BY Sam Thorne in Features | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Athanasios Argianas

Sound and form: grasshoppers, vocal canons and communicating with the dead

BY Sam Thorne in Features | 01 NOV 08

Athanasios Argianas, Song Machine No. 7, 2007

When people lament not being able to read music, they rarely wonder why a single alphabet – of clefs and accidentals, semibreves and slurs – is the only one they have to choose from. How much does our conception of a piece of music depend on its system of notation? Indeed, in his wide-ranging essay ‘Plunderphonia’ (1994) the critic and musician Chris Cutler argues convincingly that ‘the whole edifice of Western art music can be said […] to be constructed upon and through notation’. In a bid to provoke classically trained performers to improvise, the so-called ‘graphic scores’ for Earle Brown’s December 1952 (1952) and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke XI (1956) went so far as to offer good-looking alternatives to the uniform units of the stave. Although a relatively short-lived trend – one that perhaps finishes with Cornelius Cardew’s monumental Treatise (1963–7) – such compositions reimagined the visual aspect of music as an end in itself.

The Athens-born, London-based artist Athanasios Argianas’ delicately leggy sculptures share this preoccupation with the possibility and limitations of transferring sound into form, as well as some of the inquisitive optimism of earlier experiments into occupying space without materials. A conservatory-trained musician, Argianas has written a number of vocal canons, or rounds – typically a short single melody sung by several voices, each of which begins at a different time. (Many of Argianas’ works on paper also return to systems based on a formal and conceptual circularity: rings of crabs, Möbius strips in ‘Partly Obscured Portraits’ from 2008 and assiduous studies of tight coils in the ‘Braid Series’ from 2006–7.) It is this looping structure that provides the starting point for the robustly elegant ‘Song Machines’ – splayed grids of interlocking variations on a single lyric – that Argianas has been making since his MA degree show at Goldsmiths in 2005. In their encouragement of movement – I found myself circling them – they operate more like open (but not indeterminate) systems than fixed machines.

While Argianas sometimes uses standardized techniques for encoding music – for example, by converting frequencies into millimetres, as in Untitled (I was swept off her feet – Octagons) (2007) – he more often translates it intuitively. Talking to Argianas in his studio, I asked about one of his ‘Music by Lightness’ series (2007–ongoing), a grouping of stacked polyhedrons, rumpled and rough like painted bronze. Checking the height of each small column, and quietly humming the corresponding note, he decided that they were correctly arranged, explaining that the cluster was a note-by-note rendition of a canon, with frequency represented by measures of weight.

Although Argianas has released hazily pretty instrumentals under the Gavouna moniker, he more often returns to the ordered baroque form of the vocal canon as well as other a cappella chamber arrangements. Yet traditional forms prove to be smartly dextrous in the references that they cite. For example, at his show at the Max Wigram Gallery in 2007 a transparent record played Music for Four Imagined Theremins Part II (2007), a whistled quartet that mimics the eerie glissando of the theremin. Invented in 1919, the theremin was the first instrument that didn’t rely on contact to be played, depending only on the position of the performer’s hands between two antennae. Like the sculptures, Argianas’ recording is concerned with situations in which harmonic changes are caused by movement in space.

Grasshoppers, comically graphic emblems for how sound is made and received in the natural world, crawl through Argianas’ 2005 series of paintings ‘Things Living in the Studio Imagined Late at Night’ and adorn his ‘Proposals for Reading Consonants as Noise’ (2007–ongoing). The most recent works in the latter series of two-part sculptures comprise twin casts of crumpled sheets of metal atop thin steel tripods and, like many of Argianas’ castings, are clamped in callipers – presented for scrutiny or perhaps for further work. The degree of rotation, however, is less provisional than it appears: although it is impossible to see the similarity, the casts are actually identical forms held at right angles. Altered with the most casual of gestures, these two-part works provide a pair of seemingly mismatched brackets around the original form. The titles deliberately suggest three-dimensional evocations of a ‘noise’ waveform: that is, one from which no pitch can be discerned. (Morton Feldman, in his essay on Edgard Varèse, argues that ‘noise is a word of which the aural image is all too evasive’.) The series, like the attendant grasshoppers, unassumingly exploits our blind spot for negotiating complex irregular shapes and formlessness.

The focus of a recent evening presented by Argianas and his occasional collaborator Nick Laessing at Frank Gehry’s Serpentine Pavilion was a curious rhomboid frame of wood and copper thread, hung suspended: a crystal radio, tuned to the particular frequency used by Friedrich Jürgenson, the eccentric Swedish originator of the study of ‘electronic voice phenomena’, who believed that it enabled him to communicate directly with the dead. However, instead of contact with the other side, the faint sound of U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (1987) was faintly heard over the airwaves, a sweet conclusion to the quixotic project as well as final proof of Bono’s chilling omnipresence. Like much of Argianas’ tightly focused work, the event put forward the suggestion of sculpture as an unpredictable instrument for finding some kind of order hidden in the static.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.