She sang a tone into a microphone at the front of the room. A prerecorded voice picked up the tone and continued it while the singer proceeded to a microphone at the left side of the room. Again she sang the tone, and again the prerecorded voice picked it up. Following this procedure, the singer advanced to a microphone at the rear, to another at the right side, then back to the front microphone, then around to the left one again. In this fashion she gradually made her way around and around the room, always singing the same steady tone. But not quite the same. Gradually the pitch was rising. I was still confused. What kind of music was this? Then I looked back at my program and noticed the title: ‘Spiral.’ It was a spiral all right. The tone was circling around the room, rising higher and higher, and that was obviously the whole point of the piece. For a while it seemed like a curious statement for a composer to want to make. The whole piece was really just a pun. Yet it rose way above that low form of wit, touching on theater, drawing implications about the spiral shape, and making us listen to music in a strange symbolic way.
‘Spiral’ was only one of a number of short pieces presented by Connie Beckley at Artists Space on December 12. This was, as far as I know, the first time Beckley had presented an entire evening of her work, and her pieces lacked the kind of complexity and depth which one would expect from more experienced artists. But coming from such a young musician, this was an impressive concert, and it dealt with an area rarely explored by composers.
In ‘Song Contained’ Beckley sang into a balloon, which inflated a little with each tone. After a few minutes of this, she stopped singing, tied off the inflated balloon, and hung it up, so that we could look at her ‘Song Contained’ during the remainder of the evening.
In ‘Feat’ an archer, John Oberholzer, shot one arrow across the room and into the bull’s-eye of a target. The target, which turned out to be amplified, sent a little tremor into the loudspeakers. The piece may have been just one note long, but it was an unusually meaningful note.
‘Conversion’ involved the conversion of an idea from musical terms into visual terms. Gordon Gottlieb reiterated a fast majorchord arpeggio on six notes for quite a while. Then, at the other side of the room, a curious little machine with six light bulbs on top started flashing. I soon realized that the six lights were flashing in the same sequential pattern which the six musical notes had followed at the beginning of the piece.
‘Sound Split’ involved distributing around the room four cassette tape recorders, each of which played back Beckley’s voice intoning a different pitch. ‘Question of Perception’ involved some little wooden trees, a rotating loudspeaker, a lot of prerecorded and live verbiage about whether the tree falls if nobody hears it, and a maze of logic which I couldn’t quite follow.
The distinctive thing about Beckley’s works in general is that they involve such matter-of-fact images, and are presented in such cool, nontheatrical, nonillusionistic ways. Encountered in a script or score, I suspect that ideas of this sort might seem simplistic. Yet in an actual performance, they can become quite fascinating. Finding the puns and interpreting the titles is a bit like solving brain teasers to begin with. But even after one grasps the basic point, the images themselves can be stimulating. I found myself thinking quite a bit about the nature of a ‘feat,’ a ‘spiral,’ and a ‘conversion.’ And my eyes kept drifting back to that balloon with the song inside.
I’m familiar with this same basic kind of thinking in drawings by Sol Lewitt, in happenings by Al Hansen, and in dance pieces by Sylvia Whitman, to mention only a few examples which come to mind immediately. But I don’t think any musicians have moved in this direction quite as clearly and boldly as Beckley did in these pieces.