A relationship between music and the visual arts has existed in our civilization since before the terms music and art were first defined. After all, shamanic dance cannot be imagined without the necessary visual effects and various pagan holidays featured musical as well as visual components. Visual artist have always been interested in portraying music while composers have examined the possibilities of creating the musical renditions of images for centuries on end. To list perhaps the most famous example, one cannot but mention Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. A list of visual artists attempting to transpose music to canvas would likely be endless – and would necessarily include Czech figures such as František Kupka, Arne Hošek and Miroslav Ponc.
However, the second half of the twentieth century brought about a shift of focus. The question of “How to visually capture music?” was replaced by a quest for the development of a musical notation which could be usefully played while exhibiting an inherent visual quality. The emergence of aleatoric music, i.e. music where the principle of chance plays an important role, was a significant milestone. Music which undermined established rules and broke down harmony and rhythm suddenly required a different approach to notation and graphical representation. It is no wonder that the birth of aleatoric music is inextricably linked to John Cage, a man educated both in the visual arts and in music. Musical notations in the form of visual scores quickly became popular and increasingly common among members of the second avant-garde.
It should be noted that Czechoslovakia was very much part of these developments. The 1960s were a period of relative political freedom, which in turn facilitated the development of numerous art forms. For example, Jiří Valoch’s exhibition, entitled Scores and held in Brno in 1969, clearly attested to the significance of the Czechoslovak art scene. The juxtaposition of Milan Adamčiak and Milan Grygar with John Cage is neither accidental nor audacious. Both had exhibited their works alongside Cage’s while Adamčiak even counted himself among his collaborators. Exhibitions such as Cage, Grygar, Morellet: Open Form at Prague City Gallery in 1993, or Cage/Grygar: Chance Operations & Intentions at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz should perhaps be mentioned. During his second meeting with Cage, Adamčiak interpreted his score entitled Music Walk, in which he also created interventions.
The sheer breadth of the three artists’ work is immense.
While John Cage liked to say that the highest purpose is to have no purpose at all, he was passionately concerned with one specific quest. He wished to experience absolute silence, which eventually became a key theme in his work. To this end, he visited an anechoic chamber, though it was precisely this experience which subsequently convinced him that there was in fact no such thing as absolute silence. He described this experience as follows: “In that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.” It was at that point that Cage concluded his search for absolute silence.
Milan Grygar was the first to experiment with sound emitted during the process of creation of the artwork itself. Naturally, he would not have discovered these acoustic qualities had he not been interested in sound in the first place. When concentrating on the creation of a work, the artist either considers the sounds he or she creates to be mere noise and allows them to fade into the background – or, like Grygar, decides to explore their qualities in order to create a distinct kind of intermediate art, i.e. acoustic and tactile drawing. As an artist, Grygar always exercised full control over the visual aspect of his work, a component he considered essential. A short performative period constituted the sole exception, especially as the use of mechanical toys, sticks and combs did not lend itself well to producing an entirely controlled outcome.
In response to John Cage’s statement, Milan Adamčiak declared that rather than the ultimate purpose being no purpose, his own intention was to have an infinite number of purposes at his disposal. He heard music, rhythm and sound where other people perceived unremarkable noise. He was fascinated by intriguing sounds which others considered repulsive. The night sky reminded him of an infinite musical score. Unlike Grygar, Adamčiak was both a musicologist and an active musician who developed his scores with an acoustic mental image already fully formed; he claimed to be able to hear his notations before they were ever executed. When his music was performed by others to Adamčiak’s liking, he used to say: “I hear Adamčiakese, so this is fine with me”. No Czech or Slovak author has come close to matching the sheer variety of his visual scores, visual poetry and musical performance concepts. Given his approach to his own work, specifically his frequent intentional or unintentional destruction of various pieces, it is impossible to map his complete oeuvre, which includes thousands of individual works and concepts.
Silence, sound, music. Cage, Adamčiak, Grygar.