Critical Sensitivity

Alexander Woollcott set a world record for the shortest review of a Broadway play.

The play was titled Wham!

Woollcott’s review, in full, read “Ouch!”

Turing’s Paintbrush

aaron's garden

Shortly after joining the faculty of UC San Diego in 1968, British artist Harold Cohen asked, “What are the minimum conditions under which a set of marks functions as an image?” He set out to answer this by writing a computer program that would create original artistic images.

The result, which he dubbed AARON, has been drawing new images since 1973, first still lifes, then people, then full interior scenes with color. These have been exhibited in galleries throughout the world.

Carnegie Mellon philosopher David E. Carrier writes, “A majority of the viewers of AARON’s work find recognizable shapes in it; the drawing above appears to contain human figures. But AARON here used only the twenty or thirty rules it usually uses, with no special reference to human beings. Does knowing this tell us something about the structure of representation?”

Cohen asks, “If what AARON is making is not art, what is it exactly, and in what ways, other than its origin, does it differ from the ‘real thing?’ If it is not thinking, what exactly is it doing?”

“At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems to me that one of the things human beings find interesting about drawings in general is that they are made by other human beings, and here you are watching the image develop as if it is being developed by another human being. … When the drawing is finished, it functions as a human drawing. … A large part of what we value in art is not the ability of the artist to communicate special meanings, but rather the ability of the artist to present the viewer with something that stimulates the viewer’s own propensity to generate meaning.”


John Cage indicated that his 1987 piece Organ2/ASLSP should be played “as slow as possible,” but he declined to say how slow that is. Because a pipe organ can be rebuilt piecemeal as it plays, in principle there’s no limit to how long a performance can last.

In 1997 a conference of musicians and philosophers decided to take Cage’s instruction seriously and arranged a performance that would last 639 years. Fed by a bellows, a custom-built organ in the St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, has been playing the piece since Sept. 5, 2001; it began with a contemplative 17-month pause, then played the first chord (A4-C5-F#5) for two years. Since then it’s got through only 12 changes; the next won’t occur until Sept. 5, 2020.

This will go on for another 620 years, ending on September 5, 2640. By that time someone somewhere will probably be playing it even more slowly.

A Rising Profile

One characteristic incident of his fearlessness occurred when friends of Mahler recommended the Berlin Royal Opera to engage him just before he had signed to go to Hamburg. The intendant at the German capital, who was said to be anti-Semitic, is reported to have replied, ‘We cannot engage Mahler here, as we do not like the shape of his nose.’ When in 1897 Vienna offered Mahler the directorial and managerial control of its opera, Berlin suddenly awoke to the importance of the artist who was leaving Germany, and made him a proposition financially better than the one from Vienna. Mahler at once signed the contract to go to the banks of the Danube and telegraphed Berlin: ‘Regret that I cannot accept. My nose still the same shape.’

Musical Courier, quoted in Current Literature, July 1911

See Late Acceptance.

Problem Solved,_1877,_High_Museum.JPG

Auric and I played all that Satie had written for the piano; one of us would play with him what he composed for four hands. Once, after we had played Morceau en forme de poire, I asked our hero, whom we called mon bon Maître, why he gave such a title, Pieces in the shape of a pear, to this ravishing music. He answered with a twinkle in his eyes: ‘You do know that I visit Debussy quite often; I admire him immensely and he seems to think much of whatever talent I may have. Nevertheless, one day when I showed him a piece I had just composed, he remarked, “Satie, you never had two greater admirers than Ravel and myself; many of your early works had a great influence on our writing. … Now, as a true friend may I warn you that from time to time there is in your art a certain lack of form.” All I did,’ added Satie, ‘was to write Morceau en forme de poire. I brought them to Debussy who asked, “Why such a title?” Why? simply, mon cher ami, because you cannot criticize my Pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless.’

— Vladimir Golschmann, “Golschmann Remembers Erik Satie,” High Fidelity/Musical America, August 1972

(Thanks, Dan.)

Sound Measure

On Nov. 11 each year the British Commonwealth observes two minutes’ silence to remember the fallen in World War I. Of the first observance, in 1919, the Daily Express wrote, “There is nothing under heaven so full of awe as the complete silence of a mighty crowd.”

In 2001, artist Jonty Semper released Kenotaphion, a two-CD collection of these silences drawn from 70 years of BBC, British Movietone, and Reuters broadcasts — he had spent four years assembling every surviving recording. “I really don’t think people will find it boring,” he told the Guardian. “This is raw history.”

Is this a contradiction, an audio recording of an absence of sound? “Unlike the Cenotaph at Whitehall, these recordings are far from empty, with Big Ben drowning out the coughs and uncomprehending children of the reverent, amid atmospheric weather effects, broadcast static, startled birds, and rifle reports,” notes Craig Dworkin in No Medium (2013). “The ony truly silent Armistice minutes occurred during the Second World War, from 1941 to 1944, when the ceremony was suspended. Absent from Semper’s discs, those years speak the loudest and are by far the most moving.”

The Hidden Psalm

The final movement on John Coltrane’s 1965 album A Love Supreme is a “musical narration” of a devotional poem that Coltrane included in the album’s liner notes — he put the handwritten poem on a music stand and “played” it as if it were music.

“Coltrane’s hushed delivery sounds deliberately speechlike,” write Ashley Kahn in his 2003 history of the album. “He hangs on to the ends of phrases, repeats them as if for emphasis. He is in fact ‘reading’ through his horn.”

