Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, 1955 – 2002

Jackson Mac Low

Granary Books


Monday, May 1st, 2006

Stephen Spender may have thought (and continually!) of those who were truly great but I think pretty frequently of those who get things going. Which brings us to Jackson Mac Low’s posthumous verb of a collection, Doings. If you and your list-servmates can drum up fifty bucks, go in on a copy. Published in workbook format with an accompanying CD, Doings features fascinating, often hand-drawn rule- and chance-based texts for DIY improvised performances, extensive notes for performers, as well as sidebar commentary from Mac Low about the conception or imagined execution of each piece. The CD includes performances of texts from the book, most performed by Mac Low and collaborator Anne Tardos, as well as five additional mindboggling numbers(I direct you in particular to "5th Bluebird Asymmetry"). But because the performances are guided improvisations, there are no canonical or correct ways to perform the texts; with one other partner you can speak, sing, rattle, chirp, dance and attend these texts into new pieces of art. So for $50 you get more than just 264 pages of theories, scores, maps, notes, drawings and poems —you get a body of ideas and energies that will keep multiplying and changing as it comes into contact with new materials, i.e. your life, your voice, your body, your brain, and the sound and silence all around you.

Doings is arranged chronologically, tracking Mac Low’s work from the mid- Fifties, when, as a young man, he wrote verbal performance texts for John Cage’s experimental composition workshops, until 2002 (Mac Low died in 2004 as Doings was in production; Steve Clay saw the book through). At this early stage, Mac Low identified with Taoism and with Cage’s Zen-derived strategies for escaping intentionality in composition. As the introduction notes,

Among these methods were the use of chance operations and the composition of works "indeterminate as to performance." These methods were designed to allow fundamental elements, such as sounds, to "be themselves" unencumbered by “personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like."

Out of this effort to redistribute agency from its traditional seat—the author—to the performers and even to sound itself, came ‘simultaneities,’ texts to be read simultaneously by a number of performers in which unison, contrast, euphony and dissonance arrange according to non-intentional and unpredictable systems. Sidebars inform us as to the particular rules by which each piece was written; the texts for 21.21.29, the 5th biblical poem(for 3 simultaneous voices)the 1st biblical play were written numerically according to throws of the dice which determined the number of events (words or pauses) in a given line. The performers themselves decide on a tempo at which to perform their various texts—say, according to pulse beats—or they may choose indeterminacy. The resulting texts look like a puzzle that does not quite cohere. For example, for line 1, voice I reads

/__/ /__/ /__/ one Lord children /__/ /__/ My the /__/

while, simultaneously, voice II, line 1 reads

/__/side:/__/ the/__/children/__//__/ My the/__/

The virgules mark off silence. At first glance, any given line of these erased-looking texts may resemble the pointedly airy work of a young post-avant, but the difference is that silence in Mac Low is not the frame for musings, or a glyph for the absence of God, or the white flag of the poet’s profundity, or the mark of ineffability, or even just punctuation. Instead, it’s a material in itself, part of the composition, a means of organization, measurable, a site for conscientious attention to the goings on around one.

The powerful properties of silence become apparent when one listens to a performance of Mac Low’s pieces—silence is the exuberant über material, the one on which all else is written, which gathers and shapes the dissonance into short-lived, quickly mutating forms. In these pieces, silence is muscular, resourceful, active. It’s no wonder that Mac Low is so careful to annotate his silence, both in the texts and in the notes to these performances. He cautions, in italics, "Silences must never be hurried." If, in another piece, two readers double up on a single part, then silence should separate their performances— "one reader doubling her initial silence." It is refreshing to see such a non-drippy, non-portentous approach to silence. It is, after all, just another building material for art, albeit an exceedingly durable and flexible one.

Works from the first two decades of Mac Low’s career show great variety in visual realization. Scores for performance take the form of bird-like tracks which performers can ‘play’ in any way they wish; random letters scrawled in various sizes on index cards which performers must find a way to pronounce, pausing for the amount of time signaled by a random integers also scrawled on the card; "gathas" or mantras arranged on quadrille paper, challenging the performer to get from phoneme to phoneme while progressing one square at a time; asymmetries, in which a performance must be determined from a painting of scrambled words and syllables; a fascinating play activity in which words and actions (actions such as "SEEMING TO COME BY WING" or "GIVING FALSELY") are listed on a card and dealt out to performers for the spontaneous composition of dozens of miniplays. Most striking visually in this period is the score for "Om in a Landscape," which appears as both a casual pencil doodle and an aerial map representing a huge field full of performers. The nebular, biological or topographical nature of this image is hypnotic, while the instructions for performance place a typical emphasis on kindness and comportment:

Om in a Landscape may be performed as they see fit by any number of people who have enough good will to listen intently to each other and to everything else they hear while they perform it and to relate with what they hear by speaking or singing or both and observing plenty of silence from time to time. Please don’t make your Oms too holy-holy.

