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The Score took music notation as a site of translation between sound, colour, speech, movement, dance and line – and as a way to conceptualise cross-disciplinary practice. This ambitious and intellectual show spanned three levels of the Ian Potter Museum and brought together historic, contemporary, national and international works. A persistent theme running through the modernist works was the use of music by artists to access rhythms beyond sound. Also touched on were notions of ‘cosmic order’ where parallels exist between sound, tone and movement. In more recent contemporary and conceptual works, artists created idiosyncratic systems that give rise to new cadences.

A delightful aspect of this show was the bringing together of historic and contemporary works, a feat seldom undertaken in Australia.

This was poignantly executed at the exhibition entrance where Australian artist Charlie Sofo’s Me & You, 2005, sat opposite a medieval manuscript. Me & You contains two scores side by side. One, titled me, was absent of notes while the other, you, bursts with ascending and descending notational flourishes.The work spoke of the expressive potential of music, not just in the melody and tone, but the graphic nature of the score.The medieval 14th-century manuscript revealed that prior to the printing press musical scores were artworks in themselves, painstakingly decorated with gold leaf and biblical scenes, expressing a historic interdisciplinary dimension. Beauty in the graphics of scores is seen elsewhere in the show. For example, Marco Fusinato’s Black Mass Implosions series where lines were drawn between notes on a John Cage score reflecting impossible sonic density with visual power and elegance.

Marco Fusinato, Mass Black Implosion (Agglomeration, Anestis Logothetis), 2007, ink on archival facsimile of score. Image courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

As noted by the curator Jacqueline Doughty in the exhibition’s catalogue, correlating music and colour dates back to Aristotle. This continued, with differing interpretations, in movements such as Richard Wagner’s Gusamtkunstwerk which synthesised art and music and the occult theories of Rudolph Steiner who believed that colours also reflected the spiritual realm. A soft undercurrent of these ideas is the notion of cosmic order, where to quote the poet William Butler Yeats: ‘the laws of art’ are ‘the hidden laws of the world’. Australian exponents of this idea were present in the works of modernist Roy de Maistre whose softly toned crayon and pencil drawings each correspond with particular chords.The inclusion of indigenous artists implies parallel ideas of cosmology. Emily Kame Kngwarreye‘s painting Kam ColourVI, 1995, contained abstract swirling depictions of the roots and tendrils of the yam plant. In her words, these forms are also an expression of the “whole lot”: the typography of her traditional country, its vegetation and animals, and its song and dance.

Works by John Cage, who pioneered the notion of ‘indeterminacy’ where a piece of music can be performed in a number of different ways, were included in the show. And his method of utilising outside systems to create limitations is apparent in most of the contemporary works on display. Dylan Martorell transposed the physicality of plants founds in Melbourne University’s gardens into music scores displayed in delicate diagram-like prints. Nathan Gray translated the graphic notations of the British experimental composer Cornelius Cardew into predominately cylinder-like objects made from wood and aluminium which were to be moved around and played at different times with different results by Gray’s orchestra. African-American artist Charles Gaines married this method with discrete politics. In Sound Text, 2015, a 19th-century song about taxes was combined with lyrics and melody derived from a text by Frederick Douglass calling for the abolition of slavery. This work is part of Gaines’s broader philosophical inquiry into the arbitrary rule of law and systems that shape our world. In these incidences the artists use outside sources – leaves, other composers’ music, and text – to create systems that form the outcome of the work, thereby reducing authorship of the artist and creating new, often one-off, rhythms.

In other works, variables that constrain were less fixed.

A thick black ribbon that hung from the roof in Helen Grogan’s INSIDE SMALL DANCE (choreography for this exterior/interior space), 2014, was a stand-in for the body that was subtly manipulated by the air-conditioned airflow of the building. In Sriwhana Spong’s video The Fourth Notebook, 2015, a dancer’s body interpreted the words of Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky whose 1919 diary charted what is believed to be a descent into schizophrenia.

John Cage, Fontana Mix (Orange/Tan), 1981, screen print on Arches paper, with three celluloid (mylar) templates printed in black ink. Courtesy of the artist and Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati.

This exhibition was at times dense. Complicated frameworks needed to be grasped to understand particular works. However, effort was rewarded. Historical and contemporary works, seen through the lens of the score, revealed the capacity of artists to make new cadence and meanings.

The Score, curated by Jacqueline Doughty, was held at the Ian Potter Museum of Art from 1 August to 5 November.

Zara Sigglekow