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MoMA

AT THE CROSSROADS OF ART AND SOUND IN THE 1980S

April 6, 2011  |  Looking at Music 3.0
At the Crossroads of Art and Sound in the 1980s

TELLUSTools. 2001. Double-LP. Inside cover Art by Christian Marclay

TELLUSTools. 2001. Double-LP. Composition: 12 1/4 x 24 5/8\

Long before the days of turntables and synthesizers, the composer John Cage revolutionized the way art saw music and music saw art with pieces like the infamous “4:33,” in which he took the stage, sat at the piano, prepared to play, and then sat in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds before exiting the stage. The legacy of Cage’s work is alive in many of the pieces on view in Looking at Music 3.0, particularly in the work of Brian Eno, David Byrne, Christian Marclay, and John Zorn. Like Cage, these artists were invested in experimental composition and built their careers at the nexus between fine art, music, and performance.

Brian Eno and David Byrne. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. 1981. 12-inch record sleeve

Brian Eno and David Byrne. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. 1981. 12-inch record sleeve. Installation view in the exhibition Looking at Music 3.0, The Museum of Modern Art

Brian Eno and David Byrne were already established musicians before their 1981 collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Eno, the godfather of ambient music and sound, created music targeted at generating rather than expressing emotion. Byrne, the vocalist and guitarist for Talking Heads, experienced crossover success as an avant-garde musician. This collaborative album is built around American radio samples and Middle Eastern and African appropriations—found sounds—woven together in a conceptual rubric. The album was hugely influential across multiple genres of music, including hip-hop. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts pushed themes raised in Cage’s work—especially the incorporation of nonmusical sound into music—into the era of remix.

Christian Marclay became an art star for his pioneering use of turntablism in fine art. Marclay, who would physically break and reglue records or deliberately manipulate loops and skips to create “sound collage,” created work that is often both aesthetically beautiful and musically experimental. In Looking at Music 3.0, you have the chance to see some of this visually rich vinyl projects as well as his work for Tellus, the sound-art cassette magazine on which he was a frequent collaborator.

Marclay also collaborated with John Zorn, the most famous experimental composer of the 1980s and early 1990s. Zorn’s work rests on his background in classical composition, but uses this as a springboard to explore a truly prolific amount of themes and genres from a highly conceptual point of view. On view in Looking at Music 3.0 is his work with Naked City, the punk jazz band he started in 1988. Naked City’s music is marked by both frenetic tempos and an impressive tendency to almost instantaneously flit back and forth between genres. Zorn’s approach to composition is decisively descriptive, and indeed, Naked City sounds like New York.

Looking at Music 3.0 is designed to give you the chance to see how multiple groups of artists and musicians used rapidly advancing music technology (including turntables and synthesizers), sampling, and appropriation to achieve very different results in their work. Eno, Byrne, Marclay, and Zorn’s work paints an especially rich picture of the legacy of music/art innovators like John Cage in the 1980s and 1990s. The work of experimental composers and musicians featured in Looking at Music 3.0 is not to be missed.

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