Bach as Minimalist:
The Bach Cycles by Visual Artists Linda Schwarz

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
Gertrude Stein

Whether music lies in the score or in the tonal event is a question that has been answered in diverse ways in the history of musical-aesthetic inquiry. While the layperson experiences music only as sound and therefore considers the aural element to be the essential one, theoreticians and composers have often placed the written manifestation of music in the foreground.

In the Western musical tradition, notation at first served only as a mnemonic aid in the process of transmission. Only with the development of polyphony and elaborate compositional structures - as well as with the increasing importance of the personal authorship of the composer - did notation become an indispensable element of the musical art. In the highly complex motets of the ars nova of the 14th century, for example, only a small part of the composition can be grasped through listening alone. The artful compositional techniques and the different, simultaneously resounding texts can only be deciphered by reading and to some extent are probably only intended for a reader.

In its extreme form, this notion implies that sound is superfluous to music, even impossible for it. "I don't want to hear about hearing!," says the protagonist of Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, "In my opinion it is enough for something to have been heard only once, when the composer conceived it. [...] As if the audience could ever hear what was heard then [...]."(1)

But even if, as Adorno said, "never and in no place [...] is the musical text identical with the work,"(2) it is nonetheless similar to it, or at least to its tonal form. Indeed, the signifiers which describe a tone in its pitch and length have purely symbolic character only when they stand alone and isolated. But considered in relation to a progression of tones, they serve as a likeness of that progression. They give visual form to the notes in their sequence, duration (though this is often less apparent), and pitch relationships (higher or lower than the preceding note, the size of the interval). If one accepts the analogy of the "up" and "down" of the notation to the "high" and "low" of the aural impression, then the notation literally illustrates the progression of tonal pitches. And so the expression "musical image" can be placed alongside such terms as "musical notation" and "musical text."

The "musical images" of Linda Schwarz have their connection to music first of all in this sense. In her works, the use of musical notation within the pictorial space of an etching does not constitute mere quotation. Unlike the well-known Cubist paintings in which musical associations are evoked through the use of an (often empty) staff or parts of a violin or guitar (e.g. Georges Braque's Violon of 1912 or Pablo Picasso's Femme à la guitare près d'un piano of 1911)(3), here an entire musical text becomes the subject of the picture, a text which, as a visible body of signifiers, is inseparable from that which it signifies. Linda Schwarz's works thus evince a more complex referential system than do the Cubist works: the linear chain of association - staff lines suggesting music, f-holes signifying string instruments which in turn point to music - is expanded into a circular movement: the musical notation signifies not only "music" in general, but above all a particular composition, and indeed in a certain sense is that composition itself.

Schwarz - Bach Cycle But a musical text also represents something which it, in and of itself, is not: it both signifies that which is heard and provides directives for its own performance. The musical notation in these etchings, however, has lost the latter function. Linda Schwarz does not incorporate a sheet of printed music into the pictorial space (as for example Picasso had done in his paper collage Violon et feuille de musique of 1912). Rather, she copies the notation, but leaves out title, tempo, and instrumentation as well as clef, key signature, and meter. The notation is thus incomplete, though not fragmentary, since all the notes of a complete movement are exactly rendered. Rather, the notation is reduced - or liberated - to the status of an "image" of the music in the sense described above. At the same time, it alludes to the musical text in its entirety, which itself is now freed from its double function as both composition and instructions for performance.

Thus on the one hand, the image of the musical text manifests itself as a mere configuration of signs, signs that are sure of themselves as signifiers, but not of what they signify: while the notes indicate tones, their pitch remains unknown without the clef. But on the other hand, the image also presents itself as musical notation - notation which, precisely because it is incomplete, points to that part of the text which implicates not the performance, but rather the musical intent.

