Elaine Mitchener

Sound and vision


Christian Marclay couldn’t have manipulated the weather, but it’s true to say that the brass band he set in motion, marching through the reed beds behind Snape Maltings on Saturday, would have made less sense in rain. The blowsy end-of-the-pier sound of Suffolk Phoenix Brass rose up from the reeds and heralded the last late burst of summer sun; the sun danced off the polished surfaces of the tubas and French horns and bassoons, gold on gold. ‘Magical’ is an adjective which has lost its magic; it is overused, applied in a lazy PR-sort-of-way to just about anything. But it is difficult to find any other phrase to describe the combination of that crazy, happy music and the evening sun and the bright red jackets of the band and the swaying reeds.

But that’s what Marclay does. He compiles things to show us that what we think of as ordinary, what we take for granted, is, in fact, incredible, especially when we take note of the small details. He starts with a film clip of someone knocking on a door (all we see is a hand, the knuckles rapping against wood) then someone else knocking on another door, then someone else – each with a different style of knocking. Then a drum finds a common rhythm in these ‘knockings’, and the rhythm is picked up by a piano, a sax, a trombone. And you realise that the simple act of knocking on a door is a way of making music. Maybe you don’t normally think about it that way, because the door opens and there is someone on the other side, and you begin to speak, or the person who resides there invites you in, and the isolated moment of knocking is forgotten. But Marclay cuts away from what happens next, presents us with just the door, the knocking, and makes us focus on a single action, a single sound.

That process of isolation is what poetry is about too. You take something out of context and examine it closely, make something new of it. In ‘Manga Scroll’, Marclay has isolated the “action words” (like “KA-BLAM” or “BREEP”) from Manga comics which have been translated from the Japanese for the US market. These collected words have been arranged on a scroll, like an ancient calligraphic text. At this performance, the scroll was brought out, laid on a long table, with two men at either end, one to roll, the other to unroll. The singer (Elaine Michener) stood near one end, took a deep breath, and launched into a vocal interpretation of the text. She reinvented herself as a wide-eyed Anime pin-up, spouting a cartoon opera complete without meaning, but high on drama. 

‘Ephermera’ is another Marclay piece which is about isolating and compiling, in this case, anything with musical notation on it: restaurant menus, advertisements for cars, playbills. These have been reproduced as collages on large-sheet folios, which the pianist (Steve Beresford) opened like a conventional musical score, and began to “play”. The folios can be chosen in any order, and the musician can “play” the images as well as the musical notation he finds there (so Beresford could choose to interpret the sound of the car in the advertisement as well as any actual notes he sees on it). So the piece is always different, always random, controlled by the whims of the person playing it.

For me, this jumble of media is incredibly exciting. It goes beyond the simple definition of ekphrasis, bringing together music, moving image, voice, printed matter, junk shop treasure and human intervention. The result is that you re-envision your world, discover interest in even the most mundane stuff. After the final performance, we returned to the car, and I became completely fascinated just listening to the sound of the car door opening, shutting again behind me, the engine starting, the parking sensors detecting what was in front of us, what was behind … even the car could conspire to make beautiful music.