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The premiere live performance of conceptual artist Charles Gaines’s “Manifestos 2” (2013) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on September 27 was nothing short of synesthetic. A nine-piece ensemble including piano, violin, and harp performed on stage while several highly charged political manifestos scrolled one-by-one behind the group on brightly colored monochrome backgrounds. The musical score, written by Gaines and arranged by composer Sean Griffin, is a transcription of the texts into diatonic music. “My idea was to take these political manifestos and develop a system to translate the text itself into music,” Gaines explained in a conversation following the performance with Griffin, MoMA curator Stuart Comer, and Studio Museum in Harlem assistant curator Naima J. Keith. (The Studio Museum collaborated on the event.) “It’s an old [John] Cage-ian idea, to assign musical notes to letters.” Gaines became famous in the 1970s for interrogating systems while still exploring narrative, a practice that set him apart from his contemporaries, who prioritized ideas over representation. In her introductory essay for the artist’s current show, Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, at the Studio Museum, Keith writes, “The system is a means rather than an end, and his work can ultimately be seen as revealing the limitations of systems.” In the case of “Manifestos 2” (2013), the system is language — both that of political manifestos and of music.
The manifestos, in order of performance, were: Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (1999) against a red background, Malcolm X’s last public speech (1965) against blue, “Indocumentalismo Manifesto—an Emerging Socio-Political Ideological Identity” (2010) against green, and “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” (1791) against yellow. The bright colors were particularly striking in the dark auditorium, especially as they hovered above and behind the musicians, who all wore black. As Comer noted, the monochrome palettes are reminiscent of early modernism, yet the highly narrative and political content of the piece challenges early modernist ideals. “I wanted to make a critique of modernism and its transcendentalism,” said Gaines. The text scrolled exceedingly slowly, prompting a reading pace that left time to glance down at the captivating musicians and at Griffin, the conductor, standing in front. Most importantly, the slow scroll offered an appropriate amount of time to both hear the music and to consider its relationship to the text.
As with much of Gaines’s earlier work, at the core of “Manifestos 2” is the translation of systems. To create the piece, he developed a method of turning each letter of the chosen manifestos into a musical note. “Some were literal,” he explained, such as the letters C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, which also represent pitches. Others were more nuanced, such as his translation of H into B flat, which he did at Griffin’s suggestion. Griffin composed the nine-piece ensemble by working from Gaines’s original piano music. As Gaines put it, “I wrote the notes and Sean voiced them.” Griffin said he wanted to “capture the kinds of feelings that jump out at you when you read these texts … to render it as a heroic gesture.” It’s appropriate that Griffin highlighted the “feelings” of these manifestos, as the language of music is known for its emotive quality. Though Cage was a strong theoretical influence for the piece, the music of “Manifestos 2” is much more melodic and easy to listen to than one would expect. Much like the cadence of rousing political speech, each movement rises dramatically at points, and then beautifully falls again. Though its intensity and complexity were apparent from watching the performers, the tunes felt effortless and captivating. In transforming highly charged political texts into musical notation, Gaines tests the communicative abilities of these two very different linguistic systems.
The final movement of the work elevated the combination of visual, auditory, and linguistic strands. A four-part grid featured all of the manifestos against their appropriate background colors, scrolling at varying speeds. While the musicians played accompaniment, a soprano sang each of the texts in a high-pitched, nearly indecipherable operatic style, adding yet another system of language to the piece. In her catalogue essay, Keith examines Gaines’s use of the grid, writing:
… a structure that was integral to the development of modern art and also served as a common motif in the work of his fellow conceptual artists. Although he both referenced and extended this tradition in his early works, Gaines was not inflexibly attached to the ideology of the grid; rather, he used it to undermine the rigidity of meaning implicit in the form.
Bringing the grid into this last movement and adding the vocal iteration of the text, Gaines reminds us that it is not the particulars of these manifestos that interest him, but rather their underlying structures, whether visual, linguistic, or even ideological. As Griffin concluded, “What I also learned from [Gaines] is that all of the information and all of the possibilities are in the system. It’s just a matter of how you unfold it.” The unfolding of “Manifestos 2” underscored the expressive potential of language on a structural level, made evident through translation. While the particular narratives of each manifesto differ, there is a shared quality to their structures, which points to Gaines’s specific interest in this type of speech. “My interest is to talk about social justice on a grand scale. Not just of marginality,” he said. Though the chosen texts span hundreds of years, this translation highlights, in Gaines’s words, “how the narrative of social justice remains the same over time.”
The live performance of Charles Gaines’s “Manifestos 2” took place at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on September 27, 7pm.