Weird at My School: Borofsky’s Art of Noise

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Jonathan Borofsky, Self-Portrait 1979

Some of the most celebrated artists make for difficult listening. I’m not referring to the recording artists who intentionally eschew convention, but rather, visual ones who also make music. Have you ever tried to sit through Julian Schnabel’s CD Every Silver Lining Has A Cloud? (If you’d like to try, used copies are available on Amazon… for a penny.) The murky pulse of “Drum Mode,” by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s short-lived no wave band Gray, compel my imagination — but not nearly as much as his paintings.

And then there is Jonathan Borofsky. I fell in love with Borofsky circa the mid-’80s, when I saw an exhibition of his work in Washington, DC (it was either at the Corcoran or the National Gallery — pretentious little twit that I was, I didn’t date journal entries back then, nor did I record the name of the institution, so we just have to guess. Ah, the folly of youth…). His projected transparencies, the repeated images of figures falling through space, his obsessive counting — here was a conceptual artist I could really get behind. Not like those people who made clothes out of rotting meat.

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“All Is One” (installation detail), Corcoran Gallery 1985 [more]

When I excavated my buried cardboard carton of vintage tapes a few weeks ago, I rediscovered my copy of The Radical Songbirds of Islam, a cassette-only 1987 release on the ROIR label, by Jonathan Borofsky and Ed Tomney. At the time, I remember buying it because I loved all things Borofsky. Except, as it soon turned out, this recording, which the liner notes describe thusly:

“Opus for Voice, Movements One, Two, Three” grows out of a collaboration between artist-musicians Jonathan Borofsky and Ed Tomney. Since 1969, Borofsky has been counting continuously from zero and is now up over three million. Tomney’s custom made computer program translates these numbers into a musical score for voice. The resulting music, taken from a library of tones sung by Borofsky, is then constructed from a series of tape edits.

This work was partly influenced by Islamic prayer chants heard over a Jerusalem radio station.

What I heard back then is exactly what I heard when I put the tape in again this weekend: Mostly monophonic, isolated tones of irregular duration, rendered in an odd timbre that sounded like Songs of the Humpback Whale played at the wrong speed, or a pipe organ clogged with codeine-laced cough syrup. Definitely not a human voice, with no trace of vibrato, yet not especially electronic sounding either. Twenty years ago, when my brain craved constant stimulus of fast-paced bands like the Wedding Present and X, and thought Durutti Column and the piano works of Erik Satie were as subdued as music needed to be, Radical Songbirds bored the pants off me. Into a box it went. And stayed.

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Yet this time around, in 2008, it clicked. The unpredictable (at least, to my ear) duration of the pitches — and intervening silences — and slow decay of tones, the quiet, occasional harmonies and dissonances… they felt as primal as anything from Eno’s early catalog of ambient work, yet somehow, far less programmatic than even the austere Music For Films or Music For Airports. By taking a few simple ingredients — the human voice, counting, prayer — and distilling them down to a pure essence, this duo concocted a work that proved sublimely contemplative. But don’t just take my word for it; you can download “Opus for Voice, Movements One, Two and Three” for free on his website — or right here:

Voices [side one] (MP3)

Voices [side two] (MP3)

I mention this because when I moved to Seattle in 1996, I was ecstatic that the world’s second-largest of Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” statues was located in the heart of my new home’s downtown. Only later did I learn that a lot of residents considered it an eyesore.* But I’ve always respected the Hammering Man. He keeps at it, day in and day out, ceaselessly working towards… something. Just like the rest of us. We all repeat acts and experiences, many of them endlessly and to seemingly no avail, only to one day realize that they have, indeed, induced subtle changes. In 1987, I didn’t “get” Radical Songbirds of Islam. Now I do. For all his in-your-face aesthetics, even Borofsky’s charms can sneak up on audiences over time. Take it from me: now might be your moment to give him another chance.

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Hammering Man, Seattle Art Museum [credit]

* Perhaps because the utilitarian figure and giant hammer smack faintly of socialist imagery? And yet, I suspect these same naysayers love to have visiting out-of-towners pose for photos with that tiresome bust of Lenin in Fremont.

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