Intermedia Today: William Hellermann and Richard Kostelanetz October 4, 1976

One heard a lot about ‘intermedia’ during the ’60s, when so many artists were exploring areas that somehow fell between traditional mediums like painting, poetry, and music. But by now things have quieted down a lot. Many intermedia artists have returned to traditional mediums, and I don’t think anyone today bothers to look for new mediums simply for the fascination of discovering new mediums. Some artists continue to turn out good work in hybrid forms, however, including two whom I encountered recently. One is a composer who exhibits musical scores as wall hangings, while the other is a writer who produces rather musical multitrack recordings of verbal works.

William Hellermann has always been concerned with the visual appearance of his scores, but not until his recent series of ‘Eyescores’ has he presented them in purely visual terms. The Center for International Arts recently exhibited a dozen or so of these drawings, along with several pieces of sculpture. All of the works incorporate simple images, with staff lines and notes somehow represented, and many involve puns of one sort or another. ‘To Prevent Decay’ depicts toothpaste flowing from a tube down onto the bristles of a toothbrush, with many little notes inscribed on the bristles of the brush, as well as on the flow of toothpaste. Other drawings depict notes pouring out of a bottle, or floating as ocean waves, or tucked away in little boxes. In one of the sculptures music notation is inscribed on the sides of test tubes.

Unlike some visually oriented music notation, Hellermann’s scores are also intended to be performed, so Hellermann and five other musicians offered audible interpretations of three of them at the center on September 18. Their interpretations all had a placid feeling, not only because of the choice of gentle instruments, but also because of the ingenious modal system that the composer employs in these pieces. The scale is basically pentatonic, though it points curiously toward one key in the upper register and another in the lower register.

‘For the Third Time’ was interpreted as a canon for two flutes and a clarinet. ‘At sea’ became a long, repetitious, gradually crescending solo for electric piano. The program concluded with ‘Behind Bars,’ for which these instruments were joined by two guitars and a vibraphone. This score depicts a runner behind crisscrossed strips of music, and a runner was incorporated into the performance as well. About 15 minutes into the piece, Sara Alexander began jogging around the room, and the players began to play their melodies in synchronization with her rhythm. In both ensemble pieces the musicians played from the peripheries of the space, and as often happens in these spread-out situations, they had occasional difficulty keeping together, both in pitch and rhythm. In general, however, the works were played effectively by Rhys Chatham, Phil Corner, Lynn Cushman, Dan Goode, Hellermann, David Koblitz, and Rob Waring.

Richard Kostelanetz is one of those artists who likes to explore every medium he gets his hands on. In fact, he has one work called ‘Openings & Closings’ that can be experienced either as a stereo tape, a book, a set of wall hangings, a video tape, or a film. The verbal content is the same in all cases but, of course, the effect must vary drastically from medium to medium. I have come across quite a few Kostelanetz works, and as with a lot of current experimental writing, I often have trouble finding my way into the material. But when I can get some inkling of the random, systematic, or intuitive processes used in putting it together, I often become fascinated, and occasionally I find the work valuable in a purely musical way.

That is particularly true of Kostelanetz’s ‘Foreshortenings and Other Stories,’ a stereo tape about 20 minutes long that Kostelanetz presented on September 19 at a Chelsea loft called the Gegenschein Vaudeville Placenter. ‘Foreshortenings and Other Stories’ is a simple boy-meets-girl story that begins with a meeting in a park and ends with sex in an apartment. The story alternates regularly between left and right channels. On one side a solo Kostelanetz voice explains what the man did, and from the other side a little chorus of overdubbed Kostelanetz voices makes statements about what she did, and the statements continue back and forth until the characters finally get laid. But that’s only the beginning. We then return to the park, and the couple meets all over again, but this time various statements along the way are omitted. By about the fifth or sixth repetition, the story has been shortened to only a few statements. But that’s only the ‘foreshortenings,’ and we still haven’t gotten to the ‘other stories,’ which consist of a number of additional variations. Kostelanetz tells us the story backwards, and sideways, and in less logical sequences. He interchanges the male and female roles, and he tells the story with the characters imitating one another’s actions.

All this manipulation is more like the variation techniques practiced by composers than like any conventional kind of literary development. The result sounds musical as well, since the rhythm of the left-right alternation is controlled, and the choral voices are well blended. Filtering and reverb effects are frequently used to change the timbre of the voices, and sometimes these effects struck me as arbitrary, but in general ‘Foreshadowings and Other Stories’ is a sensitive piece of music. Or rather sound poetry. Or rather tape collage. Or is it really still a story? Or... well, ‘intermedia’ is a useful term.