Karl Fousek: Pattern Variation

by Bret Schneider


Kark Fousek apparently emerges out of two traditions: American minimalism (á la Steve Reich), and modular synth music (á la Keith Fullerton Whitman). Both of these traditions have been proven uncritical ‘winners’, so to speak—minimalism is now endlessly listenable (paradoxically to some), while modular synth experimentation seems be at the cutting edge of electronic music for reasons too many to expound upon here. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Fousek’s project is the synthesis of these two aesthetic sensibilities, and Pattern Variation comes closer than anything to exemplifying this marriage. The aesthetic is one consisting of arpeggiated, pseudo-melodic tones. Pattern Variation is an apt name in that the 6 works here permute through various patterns, albeit using operations and procedures that are not as explicit as in minimalism (e.g. clarified phase patterning), and are enigmatic to the listener because they are inevitably idiosyncratic. This enigmatic aspect (probably even so to Fousek himself) is part of the reason the variations often foster such a thicket of patterns that are as confusing as they are compelling. 

Like much new experimental electronic music, Fousek is the result of a generation of ‘sound artists’ who find it necessary to return to the origins of electronic music. Likewise, Keith Fullerton Whitman’s oeuvre may be undoubtedly ‘new’, but this is specifically by virtue of interpreting electronic music history (e.g. Laurie Spiegel). Fousek is an artist in this vein, but perhaps without the burden of needing to justify his work by referencing specific historical examples. Despite this, Pattern Variation gets to the historical core of electronic music by focusing on the relationship between tonality and percussion, one of the key defining principles originating with Stockhausen’s theory of time. By focusing almost exclusively on a palette that serves the same function of the primal impulse generator, Fousek explores what it means to make electronic music in all of its limitations, because in it’s very core electronic music was a tendentious theory put into practice. While we forget the basics of electronic music amidst a swathe of effects in an industry that obscures it’s raison d’être, Fousek’s project is inevitably one of making the listener re-feel the newness inhering in the idea of electronic music. This it can only do by being problematic, and showing the limitations at the core of electronic music, which is why Pattern Variation focus myopically on the phenomena of expansion and contraction, attempting to extract what it can from this framework. It works quite hard at doing so, implementing delays that themselves capture the impulse patters and refract it throughout the sound spectrum. It creates a wonderful zoetrope-like effect, albeit without trickery—quite the opposite, all the tricks are laid unusually bare. It is to the great credit of Fousek’s project that such possibilities and limitations are in the midst of being exhausted, because electronic music today truly has a pathetic side, even though this is hard to see amidst it’s great ‘resurgence’ today. This pathos is already exhausted without being fully realized. The routinization of electronic music has done little to qualify what we feel may be it’s importance. Intentionally or not, by stripping the veils to reveal electronic music’s problematic essence, Pattern Variation allows listeners to decide for themselves whether or not electronic music is at all important. It grants access to that moment in history when electronic music might not have been. This re-feeling is part of our own moment itself, and by foreclosing some possibilities points to others. However much Fousek may emerge out of two staid traditions or tendencies, he makes music that appeals to a highly self-conscious listening experience. And this seems important.

Cover of  Pattern Variation .

Cover of Pattern Variation.

To Make the Minor Major: On Giorgio Morandi

by Bret Schneider


Giorgio Morandi was always considered a minor painter. He was canonized as such in the Art Since 1900 textbook, which was probably influenced (consciously or not) by Greenberg’s criticism of a group of ‘minor’ Italian painters in which Morandi was included. Despite attempts to rewrite modernism and make of Morandi something more significant than he was in his own moment, he will always be a minor figure in the development of modernist painting that contemporary art can’t help but react to. The recent attempts to canonize Morandi as a major artist is really a reflection of our own moment, and the needs that ‘minor’ painting appeal to today. Such minor art forms are far-reaching and relevant, evidenced by Roberta Smith’s observation on small painting, provisional painting, and extending into neo-modernist musical études. At the time of the Morandi exhibitions at Zwirner and the Center for Italian Modern Art there is an exhibit up at the SVA galleries curated by the trendy Brooklyn Rail that examines small paintings, underscoring their importance in contemporary art. Minor artworks fulfill a current need and inevitably conform to what might be termed a ‘minor consciousness’ of our contemporary era. What the term minor means, however, is still open to critique, as it has not really been used much since the midcentury. The concept itself has been pulled out of the dustbin of history.

