The Well-Tempered Exposition (2011) I

This blog documents the development of The Well-Tempered Exposition. The project consists in a methodical investigation on the formal components of the performance art practice.  The year-long project will be developed as a series of 48 scores which will be developed and performed in a series of public experimental workshops in various cities. Upon its completion, the final aim of The Well-Tempered Exposition is to exist as a collection of scores addressing the rhetoric, contrapuntal and compositional structure of performance art as we understand it today.

The WTE is structured around the existing forms in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (1722),  a collection of keyboard exercises composed in all 24 major and minor keys, originally intended as a pedagogical textbook “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.”  Today it is considered one of the foundational works of modern Western music.  The WTE project seeks to retain Bach’s original pedagogical intent while also “translating” the complex compositional formulas of Bach’s work into correlational forms such as verbal counterpoint, contextual harmony, movement,  and other elements.

The project is being developed over the course of a year senior residency at Location One in New York, where it will launch on September 21st, 2011 with a performance with Beatriz Helguera-Snow at the keyboard.

Sections of the project will be presented at Performa 2011, the RISD Museum, and the 9th Havana Biennial, amongst other venues in Brazil, Mexico, Italy, and elsewhere. The project is supported by a fellowship of the Franklin Furnace Archive.

August 24, 2011

Writing about a work-in-progress is a challenging, and somewhat frightening, task. Usually when we undertake a new experiment it is better do to so privately, in order to minimize the unsavory possibility of failing publicly. Yet in the case of this project I am happy to take that risk as this project is by and far a collective experiment  and one that can greatly benefit from collective input.

First, I will try to describe the project as succinctly as possible: The Well-Tempered Exposition is an attempt to “translate” the compositional structure of The Well-Tempered Clavier, one of J.S. Bach’s greatest works, into the realm of the performative visual arts. The questions around this proposal may likely be: why doing this, why now, why with Bach, and why this work?  Isn’t Bach already over-interpreted? Do we need yet one more experiment or analysis of an European composer in the practically infinite literature of his work, which has been analyzed from the standpoints ranging from statistical analysis and language to even alchemy and baseball?

The place alone of Bach and the WTC in the history of Western music may be enough to justify a year of study to it in any capacity. However, my motivation for focusing on Bach and on this work is specifically geared to inserting some melodic static to the current debates around what we understand as visual performance art. I don’t seek as much to illuminate Bach’s work (more than enough capable minds have done so already) but I certainly think that Bach can help us think a bit more seriously, and maybe critically, about performance art.  If Bach has served as an inspiration for cosmologists and philosophers, he may also do us some good.

I will characterize my motivations in three areas: one is related to debates around creativity and invention in composition. The second has to do with to what I will describe as ‘conceptual’ oratory, which is really about the understanding of the conceptual confines and DNA of performance art. And the third has to do with pedagogy.


On the year when Bach died, in 1750, Baroque art had long past its heyday, even in music ( musical baroque came somewhat after the visual arts) yet he continued composing pretty much in the same way he did decades before. By the mid-Eighteenth century new forms of composition, such as the symphony, had emerged. In fact, Bach while revered in his time was not given the recognition that he is given today—it would take nearly 150 years for the musical world to fully appreciate the extent of his achievement.  The type of compositions that Bach produced were tied to a kind of writing that at the time were considered outmoded. “Modern” composers were critical of learned counterpoint and the next generation of composers did not favor the fugue (Mozart and Beethoven wrote a few, but they clearly were not into them). Furthermore, it may also be interesting to know for the non-Bach specialist that Bach himself did not introduce new musical forms. From the standpoint of the visual arts, this may appear a bit puzzling:  could we think of an artist  who would be considered the best of all times and still have not been an innovator of the form?

Bach belongs to a time where ideas of aesthetics were fairly removed from ours, right before a paradigm shift that comes with the Enlightenment under which a new kind of aesthetic is to emerge, in an articulation that primarily culminates with the work of Kant in his third critique (1790). In Kant’s version of aesthetics, the genius in art is about innovation or originality; in Bach’s time, art was about invention.

Today the terms ‘invention’ and ‘innovation’ may sound like synonims to us, but in the 18th century ‘invention’ meant something different. Inventio is a term that belongs to the classic art of rhetoric. It is considered the first part of a speech — the thing that will be said, or the content of the speech to be developed. In music, it would translate as a musical idea or a melody. Yet this ‘new’ musical idea would still conform to a set compositional structure. Its innovation lies in the development of the form, not in the transformation of the form.

Part of the answer as to why  Bach is considered so relevant despite not being an innovator of forms is that, actually, the development of the form, when taken to its ultimate consequences, can amount to innovation. This is the argument that, in his brilliant analysis of Bach’s compositional techniques, entitled “Bach and the Patterns of Invention” Laurence Dreyfuss makes, by saying that Bach’s ways of pushing within the formal constraints of the Baroque period constituted in itself not just a critical reimagining of the traditional musical ideas of the Baroque but a forced reference for any future musician. Thus Bach has the rare credit of being not just the culmination of an era, but as the beginning of another. In other words, Bach blurred the boundaries of form an content.

