<i> Times Art Critic</i>

Once upon a time, one went to art galleries to look at the art. At present, however, one goes to some Los Angeles galleries to listen to the art. This piquant circumstance arose because, as all au courant folks know, the town is presently awash in a manifestation called the New Music America ’85 Festival, in which platoons of avant-garde musicians, composers and performers do their thing.

Much of it is extremely unconventional in substance but does at least maintain the formality of taking place in theaters and halls where an audience sits and pays attention for a certain span of time. That is not the part that concerns us here. What does is another class of work that hums along pretty constantly and may be visited, like an art exhibition, for as long as it takes to find oneself either fulfilled or wearied by the experience.

There is, for example, a work called “Cymbal” in the lobby of the L.A. Theatre Center on Spring Street. It is the creature of sound artist Liz Phillips and consists of four large speakers, several clear plastic shields and a booth writhing with a regular pasta of multicolor wires dotted with small sensors that look like microphones. The contraption emits all manner of little electronic hiccups, moans, trills and giggles. The fun of it is realizing that the thing is responding to one’s movements within the space. The conundrum is contemplating the fact that if you don’t like the music, maybe it’s because you don’t stroll about in a proper fashion to inspire the electronic muse to compose something interesting.


It is a generic property of this kind of art to insinuate a feeling Othat if a piece doesn’t do anything for you, it may be your own fault. It has a real genius for escaping responsibility for itself. A work by Bruce Odland makes a nice case in point. It is located in a traditional Japanese garden adjacent to the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. It consists of microphones submerged in a babbling brook and a number of speakers planted on the bank. When this reporter arrived at high noon, the garden was locked and the work could only be contemplated from a nearby balustrade. It seemed to be merely amplifying the agreeable gurgling of the stream. Is that it , or not?

This kind of art is typified by general vagueness that shrouds the viewer in a mantle of uncertainty. Is this the right place? If it is the right place, is everything working as it should or has the sound just fizzled out or the video deck blown a fuse? Is it art, theater or music, and why does there always seem to be a big piece missing? It is art that forces suspension of judgment and leaves a large chunk of the creative work up to the visitor. Nothing to do but march off in a huff, or enjoy filling in the blanks.

Over at the L.A. Institute of Contemporary Art, the two installations are like theater sets with background music but no actors. Composer Harold Budd arranged pots of exotic plants and a hanging brass gong and surrounded them with electronically altered keyboard music that sounds like the score for an arty movie. Nothing left to do but imagine David Bowie and Nastassja Kinski in an Antonioni film about elegant alienation.

The other LAICA turn is literally a bunch of set pieces and recorded score used in performance by a Bay Area group called the Residents, who maintain personal anonymity. From the look of the work, they are four German members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Back downtown at Temporary Contemporary, Michael Galasso has a piece called “Chained Melody” broadcasting under the chain-link canopy outside the building. The title may be a pun on the place or a comment on the music, which comes across as overlapping waves of ancient bugle calls which never quite formulate into a melodic line, although the whole manages an eerie grandiosity.

By now, this collection of installations begins to reveal a familiar profile. They exact the usual price in the irritation of chasing them down in this unwieldy geography and, once cornered, they are sufficiently dissimilar in character to be charitably termed a mess. Well, one thing at a time.

Over at Otis/Parsons, two of the installations are pure factual documentation. One consists of poorly displayed photographs of such figures as Philip Glass, John Cage or Dane Rudhyar taken by music patron Betty Freeman. Another is a handsome display of documents put together by Eva Soltes in homage to the expatriate composer Colin Nancarrow. He writes only for player piano, and it’s interesting to watch a videotape of the hole-coded rolls zipping by on the pianola. The sight dramatizes a mathematical component in music and also suggests that since Nancarrow has been doing this stuff for 40 years, he is an authentic pioneer of today’s programmed music.


Veteran conceptual artist Tom Marioni presents a handsome Duchampian tableau suggesting that if art and music were married, the result would be silence. Rather odd. No such tranquility, however for Bill and Mary Buchen, who allow us to make our own music with an altered pinball machine and a practice golf putter. Doug Hollis and Richard Turner present a bench that recites poetry in several languages, while across the street in MacArthur Park, Bill Fontana has tricked out the band shell to evoke the sounds of an old-fashioned Fourth of July taking place in the Amazon jungle.

If all that is not enough, you can drive around the gallery trying to pick up a broadcast by Gary Lloyd on FM 88.1, or mush down to L.A. Contemporary Exhibitions and look at videotapes.

Watching the antics of a once-arcane demimonde on comfy old TV reminds us of how domesticated the avant-garde has grown. It is rapidly approaching the state where it is about as exotic as a takeout Chinese restaurant.