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SCORE (Upon the electronic music of Douglas Lilburn)

Cat Scratches on Deckle Edge by Andrew Clifford

For centuries painters have taken an interest in music. The immaterial, non-referential and universal nature of music represents a pure condition some aspired to when seeking a non-figurative, abstract style of image-making that could better express the soul.[1] The most notable of these artists was Wassily Kandinsky, who claimed certain sounds could trigger particular colours and shapes. Numerous artists and experimental film-makers took on the growing tradition of ‘visual music’, finding ways both intuitive and mathematical to depict sounds, often in ways that inadvertently represent the ideals and socio-political contexts of each era.[2]
For others, musical painting is the result of a social dynamic. In the 1960s, happenings included like-minded interactions between artists such as Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground,[3] while groups like The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles established the now common tradition of art students forming bands. In later years, artists played in bands before establishing a gallery career, including Mike Kelley and Martin Kippenberger, or in New Zealand, Bill Hammond and Ronnie Van Hout, although music and pop culture would continue to be a reference in their work.[4]
Many artists associated with the Fluxus movement also had careers that spanned art and music. Influenced by Dada performance and John Cage’s recognition of everyday sounds as music, Fluxus concerts often featured untrained musicians using everday objects in accordance with diagrammatic or conceptual instructions, rather than traditional musical notation.[5] Some scores were so open-ended as to suggest the textures on the paper or the surrounding environment were as significant as the spare marks made by the composer, much like Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings or Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film.
At the same time, the evolution of electronic sound devices provided complex ways of organising an entirely new palette of sound, rendering conventional notation obsolete. The emergence of electronic music also made senior New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn worry that he would become obsolete, referring to the new medium as “a zombie on the horizon.”[6] Nevertheless, a timely sabbatical in 1963 allowed him to travel to Europe and Canada and get to grips with the monster first-hand. He felt he had run out of possibilities with the European modal system and found in this new variety of sounds and techniques something in sympathy with his earliest works that could capture a sense of the New Zealand environment without the baggage of European instrumentation.
Another dramatic shift of electronic music is that it combined the composition, execution and recording of the work into a single process, a process that suited Lilburn’s secretive, closeted personality. Rather than transcribing ideas for musicians to perform, sounds would be constructed on tape and pieced together, replacing the pencil and chart with razors, rulers and adhesive. This is presumably the reason Lilburn’s entire electronic output is represented by only a single sheet of music; a sketched coastal landscape of rising sea mists and intermittent bird-god voices for his 1965 ‘sound image’ treatment of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s The Return, dashed off  as a final requirement for a competition but regarded as “of picturesque interest but with no relevant value.”[7]

Taking this throwaway score as a template for four new visualisations, Shepherd’s paintings, although enthusiastic about the music, are more likely to be an evocation of Lilburn’s hoarded documents than any kind of visual music – Lilburn was a prolific writer of letters, using recycled and unfolded envelopes to scrawl messages, described by poet Denis Glover as “cat scratches on deckle edge.”[8] Whilst also depicting the compositions’ forms (at times resembling a literal spray of magnetic particles or the buzzing of insects, evoked by Lilburn with white noise and oscillators), Shepherd’s paintings are more interested in Lilburn the obstinate pioneer; champion of a new, distinctly New Zealand heritage of sound and key protagonist in a community of poets, painters and musicians. Accompanying a timeline of sonic textures, they reconstruct the ‘mind chatter’ that places Lilburn in context; the letters with former lover Rita Angus (“I will never sell you Cass”), indifference from parents, early memories, or commentary from colleagues.

Lilburn tackling the challenge of a new music is also seen by Shepherd as emblematic of the composer’s personality, not only in its resemblance to more trivial crusades such as the naming of Ascot Terrace, but also as an opportunity to break with relief from his past, a rejection repeated throughout his often solitary personal life. His reinvention in avant-garde music allowed him to be rid of the trappings of orchestral arrangements, and in this new beginning came an abrupt return to childhood obsessions and reminiscences, including sound images of the Wangaehu Valley.[9]
In Lilburn, Shepherd has found another complex character through which to continue his exploration of the details of New Zealand social history. Previously manifest in the contriving of postmarks and palimpsests, it is now an iconic composer’s unrealised yet faded charts which come under scrutiny. Layered within Shepherd’s meticulous surfaces, is the struggle with new forms of expression and identity, of idiosyncratic conquests in the face of provincialism, and the humdrum practicalities of building a studio with borrowed gear from the Physics Department. It is exactly these drab details of the everyday, such as military shorthand or the Women’s Weeklies read by Janet Frame, which continue to fascinate Shepherd. It is in the painstakingly recreated patina of these ephemeral facsimiles and fabulations that he finds the motifs with which to capture the spirit of the past.
Andrew Clifford.

[1] Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Tate Publishing, London, 2006, first published by R. Piper & Co., Munich, 1912. Pp. 40-43.

[2] Kathleen Forde, “What Sound Does a Colour Make”, in Stephen Robert Frankel (ed), What Sound Does a Colour Make. Independent Curators International (iCI), New York, 2005.  p.11. Also see Jane Hyun (ed), Visual Music. Thames and Hudson, New York, 2005.

[3] Lesley Harding, “Marks In Time: Music, Movement and the Sound of Painting”, in Lesley Harding (ed), The Sound of Painting. The Arts Centre, Melbourne, 2005. p.9

[4] Alan Licht, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 2007. pp. 151-155, 196-199.

[5] Alan Licht, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 2007. pp. 144-149.

[6] Philip Norman, Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2006. p. 199.

[7] Douglas Lilburn, cited in Philip Norman, Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2006. p. 224.

[8] Philip Norman, Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch, 2006. p. 313.

[9] Michael Shepherd, conversation with the author, 31 August 2009.






SCORE (Upon the electronic works of Douglas Lilburn)
Oil, pencil and ink on panel.
Installed size 600 x 9600 mm each panel 600 x 2400 mm. Dated 08