Uncommon Knowledge: Mark So’s Text Scores

Mark So’s music comes out of a tradition, if it can be called that, of experimental music that sees the essential instability of words on a page as fertile soil in which to cultivate indeterminacy. This strategy of writing music with text, rather than traditional notation, leaves ample room for interpretation on the part of the performer. In fact, interpretation—usually an abstract concept somewhat anterior to the music itself—is absolutely integral to the performance of a text score. Music written with words does not end with interpretation; it begins with it.

Common knowledge tells us that a traditionally notated score is an ideal form to which every performance aspires. The interpretation of the text, in this case notes on a page, by the performer is a regrettable, if unavoidable consequence of the written notation turning into sound. The text, then, is sacred and the sound profane. Indeterminate text scores avoid this distinction between sacred and profane, taking the composition out of the realm of ideal forms and into the real by potentializing it, that is, by making it subject to the conditions under which it will be performed. This includes, but is not limited to, the will of the performer and of the listener. In effect, when speaking about the performance of an indeterminate text score, it is not entirely accurate to use the word interpretation anymore. Performing an indeterminate text score is not a simple act of reading, it is a creative act in and of itself. In a sense, the performer writes the text that will live in the world (the performance) as they read the text that lives on the page (the score).

The difference between the two forms of notation is the difference between potential and potentiality. The traditionally notated score exists before it is performed: it is potential music on the page that becomes actual by being performed. The music that the text score makes possible, on the other hand, does not exist before it is performed: it can exist or not exist and therefore has potentiality. It has the ability to be music, which means it could also not be music. The text score can remain not-music, whereas the traditional score is already music; it cannot be or not be and therefore does not have potentiality.

So’s music has this ability to be or not be. He is certainly not alone in this endeavor—in fact, he told me he is often accused of borrowing too heavily from other composers—but over the course of a few years and a few hundred pieces (he is prolific beyond compare), he has aggressively pursued a line of inquiry only superficially similar to the others. Many of So’s influences have a spare style that makes use of ample silences and denies ornamentation. Like an international style building, the elegant lines of the structure are all the more visible because of its transparency. So’s music often goes beyond even this spare aesthetic, the lines of the music stretched so thin as to almost drift away.

To borrow an idea from Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, So creates rhizomes—in this case, listening situations that are non-hierarchical—often by distorting an extant strategy to the point that it is transformed. Speaking of Glenn Gould, Deleuze and Guattari write, “There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree or root. There are only lines. When Gould speeds up the performance of a piece, he is not just displaying virtuosity, he is transforming the musical points into lines, he is making the whole piece proliferate.”[1] Just as Gould can stretch a score over a half-tempo (as in his performance of Schoernberg) or turn it into lines by playing it twice as fast (his Bach), So turns the previous composers’ structures into lines by stretching their strategies. In So’s hands, an otherwise stable structure can be stretched to the limit—beyond the limit—until it fundamentally transforms, like copper spun into cobwebs.

And this is audible in the music itself: for there are not just sounds and silences, the sounds are stretched over the silence, just barely there. They do not supercede the silence; they are parallel to it, moving along with it. And at times, impossibly, even the silence itself can be stretched too thin. The piece breaks and you are simply, profoundly in the room or in the environment. The tightrope snaps and you can no longer pretend to float above or beyond the world. There are often moments of great beauty in a So piece, but there are never moments of transcendence. As a listener, you are ineluctably in the present, wrestling with it.

Many of Mark So’s recent works derive from his insights while reading the poetry of John Ashbery. An Ashbery poem often elides logic while slipping gracefully between the erudite and the vernacular. In the slippage, an otherwise unattainable, unsayable truth can appear. In his few verbal statements on his work, Willem de Kooning often remarked on the importance of glimpsing and that his paintings were attempts to fix the act of a glimpse—in other words, to destabilize the static object of a painting by putting time back into it. He achieved this by covering and recovering the canvas quickly, scraping it down at the end of each day and starting from the traces, the stains, on the next. So’s scores, slippery as soap on vellum, also allow for this kind of glimpsing, but it is an aural/intellectual glimpsing as opposed to a visual/visceral one.[2] And So’s music destabilizes static perception; it is not enough to hear, not even enough to hear silence, you must begin to hear hearing, to glimpse your own glimpse, to experience yourself experiencing something, even if only for a moment. Sounds, silences and your experience of them overlap and interpenetrate.[3]

But this interpenetration is not harmonious; it is disjoint. John Cage made it his project to reveal that music could be any sounds in any order. This involves an equivalence—one thing is like another—that negates value judgment. So goes further: any sounds in any order, but instead of an equivalence between them, there is a radical disparity. Cage famously made an enemy of harmony, but in a sense, he used silence in all of his pieces after 4’33” as a kind of harmony—the sounds of the environment always “fit” inside a Cage piece. In So, the silences are dissonant. There are layers of silence and they are in contrast if not outright contest.

This involves a level of attunement on the part of the listener that few works require of their audience. One is keenly aware that one is uncomfortable, and the discomfort brings you closer to the world. Rather than hearing a cliché, even a clichéd silence, you actually hear. You begin to perceive hearing itself.

This is not about ascending to a higher level or attaining a reality that is beyond illusion. So’s music is all surface, but it is deeply involved with the surface. For the surface itself, his music reveals to its listener, is the given world. To look beyond the surface is already to be involved in a kind of romance, a transcendentalist game. For So, reality is not to be reached or attained; it is appearance. Reality is what appears during the performance.

Speaking of So’s music in terms of reality makes it sound heavy, but it is the opposite; it is gossamer. It is weightless. So’s music is a transparent skin stretched over the surface of the real. Like a stocking with a run in it, it reveals both skins as skin and as such, is both attractive and repellent, illusion and disillusion at once. The skins themselves are several—layers of tissue covering over layers of tissue ad infinitum. There is always something more that is out of sight, but it too is just tissue. There is no realer real, only layers upon layers of paper thin densities to be pulled apart until they drift away—layers of tissue covering the body of the world, itself no more than another accumulation of tissue.

Achieving the heightened attention required to discern these tissues of sound and silence from one another is a voluntary act on the part of the listener. The music presents the situation, but it does not “induce” this or that state of consciousness. It is not meditation. It is radical freedom: pure potentiality. The listener is presented with the choice to hear nothing or to hear hearing itself. She may choose not to hear at all (“there’s nothing happening”), or hear her ability to hear. So creates this situation out of tissue thin layers: taut, porous skins all stretched over one another at once and over time.

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987), 8.

[2] de Kooning’s famous dictum “Paint so fast you can’t think” is a strategy for fixing the glimpse. So writes quickly as well, but it is not explosive. It is slippery without losing a certain precision and is more akin to Ashbery than de Kooning in this way. So’s music is not intellectual in the sense that it is not meant, first and foremost, to be heard; it is sensual, it is thinking through the senses. We might say, “Listen so slow you can’t think.”

[3] “…even with a thought/ The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,/As water is in water.” William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, (Barnes and Noble: New York) 1187.

The image is from an ongoing performance of Mark So's The Casual Drift. It may be seen by appointment. Email: mbrookshire [at] gmail.com

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