Marina Rosenfeld Interviewed by John Cage

"Sheer Frost Orchestra" at Tate Modern

John Cage: Marina... umm, are you comfortable with doing this interview now? Yes? Shall I state the date? January 1, 2007, my goodness. OK, let me start by saying that I... I love your work.

MR: Really? But you wrote in Silence...

JC: I’m trying to re-evaluate. I’ve been a bit... confused...

MR: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Yvonne Rainer wrote that the essence of your project was a “web of undifferentiated events set in motion by and referring back to the original flamboyant artist-gesture, in this case the abandonment of personal taste.” It’s a little harsh, but let’s not be squeamish. Anyway, from the vantage of a couple of decades I can appreciate the music, the somber, slightly genteel spectacle of clarinets and cellos and tubas intent in conversation with more recent inventions. I love that. I owe you that...

JC: Thank you. I... wish I could have... I see now that I ... You know, when I entered the anechoic chamber and...

MR: Oh my god, please, that whole language of scientific justification bores me to tears—the anechoic chamber, the oscilloscope, the whole justifying discourse of the laboratory...

JC: You seem a little pissed off.

MR: No, no, I’m not, not really. Let’s start somewhere else...

JC: Well, how would you like to talk about your work? We could begin with your instrument, this sort of hybrid you’ve adopted, the original dub plates you make in series, the live mixtures, your hands...

MR: My dub plates are a form of notation—musical housing. I compose with/for/through them. They are interpretations—deteriorations, transformations, generations—of interpretations, way before they even sound. They are, in the ultimate sense, both representational and completely abstract.

JC: I’m not comfortable with the representation part.

MR: You’re not supposed to be. That Rainer bit I just quoted was in an essay she called “a revisionist narrativization of myself as subject”. I am writing about myself right this minute and calling it a conversation, but what I really wish I could do is revise the conversations I had a long time ago. I spent so long worrying about how to make a sound that wouldn’t arrive dead...

JC: I wouldn’t change a thing I ever said...

MR: Even when you called Glenn Branca a fascist?

JC: Even now, I don’t... I can’t... I don’t like large groups of loud people...

MR: Let’s leave my family out of this. But you’re right to be wary: crowds unleash energies of all kinds as, unfortunately, we’ve seen. It’s kind of dumb to pick a side on this one. The modern divorce of music from music-making, that is, collective social situations, epitomized for Adorno even in 1927 by the use of headphones, was already apparent in the evolution of the piano “from a musical instrument into a piece of bourgeois furniture” in the nineteenth century. Next in this trajectory was the gramophone, it’s output destined for private consumption, i.e. the home; he called its domain “the pregnant stillness of individuals”. (But isn’t this exactly what we’re not? When I listen I’m never quite alone.) He also razzed people listening to headphones as “petit bourgeois girls, most of them underage.” Well, girls are the ultimate headphone wearers—aloof, but also aware, skeptical, porous. Music on headphones is the outside coming in. And the outside—the crowd—is only getting bigger, and louder... Can you tell I’ve been reading Adorno?

JC: Yes. Is it helping you sort anything out?

MR: Not really. But I like to gaze across the divide. Let’s say that when I get a whole orchestra to play electric guitars with nail polish bottles as musical implements...

JC: Are you talking about the “Sheer Frost Orchestra” now?

MR: Yes. Let’s say I’m making a covert reference to painting: there’s a little brush inside each bottle, surrounded by pigment, agitating space over the instrument’s strings. At the time, the cross-disciplinary gesture seemed to be a way of confronting the intense gendered-ness of the guitar, though, of course, what everyone liked about it was the sexual reference that remained. Power wrapped up and contained in a very tight package. Painters love to sentimentalize musicians as social animals, doers, emotional beings. But they make much more money then we do.

The visual—when you are interested in it and you make music, you’re now supposed to be a sound artist. The sounds you make are suddenly categorically metaphorical. OK, I hereby reject the entire category (I’ve already done this for a couple of years, actually) and embrace music, which is only as ephemeral as smell or touch—that is, not really at all. Music is primarily material, and records are primarily filmic—two-dimensional surfaces, screens. As I said, tracks engraved onto dub plates are themselves a form of graphical notation. The invariable shape of a record player, the circle in the square, telegraphs the configuration of notehead and staff, have you noticed that?

JC: No... I don’t think I have.

MR: It’s ironic. The idea of the note is very powerful, once engrained. Surprisingly flexible too. Let’s say improvised music (electronic music, all music really) is essentially a flow of signals, and thus, essentially describes thought, or the architecture of thought, another intermittently invisible entity that we can now visualize again, just like Spinoza did in the 1600s—it’s material, that is, god-like—god for atheists.

JC: Is the turntable valuable to you for its visual properties?

MR: Not necessarily. The turntable doesn’t mean all that much to me, although it is my instrument of choice as an improviser. I like how it feels and what it means and doesn’t mean. Its relative and cyclical obsolescence and/or resurgence make it almost ideally marginal. In its implicit conversation with the computer, its more socially adept cousin, it is almost perfectly beside the point; separated from commercially manufactured LPs (because I don’t play those, I make my own dub plates—one-offs, one or two at a time), it refers only tangentially to musical history. (I would define that tangent as somewhat comical.) It’s a transforming machine, an alchemist, an agent of both repetition and change, but it doesn’t do more than play what’s already there.

Adorno already had it right in 1927 when he said the only interesting aspect of the gramophone, the point at which it “interferes”—and this is the only thing I want from it—is when its spring wears out and its “sound droops in chromatic weakness”, a wonderful possibility that I think I’ve tactilely aspired to in the wake of every thinned-out Robert Wyatt vocal or timbral Morton Feldman-ism I’ve ever heard.

JC: (silence) ...Is there anything you’d like to add?

MR: Did you know that “glitch” comes from the Yiddish “glitshn,” meaning slip? Has anyone written about that?

JC: Not that I know of.

MR: Someone should...

JC: OK, thanks, Marina.

MR: You’re welcome.

Marina Rosenfeld, New York, 2007

Yvonne Rainer, “Looking Myself in the Mouth”
October, Vol. 17, The New Talkies. (Summer, 1981), pp. 65-76.

Theodor W. Adorno, “The Curve of the Needle” (“Nadelkurven”), originally pub. 1928,
translated by Thomas Y. Levin, 1990, MIT Press

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