Dec 2022

Music Scores #2, Fantasia is published.

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The revised edition of Thomas is published.

Nov 2022

The second print of Post-Texture is now available.

Oct 2022

Workroom Specter’s new series Music Scores #1, Prélude Non Mesuré is published.

Sept 2022

Post-Texture is published.

ABA

Min Oh

2016

ABA

ABA is a series which consists of 4 works that can both stand independently as well as a whole. It began with exploring ways of making time structure in video, and is an outcome of the research on how the musical form, which has exquisitely developed throughout a long period of time, is being used to affect other time-based media. Beginning with the study of the musical form, ABA explores the origin and the expandability of musical form, the relationship between performance and interpretation, and the form of the score and the way in which it is read. The first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Rachmaninoff is used as the subject of the work. The music is analyzed in ABA Diagram, which is then transposed into sensory information in ABA Video Score, composed and visualized into concrete structure in ABA Video, then the structure is finally recomposed in the experimentation of a live performance in confined space and time in ABA Performance. ABA is not just a visual representation of the aural, but transposes the ‘structure of music itself into formative principles.’1

Anecdotes

ABA began at the point where a few different kinds of interests and questions randomly and inevitably met.

Is reconversion possible from what is processed and formalized within conceptual frame into something natural and concrete?
The tone, which is the main constituent of music, is understood in terms of calculations and proportions, such as the number, width and length of sound waves, and music as a collection of such tones, also developed based on mathematical and structural thinking. However, I have always thought that the logic and fundament inherent in the structure of music ultimately originates from the observation of nature as in the example of the ‘binary’ idea, which is one of the major fundamental elements of musical composition, and how it’s not difficult to connect to definite subjects or phenomena that are divided into two equal parts like ‘left hand and right hand,’ ‘black and white,’ and ‘inhalation and exhalation,’ etc. I happened to come across figure collage series by Odires Mlaszho in 2013, and stumbled upon the relatively idealized image of an ancient figure2, and the comparatively more realistic portrayal of a modern figure.3 Looking at such images and form which moves and changes between two oppositional realms like ideal and real, abstract and concrete, processed and natural, my interest in such transformation of form and the reading of it also concretized.

Can the structure of music be made into something visible?
I believe that the process of appreciating Western composition music involves a process of predicting and grasping the progress of the structure which lies on the other side of the fleeting melody and its harmonic beauty. It may not be easy to understand the musical structure upon listening without special talent or training in music because music is so abstract in form, but I made the assumption that if music is transposed into a language that is much more concrete and approachable than sound, it would be easier for one to access the utmost beauty of the well-ordered musical structure.

Can the logic of music be applied to other types of time-based art, especially video?
When conceptualizing on the time composition of video, what comes to my mind is the form of music which is as familiar to me as my mother tongue. I have borrowed some of them and applied to my video work, such as in Daughter (2011) which is in a shifted form of rondo (a form of music in which the main motif constantly reappears as it alternates with other motifs) and Suite 1 (2012) and Marina, Lukas and Myself (2014) which reflect the form of suites (a form where short pieces are loosely put together). While I was aware of the fact that the main traits of each musical form can loosely be applied to video structure, I began to question whether the organized logic and detailed compositional principles of a musical piece can more closely be absorbed into the video structure.

What constitutes the expression of the body in performance?
In the sense that the performance is instantaneous, irreversible, and requires active judgment at times, performance is a great means through which to capture the moment of control. I’m interested in performances that are prepared through intensively high training, which do not allow the slightest indolence until the final moment. Through Marina, Lukas and Myself, I collected the moments of performance which require such highly intensive practice and concentration, and the performers who immerse themselves in such situations. And by observing the different types of concentration of each performer in the performance, I desired to capture their ‘face of control.’ Besides such specific performances, I thought that musical recitals that often come to our mind, especially the musical gestures often seen in musical concerts in the Romanticist era are not only a spontaneous eruption of expression but is also an outcome of logical musical interpretation, physical necessity, and rigorous training. These ideas gave birth to Youngwoo Lee, Shinae An, Elodie Mollet (2015) which was produced in the following year. This inspired my desires to delve deeper into the reason and its sensibility which works as the fundament of expression that is exposed on the surface level of the performance.

