This recording of “Graffiti Composition” by Christian Marclay will interest listeners who seek out philosophical as well as formal questions posed within music. The recording of the album centers around a concert organized and arranged by Elliott Sharp at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The playing of Vernon Reid, Lee Ranaldo, Mary Halvorson, and Melvin Gibbs is featured on the recording, with the musicians all playing guitar or bass guitar and electronics.
Marclay organized the structure of the composition by plastering thousands of pieces of blank, oversized musical notation around Berlin during a music festival, in an open invitation for people to write on the notation, and then photographed 800 of the sheets once they had been marked by the public. Selecting 150 of these pieces of documentation into a collection, the sheets could now be interpreted by musicians in a way that combined Marclay’s ideas with those of arrangers, musicians, and the anonymous writers themselves.
One of the most compelling aspects of “Graffiti Composition” is its expression of the way in which people in an urban environment perceive, or do not perceive, the experience of others within that environment. Through the filter of the music presented here Marclay and Sharp allow the listener to interpret the written thoughts of several people they do not know – and importantly, via the anonymity of the “graffiti” writer, cannot know – and to gain a brief metaphorical look into that person’s mindset.
This is especially interesting in that the experience of society in its total condition has always been an impossibility, and the composition seems to mimic in its form this negation of the idea of totalized knowledge. For example, a single human being interprets reality through small pieces of information from which the idea of a whole is formed. What does this process tell us, for example, about the experience of a person in a war-despoiled country that we do not have (or have limited) access to? What we call “the War in Afghanistan,” by this measure, is a series of disparate points of received information from which we apply a comprehensive phrase to tell ourselves that we “understand” that swathe of reality, of which we have only a dim perception.
In this sense, the sudden glimpse into the once-removed voice of another via Marclay’s work suggests that all around us at any given time are people experiencing their lives in a way that we are deprived of fully knowing, as though at this point in history the experience of a community is somehow more of an abstraction than for ages past. We are now often unaware, even in a room in which we are part of an audience, or walking within a city (even if we make our home there), of how others are experiencing their lives at any given time, much less do we know in any way the vast majority of those people or their histories. “Graffiti Composition” seems to suggest that we interpret the world and others’ experience of that world based on our immediate experience and through intermediaries. The composition also pushes the listener to ask, what do we permit to happen by such an interpretation of the world?