The music of silence and other cacophonies; The Christian Marclay show at SAM

Music is woven into the fabric of Seattle - in the myth that surrounds our homegrown musicians, the number of our festivals, the spaces we create to listen to music and the honor we extend to it in places like EMP. And now the Seattle Art Museum presents us with a show designed to shake up our whole conception of music and sound.

The current exhibition of the work of contemporary artist Christian Marclay invites the viewer to explore the interconnection between music, the visual arts and society. It includes sculpture, collage, photography, musical compositions and multimedia installations. Some works are laugh-out-loud funny.

All are thought-provoking.

Marclay, untrained as a musician, became a turntable instrumentalist in the 1970s, one of the first to use records and turntables for performance and improvisation. He transformed the recorded sounds into something new each time he performed.

Transformation is what Marclay does. He deconstructs and even destroys sounds and images, then combines what's left to come up with new sound or commentary. Among his works are many collages, including long-playing records made from old thrift-shop finds that have been cut into various shapes, then pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with yet more various colors, forms and designs. The music they produce is fragmentary, distorted, unpredictable - wholly new.

He also does collages of LP record covers. Here he's playing with concepts. The series called "Body Mix" is a real winner. Remember that child's card game where you can put a dog's head on a cow's body to which you've attached crocodile feet? Marclay has made similar juxtapositions with the performers featured on the albums. He uses these constructions to make sharp comments about the music and our culture.

What do you think he's saying in the collage that combines the head and upper chest of a reclining Michael Jackson (from the days when Jackson was a black man) with a bikini-clad, super-sexy, dark-skinned female lower torso connected to a white female leg in super-high heels? By the way, Jackson is wearing a black shirt under his white jacket.

In addition to distorting images and sound, Marclay distorts musical instruments - a 12-foot-long accordion, a set of drums unplayable on their ceiling-high stands, a horn attached to a second smaller horn instead of a mouthpiece. These pieces are playing the music of silence.

"Tape Fall" is one of the larger installations in the exhibit. It consists of a scaffolded ladder that reaches almost to the top of the room. At the highest point is a reel-to-reel tape player missing its takeup reel. The sound emitted as the tape passes over the machine's heads is that of trickling water, and as that sound flows out over the room, down from the ceiling-high player comes the trickle of electronic tape, swirling in on itself to create a mound that grows higher and higher. As the tape releases its sound, it becomes totally useless. But tape is a renewable resource, and depleted reels are replaced by fresh ones filled with new tape.

Marclay's art focuses the attention of the viewer on the divisions and connections between audible and visual experiences. His work harkens to some of the ideas explored by Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. Think of Cage and his music, or lack thereof, when you see Marclay's birdcage hanging with the silent green telephone in it. And think also of Duchamp, who in 1921 presented the art world with a birdcage filled with marble cubes.

My favorite piece in the exhibit is one of Marclay's most recent multimedia works. The viewer/listener experiences it in a totally dark room. There, projected on the front wall from four side-by-side video players, are fragments of hundreds of movies. The four audio tracks are played simultaneously. Called "Video Quartet," it's a brilliant orchestral composition. Marclay, in this piece, takes the random noises he likes so much and fashions them into a symphony. It includes its "rondos" and "scherzos," but it's not like any symphony you've ever heard. There is so much sound and so many shifting images, you might expect sensory overload. But not so.

The four soundtracks are woven together to create a mesmerizing and unified wall of sound that includes pianos, song, tyco drums, castanets, water, trumpets, bands, shrieks, violins, whistles, gongs and crashes, among other noises. Meanwhile the visual images flash by: Doris Day, Danny Kaye, Yul Brynner, Julie Andrews, Harpo Marx, Jimi Hendrix, Benny Goodman, Marilyn Monroe, Ella Fitzgerald, even Janet Leigh in her creepy shower and Ingrid Bergman humming "As Time Goes By." It encompasses the music of other cultures. It encapsulates American pop culture. It all ends with the slamming of a door.

Fragments of sound, fragments of images metamorphosed into altogether new creations that return echos of the old. Superimposed images and sounds that resonate with social significance. Marclay's not about "pretty." Instead he offers humor, satire, biting commentary and the opportunity for you to transform your thinking if you give it a chance.

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