The experience of reading such instructions and the accompanying scores is absorbing, even transporting; as one tilts and rotates the page to track the writing, one can feel time and sound bend in one’s own head. After some strenuous imagining, one can play the CD for an example of what a performance of such a wild text might sound like. A trippy multiplicity leaps up.

By mid-career, Mac Low developed his "vocabularies," in which he took the letters of friends’ names, painstakingly generated lists of anagrams, and arranged these words in elaborate free form or gridded systems which speakers, vocalists or instrumentalists could then encounter and perform. In some cases the composition was complicated by the addition of other vocab lists or rules based on randomly generated integers. Though this form occupied Mac Low, he continued to write gridded mantras or gathas as well. Through the Seventies and Eighties, Mac Low’s instructions for performance grew more and more complex and detailed. For most texts collected here, he stipulated the possible conversion of words or phonemes into musical notes, discussed pitch sets, suggested a variety of amplitudes and attacks performers might choose from, proposed alternative approaches to tempo and time keeping, even suggested rehearsal strategies. It is to this proliferation of suggestions and alternatives that the term "guided improvisation" truly seems to apply; as Mac Low notes in the instructions to "A Vocabulary for Vera Regina Lachmann" (1974),

Having a repertoire of such procedures [i.e. those derived in rehearsal] available may often add more (in richness and multiplicity) than it detracts from spontaneity, especially since the use of those procedures is subject to in performance choices arising out of the immediate situation, including choices to modify some of the previously worked out procedures as the moment (and/or the performer’s reaction to it) demands.

The later decades of Mac Low’s career were marked by the striking introduction of technology into his work. For "A Vocabulary for Annie Brigitte Gilles Tardos [1980]", the wordlist was prepared by a "computer printout of random groups of entries, " and an elaborate complex of visual and performed realizations were imagined. A subset of the realizations were pasted on the windows at P.S. 1’s Poetry Room, and later performances incorporated video, films, photos, photostats, drawings and other media. As a sidebar notes, manifestations have "progressively proliferated.” Surprisingly, the interest in computer-assisted art is accompanied in this book with a renewed interest in traditionally notated musical scores. The book concludes with a split movement towards computer-assisted vocabularies and gathas on the one hand and handpainted, gestural verbal scores, called "phenomicons," on the other. Mac Low, it seems, was diversifying up until to the very end of his mortal career.

Progressive proliferation is, finally, the most stirring aspect of Doings— the idea that, as the title suggests, these texts and Mac Low’s art are not fixed in time but have, as a body, literally survived him. This body continues mutating, unfolding into new performances, inspiring new texts, moving outwards like a giant, unfixed, lopsided but maybe eventually symmetrical mandala. To think this way is to be touched by Mac Low’s evident optimism. Since his metier was performance, which is action, his poetics is ultimately an ethics, or a code of action. His notes and instructions constantly enjoin his performers to behave decently, forbid "ego-tripping, " and declare, " ‘Listen’and ‘Relate’ are the most important ‘rules.’" In the 1968 instructions to "A Vocabulary for Carl Fernbach-Flarsheim," he insists

ALL PERFORMERS must be able and willing continually to listen with complete concentration and to modify their actions, sounds, and silences in accordance with the changes in the total aural situation as they perceive it. All should often listen silently and only add new sonic elements when they feel the latter may add positively to the aural plenum. Notions of what is "positive" will, of course, differ from individual to individual.

It is relieving to recall that if Mac Low anticipated or wished for good behavior from his fellow or future art travelers (and perhaps he could expect it among his friends and peers or the Cage set), he did not imagine perfect harmony. In fact his work mostly depends on the dissonance, flaws, departures and irregularities produced even by likeminded humans pursuing similar goals in an improvised context. This is where life is, and art itself. As instructions to the book’s first text read, "In simultaneities, all must begin together. In all methods except 2a, they’ll get apart soon enough."

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