Piet Mondrian didn’t title his 1943 painting Broadway Boogie Woogie by accident. It was a recognition that image and sound, exuberant musicality and the brash energy of a city on the make, are interchangeable. Several years earlier, German filmmaker Walter Ruttmann acknowledged the same thing in his Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of the Big City, 1927), a rapid-fire collagist cinematic portrait of a city, with a score composed by Edmund Meisel that paired the bustle of pedestrians, the flow of trams and S-bahns, and the machines of an industrial metropolis with their musical equivalents.
Christian Marclay may have had Ruttmann and Meisel in mind a decade ago when he conceived the project Graffiti Compositions, for which he posted 5,000 blank musical notation sheets on walls and surfaces across Berlin. Marclay later revisited the sites to find Berliners had not only understood his invitation but had wholeheartedly engaged it – altering the sheets with doodles, drawings, rants, spray-painted tags, liquids stains, punctures, excisions and, on occasion, actual musical notations, some of them quite accomplished. The artist photographed each one, and the work, edited down to 150 examples, stood – until now – as a silent document. At a recent event at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by curator Eva Respini, Marclay invited an A-list roster of musicians to interpret selections from these anonymous scores. Led by musical director, composer and sound artist Elliot Sharp, the ensemble included Ambitious Lovers bassist Melvin Gibbs, the guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and founding Sonic Youth member Lee Renaldo.
In his opening remarks Marclay was emphatic that this was not a work by him (he freely admits that he cannot read or write musical notation). He stressed that it was a collaboration between the citizens of a city and the musicians trying to translate their scribbles and markings into musical form. Credit went to the collective musical unconscious of Berlin itself. The results were self-consciously John Cageian in the extreme, from the random permutations of the original defaced sheets, through the chance operations determining which sheets were played and in what order, to the ultimately subjective manner in which a musician might interpret as sound a missing square from an otherwise blank sheet, or a vertical gash or an oily smudge extending across several ranks of musical bars.
The audience were left largely in the dark as to the process by which what they were hearing was rehearsed or co-ordinated or corresponded to any particular visual element. (Marclay did mention that in the handful of times the piece has been performed it has never been the same twice.) But they were treated to a top-tier demonstration of musical interpretation and improvisatory sound production. Halvorson, in particular, stood out for her ability to swing with nimble ruthlessness on her Gibson guitar from one sonic surface to another, from rewound-sounding Delta blues licks to achingly prickly modulations that sounded like jagged bits of overheard conversation or construction work. The project’s success or failure clearly owes everything to the imaginative and technical virtuosity of the musicians concerned, and in this instance it all seemed to gel. As one homesick native Berliner in the audience remarked – ears still ringing from this rare amplified ‘noisefest’ in the usually staid precincts of MoMA’s concert space – ‘you know, it actually did sound like Berlin’.