Temporality is essential to music. While works of visual art are also perceived in time, their temporality derives from the viewer rather than from the work itself. A musical composition, however, impresses its own time upon the listener, like a film, whose speed of projection and sequence of images cannot be influenced by the movie-goer. In contrast, a picture allows the viewer more liberties. Neither the order in which individual pictorial elements are observed, nor the time spent gazing at single areas or at the picture as a whole can be prescribed; all three things are free, but only the order of observation can be suggested.

Looking at a a picture can thus be compared to reading a text, in which individual sentences can be read repeatedly or entire paragraphs skipped. Similarly, the reader of a musical text can review individual passages again and again, can turn back to compare a theme or leave out a repetition. This affinity between music as notation and music as image is especially evident when the pictorial space is articulated horizontally, so that the viewer seems to recognize lines which can be "read." Many of Paul Klee's works achieve their musical effect in this way (e.g. Reife Ernte and Pirla of 1924 [172/179], Felsenbild and Kult-Stätte of 1934 [138 QU 18/ 141 R1]).(4)

In Linda Schwarz's etchings, the staves of the musical notation quite obviously organize the pictorial space into unambiguous lines. But this large-scale clarity contrasts with an uncertainty of detail that raises the issue of temporality anew. Since the note-symbols emerge only delicately, sometimes even hesitatingly, from the pictorial ground, a special exertion of the senses is required to read them. Like a child working its way haltingly through a text, the viewer is made especially conscious of the time that her/his looking demands. And becoming impatient, the beholder's mode of perception may shift again and again between viewing the text as an image and reading the image as a text.

Lastly, temporality is manifested in the arrangement of the images in cycles. In the first print of each of the eight cycles, the notation of the Prelude to the first Cello Suite in G major by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007) is rendered in full. The second print shows the piece again, this time with a second rendering of the text superimposed over the first; in the third print there are three superimposed notations, and finally in the fourth, four. The four prints of the cycle cannot be surveyed simultaneously; rather, they must be viewed one after the other, read from left to right, like the staves of the individual etchings. The exhibition as a whole reveals a further level of repetition, that of the large-scale form: there are eight cycles to be passed through, each of which follows the same serial principle.

Thus repetition plays a key role in these works by Linda Schwarz. The second print of each cycle repeats the image of the first print and illustrates it again - as if the first image, imprinted onto the viewer's retina, were now superimposed again upon its own repetition. The remembered impressions become stratified, until by the fourth print they attain a new quality, pointing to something beyond just the repeatedness of the repetition. And so it becomes clear what Gertrude Stein meant when she said, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," when she explained that there is no such thing as repetition, only insistence.(5) She meant not only that a process could never be exactly repeated, or that in a film two images could never be exactly the same, but above all that to a viewer, a repeated impression is, in fact, a repeated one and therefore different, that it is perceived as a repetition and therefore as more than just "the same thing over again."

A text that has been read again and again may be considered to be "known." But to read something known is very different from reading something unknown, as Wittgenstein pointed out: "Do this experiment: say the numbers from 1 to 12. Now look at the face of clock and read the numbers. - What did you call "reading" in this case? In other words, what did you do to make it reading?"(6)

When one hears Gertrude Stein's line "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" spoken again and again, one's attention is slowly drawn away from that which is meant - the rose - to that which means, the chain of sounds [roz]. The thing repeated is freed from the meaning which otherwise adheres to it. Likewise, Linda Schwarz's musical images turn the viewer's "reading" into "looking," so long as s/he does not consciously begin "reading" again. Thus Linda Schwarz uses diverse means to liberate the note-symbols - in the sense described above - out of the totality of their significance.

The creators of "minimal music" achieve similar results in their compositions. The extended repetition of brief patterns negates any sense of a musical teleology: each moment of the music has the same weight, and sudden, slight variations of the pattern take the place of a development. The insistence on simple melodic elements exposes their meaninglessness; they are nothing more than themselves.

Linda Schwarz has studied two of these composers in particular: Philip Glass - especially his early operas - and Steve Reich. In 1990-91 she created a cycle of etchings inspired by Reich's composition "Piano Phase". This background may help explain the choice of the cello prelude for her Bach cycles.

