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by Pedro Vélez
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Christian Marclay is a darling of museum curators. Wherever there is a show about sound or music he is sure to be in it. However, the question remains: Is Christian Marclay a good musician? And does it matter?

For two months this summer, the Whitney Museum got all trigger-happy and gave its keys to our multidisciplinary artist so he could throw a party. Oh, what a setting! Marclay invaded the entire fourth floor, made it dark and grungy, and invited a bunch of his friends, as well as a group of respected avant-garde musicians, to play, or at least pretend they can play, his extravagant musical scores. 

The show has closed, but luckily much of it is archived online, thanks to a collaboration with LiveStream, where readers are urged to go and have a browse. I had a good laugh when I saw New York sound artist Andrea Parkins trying to make sense out of Covers (2007-10), a collection of 30 found record covers. With this score, Marclay charges the performer with finding musical inspiration in the cover images. I don’t know about you, but I call that daydreaming.

Another good one is Lawrence "Butch" Morris and his Chorus of Poets, an improvisational ensemble of poets, performance artists and actors who read, vocalize and otherwise use their voices as instruments, trying out Marclay’s Mixed Reviews (1999-2010). This particular score consists of text fragments "sampled" from a range of sources, including the more colorful passages from reviews of concerts and recordings. Butch gave his best impression of star conductor Gustavo Dudamel, moving his stick up and down while an ensemble of sitting poets, dressed in a colorful array of bohemian garments, moved their mouths in expressive ways, singing pretty words like "Punctuation, transformation."

It was not bad, but the constant recurrence of some phrases reminded me of the intensely hued bickering of a famous poet I used to date -- I won’t name names.

Truth is, Marclays’ "Festival" only works if you see it live. I got a chance to enjoy New York-based Jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson play Wind Up Guitar (1995). She was a class act, making complete sense out of a classical guitar with music boxes built inside of it -- the wind-up keys protrude from the instrument's body. It was fascinating to experience Halvorson battling the hybrid machine, turning the keys all at once and making a cacophony of precious ringing noises to underscore Flamenco chords and rough jazzy riffs.

Now, here is the problem: If improvisation is at the core of all of Marclay’s experiments, how do we differentiate style from intention? We all know Marclay’s scores are not ordinary sheet music, but rather are made from an eclectic mix of materials -- collages, accumulations of ephemera, clothing, altered vinyl, photographs, slide shows, video mash-ups, and an infinity of additional things. Musicians who play from his scores have to consciously react, interact, act up with their instruments, improvise, touch or simply stare at the material.

Marclay is not necessarily breaking new ground here, of course. Questions involving the function of emotion, intention and technical virtuosity in avant-garde interpretation were discussed thoroughly by composer and theorist Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) in his 1937 book Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity, one of the first to address the proliferation of innovative recording technologies and the new music that resulted.

Marclay is a child of Musique Concrète, Fluxus and Acousmatic music. Process and experimentation is at the center of his practice -- the final product is, in a way, irrelevant. That is what makes "Festival" so engaging, fun and puzzling. Some experiments work, while most fail.

Such is the case when he welcomes amateurism in the creative process. For example, in Chalkboard (2010), the centerpiece of the exhibition, visitors can make their own score by doodling or drawing whatever they like on a massive chalkboard wall of staff lines. The famous jazz vocalist Helga Davis gave Chalkboard a try and it sounded perfect, almost too beautiful for me to believe she was even following the markings. The problem here is that nonsensical scribbling is bound to produce nonsensical sounds, making free improvisation by the musicians’ imperative and the original score beside the point. It becomes little more than a gimmick.

Abstract music no doubt has a small audience, but it can’t be called unknown. You could even argue that popular musicians have explored these waters with much more success. Take for example Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips, whose Parking Lot Experiments in 1996-97 involved distributing cassettes of the band’s music to people in a parking lot, who simultaneously played the tapes on their car stereo systems.

Later on, Coyne produced Zaireeka (1997), a single recording whose four tracks were each on their own CD, the idea being that the four CDs would be played simultaneously in order to hear the complete songs. In listening parties for Zaireeka, held across the country, people would bring their boom boxes to live the experience in communal bliss. I was lucky to experience one of those events at the Empty Bottle in Chicago.

Other pop musicians who come to mind in this context include Brian Eno, whose video and music program 77 Million Paintings was only published in 2006, and David Byrne, who "played a building" in Manhattan just two years ago.

In any case, what I really liked about "Festival" was its collaborative effort and sense of generosity. As Marclay over the past three decades has filled the art world with every kind of concrete object corresponding to immaterial music, so in "Platform" did he devise a museum context that allowed musicians and others a chance to produce something tangible out of nothing.

"Christian Marclay: Festival," July 1-Sept. 26, 2010, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

PEDRO VÈLEZ is an artist and critic living in Chicago