How far can the form, content and attitude of musical score be expanded?
My fascination on the musical score began with the work Youngwoo Lee, Shinae An and Elodie Mollet. The three performers invited to this video work perform independently in separate video channels which are also played in one space to form a trio. This work is not a re-enactment of an already completed concert, but are fragments of collected material that are performed in parts, recorded and edited in post-production to form one single performance. In other words, it’s not an outcome of a concert but a starting point of one, and if it were to be actually performed, this video would be the score of that concert. Upon organizing the trio into a traditional musical score form after the end of the concert, I discovered the point where the principles of the music and a feeling of vitality, completed through body and ears, clash. Fortunately, I happened to have a chance to look at the history of dance score in connection to A Sit (2015), which was a project I was conducting at the time. I became aware of the difference between musical score, which is made of as a principle and delivered to the performer, and dance score, which is first made through the body and organized as if to document it. Soon after, my interest reached the expandability of the form and function of the musical score, and the attitude of the musical score to mediate the listener and the performer.

Selecting musical material

While there are many fascinating musical forms, I chose the form of the sonata as the material for this work. Simply put, the sonata form is composed of three parts including exposition (A), development (B) and recapitulation (A’). The exposition (A) introduces the subject, mainly the main theme and a conflicting second theme. In development (B) the subjects develop through deconstruction, variation and reassembly. Recapitulation (A’) re-presents the subjects that are proposed in exposition (A) in a similar but not completely the same form. The title of the series ABA is borrowed from the sonata form, with a little bit of variation. I thought that the sonata would be a good form through which to study the structure and logic of music as it has been used meaningfully in the history of Western music for quite a long period of time.

At first, I chose five sonatas as material from different time periods for a number of reasons, including recommendation by Gramophone4, my own personal familiarity with the piece, the year in which it is composed, and the interest of the pianist Youngwoo Lee who was giving advice to me on the music analysis.

  • Haydn Piano Sonata No. 62 HobXVI/52, 1st movement (1794, classical)
  • Beethoven Piano Sonata NO. 32, Op.111, 1st movement (1822, late classical or early Romanticism)
  • Schubert Piano Sonata No. 21, D960, 1st movement (1828, Romanticism)
  • Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata No. 2, 1st movement (composed in 1911, revised in 1931, late Romanticism)
  • Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7, 1st movement (1939-42, 20th Century)

Among them, I selected three sonatas by Haydn, Schubert, and Prokofiev which seemed to make their distinctive traits in terms of structure more visible when arranged next to each other, and used them as the material for the work Sonatas (2016), which is the first experimentation which converts the structure into scenes. Then, Rachmaninoff sonata was chosen as the final material for ABA. Even though Beethoven sonata also seemed to have an interesting structure, and especially I found the structural logic of the introduction fascinating, I decided to put it away for next time.

I added the sonata by Rachmaninoff in the preliminary list of five sonatas based on the period it was composed and for its remarkable aural beauty, but I didn’t have too many expectations in terms of its structure. Even for me, it was surprising that I chose this sonata eventually. I put it at the end of the list, but by the time I had finally finished the analysis, I came to realize the delicate and exquisite structure which I couldn’t see before because it was hidden by its captivating melody and harmony. Although my own reading of the work which is the origin of such pleasure is completely subjective, I decided not to doubt my interpretation because I believe that the difference of subjective interpretation is the very key which makes each performance by different performers special.

The four steps in ABA

ABA Diagram

While Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata No. 2, 1st movement is a sonata in form, I saw interesting structural details which cannot be explained only through the sonata form. This is because, as opposed to the conventional sonata form in which the subject is introduced in exposition (A) and advances in development (B), the structure in detail already completes a complex process of development in exposition (A) alone. The two motifs a and b — shortly appearing at the very beginning of the piece during less than a measure — proceed in four levels of development in exposition (A). The 1st and the 2nd themes — 1st theme is the phrase that’s developed first, and the 2nd theme is the phrase that’s developed fourth — embrace rather than oppose each other. Moreover, in development (B), b is slowly absorbed into a while all the 4 developed phrases irregularly appear. In other words, this means that the structure is bizarre like a Möbius strip, where the short motifs a and b in the exposition are incorporated in the 1st theme, which is then included in the 2nd theme, and the development (B) is then again included in a and b.

