Spectralism, Maya Lin Show at Corcoran

Two items worth mentioning: today I had a chance to hear the new record from the Steve Lehman Quartet called Travail, Transformation and Flow, which shows off some of what is new in spectralism, an aesthetic that involves analyzing a tone from a single instrument with a computer and developing improvisations out of its overtone series.  The album — check out “Echoes,” which can be downloaded free here — reminds me of recordings I once heard of glass harmonicas, which are really sets of rotating glasses filled with water that “sing” when touched, like a champagne glass rubbed on its rim.  The music shimmers like a school of fish: you hear a set of tones developing in one of his arpeggiated, darting solos and it fans out in a number of semi-dissonant directions.  It reminds me also of the sound of those prayer bowls that are struck during meditation.  Forerunners of spectralism include Debussy, Bartok, Messiaen and Stockhousen, but the music seems to go beyond any of these influences, especially when it takes the form — in the case of Lehman’s quartet — of an octet with tuba, bass, a few horns and an incredible vibraphone player who is constantly charting the harmonic offramps.  There is something vaguely medieval about this music in the way it interlaces and suspends dissonant moments in a progression.  I would not want to listen to Lehman’s music in a cathedral, however.

The Maya Lin Systematic Landscapes show at the Corcoran was also interesting, particularly the large massing of cut 2x4s into a kind of wooden berm in the middle of on the galleries.  The piece, 2 x 4 Landscape looks an awful lot like a digital scan of a small geographical feature, one that has been recreated in physical form with all of its discrete jumps and bumpy texture: the model has become the object.  I liked seeing the Lin exhibit after hearing Lehman’s piece because it reminded me of the ways in which some pieces of music or art acquire the status of diagrams or maps of their own construction. Apparently a mathematical algorithm called a Fast Fourier Transform is done on the initial tones in a spectralist analysis, since this pulls out aspects of the overtone series that you or I wouldn’t “hear” immediately.  The composition then calls attention to these facts, which you somehow recognize.  I thought the Lin piece does something of this as well: it shows  you the way in which a hill, landscape or model of the same is composed of many possible paths through the terrain — across, diagonal, up and down — and that each of these vectors or “traverses” will provide you with a different sequence of ups and downs.  A landscape or composition, that is, becomes a vector through a table of values.  We could think of a text in a similar manner as well.  (I’ll be posting more in this in the future.)

Several months ago I had the idea of taking a concordance of a text and then create a shape using the weightings of these words as heights, radiating from the most common in the center to the least common at the perimeter.  Such a shape or sculpture could look like Lin’s 2 x 4 — it is a physical model of one set of “magnitudes” that defines the text — but would also be something other than a text.  Take ten texts by two writers.  Place the most frequent word of the first work in the center at height n1 (representing the number of times that word occurs in the work), then begin a clockwise coil starting at one position “north,” here at height n2 representing the number of occurrences of that word.  Move next one position east (diagonal from the original origin) and place n3, then south for n4, south again for n5, then west for n6, etc.  Now, if you created shapes for all ten works and then gave the surfaces to a topologist, what are the odds that she or he could do an author attribution?   The point here is that Lin is using landscape, at least in part, as a very large dataset, which is something you can do with texts as well.  (They contain ravines, valleys, hidden depths…)  Or a single note with its overtone series: this too can be a starting point for meditation, analysis and improvisation, since there is “more to it” than just the note. Lin and Lehman are both artists who are interested in elemental phenomena that are really bundled sets of relationships.  The bundles can be teased apart, made explicit, and expressed in a more vivid form: a systematic landscape or an improvisational spectrum.

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