G Douglas Barrett’s musical art touches upon subjects of psychotherapy, debt, finance, transgender identity, property, and ownership—all without dependence on the element we most associate with music: sound. Where sound enters, it does so in sporadic and nontraditional ways: spoken vocal recitation, the movement of a body through space, the repetitive bowing of an unconventionally tuned violin.

As a theorist, author, and artist, Barrett is actively involved in reimagining the limits of music. We tend to think of music as instrumental sound, sometimes with text included. Barrett thinks of it as an expansive field of artistic practice open to other mediums and forms. In his book, After Sound: Toward a Critical Music, he proposes a music that is as independent from sound as visual art is thought to be. Sound becomes one of the many modes through which music can be performed; what’s more, it becomes a self-critical tool used by performers to interpret history, the body, and identity. In “Violin Tuned D.E.E.D.,” for example, he retunes artist Bruce Nauman’s 1969 video work “Violin Tuned D.E.A.D.” as a comment on intellectual property and labor. In “A Few Marlenes (Where Have All the Flowers Gone?),” performers use the body language of Marlene Dietrich as their choreographic guide, re-performing changes in bodily comportment and facial expression before an audience. Such reflexive musical “scores” highlight the performer’s way of perceiving as much as they present a musical experience.

As part of his fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, Barrett recently presented a new performance installation titled Complex Financial Instruments. This project, which he developed with economic and literary theorist Leigh Claire La Berge, invites participants to engage in “financial therapy” sessions with an on-site therapist, while musicians interpret their sessions as a kind of vocal score. The work translates subjects’ real, stress-inducing financial concerns into musical tones. Ultimately, the “patient” becomes a kind of composer and, in the process, experiences the deeply rooted situation of the music. Space is opened for the potential reclamation of individual and collective economic insecurities. In this way, Barrett’s music is deeply invested in its broader social, political, and historical context.

This June, I performed in Complex Financial Instruments as a therapist—an exhausting and humbling experience—and had the opportunity to speak with Barrett over Skype and in person in Germany. We discussed addressing the psychological impacts of debt and unemployment through musical interpretation, music’s historical relationship to language, and finding gender in music.

—Melody Nixon for Guernica

Guernica: The kinds of artistic practices you describe in your book, After Sound: Toward a Critical Music, may be unfamiliar to many readers as music. Although you write about composers like Peter Ablinger, you also discuss groups like Pussy Riot and Ultra-red and visual artists like John Baldessari. How and why are we to understand the work of these artists as music?

G Douglas Barrett: In After Sound, I use the term “critical music” to describe contemporary art practices that reconceive music beyond the limits of sound. I look at a collection of artists from the global visual and performing arts of the last ten years—Pussy Riot, Ultra-red, Hong-Kai Wang, Peter Ablinger, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, and others—who intervene into political and philosophical conflicts by exploring music’s unique historical forms. It’s true that some of the artists I discuss are considered visual artists while others are contextualized as “new music” or “sound art.” But, importantly, these artists use the forms, materials, and history of music in socially engaged art practices. The most fitting concept for me to describe this is “critical music.”

Guernica: What, then, is the difference for you between sound and music?

G Douglas Barrett: Sound and music are distinct forms with overlapping yet distinct histories. In the book, I suggest conceiving of music as a historically mutable and revisable art form that exceeds any strict adherence to specific mediums—including sound.

I try to imagine a music not bound by the conception of art as a collection of mediums based on the strict separation of the senses, a notion referred to by art historians as medium-specific formalist modernism. The artists I discuss use social practice, conceptualism, and activist strategies that radically refigure the notion of music as autonomous sound.

If we take music history and the transformations introduced by conceptual art seriously, then it might not even sound at all. It may incorporate other mediums, or it may be silent. Ultra-red’s SILENT|LISTEN, for example, consists of performances of John Cage’s 1952 silent composition “4’33”” alongside statements made on the AIDS crisis.

Guernica: Is there always something for an audience member of critical music to hear or see at a performance? Can you describe what a critical music performance might look and feel like to an audience member?

G Douglas Barrett: It might look like Pussy Riot staging their infamously quashed “Punk Prayer” in central Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Or a video by artist Hong-Kai Wang that documents listening and recording exercises conducted by retired sugar-factory workers in present-day Taiwan. It might take the form of Ultra-red’s AIDS interventions, John Baldessari singing Sol LeWitt’s 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” or artist Raphael Sbrzesny playing a drum solo version of “Histoire du soldat” on the back of a horse.

Guernica: In addition to visual art, you engage with the categories of “sound art” and “new music” in the book. Is there an important difference between the two?

G Douglas Barrett: The discourses of “new music” and “sound art,” through different institutions and genealogies, have nevertheless converged on a similar construction, namely, sound as an autonomous medium. I offer, as an alternative, critical music after sound, the notion of socially engaged musical practices informed by contemporary art, especially its postwar turn to language and conceptualism. Interestingly, the notion of “sound art” as a medium arose in the 1960s, just as contemporary art began its radical challenge to medium specificity through conceptual art. The identification of music as nonconceptual, instrumental sound can be traced much earlier to the advent of absolute music beginning in the early 1800s. Prior to that moment, music’s very concept included language—“lyrics,” for example—in the premodern trio: harmony, rhythm, and logos, or conceptual thought. Note the presence of language in that trio and the absence of “sound.”

