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Tomas Phillips & Jason Bivins: Blau

img  Tobias Fischer

Dealing with the intersections and feedback mechanisms between different artforms has been a recurring theme in Tomas Phillips' oeuvre. In fact, it has been a key element of his life in general. Today, he divides his time between writing (his first novel Long Slow Distance was published in 2009), teaching literature (at North Carolina State University) and composing, thereby continuing a long and proud lineage of artists who have sought to combine the practical and theoretical aspects of their trade. His music, too, has bridged the divide between installations, dance, theatre and autonomy, between hardcore, minimalism, the avantgarde, neoclassical and ambient. Importantly, this both interdisciplinary and interstylistic approach does not seem to have anything in common with the typical 21st century predilection for an anything-goes type of eclecticism. Rather, it appears to hark back to a time when the musical and the scientific, the poetic and the pragmatic as well as the philosophical and the mathematical were considered closely interrelated. Just like the repercussions of 17th century philosopher Spinoza's publications would make themselves felt in the fields of religion, politics and literature, so, too, does Phillips aspire to not merely drawing from a variety of sources, but of reaching diverse audiences on multiple levels – implying that the act of hearing can affect our entire perceptive apparatus.

Never has this thought been more openly expressed than on his two most recent full-lengths. While Prosa, a duo with Marihiko Hara, was dedicated to establishing a dialogue with the art of writing, Blau creates a connection with the world of painting – or, to be more precise, with the work of „new abstractionist“ Barnett Newman. Working on the ambitious project with Jason Bivins made sense for two important reasons. For one, Bivins' CV displays not just an almost identical move from a youth dedicated to punk, rock and jazz to a current infatuation with sound, but also an equal interest in treating the university (in his functions as an Associate Professor and Associate Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at, you guessed it, North Carolina) as a unique laboratory for a fruitful exchange between various faculties. Secondly, Bivins' interest in improvisation seemed ideal in terms of realising Newman's prerogative of approaching painting, as he once put it, „without any strict plans“. It has awarded Blau the perhaps most instantly recognisable overall design of all entries in Phillips' entire discography, a tactile and almost visceral quality, expressing itself in remarkably concrete object manipulations (scratching the strings of a guitar with one's fingernails, for example) and a predilection for hands-on effects, including feedback and distortion.

In which way does this approach, perfectly quotidian in the realms of experimental music, relate to the work of Newman? To answer that important question, it will be helpful to take a closer look at the latter artist's attitude towards music, a discipline he frequently referred to when speaking about his canvases. In fact, Newman may have been one of the few visual artists, who didn't just cheaply apply metaphors and parallelisms from the world of sound to more clearly express the aims and motivations behind his brushstrokes - as he once did in reference to 18 cantos, a series of lithographs: „It [a lithograph] is an instrument that one plays. It is like a piano or an orchestra; and as with an instrument, it interprets. And as in all the interpretive arts, so in lithography, creation is joined with the „playing“ - in this case not of bow and string but of stone and press“. Instead, he actively strove to attain particular musical qualities in his work, which would come to dominate his paintings until his death of a heart attack in 1970. Many of these pieces would consist of monochrome planes shot through with stripes of a different colour – „zips“, as he preferred calling them – and carry, for many confusingly so, titles evoking „the emotional complex“ that he was under. What made them musical, wasn't easy to grasp for anyone who merely saw one artform as dealing with the ear and the other with the eye. But to those, who recognised their shared relationship with factors like time and space, the link was plain to see. It is certainly no coincidence that composer Morton Feldman was instantly hooked by the potential of these ideas.

Newman may not have been as commercially exploitable as Mark Rothko, a colleague he was frequently compared to. But he was not reclusive either, rendering his aesthetics, thanks to his activities as a critic and writer as well as various extensive interviews conducted with him over the course of his life, transparent. The following extract, taken as all quotes in this article, from „Barnett Newman: selected writings and interviews“ (University of California Press, 1992), an incredibly insightful collection of his writings, will make the aforementioned perfectly clear: „Modern painting“, Newman asserted in response to an article by Joseph Frank, „is an attempt to change painting into a poetic language, to make pigment expressive rather than representational. (…) In music, the pure abstract element of tone had made it easy. (...) In music, there is never an attempt to relate sound to any conventional prejudice, or natural sound, whereas in literature and in painting it is natural force for us to associate the word or the painted object with the thing in nature, to combine its evocative nature with its appearance. In poetry, however, the element of music contained in it has permitted the artist to approach that abstract handling of the language usual in music, so that we have learned to react to poetry in a purely abstract way, or, in other words, to react to the words themselves. The whole drive of poetry, therefore, and in recent times of painting and prose, has been in the direction of music, to divorce the languages of literature and painting from the confusing dichotomy of meaning inherent in their media so that they would function purely and abstractly in the manner of musical notes.“ What this means, put more simply, is that Newman sought to replicate (or perhaps, formulated more neutrally, to communicate) the same non-representational aspects of music in his painting.

Why then, one might be inclined to ask, did Phillips and Bivins consider it interesting to take painting, which, according to Newman had in various ways been inferior to music, as a departure point for their collaboration? Perhaps because, as history teaches us, the dialogue and feedback mechanisms between the arts has worked similar to a seesaw or scale, in which one side will temporarily gain more weight over the other, after which the balance will shift anew. And in a way, it is certainly true that these particular „abstract“ qualities of music have been somewhat lost over the past decades, even in the more experimental realms, where, thanks to the easy accessibility of field recordings and samplers, productions in micronoise have tended to employ recognisable metaphorical snippets from the world around us. Blau reverses this process and returns to the unmediated power of timbre. It is, without any doubt, the most pure piece of sound art Phillips, currently deeply interested in the rapport between classical instrumentation and electronics, has released for quite a while. Each track researches a particular chromaticism through resonant, prayer-bowl-coloured drones serving both as an end in their own right as well as a foil for aforementioned tactile operations. And similar to how the zips would „activate“ particular areas in Newman's pieces, the addition of just one new element can occasionally activate the musical canvas, too, turning its meaning upside down or lending a vertiginous depth to it, as though a twodimensional picture of a cliff were suddenly turning into the real thing.

Almost entirely self-referential, nothing here seems to relate to the external, with the prominent use of improvisation further eliminating all too obvious rational logics with regards to the arrangements. It is music for music's sake, a work almost as framed, as the 18 cantos lithographs were, by a rim of white separating it from its audience. At the same time, there are also two instances, where Phillips and Bivins allow the guitar to stand prominently in the foreground, especially so on „untitled 4“, whose first measures sound almost as though a rock band were about to launch into one a merciless riff before suddenly deciding otherwise. Which may seem inconsequential in terms of concept, but does point to an important wisdom: Just as in real life, it is can be a powerful statement to stay true to one's principles - but a sense of humour and the ability to put things into perspective won't do any harm, either.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tomas Phillips
Homepage: Dragon's Eye Recordings
Homepage: Barnett Newman Foundation

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