Lost in Music
In the lobby of the National Glass Centre in 2009 a young Chinese acrobat contorts herself through a series of astonishing postures and vertical splits while balancing a tower of glasses on a foot held over her head. It looks, of course, impossible. The glasses chime gently as they shake. Among the small audience most are watching closely and a few appear entirely transfixed, with open or covered mouths and a kind of accepting slackness of posture, as if absorption into the moment has suspended other processes – certain thoughts and points of awareness shut down as others light up incredibly. It’s only when the acrobat breaks a balance to reposition – only within that small fracture and its release of a few seconds – that they feel able to shift their own standing weight from one foot to the other…
Somehow it’s difficult to know where to begin. Lost in Music is a complex and wide-ranging project that connects three diverse mediums – acrobatics, glass and song – to investigate our experience of time, the effects of entropy, and the relationship (fractious, compromised, interdependent) between consciousness and reality. It is also a libretto shaped into an hour-long composition for singers and percussion, a collection of glass vessels (doubling as acrobatic props), a series of past workshops and performances with Chinese acrobats (small-scale), a planned future performance (very large-scale, perhaps impossible), and finally, not least, this exhibition.
Maybe the simplest thing to say then is that Lost in Music started in 2003 with a libretto written in images and a very few words. Pinned on the wall of Rose’s studio, this sequence matched shots of Chinese acrobats taken from old books, images of molten glass being shaped, and pictures of electric luminescence with a series of couplets and short phrases. The texts resonated with these scenes while evoking the conceptual territory of a then concealed future work: ‘delicate persuasion’; ‘little falter’; ‘the pleasure of the possible’; ‘synaptic circus’; ‘prismatic thinking’; ‘alleviate anxiety with overarching elements’.
Rose herself has described the emergence of these phrases as ‘very mysterious’ but on showing the libretto to a friend she was invited to China to work with performers from the state circus – young artists who were a generation on from those she had found in the pages of old books. Through the mid 2000s, she led workshops with Zhejiang Acrobatic Troupe, then with Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, and was struck by the close communication, most of it unspoken, that flowed between the ensemble of acrobats. One of their disciplines was ‘pitching’ – an ancient art in which groups of acrobats join forces to propel a flyer through the air. The skill is seldom practiced outside of China, and has its roots in the tradition, millennia-old, of entire villages banding together to form itinerant performing troupes. Remembering the experience of the workshops, Rose talks about the connection that exists between these artists as the ‘synapse’: ‘I was working with a group of people who performed all day, every day with each other and had done for years, and there’s a particular synapse that exists as a result of doing that – a deep intelligence about how you catch each other, how you hold that balance, how you are together in space and time.’
For an audience the tension lies between the perception of this disciplined skill – highly worked, highly wrought – and the imagined possibility of its failure or collapse. The Chinese balancing disciplines enact this tension exactly: holding up precarious towers of glass or clusters of spinning plates in extreme postures, the acrobats work with items that traditionally were fashioned from porcelain or glass (with a few pieces smashed at the end of each performance to prove they were real). For Lost in Music, the designer Simon Vincenzi remade several of these props in glass, and honoured this call to a possible destruction in their very design. ‘There’s an inherent wobble in the glass,’ explains Rose. ‘So the little bowls that are balanced on the acrobat’s head have a piece that Simon has designed so that each bowl moves inside the others and it all looks slightly unstable – which is very much a tradition in Chinese acrobatics.’
Composed by Luke Stoneham, Lost in Music’s score embodies some of the contradictions of the acrobat’s balance (suspended yet ever-changing), and of the glass that can survive the heat of the furnace but never be dropped, and plays these against the ‘phenomenon of entropy’ (‘the fact that a glass vessel can shatter, a flyer can fall, the voice can break’). The pairs of words that emerged in the earliest libretto form the spine of the composition – repeated so as almost to become incantations. In song and on the page they can’t be read as simple intersections of meaning; instead they appear like the translations of compound ideograms, revealing a mutual truth in their connection that arouses recognition yet evades analysis.