Guernica: You consider musicians whose identity groups—women and queer artists—are often overlooked by theorists and art institutions. Was this deliberate?

G Douglas Barrett: Composers like Pauline Oliveros have been working with queer and feminist politics now for decades, although her work (and numerous others’) has indeed been marginalized by the art world and new music institutions. In a section of the book, I analyze a video by artists Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, which is a realization of Oliveros’s 1970 text score “To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation.” Boudry and Lorenz are often discussed as visual artists—their background is in film/video, photography, and performance—especially in light of contemporary queer art. For me, their work creates a sense of continuity between music and the queer and feminist struggles of the 1970s, through the figures of Solanas and Monroe, and the present, while also shifting that context to contemporary art.

“Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg,” 2013, vinyl record (front and back view).

Guernica: You’ve dealt with a similar kind of historical reframing in your project around the composer Arnold Schoenberg, Two Transcriptions/Ode to Schoenberg (2013). How did that project begin?

G Douglas Barrett: The project came about after I discovered a 1951 letter Schoenberg wrote to New York record producer Ross Russell, in which he objected to an LP recording of his “Ode to Napoleon” (1942) that contained a woman’s voice: “Mister: You…. In spite of my protest, you have published Leibowitz’ performance of my ‘Ode to Napoleon’ with a woman’s voice, which I find terrible.” I responded with a reworking of the score performed by two transgender performers. 

Guernica: Schoenberg goes out of his way to assert his authority in determining the gender of the performer of the work. How do you go about undermining this authority?


Two Transcriptions Side A.

G Douglas Barrett: I contacted transgender performance artist Zackary Drucker, whom I’d known since our time as MFA students at CalArts, and asked if she would be interested in working on the project together. Widely recognized for her work on the Amazon series Transparent, Drucker has for years created video and films such as her 2011 “At Least You Know You Exist,” a collaboration with New York drag queen Flawless Sabrina. I viewed the work at MoMA PS1 and was struck by Drucker’s spoken-word voice-over part. I immediately imagined her singing Schoenberg.


Two Transcriptions Side B.

One side of the record would contain Drucker’s spoken word as a variation of the same Sprechgesang [speech-singing] technique found in Schoenberg’s “Ode to Napoleon.” Drucker’s voice would accompany a transcription of the 1950 recording based on spectral analysis and algorithmic techniques I’d used in previous projects. For the other side, I invited my friend and collaborator Theo Baer, a transman-identified musician based in Brooklyn, to perform Schoenberg’s original score. While the second side is perhaps best conceived as a kind of musical “ready-made,” I think of each side as a transcription; hence Two Transcriptions.

Guernica: You mention the ready-made, and of course appropriation art has its own history within visual arts and literature. You seem to be using appropriation in a novel way in music. But how is this different from sampling or remixing, for instance?

G Douglas Barrett: The project is concerned with authorship and with the score as a specific historical form, along with recording technology and questions around gender and identity. It’s different from sampling and remixing because the score requires a performer to make certain decisions, for instance: Do I adhere to the composer’s gender preferences? Or, perhaps more broadly: What does it mean to perform a composition?

Guernica: Doesn’t visual art, consciously or unconsciously, also take these considerations into account in appropriation work?

G Douglas Barrett: Yes, of course, it’s also in dialogue with visual art. Two Transcriptions borrows from the appropriation art strategies of the 1980s and ’90s and draws from philosophical discussions of authorship by the likes of Barthes, Benjamin, and Foucault. Yet a less referenced problem is the concept of Werktreue, or “historical authenticity,” which refers to a performer’s “fidelity” to the original score. Emerging in the late 1700s alongside the advent of copyright laws, this concept established not only the contractual nature of the score but also the very notion that a score could be performed “correctly.” And that, in fact, we have “compositions” in the first place.

I’m interested in mining these kinds of formal problems for their historical and critical potential. And how this mode of encoding sound—the record—can also encode identity.

Guernica: Why did you want to address identity, particularly gender, in your reframing of Schoenberg?

G Douglas Barrett: Because women and gender-nonconforming people continue to be marginalized in music and the arts. I think this comes from deep-rooted ideological premises. For example, music’s historical conception as pure abstraction has meant, in practice, that many of the cultural advances in other fields—feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory, etc.—have been slow for music to integrate, if and when it does. The new musicology movement—and its heirs—have been instrumental in bringing feminism and cultural studies to music scholarship. It’s difficult, in fact, to overestimate new musicology’s positive contribution to the field. However, listening to much of the new music out there today, it would seem to have little effect on contemporary practice. I suspect this is, in part, because new musicology’s analysis had remained largely at the level of hermeneutics.

Guernica: Hermeneutics in what sense?

