Leaving (With Four Half-Turns)
Anthony McCall & David Grubbs. 'Leaving (With Four Half-Turns)', 2011. Performance views at Sprueth Magers Gallery, Berlin, April, 2012
Visual artist Anthony McCall and guitarist and composer David Grubbs discuss ‘Leaving (With Four Half-Turns)’, which they will present in New York on 12 October in collaboration with ISSUE Project Room.
Anthony McCall: Leaving (With Four Half-Turns) is an example of what’s referred to as one of my ‘solid light’ works. A solid-light film is one in which the projected beam of light itself is the primary focus of attention, rather than the image on the screen. Of course there is an image on the screen: a simple line-drawing. But when that line drawing is projected through a room filled with a fine mist, the beam of light that carries the drawing from projector to screen is revealed as a sculptural object in space. So, for instance, a white circular line on the screen would form a hollow cone of light in three-dimensional space, with its base at the screen and its apex at the lens of the projector. However, the projected line is animated: it slowly changes over time; so although the observer can and does explore the large-scale volumetric form as a sculptural object; the form is itself shifting, and so acquires a temporal structure as well as a spatial dimension.
I made the first solid-light piece in 1973: Line Describing a Cone. The originating train of thought was connected to the possibility of making a film that only existed at the moment of projection and only existed in a present tense that was shared with the audience. This being quite different from a regular ‘movie,’ the images of which existed in a past time, and in a physical ‘elsewhere.’
The first of the ‘Leaving’ series was called Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence), which David and I worked on together on and off between 2007 and 2009. This was a two-projector work, with the two forms projected side-by-side across a 30-foot space. Two things happen. The first of the two forms begins as a projected conical object that begins whole, but by the end of the piece – some 32 minutes later – it has vanished, it’s gone, it’s been reduced to nothing. The second form moves in the opposite direction. As the companion form gradually disappears, this second form gradually grows. At the precise moment when one has gone, the other becomes complete and whole. Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) also had an ambient sound component whereby the sound of road traffic comes from one side of the space, and the sound of an urban harbor comes from the other, and these two sounds mix in space.
David Grubbs: My experience of the stereo sound in Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) is that in some points in the room the two sounds mix, but for me one of the most memorable aspects of the experience is the way in which in much of the room they remain distinct from one another. The viewer or the listener needs to explore the space in its entirety to really experience the sound components. When we first met to discuss working together, I remember our conversation about the tempo or rate of change being very important in the visual composition; you said something along the lines of ‘If the image moves faster than the viewer it’s cinema, but if the viewer moves faster than the image then it’s sculpture.’ I thought that the sound composition for Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) responded to this dictate. Nothing about the sound composition would leave the listener rooted to the spot. In fact, they need to root around the space. The viewer/listener never obtains an all-over sound perspective, but rather is compelled to mix the sound by moving throughout the space. The listener brings the individual sounds into focus by approaching either one speaker or the other – otherwise the sounds are indistinct, suggesting white noise at the threshold of audibility.
AM: Yes, the listener must find the sounds, much as the visual forms must be approached. There is no single place from which to secure an overview, whether you are looking or listening or looking and listening. When you are incorporated say, inside the form that is being cut away, you cannot also be inside the form next door to it that is growing. When you are near the audio speaker that produces the traffic sound you are as far as you can possibly be from the other speaker across the space. The sounds are quite low amplitude; they are almost sub-audible which is to say that when you walk into the room, your first impression isn’t of a room full of sound. If anything you see the visual first, and then it gradually dawns on you that the whole installation is shrouded in sound.
One of the reasons that the sound was so necessary in that piece was that I had to find a way to create a silence. It goes back to my experience of 16mm projectors. All the work that I made in the ‘70s was ‘silent,’ but it wasn’t silent at all, because you always had the projector in the room. That projector – the whirring of the projector – was a kind of steady state, a very subtle drone tone, which did a lot of work, in my view. It was hardly loud enough to be called a sound, but the sound was loud enough to do two things. One was to mask the sound of anyone talking quietly, so it provided acoustic privacy to individual members of the audience. I remember being very struck that when a film finished, and the projectionist turned the projector off – which was often in the same room, on a stand at the back – you suddenly realized how quiet it was. That stayed with me and became the principle of this sound shroud. I knew that I could have an ambient soundtrack that was a bit under the radar, and I knew that if I turned it off abruptly I would have a vivid block of silence that I could bring to an end by by turning the soundtrack on again. That was pretty much what David and I did. The two-minute silence in the piece is an important moment that occurs once every 14 minutes. It’s also the moment when all motion ceases. Since one of the forms is growing in time, and the other is shrinking, it’s a moment of complete stasis, where time stands still.
There were other principles at stake with the sound. It had been an article of faith from the ‘70s that the projected object should be non-referential. I was beginning to look for a way past that that rather rigid assumption, and I found it in sound. Sound is very different from an image; when you hear a sound, you don’t necessarily know whether it’s ‘real’ or not. A properly recorded and amplified sound may be indistinguishable from that which it represents. Playing the sound of traffic in the gallery at a certain fairly low amplitude, made it seem plausibly just outside the door. It was at the sort of amplitude that it might very well be just outside, and in fact the Hudson River isn’t that far away either. By creating this ambiguity, we at least rendered the walls of the installation somewhat porous.
