inability any longer to analyze into its constituent elements any sound that has issued from the plateau. In some instances, the same sounds that were ungenerated and analyzable at the music piece's beginning are generated through the encounter with chaos and issue as unanalyzable units over the plateau. Ochs' music is historical not only through inspirations and influences -- in Pipe Dreams (1994, Black Saint), he provides a partial listing of influences and inspirations through the dedications of the pieces: Albert Ayler, Pete Townshend, Ray Charles, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis and Roscoe Mitchell; but also because it generates its sounds. It is historical -- up to the establishment of the plateau. Is it at all surprising that a grateful original musician would wish to establish the conditions for the "same" musical piece that pays tribute to some influence and inspiration to recur but as issuing from the plateau that buried the world, thus the original inspiration? Is it at all surprising that a musician would wish to establish the conditions for the "same" sounds one composed to recur but as issuing from the plateau that buried the world, oneself, and their historical version?

In the paintings of Frank Auerbach (and those of Leon Kossoff) there is an equivalent production of a burial of the world, partly through a particular thick layering of the paint. How many times have Juliet Yardley Mills (J.Y.M.) and Stella West (E.O.W.) been buried while posing for Auerbach? The painter must have required his models to stay still also because such an immobility, reminiscent of that of corpses, made the burial easier. For any discerning model, the hardest aspect of posing for Auerbach (or for Kossoff) would not be the "deformations" which might make it difficult for him or her to recognize himself or herself in the painted figure, or may make him or her feel that his or her image has been subjected to violence, violated; but the burial, and even more, perhaps, the dispossession, through the figure that issues from the model's burial, of the possibility of "having" a ghost. I can envision Stella West lamenting in 1973: "You divested me even of my ghost and now you discard me!" The fact of this kind of painting is not the model before the painter, but the unanalyzable figure that issues from what buried the world. The resulting figure in each of the forty-one sessions ending in Auerbach's Portrait of Sandra, 1973-1974, is not the modification of the previous ones, since, when not valid, the resultant figure of the previous day's work is scrubbed. Along the painting sessions, Auerbach becomes more adept at painting not the figure, but the burial of the world from which the figure issues. Robert Hughes' discussion of Portrait of Sandra in his Frank Auerbach (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990) is inadequate since it concentrates on the alterations the figure undergoes, ignoring the changes the painter made to the thick background from which the figure issues. Auerbach is one of the great portrait painters by being a great painter of the background from which the figure issues. What can be judged in terms of success or failure is not the figure or the sound over the plateau, but the plateau itself, and this in turn is to be judged by whether what issues from it is a Fact. The unanalyzable fact that issues from a successful plateau is to be accepted irrespective of extrinsic criteria of "quality": one is in the paradigmatic situation of love at first sight or hearing, especially since there is nothing else to obtrude on the embraced fact, the world having been buried by the plateau. Here we have an affinity between Ochs, Auerbach and Cage: With Cage all sounds are welcomed; with Ochs and Auerbach all that issues from the plateau is accepted. There is as much effacement of the composer in music that establishes a plateau, where there is a burial of the artist by the latter; as there is in Cage's music which is often arrived at through chance procedures. That the same few figures issue from the burial of the world in Auerbach's (and Kossof's) paintings is symptomatic of an obsession of the image rather than of the painter. I picture Auerbach validly retorting: "It is not me who is obsessive; it is the figure!" The unplanned in Ochs' composition is not limited to the improvisations in certain specified sections of his pieces; it includes the sounds that issue from the plateau (these two unplanned sorts of sound sometimes overlap). The fact is not only unforeseeable, but also frequently unworldly. This is clear not only in works where the figure or sound issues from a burial of the world: Auerbach, Ochs; but also in works where the figure is often an a-historical unworldly fully-formed irruption in a radical closure: Bacon, Magritte. Ochs titled one of his CDs The Secret Magritte. There is clearly a connection between him and Magritte: both are artists of Facts.

Few art works are as little interactive as a Larry Ochs piece such as Triceratops once the plateau is produced, or as a Frank Auerbach painting. Auerbach's figures have a virtually Egyptian gaze, since the figure's stare cannot be arrested by anything or anybody in front of it, everyone, indeed the whole world, having been buried. Were spectators or listeners of such works to continue to be distracted, this would indicate either that the plateau failed to be established or that they are insensitive.