What modernist critics like Greenberg meant when they categorized something as minor was not reducible to scale, as Greenberg thought Klee, for example, was a major artist specifically because he worked on small scales, and in doing so clarified a broad historical lineage reaching back to illuminated manuscripts. Likewise, the minor was not defined by hermetic qualities either, since hermetic contemplation was a significant factor in modernist artworks. What was meant by minor was a form of academicism, or what Nietzsche called ‘antiquarianism,’ in the midst of historical crises. When used, the term was not simply meant pejoratively, but rather used to describe a new type of sensibility that challenged ideas of historical progress instead of raising historical crises to an acute pitch. To modernist critics minor artworks were not the most radical, but still inherently modern because they were produced in the midst of aesthetic crisis nonetheless. There was an idea that what mattered was not that an artwork be ‘good’, the result of skill, talent, or so forth, but rather be important. Major, more critical paintings had a sort of vulgarity to them caused by complicated orientations to historical newness, as they chased after new techniques and modern material, or, on the contrary, sought to fulfill age-old techniques. The academic (or antiquarian) sensibility evidenced in minor works, regardless of how talented the artist was, was more content to operate within the painting tradition. New exhibitions of Morandi seem to question whether or not he deserves to be placed in the minor category.

We can only speculate why Greenberg didn’t care much for Morandi’s dun-colored paintings, but the time in which he looked at them coincided with the development of purely abstract painting and the consequent liberation of color. To see the grays and browns in the early-20th century would have appeared to have regressed into the pre-impressionist, nationalist salon painting of the mid-19th century. Today, the dun coloration of Morandi’s paintings appears beautiful in its subtlety in a way greys and browns were not consciously regarded in the 19th century. Morandi’s paintings perhaps could not have been seen in their own moment, because they were too close to the 19th century, and dun colors were part of a canon of prohibitions in modern art—something to be avoided at all costs. But with the successful liberation of color, grey can now be seen for the first time by modern consciousness as a byproduct, or important augmenter, of color: something formally requisite, overlooked, and consequently to be taken on its own terms. Not unlike the way Ryman’s ‘white’ paintings act as a foil for color in general, Morandi’s grey paintings draw attention to color.

Morandi falls into the troubling group of painters like Agnes Martin that make beautifully subtle works, but not really self-critical works. There is something about their allure that seems un-painterly in an uncritical way, or external to the crisis of painting by appealing to a romantic worldview with antiquated notions of beauty or transcendence. With artists like Martin the ‘transcendental’ discourse is enough to distract from the purely medium-based crises. Critical, major painters followed the historical unfolding of the painting medium wherever it may lead, without capitulating to extrinsic concepts. Morandi is a different case, one which is analytic in the Cezanne tradition, yet still dabbles unnecessarily in a reality extrinsic to art, if only because he is perceived this way today.

Because of this ambiguity, Morandi is appealing today because he is a relatable example. Moreover, he is highly skilled, talented, and educated, but, despite all his talents, cannot be an important painter. The situation writ large in contemporary art is the same: countless talented artists and highly erudite thinkers who understand the critical discourse around painting, none of which are important or significant. This is not an attack on any one individual or group of individuals, but is an insight into the lapsed concept of a critical art history itself and what I would call a crisis in the faculty of interpretation. In the 21st century history is regarded as one damn thing after another. But In 19th and early 20th century art history was a philosophy, and the history of art was something to be written. It was not, as we regard it today, an objective archive of events, but rather a form of imagination that contextualized and formed otherwise random aesthetic experiences by giving art history an idealized plot. The result was that the history told of painting very practically shaped the actual manifestation of modernist artworks, as they were nudged in different directions by abstract ideals in artists as well as critics. It begs the question, since art institutionalization (e.g. David Zwirner Gallery) is insufficient to legitimize Morandi, in what historical imagination would Morandi be a character on the world stage of art history? In what consciousness in such a social situation could Morandi become as important as our eyes suspect him to be? The question must be answered via actual artworks that try to redeem Morandi from the dustbin of history, but also by an openly ideological art historical project. The bulwark to such a project is the sense that what people actually like about Morandi is his irrelevance to the history of modernist painting, that he fell by the wayside and wasn’t able to be used. Such a sensibility shares something in common with Marxist conceptions of history—if in Benjamin’s philosophy historical knowledge should be sought not in the victors but in the vanquished, Adorno’s philosophy stressed attention to all those things which fell outside of such a ‘rectilinear’ view of history, the blindspots so-to-speak. It led Adorno to consider artists like Satie in a way similar to how Nietzsche favored Bizet over Wagner. Morandi is an artist who may have been regarded by modern critics this way. But can he now? The problem is that Morandi is also a painter’s painter. He ultimately presents a contradiction in that, on one hand, he is considered an exemplary self-critical modern painter, whereas, on the other hand, he is not considered a modernist at all, but a painter who falls outside of modernism. On one hand, highly self-conscious artists look to Morandi as one of the few examples of a painstakingly sensitive practice, on the other hand, the Morandi exhibition fits perfectly well into the mindless sartorialism the art world promotes. One can easily see hoards of dilettantes with affectations like, "isn't it exquisite". Any painting project taking up Morandi will have to expose such contradictions and politicize Morandi’s inherent sensitivity of looking.