DG: The soundtrack for Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) was arrived at after quite some time of going back and forth, making different sketches and completed versions of the piece. I have the sense of Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) as being one particular solution to the question of sound in the ‘Leaving’ series, and I think of Leaving (With Four Half-Turns) as a very different kind of solution. It’s as if the re-set button had been engaged after Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence). Many of the qualities that were present in our initial discussions about sound in the Leaving series were re-engaged with Leaving (With Four Half-Turns). Specifically I’m thinking about the idea of the role of sound with regard to a single, integral start-to-finish presentation of the work. There’s also the issue of using recognizable musical source material in what will be recognized as a musical composition.
AM: These are indeed significant differences. The fact that you are creating a musical composition rather than one made of ambient sound is one shift; and the fact that the composition will only be played once-through is the other: ‘listening’ in your piece requires a different order of concentration.
Anthony McCall. Study for “Leaving (With Four Half-Turns)” (2009)
DG: I’m particularly pleased to be presenting this as a single performance at ISSUE Project Room, especially given that most of our conversations about the ‘Leaving’ series have taken place while studying a diagram of the compositional structure of the work – even though with an installation work such as Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) there’s the foreknowledge that people will come and go, and are likely to take in only a fraction of the piece.
AM: We did work from a structural road-map. However, the visitor didn’t have that map, and even if they had it would have told them very little about how to move around, how to look, how to listen and how long to stay. Leaving (With Four Half-Turns) is also highly structured visually and, of course, closely related to the Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) installation. What I liked about you taking the piece over was that from that moment on, it wasn’t necessary for me to know what you might do with it. Whereas with the earlier piece we talked everything through – there was a structure, there were certain things that I thought I wanted, which it turned out I didn’t want once you’d given them to me [laughter], and it was a collaboration based on certain principles that were already in place. With this, I ceded all control once I’d handed over the piece to you. You would specifically be writing music, plus you were able to work with the knowledge that you’d make it for an audience. In other words, as a 30-minute performance.
DG: I approached it knowing I wanted to be the performer on it. I didn’t want to stand apart from it; I wanted to participate.
Anthony McCall. Invading Wave Study (2007)
AM: It was particularly important to me that I knew you’d be writing music, whatever form this might take, because this was somewhere I couldn’t go myself. I can remember my moment of horror when we listened to our first iteration of the sound for Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence), with the overlapping foghorns of differing pitches, and my realizing that once you overlap the pitches then you create something that sounds unmistakably like music. It was exactly what I had requested, but it horrified me because I felt I didn’t know how to swim in that particular ocean. Not that I’m anti-music – just that I don’t know how to deal with it. And this new way of collaborating didn’t require that I know anything about music, because it was yours once you took it over.
DG: I took my cue from the visual materials. If you’re looking at the two-dimensional projection, Leaving (With Four Half-Turns) consists of three visual figures: a circle, a straight line, and a traveling sine wave. I roughly analogized those musically, as a starting point, as a repeated single-note figure, an open string that’s allowed to decay into silence, and a turnaround ornament. Just as the light becomes visible as a three-dimensional sculptural volume through the medium of the haze, I begin the piece with an unamplified electric guitar, and by using a volume pedal an amplifier gradually becomes the medium for the sound of what would otherwise be a nearly inaudible acoustic sound source. Whether or not the sound is experienced as having a volumetric form, well…
AM: Visually, there are four movements, and each movement consists of a full cone being gradually cut down until there’s nothing left. Each movement lasts seven-and-a-half-minutes, and each shares the same structure, but sculpturally speaking, each version is quite different from the other three. You maintain a very tight relationship to what happens in each of the four movements, but over the course of the four movements what occurs musically begins to mutate. You began with the acoustic and by the end it’s highly amplified. The composition is tightly aligned to the progress of the visual forms. There’s a halfway moment in each movement where you have a complete silence at the very moment when there’s a perfect half-cone of light hanging in space…
DG: …in the second and the fourth variations.
AM: Those moments are tremendously dramatic. What about the spatial aspect of it? I remember that you wanted just one speaker.
DG: A single point source.
AM: There are two components: there’s the source of the music and the source of the image. Is that how it works?
DG: I think so. The amplifier is a point source that the viewer/listener walks towards or walks away from in the same way that the harbor or the traffic in Leaving (With Two-Minute Silence) are distinct point sources. It charges different locations in the exhibition or performance space with different valences. There is no reason for the sound to appear to come from all sides, to fill the room evenly.
AM: A few comments following our first performance at Sprüth Magers Gallery in Berlin: you were playing off to one side of the projected cone of light, and you were slightly illuminated. So there were two distinct events going on, the projected object and the performer. I saw a few people, at different moments, standing and watching you playing, with their backs to the projection. Your musical composition requires concentration by the listener; and the volumetric form made of light requires its own, very different type of concentration. In some ways the senses one needs for each are in competition, and part of the pleasure is negotiating between the two. But one particular comment stayed with me: a friend told me that he of course knew that the film had preceded the musical composition, ‘but, as I stood inside the conical form observing and listening,’ this friend said, ‘I had the strong sensation that the music was actually generating the sculpture of light.’
Anthony McCall. Invading Wave Study (2007)
Anthony McCall and David Grubbs will present Leaving (With Four Half-Turns) with ISSUE Project Room on October 12, at Light Industry, 155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn, New York. From 5–10 September 2012, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival presented Jonah Bokaer and Anthony McCall’s ECLIPSE, with sound design by David Grubbs. ECLIPSE was the premiere work in the new BAM Fisher Building.
An edited version of this conversation also appears on the ISSUE Project Room website.