Blurring Visual Art, Musical Composition, & Theatre with Musical Mail Art

by Chris Tonelli
Groningen University    

The concept of “blurring art and life” stands in for a series of ideals: the notion we can all see ourselves as artists, rather than just a specialized few; the notion that we can approach our daily activities with the attitudes we take to artistic work; and the notion our experience can be enriched by acting outside of the normative economics and patterns of distribution of artistic work, to name a few. Artists like Ray Johnson and Ken Friedman saw the postal system as a tool for achieving these ideals and went on to develop the tradition of mail art. While mail art may seem best suited to those who identify primarily as visual artists or poets, the work of Southern California based composer Jude Weirmeir has demonstrated that mail art can become a tool to reconfigure what it means to be a musical composer. Weirmeir has created a massive body of musical mail art scores—work that is equally visual art object, musical composition, catalyst for performance, and event in itself, as, around this work, sending, receiving, waiting for, and replying to mail art all take on the character of an aesthetic event.

Weirmeir (right) observes as soprano Fiona Chatwin performs his mail art score “Music for Soup” (a score designed to perch on the lip of a bowl of soup).

Encountering Weirmeir’s mail art scores can be a confusing experience for some. One’s first impulse might be to try to reduce the work, to decide if it is a musical work or a piece of visual art rather than accepting that it is both. Musicians sometimes judge the work as not properly musical on the basis that visual elements frequently bleed into the traditional forms of notation Weirmeir incorporates, as in the detail below from his mail art piece “Meat Piano and Scat Coupons” (2013).

“Scat Coupons” side of Weirmeir’s “Subscription Opus Issue 17: Meat Piano and Scat Coupons” (2013)

While the centre portion of “Scat Coupons” (the meat piano is on the other side of the mailing) begins with conventional notation, musicians without experience with what is usually referred to as “graphic notation” may be perplexed as to what they should do when the musical staff lines collapse into one another in the fourth measure, and they may be even more unsure how to react when the note heads transform into cats, or television sets, toilets, and ants appear while the stave collapses again in the background.

On the other hand, performers who have encountered traditions of graphic notation will realize that these are moments where the composer is trusting the performer to interpret these images in a manner that is not tightly controlled by established norms of performance practice. They will understand that there is a history of performers and composers desiring a degree of indeterminacy in musical works and a composer/performer relationship where the composer provides inspiration for the performer’s realization of a semi-improvisational, semi-composer-determined musical event rather than one determined (nearly) completely by the composer.

Weirmeir’s Eternal Love Heart (based on 14th Century composer Baude Cordier’s Belle Bonne), a series of 36 postcards that arrived individually through the mail, an event in itself that lasts weeks or months.

While, conversely, the traditional notation used in Weirmeir’s works may scare off potential performers who have not studied traditional Western musical notation, the semi-determinate graphic elements present in the work and the license the composer gives performers to “arrange and rearrange [the piece] in any way that the performers decide” (this variety of invitation re-appears on a number of these pieces) can encourage such performers to treat the traditional notation as a graphic element and interpret it with the freedom one would interpret a graphic element. What matters more than “correct interpretation” in these kind of works is that the score helps us act to break our ordinary
patterns and perform in ways that help others do the same. Weirmeir’s work is out in the world inspiring performances that are part theatre, part music, part visual art, part dance, and part poetry; performances that empower those who didn’t previously see themselves as performers to perform; performances that place untraditional interpretive demands on professional performers that some might find liberating (or, at least, joyful); and events/performances that do much to blur the lines between the spaces of art and the spaces of everyday life.

And if you don’t believe me, I can refer you to my postal carrier.

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