Already the beginning of the piece is marked by repetition. An ascending G-major triad is followed by a transitional note and then by b, the highest note of the triad, which in turn alternates twice with another note of the triad, d. These eight tones are then exactly repeated. Next follows a "sequence" of the first measure: except for the G, which remains constant as a pedal point at the beginning of each sequence, each note is transposed upward by one whole tone. The third measure repeats the sequence again, this time transposing the e to f-sharp. The following measures continue in a similar pattern, though periodically interrupted by modulations and scale passages. Further patterns of repetition occur in the second part of the piece after the fermata, such as the sequenced scale passages of measures 20-30 as well as the long pedal point on a (m. 31-36), d (m. 37-38), and g' (m. 39-42). In some places both sequence and repetition are combined within a very short musical space (e.g. in m. 32 or 35-36).

Of course the Bach prelude cannot really by analyzed as "minimal music." Above all the great chromatic ascent to the end cannot be comprehended in those terms. Still, Linda Schwarz's Bach cycles make us hear it in a new way. We become more aware of the similar pitch sequences, condensed in one of the cycles to a single line. Or we pay more attention to the repetition of tones, even when they do not directly follow each other, as suggested by the connecting lines in another of the cycles. But perhaps we will also read a pattern again and again and again, in order - through repetition - to obtain an effect that even Steve Reich could have composed.

"Remembering is repetition, remembering is also confusion." Gertrude Stein described the difficulty of "so to speak keeping two times going at once, the repetition time of remembering and the actual time of talking,"(7) or looking, or hearing. The confusion already described - whether to read Linda Schwarz's etchings as image or text - takes on an added dimension in several of the last prints of the cycles, in the movement from line to plane. While the clearly recognizable notation systems of the first prints establish a temporal orientation, this orientation becomes ever more uncertain with the increasing number of superimpositions. In a plane, everything is simultaneous. Nevertheless, the remembering viewer is privy to the repetition that structures the plane, and therewith to its temporal character.

The planes of these complex musical images can only be experienced musically. The paradox that motion can lead to stasis - as happens for example in some compositions by György Ligeti(8) - is continually countered by the memory of the complex, underlying linearity. Thus these prints cannot be translated into a musical performance. The transpositions which Linda Schwarz undertakes in pictorial space have no analog in musical space. And yet her works, leading from the musical text to the image, return to the music again: to a music that unfolds within the viewer alone, in an "active listening from within,"(9) where no sound is needed.

Volker Straebel 93

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translated from the German by Melissa Thorson
German original published as Musik jenseits des Hörens. Zu den Noten-Bildern von Linda Schwarz in: Musik-Psychologie. Jahrbuch der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Musikpsychologie vol. 11 (1994), pp. 170-173
© Volker Straebel kein Abdruck ohne schriftliche Genehmigung des Autors / no reprint without author's written permission


(1) from the beginning of Chapter XXVII

(2) Theodor W. Adorno, "Bach gegen seine Liebhaber verteidigt," in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 10.1 (Frankfurt/M. 1977), pp. 138-51, here p. 149

(3) reproduced in Vom Klang der Bilder. Die Musik in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. Karin von Maur (Munich 1985), pp. 103f

(4) reproduced in Paul Klee und die Musik, exhibition catalogue (Frankfurt/M. 1986), pp. 92f, 114

(5) Gertrude Stein, "Portraits and Repetition," in Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1909-45, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (Harmondsworth 1971), pp. 99-124, here p. 100

(6) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, 161 (emphasis in the original)

(7) G. Stein, as in note 5, p. 108

(8) Linda Schwarz's study of György Ligeti provided the inspiration for her cover design of the book Harold Kaufmann: Von innen und außen. Schriften über Musik, Musikleben und Ästhetik, ed. Werner Grünzweig und Gottfried Krieger (Hofheim/Ts. 1993)

(9) Linda Schwarz, writing about her own works