Natura morta (Still Life)  , 1952   Oil on canvas   14 3/16 x 15 11/16 inches (36 x 39.8 cm)   Private Collection   © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

Natura morta (Still Life), 1952
Oil on canvas
14 3/16 x 15 11/16 inches (36 x 39.8 cm)
Private Collection
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

Cian: Strain Studies

by Bret Schneider


Strain Studies is something like a series of formal experiments or études in a post-Autechrian style. That is to say, abstract, playful, and alienated electronic music that references only itself. As such it distills some of the best aspects of electronic music that curiously synthesize both playfulness and work, open curiosity and analytic design. What we hear is probably modular synth play, but it has a dynamism and hard-edge sensibility that is unusual for a genre of music too often interested in cheap mysticism or monotonous cosmic repetition. Strain Studies is much more rigorous and less passive than such, not unlike the ‘sketches’ of Florian Hecker’s early PV Trecks, or like Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Occlusions that itself strained towards complete unpredictability. Strain Studies indeed sounds strained and tense, definitely not easy listening. But, at the same time, it seems to be verging on a complete and lively spontaneity. This is not to say random, however. To some ears the album may indeed feel like a spontaneity itself, unprecedented and wild. At times it even has that important quality lacking in avant-garde music: humor. Not as in comedy with conceptual statements about society, but the type of humor sound can have when the listener has no clue what they’re listening to; sounds that protest against what is conceptually acceptable or canonized. Like much interesting art (regardless of medium) there seems to be a system implemented, but a highly idiosyncratic and inexplicable one. No sooner does a system announce itself—and nothing but itself—than it is undermined by its inability to clarify itself. As such, Strain Studies is an example of how difficult music has become so purely technical that it is almost impossible to convey any meaning beyond technique in the listening experience. The result is that the Strain Studies are focused works that develop their own vernacular, and whose free play is the result of minimizing the means of its composition in order to draw attention to this phenomena.

In terms of feel, the album implements an industrial timbre, but has a playfulness unusual for that palette, a tension that proves fruitful. The opening study accelerates, as if announcing the album, but stalls, starts again, and repeats trying to start. This recursive composition is a part of the strain study and catches on an interest in permutations endemic to recent electronic music, and its (probably unintentional) redundancy makes fun with the motif. "Sequia" is the closest we get to anything like a beat or metre, whereas "Gira y Desvanace" is the exception to the previously mentioned lack of interest in kosmiche. Perhaps the strain procedure, whatever that may be, is applied to that palette, but it seems inessential.  

'Torsion' is where things get interesting. It tends towards a glitch aesthetic, with hiccuping, erratic bursts of noise and a grain type delay that mangles the ‘process’ into a tailing cloud of atomized reverb. It’s not unlike Autechre’s "Osla for n" in feel. "Esgrima" implements something akin to a melody, and likewise has an Autechrian feel to it in the best of ways, in that it does not shy away from ambiguous tonal phrases—not really atonal but not really tonal in any traditional way. It’s not noise, but not cloying post-classical melody either, and it definitely isn’t structured for any club music. Currently, there’s no real place for tonality that is not used for any overt ideological position. As in some other electronic music, ambiguous, almost unintended tonality is important because it seems to be byproduct of a different process. There’s no beat anchoring the phrase composed of bouncing (saw?) waves that recurse through a simple atonal-ish motif, and the particular strength here compared to other recent electronic tonality is that tonality isn’t buried in effects or deconstructed, but remains inchoately constructed. Like the rest of the album the primary material is enshrouded in complicated delays that always tend to fragment into the distance. This is mostly linear, but as in "Torsion", the delays, sounding like granular synthesis of some sort, come into the foreground and crowd out the primary material. 

"Infeccion" is an improvisitory, free-associative workout of grey impulses and is highly expressive, of a piece with "Torsion" and one of the best moments in the album. "Teorria de la tension" is an examination of bleeps and bloops, resonant impulses perhaps, that glide up and down the pitch spectrum. They accumulate, spread out, accumulate, and slow down. This piece is the one that exemplifies the album’s interest in organizing time, and the pointillism seems to articulate it in in a focused way. Finally, "Hominidos" closes the album with a metallic drone that has a polyphony of noise that saturates the listening space in a rich, compelling timbre that is altogether unique. Intentionally or not, there’s much to learn from the Strain Studies, and it’s apparent how such experiments might open up new directions in contemporary electronic music. Overall the Strain Studies bring to fruition a dormant musical sensibility that began in the late 90s/early 00s with the Mego artists or ‘glitch’, but because it isn’t tied to commenting on ‘media', it is now free to comment only on it's own electronic music techniques by thoroughly playing with them. 

                  Close-up of cover from Strain Studies

                  Close-up of cover from Strain Studies