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Christian Marclay, Video Quartet, 2002-3, Paula Cooper Gallery

19 February 2003 | Recently on the PBS program Egg: The Arts Show, Christian Marclay said that turntablism allowed him to work with sound without making a formal study of music. And while Benjamin Weil, in his article for the tenth New York Digital Salon, wrote that Marclay's 4-channel projected DVD piece Video Quartet borrows from "deejay remix strategies," the piece's tight organization of appropriated film clips suggest that the artist has a keen ear for principles of other musical spheres: canon, phasing, association, and evolution. This organization is what made Video Quartet so compelling to me, for it helped to create a fabric that recontextualized (mostly Hollywood) film clips, revealing their subverted, hidden musicalities.

The word 'quartet' was a key to how the piece was made to be so compelling. Each channel of the piece was a real member of an aural ensemble that worked in tandem to evolve through a spectrum of timbral realms: from standard music realms like that of percussion, winds, piano, and voice; through the more noise-filled realms of rock guitar concerts and car crashes; all the way to whimsical realms of telephone ringing and even horror-movie screaming. To achieve the tight coordination of an ensemble, Marclay made very specific use of DVD's unique capabilities over analog tape or video. Whereas four tapes would easily fall out of sync with each other because of the way they sequentially access their data, four DVDs can be indexed to maintain precise synchronization among all channels throughout the duration of a piece. This synchronization was unexpectedly emphasized the most clearly when the credits rolled on Video Quartet's conclusion: the credits rolled horizontally, from channel to channel, indicating just how in sync all four channels were.

While witnessing the Video Quartet, I heard some similarities between the way Marclay structures his quartet and the way that composer Steve Reich structures much of his music. Namely, Marclay plays with the use of canon (the varied imitation of an aural segment from one ensemble member to other ensemble members). Canon has been used for hundreds of years, but both Reich and Marclay focus on very close canons, in which imitation will begin very soon, even before the original sounding has ceased. In his early tape pieces and into his instrumental works, Reich experimented with the idea that the layering of many close canons will form a phase (the systematic rising and falling of amplitude in an audio signal). Spectrographic imaging has shown us that phasing is present from all sounds, but Reich borrowed from the traditions of non-Western music to demonstrate how phasing can be created on an audible scale and used to organize a sound piece. Many DJs have not only sampled Reich's music (as is heard on the recent album Reich Remixed), but they have adopted some of the techniques that Reich himself adopted from non-Western cultures.

Marclay uses close canons and phasing in Video Quartet, which might be what Weil refers to as "deejay remix strategies." Moreover, Marclay introduces a visual dimension to what has been generally used as an audio technique, and this gives him an additional flexibility in structuring the whole piece. Most pieces I've heard that use phasing tend to develop through associative evolution rather than segmentation. As opposed to many Western pieces that are formed with segments and phrases, phasing pieces are hard to clearly segment: sounds evolve associatively (many times a sound is extremely similar to the sound preceding and following it) with phases. This is not to say that associatively evolving pieces don't change-- rather, they are just harder to parse. Marclay's piece works with association, but on both aural and visual levels. Consequently, not only will aural association link the flam of a snare drum to the slam of a piano lid (laying the foundation for a wonderful aural progression of piano lid-slams), visual association will link the close-up of Ella Fitzgerald singing cheerfully to the close-up of Janet Leigh screaming in horror.

The overall effect of these layers of close canon, phasing, aural and visual association are what I mean by the subverted, hidden musicality of these film clips. Marclay's technique points out that images can be musical. For instance, who knew that the juxtaposition of Jane Fonda trailing a feather across her face, and Doris Day sitting alone on a bed, would be so graceful? Who knew that a series of lone musicians, each playing their instrument in their separate channels of solitude, would be so evocative, with or without the sounds that they make?

Though there is progression in Video Quartet, I think that Marclay not only strikes at what composer Morton Feldman refers to "the sound of the sounds themselves," but also the looks of the images themselves. These sounds and looks highlight associations in Hollywood film clips, showing both unexpected moments and surprising progressions without cynicism, kitch, or anxiety. Considering some current trends in digital art-making and video appropriation, that is an refreshing feat in itself.


Feldman, Morton. Give My Regards to Eighth Street. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000.

Weil, Benjamin. "Art in Digital Times: From Technology to Instrument." Leonardo, volume 35, number 5, 2002.

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