Extended Compositions was concerned neither with ‘art as music’ nor ‘sound as art’. The term ‘sound art’ wasn’t even used. Instead, in keeping with its title, the show presented composition in a wider sense, as the organization of movements, powers and forces beyond the boundaries of individual artistic disciplines. Some of the works were completely silent, for instance Carsten Nicolai’s 2500 feet can loop (2011), in which a magnetic audiotape, removed from its spool and tossed into a Plexiglas box, created a random form of overlapping waves. Here, the medium of the audiotape – normally used to record and conserve audible movement – has likewise been recorded and preserved. That the press release described this work as an homage to the band Can seemed apt, given that their music was characterized by overlaps, repetition and exuberant improvisation. The principle of improvisation as spontaneous composition was transferred onto a palpable, spatial level: thrown into a new space, the tape itself taking on a different form each time.
On the other hand, Pascal Schärli’s video Arkadien unter Glas (Arcadias under Glass, 2013) played with self-evident conventions: the camera follows a girl through a botanical garden, the tight soundtrack evoking a tension that is never quite resolved as the narrative doesn’t culminate. Pavlovian-like, the tension enters automatically. Reflecting this the sounds themselves are taken from the standard repertoire of readily understandable signals predicting imminent catastrophe in thriller and horror films. But with one major difference: the emotions evoked here don’t correspond to the visuals. The video remains pure mood – and in this state of enduring, unabated tension, it quickly turns stale and static. What remains is nothing more than empty signs.
One of the more abstract works was Hiromi Ishii’s video Refraction (2010). Accompanied by the drawn-out sound of a Shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, the camera makes its way across a heavily manipulated photograph of fish. Image and sound are treated here as fragments of time whose attributes, however, are reversible: through the camera’s circling motion, the photo as a momentary image is animated anew, while the sound of the flute seems to point to time standing still. Meditative without being hypnotic, clear as well as mystical, Refraction stood out from the other works that understood sound chiefly in an immersive sense – a common problem with sound installations is that they all too frequently make use of sound’s overwhelming effect.
One of the problems of the exhibition was the bleeding of the sound works into one another. Even if one were to, somewhat generously, view this as a curatorial strategy – composition in its ‘extended’ form – some of the individual pieces were nonetheless drowned out. A further problem was that a few works veered off into pathos. The video Wintermusik (2008) by Claudia Robles Angel and Paulo Ferreira Lopes, for instance, creates a far too narrow frame of reference for itself. Focusing on processes of growth and decay in the human body these themes were neither examined nor expanded upon.
Perhaps the show’s biggest issue was that it didn’t really live up to its promise of presenting extended composition. In most cases, the works exhibited didn’t pertain to ‘extension’, but rather to a transposition of music composition into another field. And conversely instead of crossing boundaries, some works tended to reinstate them.
Translated by Andrea Scrima