Performance art today, in my view, exists in a similar crossroads between form and content — a crossroads between deciding whether it is a formal discipline— ‘a genre’, that is, such as painting— and a conceptual sensibility that permeates every other kind of art. Under this logic, “performance art” is just a set of relatively connected conceptual actions that date roughly from the 60s til the present, while “performativity” encompasses every medium found in lots of modern and contemporary art. I personally am in favor of the interpretation that performance is, and should remain, a meta-genre. But if that is the case, how do we develop a useful criticality toward it? How can we know what it is if it can be anything? What prevents us from the “anything goes”, invertebrate gravitational force that produces so much mediocre performance art? My thought  is that the debate can be illuminated by conducting a reflection on composition that analyses the relationship creativity vs. invention as previously presented in Bach’s case.


The second set of concerns is linked to the relationship that Bach had with the art of rhetoric, which I already introduced. In Bach’s time, there was an ongoing musical tradition that established direct links between the construction of a speech and the composition of a musical piece. This is easiest exemplified by the use of rhetorical terms in musical composition such as Inventio, expositio, elaboratio, executio, etc. In a fuge one inserts “voices” that intertwine between one another, as if one were constructing a conversation.  The ranges of regimentation of this idea varied throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century,  and were best articulated by Johann Mattheson, a contemporary of Bach who first made reference to his work in print. We will undoubtedly hear more about Mattheson in this project, not least because he was a fascinating figure but because his adamant interest in relating the structure of speech to music will prove useful.  Using rhetorical structures of the time is a common way through which several musicologists can map out and study Bach’s works.

I will argue here that, as much as performance art may be seen as the most open meta-genre as they come, it also has its own rhetorical devices like any other kind of art. Performance art does still function within the parameters and the narrative of conceptual art- that in itself is some kind of score. It is naïve to attempt to do performance works while ignoring the kind of performance practices of the 70s or 80s. So the acknowledgment of that history is already a concession toward the need of conceptual structure. So while we may not be able to speak about a formal rhetorics of performance art, we can certainly speak of some kind of conceptual rhetorics, or ‘conceptual oratory’ —that which is being said within a performative approach. It is important to note here that when I refer to rhetorics or oratory I do not mean to refer exclusively to acts of speech, or to voice-related performance: I refer to performance art as a set of activities (could be through movements, actions, experiences, etc) whose devices and conceptual/compositional mechanisms could theoretically be mapped in a similar way to the kind of music from the late Baroque period.


Last but not least, The Well-Tempered Clavier is, in essence, a textbook.  Bach was no theorist nor was he even very strong as a writer (his extant writings us are almost exclusively business-oriented; his letters very brief and he didn’t leave a single written piece that discussed his aesthetic interests or intentions). However, he was a famous and successful teacher —exemplified most immediately by the fact that many of his own children went to become major composers in their own right (and surviving the shadow of a towering father like Bach must not have been an easy feat). Bach’s pedagogy  thus was not theoretical but almost entirely practical: his students learned by playing the compositions that he devised for them, such as the WTC.

As an educator and an artist, I have always pondered about the questions around how to teach performance art from a practical —not theoretical or art historical perspective, which is pretty much what we do today. Then in art school we all try and experiment with crazy performances (that was my experience as an art student), in varying degrees of mediocrity and occasional discoveries, until we graduated. I was always left, however, with the sense that my learning in those performance art classes was at best random and haphazard, and what I had learned was more out of luck than out of having followed any methodical exploration.   I would like to think that it is possible to teach the performance art practice without that same haphazardness. But knowing that not everyone may agree with me,  I would argue that in any case we would be well-served by at least discussing the existence of a practice-based performance art textbook— which the WTE attempts to do in a humble way.

Perhaps this entire project is prompted by a personal memory from art school. When I was a senior  BFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 90s,  I took a performance art class. There I met a number of colleagues with whom we developed a somewhat fanatical fascination with performance, and soon we had taken over the performance space of the school at which we would spend all-nighters preparing pieces that we would present the next morning to the class. One of our most admired colleagues was Eduardo Martínez-Almaral, a Cuban artist.  Eddie had come to Chicago via Miami, where he had been involved in theater and was trained as a light technician.  Eddie was obsessed with Bach, and his works always incorporated his music in some way.  (Sometime after art school Eddie shifted his interests and while continued to do some performance, he never went back to perform these pieces or to explore Bach). They usually were extremely long durational pieces —sometimes lasting four, five hours— during much of which the audience would remain inside the space in complete darkness and silence.  After some seemingly interminable time, a beautiful floating red square light would turn on in the middle of the space. Some time later, a partita would play for a few minutes. Then some more time, someone would perhaps walk slowly into the space. The entire event would often consist of combinations of very short movements, light projections, and of course the music of Bach. The pieces generated huge reverence in school.  It always seemed remarkable to me that a man who was an organist and choral teacher in a small town in Germany in the XVIIIth century could feel so contemporary and move so many people in a collective experience; but it all was due to the possibilities to translate this sensibility into a contemporary realm, as Eddie had done. The WTE is thus dedicated to Eddie and the brief magic that he created in that student performance space in Chicago.

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