Mark Applebaum has entered a new world of his own making with his The Metaphysics of Notation
project. It is documented on a recent DVD of the same name (Innova 787). Only a DVD could begin to cover the scope of the project with justice, because the work combines visual art, installation, performance art and musical execution as a totality.
The central raison d'etre for the work was the creation of a 70-foot linear pictographic "score" (w/several hanging mobiles) that Applebaum created on paper by hand, black symbols proceeding from left to right as in a conventional music manuscript. The "score" is without the usual staves, and the notations Applebaum has made are in the form of a varied and elaborate series of pictographic images meant to flow from one to another as would standard notation. The symbols and graphic images sometimes approximate musical notation in the sense that they utilize note symbols on occasion, but graphically enhanced and without the staves as context. For the rest the score is filled with images that suggest a visual representation of an open-ended musical sound-world. Some of the images are abstract, some representational, but all sequence together in ways that suggest a series of musical events. The score is as much a work of visual art as it is a quasi-prescriptive set of abstract visual analogs to guide and direct individual content decisions made by musicians in any given performance.
The score was installed as a number of large horizontal panels (plus mobiles), on view for a year at the Cantor Arts Center Museum of Stanford University.
The DVD addressing Applebaum's work is in three parts. The first is a documentary about the project, with commentary from the composer and a number of composer-musician-musicologists either involved in the project's realization or familiar with the work's parameters. The documentary also introduces you to the score itself and its installation context.
The second part consists of recorded one-minute excerpts from the 45 performances held at the museum on a weekly basis, accompanied by stills of each particular performance. The musicians involved vary from a single soloist to a moderate sized ensemble. Each performance group was left entirely free to make whatever musical sounds they deemed appropriate in realizing the musical implications of the score.
The third part of the DVD consists of two slowly scrolling panoramas of the score itself, one lasting eight minutes, the other sixteen.
In the end I was left with an appreciation of the imaginative scope of Applebaum's project. The documentary raises questions about the borders of legitimacy or even intelligibility when it comes to such work. Is it music? Art? Installation? Improvisation? Performance art? It is all of that. The difficulty perhaps in this is that, since there is no right or wrong way to realize the musical potential contained in the score, since Maestro Applebaum does not provide anything in the way of specific musical directives or suggestions, anything goes in a given performance. There is no "proper" or "improper" performance, no "good" or "bad" version. That is problematic only in the sense that the status of the work remains completely open and ultimately neutral. It does not exist in some tangible sense aurally. This will bother some people. Essentially though, at least the way the project is set up, it is the interaction of visual stimulus of score as visual art, the natural reverberant ambiance of the museum setting, and the free improvisations of the respective musicians that work in tandem to create a kind of totalized art-music gestalt. The 45-minute series of excerpts of the various musicians at work affirm how different any given performance can be from another. It's fascinating to hear and see.
I find the DVD quite illuminating, Applebaum's project thought-provokingly beautiful visually and conceptually, and the music absorbing. I recommend this one very much. By the way you probably don't want to miss the one-minute excerpt of the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra tackling the music!