Exposition (A)
Introduction: Motif a and b
First Development: Embody / 1st Theme
Second Development: Simplify
Third Development: Fortify
Fourth Development: Diversify / 2nd Theme
Development (B)
Motif b is absorbed into a
Recapitulation (A')
First Development + Third Development
Second Development
Fourth Development
Coda

ABA Diagram is a pictorial diagram of such musical structure, and is a type of musical analytical model.

ABA Video Score

Upon completion of ABA Diagram, I started ABA Video which was based on the organized structure and was to be converted into a concrete scene. Because the language of the diagram (text and symbols) and that of video (aural and visual) are so different from each other, it wasn’t easy to swiftly work back and forth between the two. As a middle form between diagram and scene, ABA Video Score is a re-composition which converted the text signs of diagram to sensory signs (form, color, time, etc.), which is close to the actual material of video, in order to function as an arbitrator between the two different languages.

Although ABA Video Score and ABA Diagram are different in the expression of symbols, they are equivalent in terms of structure. Thus selecting the sensory signs to replace the text a and b was a very important task. In the Rachmaninoff sonata, motif a is a quickly descending monophony, and motif b is a chord with rhythm. If motif a were movement, b would be stillness, and if a were a line, b would be a dot. Similarly, if a meant singular, b would mean multiple, and if a were even, b would be bumpy. In other words, a and b clearly oppose each other musically. The sensory motif a and b were established based on contradiction.

Sense motif a: Matter, photograph, movement, object
Sense motif b: Idea, graphic, stillness, grid

Conceived as a score which can actually be used, if one were trained to read this score, they would be able to correspond particular scenes to the original music by reading the form, location, number, color, pattern and sound of the objects.

ABA Video

ABA Video draws out Rachmaninoff’s sonata structure into a concrete scene. Here, the principle should be that even if I truly desire to immerse the structure of the original music in the structure of video, the musical structure must not be rendered in a mechanical way with the language inherent to video itself eliminated. The experimentation of translating one structure to another medium would be rendered meaningless if the inherent intonation and attitude of what is being translated is omitted.

Like ABA Video Score, ABA Video began by selecting scenes that respond to motif a and b of the original music. The fact that the motif a and be of the scene contradict each other is the same as in ABA Video Score. However, if one could point out a difference, it would be that the motif a and b in the scene would eventually have to be integrated like in development (B) of the original music because they are not simply just signs. On the other hand, in advocating the viewpoint that the conceptual form of music is based on the observation of concrete phenomenon or events and an organized outcome over a long period of time, I thought that the scene which stands as the motif must also accompany a high frequency of repetition. At around this time, I started collaborating with the dancer and choreographer Akemi Nagao, and produced scene motif a and b together.

Scene motif a: Organizing action
Scene motif b: Space where a takes place

Organizing is a basic human action which takes place on everyday basis. It solves chaos and anxiety arising from mess. The physical act of organization based on simple logic brings about a powerful sense of satisfaction. However, it’s not easy to arrive at perfect form drawn in ideal, and even if one nears it, it instigates a different anxiety of not wanting what has been organized to turn into a mess again. Anxiety is infinitely in action.

From the overall perspective of the work, organization is not only a daily activity but is also an act of putting in order what is repeatedly observed in order to perfect a form. All organization demands logic but the logic is not always objective. I often make systems of different scale for my work and life, and every time I do, I strive to base it on a way that’s as objective and rational as possible. However, I also know how much variation, chance, subjectivity, intuition, obstinacy and indiscretion is involved in the process of making a system. Every time I am faced with such a moment, I think about how the syllable names in Western tonal music were created, and try to rid myself of some guilt. Created using Ut Queant Laxis, a very popular song at the time praising the Day of Saint John the Baptist, syllable names were created by linking the lyrics of a particular area of the song with the name of the tone related to that lyric. In other words, it was a systematization based on chance. Do Re Me Fa Sol La Si Do might have been unfamiliar names, but it has now become a natural convention.