G Douglas Barrett: In this case, “hermeneutics” refers to the practice of reading cultural codes into music—yet here the music in question remains, in its conception, abstract instrumental sound. In other words, this is the practice of taking the musical object as a given, nondiscursive text that is then, through analysis, given some determinate meaning. For example, Susan McClary analyzes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and concludes that he is a rapist because of this moment of extreme climax—“the point of recapitulation.” It’s an incredibly fascinating claim, and I won’t argue with the conclusion. But as for the premise, McClary still uses the phrase “the music itself” to mean instrumental sound. It’s not the broader situation.

Guernica: The framing of music as abstract means its broader situation is, at one extreme, dismissed and, at the other, overlooked.

G Douglas Barrett: In this instance, I’m looking at gender in concrete ways that are played out and expressed in history. That’s why I was drawn to this Schoenberg problem. He and his 1942 composition directly implicated the gender of a performer of the work. When this problem is transposed into a contemporary era, one has to take into consideration the revolutions in thinking about gender—its decentering—in terms transgender, for example, as a historically specific form of identity. What do these revolutions do to the field of a conflict like the one Schoenberg invoked through his objection to the female version of his composition? My project attempts to provoke the norms of hearing and practicing music, to say, “Hey, identity is a part of our artistic practice, whether we acknowledge that or not.” But this is difficult when music is still considered by many as a purely abstract art form.

Of course, one can find all kinds of nonabstract meaning in the most seemingly abstract work. Yet for many music scholars, examining the cultural context in which music is created remains their horizon of meaning. Where does it come from? What’s its social context? Those questions are great, but I think there is more potential in music for concrete expressions of discursive problems. I’m interested less in this kind of hermeneutic operation—analyzing artworks that are generally intended as areferential while trying to extract cultural meaning—than I am in a musical art that takes responsibility for its meanings.

The Schoenberg project exemplifies the way that music becomes that broader situation, because gender is inscribed into the work itself. The music contains gender.

Guernica: In addition to introducing questions around gender, what is the role of the score in critical music? Can it be used to regulate meter and rhythm, as with classical composition? Can it be used like a set of production notes and stage directions, as with theater?

G Douglas Barrett: Yes. It can be all of those things, and more. The score can be a means to an end (a performance), a conceptual work (think of some of George Brecht’s event scores), or an art object on its own (graphic scores sometimes have this function). It can also become a principal formal concern of the work, as with Ultra-red.

Guernica: In some of your works, you do still use sound-making devices and even traditional instruments. Once you’ve defined a concern within music that you want to work with, where and how does sound come in? Do you leave this up to the performers, and if so, what are different ways that, say, a single score of yours has been sonically interpreted?

G Douglas Barrett: Some of my projects call for specific sounds to be made, yes, while others invite a range of sounds and approaches from various instruments or sound-making devices. In my latest project, Complex Financial Instruments, I recruited a variety of different instrumentalists who attempted to reproduce the speech sounds of a series of therapy sessions.

Guernica: As I experienced it, these therapy sessions were based on a combination of psychoanalysis and financial advice, and you trained therapist-performers through a series of research-based rehearsals. I have to admit, it was strange for me to perform individual therapy sessions about issues that are so systematic—like capitalist overconsumption; the exclusion of people of color and women from the tech world; and neoliberal emptiness, loneliness, and alienation, which are all topics that participants brought up. What was the impetus for addressing systemic harms at the individual level in this project? Can you talk about how it came about?

G Douglas Barrett: The project began as a collaboration with theorist Leigh Claire La Berge, a friend I met through a reading group formed around finance, in the aftermath of the Occupy movement in New York City. One of the themes that arose in this context was the way the collective, while potentially politically efficacious, nevertheless often fails to deal with the individual at a psychic or emotional level. How does one address the psychological impact of debt, precariousness, uncertainty, and unemployment in our financialized neoliberal era? So we decided to create a new form of therapy that merged psychoanalysis and “financial advice.”

Guernica: I usually associate financial advice with recommending certain investments and debt accruals. Do you mean something different?

G Douglas Barrett: Yes, it’s more of a parody of “financial advice.” The idea was closer to psychotherapy with a focus on economic issues.

I think participants/patients did leave with a sense of empowerment or at very least a deeper connection to their economic concerns. This was facilitated, in part, by the visceral nature of the musical interpretation and the way it brought the emotional element of financial hardship to the fore.

Guernica: Where do you see the project going from here? Are there other communities or groups you’d like to work with? What would you hope might grow from Complex Financial Instruments?

G Douglas Barrett: I think it’d be great to present the project in New York, especially near an area with heightened economic inequality like the Brooklyn neighborhood I live in. It’s important for us that the project reaches beyond the art and music world and out to different communities on the ground. Music has not only to engage with concepts and history, but also the politics of the here and now.

Melody Nixon

Melody Nixon is a writer, editor, and artist living between New York City and Europe. Her work has been published in BOMB Magazine, Electric Literature, Conjunctions, Cura Magazine, Public Books, and elsewhere.

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