Printed Word + Art = Gaines’ ‘Manifesto’ at the Hammer

As I walked through the Hammer exhibit “All of This and Nothing” I kept hearing music notes coming from deeper in the exhibition.  They sounded contemporary, with a bit a dissonance, but not jarring.  As I looked at the art, the music would float in and out of my consciousness.  I vaguely recall noticing the music was fuller at one point, and then back to single notes.  In the fifth room of the exhibition, I encountered Charles Gaines’ ‘Manifesto.’  I could have stayed in that room for ages.  I think there is a reason the museum did not put any benches there, people would be tempted to hang around for a long time.

‘Manifesto’ is a systematic musical interpretation of political manifestos from four radical organizations:  the International Socialist Congress, the Situationist International, the Black Panthers, and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.  Gaines describes his work as exploring the relationship “between sound and letter or sound and word.”  He assigned each letter of the alphabet a musical notation, thereby composing a musical piece from a written document.

Visually, along one wall there are four black flat screens each placed on a press board cubed pedestal.  Other than the fact that there were four screens, the set up was reminiscent of many family rooms across the nation.  One at a time each screen scrolls through one of four manifestos with the accompanying music.  Once all four have scrolled and played alone, all four are played together.  On the other walls, a five foot tall sheet of music for each manifesto is framed.  The wooden frames provide a modern simplicity while the size gives an Old World monumentally to each work.  I felt a sense of tension between the warmth of the wood framed ecru paper and the cool starkness of  black technology.  Emotionally, I found the compositions charmingly dated with pencil markings and organic material while intellectually I wondered if the power of the words were subdued by their surroundings.  Do we lose some of their power to encourage us or enrage us in this setting?

Given that the notes aren’t composed musically (the relationship of one note to the next isn’t a product of it’s tone, but the result of the letter it was assigned to), the music is  pleasing.  When it’s played together, it sounds more like a mild Stravinsky than a jumble of notes.  I thought I was listening to a composition of stark contemporary music.  The text and the music fit together so well, Gaines wonders if people don’t believe him when he explains that he didn’t know how it would sound, he was working on the system, not the product.

I wasn’t that surprised, in one form or another the texts are about the same thing, a cry for the release from oppression of one kind or another.  Gaines believes that any text would sound the same, the content is irrelevant.  That may be true, but what sings to my heart isn’t Gaines’ system, but the experience of seeing these expressions of revolt and hearing the voices rise up in an entirely new way.

A live performance of Gaines Manifesto scores will occur at the Hammer on Wednesday, March 16th, if you’re in LA, it should be an interesting evening.