ABA Performance

While ABA Video attempted to faithfully abide by the structure of the original music, ABA Performance destroys its structure. Destroying it all except for the most important principle which makes up the skeletal structure, it starts back from the original point and creates a new structure. Although the basic structure still follows the sonata form, it’s quite a different structure from Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata, and it even deviates from the common sonata structure. More precisely, it maintains the skeletal layer of the sonata, while reflecting my final opinions on the sonata form I arrived at through the progression of the work.

The exposition (A) of ABA Performance proposes an ‘already established structure.’ Development (B) is ‘improvisation.’ In recapitulation (A'), ‘established structure accompanied by variables.’

In other words, exposition (A) proposes the grammar which creates the structure of the performance, while in the development (B), the grammar is newly and spontaneously recomposed based on all the grammar proposed so far without being confined to the principle of the grammar. Then in recapitulation (A'), it returns to the grammar of exposition, with addition of flexibility which accompanies the compression, rearrangement, variation and errors of the existing grammar. Although I at once thought that it might be more appropriate to call the structure ABC rather than the ordinary sonata form of ABA, I focused on the attempt to drive back the loose spontaneous elements from B to be structured again in A', and decided that it would be better to retain the pretext of ‘recapitulation.’

What I considered important in exposition (A) was to make a principle in which the subject is different yet could be applied in a similar way. Even though the subject changed, I hoped for the audience to be able to read the principle to a certain degree when this principle is repeated several times. This led to the question as to whether development (B) could use the established structure to be newly recomposed to something meaningful at this very moment. At the beginning of our collaboration, Nagao and I called this part ‘chaos,’ because we focused on destroying rules. Then the term changed to ‘Question’ as we began to gradually question how much we would deviate from the original principle, in what attitude, and why we should destroy it. And gradually, we created the final form of ‘rule-destroying rule.’ In recapitulation (A'), the important issues were about the connection between the inside and outside, inflow of new elements, level of accommodation of errors, and deciding how the performer and the system would respond, and in what attitude the new member would behave in the system. The ‘object’ that newly appears in recapitulation is not fixed but change with every performance. I just decide on a few possible objects such as what I see near the performing area, as even I didn’t know exactly what object would appear on the stage.

The detailed structure of the performance is organized in two different directions:

First of all, the grammar proposed in exposition (A) is ‘1 2 2 1 3.’ Putting together movements of different nature, it’s a set of movement including a step taken (1 to 2), staying in the same place (2 to 2), returning (2 to 1), and jumping off to a new place (1 to 3). Even though it develops the movement of sonata form which ‘moves away and returns,’ this work denies to return and end like in a sonata. Each of ‘1 2 3’ which composes ‘1 2 2 1 3’ symbolizes ‘the rule of ranking.’ 1 is arrangement by length and 2 is by height. 3 is arrangement by building up, and as opposed to 1 and 2 having comparatively clear regulation, 3 is an arrangement which lacks order or logic and spontaneously ranks according to different situations. The ‘1 2 2 1 3’ grammar begins with sound, then the subject transforms to pencil, furniture and movement.

On the other hand, one structural stem is motif a and b. The first departing point of motif a and b is the same as ABA Video, but the development gradually takes a different direction. ABA Performance delves more into a and b, and while a and b are fixed in ABA Video, they endlessly transform and expand throughout the performance in ABA Performance.

Beginning with:

Sound (a)
Person (b)
Person (a)
Pencil (b)
Laying down pencil (a)
Erecting the pencil (b)
Clear rule (a)
Less clear rule (b)
Pencil (a)
Furniture (b)
Object integrating pencil and furniture (a)
Movement (b)
Structured (a)
Improvisation (b)
Performer (a)
Artist (b)
On stage (a)
Off stage (b)
Existing system (a)
Totally new foreign substance (b)

The work expands as above and makes the overall structure of the performance.