The hidden psalm was marked by New York musicians for decades before Rutgers University musicologist Lewis Porter presented a formal analysis to the American Musicological Society in 1980. “You will find that he plays right to the final ‘Amen’ and then finishes,” he writes in his 1997 biography of the saxophonist. “There are no extra notes up to that point. You will have to make a few adjustments in the poem, however: Near the beginning where it reads, ‘Help us resolve our fears and weaknesses,’ he skips the next line, goes on to ‘In you all things are possible,’ then plays ‘Thank you God’ … towards the end he leaves out ‘I have seen God.'”

“I think music can make the world better and, if I’m qualified, I want to do it,” Coltrane had said. “I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.”

(Thanks, Jeff.)

Rough Cuts

In 1968, artist Tim Ulrichs released Schleifpapier-Schallplatten, a set of 13 discs made from commercial sandpaper in various degrees of coarseness, with blank center labels. They were billed as “monosandpaper records.”

V.A. Wölfli’s industrial noise composition “Pferd/Horse/Elastic” was named after the Pferd company’s steel-cutting discs — he simply put 100 of the construction-duty grinding wheels inside record covers.

The first single by the Dust Breeders, “Sandpaper Mantra” (1989), was a 7-inch piece of sandpaper inside a record sleeve. Their 1995 composition “I’m Psycho 4 Yur Love” swapped these materials, with a sandpaper sleeve housing a vinyl record that gets scratchier every time it’s removed.

The Durutti Column’s The Return of the Durutti Column (1980), the Feederz’ Ever Feel Like Killing Your Boss? (1984), and Illusion of Safety’s Illusion of Safety (1999) were all released in sandpaper sleeves.

This may have been an homage to Guy Debord’s 1957 autobiography, Mémoires, which was bound in a sandpaper cover in order to destroy any book placed next to it.

(From Craig Dworkin, No Medium, 2013.) (Thanks, Vinny.)

Land of Opportunity

Auguste Bartholdi patented the Statue of Liberty. In 1879, seven years before its dedication in New York Harbor, the French sculptor filed a one-page abstract describing his “design for a sculpture”:

The statue is that of a female figure standing erect upon a pedestal or block, the body being thrown slightly over to the left, so as to gravitate upon the left leg, the whole figure being thus in equilibrium, and symmetrically arranged with respect to a perpendicular line or axis passing through the head and left foot. The right leg, with its lower limb thrown back, is bent, resting upon the bent toe, thus giving grace to the general attitude of the figure. The body is clothed in the classical drapery, being a stola, or mantle gathered in upon the left shoulder and thrown over the skirt or tunic or under-garment, which drops in voluminous folds upon the feet. The right arm is thrown up and stretched out, with a flamboyant torch grasped in the hand. The flame of the torch is thus held high up above the figure. The arm is nude; the drapery of the sleeve is dropping down upon the shoulder in voluminous folds. In the left arm, which is falling against the body, is held a tablet, upon which is inscribed ‘4th July, 1776.’ This tablet is made to rest against the side of the body, above the hip, and so as to occupy an inclined position with relation thereto, exhibiting the inscription. The left hand clasps the tablet so as to bring the four fingers onto the face thereof. The head, with its classical, yet severe and calm, features, is surmounted by a crown or diadem, from which radiate divergingly seven rays, tapering from the crown, and representing a halo. The feet are bare and sandal-strapped.

Bartholdi also received copyright 9939G for his “Statue of American Independence,” and architect Richard Morris Hunt received copyrights for the pedestal.

Barry Moreno’s Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia (2005) recounts the memory of a German immigrant who encountered the statue in 1911: “I remember we see Statue of Liberty. Gus asked me, ‘What’s the statue?’ And then we’re looking … and his father say, ‘That’s Christopher Columbus.’ And I put my two cents out. I say, ‘Listen, this don’t look like Christopher Columbus. That’s a lady there.'”


1927 solvay conference

At the Fifth Solvay International Conference, held in Brussels in October 1927, 29 physicists gathered for a group photograph. Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Léon Brillouin. Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr. Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, Owen Willans Richardson.

Seventeen of the 29 were or became Nobel Prize winners. Marie Curie, the only woman, is also the only person who has won the prize in two scientific disciplines.

Below: On Aug. 12, 1958, 57 notable jazz musicians assembled for a group portrait at 17 East 126th Street in Harlem. They included Red Allen, Buster Bailey, Count Basie, Emmett Berry, Art Blakey, Lawrence Brown, Scoville Browne, Buck Clayton, Bill Crump, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Art Farmer, Bud Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn, Benny Golson, Sonny Greer, Johnny Griffin, Gigi Gryce, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Heard, Jay C. Higginbotham, Milt Hinton, Chubby Jackson, Hilton Jefferson, Osie Johnson, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Jimmy Jones, Taft Jordan, Max Kaminsky, Gene Krupa, Eddie Locke, Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus, Miff Mole, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Pettiford, Rudy Powell, Luckey Roberts, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Rushing, Pee Wee Russell, Sahib Shihab, Horace Silver, Zutty Singleton, Stuff Smith, Rex Stewart, Maxine Sullivan, Joe Thomas, Wilbur Ware, Dickie Wells, George Wettling, Ernie Wilkins, Mary Lou Williams, and Lester Young. Photographer Art Kane called it “the greatest picture of that era of musicians ever taken.”