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Issue 126

Soundtrack for an Exhibition

Susan Stenger (Forma Productions, 2009)

BY Frances Morgan in Culture Digest | 01 OCT 09

Part of the score for Susan Stenger's Soundtrack for an Exhibition, designed in collaboration with Mathieu Copeland, 2006. Courtesy: Forma, London and the artist

For 96 days in 2006, a continuous musical work by composer Susan Stenger formed the major part of a show in Lyon’s Musée d’art contemporain, curated by Mathieu Copeland and entitled ‘Soundtrack for an Exhibition’. The long duration of the piece resonated with the exhibition’s exploration of temporality and process: Dogme95 filmmaker Kristian Levring, for instance, showed the entire footage – 270 hours – of his film The King Is Alive (2000), alongside John Armleder’s ‘Pour’ and ‘Puddle’ series of paintings (2003 and 2006, respectively) and two works from Steven Parrino’s ‘Slow Rot’ series (1985 and ‘88), in which canvas is eaten slowly away by the motor oil that it has been soaked in.

The exhibition was, by design, impossible to perceive in its entirety, aurally or visually: in the accompanying book Copeland writes of an exhibition as a ‘fragmentary unity [...] an ignition of a process that becomes autonomous and self-generating’. The book, a large, beautifully produced hardback which includes a five-hour DVD edit of Stenger’s soundtrack, makes this point more explicit in interviews with Tony Conrad and Gustav Metzger. Stenger’s scores for the piece are also reproduced, and were interpreted for the show by collaborators including Kim Gordon, Alexander Hacke, longtime associate Robert Poss (with whom Stenger originated New York art-rock group Band of Susans in the 1980s) and Alan Vega, as well as a lengthy interview with Stenger herself. It is possible to see the book and DVD as a ‘version’ of the exhibition, rather than just a documentation of it, but Stenger’s condensed, five-hour edit seems structurally faithful to her original concept: a pop song elongated beyond recognition, with sections named as verses, chorus, bridge and so on.

Stenger has for many years explored the terrain where Minimalist composition and avant-rock music overlap – their shared preoccupations with repetition, chance and evolution – through work with musicians and composers as diverse as John Cage and Nick Cave. As well as working in a curatorial role early in her career, she both composed and performed music for Cerith Wyn Evans’ 2003 exhibition in London, ‘Look At That Picture...’, and has collaborated with choreographer Michael Clark. The pulsing, clanging guitars that pile up throughout Soundtrack for an Exhibition’s ‘Chorus’ and ‘Verse 3’ echo the massed guitar pieces of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, in which Stenger has played, whilst the clear drones of the ‘Intro’ and ‘Outro’ evoke the work of Phill Niblock, whom she has described as a ‘mentor’, and LaMonte Young. However, alongside the No Wave touchstones of drone and angular riff, Stenger introduces more synthetic pop textures: among her sound sources was a range of GarageBand’s pre-set sounds and loops, designed as music software tools for inexperienced songwriters, and the setting of these naive, clean sounds – which, although treated in various ways, are detectable amid the more expected, ‘experimental’ textures – is interestingly jarring at times. Elsewhere, the potential for a popular song to nag at the consciousness is exploited in snatches of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ (1962), manipulated and repeated throughout ‘Verse 1’. Most of the music is not temporally distorted: rhythms retain recognizable forms and solo vocal, trumpet and drum sections appear as discrete interludes. Stenger seems more concerned with musical memory than stretching sound, perhaps attempting to externalize our continuous internal soundtracks; she is clear about the idea that each person’s experience of the exhibition will be a self-constructed one that constantly generates new meanings and associations. That these personal, memory soundtracks are built from many sources and influences is reflected both in her use of collaborators and some referential, emotive source material.

Whether Soundtrack… is wholly effective as a stand-alone piece of composition, an ‘album’ or indeed a soundtrack is arguably irrelevant, as its presentation within the book ties it so much to a certain context – although removed from the gallery, and without prior knowledge of Stenger’s exploration of genre and song form, the contrasts between passages of soft electronic tones and chugging guitars could feel odd and forced. However, with the book as a guide, it is possible to experience the intended ‘fragmentary unity’, even if some segments work, musically, better than others. Finally, the focus on process led me to feel that, given the impressive detail and clarity with which Stenger explains how the 96-day version was composed, some notes on her editing and remixing of the book’s five-hour version would have really completed the picture.