Collaboration with Akemi Nagao

I was immediately captivated by Nagao when I saw her unique and organic movements for the first time at her performance. I was convinced that she would be able to make any complex movement into her very own and perform it in her own way. Although it’s rather unfortunate that ABA Performance was completed in a way which cannot fully reveal Nagao’s distinctive fluid gestures, it didn’t bother me as much because it was her facial expression which ultimately made me wish to work with Nagao. Similar to performers in Marina, Lukas and Myself, she was one of dancers who dances with such ‘face of thinking’ that I was looking for. My conviction in the ‘face of thinking’ took away my concerns about the fact that Nagao is a dancer who focuses on ‘improvisation’ that might sound conflicting to the idea of ‘control’ which I have been exploring for a long time. I felt that working with her for this project is a timely one, having confirmed the fact that the ‘improvisation’ which she pursues is not spontaneous in the ordinary sense of the meaning, which is a chaotic expression responding to the emotions of the moment, but is a movement that’s only possible after sufficient planning, practice followed by clear understanding. While the work Youngwoo Lee, Shinae An, Elodie Mollet invited sensibility and expression to the realm of control, I attempted to invite even ‘improvisation’ to the realm of control through ABA Performance.

On the first day of the rehearsal, I mentioned ‘face of thinking’ and Nagao immediately corrected it to ‘face of feeling,’ and at that moment, I admit that I felt a short and momentary sense of anxiety. However, I realized that Nagao and I just had different definitions for many words, and that my judgment on ‘face of thinking’ is not incorrect. Our collaboration began with re-defining countless ideas that we used in our own different ways. Interestingly (perhaps inevitably), Nagao, an improvisational dancer, and myself, a control freak, had an almost identical way of working. We differed only in the language we use, but our processes of planning, experimenting, correcting, developing and practicing were in complete synch with each other.

ABA again

While ABA roots from the ABA' structure of the sonata form, it’s actually ultimately a reflection of my own opinion. It repeats the exposition and recapitulation in sonata, not in the same but similar way. Repeating the exposition means to return to the beginning. Repetition and return has close relationship with a sense of security, in the sense that repetition makes the next step predictable, and return signifies that it already knows where it will return to. While the end of a sonata comes to an end through recapitulation, events of reality cannot fragmentarily be cut out. And a loop structure is formed where even if it returns, it might have to depart again. Even if it has returned, the return doesn’t bring about a complete feeling of relief as long as it’s under the condition that it must depart again sometime in the future. And in the loop structure of reality which sometimes frightens me, recapitulation A' is not largely different from A in the beginning.

Going to a new place accompanies anxiety about the unknown. Every time that happens, I start to observe quietly, and based on such observations, I find rules. Rules help me to establish a set of course of action which responds to new unidentifiable stimuli (space, time, figure, objects, work, relationship, etc.) and upon setting up the course of action, the anxiety fortunately turns into stability and even to play at times. However, as time passes by, the course of action inversely begins to confine me and raise new anxieties. Would I be able to avoid anxiety if the course of action were more complete and perfect?

While working on ABA, I looked into a very intricately organized system, trying to learn ways of setting up a course of action more elaborately, and even tried to recapitulate or even reconstitute through a new language. However, I realized that anxiety doesn’t go away no matter what course of action is made. Perhaps one is not anxious because they have to leave, but one leaves because they are anxious. At any rate, leaving and coming back means to come back anew, and thus A transforms into the new A'. Therefore, I began to think that anxiety, which functions as a drive for movement, is not only dangerous but is actually beautiful.

Western tonal music technically raises anxiety then resolves it. At the time when tonal music was coming to a collapse, Richard Wagner drove people to suffer by brutally delaying its resolution, and Charles Ives felt lost in a time when the trend was to completely reject such resolution. In the end, people today are able to listen to this music and indulge in its beauty of anxiety. The bright idea which can help us recognize the beauty of anxiety just might lie somewhere out there in this reality without a solution or even an eternal destination.

1 Hyejin Phang, A/B: Min Oh x Hyejin Phang, O-K-U-L-O 003, 2016

2 Roman sculpture in Roman Portraits, published by Phaidon

3 Paul Swiridoff 's 1960s photographs of German politicians