These many strands of Lost in Music were first joined together in Ornamental Happiness, a thirty minute performance presented at the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2006. Two acrobats moved through a slow choreography of astounding positions, the towers of glass extending above them in branches like the depictions of elusive dreams or tender thoughts. Next the project moved to the Glass Centre for the 2009 showing, titled Flagrant Wisdom, which took the audience into the Centre’s hot glass studio. There they watched artisans fashion the glass props, and the acrobats perform with them on the studio floor.
Each of these manifestations of Lost in Music is an individual work, but all point towards an imagined final configuration: a large-scale ensemble performance featuring twenty Chinese acrobats, a live rendition of Stoneham’s full score, and the objects in glass. It would begin with vignettes like those seen in Ornamental Happiness and Flagrant Wisdom, capturing the audience in the contradiction and anticipation of the balance, in a sense of slowness and close control, before breaking out into the ensemble work – the pitching, the flight, an increase of pace and of entropy as fractures spread across the piece’s delicate form.
Perhaps that final performance will be realised in the future, perhaps it won’t. For now the injunction is to enter the soundscape and to see it, or something, in your mind’s eye, which will mean allowing certain thoughts to shut down while others light up. The libretto and the mysterious chorus might lead the way, but they will not be the only presence. The objects in the space have a synapse. From the glassware: the soft chime of the inherent wobble. From the memory of the acrobats at work: a live current of the dangerous and the everyday. From the storyboard: the conceptual territory that unites all aspects.
Falter moment. Ecstatic abstraction. Alleviate anxiety with overarching elements.
(Artist quotations are taken from a conversation with the writer held in June 2010.)
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'the angels - new ones each moment in innumerable bands - are created so that after they have sung their hymn before God, they cease and dissolve into naught...' Walter Benjamin
'we’re lost in music
caught in a trap
no turning back
we’re lost in music' Sister Sledge
Rose English (b. 1950, Hereford, UK; lives and works in London) has been writing, directing and performing her own work for over thirty five years in venues as various as Tate Britain, Royal Court and Queen Elizabeth Hall (all London), the Adelaide Festival and Lincoln Center, New York. Her performances range from site-specific and collaborative works of the ‘70s including Quadrille, Berlin and Mounting, acclaimed solos of the ‘80s including Plato’s Chair and The Beloved, to her large scale spectaculars of the ‘90s including Walks on Water, The Double Wedding and Tantamount Esperance. My Mathematics 1992, a live performance with a horse, was produced by Michael Morris’ Cultural Industry and a series of vignettes with horses were presented by The Banff Centre, Canada and The Serpentine Gallery, London. Ornamental Happiness – a show in song and circus opened the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2006 followed by Flagrant Wisdom, commissioned by National Glass Centre in 2009. Solo exhibitions include: Rose English – The Eros of Understanding, Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, 2014; Richard Saltoun and Karsten Schubert, London, 2013; and Frieze Masters (with Karsten Schubert), London, 2013. Group exhibitions include: Interloqui, Caterina Tognon Arte Contemporanea, Venice, 2011; and WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and toured to museums in the USA and Canada 2007/2009. English co-wrote and designed the feature film The Gold Diggers 1983 directed by Sally Potter. Her awards include the Time Out Performance Award, the Wingate Scholarship and the Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists.
John Ellingsworth is a writer and editor interested in the intersections of performance, journalism and digital art.
Generously supported by The Henry Moore Foundation and ERCO; Karsten Schubert and the Rose English Exhibition Circle: Charlotte and Alan Artus; Richard Saltoun; Angela & Ioannis Koulakoglou; Jonathan Silver; Marion and Christoph Trestler; Karen & Mark Smith. With thanks to Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Jacob Fabricius and Stine Herbert