Mark So

I have worked with multidimensional experiences at the intersection of writing and action (performed, etc.) for a number of years. This is not an uncommon situation for a composer. But where most music directs itself toward some sounding practice, my work has been drawn to other, perhaps more obscure potentials, less concerned with producing sound as with the basic vitality and immediacy of the material effects of life, one might say. This has played out largely over many thousands of pages, a kind of text which grows more and more complicated and textured, even as it collapses in ever greater simplicity: things stay legible, yet the “readerly” experience explodes in a million parts moving darkly, only some of which graze the mind before vanishing into oblivion as one moves on down the line. By the time any of this registers it’s all over. Music, in a nutshell. You can go back but it won’t ever be the same.

For a long time I wrote scores, hundreds of them. Not like notes on a page except that’s partly my training (and some were, and are). But mostly with text, everything in straightforward language. It seemed to open up the field, how you could truck-in other material and still, you would have just a text: a text score. I became preoccupied with incorporating things I’d read into these pieces. Not for “inspiration,” but actually bringing in another experience, a fragment of a poem, say, almost like a sample, and making a score with it—not a piece about something but a deep expression of latent experience picked up, transmitted and transformed somehow in this simple act of reading, producing both a record and script. The idea was to “do” these pieces, delve into what was coming through and apply it, live within its terms. Skip the intervening “interpretation” we associate with playing music and just get right to what’s already going on, directly. It was surprising (or maybe not at all) how rarely you’d go to the piano or pick up a violin, but, say, tape some velum graph over a hole in the wall of a dark room, instead, or make a silent super-8 film in three one-minute takes…

Eventually, in particular at the end of a very long series of pieces dealing with John Ashbery’s poetry, these texts stopped being scores—they stopped directing any action beyond the page in a determined way. Transcription took over: using the mechanics of printed language to simply record a text in its material aspect. Diverse manifestations flourished—giving up performance meant the text became the performance, and it, too, was now free to get right to what was going on in the poem, directly. There could be wild spectra of characters splayed and slipping in multiple transparent layers, or an arcane, intricate labyrinth of typing passes filling a single typed surface. Sometimes, the transcription was aural, and performance returned in a new version—a strangely layered taped reading, or perhaps a typing session: a text reproduced on its own terms.

Finally, even the idiom of the text gave way to a more basic materiality which no longer differentiates but simply contains salient matter in an inclusive, unified field: the page. In the photocopy essay In the City, all manner of refuse from diverse texts and text/score-making processes, and various ephemera from my own recent existence, proliferates and piles up, cryptic yet ultimately quite legible, over a surface that one gazes into as much as reads, a densely layered experience which eludes comprehension.